We’re Going to Need Some Witnesses

…because we’ve made a will.

Only twelve years past any reasonable expectation of such a document being drawn up.

I guess the drafting of such an important disposition, even at this late date, frees us to die with impunity.


This is important because Byron and I are getting on an airplane on Wednesday and leaving the kids behind for twelve days, in the care of their grandparents.

That reality only makes me a little bit super sick to my stomach at the same time it sounds like the recipe for an amazing time.

To understand fully the story behind our imminent trip, you may need to take a quick glance at this previous post, and this one, both of which detail the kind of friendship that makes Han Solo and Chewbacca question their bond and realize they are mere feckless pretenders in terms of egoless cooperation and tackling the challenges the universe. I’m about to go on a trip spurred by the kind of friendship that makes The Golden Girls seem like a troupe of annoying mock-ups whose interactions–meant to come across as authentic and original–smack mostly of shtick and cliche.

Wait. Even outside the context of this post, The Golden Girls chafe.

Let me try again. I’m about to take a trip thanks to a friendship so intensely full of “we’ve got to do this thing together” that it seems, in comparison, Louise was casually digging through her purse, looking for a breath mint, while Thelma announced, “Actually, the gas tank’s on Empty. I can’t gun it over the edge of the canyon.”

If my point is still muddy, let me express it through a picture. I’m about to take a trip born out of the reciprocal love this woman I have shared since 1996:

The point here is that I have been blessed with great friendship, and from that friendship has arisen the opportunity to go on an amazing journey.

I had notions of writing up the entire story here, but as I look at the calendar and the clock, and as I step around the heap of “I might pack this” clothing on the floor of the bedroom, and as I count up the discussion messages that need processing in my online classes, and as I eye the shopping list of things to buy before we go, I realize time has gotten the better of me.

Thus, I’ll simply share the video I posted in my classes last week, a video that gives my students a heads-up. It’s also a really good video to watch if you’ve been wishing you could hear the words um and and more often.

Let’s hope I do better at posting updates during these travels than I did with the East Coast road trip this past summer. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing about this one until the first tulips are poking their petals through the dirt come Spring.


We’ve got a will. We’ve got plane tickets. We’ve got a plan.

Can I get a witness?

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Then There Was the Time Jimmy Carter Woke Up Playboy to the Notion of Committing Adultery in One’s Heart

Perhaps it started when then-President Richard Nixon invited Elvis Presley to the White House to discuss the possibility of the drug addict taking on a role as “federal-agent-at-large” with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

It definitely gained momentum when Chevy Chase began regularly spoofing Gerald Ford’s clutziness on Saturday Night Live.

It felt like glamour in the Reagan era when an ex-actor stood up and delivered his lines with George H.W. Bush as his sidekick monkey.

It became a natural part of the national psyche when “usually-briefs”-wearing Bill Clinton blasted his saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Often to the detriment of policy and platform, modern presidents and pop culture have become irrevocably intertwined. While Nixon issued his invitation to Elvis out of a sort of bewilderment about how to rein in the counterculture, today’s presidential candidates act not out of bewilderment but savvy.

They know that getting elected these days rests on their ability to tolerate Joy Behar’s fidgeting, to act as though Jay Leno is the nice guy he pretends to be, to tweet anniversary wishes to their wives, to eat dinner at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house, to “slow jam” the news with Jimmy Fallon, to throw a few special-filter photos up on Instagram.

The plural pronoun in that previous paragraph should be changed to singular, truth be told.  The guy who does all that is Obama.

Romney, who suffers from the combination of Brobdingnagian personal finances (which release him from the impulse to pander to the plebes) and Mormonism (which assures his wife wears Temple garments beneath her dresses and that he sidesteps the caffeinated dangers of Mountain Dew), has struggled to harness the power of pop culture. Yes, he’s doing the circuit of talk shows; yes, he’s got a reliable staffer sending out tweets. But mostly, he’s still the guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.

I can’t get too indignant about the mixing of nominees with Ellen and Oprah. Candidates have always relied on media outlets to package their messages. The difference is that “media” has morphed into something beyond straightforward journalistic reporting, and today’s audiences have been trained to expect dancing along with their policy messages. It may be dumb as dogs jumping through hula hoops that a politician has to list his favorite television shows before he can talk taxes, but that’s the new reality (incidentally, Romney enjoys Friday Night Lights while Obama favors Homeland). The game has changed, and those who want to win the game have to play along.

Whether unfortunately or simple fact, pop culture can swing an election.

Because something in me (perhaps the fourteen-year-old who still just wants to wear really high heels) savors nearly every aspect of pop culture, I actually see value come out of the seemingly-irrelevant moments when politics intersect with celebrity. For example, it does say something to me that Romney likes a tv show about Texas football and Obama looks forward to a CIA thriller that focuses on Al Qaeda-influenced mind games.

Even more, I actually had to stop the elliptical trainer at the YMCA the other day when I encountered a slick “Overheard on the Campaign Trail” blurb in the light-as-air magazine US Weekly. The piece was meant to be innocuous enough, but the quotes contained within in hit on fundamental values differences that explain why I’ll vote the way I do next month.

In the piece, both long-suffering candidates were caught attempting to connect with celebrity culture–and, as a by product, with voters.


President Obama spoke at Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club in New York City, joking, “Jay-Z now knows what my life is like. We both have daughters. And our wives are more popular than we are. …We’ve got a little bond.”


On September 14th, Mitt Romney got gossipy on Live! With Kelly & Michael, when he admitted, “I’m kind of a Snooki fan. Look how tiny she’s gotten. She’s lost weight. She’s energetic. Just her spark-plug personality is kind of fun.”

The fact that Snooki gave birth on August 26th makes me laugh about Romney’s comment, as I know he wasn’t referring to post-partum weight loss. I doubt he even knew she’d had a baby a few weeks before. Rather, he was referring to last year, when Snooki cut her weight to 98 pounds through the use of a diet pill program (something else I’ll wager he’s unaware of).

His comments make me screamy.


First, we’ve got Obama who, with his usual facility, gives rapper Jay-Z an all-in-fun poke about how wonderful it is to play second microphone to one’s hugely charismatic wife. Obama is down with Jay-Z.

But Romney? Seriously, I had to stop my non-diet-pill approach to genuine and lasting health for a minute there and pause the elliptical. That his first thought about a female pertained to her weight and size was seriously dismaying to me. That his subsequent thoughts about her were patronizing, even condescending, infuriated me further.

Obama focused on a message of “Hey, friend: you and I are damn lucky to have powerful women in our lives.”

Romney sent a message of “Dither dither, blither blather, women should be thin but move around with enough vigor that their boobies bounce while they stir the spaghetti sauce for my dinner.”

Sure, they have differing agendas about The Real Issues, too, about the state of the middle class and the economy and education and health care,

but it turns out I’m a values voter.

And it’s pop culture that’s doing the best job of highlighting those differences and giving the populace the best sense of the place from which each candidate will work on any issue.

Because I’m in possession of a pair of bouncing boobies,

and because I want my boobies to be my business,

and because I want my boobies, which might get lumps in them, to be covered by health insurance,

and because my boobies delight that it’s my husband who makes the spaghetti sauce,

I respect the man who respects women.

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My Life Fell in the Woods, But It Didn’t Make a Sound

Box of Godiva chocolates, delivery from ProFlowers, fully-loaded gift card, sentiment from Hallmark. Envelope of cash, place setting from the registry, His ‘n Hers towels, crock pot, expensive single-use dress. Pack of Pampers, pair of knitted booties, engraved rattle, assortment of onesies. Tray of deli meats, donation in the deceased’s honor, potted plant. Seashell, scrapbook of island photos, persistent rash, bracelet from the gift shop. Dried wrist corsage, mortarboard tassel, bulletin of names. Brochures, invitations, ticket stubs, post cards, certificates, medals, yearbooks.

To these objects, we attach great emotion and power. Packed into labeled plastic tubs, stacked on closet shelves, pinned to bulletin boards, shoved into cardboard boxes, they accumulate into a mountain of evidence: Exhibits A through ZZZ prove that we’ve done things. Been an active part of our own lives. Mattered.

It’s as predictable as a chorus of birds twittering at dawn, this human need to commemorate the significant moments of our lives.

There are events, and the events are coupled with physical reminders, for the event will end, but the thing remains. We apprize emblems of great days.

For example, in my current phase of life, I have become liberatingly unsentimental; still, the loss of my wedding ring would cause a hitch in my curtsey. It’s not so much what the ring symbolizes—as I often suggest to Byron, we should discreetly divorce and then, in thirty years, announce our ruse to those in our lives for whom approval and acceptance are—queerly!– linked to legality. It irks me that millions don’t care to consider marriage is perhaps more about reassuring those around the couple (and providing right of access to each other in times of crisis) than it is about providing a source of sustained commitment between the two involved. My ring is not some Precious that remands our love. Even bare, my fingers would itch to run through my beau’s hair.

Rather, I would mourn the loss of my ring because I loved the day Byron and I ran on the Root River Trail and ended at the jeweler’s cottage shop. Together, we talked through ideas, first entertaining a thought about rings in Japanese Mokume Gane style but ultimately going with the artist’s idea for making a design that was reflective of the rain pattern on a kimono. I loved that we got a lesson in metallurgy and how to make randomness out of specifics. I loved that day, so I love my ring. I would be sad to lose it.

Of course, the loss of the ring wouldn’t negate the marriage. Even without the symbolic thing to show the world, the life event still occurred. Even without a kimono-inspired pattern of rain speckling the ring on my finger, I still had a beautiful day on the Root River Trail, ending it, most importantly, with a bowl of ice cream from the shop next to the jeweler. Even without the life event of a ceremony in which the rain rings played a major role, my adoration of Byron would remain fixed. It’s about the feeling, not the ceremony, not the ring.

Then again, I might just be getting crustier with each passing year. Flowing counter to my thinking are the 2.3 million couples who marry every year in the United States, averaging an outlay of $20,000 each as they agonize over sizes of blooms and varieties of mauve, full of certitude that the perfection of a single day prognosticates continued rightness for sixty ensuing years. Pressed into albums across the planet are paper napkins inscribed with remnant benedictions of bolstering fact: “Jason and Martha Sue united in love June 19th, 1996.”

Archeologically, this napkin is an intriguing artifact. As a talisman of happiness, it’s highly suspect.

I am bemused by the emphasis put on memorial iconography and even more bemused—confounded, even—by the emphasis put on commemorative actions. When the two intersect, I have to resort to deep yogic breathing (in for a count of five; out for a count of ten); on more than one occasion, I’ve found myself in the midst of wedding congregants, many of whom have paid several thousand dollars to get their entire families to the “destination,” buy the specified fancy clothes, and drop their suitcases in one of the reserved block of rooms. Sometimes, if the organist is fiddling around with his sheet music too long before beginning the prelude, I even have time to look at the guy next to me and muse, with a long, slow exhale, “Poor sod. When you sat down next to the groom in math class your freshman year of college and tossed out a casual, ‘Do you have an extra pencil?”, I bet you never envisioned a day when you’d have to take out a new line of credit just to prove your unflinching support of his life choices.”

Then I wonder, “Why do so many couples conflate the lavishness of the wedding with the success of the marriage?”

Then I wonder if I’ll be able to dodge the receiving line and if the reception will be so rude as to house a cash bar.

Speaking of things that make me crusty.

A few hours later, I make a break for the door and dash out into the freedom of Not Wedding,

and a few days later, the expensive single-use dress takes up residence in a zippered bag,

and a few years after that, a baby is born, or counseling begins, or papers are filed,

and the next event happens, and the mountain of evidence that life is being lived grows. We’ve been active participants in our own lives. We’ve done some things. We’ve mattered.

The papers, tubs, boxes, albums corporealize the chimeraic.

What’s so fascinating about all this is that these tendencies are common to all cultures and peoples. On every continent, and not just with weddings, humans manufacture fuss and bother to create touchstones, to define moments in time, to assign thrill to a set of hours.

We try to get our hands around our days, to grasp them, so that they can be plucked, parsed, worried, appreciated, felt, weighed. We want to quantify, to catalogue, to compile drawers of mementos–so that we can continue to thrum with the resonance of the special. Public, shared experiences confirm our worth and place us into collective memory. After each event, there is the archiving: we count and hold and record the minutiae of “I did this.”

We go on a three-week vacation. Some mark their mileage with every filling of the gas tank and track per gallon achievement.

We weigh ten pounds less than three years ago. Some log every calorie consumed and minute of exercise sweated.

We read five books last month. Some share their reactions in groups; others announce progress on Goodreads.

We swam twenty laps. Some track their splits with every length.

2,976 people died. Some write books about the heartbreaking loss of a single individual.

Despite all of this—despite all of all of this: I would argue that we are more connected to each other by our untold moments than those we organize and announce. You had a wedding. I had a wedding. You went to your grandma’s funeral. I went to my grandma’s funeral. You went to Yosemite. I went to Yosemite. Someone hit you. Someone hit me. Yes, yes, yes. These commonalities are the yarns that knit tight the degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude into a beautiful, tangled spinning ball.

But isn’t at least 60% of life beating with moments that are unremarkable? That belong to you alone? That aren’t worth commemorating? That you would never think or want to share with someone else?

Our bathroom moments, for example, are not the stuff of sharing—unless you live in a frat house or are unfortunate enough to stumble upon me enjoying a loo amongst the trees when I’m out for a run. We also don’t care to detail publicly those quirky little non-scatological incidents of the bathroom: of trying to hang a new roll of toilet paper but dropping the entire contraption and having it skitter out of reach as we sit, cemented to the porcelain oval by business-in-progress…of retiring for a private yet colossal go-to-pieces in the middle of a family gathering…of tweezing a chin…of crawling around with a Kleenex in hand, swiping at accumulated hairs congregating in the corners, sink, shower drain.

Nor do we jot in our diaries or publish in the newspaper thoughts entertained while parking in front of the grocery store; while tying our shoes; while unpacking our lunch bags; while walking the dog. It’s the non-event times of our lives—the ones we never turn into a punchline-littered monologue to be shared at holiday celebrations—that unite us most profoundly.

All those things you’ve never told anyone about,

all those times you opened a drawer and stuffed in the clean laundry

all those times you affixed your signature to the line at the bottom

all those times your heart hurt, and you lay on your bed alone and cried your lids puffy

all those times you opened the fridge and ate three grapes

all those times you absentmindedly ripped a leaf into pieces

I’ve got them, too. I wasn’t there for yours, but they’re mine, too. They’ve never brushed against each other, but we share completely our discrete experiences.

It’s hard work to mull over moments in my life no one knows about. They are private trices not because they are special, nor that I hoard them unto myself, but more that they happened, and then I forgot to remember. They are mundane, flitting, quiet.

I forget to remember, and there’s no inscribed napkin that reads “Dusty Dashboard united in cleaning with Windex and Paper Towel, July 6th, 2004” to remind me.

The essence of these instants is not so much that I was alone—the definition of the unvoiced moment doesn’t limit participation to a single soul. In many of my “no one knows” moments, others were present, but they wouldn’t know that my brain would store them as part of a memory flash. Fundamental to these ticks belonging only to me is that I never put words to them or recounted them to anyone who is ongoingly in my life. As I think back and try to park myself in the moments that, say, my husband has never heard about as we shovel wild rice salad into our mouths, my kids have never heard recounted during a long car trip, my gal pals have never been regaled with over a lavender martini,

I realize that many of them are moments of intimacy

of questions that wonder “Do you like this?”

But just as many are moments of tears or fears

of watching the end of a beloved television series

of waking up in the night with a start, certain someone is standing at the foot of the bed

of stubbing a toe and needing to lean on the kitchen counter until the pain subsides.

Yet the most interesting “no one knows” moments, to me, are not those that rely on heightened emotion or adrenaline to gain their permanence in memory

I have a deep appreciation for those that are purely nothing moments. You know the ones. They fill most of your days.

Here’s one of my nothings; by the act of my articulating it, does it become something?

The night I turned 30, the Oscars were on,

and I sat in front of the television in black leggings, making a pair of snowshoes.

I was trying to challenge myself, in terms of tackling the spatial puzzle that is weaving cord correctly on snowshoes,

and, to be perfectly honest, I was also trying to become someone who could say, casually, in conversation, that she’d made her own snowshoes.

I was trying to become worthy of a certain kind of person.

But most telling was my fascination with what women were wearing to the big awards show as I held the lacing diagram up in front of my face, again, then again. How was I to remember over-under-around when Halle Berry’s bodice was sheer?

Finally, feeling proud that I had figured out the correct knotting, I lit a match, so as to melt off the end of the cord,

and a drip from the melt landed on my leg,

burning a hole through my leggings

and sizzling my skin.

I wore those leggings with the hole for years after

and never really told anyone how I’d sat on greasy carpet in a darkly wood-paneled house,


as I turned 30,

hoping I was making myself more interesting–

but mostly, most honestly, enjoying rooting for Julianne Moore as Best Supporting Actress in Boogie Nights.

No one else has known of this before,

just as no one has ever heard about how I once babysat for a family that, technically, was on my sister’s roster,

but she was busy that night, and I had been deemed suitable back-up,

and I was maybe 13.

The kids had gone to bed.

I was only five doors up from my own house

with a few more hours to pass until the parents came home.

So I looked over their bookshelves

found Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Charles Manson murders

and started reading.

An hour later, I was terrified,

having been opened up to possibilities I’d never before realized,

and I paced the hallway outside the children’s rooms

back and forth

not able to stop reading

not able to stop being horrified

certain they were coming for me

for us

knowing I had to defend the front line

but that, despite my fighting, they would kill me. And then I would never be pretty or loved. I needed more time, if I was ever going to get to pretty or loved.

Just as no one knows about the time I went to get my Austen on and headed to the theater, by myself, to see Sense and Sensibility. At the end of the film, the lights rose, and I saw a colleague from the composition department standing up; she had come to the movie by herself, too. We caught eyes, exchanged greetings, and I thought, “We both have cubicles in the same shared office; we could have arranged to see this movie together.” On the heels of that thought came this: “But I’m pretty sure neither of us really wanted to do that. It’s a safe wager that we both, in truth, are awfully glad we didn’t try to turn professional collegiality into forced society. Her eyes were just as glad as mine, when we exchanged glances, that we’d each come alone. By sticking to ourselves, the movie was about the movie and not trying to talk to each other until the lights dimmed.”

Continuing to remember the unremembered, I see myself

listening to a choir of summer bugs hum while lying in the sole patch of shade under the tree in the corner of the yard;

taking a spoon out into the garage, where the deep freeze lived, and standing in front of the open freezer, eating the softened corners of ice cream directly out of the box;

dropping to the floor of my office and doing push-ups;

pulling into a rest stop off the highway, turning of Shawn Colvin, tipping the seat back, and trying to catch a cat nap;

trying to open my electric garage door during a power outage;

riding my bike down Rehberg Avenue with a bassoon balanced on the back;

using sticky tack to hang up a poster of Hall & Oates;

flipping over a couch cushion to cover up a stain;

sitting down on the curb to empty a pebble out of my shoe;

swimming into the shallows and “walking” on my hands, then elbows, to shore;

being a very-specific someone who, unpinned from her narrative of Major Life Events, could be anyone.

Recently, my husband and I both read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, a story of how the author repaired her derailed life by spending three months hiking the Western United States’ Pacific Crest Trail. As Byron and I discussed our reactions to this book, I noted that her story of hiking the trail was more about all the times she got off the trail—the times she met up with others, re-entered civilization, shared a drink, opened a re-supply box, took a shower—than her days on the trail. “It’s like she’s trying to write a book about how the hiking fixed her, but the truth is, the book ends up being about how the interactions and culture of that place changed her,” I argued.

“I suppose,” Byron agreed. “But any long-distance story is ultimately pretty boring. When I think back on the six-week bike trip I did [from Seattle to Minneapolis], I don’t remember the countless minutes of pedaling and watching the asphalt blur by. I remember the people I encountered. I remember where I stayed. I remember really good meals. I remember the unusual, the rare occurrence. What I remember most from my bike trip is all the times I wasn’t biking. Strayed couldn’t make a book out of describing every tree and rock she saw while hiking, even if it was the peaceful remove of just those things that healed her.”

Fair enough.

Here then. Try this. Our weddings and funerals and graduations are the times we pull off the trail, get off the bike, and the bulletins and brochures and flowers and plaques are the pages in the book reminding us of those stops.

I still maintain, though, that it’s only when we stash our bikes and set down our books–when we forget we’re on a journey or that narratives can be recorded–when we recline against a tree and absentmindedly crack open a pistachio and drop the shells to the ground, unaware of thought or action–when we release completely out of attentiveness and shift into the no-mindedness of just being–it is only then

that we all become One.

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Cupcake Wars

A whimsical side-adventure to our road trip this summer was Cupcake Wars. I’d like to say I forced my family into participation because that would make me sound strong and powerful and as though I wield a Dominating Will,

but if I did try to convince you my family needed to be forced to eat cupcakes, then my pants would be on fire, and I’m not in the mood to deal with scar tissue. Truth is there was no grousing in response to this family challenge–although Byron would have bowed out earlier than the rest of us because he’s the kind of effer who can look at a sugary baked good and say, “No thanks. Don’t need any.”

I tried one time to say those words, yet the strangled gargle that emerged from my larynx ended up sounding like, “Please, sir, may I have another?”

‘Twas I, therefore, who declared war on the cupcakes. Too many of those little buggers running around, smearing their buttercream on the walls, taunting children on the playground. They needed to be taught a lesson, hardcore.

We launched our first attack at Georgetown Cupcake, the business featured in The Learning Channel’s program D.C. Cupcakes (wherein two very nice-seeming sisters awkwardly deliver “no, these aren’t scripted” barbs aimed at creating tension where none exists; the show is such a flatline, in fact, that I neither scooted to the edge of my seat nor quivered nervously during the episode when they made a dog sculpture out of cupcakes and just before The Reveal, the pup’s fondant nose fell off. Normally, a nose falling off elicits from me at least a wee gasp; I may be a Will Dominatrix, but I’m not entirely unfeeling).

The storefront is quite nice, and once inside, one does feel that a television program could break out at any moment.

We ordered a sampler of gorgeous-looking cupcakes:

Then, having received a communique from the general at the front lines (“Reinforcements needed at Sprinkles!”), we moved our battalion down the road to the next point of engagement:

While Georgetown Cupcakes was founded in–haha! I’ll never tell!–Sprinkles Cupcakes has its roots in Los Angeles and is much-touted as the go-to shop for various celebrities, including Katie Holmes. If eating a Sprinkles cupcake could assure me of the kind of happy life Holmes has been enjoying, count me

…hey. wait. a. minute.

Just when I started thinking about Katie and divorces and Scientology and crazy-intense alien husbands and the collateral damage inflicted on children, my attention was caught, magpie-like, by something shiny.

Or at least what constitutes shiny to someone with a sweet tooth.

Lots of times, “shiny” is covered with sprinkles. Especially when it’s from a shop named Sprinkles.

It only took me a few days to riddle that one out.

With ten cupcakes from two famed shops in hand, we sat outside and cut each cupcake into four bites. After the first few bits of goodness flew into our maws, we looked at each other and began the voting. Who would win the war? WHOOOOOOOO?

“This chocolate ganache one is okay.”

“The cookies and cream one isn’t bad.”

“The vanilla one does the  job.”

“The lemon one seems all right.”

To a one, these expensive, ballyhooed cupcakes were


They looked great. However, as is the case with most cupcakes I’ve ever met, they were no piece of cake. Always, no matter the advertising or cost, I’ve found that cupcakes are…okay. Yet I continue to believe that somewhere a cupcake exists that’s something extraordinary, something sock-knocking-off-ish, something that causes me to yell “Wow!” with such enthusiasm that crumbs poof out into the air to punctuate my exclamation.

Because I’m not easily daunted, particularly when it comes to important scientific-type research, I insisted we also try the cupcakes at New York City’s Magnolia Bakery. These sweets were made famous by the ladies of Sex and the City; on occasion, Carrie Bradshaw would extract her ankles from behind her ears long enough to belt a garbage bag around her torso and teeter her Louboutins over to the bakery so as to enjoy cupcake and conversation during her refractory period.

We bought a couple of the Magnolia’s “Grand Central” cupcakes, which we then sat and ate in front of Rockefeller Center.

The Magnolia cupcakes, like the others, were fine. They were a little more of fine than Georgetown Cupcakes’ products, and they were distinctly better than Sprinkles’.

In each case, the cake didn’t take the cake. The frosting did. Magnolia had the best buttercream, and that fact, coupled with the bonus chocolate medallions stuck on top, gave NYC the win.

Not only did we declare peace by parceling up Europe–the spoils of every war, right?–we also drafted The Treaty of Fat Thighs, which vowed eternal detente with Cupcake. From this day forward, we shall leave Cupcake well and goodly alone. Its borders are safe from future incursions by this faction.

It might do well to lock up its medallions and buttercream, though, in the event that our hunger reignites.

However, it’s a fair guess that, with Gourmet Ice Cream and Silky Smooth Cheesecake flanking Cupcake’s borders, my family will wage its next war in richer territory.

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It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story.–Agatha Christie

It’s 55 degrees in Duluth today, fallen leaves are starting to cover the ground, the kids and I have been back to school for two weeks now, and we’ve started to close the windows at night.

So maybe it’s time to wrap up the recounting of my summer vacation?

When last I left you, we were Smithsonian- and museum-izing our way across the capital, remarking that it might be August in D.C., but it pretty much felt only a tidge more hot and muggy than Duluth’s anomalous summer had. The added benefit of D.C. is that places are air-conditioned (it’s the rare Duluth home that has any sort of AC), so we were able to bask in climate-controlled air even at night as we slept.

The next leg of our trip headed us out of Maryland and up to Connecticut where…gasp…gulp…we were going to stay for four nights in the home of

a fellow blogger.

Someone I’d never met before.

Someone who eased back on her blogging and commenting a few years ago, to the point that our communications have been 100% Facebook-based in recent times. And when I posted a query on FB a few months ago, asking for tips about where to stay in NYC relatively-cheaply, she commented, joking, “Well, we’ll be on vacation in August, so you could come stay in our house. We’re only an hour by train from the city.”

A few weeks later, after I’d spent some hours looking at our options of places to stay in NYC and realizing that even two nights would be cost prohibitive for a family of four living on one teacher’s salary, I messaged Joking Blogger Cum Facebook Friend and asked, “Any chance you were serious about offering up a place to stay?” As it turned out, her family would still be at home during our time frame, but she–warmly, generously, astonishingly–invited us to come stay anyhow. Noting that things might be a bit cramped with our family of four plus her family of four, she wrote with her typical easy attitude, “We’ll just put you in the living room. No problem.”

In all our subsequent messages, her kindness and helpful spirit confirmed for me that this community of blog writers and readers comprises a host of amazing human beings, the kind who reaffirm all sorts of things that occasionally need reaffirming. Like, you know, that people can knock the breath out of you by being terrific.

It was a full day’s driving to get from Maryland up to Generous Blogger’s home outside New Haven. Her entire family greeted us with natural warmth and charm, which is saying something, as her kids are teenagers. But every last one of them is good natured and upbeat and happy to chat. Better yet, they all really like each other. It was, therefore, great fun to head out to New Haven with them that night to partake of the famed New Haven pizza that Byron remembered having 15 years ago and had never gotten over.

The next day, we took the train from CT into Grand Central Station. Having spent so much time in museums in D.C., the plan for New York was to stay away from museums and just hit the place as full-on stare-at-the-place tourists. Allegra’s had a dream of visiting NYC for about half her vast twelve years, and she wanted to see the streets that so many of the characters in her books moved through, to pick up the vibe of the city that appears in movies and tv shows, to take a gander at the buildings that have housed so many luminaries throughout history.

Paco just wanted to go to FAO Schwarz and see the big piano (which, in reality, he found to be a big old “blah”).

Our first stop as tourists was to head to Times Square, a place I hadn’t been since I was 17. As is true of everywhere in the city, it sure looks better than it did a few decades ago. Quite pleasantly, Times Square wasn’t actually all that crowded, and it was much less dingy and menacing-feeling than it had been in the ’80s when I rubbernecked there as a teenager.

After a fair bit of walking around, we got two-day tickets to ride the double-decker on-and-off buses that tote tourists around the city. For us, at the point we were at in our trip overall, it was bliss to sit and listen to well-informed explanations of the neighborhoods, boroughs, and architecture. Truly, I had never gotten an overview of the city in such a way before, and it was revelatory.

At one point, the bus sat idling next to The Dakota building, and the guide pointed out where John Lennon had been shot. As was the case throughout the entire journey, Allegra took in the information and then turned to ask, “Wait. What? Wasn’t he one of the Beatles? And he was shot?”

Yup. We explained that bit of tragedy, and then Allegra noted, “Goll. This whole trip is like an Assassination Tour. Lincoln, JFK, Robert Kennedy, the attempt on Reagan, Martin Luther King Junior…and now John Lennon? Who else has been assassinated?”

Unable to remember Presidents Garfield and McKinley without Wikipedia nearby, I only responded, “Well, there was an archduke named Ferdinand who was killed. But let’s not talk about that now. Can we just look at the park instead?”

Satisfied temporarily, Allegra kicked back until we neared Battery Park and reached the moment of deciding if we’d take the free Staten Island Ferry out to look at the Statue of Liberty or if we’d pay a bunch of money and go to Ellis Island.

Insider Parenting Advice: when your middle schooler gets strongly excited to visit Ellis Island because “I’m a social studies girl! I love immigrant stories!”, well, you cough up the money and go stand where millions of pre-Americans did before you.

On the ferry, I had a moment of seeing post-9/11 New York in fairly stark fashion:

At the museum on Ellis Island, we listened to the audio tour about all the tests hopeful immigrants were put through upon arrival, from eye to literacy exams. Staring at the room where so many tired people carrying children and bags stood, waiting and wondering if they’d ever step onto the fabled “streets of gold,” was–as I recalled from my childhood visit when I was about my kids’ ages–very affecting.

As we boarded the return ferry, I held forth about the beauty that is Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Between that book and The Diary of Anne Frank, Allegra’s got her first couple book report selections lined up for 7th grade.

She spent the ride back to the city reading through the Ellis Island brochure.

After our first day in the city, it was a blessed relief to get back to Generous Blogger’s house in Connecticut and have her ask,  “Any chance you want a nightcap?”

Scotch it was.

The next day would be our second and last day of heading in to NYC, so we started off by eating fluffy bagels as big as our faces. Then we went to the Top of the Rock (30 Rockefeller Center) and gazed out at the Empire State Building and the entire city skyline.

Our afternoon was devoted to riding the on-and-off bus around the Uptown Loop, so we saw Harlem and brownstones and the facades of famous museums before hopping off at the end of the day and walking through a corner of Central Park. I was blown away. I know I’ve been in the park before (when I was 2, we lived for a summer in Manhattan), but I hadn’t experienced it as an adult. Lawsy Moses, but that place is gorgeous. Paco was particularly taken with the plein air painter:

To the last one of us, we were all particularly taken with all the everything that is New York City.

Rounding out that big day in the city was a gift, awaiting us on our bed in the living room of the Connecticut house: a bottle of scotch.

The next day, our last day before turning the nose of the car westward, would be low-key, with us driving along the Connecticut shore and dipping into Rhode Island (so’s to add another state to the kids’ Life Lists of States).

We went to Mystic, CT, for lunch, and ate at a place recommended by Jane and Michael Stern in their Road Food series.

Paco discovered his like of a corn fritter dipped in maple syrup:

We discovered the state border, going and coming:

We got out of the car and blinked our eyes at the Atlantic:

We did a double take at and a drive through of the gorgeousness of the cemetery in Stonington, CT:

Then we were done. Ready to call it Go Home time. It took us four days of driving to get back to Minnesota. After seeing so much and staring at so much over the course of the previous weeks, it was a welcome break to stop and spend a night in Ohio with our friends Gil, Claudia, and Leo. Gil and Byron worked together at a couple environmental education centers back in the ’90s. Now Gil works at his family’s cheese factory; Claudia, his Austrian wife, is a horse trainer. Leo, age two, works full time as an examiner of wheeled things.

Not only were easy conversation, good food, and the joy of being together a boon, so was the swimming pool–just what we needed after weeks of asphalt and glass cases:

Before leaving Ohio the next day, we went into Cleveland to tour Gil’s family’s cheese factory. Not only did we rock the look–it was fascinating to see the internal workings of how to make mozzarella, string cheese, ricotta…

Finally, twenty days after we left home, we pulled up and parked the car next to our garage. Immediately, I started dead-heading flowers and pulling weeds; we spent the night yanking out dirty clothes and running loads of laundry; we took stock of our food supplies; we did all the reorienting that is part of transitioning back into regular life.

Under all the bustle, though,

we felt a thrumming of gratitude

for all that we’d seen and done and absorbed


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“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”–Julia Child

We may have a whole lot of Kleenex-tasting bread in the U.S., and I may feel shouty and stabby when well-off white men start making assertions about “legitimate rape,” and I might have to jam my tongue between my front teeth and hold it there when I see adult women wearing Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts non-ironically,

but every now and then I can holler, loudly and proudly and freely, that there are at least a few great things in the United States. Our bread, legislators, and fashion may have never been touched by the shadow of Quality, but damn if we don’t have some fine museums. Equally–more–importantly, our road trip this summer reminded me how heartily I value the value that there is greatness when museums are free to the public.

I refer, specifically, to The Smithsonian. Made up of 19 museums, most of them in Washington D.C., The Smithsonian is open 364 days a year, and admission is free every last one of them. There’s something smart and noble about this. It sends a message to the public at large that they matter; they have a right; they should come; this stuff is important.

My only regret about our time in D.C. is that we only had a week and, therefore, couldn’t see them all. However, we did manage to hit five of the Smithsonians (plus a few for-pay museums, too). We all enjoyed the American History Museum the most, starting with this display of the actual Woolworth’s counter where the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins took place in 1960. Those brave four college students who were refused service and, in response, launched a rule-changing movement of passive resistance (after six months of protest, the counter was de-segregated) actually sat their forceful rear ends right here, in these actual seats. On the day of our visit, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman explaining the counter’s history to her nine-year-old and twelve-year-old children.

How embarrassing for her.

We then headed into the “American Stories” exhibit, which uses more than one hundred items to create a sense of how objects can tell the story of a country’s history. Dorothy’s ruby red slippers are there. So are Anton Apolo Ohno’s speed skates. So is this guy (speaking of things to delight the Wild Paco):

While I love Kermit as much as the next Rabid Muppet Fan, I have to admit that my very favorite item in the “American Stories” exhibit was this:

Before reading this plaque, I’d had no idea that crawling was ever discouraged as a bad habit. Here I’d thought for decades that colonial women had such clean floors thanks to their creeping broods of babies keeping the joint well dusted! How wrong I was.

I also really liked this creeping baby because–obviously–the point of her is not that she’s creeping but that she’s CREEPY AS HELL.

I actually had to deter Paco from coming over to see the creeping creepy baby, lest he never sleep again. Pointing at a random wall, I yelled,  “Look, Paco! It’s Fozzy Bear nailing Miss Piggy!”

Once he recovered from that Mama-Manufactured trauma, we headed into the “Within These Walls” exhibit, which the museum describes thusly:

“At the center of this gallery is a partially reconstructed house that stood for 200 years at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts, about 30 miles north of Boston. The house and the exhibition that surrounds it tell the stories of five families who lived there over the years and made history in their kitchens and parlors, through everyday choices and personal acts of courage and sacrifice.”

To be able to walk around the house and stare inside the rooms while reading about the families who had lived there was, well, my idea of Heaven. If only there’d been beer and a huge steak, it would’ve been perfect. I could pretty much stare at a house and read about its previous inhabitants all day long, or at least until Fozzy’s done nailing Miss Piggy. Whichever comes first.

My attention was snagged by the display of lace-making technique; the wife in one of the earliest families in the house supplemented income by making lace.

All those wooden pegs make my head hurt. Kind of makes milking a cow seem like a walk to the barn in comparison, eh?

An absolute highlight of the American History Museum–an exhibit I remember seeing when I was about Allegra’s age–is the display of all the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns and various party dresses. While I recoiled with faintly-remembered horror at the sight of Roslyn Carter’s ’70s Indian/harem/flowy weirdness dress (which, on the model, was one of Byron’s favorites; note to self: when Byron tells you that you look nice, go change clothes), I was enamored of quite a few of the gowns, particularly the bedazzled bit of flapperishness worn by Grace Coolidge. She later gave it to her maid, who gave it to her daughter. I always knew I should’ve been a maid’s daughter.

Here’s a clear photo of it, followed by my blurry attempt; at least with my attempt, though, you can see how the dresses are lined up all next to each other. They don’t actually float around a bare room by themselves, as the museum photo would have you believe…although Paco would have really loved that, if they had.

Every day of our week in D.C., we took the train in from Takoma Park, Maryland, where we were staying (quite cheaply, for the D.C. area; thanks to all who suggested we book using airbnb.com!). We bought a week-long pass for the Metro and rode it in and out of the heart of the city. Resultingly, most of my memories of D.C. are images like these:

One of the days in D.C., our friends Chip and Rob came to Takoma Park to hang out for a few hours on their way from Virginia to Delaware. Chip used to be one of Byron’s roommates when they both worked at the environmental learning center, and Chip is the kids’ godpapa (he and Rob are getting married next summer, so Rob will be grandfathered into godparenting, as well); they both qualify as The Finest Guys Ever:

Because we’d spent the daylight hours with Chip and Rob, we decided to head into the city for the evening and do a dusk-hours walk of the memorials. That evening was the one time it rained during our week there.


But even rainshowers can’t keep a good man–or family–down, and Martin Luther King Jr. still made our hearts beat a little differently:

We also stared at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial

The famous Vietnam Memorial was more of a “touch” experience, as it’s made of black rock, and it was completely dark by the time we got to it. There was minimal lighting, which we used it to help our fingers trace their way across the thousands and thousands of names of men and women killed during that war. Even more moving (and hard to photograph) was the Korean War Memorial, which is designed so that the soldiers appear to be wading through a rice paddy:

Another day, we headed to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and enjoyed not only the presidential portrait gallery (as with the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns, we each had to choose our favorite and least favorite portraits–not presidents, mind you, but the actual paintings. Byron and I both hate Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrait. The kids both chose as a favorite, um, Lyndon B. Johnson’s. Johnson himself called it “the ugliest thing I ever saw”).

Once we’d all agreed we like Bill Clinton’s choice of Chuck Close as his portrait painter

…we moved into other areas of the museum. Below is an installation of Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.” Basically, the artist has video footage running in every state that reflects what a person could see through the window of a passing car. For Idaho, he has footage of potatoes kind of floating around. Then some more floating potatoes. Plus some potatoes. Just there, floating. Waiting to be seen through a car window.

Listen, Paik. I lived in Idaho for awhile, and not once when I was driving around did I see potatoes floating, untethered, like some sort of First Lady’s inaugural gown.

A special exhibit at the American Art Museum is called “The Art of Video Games.” At the very least, it kept Paco interested and allowed members of the family to become part of the display.

Yet another day in our riches-filled week in Washington D.C., we took a tour of the Capitol building; we’d contacted Minnesota senator Al Franken’s office (yes, the same Al Franken that used to be on Saturday Night Live) and arranged the thing. A perky intern named Hannah Anderson–she couldn’t have had a more Minnesotan name if it’d been written for an SNL sketch, in fact–took us around and showed us all sorts of pretty things.

After our time at the Capitol, we headed towards–brace yourself–another Smithsonian, this one the American Indian Museum. Mostly, we were going there because we’d been given a tip that it’s the best place in D.C. to eat lunch.

On our way to that museum, we walked through the botanical gardens. They grow some crazy-tall glass flowers in D.C.

The facade of the American Indian Museum is awesome. The food is better than awesome. It’s all based on tribal dishes from the various regions of the country, and it uses ingredients that–HAHA!–occur in nature. I could eat there every day for weeks and not get enough.

It’s good that we were well fueled by good food, as the week just kept rolling on. Another day we went to the Newseum, which is not part of the Smithsonian, but it’s worth the entrance fee. For example, visiting this museum gave us a chance to talk explicitly about the Berlin Wall with our children and communicate to them how devastating that divide was on a human level…and how many people risked and gave up their lives to escape from an existence without choices…and how exhilarated the entire world was when that wall came down. On the day of our visit, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman explaining the wall’s history to her nine-year-old and twelve-year-old children.

The entire Newseum is devoted to the force that is freedom of the press and to exploring the way journalism plays a role in our perceptions of history. Plus, the place has a great view of the Capitol from the top floor. We went out and hollered, “HELLOOOOOO, Hannah Anderson” a few times for good measure.

Back inside the Newseum, we were able to make a video of ourselves doing a news story. Rather than subject you to that, I offer up this photo as evidence that we are a microphone-wielding family who can tell you a few things about cherry blossoms:

Even after all these pictures and details about what we did and saw in D.C., I haven’t covered the half of it. Hence, you can understand why the kids looked like this every night:

On the day this picture was taken, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman tucking away her camera while muttering, “I just love their softy little selves so much.”

On our last afternoon, we went back to whence we started and did a quick revisit to the Museum of American History. An exhibit had opened just that day, an exhibit celebrating Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Her entire kitchen, the place where several of her famous tv programs were filmed, is now part of The Smithsonian. We looked at the exhibit and watched some footage of her old shows. Two weeks later, Paco mentioned casually, “You remember that Julia Child show we watched in the museum? The one where they were cooking and then taking apart a lobster? That was seriously interesting.”

Finally, after seven days and nights of toodling and touring, we packed up the car and sat down inside it for the first time since we’d arrived. We bid adieu to the house where we’d been staying…

…and we filed away our museum-fueled memories, ready to pull them out weeks, months, years later and think, “That was seriously interesting.”

Then we caught our collective breath and turned the car northwards: to Connecticut and New York City.

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East Coast Road Trip: From Pho to Chocolate Haha!

Today marks our last seven-hour stretch of driving for this fun, enriching, spirit-revitalizing road trip. By this evening, we should be back in Duluth, ready to think about hair cuts and eye appointments before the kids start school next week.

So, now that it’s almost over, I’m finally ready to go back and recap some more of the highlights. Rather than toss 45 photos all into a single post, let’s parcel them out over a few.

I left you last as we were about to head to Columbus, Ohio, and then into Pennsylvania for the Hershey factory.

Even after 20-odd days on the road, a definite highlight–a real “I’d completely return to Ohio just so I could go there again”–was Columbus’ indoor market, a place full of food-related stands offering up local and organic and artisan and YUMMY.

I was delighted to find a bottle of Voodoo Donuts maple bacon ale. Paco was delighted to find a pho stand so that he could slurp away at a bowl of his favorite anise-based broth:

After pho, beer, and bbq sandwiches, we left Columbus and headed to the canny bit of marketing that is Chocolateworld, in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I was happy to take the place for what it is, which means I chortled ceaselessly during our ride through the history of the company.

The tragedy in the photo below is that, shortly after I snapped it, that hay bale hurtled out of the mural and landed on Grandpa’s head there in the ride, giving him a neck sprain that even a two-foot Twizzler licorice vine couldn’t heal.

Paco and I decided to pay extra and do the “create your own candy bar” attraction; if I’d had my phone on me, I would have texted Allegra frantically and told her, “You do TOOO want to do this thing; it’s actually more fun than you thought it would be. It’s amazing. Buy a ticket. Get in here!” Unfortunately, I didn’t have my phone, so now she just has to look wistful whenever Paco and I rave about how unbelievably delightful it was to choose our fixin’s and send our plan through the line and then design packaging and retrieve it at the end.

Because Paco went with a dark chocolate base, I went for variety and chose the lesser-liked milk chocolate for mine. He did sprinkles, toffee crunch, and pretzel bits; I chose pretzel bits, semi sweet chocolate chunks, and almonds. The resulting bars were weighty and packaged in tins that, in future years, can hold all our lost teeth (those that rot out from too much sugar).

After Pennsylvania, we headed to the Washington DC area and spent a week basing out of the charming town of Takoma Park, Maryland (cheaper to stay there than in the city, and only a few train stops away from the heart of things).

Coming up in the next travel post: Smithsonian! Smithsonian! Smithsonian!

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…Or Maybe a Chunk At A Time

If you ever see an ad for “Wanted: Person to Post Picture of the Day,” do not let me apply.

That is a job at which I would fail miserably. However, I might make a go of “Wanted: Person to Toodle Around and Occasionally Share Moments of Her Toodles Digitally.” Whatever the wage per hour, I’d still be overpaid, of course.

So here I am, in a frame of mind to do some digital toodle-sharing. Truth be told, I’d like to post about thirty pictures, but I’m working on the elusive art of restraint–something that is anathema to all I am–and so I’m only allowing four pictures. We’ve been on the road for four days, after all, so it makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that we’ve been on the road for four days, and I have four photos to share…yet I have no photo from Day One or Day Four.

As I tell my children, “Maybe don’t get too analytical about what I say versus what I do. Maybe just view me as a full-throttle lesson in Going with the Flow.”

As part of my Restraint Program, I shall stop the blather and get down to it.

We departed Duluth on August 4th, leaving our house in the care of a gun-toting trainer of rabid pitbulls, so don’t even think about a break-in. My picture of the day would have been of Byron sipping his first-ever cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee; sometimes, in the middle of Wisconsin, there are few coffee choices, so we were forced to try out the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that has sooooo many people raving about it.

It was–how you say?–fine. Considering.

Day Two had us visiting the science museum in Chicago (after which we went out for a nice Turkish dinner with my college roomie and eternal great galpal, Colleen, and her partner, Tim). You know what I realized at the science museum, a place I recall being wildly excited about when I visited it as a kid?

I realized I can’t even fake being a science person. These places are billed as “interactive” and full of learning, and most of the time that I’m in them, I wish to be sitting on a bench, people watching, or else left alone to read a book for a few hours. On some level, I lack the natural curiosity of a scientist. So, um, sometimes there’s air and some moisture and an updraft, and something like a “vortex” happens. Okay. Now can I go read?

Fortunately, others in my family got more out of it:

While the fellas made tornadoes, Allegra and I quite liked the miniature diorama skyline of the city, complete with teeeeensy figures enjoying an afternoon on Lake Michigan:

Interestingly, one day later, when we’d gone to Navy Pier (tourist hell, really), I experienced miniature once again, this time from my vantage point high up on the Ferris Wheel. I was adamant that I wanted to ride the wheel, having read Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City and gotten the back story on the creation of the Ferris Wheel for the world’s fair of 1893 in Chicago. To ride a wheel that is a direct tribute to that invention was very, very cool. Being able to look down and pretend I was seeing the entire world as a miniature diorama was just as exciting.

My biggest thrill of the last four days has been the art deco, intricate, ever-changing-yet-very-harmonious skyline of Chicago. We took the train into the city from our hotel, and then we took water taxi and trolley to get around the downtown area. Thus far, I’d say the late afternoon water taxi ride, just as the light was hitting its best slant, has been my biggest highlight.

Today, my picture of the day, had I taken one, would have been of the line of semi-trucks parked at a rest stop in the middle of Indiana. Due to the hoards of trucks toting goods around the country, I had some white-knuckle driving on the interstate. With construction narrowing the lanes, and being hemmed in by trucks from all directions, I was glad to hand over the wheel to Byron. He glided us into Columbus, Ohio, where we sleep tonight.

Tomorrow, we go to the much-recommended Columbus market and then drive six more hours to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we’ll spend a night readying ourselves to tour

the Hershey’s Factory in Hershey, PA, the next day.

If I don’t post for a few days, it’ll be because I’m still slowly reviving from the sugar coma.

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Quick Favor

We’re packing up before heading out tomorrow on our three-week road trip to the East Coast. First stop will be three nights in Chicago. My hope is to put up some Picture of the Day posts along the way,

but first:

I’ve got scaffolding in place for the Writing for Social Media class that I’ll be teaching online this Fall semester; now I’m at the point where I’m writing up weekly announcements and assignments, and I’m struggling as I try to explain what makes for a “good” blog post versus a, um, “crap” blog post.

Since most of you who leave comments are bloggers (or, clearly, blog readers) yourselves, I wonder if I could ask you to reflect back on your own experience with writing and reading blogs. Are there posts you’ve encountered that stand out to you as something superior? If so, why? What is it about a post that makes it memorable? Can you give me any specific examples, from actual posts?

On the flip side, when you’ve come across blogs that are painful to read, that perhaps feel like a waste of your time, what is it that turns you off? What leaves you shuddering or vowing never to return? Again, the more specific, the better.

Thanks in advance! The success or failure of a blog post is a hard thing to articulate to students, I tell you…

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Midsummer Litany of Complaints

After doing a home exchange with a couple in Minneapolis last weekend–

something that became possible in 2010 when we ran ads looking for an exchange for my sabbatical year…ads that ultimately yielded no viable international exchanges, but which did turn up one wonderful nibble from a travel writer who lives three hours south of our home town, and it is she and her husband with whom we’ve now swapped houses a couple of times

our beer cellar (aka “the fridge”) is well stocked with stouts and IPAs that our rube selves can’t purchase here in our outstate burg but which we can lay in during trips to the metropolis. We had a great time in the Big City, swimming at an idyllic beach, sleeping with air conditioning units in the bedrooms, eating tremendous Thai food, enjoying visits from sister-in-law, niece, mother- and father-in-law, dreamily licking scoops of Norwegian Chai creaminess at a gourmet ice cream shop.

Additionally, after a first creaky week of trying to remember how it is we all relax together, summer quickly hit its easy stride; thus, the last month and a half has been full of mellow togetherness. Allegra likes to have her hair braided. She’s played a lot of soccer. Paco, who decided he loves JRR Tolkien because they share a birthday, has been reading The Hobbit and planning his Halloween costume as Frodo (the most intricate part of which will involve deer hide feet with doll hair glued to them). He also earned a huge bruise on his forearm last week at archery camp. Once I realized I could read my future by gazing into the depths of that bruise, I bought the kid a camouflage-patterned arm guard; the big payoff of this purchase is that I now get to approach him several times each day with false alarm, hollering, “WHERE’D YOUR ARM GO? I CAN’T SEE YOUR ARM! HOW WILL YOU EVER GET DRUNK WHEN YOU’RE 22 AND DECIDE TO GET A BUGS BUNNY TATTOO ON YOUR FOREARM WHEN YOU DON’T. EVEN. HAVE. A. FOREARM.? THE COMPLETE LACK OF FOREARM IN YOUR LIFE IS THE SADDEST STORY EVER TOLD!”

He forgets to roll his eyes at me because then I take him swimming.

After that, he helps Byron make even more batches of “Olympics Opening Ceremony” ice cream (we plan to move the tv out to the deck, eat grilled pizzas, sip dark and hoppy beers, and, yup, soak ourselves in three kinds of ice cream as we watch all those Phelpsian ripped abs cut their way across the Olympic pool).

When we’re not eating and drinking and swimming and home exchanging, we’re planning our upcoming three-week road trip to the East Coast.

So far, this hardly sounds like a Litany of Complaints, does it?

I’d best get down to bitching.

Here’s a bad thing: the fruit flies. They swarm our kitchen and muddy my beer.

Yes. Yes. I hand you a tissue now for with which to dab at your compassionately-weeping eyes.

Moreover: it’s hot and humid as Satan’s boy bits packed into a Speedo, yet there is not even the upside of my skin looking dewy and youthful. Rather, I simply look tragically slick and in need of a full-body wet wipe.

Oh, and let me not forget: I can hardly bear, in such humidity, to have fabric touching my body; ergo, I minimize Fabric Touchy by wearing tank tops.

Yet tank tops are a hard look for a soft lady to pull off.

So I go to Pilates class. Where the Pilates Drill Sergeant makes us flip over our Bosu balls and do moves like this:

Except I am not this taut, focused specimen. Rather, I am the freckled lady in the back row sporting a huge Frowny Face and emitting an admirable string of swears, not the least of which contains the curse “…may you be baptized as a Mormon posthumously.”

Then the day after Pilates class, my glutes are sore like a Mormon reading this post, and pretty much I can’t even sit down onto the toilet without bellowing, “You may not have a forearm, Paco, but at least your arse is free of protest, so count yourself lucky!”

Poor kid only ever understands every third utterance coming out of Mommy’s mouth.

Beyond my aching tukis, there’s the fact that six of my–wait a minute, counting here…seven plus three, carry the two–roughly ten fingers are currently burning with the after effects of weeding stinging nettles, sans gloves. Listen, if I can do push-ups on an upside down Bosu ball, you had better believe I can yank out a few thistles bare-handed.

I can also whine about the pain for a full day after encountering the toxins.

Moses Henry, but such a sting! After the first nettle took a pinch, Paco made me head into the house and wash my hands thoroughly before he applied an antibacterial bandaid.

(See how I’m the anti- helicopter parent? Everyone wants to rant about overprotective, hovering parents these days, but I confound that line of thought by turning my children into the parents. You may address all letters of congratulations regarding this tactic to “Clever Buttsore Mommy Jocelyn.” The mail carrier is well acquainted with that salutation and drops off a bag of fan mail daily at noon. It is a very small bag.)

Just when I think that the prickling fingers and screaming rear cheeks are as bad as it can get, I hop into the shower in an effort to squeegee off the top layer of sweat, only to squeal


at the eeky pain of raw skin being pelted by forceful water.

As it turns out, the hot and the thick blanket of air and the gardening and sweating have resulted in a heat rash in the places where my elastic waistband has touched my flesh.

Indeed, my equator is a dotted line of Magellan’s explorations from belly button to spine.

Ain’t nothing that highlights a girl’s soft white underbelly better than a slash of angry weals.

The upshot of these complaints, from fruit flies to humidity to screaming hamstrings to electrified fingerprints to a belt of red torment, is that I feel completely justified making repeat trips to the beer cellar.

As I reach for a refill, my mind wanders to how lovely the gardens are right now, so chock full of flowers I started from seed months ago; it marvels at my body for being strong enough to face a Bosu ball; it nods appreciatively at the food that beckons the fruit flies; it considers how cool and clean I feel after the refreshment of a shower; it thanks the elastic in my shorts for holding up against all challenges.

It’s almost as though




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