Twelve Days of Summer with My Twelve-Year-Old: DAY ONE

Twelve-year-old Paco and I have a lot of time together during the summer months. While that fact often makes me want to dig my fingernails into my forearms until they leave half-moons that remain imprinted for half an hour, the truth is that our hours together are generally delightful.

In the next dozen posts, I’ll be recounting twelve moments that have kept me from locking the twelve-year-old in the garage.

It would just be for an hour. SHEESH.

Maybe three, if I decide to take on the annual dusting of the bookshelves.

Definitely not more than four.

I mean, he’d be out by dinnertime.

Bedtime for sure.

At any rate, with no further ado, here we go.



On the first day of Summermas, my middle schooler gave to me: help at the library.

Every year, the public library holds a fundraising book sale, and every year I volunteer to work a shift. Few things make me happier than being surrounded by books, and there are few organizations whose mission moves me as deeply as that of public libraries. The only things that come close, on my pleasure scale, are popping a long-brewing zit, sipping a well-crafted IPA, making my daughter try on leopard-print stilettos in the shoe store and attempt to walk, and walking into the kitchen just as my husband has washed the last dish.

When the kids were younger, working the sale qualified as rare and wondrous: for two-and-a-half hours, I got to be alone–albeit while swarmed by a crowd of book buyers–but even in that crowd, I was still alone inside my head, something that still never happens when the kids are within eye- or ear-shot. Then, once they got older, both kids would join me to work the sale; during this stretch of years, I volunteered to staff the big garage where children’s books are sold, thinking the kiddles could wander around and paw through stacks, picking out purchases for themselves, while I sat by the till.

As if my kids have ever stepped more than three feet away from me in public.

Their close-orbiting, cautious, I-only-like-known-people natures prepared me not at all for other children. Completely untrained in the ways of normal small people–who, you know, sometimes pull a runner or who occasionally say words out loud to other human beings around them–I was a terrible On-Duty Childminder during play dates. With other parents’ kids in tow, we’d all wander up to the playground, at which point Paco, Allegra, and I would stand in frozen shock as their friends moved the air around them by climbing and throwing and shouting. We hadn’t known it could be like that. More than once, I narrowly missed breaking the fall of a child in my care as she toppled from some great height because who knew children could be wild and brave and push personal boundaries with an innate sense of exploration?

With their sit quietly, hang close, and speak-in-whispers-but-only-when-no-one’s-looking habits, my damn placid kids trained me for nothing that occurs in nature. They also refused to go paw through books in the children’s garage at the library sale. Instead, they glued their hips and elbows to mine for the entirety of our shift, turning every monetary transaction into the equivalent of a three-legged race humped out by conjoined triplets.

More recently, Allegra’s aged out of helping during the sale. She’s got trails to run, jobs to find, babysitting to do, a low-lit bedroom to read in. So it’s been Paco and me, Wonder Team of the Cash Drawer, these past couple of go-rounds. Last year, we worked the “high-end and rare books” room, which saw us tucked back into a quiet corner at our check-out table, surrounded by staid patrons sporting nasal tones and thick wallets. While it felt very safe and calm there, the minutes ticked by slowly, for there are only so many people interested in buying biographies of George Orwell written in 1952.

Thus, Paco requested that, this year, we work a station with a bit more action.

He requested that we work sales for the Fiction Room.

While I had some worry that my sensitive introvert of a kid might be all


when faced with masses of rabid readers chasing down a deal, I figured it was worth a try. If nothing else, the experience would provide him with further evidence that People Are Annoying, and if you ask me, that’s the kind of life lesson that’s easier learned young.

So I signed us up to cashier for Fiction. Novels, small and large. Trade paperbacks. Best-seller hardbacks.

The first day of Paco’s summer vacation, therefore, saw him stationed at a folding table in a high-traffic area. We had our money box. We had our list of prices (hardbacks $2.00; trade paperbacks $1.50; pocket editions $.50). We had our aprons. We had our stash of plastic and paper bags. We had an invitation from the bustling Midwestern woman in charge–competent despite her lack of apron–to stop by the staff lounge for grapes, cookies, or coffee served in a styrofoam cup and garnished with powdered creamer. Her vowels alternating between rounded and sharp, the accent full Minnesotan, she pipped, “Don’t you be shy, now. Any time you need a little snack, you just pop down the hall.”

As if Paco, no matter how hungry or how clear the welcome, would ever wander down the hall to get himself a cookie.

We didn’t much have time to consider snacking anyhow, what with 97% of folks attending the sale stopping by our table to check out. Additionally, a host of regional book buyers hit sale each year to stock their inventories, with some purchasing over $400 in cheap books. Such transactions can take 20 minutes of sweaty sorting and adding when it comes time to pay. Almost immediately after taking charge of the cashier table, Paco and I were swamped.

He started out tentatively, wanting me to handle the math and money while he did the bagging. Soon, however, two lines formed, one next to him and one next to me. Flop sweat visibly dotting his soft, sweet skin, he did a whispered check-in with me after he figured out each customer’s total, just wanting to be sure before he made it official and announced it out loud.

At the same time we were tallying up totals for those in front of us, a few Super Buyers–just regular people who were hitting the motherlode during their browsing–kept coming and going from our table, depositing their latest armload of finds behind or next to the table. Over the course of an hour, one woman consigned the equivalent of eight paper shopping bags of books to our care.

And then. When she was ready to check out, I murmured to Paco that we should sort the books into stacks of similar types as we extracted them from the bags and started adding up her final bill. Nodding, he added, “Let’s do stacks of ten.” Simultaneously, our heads dipped, and we began the process of creating order out of one woman’s bibliophiliac chaos.

Within three minutes, I realized that the balance of power at table, out of nowhere, had shifted.

I realized I was interfering with my kid’s efforts.

I realized I was in the midst of one of those heart-stirring moments of parenting: I was watching my child–he who who never wanted to get dropped off at camp unless he had a friend with him, he who never wanders into his room and closes the door, he who ends every day by asking, as he snuggles under the covers, “What are we all doing tomorrow?”–handle a situation. On his own.

Grabbing the moment, I told the twelve-year-old, “This is going to work best if you deal with it. I’m messing up your stacks. Let me know if you need an assist. Otherwise, I’m out.”

For the next five minutes, both the customer and the mother watched in wonder. While the exhausted shopper sat on the steps near us, fanning her face in recovery during the accounting, I stepped away from the eight bags of books and plopped onto a folding chair.

And we observed a young man taking charge.

First, he arranged 15 stacks across the table, each containing ten books of like type. Because it didn’t come out evenly, he also had one stack with three pocket-sized editions and an extra stack with only eight trade paperbacks.

Then, silently, he stared at the stacks for a minute, waving his hand over each one. A maestro. A wizard.

After that, he shot me a sideways glance and said, “I’m going to double check my numbers on the calculator.”

Carry on, Potter.

Thirty seconds of tapping on keys later, he announced, “It’s $150.50.”

Re-inserting myself, I whispered, “Are you completely sure about this total, or do you want me to check, too?”

He blinked. Twice. Slowly.

Channeling The Muse of Book Love, his hands began waving over the stacks again, conducting an out-loud overture of “ten hardbacks, ten hardbacks, ten hardbacks, and that’s $60. Ten trade, ten trade, for $30, which makes $90. huzzabuzz, huzzabuzz, plus this-n-that, which takes it to $146. Then there are three at .$50 and two more at $1.50, and that’s $4.50 more, so it’s…”

At which point I confirmed, “…like you said, $150.50.”

Resting her cheek onto her curled fist, the exhausted shopper smiled and marveled, “Wow. He’s really good.”

Her words were hugely important.

I will thank her for them forever.

Paco has always known I’m there for him. He has always known I think he’s terrific. These two things, taken together, have made it so that he’s secure, able to take his time in asserting independence. While I’ve long been ready for him to fly, he still loves the nest.

That’s the thing about Age 12. We’re both right.

Thanks to the tired shopper’s words, though, Paco received a message that day from Outside the Nest. When he’s ready to jump, the world will embrace him.

Looking wiped out, Paco bagged up the woman’s books while I found her a flat cart to use for wheeling them to her car. Watching the doors swing shut behind her, the Wonder Team of the Cash Drawer experienced a rare lull.

Scooting my chair closer, wanting to connect my hip to my boy’s, to feel our elbows brush against each other, I leaned my head against his and proposed, “How about I go find you a cookie and a cup of coffee?”

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My husband is the mildest of men, even in temperament, gentle in manner.

He makes his own yogurt, sweetly wrapping the Mason jars with a blankie while the stuff ferments.

When the dishwasher backs up and fills with water, he sighs deeply before strapping on a headlamp and going in. Discovering a tube jammed with wild rice and glass shards, he laughs at the ridiculousness because wildriceandglassshards. Plus–hahahaha!–we didn’t have to call a repair man. Two minutes later, he goes into the bathroom, sits down, and the entire toilet seat breaks off (rusty screws affirming our status as low rent). He laughs again, chuckling that he’ll have to scrub all the various kinds of Disgusting off the seat before he takes it in to Home Depot to find an exact replacement.

If we’re out for a walk, and he spots branches on an upcoming bush rattling ominously, he tells me to stop until he ascertains what it is–because he knows I’m a high-strung filly when it comes to rodential phobia. Peering into the foliage, he makes out the critter and tells me, calmly, “Don’t look at the bush, and cut a wide swathe here. Don’t go near it. Someone’s guinea pig appears to have escaped from its cage. Look away. I’ll stand between you and the bush until you get past.”

He loves to put on a wetsuit and hop into Lake Superior once it hits 58 degrees. Open water swimming, being buffeted about by waves and unable to touch his feet to the ground, is his idea of a great time. Often, he swims with a partner or a group; other times, one of us follows him in a kayak. This week, with no kayak along as we were camping in a yurt, I tried solo canoeing for the first time so that I could trail in his wake and provide support if needed. Having never been the one to steer the canoe before, my solo self was mastering a steep learning curve that sounded something like “stroke, stroke, rudder, stroke, C-stroke, C-stroke, C-stroke, slap mosquito, sweat, stroke, stroke, rudder.” Every few minutes, Byron would stop, tread water for a second, and ask, “How are you doing?” In truth, I was having a good time figuring the thing out, but I certainly hadn’t mastered it. “The only thing I’m worried about,” I told him, “is that I’m going to run you over. If I get too close, I won’t be able to correct before I’m on top of you.” His response? “Go ahead. I don’t mind being run over. I can just dive deep ’til you pass.”

A few years ago, he got in a bike crash and knew something bad had happened to his wrist. However, he had made a commitment to chaperone Paco’s third grade class at a swimming pool field trip that afternoon. So he stood poolside for three hours, pacing in the humid air, watching wild energy do cannon balls. Once Paco was dry and changed, he loaded the kid onto the back of his big cargo bike and rode the two of them to Urgent Care. When the doctor diagnosed a broken wrist, Byron called me to come pick up Paco, so he wouldn’t have to wait for a few hours while the cast was put on. However, since a cargo bike is too big to fit on a bike rack on the back of a car, Byron simply rode it home from the hospital, navigating with one hand. Smiling.

Simply put: you do not rattle this man’s cage. The bars are invisible.

There is one thing, though, that gets his back up.

It’s called Having His Face Touched.

If he has ketchup on his cheek or a crumb hanging from his chin, I may not give into impulse. I may not reach out and brush it away. While all other touches everywhere else on his person are received with happy sighs, I may not touch his face.

If I do, I receive the firmest of remonstrances.

Seeing a well-meaning spousal hand heading his way, my low-key Norwegian-ish husband morphs into a heavyset woman of color starring on a reality show.

Prickly, eyes flashing, attitude jerking, he unleashes the equivalent of

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Then, as my hand curls into my chest protectively, recoiling from his vehemence, he cleans off his face, pats my leg, and asks sweetly, “Can I get you another beer?”

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The Defeat of Crabby Guy

I’m pretty sure my inner crabby person is a male over 80, what with the way he swings in, plops down with an exhausted sigh at the kitchen counter, and acts like I should pour him a cup of coffee because he couldn’t possibly pick up the mug in front of him and fill it from the pot percolating next to his elbow. He never learned how.

Some say it’s a generational thing.

Malarkey. It’s an issue of character, not age: dude is both indolent and demanding.

Crabby Guy would like another tissue now. GET HIM ONE.

Indeed, my inner crabby person is irrational, expects coddling, and is unwavering in the belief that his view of the world is correct.

Specifically, my inner crabby person is exasperated by

  • small talk becauseofcourseit’shotorcoldoutsideoritrainedorsnowedordidn’t
  • bumper stickers that read “Be the change you wish to see in the world”
  • the assumption that simply because people share an employer, they should spend their off hours socializing
  • perfume ads in magazines
  • the value placed on “likability” over “simultaneously held diverging thoughts”
  • readers who pay good money for Nicholas Sparks books when worthy multitudes sit on nearby shelves, gasping for an audience
  • rotator cuff tendonitis that keeps him awake in the night
  • people who won’t own their role in the problem
  • the bottom of the beer glass ’cause why it always gots to show up in such a hurry?
  • passive/aggressive social media posting
  • jinky crap
  • cutesy shit
  • the namby-pamby of matchy-matchy
  • people who can’t discern a difference between faith and religion; people who want religion to dictate policy; people who use religion as a means of promoting anti-intellectualism; basically all the Fox News anchors plus them Duggar types, and I have to stop typing now because my old crabby guy’s ear hair is tying itself into knots with the irritation, and soon he won’t be able to hear if I don’t move on
  • people who know they are going to sit for hours but don’t bring a book, preferring instead to stare into space
  • fuckers who swear at their shitty kids
  • chipmunks

To tell you true, there’s actually a lot I enjoy about my inner crabby person. If nothing else, he’s authentic, unwilling to brook fools, impatient with having his time co-opted by nimrods. Then again, there’s that lazy business of My Hand Can’t Pick up a Coffee Pot.

Harrumph. Sometimes my inner crabby person makes me cranky.

Mostly, though, he is very welcome–a pipeline for frustrations and anxieties, pumping the sludge out of my head and into the Bog of Wasted Energy. He’s predictable, too. For example, I can count on him to show up every May and June, sporting a bad attitude like socks under sandals.

See, my inner crabby person gets revved up as the end of the kids’ school year approaches. Bushy brows scrunching, Crabby Guy considers all the time he’s had alone in his house during the previous nine months. He reviews how effective his host lady has been at her work, which occurs largely from home, due to having time and space inside her own head, at the keyboard, focused on doing. He grins when he recalls long afternoons of writing and grading interrupted only by the need to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. He contemplates how solid, balanced, and content Host Lady feels during this stage of life, when the kids head off for a goodly chunk of the day. It’s a beautiful phase, this era of solitude so sufficient that the counterpoint hours of togetherness are a genuine joy.

But then. May arrives, and the countdown to summer begins. Suddenly, we’re in the last weeks of school, and those days are like a trial run for summer vacation in the way they whack away at time that could be, ideally, devoted checking items off to a to-do list; every other night is band concert and art show and Honors Banquet and Track Banquet. It’s a busy schedule, a loaded countdown, a few final weeks that gnaw at the edges of the remaining “free” parental free hours. Before school ever lets out, my inner crabby person is yanking at his remaining tufts of hair, removing the batteries from his hearing aids, attempting to dodge the frantic celebrations that mark summer’s imminence.

But of course he represents. His host lady drags him to every damn thing. Shoves him into a wheelchair and rolls him in if he dares kvetch about a sore hip. Hisses into his ear, “Yes, you may have been humping around all day, longing for a quick grab of more minutes, but hesh up and behave now. We are HERE in the school, and this isn’t about you. This is about showing up, shutting up, and making that soft, sweet kid in our lives feel loved. So cement your complaining maw closed.”

Tamed by the hiss, Crabby Guy tamps down his crankies and weathers all the end-of-school-year festivities. However: even while he’s obliging–eating flaccid green beans at a table with strangers and snapping photos in dimly lit auditoriums–he’s inwardly paralyzed with dread.

He can’t stop fretting. After the celebrations are done, and the school year is a wrap, the kids come home. And stay there. Every day. All the time. For 90 days. Bored. Saying, “I’m hungry. What is there to eat?” Pitching boneless bodies onto the couch. Sighing deeply. Asking, “So. Are we doing anything today?” Showing up across the table just as he’s sat down with a hot cup of coffee someone else poured for him, a pancake made by Host Lady on the plate in front of him, maple syrup dribbling into lakes. Those dang kids wondering aloud, “Would you like to do something? Maybe play a game?” just as the first forkful enters his mouth.

Such stuff adds another bullet point onto the list of what makes him crabby:

  • being cruise director of other people’s time

It would be different if Crabby and I went off to work each day, and the kids went off to camp or daycare. The entire situation would be different if we had that respite from each other, gratefully coming together just before the dinner hour. It is not like that, though. Rather, I am here all day. They are here all day.

To put a finer point on it: Byron does go off to work. Allegra is teenager enough that she has driver’s ed, a new job, babysitting, her running group; the only pleading looks she casts my way are more like “GAWD, Mom. Stop talking.”

That leaves only one person to trigger my crabby.

Interestingly, he’s one of my favorites. He’s much like me. I adore him.

Yet he sits there, adrift, and watches Crabby Guy lift that first forkful of pancake to his mouth, at which point the kid asks, “Would you like to do something? What can we do?” That’s Sunday. He does this on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, too. He’s particularly good at tapping the Host Lady’s shoulder while she’s vacuuming and asking, “Do you need to finish that right now? If not, would you maybe like to go outside and play volleyball?” For 90 days, it’s like this, with Host Lady teetering wildly between swooning that her dearest pal wants to play volleyball with her…and simultaneously wanting to snap, “Uh, YEA, I do need to finish this right now. I’m vacuuming one room. It’s a seven-minute task. We have company coming; we are pigs; and I’m trying to hide that fact from our guests. I plugged this machine in and am currently using it. So, YES, I do need to finish the thing I’m in the middle of doing. When I’m done, of course, let’s play volleyball. Unless you’d like to watch me eat a pancake first.”

Teetering for 90 days puts a significant strain on the stabilizer muscles.

As a veteran of archery camp, Fiber Fun Camp, YMCA camp, swim camp, soccer camp, game-design camp, and you-name-it-he’s-done-it camp, the boy resists nearly all suggestions of camps. Being twelve years old, with a parent at home, he never goes off to any sort of “care.” Despite teaching two summer classes, I never go off to work. Instead, I pack my online teaching into hasty minutes tucked around queries of “What should I have for lunch?” My work, the source of our family’s everything, is cobbled together. So is my mood.

He is my Paco, and although I am nuts for him, sometimes–*looks both ways; gestures towards the corner, over by the step stool, where we can crouch down and have a sibilant tête-à-tête*–he gets the crabby person inside of me all wound up. Truly, it’s so much easier now, when he’s twelve, than it was ten, nine, eight, seven years ago. Those were the tough years during which Crabby Guy sometimes sneezed vigorously in an effort to blow the hands on the clock forward. Now, in adolescence, Paco can be expected to self-entertain; he gets a certain amount of screen time, and he reads, reads, reads…but only if he can find a book, book, book that captures his mind. Sometimes, he hangs out with friends. Other times, he’s home by himself. But when others are in the house, he craves companionship. He’d like to play a game. He’d like to bake. He’d like to walk. He’d like to stand, hovering over his mother’s shoulder as she checks her email. He’d like to ask, as his mother agitatedly sneaks a glance at the 131 discussion posts tossed out in class since 9 a.m., if she might like to throw the frisbee around. Often, he deflects all suggested activities, swanning about tiredly after having done absolutely nothing.

He is all of us when we were twelve, should we care to recall our early adolescence with honesty.

His need for interaction is so sweet that I just about want to elbow the crabby person who lives inside of me off a cliff and cover my ears against the echoing “Whaaaat theeee helllllll???” as he falls. My boy is a love. Crabby Guy has some sort of nerve–to grouse when a pure “Would you like to do something?” comes out of the mouth of a lad whose first whisker is years off, who still can’t believe how good lentil chips are, who just wants to make some plushies if he could get a little help with the sewing machine.

The good news is that the crabby person who lives inside of me, after becoming surpassingly crusty as the school year draws to a close, gets over his bad self once he gives in to the rhythms of the seasons. Maybe his faculties are flagging, and he can’t be bothered to maintain his sour mood. Or maybe, just maybe, he slams a shot of vodka-spiked Ensure in the coat closet and discovers it’s easier to let warmth and acceptance spread through his aching bones. However it happens–once summer hits, and school is out, and I’m stressy with attending to teaching just as the kid would like to learn to wind a bobbin–I do relax. Whenever Crabby Guy staggers out of the coat closet, raring to slur some complaints about “work-home tension,” he has a choice: he can shape up and appreciate the bounty, or he can turn around and march himself right back into that tiny room of fleece jackets and winter scarves and crack another Ensure.

In general, he makes the right choice. Sure, occasionally he still limps around, one hand massaging his rotator cuff, the other plucking at rogue nostril hairs, ready to bitch about his lot.

But then, stopping to tug at a drooping compression sock, the crabby person who lives inside of me spies, out of the corner of his eye, a twelve-year-old body sitting on the piano bench, noodling out a composition using only the black keys. Seeing someone enter the room, Paco sits up straighter. He turns, delighted by the prospect of companionship, and asks, “Would you like to make up a melody with me? I can slide over! And maybe after that, we could whip up some popovers?”

Before he finishes, a quiet “Poof” blows through the room. Defeated, Crabby Guy dissolves into nothingness, leaving behind only Host Lady–me–smiling fondly as she considers the shock of wavy hair hovering over eighty-eight keys.

Teaching can wait. Vacuuming can wait. The pancake can wait.

None of it matters when there’s a duet to be played.

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Belle of the Bell

It was a square room. The dishwasher lived on wheels and rolled to the sink, where it was hooked up to the faucet when enough mugs and cereal bowls had accumulated. Hanging at the entrance to the dining room was a swinging door–usually propped open, unless there was company for whom the sight of cooking might be jarring, at which times it was closed to protect their delicate sensibilities. Separating the bustle of food preparation from the living room, where my dad regularly gave voice lessons while we stirred the chili, was a set of wooden, slatted doors, the kind Deputy Sheriff Festus had to push through to enter the saloon on Gunsmoke. The floor, the design of which had my mom on her hands and knees periodically, scraping gunk out of the grey channels with a knife, was Of Its Time:

This was the kitchen in my childhood home, the heart of my youth.

In the kitchen we had:

  • skim milk and Dr. Pepper
  • grandmother-produced applesauce in Mason jars and factory-canned mushrooms
  • iceberg lettuce offered in small wooden bowls as our dinner vegetable, a smattering of carrot medallions like lily pads across the top, and a box of Rocky Road ice cream in the freezer
  • homemade noodles–rolled out on the counter, whimsically formed into all the letters of the alphabet before they were tossed into boiling chicken stock–and Dolly Madison pies featuring Peanuts characters

Skidding back and forth on this continuum, ponging between “good food” (skim milk, Grandma’s applesauce, iceberg lettuce, homemade noodles) and “bad food” (Dr. Pepper, canned mushrooms, Rocky Road, Dolly Madison pies), was my adolescent self perception.

I wanted to be thinner, smaller, granted space in the world by taking up less of it. But I was bigger, thicker than my friends, diminished for taking up more space.

I was enough in the realm of normal not to be “fat.”

I was enough bigger than normal to be called “fat.”

I knew what I wished to be: someone who met with approval–from friends to boys to parents–but I knew, thanks to my reflection in a can of Dr. Pepper, that I wasn’t entirely approval worthy.

A bad day was when boys on the school bus mooed at me.

A good day was when the world played along with my hopeful sense of self and refrained from commentary.

An even better day was when some small gesture or group of words granted me a feeling of No Need to Worry–when the world was my Jewish mother, urging me to “eat more,” rather than a WASPy one in a crisp oxford shirt who deliberately averted her eyes–a stricken whisper of inhaled breath when I tucked my shirt into my jeans and revealed the curve of my belly.

The very best day was one when my dad and I stopped at Taco Bell.

It was a glamorous place, one rarely visited. For some reason it was just the two of us that day, as though all the other contestants in life’s rich pageant had been eliminated, and we two finalists were the only ones left huddled on the stage, sharing a spotlight, wiping our smudged mascara, gripping each other’s hands as lifelines.

Standing at the counter, we contemplated our choices. Wanting to be budget conscious, wanting him to know I wasn’t overweight because clearly I didn’t eat too much, I ordered a single crunchy taco. He, budget conscious, having battled weight himself, ordered two.

He grabbed the plastic tray from the counter while I found some napkins, and we chose our seats in the dining area. Save for us, it was empty.

Two of us. Three tacos.

The silence was broken by crinkling as we unwrapped our meals.

I was so hungry.

The heft of the taco in my hand was satisfying, like one of my mom’s jars of Avon face cream. It was warm, like the heating pad I put under my head when my ear ached. It was a damn face-cream-heating-pad miracle, this taco.

Tipping my head to the left, I bit into the narrow end of the shell. Three drops of juice ran out of the meat and punctuated my bite as they tap, tap, tapped onto the parchment paper.

Crunching, I put my face close and examined the perfect waxiness of the shredded cheddar, the familiar sprinkle of iceberg. Every ingredient was a wonder of perfection.

As I watched the curls of cheese melting slightly on the warm meat, I heard the plink of my dad’s taco drippings hitting the tray.

Tipping my head again, I took a huge bite. Another. One more.

Then it was gone.

Dad continued to crunch. Across the laminate table, listening to him chew, I was inexplicably happy to be sharing crunches and drips with my dad–his sweetness always clearest when no one else was around. I wanted it to continue.

Being eleven meant my body was a constantly changing terrain, and my friendships were a lasagna of petulance layered over love tucked under resentment dusted with competition. My grades were good, but during gym class the bully, a popular blonde boy, would whisk close to me and mutter “You’re so lame. Next time, you better kick the ball better, or I’m going to kick you where the sun don’t shine.” At home, in the neighborhood, I would discover I was bleeding, run inside to put on a new pad, and head back outside to play Cops & Robbers on bikes with the next-door neighbor, a girl a year younger who rode bra-less and shirtless up and down the boulevard on her ten-speed. At age eleven, I was fine except not.

Plink, plink, plink.

Forever, if I could, I wanted to sit in that all-but-empty Taco Bell dining room, the safest place I’d been in years, and share the sounds of a meal with someone whose shadow protected me.

“That was so good,” I ventured, teetering on a wire of fear that he would respond with a warning that we needed to be careful about how much we ate.

But this was the father who heard my smallest comments. He had heard me say, one time, “I sure love chocolate milk.” After that, sometimes a half-gallon would show up on the top shelf of the fridge, next to the skim.

Another time, I noted, “That lemon chiffon yogurt is the only flavor I’ve ever liked,” and a half dozen small containers appeared, crowding the container of chili leftovers.

My dad was a man who would drive five miles across town to save $.18 per pound on ground beef–and laugh self-deprecatingly at his compulsion to do so–and he would go to any lengths to seek out a symbol that he’d registered an offhand comment. Always, he absorbed my words without judging my hips. Always, he showed me love by hearing me.

At the Taco Bell that day, impressed–not appalled–by the way I’d shoved that taco down my throat in four bites, he smiled, enjoying my appetite, lighting the room from napkin dispenser to trash bin.

“Well, then, how about another?” he asked.

$.59 and four bites later, we gathered our plastic tray, tipped our crumpled papers through the swinging mouth of the garbage. I kept my half-drunk cup of water, clicking the straw between my front teeth as we walked together across the blackness of the parking lot, feeling the sun on my face,

the fullness of unconditional love in my stomach.


The inspiration for this post came from a piece that appeared in the Life in Chains series on The one that ran there is a vastly superior essay, but I nodded the whole time I read it, thinking, “I had something much like this in my life.” You can read that excellent essay here: “Finding Home at Taco Bell.”

It is hella good, so I’m almost afraid you’ll go read it, for mine suffers in comparison.

Also, my friend Brooke, the person who shared the Life in Chains essay with me, wrote her take on “fast food family memories” which was then posted on a blog called Well Fed, Flat Broke. You can read Brooke’s post here: “The Golden Days.”

In return, Emily of Well Fed, Flat Broke wrote a post that appeared on Brooke’s blog, Miss Teen USSR. Emily’s take on family life and Dairy Queen can be read here: “Dairy Queen.”

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The Third Floor


Her tears wet my shoulder. I hardly knew her.

Three minutes earlier, we’d been standing next to a cement pillar, talking quietly but intensely. Our bodies were close, the conversation intimate. An onlooker would have guessed we’d known each other for years.

Yet I’d only spoken to Molly a couple of times before–in the locker room, maybe once in yoga class after she moved her mat to make room for me. Nothing in our limited history paved the way for this conversation. It had started with me asking, casually, “How’s life?” while we gathered and laid out our equipment for the Core Challenge class that was about to start.

That’s all it took. As she answered, we stopped fussing with body bars, stability balls, hand weights. We stopped rustling up props. We stopped traversing the wide expanse of the third floor of the YMCA, where group exercise classes are held. We slowed our hustle, stood by the pillar, and turned our faces towards each other.

“My son’s been having a hard year,” she confessed. “Before high school, his grades were good, and he did well socially. But now he’s depressed and can’t focus, and he’s having trouble with friends. We’ve got him on the wait list for Amberwing. We’re all counting down until that can happen…”

I interrupted: “What’s Amberwing? I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know what it is.”

“It’s a mental health program for kids. Once he’s in, he’ll go there instead of to school; he’ll still do his work and everything, but he’ll also have the support and counseling he needs. After three weeks, he’ll transition back to ‘regular’ life,” Molly explained.

“Don’t you love a world where your struggling kid has options like this?” I asked. “I mean, he may not be in any state to feel appreciative about it, of course, but, man, if he’s in a tough place, and you feel like it’s bigger than you and your husband can handle, it’s terrific that this resource exists. How does your son feel about going into a special program? I can imagine it might make him feel stigmatized or something…?”

“Oh, no, he’s actually really excited about it,” Molly clarified. “He knows something needs to change, and he has hopes that this will help him. He’s just trying to get through the days until he’s off the wait list. We all are. Things at home aren’t helping…because…well, it looks like my husband and I are getting divorced.”

Although she tried to announce it casually, a flood of tears overtook her. “It’s all so…”–casting about for words, she wiped below her eyes, trying to preserve her eyeliner. The director of an important community organization, she had a meeting later. Trying again, she managed, “At’s just not…” before another wash of tears filled her eyes. Crumpling, her face was full of agony as she choked out, “And he doesn’t understand…I’m the bad guy…but I’m so unhappy…and he just…”

Oh, hell. This poor woman. Although I was sweaty from working out before the Core Challenge class, I moved in and grabbed her, hard.

Swaying quietly next to our mats, our hug marooned in a sea of hand weights and stability balls, we stood together, her head on my sweaty, exposed shoulder, her mascara dotting my freckles.

I whispered to her,”Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. What a crappy time for both of you. Damn.” A fresh wave of grief poured out of her. At the same time, the third floor was filling up with other class participants; awed–or made uncomfortable–by the unexpected display of public emotion, they averted their gazes, flowing around our embrace, grabbing their equipment, tightening their hairbands, pulling up their socks, readying themselves for the warm-up.

Then the teacher walked to the front of the room, oblivious, completely unaware that the premiere episode of a new daytime drama entitled Tears by the Pillar was airing. “Time to get started!” she called out. “Let’s begin with some squats. I hope you’re all good with the eighties mix I’ve got going on the iPod today!”

Pulling back from Molly, I looked at her eyes. “You okay?”

“Yea. This is kind of how it goes these days. I have random breakdowns, and then I get back to life. I’m fine. We’d better do some squats.”

With that, I stepped onto my mat, faced the teacher, and bent my legs. In an unprecedented move, I had just turned my back on a crying woman. Behind me, Molly dabbed at her eyes as she, too, squatted to the beat of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.

After four squats, I couldn’t take it. Breaking form, abandoning my mat, I stepped back to Molly and acknowledged, “Okay, this is really weird. Like, you’re telling me your life’s woes, and we’re having a moment, but then, in a split second, I’m all ‘Buh-bye! Time to squat!’ It’s just bizarre.”

Agreeing, Molly said, “It’s super weird. You’re in front of me, though, so I’ll pass time during class by hissing ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ every time you bend over.”

Sixty minutes later, her tears replaced by perspiration, Molly’s face was shining. As we carried our body bars to the rack, I picked up the thread of our earlier conversation. “So we know that your son has something to look forward to. Thanks to Amberwing, he feels like he can escape the pain of his current situation. But what about your current painful situation?”

There was no protecting her eyeliner. Tears smudged the black while Molly provided details of her marriage and divorce, admitting that she initiated the break-up; that her husband was a decent man who, romantically, did nothing for her; that his sadness blinded him to hers. She wiped her eyes and described the sensation of watching life leave her behind. More than anything, she didn’t want the years to pass with a grind of “I’m existing” but, rather, with joy and energy; at the same time, she was struggling with guilt over pursuing divorce when her marriage was “okay enough.” Beyond the sadness and guilt, she was grappling with her parents’ potential reactions. Knowing how deeply committed they were to Catholicism, she feared their judgment. As a result, she was avoiding seeing them or telling them of her decision.

Our equipment put away, knowing she had to get to a meeting, I dared quick counsel: “Only you can hunt down your own happiness, and if a divorce is necessary for you to be happy, then you’re doing the right thing. If you get stuck on everyone else’s reactions, you’ll never move your life forward into what you want it to be. I don’t think you should feel guilty. You should congratulate yourself for having courage–because that’s what it takes to blow up your life so that it can become a better thing. Don’t view yourself as weak or bad or wrong. Give yourself credit for handling your problem. I respect people who look the tough stuff in the face and deal with it. Oh, and one more thing before you zip off to change clothes: tell your parents. Once you tell them, then they can show you who they really are. So long as you avoid the conversation, you’re conjuring their reactions, which isn’t fair to them. Take their reactions out of your imagination and let them handle reality.”

With one last hug, she headed back to work. We both felt lighter. In myriad ways, that’s what The Third Floor does.



The next day, I was again on the third floor, running around the track, when I noticed a friend, Flynn, doing yoga on the wooden floor.

As I passed him, I pulled out an ear bud and called a quick “Hiya, Mister.” Sheepishly, he laughed as he greeted me and explained, “I feel silly doing yoga in front of the mirror like this, but I really need to see how my Warrior Three looks. Something about it isn’t feeling right.”

“Dude,” I affirmed, “we all need to see how our Warrior Threes look. Not to mention our Trees, Lotuses, and Crescent Warriors. A mirror is so helpful. I always think I’ve got my hips down and my shoulders tucked in, but then I glance in the mirror and it’s a big ‘Uh-oh’ moment of adjustment. A mirror is your friend, so have at it. Also, what I mean to say is, ‘Gollee, but you’re vain. I’m so sure you’re doing yoga in front of a massive wall of mirrors like some sort of insecure super model.'”

Laughing again, ever jovial, he revealed, “I actually did used to be vain about yoga. You know, I started practicing back in the ’70s, before it was the big trend. I just did it by myself, never going to a class, but I got pretty good at it. So I was the 1970s guy who’d do yoga and then go to a party. Everyone would be drinking, swallowing pills, getting high, and I’d pull out my headstand. I’d pop up into it and dazzle everyone. It was the best party trick!”

Supposing it was his excellent party tricks that first attracted his wife, I shifted the conversation into asking after her–and for an update on the apartment they’d been radically rehabbing over the past few months. Continuing to stretch on his mat, Flynn admitted that he’s glad he married the woman he did; she’s a force in all the best ways, particularly when it comes to home renovations. “She’s so gifted at overseeing all the work that I call her ‘Commander,'” he told me, grabbing his ankles and lifting them into the air. “But then we look at her mother, and we all have to concede she’s the real Commander, what with having raised that huge household of kids. Maybe my mother-in-law is the ‘Master Commander’ while my wife is merely ‘Commander.'”

Nimbly leaping, the conversation segued into the idea of families with lots of children. I told Flynn, “When Byron and I met, I wanted three kids. Byron, though, was a proponent of Zero Population Growth and insisted we should replace ourselves, nothing more. Ultimately, we shook hands, exchanged rings, and agreed that we’d take it one kid at a time.”

Flynn, a holder of public office and jailed Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War, empathized with Byron’s concern about the future of an overpopulated planet. “Fortunately, the Commander and I both knew we only wanted a couple of kids, so we didn’t have to debate the issue.”

I nodded. “Yea, as it turns out, two kids has been exactly right for us. I wasn’t completely sure after Paco was born, but then the eminently logical Byron put it to me this way: ‘At the end of each day, do you feel like we have more time, money, and energy to give? Or do you feel, with the two kids we already have, that we’re tapped out?’ Basically, when he asked me to consider those things, it became clear that I’m completely tapped out just taking care of my own self–I mean, some days just getting into a bra is a seven-minute endeavor–which means I’m beyond tapped–suffering from negative tappage–after factoring in two kids. So we sent him off to the doctor to get a surprisingly traumatic vasectomy. But that’s another story. All you really need to know is that it ends this way: our bathroom was smeared with blood, there was a four-hour emergency surgery, Byron lived, and we didn’t have any more kids.”

As I spoke, I peered over my shoulder to see if any other runners were coming around the track, and in the process I caught a glimpse of Flynn in the mirror. Although in his sixties, his neck still smacked of the 18-year-old draftee he’d once been. His hair, adorably curly, had to be one of seven hundred things the Commander loves about him. However, for me, a member of the public he serves, it wasn’t the body I saw in the mirror that held the most appeal. Rather, it was his laugh, a velvety chuckle rolling across the open space of the third floor, that made our conversation feel like a heart-opening yoga pose.

“All right, my friend. I should let you do your thing,” I said, regretfully, tucking the bud back into my ear.

“Yea, I only have a few minutes for this today, and if I don’t do it, my back goes out. These days, I stand at a lot of my meetings, in fact. My back gives me such problems, but most days, I can’t find time to do the stretching and yoga that keep it functional.”

Wanting to continue my streak of unsolicited counseling, because I’m nothing if not willing to intrude where I haven’t been invited, I raised my eyebrows and noted, “Now, I know I’ve given you this mini-lecture before, but let me reinforce it one more time before I twirl off into the dim recesses of the third floor and your mind: if you step back and consider your life’s priorities, I’m sure the usual topics surface–family, work, health. But if you really stack those three things in order of importance, I’ll wager work isn’t ranked higher than health, is it? I’ll bet, at the end of the day, at the end of your life, health and family come before work. So live your every day accordingly. Schedule an hour each day that is devoted to yoga and doing the things that preserve your back’s health, and set that hour in stone. It is non-negotiable. Then, when someone from work says, ‘Let’s have a meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday,’ your answer will be, ‘I’m sorry. I already have a commitment at that time. I can meet at 2 or 3 p.m., though.’ Here’s the thing, Flynn: the second you start scheduling work first and then try to fit exercise around the work hours, the exercise doesn’t happen. Schedule exercise first, if only because a healthy Flynn is a gift to his family, which is your other top priority. If your back goes out, and you’re immobile for days, then you’ve just put a burden on the Commander and those who love you. You don’t want that, right? So take the steps that keep you healthy, and that will then help your family, and it will also make you more effective at work. A hunchy, limping Flynn isn’t doing anyone any favors.”

True to form, Flynn chortled throughout my entire lecture, smiling and nodding. “You should become a motivational speaker, Jocelyn,” he noted.

“I appreciate the compliment, but the truth is that I’d need to end every talk in anti-motivational fashion. I’d grab my audience by their shoulders, shake them soundly, and then slap them across their faces, à la Cher in Moonstruck, while yelling, ‘SNAP OUT OF IT!'”

With that, I gave Flynn a wave and started trotting around the track, calling out, “I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”


And then there’s the Japanese woman, Aiko, who is a special Third Floor pal. Our friendship grew out of commonality: we two are always racing in at the last minute, frantically pulling off our snow boots, twelve layers of fleece, and a dusting of down to reveal sassy tank tops. A few days after I chatted with Flynn, I was hanging out with Aiko after a class where we’d been in the same group while doing circuits. Together, we’d jumped sideways over hurdles, carried thirty-pounds in each hand while race-walking around the track, panted shoulder-to-shoulder during cross-body mountain climbers on upside down Bosu balls. Even though our verbal exchanges had always been quick, how could we not be intimate after sweating, side-by-side, unable to speak for lack of breath?

That day, as Aiko jammed her feet into her boots after class, I lingered to tell her I’d seen her the previous week at the store, but she’d seemed busy, so I hadn’t said hi. Scanning her memory, she recalled that outing, explaining, “I have new job as home healthcare aid. My client like me go Co-op with her. We choose teas and oils. It fun!”

“That does sound fun,” I agreed, suddenly entertaining thoughts of work as a home healthcare aid. “I thought you worked as a translator, though?”

“I do that, too,” she replied. “Actually, I have get home now for translating. Last night, very late, I received court document that need translating. They need it today.” Then pulling her hat snugly over her ears, she added, “With court document, I have look up every word. It take long time!”

As Aiko and I were talking, a third woman, Kiera, chimed in from the sidelines. Kiera has gorgeous porcelain skin and a fluff of yellow hair; her affect is gauzy and drifty, and whenever she floats around the third floor, from weight bench to water fountain, she reminds me of a handful of dandelion fluff wafting through the air on a lazy summer afternoon.

Two days before, Kiera and I had started talking after class while she was stretching. When I raved that she smelled amazing–one of my finest pick-up lines, startling in its simplicity–and told her she was essentially a human Aveda salon, she went to her bag and pulled out a tin of salve. Apparently, during her late teens, her period stopped, and she went two years without menstruating. Instead of embracing the interventions of traditional medicine, she researched holistic options and discovered a company that sells natural, homeopathic treatments. Since then, she has applied this amazing-smelling salve all over her body every day, even in her hair. Her period returned, her skin looks fabulous, and I have to restrain myself from nuzzling her arm pits whenever she’s next to me during class. Not only does she lead with a tang of peppermint when she arrives late and races to clip her stretchy band on to the Core Pole, she ripens sweetly once the sweat begins. As an added bonus, she is now a distributor of these products, so “…if you ever want, for $50, I can get you a tin of your own salve.”

Thanking Kiera for the generous offer, I grabbed my gym bag and head for the stairs while thinking,”I’m leaving now so I don’t slap you.”

She’s actually quite lovely. But The Third Floor is my special place. I don’t take my wallet there. I am not a consumer there. Rather, I’m a mover, seeking the detoxifying cleanse offered by an honest sweat. I chat; I smile; I rock out; I become stronger. The Third Floor is my version of The Third Space.

The concept of The Third Space was presented in the late 1980s by author Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. This book notes that most people have two social environments: home and work–but Oldenburg also looks at the “other” spaces that provide us with a sense of place, that contribute to our feelings of community and engagement. In previous centuries, many civilizations had informal meeting places, say, the town square or the public baths, but nowadays, people have become more deliberate in seeking out Third Spaces. For some, The Third Space is the local coffee shop, maybe the library, perhaps a bar. The Third Space could be a center where volunteer work is done. No matter how it manifests in one’s life, The Third Space is an anchor of social life, community building, and creative interactions.

For me, The Third Space is The Third Floor, an open expanse where rich interplay happens twenty feet from a punching bag. Nowhere else in my life do I carry out conversations in close proximity to medicine balls. There are mats, then talk. There are weights, some disclosures. There are stability balls, rolling about unattended while tears are shed. There are two-minute exchanges that keep my brain working for hours.

It’s a unique spot in my life, The Third Floor.

There, we exchange deep intimacies and then ignore each other. We are there for each other yet expect nothing of each other. The interactions are authentic and simple–clean in a way that much of life isn’t.

So I spend seven minutes getting myself into a bra. I tighten the laces on my Mizunos. I park in the ramp next to the Y. I trudge up the stairs, dropping my bag with a thump at the top. Then I look around and see the familiar faces, feel the buzz of anticipation, tap my foot to the beat pulsing through the speakers. I catch eyes with someone. I ask, “How’s it going?”

And we’re off.

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The Lost and Found of Translation

I don’t have a favorite book.

I have multitudes of favorite books–linked to specific phases of my life, places I’ve been while reading them, reasons why they were just the right book at the right time. In truth, many of my favorite books aren’t remarkable, from a writerly standpoint, yet they are important to me, emotionally.

In my youth, and to this day, the Betsy-Tacy-Tib series by Maud Hart Lovelace has ruled my heart. Lovelace’s prose is not noteworthy, but I have read those books multiple times because I savor that journey back to the early 1900s, when pompadours were in vogue, and games at hen parties consisted of seeing who could remove the peel from an apple in the longest unbroken strip. Whenever I read these books, I grow up with Betsy once again and feel an ache in my heart as I hope Joe falls in love with her, me, us.

Then there are the works of Wallace Stegner–arguably the finest author the United States has produced; there is no questioning his ability both as storyteller and sentence stylist. Thinking of his books, I recall a profoundly lonely summer break during college when I lived in a mostly empty fraternity house in Evanston, Illinois, commuting to Deerfield for my job at Prentice-Hall publishing. All day at work, hacking away at my assigned project of updating the Rand-McNally travel guides, I would telephone hotels and resorts around the country, checking to see if they still accepted Visa and if their rates had gone up. I knew no one in the area, save a single friend with whom I worked, and would return to the frat each night, drop my bag on the linoleum floor tiles, recline on the prison-quality bunk beds, lean against the cinder block walls, and watch my most reliable companions, Roseanne and Murphy Brown, flicker on the black-and-white television’s 12-inch screen. Over dinners of thick egg noodles stirred with Ranch dressing squeezed out of the bottle, I cracked each of Stegner’s books and let his lyrical prose sweep me to the American West, a place where water is scarce, the wheelchair-bound research their pioneering grandparents, and violence in saloons can lead to love. At the end of the summer, I’d read Stegner’s entire oeuvre and considered him my savior.

A handful of years later, I found solace and adventure in Elizabeth Arthur’s Antarctic Navigation, a book about South Pole exploration that dovetails perfectly with my polar-literature mania. Normally, all I ask of such books is that an under-stocked ship become ice-locked for two years, the hull crushed by pressure, as morale and civility dwindle–bonus points awarded to books that detail cannibalism, poisoning the captain with arsenic, boiling shoes for dinner, and acting nonchalant as half of the surviving members of the expedition float away into the night when the ice upon which they were sleeping cracks off and becomes a floe. Interestingly, Antarctic Navigation covers none of these topics, yet still it sticks with me, most likely because the heroine is a passionate, obsessive type who attempts to re-create the doomed expedition of Robert Falcon Scott (After-the-fact advice, Scott: use dogs, not horses, but if you insist on using horses, don’t be surprised when a couple of ’em get taken down by killer whales. Duh.). It also sticks with me because I first read it when I was deeply committed to a relationship that was sucking away my self-esteem and hope for the future–yet I was still three years away from awareness of these attenuations. When I read the last few hundred pages in the book–the proverbial race to The Pole–I was sleeping in a separate bedroom, away from my boyfriend; he said he slept better with me in a different room. At the time, it all seemed very logical. Fortunately, being in a separate bedroom allowed me to turn page after page through the dim hours of the night. When finally I slapped the back cover closed, I looked up and was startled to see the morning sun trumpeting through the blinds. It was 7 a.m. The book had almost 800 pages. Always enamored with a feisty heroine, it took me 1000 more days to rediscover the one stooping inside me.

And so. There are stacks of influential books whose greatest appeal is the emotional support they’ve provided me. Yes, the writing is good, often excellent. Yes, there is much to be learned about the world from them. However, I love them because they were sustaining friends.

In contrast are books that dazzle me when I’m not reading from a place of neediness but, rather, from a place of I Just Want to Enjoy Some Good Writing. This is not to say that such books aren’t also sustaining friends; it’s more that, these days, I’m looking for books that make my knees weak with the glory of their cadence, structure, content, and storytelling. When I crack a cover and dive in, there is no greater delight than discovering a fresh, original voice in the pages–the kind of singular voice that makes me think, “If this book were translated, readers of the translated language would be missing out. It would be impossible for this book to read as beautifully in any other form.”

With many books, from the Betsy-Tacy-Tib series to Antarctic Navigation, I wouldn’t bemoan a translation. Put into German, Thai, or Turkish, these books would not lose their essential appeal. But: with books that have greatness in the writing, I worry, fretting, “If someone reads this in another language, it won’t be right any more. It won’t be the same.”

As is usually the case with worry, it’s wasted energy. The issue with translation isn’t that it happens but, instead, that it needs to be handled with a deft hand and a precise eye. I’ve been thinking about this lately as I consider some books that have just about blown my bifocals out. They are that good.

Indeed, in the past year, I’ve encountered two series that have impacted me deeply. While reading both Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy and Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels” (three so far, with the fourth and final installment being released in September), I went through the stages of Enchanted Readership: from excitement at having found books with strong voices to joy at being in the presence of intelligent, talented authors to wonder at what they were able to achieve on the page to sadness that the reading experience was finite. Nothing commends a book more highly than a bereft reader turning the last page–slowly and reluctantly. That’s how I was with these books.

Get this, though: Elena Ferrante writes in Italian. I was reading translations of her originals. Slap me to Sunday and dunk me in the lake if the process of translation diminished her work in any way–for her novels, which follow two tough girls growing up in a poor Naples neighborhood as friends, competitors, touchstones, nemeses, are powerhouses. Ferrante is writing more than “girl friendship” books. Integral to these books are the neighborhood, the political times, the realities of the economy, the ingrained class system. They are intricate and detailed, and if you’re someone who often sighs deeply at how long my blog posts are, please don’t go near these books, as they are not the stuff of short paragraphs and easy take-away. These books require readers to show up and invest. The pay-offs are immense. After finishing each one, I was left musing, “Elena Ferrante is more than a feminist or an author who’s not interested in pandering to an audience. She’s a badass.”

And that’s what astounds me most: I read her novels in translation, yet Ferrante’s essence has not been lost–even when one is reading her Italian stories in English, it is clear that this author is uncompromising and tells her stories exactly the way she wants to tell her stories, the way she needs to tell her stories. Minna Proctor, a reviewer at Bookforum, handily summarizes Ferrante’s achievements: “Ferrante’s writing is so unencumbered, so natural, and yet so lovely, brazen, and flush. The constancy of detail and the pacing that zips and skips then slows to a real-time crawl have an almost psychic effect, bringing you deeply into synchronicity with the discomforts and urgency of the characters’ emotions. Ferrante is unlike other writers—not because she’s innovative, but rather because she’s unselfconscious [sic] and brutally, diligently honest.”

While I am blown away by Ferrante, I’m also blown away by Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein. To keep a writer’s tone, fierceness, and intentions intact while changing all the words…that’s a phenomenal talent in itself. An excellent human translator is to rote online translation programs what 70% cocoa dark chocolate is to a Hershey’s bar.

The success of translation with Ferrante’s novels makes me hopeful that an effective translation of my other recent favorites, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy, might also be possible.


However, my gut says it would be impossible for such distinctively British books to work in any language except English. So much would be lost in translation–for example, the fact that “Filth” is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong” means a translated version would have to take on an entirely new title. So much would be confusing to readers in various places around the world–for example, readers would need a well-established knowledge of Great Britain’s history with colonialization and attempts to bring “civilization” to countries in The East. When I think of moving these books out of their original language, I despair on Gardam’s behalf.

If an eighteen-year-old boy in, hmmm, Tanzania got his hands on a copy of Old Filth that had been translated into Swahili, he would struggle with this sentence about the book’s protagonist, Old Filth, and his wife: “But if any old pair had been born to become retired ex-pats in Hong Kong, members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St. Andrew’s Church and St. John’s Cathedral, they were Filth and Betty.”

Actually, before that sentence ever landed in the Tanzanian boy’s hands, how would a translator have handled putting concepts like being “ex-pats” and “props” into Swahili? Could a single word in Swahili match the English? If not, would the translator need to use long phrases to convey the concepts? If so, wouldn’t Gardam’s prose have been fundamentally altered by the process of translation?

On the other hand, if a book is magnificent, should concerns over translation keep it out of the hands of a reading public, no matter where they are in the world and what language they speak? If I think Old Filth is a great book, shouldn’t I want everyone to read it? Even if a Tanzanian boy knows nothing about British culture and is confused by much of what he reads in something like Old Filth, what better way is there for him to become acquainted with clubs and lending libraries and cathedrals? Where else in his life might he encounter insights into barristers, judges, advocates, and “The Court”? If not for reading about it, would this Tanzanian boy ever know that British parents stationed in The East often sent their children home to England for their schooling, creating an entire group of children known as “Raj orphans”?

Thus, although the protective reader in me wants to yell “Don’t even bother to translate these fantastic books, for too much will be lost!” as she clutches treasured volumes to her indignantly heaving bosom, the truth is she, that wild-eyed nut, should be locked into The Conservatory with Colonel Mustard and a lead pipe to see who comes out alive.

Of course sublime books should be translated. Even if nuance is sacrificed in the process, even if the original beauty of the prose gets corrupted, the gifts innate in every book should be available to all readers, no matter their language.

I learned about pompadours from Maud Hart Lovelace.

I learned about fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva from Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

I learned, from Elizabeth Arthur, that the National Science Foundation awards some grants to writers and artists, in an effort to open the experience of The South Pole to more than scientists.

I learned about Italy’s Red Brigades from Elena Ferrante.

And, like that apocryphal Tanzanian boy, I learned from Jane Gardam about a group of children known as “Raj orphans.”

Ultimately, with books, perhaps it’s not actually about the words. Perhaps the greatest gift they offer is that of exposure–to culture, to history, to ideas, to human nature.

They bring us the world.

All 6,500 languages of it.

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He was such a nice guy, one of the first to make us feel comfortable when we moved to the village in central Turkey. Thus, it was a shock when he asked me to become his mistress.

Because his store was on the main drag, on a corner our family passed whenever we walked home, we had a habit of exchanging daily hellos. “Merhaba, Murat!” I’d cry as we trudged to our house from the bus stop, backpacks and bags full of groceries from the neighboring town.

While our relationship was based on the superficial–what with us not knowing any Turkish verbs, much less words for abstract concepts–Murat could be counted on for a smile and a hearty greeting in return. Standing outside his liquor store, his head bent as he lit a cigarette, he’d spy us out of the corner of his eye and beam. Casting a wave our direction, he’d call out the phrase he’d taught us during our first week in Cappadocia: “Nasilsiniz?”

How were we? Well, we’d just bought chicken and peppers and chocolate bars. We were good. Waving back, I’d assure him, “Iyiyim. Çok iyiyim!” Then Byron would join in, asking the assemblage of men–Murat’s posse–“Siz nasilsiniz?”

They, too, were always well. We were always “good.” They were always “good.” Given our limited Turkish, we didn’t know how to be anything else with each other. Even if Paco had been complaining about the heat, and the reek from the bus driver’s armpits had made Byron nauseous, and we’d have gladly swapped 10,000 peppers for just one head of cauliflower, and I’d had both kids perched on my sweaty knees during the ride back to the village because of the crowding, we had to be “good!”

Often, we’d stop at Murat’s shop to stock up on beer and wine. It was from him that I learned the words beyaz and kirmizi (“white” and “red”). Often, he’d grab a bag of roasted chickpeas off the rack and toss it to the kids, announcing, in English, “my gift.”

In return, the kids’ gift, because somebody fetched them up right, was their ability to put a few of those roasted chickpeas into their mouths, chew for a minute, and look pleasant–instead of spitting them out with a loud “PATOOOUUUI. These crappy things taste like chalk! What are the Turkish words for ‘Please swab my mouth with lemon cologne’?”

One thing my children unquestionably learned from that year of travel is this: if you don’t speak the language, plaster a smile on your face and act appreciative, even if you suspect you’re being poisoned.

That’s what happens when one doesn’t have command of the vernacular. One suffers poisoning without protest. One is diminished–flatter, without the dimension created by verbs and abstract concepts. No matter the turmoil roiling inside, one must always be fine. Intelligence and humor burble up, looking for expression; lacking conveyance, they remain bottled. Not being able to share one’s thoughts, one’s nuances, is lonely, deflating, crazy-making.

Unable to communicate fully, a person feels powerless.

Fortunately, there are ways to connect that go beyond the words stored in our heads. For example, there are gestures and the prodigious, forceful effectiveness of body language. Our neighbors in the village–the komsu–managed to transmit their ability to be pushy, annoying, nosy, kind, generous, greedy, thoughtful, and desperate, all through the six overlapping words we shared with them.

The Mrs. pulled one of her headscarves out of her drawer, tied me up in it, and yelled, “Bes lira!” while holding up five fingers to indicate the cost, should I care to wear that scarf home. That introduction to our neighbor provided my first opportunity to demonstrate the “Smile and act appreciative, even if you’re being poisoned” lesson.

Also, there is the invaluable translation tool called “I made a friend who speaks the language, and I will cement my hip to hers and have her talk for me.” Indeed, such people are aspirational, the BMWs of pals in a foreign country: we treasure them and park them in temperature-controlled garages in return for the pleasure of basking in their shiny linguistic prowess. We had several such friends during our time in Turkey, men and women who helped us find a place to live, who negotiated our “lease,” who called the cable company, who cursed out overcharging taxi drivers, who asked my questions about headscarves, who put voice to the thoughts stalled in our heads.

Not only did they lubricate social and transactional situations for us, they were our best teachers, able to explain appropriateness, pronunciation, and the mores surrounding certain usages. Because she is fluent in both English and Turkish, our friend Ileyn was able to explain why her daughter addressed me as “Abla Jocelyn” (sister) and not “Teyze Jocelyn” (aunt). Because she’d figured out how to maneuver through the practicalities of Turkish life, our friend Christina taught us to call “Inecek var” to the mini-bus driver when we wanted him to pull over. Because he had lived in Turkey for more than thirty years, our friend Andus (and his wife Gulcan) was able to talk to people in uniform about why they wouldn’t stamp their seal on our some of our residency paperwork. Without the aid of friends who could straddle the languages, we would have left the country knowing ten words and not a hundred. It’s not often math can be applied to relationships, but they made our experience ten times easier. Carry the two.

Of course, in this modern age, we also have technology to help us, thanks to online software and translation sites. On a rote level, these sites are extremely helpful, for they contain dictionaries and phrases that respond to an off-the-cuff “Let me plug in these words in English and get a straightforward answer to my linguistic conundrum.”

Then again.

Just last week, Paco was writing a story in Spanish, and he was uncertain about the phrase “Once upon a time…” along with some of his verb choices. Relating the adventures of a monkey named Bob gets really complicated, really fast, when you’re doing it in another language. We were using online sources, but I didn’t trust their results, so I messaged my sister. She’s a Spanish/English bilingual teacher and has, previously, lived in Spanish-speaking countries, so her understanding of the language is authentic, responsive to specific contexts. As it turns out, the Internet had yielded the correct wording for “Once upon a time…” Supplementing cyberspace was big sister Allegra, who’d come in the room, looked over Paco’s story, and helped him make some edits (while also complimenting his range of verb tenses–“I didn’t learn the imperfect ’til this year, Paco! I can’t believe you already know it!”). By the time we started chatting, my sister really didn’t need to weigh in with much help. Thus, we veered off topic, chatting about random things, such as the fact that Allegra’s and my current happy jam, a song called “Shut Up and Dance” by a group named Walk the Moon, is also my sister’s current car jam. Quickly, I opened a tab for Google Translate and input “shut up and dance”–because I wanted to tell my sister, in Spanish, that she should do just that.

The computer told me: “cerrada y bailar conmigo.”

My sister told me: “nope.”

Then she explained that it should actually be cállate y baila conmigo because cerrada means closed or shut, like a door, not like “shut your mouth, you yappy thing.” This distinction brought to mind the difference between Turkish and English when it comes to something like making a room dark. In English, we “turn off” the lights. In Turkish, the lights are extinguished–a holdover from the age of torches and candles. Most online translation programs don’t catch that particularity or provide common usage.

Rather, the results of a simple online search are very literal:


With a bit more digging, however, the curious searcher discovers it’s a very different verb, in fact, that’s actually used to make the artificial overhead fluorescence cease with its oppressive intensity:


For me, whenever I start wriggling down the rabbit hole that is using translation software–typing, checking, cross-checking–I almost immediately crave the help of a fluent speaker, for clarification, explanation, and affirmation. I want a bunny familiar with all the twists to reach down and give me a good yank. As bunnies do.

I could’ve used a fluent speaker and a good yank one day in Murat’s shop. ‘Cause a big hole opened up right there next to the pomegranate lokum, and I nearly toppled panties first into it.

I know. Imagine the wedgie.

Friends, arkadaslar, amigos: Google Translate tried to bust up my marriage.

After many months of enjoying our daily wave and “How you doin’?” conversations with Murat, I had stopped in his shop with the kids–Byron was far down the dusty main street drinking the obligatory third cup of tea while attempting to mime the words “I would like to buy a hammer” to the guys at the hardware store–when I noticed an enlarged photo of a young man hanging on the wall. In recent weeks, Murat had overhauled his shop, changing it from a liquor store into a fruit-and-nut shop. We didn’t know why he’d made this change–until I pointed to the enlarged photo and attempted to ask “Who is that?” The boy in the photo, a teenager, was surrounded by clouds and beams of light; because most portraits I’d seen hanging in Turkish homes integrated equally cheesy backdrops, I didn’t think much of the boy’s heavenly surroundings.

But then Murat’s eyes filled with tears, and he explained, haltingly, in English, that this was his son. Had been his son. There had been an accident with a car and a motorcycle. His son, age 15, had died. Apparently, this had happened relatively recently. Trying to explain his heart’s pain in thirteen words, Murat swung his arm wide, indicating the baskets of dried apricots and sesame peanuts, and said, in English, “No more Boy. I…No beer. No wine. I good Muslim now. For Boy.” His face crumpled.

It was a terrible moment.

In response to his disclosure, my first response was physical; I wanted to step towards that crumpled face and envelop the bereft father in a hug. To merely stand there, attempting to emit sympathy from a distance, felt clinical, but in a Muslim culture, the separation between men and women runs strict and deep, even when the woman is a foreigner. And I certainly didn’t have the words, in Turkish, to throw across the divide as a bridge of comfort. Of course, sometimes it’s not the words but, rather, the presence of them, that reassures us we’re not alone.

I wasn’t sure Murat understood when I murmured: “I’m so sorry. What has happened to you is an unthinkable tragedy. The kind of grief and pain you are living with break me, on your behalf. The love you had for your son gave him a good life, I’m sure. But, oh. Murat. I’m so sorry.” However, it wasn’t understanding of vocabulary that he needed in that moment. It was my tone, the shine of tears in my eyes, the communication of compassion, the flow of another voice. He heard what I was saying. My murmur was the language of common humanity, the one that runs beneath words.

Slowly, dashing the back of his hand against his eyes, he nodded, accepting my condolences. Daring in the moment, I reached out and patted his shoulder. He smiled.

Straightening his shoulders, he grabbed a bag of chickpeas off the rack and handed them to the kids. Their grins of thanks were carefully pasted on. Trying to change the mood, Murat asked if there was anything I needed from his store.

Had I been able to, I would have said, “I’ll take it all. Fifty baskets of nuts. Thirty baskets of dried fruits. Everything on all the shelves. I’ll take it all, even those boxes of spice paste labeled Turkish Viagra“–just to give him a new story to tell.

Without a million lira in my wallet, though, I could only request, “Could I have 500 grams of pistachios?”

As Murat scooped the nuts into a bag, we went through our ritual of pointing at various items and pronouncing the Turkish words followed by their English counterparts. After a few minutes of laughter at the mangled sounds coming out of our mouths, Murat tried to form a question–“You. I…?”–before filling in the rest of his thought with words that were beyond my ken. He stopped. Thought. Tried again. I was baffled and told him, “I don’t understand.”

Tapping his finger to his forehead, he raised his eyebrows and pointed to the laptop set up near his ashtray. Sitting down, he opened a browser and typed in his question. The words popped up in English, and he turned the screen so I could read the translation:

Perhaps sometimes at night you could come be with me so we could be together.

Allah help me. Dude wanted to hook up.

That’ll teach me to write a multi-pronged sabbatical plan, get it approved by administration, spend months figuring out a way to live abroad, rent out our house, pack the family into a plane, fly twelve hours over the ocean, fall to pieces in 104 degree heat, rent a 400-year-old Greek house, start homeschooling the kids, take a crowded mini-bus to the neighboring village for peppers, and then pat a crying guy’s arm. That sympathetic arm pat had, apparently, announced open season on my panties.

And I don’t even like the word “panties.” I just use it to make myself cringe. Panties, panties, panties. PAN-TIES. If I knew the word for panties in Turkish, I’m sure it would make me shudder, too. Turkish panties, Turkish panties, Turkish panties. TUR-KISH PAN-TIES.

Wait, Google Translate just told me the Turkish word for panties is külot. My people: our culottes come from the Turkish word for panties, panties, panties!

Unless Google Translate is, as usual, all messed up, and the actual word natives use for their panties is nikur.

I should have asked Murat.

That would have gone wellopenseasononnikur.

Instead of raising the panty question with Murat, I wisely opted for a beat of silence as I digested his translated words. Perhaps sometimes at night you could come be with me so we could be together.

He was such a nice guy, without a whiff of creep contaminating his aura. He was always kind to my kids, happy to see my husband. His son had just died. He probably had a wife. He had recommitted to his religion. He had launched a store where tourist buses stopped each day, allotting passengers ten minutes to stock up on his authentic (otantik) goods. It would be helpful to the health of his business if he could speak more English. He knew I was an English teacher.

His proposition wasn’t a sex thing. His proposition was a language thing.

So I read the words on the screen, reeled, gulped, processed, re-centered, and agreed that it would be lovely to stop by on occasion and work on vocabulary: “EvetÇok iyi.”

Pistachios and children in hand, I headed out the door, onto the main drag teeming with men drinking tea, donkeys braying, motorcycles roaring by, komsu angling to make a lira, gangs of kids kicking balls. As I turned to wave goodbye to Murat, the evening Call to Prayer began to echo throughout the village.

Pulling the door of his shop closed behind him, Murat lit a cigarette, waved in our direction, and began to walk towards the mosque.

He didn’t have to say a word.

I knew what he was about.

No translation necessary.


**Apologies for the fact that my Turkish spellings aren’t always strictly correct; WordPress is a bitch about using the Turkish alphabet on this English-based blog. Incidentally, Google Translate tells me the Turkish word for “bitch” is orospu. I dare you to try it out in Istanbul at the Blue Mosque.

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Going the Distance


It’s almost 11 p.m.

We’re waiting for her call.

Byron would like to go to sleep. Yet I would like him to be the one who responds to her. My legs are tired. I’m in my pajamas, a glass of wine on the side table.

When she calls or texts, she will tell us she’s home from the track meet, that the bus is in the high school parking lot. One of us will walk the three blocks to the school to retrieve her.

If I could drive over, I’d be more willing to be the parent on retrieving duty. There I’d sit in my old car, idling, burning gas, staying warm, hoping the buses pull in soon so I can grab my kid, smile internally while pointedly not talking to her, go to bed, and leap up again too few short hours later.

But when I joked a few months ago about driving the three blocks to get our daughter after a ski meet, my pure, principled, stand-up husband said, “That’s a slippery slope. We live really close to the school. We shouldn’t open the door on opting to drive over. There’s no reason we can’t walk.”

One of us comes from a family where members have gone years without eating meat, sugar, or caffeine.

I come from a family where we stood in the garage at the open deep freeze, holding a spoon, hovering over a box of ice cream, waiting for the edges to soften so we could dig out triangles from the corners.

Despite my corner-cutting upbringing, it is easy for me to agree with my husband’s sentiment that it’s best not to hop in the car just because we’re tired, and our day feels Done. I get exasperated with the American habit of driving a hundred yards, from the Best Buy to the Target, rather than walking. I am conscious of the limited resources and borrowed time we heedlessly gobble up, like they’re an Egg McMuffin with a side of French Toast Sticks. I am frustrated by people who complain about the price of gas and own remote starters for their cars.

Show me a tree. I will hug the bark off that sap-dripper.

So, okay. We won’t get into the habit of driving over for late-night pick-ups.

We’ll walk.

Blessedly, the walk is bliss.

Darkness. Cool air. Shadowy branches swaying gently overhead, their claws finger painting the sky. The hush that reminds us everyone else is hunkered down inside, watching Fallon, making tomorrow’s lunches, reading three pages before the book hits the nose. To walk outside late at night feels delicious, nearly illicit.

Sometimes Byron and I flip a coin, draw straws, make a case, just to be the lucky one who gets to walk over. Those seven minutes are an unparalleled swing through an alternate universe, a private meditation broken only by arrival at the high school, that hulking building with lights ablaze, where the reek of diesel, the line of chugging parent pick-up cars, the heap of bags being offloaded from storage compartments–all yank the dreamy walker back to crisp, hard reality.

For me, whenever I reach the parking lot, I am buzzing with happiness. Usually, because it’s late at night, my hair is slightly damp from an earlier shower. Usually, because it’s cold or I’m worried I’ll be late, I trot my way from home to the school. Usually, I’m breathless.

And then I stand outside the buses, scanning their windows, trying to spot my girl.

I stand, waiting in darkness.

Somewhere inside the bus, she mills in the light.

Sleepy, soft, yawning, reminding me of toddlers waking from their afternoon naps, the teenagers adjust their ponytails, elbow their friends, bend down to pick up back-packs. Inside the illuminated bus, the sprinters, pole vaulters, and hurdlers gather themselves, preparing to face the cold, to meet their parents’ questions, to remember unfinished homework, to make their way home and dive under the covers, only to leap up again too few short hours later.

There she is. My specific girl.

She won’t be talkative. Questions about how her race went will be deflected. Yes, she ran a personal record, shaving fifteen seconds of her previous best time. She’ll shuck off my enthusiasm. On her talented team, at her big school, a 6:28 mile is nothing. She was only put into the race because the juniors were taking the ACT that day. A 6:28 mile places her middle-to-back of the pack, forty seconds behind the front runners, the last of the four runners from her team, for sure.

Side by side, we’ll walk home, the shadowy branches swaying gently overhead, their claws finger painting the constellation of a runner darting across the sky. I’ll try not to monologue, lecture, effuse about how, in the larger scope of the world, her ability to run stands out as a gift. I’ll refrain from putting her performance into a larger, more meaningful, context. I’ll let us glide home on the quiet of the world. I’ll let her figure out, deep in her hidden recesses, what today’s performance on the track means.

I’ll offer to carry her clarinet. I won’t ask if she read the assigned 112 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.

None of this will not happen tonight, though.

My legs are tired. I’m in my pajamas, a glass of wine on the side table.

It’s Byron’s night.

When he reads her message, the one that notifies, “15 minutes,” he’s brushing his teeth. He comes in to say, “I’m heading out now,” and his eyes are bleary, tomorrow’s whiskers already sprouting.

Looking at his face, adjusting the fleece blanket draped across my lap, I offer, “I’m happy to go, you know. You need bed. I’ll get her.”

“No,” he assures me. “I want to go. I love the walk.”

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Dear Diary: A Few Hours Later


Dear Diary:

I’ve scrubbed the pressure cooker, eaten some delicious ham-and-white-bean soup, and have a few minutes now to finish up this entry about that Saturday last month when nothing much happened. You know me: it’s not a “nothing much happened” kind of day until I’ve written 5,000 words about it. No wonder you’re always bulging at the binding.

When last I left you, I’d just loaded up on coffee and Trader Joe’s–both providing respite after the sequined-t-shirt-storm that was Macy’s clearance.

As I pulled onto I-35 and pointed the nose of the rental car northwards, I eyeballed the radio and rued the lack of an iPod port. Not only had I found a piece of dog food rolling around the floor of the car when I picked it up from Hertz, the upholstery reeked of stale cigarette smoke. I daresay the Hertz people didn’t truly respect the $13/day I was throwing at them.

I could deal with the dog food (ate it!) and get past the smoke smell (lit a cigar!), but being limited to the radio for three hours on a Saturday afternoon in Minnesota qualified as genuine hardship. Most of my state-mates would be delighted at the prospect, as Minnesota Public Radio offers up some fine fare–all the car talk, thoughtful interviews, dinner-party downloading, ironic wits, and “used to be called Speaking of Faith but now called On Being” shows that white people with incomes over $50,000/year could want.

And, of course: there is that Garrison Keillor show.

You know the one.

Where all the children are above average.

With the sound effects.


Rhubarb pie.

Folksy shit.

It’s a household eye-rolling joke between Byron and me that we can’t turn on MPR during the weekend without being assaulted by (all you rabid fans, please read assaulted by as allowed the pleasure of) the signature tickling of the ivories that opens A Prairie Home Companion. We actually compete to see who can slap the change-station button first, to find relief  in whatever inane pop tripe Iggy Azalea is currently shilling. It’s the closest to violence my beau and I have ever come: knocking fists as we scramble for the dial in an effort to escape “It’s been a quiet week on Lake Woebegon…”

You know how it went, then, don’t you, Clever Diary? It was actually okay for the first hour of my drive north, when I was still within range of the Twin Cities. There were urban-ish choices (men’s voices yelling “Concrete! Factories! Graffiti!” punctuated by the sound of breaking bottles) which allowed me to avoid the Garrison.

But then, there’s a halfway point, right around a town called Hinckley, and in that sad, rural technological Bermuda Triangle, radio waves go in, but they don’t come out.

Static, static, and fuzz, only interrupted by eerily crystalline sound bytes of “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegon…”

For twenty miles, I slammed “Seek,” hoping not to hear a fake ad from the Catchup Advisory Board (the name is spelled that way as a compromise between the two common words, ketchup and catsup) each time the blur of numbers on the dashboard halted. No such luck. It was all “catchup,” all fiddles, all Guy Noir, all Powdermilk Biscuits, every time I hit the button. There were five stations playing the same drive-me-up-a-frickin’-wall show.

Now I know that Prairie Home Companion is the creator of many treasured moments for the upper-middle-class pasty people, Diary. Fans find nostalgia and comfort in that program, the same way you provide those things for me. They love Keillor’s homey storytelling and the whimsy of clip-clop hoof strikes like radio programs used in Ye Olde Depression Era radio showes. Abstractly, I see how all the predictable beats of that program constitute companionship for multitudes of listeners.

The problem is that Keillor’s predictable beats don’t align with the ones drumming inside my head. Oh, Diary, as you know from years of observing it, my interior is not set in Lake Woebegon, nor does it care to take a pontoon ride to that burg’s shores. The sounds inside my head are staccato; the landscapes of my mind are riddled with well-worn ruts and dangerous divots; the people who live inside my skull scrawl the word COZY in blood on a piece of cardboard, let the blood dry, and then chase Garrison Keillor around Main Street with it, bashing his shoulder blades while screeching “NO. MORE. STORIES. ABOUT. THE. 4TH. OF. JULY. AND. THE. CHATTERBOX. CAFE.” In my milder moments, I’m a softie cornball, but still not the right kind for “the little town time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” My softie cornball moments involve a desire to see Rick Astley wearing a trench coat and singing “Never Gonna Give You Up” as I trim my bangs in front of the mirror at midnight while contemplating how a re-boot of television’s Full House might not be a bad idea. Then I check the pantry for Twizzlers.

Obviously, my gripe about PHC doesn’t stem from some sort of superior taste. I have terrible taste. I was genuinely worried when Marie Osmond fainted on Dancing with the Stars. I swear by Arby’s roast beef sandwiches, and do not get me started on the glory of their potato cakes. On more than one occasion, I’ve worn a plum-colored top with a purple skirt. Just the other day, I put on striped capri pajama pants (and I realize this example could stop here, as it’s made its point) and then was possessed by a Spring Cleaning bug that made me empty a huge drawer in the kitchen and tote it out to the back yard, where I spent five minutes wiping the crap and crumbs out of it with a heap of wet paper towels. There I squatted, a spectacle for the neighborhood, scrubbing away remnant cumin, wondering if maybe I should’ve put on underwear beneath my clown pants.

So it’s not that I’m better than A Prairie Home Companion. Just different. My beats are pounded on a drumline 6,945 miles from Lake Woebegon.

My beats did stick twirls when, after hitting the radio’s “Seek” button one more time, the airwaves finally provided a bonanza: the classics station.

Diary? Remember how we went and saw Barry Manilow? Remember how Rush’s Geddy Lee took our elbow and saved us in Macy’s clearance? Remember all those other ecstatic entries I scribbled in you in the ’80s–about seeing Black Sabbath and Loverboy and Blue Oyster Cult and Quarterflash? ‘Member?

The classics station is friends with all those people. And all those people, from Loverboy’s Mike Reno to Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio, would not deign to toss Garrison Keillor the scarves from their microphone stands. They are a very exclusive club, the artists on the classics station, snobbish in the best possible way. They have two rules: 1) No brown M & Ms; 2) No Garrison Keillor.

By landing on the classics station, my internal beats found a home. I cranked the volume until the tinny speakers in that $13/day rental car shook the smoke right out of the upholstery. I felt my ears pin back against my head when The Cars sang “I guess you’re just what I needed.” I lost my mind when the Steve Miller Band’s “Space Cowboy” came on because it was a damned gift to be reminded that I’m a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner– except not when cars passed on the left, at which point I had to act overly casual and like my mouth was moving because it was chewing gum and not because it was whistling “WHIT-WHOO” along with Mr. Steven Miller.

By the way, Diary, I really love your peaches and eversomuch want to shake your tree. Guard your bloomers!

Free from Woebegon, in the full flush of rocking out to tunes from my formative years, I took a happy moment to raise my face to the sky and tell God I wish she existed so I could praise her for the sunshine. Pleased by the sentiment, Non-Existent God whispered back, “I wish I existed, too. If I did, I could have stopped millions of senseless deaths carried out in my name. What a bunch of dumb fucks, trying to ride on my coat tails.”

Driving the next 50 miles, I sorted through mental images of God’s coats (my favorite: the one made out of chicken wire, cling wrap, and Jesus’ beard clippings) while my voice strained to keep up with Messieurs Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

And then, Diary, I was home. As I parked behind the house, the back door opened, and out came Byron, his jeans stuffed into Wellingtons in an act of righteous cuteness, ready to help me carry in bags of groceries and weekend-away luggage.

You know how you have about 70 pages devoted to youthful heartache and wishing for some yummy boy to like me?

I won’t be adding to them. All that mournful nonsense ended when Byron came along. I found the yummy boy, and he likes me.

Once everything had been toted inside, we set to unpacking the groceries from TJ’s–pumpkin seeds and trail mix promise brain health, so I’m stuffing some between your pages now, Diary. At the same time, I needed to catch up with what I’d missed in my absence, notably Allegra’s having been put into a race at a track meet earlier that morning. Her high school is big, and the talent on its team runs deep; thus, we didn’t expect that she’d be running at any of the “competitive” meets. However, through a confluence of events and missing runners, the coach decided to have her run the 1600. That’s a mile, Diary. I know math has never been your strong suit. Remember all those times you still thought it was 1982 when we were well into 1983? Duh.

Because I love my daughter, and I love watching running, and I love teenagers being strong, I had requested that Byron and Paco record Allegra’s race. Holding a bag of trailmix in one hand, I squinted at the little screen on Byron’s phone and watched my baby girl–tall now for a baby–turn in a 6:43 mile. Only in a select young people’s meet would a 6:43 mile put her at the back of the pack. Fortunately, all the rest of us, those not in high school, know that a 6:43 mile shines all the mirrors with vinegar and a loud squeak. Leaning over her shoulder, staring at the video on phone, talking through her form on each of the eight laps of the tiny track, I grinned like dancer in “stand battle” on the riveting cable program Bring It.

You can call me Selena. But NEVER call me Sunjai.

When the video was over, Allegra admitted, “I wish I could do it again. Because now I know I could have been running faster from the start.” Fortunately, I was able to put her performance in context and tell her that if someone offered me $10,000 to run one 6:43 mile, ever, I would have to respond with “Could I please have another challenge? One that’s feasible? Something like eating 643 snickerdoodles in 6:43?”

Patting my tall, strong, fast girl on the back, congratulating her one more time, I snagged eyes with Byron and asked, “Naturally, because I’ve been home for five minutes, it’s time to head out again, right? We need to go get Paco from his pal’s birthday party at the water park and then head to the Kia dealership to pick up our half-repaired car there [parts had been ordered] before caravaning to the Hertz store to drop off the rental car?”

Yup. Down the road we drove, pulling over to grab a soft, moist Paco from the water park and shout a prayer to the Tiki god that dumps a massive bucket of water on 30-pound preschoolers every three minutes: “Please, god of this scummy water park, protect our son from staph infections and pink eye. And may none of his toenails fall off in the next six months.”

While Byron sacrificed a snack stand chicken patty sandwich on the Tiki God’s altar, I drove next door to fill the tank on the rental car.

Diary. You know me and cars.

I not so smart.

After four minutes of attempting to find a button to push or pull–something that would pop open the gas tank cover, I gave up. Damn rental.

Instead, we drove to the Kia dealership and retrieved our car. Now in two vehicles, we pulled over at a different gas station, so Byron could help me find the gas tank button.

He walked up to the rear of the rental car, touched the flap covering the hole to the gas tank, and pulled it open. Manually. ‘Cause he a man.

As I watched him handle the car’s gassing up for me, I took a lace fan out of the glove compartment and fluttered it around my face. My, my. I do declare.

In quick order, we returned the rental car, returned home in our so-so Kia, and listened to our stomachs growl. Mine was actually growling for a beer I’d brought home from The Big City, a place where workers in breweries yelled “Concrete! Factories! Graffiti!” while breaking bottles. First, though, I wanted to unpack the dirty clothes from my bag. Checking on the laundry situation after a few days away, my suspicion was confirmed: no one had touched the stuff in my absence. Retributively, I tossed all their whites and reds into a hot water load and pushed the button reading “Mix these suckers HARD.”

An hour later, the kids had eaten, and I managed to be passively supportive of Byron and Allegra as they headed out in search of Northern Lights. Settling into the rocking chair, sighing loudly as I pulled a fleece blanket over my legs, I told Paco that, of course, he could stay up late and finish his Pokemon battle. I mean, what if Clefairy was about to triumph over Charizard, at long last? Who am I to get in the way of long-simmering Pokemon grudge matches? Just as I got comfortable, I realized that we adults still needed to eat once Team Borealis returned from its mission and that the pot of water in which to boil cauliflower still needed to be turned on. Oh, Diary, my problems ran deep. I was very nearly woebegone. Except no–Keillor! Ptui!

Eventually, the unsuccessful Lights Hunters came back, the boy finished his Pokemon battle and went to bed, and my favorite time of day arrived: dinner plus drink plus watching a show with my beau. We settled on the Turkish couch, hip-to-hip, dug into our cauliflower, and laughed at Tina Fey’s impersonation of Marcia Clarke in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Dear Diary, both Byron and I would like to lick the make-up off Tina Fey, no matter the costume, so it was a rollicking half hour for us, only made better when I realized I still had ice cream cake left over from my birthday and that it might be wise to pour a glass of wine to help me mull over when eating that cake would be advisable.

It was 10 p.m. My yummy husband was yawning. My soft, moist, pink-eye-free boy was snoring. His strong-legged sister was checking her Instagram. The kitchen was full of fun treats. I’d sung with Steve Miller. It had been a phenomenal day.

As I opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of white, I thought of you, Diary, and all the memories you’ve recorded for me, preserving the minute details of a half-formed life on your pages. And, Diary? You know I love you, even though you embarrass me in public, but I have to admit I had an epiphany there, that Saturday night in front of the fridge:

as much as I treasure the time capsule of my adolescence that you represent, particularly when you provide nuggets like this one

"The Blues Brothers is on t.v. I made popcorn & I'm taping John Cougar on King Biscuit."
“The Blues Brothers is on t.v. I made popcorn & I’m taping John Cougar on King Biscuit.”

–there’s no time like the present.

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Dear Diary, Thirty-Three Years Later


Dear Diary:

Me again. Hey, so I visited one of your predecessors a few weeks back, and, boy, did that totally bitchin’ trip back to the early 1980s reaffirm my love for Rush’s lead singer Geddy Lee; since then, my Spotify’s been cranking “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” ’til a thin trickle of blood dribbles from my ear and down my freckled cheek.

That glance back in time also reminded me how no one, back in 1982, really knew Barry Manilow was gay–but now, 33 years later, Barry’s gotten married! To a guy named Garry! So they are Barry and Garry! And that hurts me a lot! Because imagine if my husband’s name were Hocelyn! And we only found out about Barry and Garry’s union because Chrissy Snow from Three’s Company talked about it on a gossip show! As it turns out, Barry met Garry a couple of years after I saw him in concert, so I’m thinking I still had a shot with Barry when he performed at The Metra in Billings, if only I hadn’t been seventy-eleven rows back and toting boobs! Clearly, it was only after something deeply internal in Barry realized “no Jocelyn for me” that he felt free to embrace the Garry!

Basically, Diary, you remind me that things change while remaining the same and that I’ve evolved over the years so as not to be, as Geddy would put it, “ill equipped to act, with insufficient tact.” He also told me to “put aside the alienation and get on with the fascination”–wise words!–and so if you’re not doing that yet, Dear Diary, I recommend you get on with it. The fascination, I mean.

Anyhow, I’m so glad you’re here, in the present with me, now; I have lots to report because a few weeks ago it was Saturday, and nothing big happened.

I’d been down in Minneapolis for a couple of nights to participate in the annual “delegate assembly” for the faculty union. I KNOW: I still can’t believe I’m a member of a union, either. Unions were so profoundly not a part of my upbringing that I am floored every time I remember I’m a worker who enjoys benefits and protections thanks to collective bargaining. Here’s an interesting development in recent years, Diary: unions are under attack by certain conservatives, such as the google-eyed hand-puppet who governs Wisconsin, dismantling unions within their states and opting, instead, for something called Right to Work. I won’t go into the details of Right to Work here, lest they get your pages in a flap, but here’s one tidbit to give you a taste of the issue: corporations love Right to Work states, and workers in Right to Work states make approximately 10% less than in union states. So, you know, I was at a union meeting, mostly because the union covers the cost of my hotel room, and there are a lot of episodes of Chopped that need me to watch them, but also because I savor the spectacle of parliamentary procedure in action (this year’s highlight: it took an hour to defeat a motion to issue a thank-you to a retiring administrator, after which the registered parliamentarian overseeing the discussion began pulling out her eyebrow hairs, one by one, with terrifying deliberateness).

On the Saturday in question, I got up at 8:30 a.m., having listened to drunken colleagues splash red wine on the carpet outside my room until 2 a.m. That’s the suck of getting stationed next door to the Governor’s Lounge (aka “social suite”) for a couple of nights at a work conference. I didn’t actually mind staying up that late, to tell you true, because it afforded me an hour’s obsessive watching of the hypnotic Lifetime network program called Bring It. Diary, this reality show follows groups of “hip-hop majorettes” as they train with over-the-top coaches and compete against rival troupes. That night in my hotel room, by the time the Dancing Dolls got to the final Stand Battle against the Divas, I was wishing my beloved Geddy could pop in to the gym to advise the girls and coaches that “glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.” Sadly, his lesson would be lost on thirteen-year-olds who throw eyeball shade at competitors while doing the splits between two chairs.

At any rate, despite a short night’s sleep, once I woke up that Saturday morning I had more than enough energy to grab the remote and turn on HGTV, salivating at the thought of houses being flipped. I had to settle, though, because Love It or List It was on. Before I could pour a cup of water into the coffee machine, I was embroiled in the quandary of a couple whose lovely view and rotting deck left them craving a better view and a sounder deck. By the time I was wincing at the powdered creamer drifting into my crappy coffee, I was ready to have Geddy call the couple and blast their self-absorption with a quick “How can you be worried about your deck when ‘the hypocrites are slandering the sacred halls of truth’?”

It wasn’t even 9 a.m., and already I’d watched people with too much money bitch about their lot and had a mental visit from Geddy Lee. Oh, Diary, it was shaping up to be an amazing day.

Slamming my coffee, I headed down to the fitness center to rollick on a treadmill with a television attached to it. Racking up some miles, I did an interval workout, bumping up the speed during the commercials since few things make me want to run like my butt’s on fire more than an ad for hemorrhoid cream. After some satisfying sweating, I hopped off the treadmill with a flourish–always the key to a successful dismount. As I moved to the weights, a kind 70-year-old man perched on a bike observed, “You certainly were exercising vigorously!” Thanking him, I noted, “I have a friend named Geddy who might have described me thusly, ‘Daughter of a demon-lover/Empress of the hidden face/Priestess of the pagan mother/Ancient queen of inner space.'”

Hoisting a twenty-pound weight towards the ceiling, I added, “But he’s one for words, that Geddy. You can just call me Ancient queen of inner space for short. ‘K?”

All too soon, Diary, I fluttered my fingers adieu at my bike pal, coyly patted my butt like it was burning, and returned to my room for a shower before checking out. When I opened the door, I noticed the message light flashing on the room’s telephone. It was good news: my friend Kirsten’s phone charger, which she had left behind when she checked out the day before, was in the possession of the front desk, so I needed to stop by on my way out and grab it for her.

Oh, Kirsten, Kirsten, Kirsten. Tsk, tsk. Don’t forget your stuff at the hotel, Silly! Where’s your head, Goose?

Just before noon, I zipped my bag shut, stroked the television’s face fondly, and headed out, in the process leaving my phone charger and brand-new tablet on the desk next to a take-out menu.

Never fear, Protective Diary, I had a carefree nine hours before I realized they’d been left behind, and once I did, it only took repeated phone calls and ten days before they made their way to Duluth.

My mind wasn’t on chargers and tablets, you see, for I was aiming my car towards the second-largest mall in the state. Why head straight home when I could stop and gape at suburbanites while eating teriyaki chicken and noodles so offensive that the chef would literally have lost his face if he’d served it it in Japan? Also, I was needing a new racerback sports bra and figured a good pawing of the clearance at Athleta and Macy’s might yield a bargain.

You know what I learned from my pawing, Diary? Good sports bras sell at regular price, so I just need to pony up and pay top dollar. Also, did you know that there’s a “trainer’s discount” at Athleta? And that if we tore out one of your pages and wrote “Jocelyn is a trainer” on it with very firm print, we could maybe score a slightly cheaper bra? I learned about this discount when I was stuck in the check-out line behind a tiny wall of muscle topped by a blonde pixie cut. This woman had told everyone waiting for the fitting room about how she’d just been to Florida to watch some baseball, and then she told a worker near the skorts about how she’d just gotten back from Florida where she’d gone to watch some baseball, and after that she told the cashier about how she’d just gotten back from Florida where baseball had been watched. It was a damn relief when she finally shut up about her glamorous baseball trip to Florida long enough to tell the cashier that she’s a trainer and would like to use her discount. However, she couldn’t find her official trainer card to prove it, and she sure as hell didn’t have a diary page upon which to forge one (fitness trainers ain’t ‘zactly littrit types), all of which made me hope the cashier would issue a “trainer’s challenge” to this sack of skin bulging with guns and tell her, “I’ll let you have the discount if you drop and bang out thirty plyo burpees with push-ups while I blare a Pitbull song.”


Challenge un-issued, the cashier simply looked up the woman’s name in the computer system and gave her the discount. Just as I was pouting “Stupid technology takes away all the fun,” I heard Geddy’s voice, a whisper in the ear of my mind, singing to me of the beauties of modernity: “Invisible airwaves crackle with life/Bright antennae bristle with the energy/Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength/Bearing a gift beyond price.” Powerless in the face of his argument, I took out my phone and tapped out some emotional feedback on timeless wavelength: a text to my husband, telling him I’d be home for dinner.

In thrall to the blonde bit of cut buffness packed into spendy leggings, I followed the baseball-watching trainer out of the store and into Macy’s, whereupon she promptly disappeared, like the panty panel of a leotard up Jane Fonda’s cooch.

Sweet Diary? Macy’s on a Saturday afternoon during end-of-season clearance is nuuuuuuuuuts. Rather than browsing the clearance, I mostly wanted to take pictures of the heaps of intermingled, chaotic blouses, jeans, sweaters, blazers, t-shirts, toddlers, purses, and dresses under the “80% Off” sign. Who could find anything of interest in that mess?

About two hundred women wearing bedazzled sweatshirts, pushing strollers, carrying three pounds of product in their hair and kids named Dakota on their hips. That’s who.

For a long time, I stood there, unmoving, surrounded by frenetic shoppers. Limply, I reached out for a few garments, realized they were Size XS and covered with rhinestones, and let my hand fall back to my hip. Grabbing my elbow, Geddy analogized, “You know how that rabbit feels, going under your speeding wheels, bright images flashing by, like windshields towards a fly, frozen in the fatal climb? That’s you right now, girlfriend. You’re the rabbit, and clearance is the wheels. We need to get you out of here.”

He steered me to the relative oasis of the “Wear to Work” section of the store, which is where Right to Work employees buy Anne Klein dresses, if they can afford them on their limited wages.

Looking around, I realized this part of the store was calm, organized, and shoppable. I also realized I was standing next to a rack of Calvin Klein dresses that were chanting my name. Or maybe my husband’s name, if it were Hocelyn. Either way, he wasn’t there, and I was. It was time to get my “try on” on.

I grabbed a Size 12 and headed in to the fitting room, a place where previous rampagers had left the detritus of their “No” clothing while wheeling out gleefully with arms full of “Yes, yes, yes!” Stepping over the mountains of fabric, I found a spot where I could shed my clothes and wrap myself in Calvin–the nearest thing to Barry Manilow’s arms I’ll ever experience, actually.

It started out terribly.

Yea, I got into the sheath dress.

After that came the despair.

Why? Why? Why had Calvin designed a dress so ridiculously sleek that I couldn’t get the zipper closed over my formerly burning buttocks? Why must the fitting room always hurt?

Sighing sadly while Geddy crooned words of comfort–“Some need to pray to the sun at high noon/Need to howl at the midwinter moon/Reborn and baptized in a moment of grace/We just need a break/From the headlong race”–I stripped off the dress and returned it to the hanger.

As I zipped it closed, readying it for a shopper built more like a trainer, I looked at the tag.


In a moment of grace, I was reborn.


It was a Size 6.



Diary, dear, dear, Diary. I was having an amazing Saturday, indeed.

It was so good, in fact, that I didn’t need to buy anything at Macy’s after all. What I really needed to do was grab Geddy, strap his invisible presence into the rental car (long story; you’d be dead before I finished it) next to me, and hie off to the Trader Joe’s, a place so fabulous to this rube visiting the Big City that it almost felt like I’d gone to Florida to watch baseball.

At the Trader Joe’s, I stocked up on Australian licorice and bottles of limeade, tossing a random “speculoos” chocolate bar into the cart right at the end. As he scanned my purchases, the adorable cashier gave me directions to the nearest coffee shop, confessing that his addiction to the stuff ran so deep he had launched a recovery program consisting of a steady drip of tea. Geddy and I counseled him on how to break a habit and urged that he also try sparkling water as a replacement for caffeine, postulating that the textural satisfaction of bubbles might retrain his mouth. (That last sentence is Classic Geddy, inn’t?)

Outside, I packed the car with groceries and, gearing up for the drive home, ran over to the Starbucks next door. There, as she made my mocha, the worker joked about whole milk and three inches of whip cream to the point that I recommended she write a book of barista humor.

It would be a slim volume.

–Oh, dang. Diary? I have to go! Here I am, only part way through my amazing Saturday where nothing happened, and there’s so much more to tell, but I need to go scrub the pressure cooker (Hocelyn loves him some beans!).

Save me a page or two. I’ll be back later to fill you in on the rest of the day. Gad, we haven’t even gotten to the part where I listen to the classics station on the radio yet! Just hum these lyrics from “Tom Sawyer” a few times ’til I come back, to tide you over:

What you say about his company
Is what you say about society
Catch the mist, catch the myth
Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Don’t worry: I’ll leave Geddy with you for the humming. He hates pressure cookers.

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