A Lion, a Giraffe, and a Picnic by a Lake

Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.

I first met Léonie in April 2016. Months later, we met at her house for a long chat about her work and her life. She is one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. The house she shares with her husband Zaki is modest and dim, and it suffers from the chronic power cuts and water shortages common in Turkish villages, but she’s transformed it into a beautifully white, ethereal, gauzy space. Talking to Léonie lowers my blood pressure. I asked her to tell me her story.

Léonie grew up in France, travelling back and forth to Greece to spend time with her Greek father. She studied Fine Arts in Paris. In art school her professors told her that her work wasn’t “arty” enough; instead of focusing on aesthetics, she was preoccupied with social issues and activism, driven by an urge to do something more meaningful. At 18, Léonie started volunteering with disabled adults, and she later went to Lausanne in Switzerland to study art therapy for 4 years. Her first professional experience was in a psychiatric hospital in France, but the civil system, with its emphasis on pills over therapy, started to kill her passion, so she left.

Léonie set off for Turkey and travelled around for a while. Eventually she encountered Mehmet, a local businessman in a village in central Turkey who had a son with Down Syndrome. She helped him set up the Shining Star Center for children with autism, Down Syndrome, and other learning and behavioral difficulties. Léonie took an alternative approach to education for these children. Using art and hippotherapy (with horses), she was able to spend a lot of individual time with the kids, and she invited other local children to the center to integrate them through play and art. It worked. In a part of the world without much support for kids with special needs, they blossomed.

During her travels around Turkey, Léonie had fallen in love with a Syrian named Zaki. An aspiring filmmaker from Aleppo, Zaki left Syria when the atmosphere became “poisoned.” He left Syria for Istanbul in 2013. His family are in Turkey (in Mersin) and have been able to support him. Zaki had studied economics in Syria, but without the right paperwork, he couldn’t transfer his credits to Turkey, and it took two years for him to be able to start over again at university. He started studying English, but he struggled with the new country, the new language and the new system. After a year, he met Léonie, “stuff happened,” and he decided to head for the village in central Turkey where Léonie was running the Shining Star Center so he could help out sometimes.

Léonie quickly realized that her work there had come to its limits, and she wouldn’t be able to achieve her goals at Shining Star. She and Mehmet fell out, and Léonie left the center to work on developing new projects with Zaki, on a smaller scale but more faithful to their values and vision. In the meantime, they found out that several hundred Syrians were living in the area, and, wanting to support and empower these displaced refugees, started running art therapy sessions with the Syrians.

I watched Léonie in action when we went to visit the center for refugees run by Open Arms in Kayseri in April 2016. The plan was to help the children create their own movie. When we arrived at the center, the place was full of people, and children were running around noisily. Our Syrian friend Ahmet acted as Arabic interpreter for the day. Léonie started by commandeering a room for the art project and building a table for a work space. She spent a lot of time creating a calm, safe space for the group of 7 boys and girls, using a minimal amount of materials. She used her quiet voice to settle the children down from the noisy chaos. When they were ready, Léonie opened the cans of Play-doh and explained that they were going to make a movie telling a story, and the story would be theirs. The children chose their characters: a lion, a giraffe, and some fish. She told them to play together with the animals for a few minutes to create a narrative. They decided to set the story next to a lake.

Meanwhile, Narjice, the director of OAK, took Léonie aside, pointing out one of the children in the group, a silent, beautiful dark-eyed 4-year old girl named Shahed. Narjice had been contacted in late 2015 about a cold, hungry family who had just escaped from Aleppo with nothing but the clothes on their backs. A Russian bombing next to her family’s house had left Shahed in shock, too traumatized and afraid to speak or make eye contact. OAK helped the family settle in to their new house with food, bedding and heating, but several months later Shahed still wouldn’t speak or interact with other children, and she screamed and cried if she was separated from her mother.

Léonie was trained to deal with children like Shahed. She didn’t bring attention to her, and she let the dynamic of the group create connections between the children. The more outgoing kids, like one bespectacled boy, helped the shyer ones to open up. Léonie didn’t expect Shahed to talk that day, but she decided to try to communicate with her using art. Shahed was playing with Play-doh. Léonie sat down next to her and started to copy the shapes she was making. Shahed started to smile, and Léonie knew they had a connection. Léonie went back to the rest of the group, and they started to work on the story for the film together. The kids were shouting and jostling to get their ideas in. Shahed sat in silence, watching them, clearly frustrated. In the end, the kids couldn’t learn the script by heart, so Ahmet read out the lines one by one, and Léonie recorded the kids repeating each line in unison. While this was going on, Léonie saw Shahed’s lips moving. Then the words came out of her mouth, and she was saying the lines with the others.

Léonie says that in one-to-one therapy it would normally take months for a child to make this much progress, but the group dynamic is much more powerful. While the kids waited for their parents to collect them, they played with Play-doh together. Shahed started to speak Arabic to Léonie. She talked about how she was making cookies and she wanted Léonie to copy her. (Almost a year later, Shahed is the happy, confident alpha child at the OAK play sessions, fluent in Turkish, and always smiling.)

When she’d finished editing and animating the movie, Léonie posted it on social media. The boy with the glasses annoyed his mother by watching it over and over again. In the story, a lion and a giraffe are walking by a lake. They’re tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic with some fish. Then a bus arrives and takes them to Istanbul. Léonie says that first workshop couldn’t have been more perfect; the kids told their own story, the tale of a journey with a happy ending.

Léonie and Zaki have big plans. They’ve set up their own small-scale NGO called Handic’Happy, a mobile art therapy center that will travel to refugee camps and wherever there’s a need. With Zaki’s filmmaking skills, they’ll keep making movies, retro style, low-tech animated films with sets and props made from trash and found materials, like backgrounds painted onto rolls of paper that move across the screen as the narrative unfolds. (The movies are hilarious, surreal brightly-colored creations, well worth watching.) Léonie points out that making a movie is a perfect therapeutic tool for working with these kids because visual media is such a strong part of their lives. And her experience with disabled children shows how successful this approach can be.

On a recent trip back to France, Léonie did a hippotherapy film project with kids with learning disabilities using a green screen and costumes. Each wrote a different story and came up with a character. One boy with autism was clumsy and shy. He was passionate about video games, so they made a hat for him and drew on a moustache with a pen. From the moment he put his costume, he wore the character of Mario. His whole body language changed as he went completely into character, totally confident. Another boy, one with Aspbergers, didn’t like to be touched. He chose to be a robot and built a huge costume like a protective box around him. In the movie, his robot was an architect and went into the future to build eco-houses. He loved being a robot and talked about it constantly with his mother. The third boy had Down Syndrome. Obsessed with mayors, he was desperate to meet them and get their autographs. The other boys – who were autistic – struggled to work with him, but he was the powerful one in the story, a wizard. He told his mother he was a hero, and she saw him blossom into a confident child. Léonie sees her role as helping children find their voices by telling their own stories. Being stars in a movie makes them feel valuable because someone is listening to their story. They’ll remember the experience for the rest of their lives.

The way Léonie sees it, most NGOs working with refugees focus on basic needs, but therapy is also essential. She and Zaki want Handic’Happy to be itinerant and mobile so they can reach as many kids as possible. As with other similar projects, they’ll act as a service provider to get contracts with bigger NGOs. Léonie wants to run different kinds of workshops in the field to make these movies, with puppets, Play-Doh, and live action, using whatever materials she can get, with the kids choosing the characters, storyline and scenery. The plan is also to upload the movies to a YouTube channel, where the families can watch any time. For the Syrian kids, it’ll be a really important way for them to keep contact with relatives still in Syria. The refugee project will be called Nomadic Heroes. Léonie wants the kids to see themselves not just as refugees trying to survive, but as heroes of their own stories (on tv!). They’ve already overcome obstacles through creativity and resilience. Léonie sees creativity as one of the best tools in life; Nomadic Heroes will remind children that in life they’ll have challenges, but they already have the tools to meet them.

Léonie’s ultimate aim is to collect materials for a book project, a book to be written and illustrated by these kids to give them a real voice. She says, “We never sit next to these kids and ask, what happened, how do you feel about it? They might feel like puppets, and maybe their parents don’t explain to them what really happened. There’s so much emphasis on surviving, they never process the events.” For the book, she wants to work with the children to ask the questions, What is war? How would you illustrate war? Not with guns, but with something totally imaginary. Zaki comments, “The regime is about stripping people of their dignity. Their parents have been humiliated in Syria and then again in Turkey. The kids will grow up, but with what kind of model? This generation is growing up scared, without a sense of justice.” Léonie wants the kids to make this book to give them a sense of control and to give value and meaning to the journeys they’ve made. She’s looking for a publisher already and plans to distribute the book in schools to help Turkish kids understand the background of their Syrian classmates.

Back in the village, Léonie and Zaki have tried outaseries of new projects with the Syrian children. They’ve done drawing workshops about animals making a journey, and they’ve had puppet workshops with painted hands and shadow puppets. For the Cuddles for Syria project, Léonie and Zaki collected a donated pile of soft fabrics. The children were asked to choose their favorite textiles to design a toy, an imaginary friend, a best buddy who they wanted to comfort them when they felt upset. Léonie used the drawings as a pattern and constructed cuddly stuffed “buddies” for each child. One drawing workshop with two sisters was particularly difficult. The girls were painfully shy and too nervous to make much eye contact. A week later, Léonie gave the sisters the cuddly toys that they had designed. And a small smile appeared on their faces.

They are heroes. They have crossed to this place, and they are still alive. Soon, Léonie and Zaki will say goodbye to these children and take their project on the road.

Handic’Happy is a non-profit organization run by a volunteer team and relies entirely on private donations to carry out its work with children. They need your support. All the donations will be used efficiently and effectively towards pursuing their goals and to sustain and develop new programs that will directly benefit their participants.

You can follow Handic’Happy on Facebook and YouTube and make a donation at :

Website : https://www.handichappy.org

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Handic.Happy/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuES_kI6Oq7R96CK30xFklA

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Introduction from Diane

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to get out and see the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


The village sits on the high plateau in the center of Turkey. Until recently a conservative and insular agricultural town, its 2500 residents now rely heavily on tourism. A few foreigners live there, drawn to the beautiful landscape and the slow pace of life. For the past three years, a steady stream of Syrian refugees has quietly arrived in the village. Early in 2016, some local residents got together to set up a small-scale organization to help the refugees settle into their new lives in Turkey. One of the residents provided most of the funding, and a lot of advice and help came from Narjice from Open Arms in Kayseri, another charity in the area. The day-to-day organizing is done by a Syrian named Ahmet, who came to the area because his friend Juju grew up there, along with Juju’s mother, Nell, and other friends in the village. These grassroots projects are springing up all over Turkey to help the roughly 3 million Syrian refugees living there, and they all face the same kinds of challenges. Our news headlines are about dramatic raft landings on Mediterranean beaches or evacuations into UN camps, but for the refugees, getting out of Syria is only the beginning, the first step in a much longer process. I spent some time in the village in December 2016. Nell is an old friend of mine, and I spent long hours in Nell’s cozy kitchen while the snow fell outside, talking to Juju (who works for a refugee NGO in Ankara), Ahmet, and Nell herself. I wanted to hear all about their project.

Before starting work in the village, my friends tried to get official permission from the kaymakam, the governor of the provincial district. They sent in a project proposal in Turkish, and then another one in English. The kaymakam replied to their request in a terse email. The answer was no, with no reason given for his decision. The mukhtar, the elected local leader of the village, was just as unhelpful. Ahmet was demoralized, but the others gave him a pep talk, and they decided to start work anyway. The first stage was setting up a database of the Syrian families in the village, to count them and assess their needs. In the beginning, it was hard to find them, as it is in the refugees’ best interests to avoid attention. As is the way of grassroots organizers, Ahmet walked around the narrow streets with a paper questionnaire, but abandoned that system when he realized that the forms made most of the refugees uncomfortable; a lot of them are illiterate, and they’re wary of visits from officials. To gain their trust, Ahmet stopped using paper forms and broke the ice by telling them about his own experiences in the war. Once he had talked to a few families, he tracked down the others through word of mouth, until he had made contact with all of the Syrians living in the village.

In the space of 3 months, Ahmet found 37 families (around 340 people) for his database. Another 7 families completely refused to talk to him and are still off the register. In order to get a sense of each family’s real situation, Ahmet made a point of going inside their homes and counting their children. Some families had enough money to live pretty comfortably. Other families were destitute, living in absolute poverty in substandard housing. Most families were large, some with 7-8 children, and he found 7 orphans being raised by relatives among them.

It turned out that most of the Syrians had been in the village for around 3 years and were from the same area in eastern Aleppo (the part now being flattened in the war). The first families came to find work in the village, the men in construction and the women in agricultural jobs, attracted by cheap rents and a low cost of living compared to other areas of Turkey. Once safely in the village, they had contacted neighbors, friends, and relatives back in Aleppo, who followed them to settle.

Turkey is famous for its hospitality to outsiders, and the Islamic faith strongly emphasizes the importance of helping the needy. When the Syrians started to arrive in the village 3 years ago, the local belediye (town council) gave them free coal to heat their houses in winter, their usual policy to help any struggling family. Villagers brought food to the Syrians, gave them jobs, and helped them set up their homes. The belediye also started out by giving them a living allowance of 300TL/month (about $85). But things started to change. However, the monthly payments were quickly stopped by the hostile mukhtar. In the past couple of years, as perceptions and portrayals of Muslim countries have become increasingly negative in Western countries, the Turkish economy has gone downhill, tourists have stopped coming, and local people have started to struggle financially. The Syrians still need to pay their rent, but there aren’t enough jobs to go around. In this tight-knit village, where most people are related to each other, life is far from luxurious. The Turkish villagers see the Syrian children hanging around in the street, and they see the adults who still only speak Arabic taking charity, and they feel like their own needs are being overlooked. Thus, anyone working with the refugees in the village needs to keep a very low profile to avoid stirring up even more resentment.

Once Ahmet had finished counting up the families, the obvious next step for the project organizers was to think about education and schooling for the children. Most of Syrian kids in the village were not in school, but everyone working with refugees in Turkey sees school as vital for social and language integration into the community, and groups of Syrian kids playing in the streets is not good for PR. This turned out to be a tricky problem. The local elementary school at first refused to take the children, arguing that they had full enrollment and no extra support for refugees. But, legally, schools aren’t allowed to turn children away, and in other parts of Turkey schools are splitting the school day into two sessions to create class time for the influx of extra children. More pressure was put on the school, and eventually they agreed to accept the Syrians. Yet at the same time, it became clear that the Syrian parents were not pushing very hard to enroll their kids. In Aleppo, most of them had worked as casual laborers selling vegetables, in restaurants, or at construction sites. They have little education themselves and are illiterate. As a result, getting their kids into school isn’t high on their priority list, especially for girls. At the time of this writing, only about 17 of the 93 Syrian kids in the village are enrolled in school.

The project organizers considered trying to run Turkish lessons for the kids but decided to wait until their more basic needs had been met. They collected second-hand clothes and distributed them to the families. Then they heard about ASAM (the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants), a charity that gives out monthly food cards to each family and hires lawyers for refugees who need legal representation. Ahmet managed to register all of the families with ASAM. As winter set in, he visited each house, and if the family seemed to be in bad shape, he gave them food parcels. Winters are bitterly cold in the village, and when the weather turned last fall, most of the children had no winter clothes. Nell and her friends took up a collection. They bought new winter coats for 93 children and shoes for 69.

A few of the Syrians also need extra medical care. One 21-year-old man came to Turkey maimed in the war. His leg is badly fractured; he needs surgery, and maybe amputation, but his leg has developed a chronic infection, so he needs to wait. He is in constant agony, but his family can’t afford strong enough painkillers or regular trips to the hospital for treatment. Another family had been living for three years in substandard housing: 15 people in two rooms. While a contractor was working in the development above their house, the roof collapsed on them in the middle of the night. The neighbors dug them all out alive, but they suffered terrible injuries: the grandmother had 3 broken vertebrae and broken hips, and the 33-year-old uncle injured his groin and can no longer have children. The worst victim of the roof collapse was an orphan boy of 10 years old; he lost his foot, suffered smashed buttocks and internal injuries and now lives with a colostomy bag.

This has been a hard year. With work drying up, most of the Syrians in the village are destitute. At first, landlords were gracious about tenants who had fallen into debt, but as the local economy nosedives, more landlords have started evicting families. The atmosphere in the village is tense. Last summer there was a drunken squabble between a group of local men and two Syrian teenagers. One of the Syrians pulled a knife and stabbed one of the Turks in the neck. The boys were chased into a nearby hotel while a lynch mob formed outside. Someone called the jandarma [the local Turkish army] and they managed to discreetly put the boys on a bus to another town. Soon afterwards, in July 2016, there was an attempted military coup in Turkey. The coup failed, but President Erdogan embarked on a brutal purge of suspected plotters and whipped up nationalist feelings against perceived enemies of the state. For a few weeks after the coup, he asked his supporters to take to the streets to demonstrate their loyalty. Every night in the village, men roamed the streets banging drums to intimidate anyone not quite patriotically Turkish enough. The mukhtar and his supporters drew up a petition to evict all of the Syrians from their homes and throw them out of the village. Several of the local landlords stood up to him and refused to evict their tenants. Meanwhile, Ahmet contacted a friend at the UN. Someone high up contacted someone higher up than the mukhtar, and he was forced to back down. The Syrians stayed.

So I spent 2 weeks in the village, listening to these stories and more (and I take responsibility for any mistakes in my retelling). I did what I could to help, which seemed like a drop in the ocean, but at least a tangible drop. With some donations from work colleagues, I helped give out warm gloves and hats, bought food to give to the families whose food cards still hadn’t arrived, helped with some medical bills, and bought some more winter coats. I met a series of small children as they turned up asking Ahmet for mittens and shoes and groceries. I wished that I could speak Arabic so that I could ask about their lives. The good news is that these children’s stories have been heard and drawn and painted: just after I left, I heard that Léonie, an art therapist who works with refugee children, was about to start running art therapy workshops with them.

In his own way, Ahmet has become the mukhtar for the Syrians in the village, the fixer, guy who can solve everyone’s problems. I could see how hard this role was. His phone never stopped ringing, always with a human drama at the other end of the line. As tempting as it was to give candy to Samar (an especially cute little girl) when she turned up at his house, he couldn’t do it; playing favorites would make the other kids feel bad and would make him seem less impartial. Ahmet doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to stay in the village or who will be able to take over from him if he leaves.

I left the village feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the refugee crisis. I’d seen a tiny sample, 350 out of millions of displaced people. Nobody has counted up how many Syrians are living in places like this, out of sight of most tourists and aid agencies, and experiencing a mixture of kindness and unkindness from the Turkish people who took them in while the West looked away. There’s no end to the war in sight, and there is every chance that these families will still be here in 20 years.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sickened by the waste of this war: the waste of so many adult lives and of so many children who are missing out on a childhood. Most of all I’m sickened by all of the profiting-from-human-misery going on. Turkey has used its Syrian refugees as a bargaining chip to negotiate deals with the EU, which doesn’t want to take any of them. The weapons manufacturers, like the ones based in the rich Western country where I live, are making billions. Further billions are pouring into Turkey for humanitarian aid, only for big chunks of it to get siphoned off by corrupt NGOs and politicians. And just like in Iraq, private contractors in Turkey and Russia have already sealed deals worth further billions to reconstruct Syria when the war eventually ends. Interested parties are profiting from a longer, more destructive war. Someone is making money from every apartment building in Aleppo that gets flattened. In the middle of this maelstrom of cash and favors are the Syrians, disconnected from their homes and their livelihoods, not knowing if they’ll ever find sanctuary.


You can find out more about Open Arms in Kayseri and make a donation at:




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The Second Day of Spring Break in 30 Messages to My Husband

1) I had Zinema popcorn for lunch. NOW THAT’S A HARDCORE SPRING BREAK MOVE.
2) I called to check on my stupid broken phone and was greeted by a bewildering “NOOO” shouted into the receiver when Ponytail Guy answered. After the shout, he hung up. So I called back, and he answered again, but this time he yelled with angry and clipped snottiness that he was on his way into an appointment for the MS that makes it difficult for him to walk, and he’s only 19, and he was walking through the parking lot, and so if it wasn’t too much of a hardship for me since he is 19 and has MS, he would check into the status of my phone later and get back to me.
3) I was using the company phone number listed on the web.
4) To be 19 is to be young.
5) The movie, I Am Not Your Negro, was great. So was the popcorn. Less impressive were the dumbass old white women a few rows behind me who had no sense that other people were in the theater with them. If they had said two more words, I was going to get up, walk back to them, and hiss, “Could you maybe go out for coffee after the movie and use that time together to discuss immigration issues and how Janice at the office is so hard to get along with?
6) There was a message from 19-year-old Ponytail Guy when I got home. Bravely, I called him back. His voicemail is still full. Just when I despaired I might have to haul my cookies to the shop to speak to him in person, he called back. Turns out he had no way of knowing what work my phone needed because there was no sheet written up about it, and it’s impossible to know what to do without a sheet written up, so my phone has been sitting in a drawer since I dropped it off seven days ago.
7) 99% sure Ponytail Guy is the person who took my phone last week and filled out a form on the computer about it and ran my credit card for a deposit.
8 ) Age 19 is very young.
9) So Ponytail Guy told me I could come get my phone and get my money back and take it somewhere else, no hard feelings.
10) When you’re 19, you don’t realize the hard feelings might actually run towards you, not just from you.
11) Because I’m lazy and his shop is the only one in town that doesn’t require 25 minutes of driving each way, I told him to keep the deposit, ORDER THE PART he said he’d order seven days ago, and give me a call when it was ready.
12) Ponytail Guy responded well to his having been an ass and my being willing to move past the unwarranted transference of his emotion onto a paying customer.
13) He’s lucky I teach 19-year-olds.
14) Side question: how come I know for a fact our 14-year-old would NEVER speak to anyone the way Ponytail Guy did to me this morning, even if he were pinned under a car tire?
15) At the end of our conversation, Ponytail Guy apologized for his ill humor earlier today. He did not use the words “ill humor.” Our 14-year-old would have.
16) Ponytail Guy also told me he’s having a hard time lately and that it’s really difficult to be 19 with MS, trying to run a business three days a week.
17) Four times, I told Ponytail Guy I was sorry for everything he was dealing with. Simultaneously, I wondered if it’s 90% or 92% of the conversations in my life that end with me telling the other participant I’m sorry for the hard time he/she is having.
18) Between seeing an amazing movie about racial injustice and being the recipient of Ponytail Guy’s misplaced anger, I’m now having a quick moment of remembering that I HAVE A GREAT LIFE.
19) Even though it’s so windy outside that I’m pretty sure you’ll either never get home on your bike tonight, or else you’ll get home in two minutes, depending if the wind is fer you or agin’ you, I am now readying for a run.
20) The first part of my run will involve stretching and warming up as I deal with the recycling and garbage bins, which have been blown over by the gustiness.
21) The second part of my run will involve me walking all of it.
22) If the online check-in tells me there isn’t a long wait, I may get my hair trimmed before picking up the 14-year-old who would never present a stranger with ill humor, even if he was pinned down by a car tire.
23) You know what’s next door to a hair cutting place? Smoked butterscotch lattes.
24) I hope your meeting tonight is painless and fruitful.
25) As though meetings are ever painless and fruitful.
26) You poor sucker.
27) I love you.
28) See you for lentils and sausages and yeasty products.
29) That last does not include me. ME NO YEASTY.
30) I think I might have just written a blog post.
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Framed by a Madman

“This is fricking insane!” I yelled at the paint on the walls periodically as I spent half an hour trying to place a single piece into my new puzzle.

Jeezus, that paint wasn’t wearing well.

Cracks everywhere.

The slate color had always seemed appealing; mentally, I had complimented the previous owners for choosing a tone that managed to be simultaneously neutral and interesting.

But now.

SLATE? Who in the holy Chip and Joanna chooses slate-colored paint? Did they not realize every eventual crack, when future owners failed to update it, would jut in stark relief?

Diverting puzzle frustration into paint diatribe, I waved my hand wildly in the air, a protest against the evils of cracks. As I gestured, the puzzle piece went flying from my agitated fingers. A blip followed by a plink.

For the love of shitgibbons. Where did it go?

The thing had landed somewhere. Was it in one of the baskets by my feet? Was it under an unused Wii remote? Had it flown across the room? Was it resting in the slats of the rocking chair?

Dropping to my knees, I crawled around, lifting the edges of each of the six kilims in the room as the tv droned in the background about the new president’s cabinet picks, every last one of them anathematic to my values. Ahh, there it was. Picking up the wayward piece, I hoisted myself up, in the process clonking my head on the edge of the table.

A few days into it, one thing was already clear: this puzzle just might kill me.

Puzzling has long been an escape for me, a hobby offering retreat and replenishment, particularly during the winter months when the gardens are dormant.

Until I tackled Convergence, 1952, the puzzle table was my safe place.

Until Convergence.

In 1964, the Springbok company released a 340-piece version of Pollock’s painting, promoting it as “the world’s most difficult puzzle.” On my table were 1,000 pieces. 

Assembling the frame for the picture — a hundred or more indistinct white pieces, unrelenting in their sameness — was the easy part. Cardboard Nazis, they easily fell into lockstep with each other. But the colors? Oh, the colors! Complex, vivid, unpredictable, rich, they created a story I couldn’t control. Each time I sat down at the table, I would grab a bright piece and try to group it with its ostensible mates; each time I sat down at the table, I learned that like didn’t necessarily go with like in this modern classic, a painting channeling rebellion and protest.

One of the first things I did, upon starting it and being stymied by the layers of turmoil, was to google “Jackson Pollock mental health.” The person who created such vigorous, unchecked chaos must have struggled. I was sure of it. As it turns out, Pollock did suffer from clinical depression, but I had expected a strong history of mania, as well, to help explain the energy that churns throughout Convergence 1952.

Ah, but as is always the case, I knew nothing. Spinning exhaustedly inside a heavily partisan news cycle, I’d forgotten that not everyone who hurts my feelings necessarily runs high and hot.

And Pollock, like a madman tweeting in all caps, was hurting me. 

I would sit at the table, then stand when my rear end fell asleep, then sit again. Up and down, bending and leaning, deliberately, carefully, with thought and organization, I tried to unlock Pollock’s vision. Selecting a single spot, I would glass slipper a succession of pieces into it. Initially, I’d look for pieces that made sense, given the context — say, light beige with streaks of black. After seventy of those failed, I’d stop looking at colors and pay attention only to shape. After another seventy fails, a heap of misses filling the open space more effectively than did supporters on the Mall at the Inauguration, I yowled at the stupid cracked slate walls while a preacher of prosperity gospel administered the oath of office to a self-aggrandizing Brand.

This damn puzzle was so different from anything in my previous experience, so far from making any kind of sense, so resistant to my attempts to crack its logic. It was defeating me. My safe place was hosting my nemesis.

If I was going to beat this thing — and NO WAY was I giving over — I was going to need help. This beast threw me into a panic every time I thought about it; I needed to pull my people close, marshal our collective energies into tackling the challenge.

Attempting to be a good capitalist, I struck a deal: I would pay $3 per properly placed piece to the fourteen-year-old, he who had mentioned he was saving up to buy a new game. Although the new administration refuses to release the Brand’s tax returns because the election results proved “people didn’t care,” and although the new administration froze many federal agencies’ ability to report the results of their work publicly, I — in charge of my own self for the time being — made a loud and proud announcement to the cracked slate walls after Paco spent a focused half hour successfully finding homes for the ones with the wide wings and the ones with the narrow points:

“The pup got five pieces in. He wants a game that costs $15. I am buying the kid that game.”

Despite inhabiting this queer world of mind-bogging puzzles and politics, a place where a presidential counselor urges the public to “go buy Ivanka Trump stuff,” the eighth grader countered my paint-shouted pronouncement with exemplary graciousness: “No, Mom, I don’t want you to pay me. I just wanted to help you.”

One weekend, our friend Kirsten came to visit. Before her arrival, I set the terms of her visit.

“I’m going to need you to get 14 pieces into the puzzle before you can leave.”

Within minutes of surveying the chaos, her empathy was boundless. She felt the pain of all those random swirls and splattered drips; she ground her teeth with frustration at reds and blues that shared space uneasily. She understood the weeks of strangled pleas @AltJoce had been sending out to the world.

A warrior, she did her best to relieve my feelings of loneliness in a difficult land.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, when I turned my head for a quick second, she tossed her bags into her car and tore off, screeching down the alley.

She left the puzzle seven pieces the better.


There was a tipping point where I. just. couldn’t. take. it. any. more.

One late night, while Seth Myers highlighted the ludicrous reality of a country governed by someone whose idea of nuance consists of jabbing stubby fingers into his opponents’ chests — “BAD!” yells the tired toddler when his teddy bear tips over — I realized I’d been pretending to attack the Pollock puzzle when in actuality I’d been sidling up to it fairly passively.

Until that moment, I’d approached Convergence the same way I approached all puzzles: I put together the border, I grouped related colors, I looked for clear connections, I alternated between attaching pieces to the existing lines and tacking together floating islands of neighbors. As though I was in charge, I’d been nation building. But. The nation was already built. 

To be effective, I needed to change my tactics and observe — to snatch at every white snarl, every disappearing blood trail, every burst of sunshine. Instead of allowing myself to be ruled by despair, I needed to calm my innards down and ask, “What did he do?” and “How can I track what he did?”

To answer these questions, I had to do two things: 1) Clear out the noise; 2) Pay attention to the patterns.

It took me twenty minutes to move all the random pieces out of the frame and create clarity. It took me two more weeks — the lid of the box on my lap, a pair of cheaters on my face, a helpful husband in the kitchen — to decipher the master plan, comprising a thousand irregular pieces, and beat that fucker. 

At no point did it make sense.

At no point did it get easier.

To the end, the vision was chaos. To the end, my brain whirled, often ineffectively, in the tornado of so many ideas layered so densely. For Pollock, the technique of laying down hard and vivid lines on top of a receding backdrop was purposeful. He conjured a tumult where attention can land anywhere, is demanded everywhere. Overwhelmed, the audience is left breathless.

It’s a cunning technique, the business of foreground dominating background, of drawing the eye to predetermined points while craziness hovers behind.

The audience needs to learn to pace itself. To look below the hard surface. To discern the overarching plan. 

On the day a woman with more disdain for public schools than guns in their hallways was confirmed as the Secretary of Education, I finished the Pollock puzzle.

Fittingly, three pieces were missing.

Unable to scout them out on my own, I called in my most reliable reinforcement.

Converging on the kilims, Byron and I crawled around, pulling up the edges of the rugs bought in the Muslim country that had embraced our dazed family. We peeked into baskets.

Aha! He found one, placed it on the table, and stepped back, “You get the honor, of course.”

Still short by two, we moved Wii remotes, looked between the slats of the rocking chair, rubbed our heads against cracks in the paint.

We crouched. We stood. We lifted. We ducked. Eventually, we conceded.

Maybe part of the problem all along had been that we were trying to solve something that came out of the factory a few pieces short.

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A War Story

This post is the second in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our family’s year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


Ahmet now lives in a small village in central Turkey, where he is running a project linked with Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) to help other Syrian refugees. He was born in Raqqa, one of 8 brothers. His father owned several factories, and he grew up in privilege, playing football, driving around, buying clothes, clubbing, and chasing girls with his friends. He moved to Aleppo at 17, studied law in Beirut for a year, and then at the start of the revolution in 2011 went back to Aleppo to continue law school. That year his brother Brahim started organizing anti-Assad protests and later formed a cell of the Free Syrian Army. Because of his brother, Ahmet’s name was on Assad’s list as an insurgent, so he was forced to leave college. Ahmet moved back to Raqqa.

Brahim’s life was in danger, so his father sent him to Saudi Arabia to protect him from Assad’s police. Then he went off the radar for 4 months. The first news of Brahim came when a family friend called to say that he had been badly wounded in a battle nearby with Assad’s forces. He had come back into Syria quietly, via Turkey, to lead his Free Syrian Army unit. The family waited until 11 p.m. when the coast was clear to pick him up off the battlefield. Brahim had been shot twice in the stomach and once in the hip. Raqqa was too dangerous, so the family took him across the border to Turkey. Ahmet spent the next 6 months living in a hospital with his brother in the city of Urfa, changing his dressings, feeding, and bathing him. (In Turkey, as in many countries, hospitals are short-staffed, so family members are expected to do most of the nursing care.) His brother had had a colostomy and needed more surgery, but the doctors said he needed to wait another two months for the next operation, so the family brought him back to back to Raqqa for the holy month of Ramadan. Raqqa felt like a safe place at the time because Assad’s forces had failed to take control of the city.

As soon as the family returned home, ISIS launched itself in Syria with Raqqa as its base and started to take over the city. (ISIS originated in Iraq but draws its aim of creating an Islamic state from a section of the Koran which forsees the final war between Muslims and unbelievers as taking place in Sham, an ancient kingdom in what is now Syria.) Ahmet says he had a lot of conversations with guys in ISIS, who started in Syria as a small group of around only 70 people. Most of them were from outside Syria, from Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Gulf, and had spent 3 months in intense indoctrination. Many ISIS members were intelligent and creative, but they spoke with brainwashed certainty about their mission and had absolutely no concern for the lives of the Syrians. It was also clear that even though some may have had their doubts about the killing and torture that had become their everyday lives, they were locked into the organization. ISIS fighters didn’t fear death, and that made them very frightening opponents.   

Most of Ahmet’s cousins and brothers were fighting in the Free Syrian Army against both Assad and ISIS. At one point, the FSA captured 3 tanks from Assad’s army and then managed to capture the local ISIS leader. A street fight started for possession of the tanks. After 20 days of fighting, ISIS detonated a car bomb in the train station that served as the FSA base. Three of Ahmet’s cousins were blown to pieces, including the unit leader. Ahmet, who had stayed out of the fighting, got a text message from his brother inside the train station saying that he and others were trapped inside, surrounded by ISIS. Ahmet dithered. He didn’t have a gun or other weapon and wasn’t sure what to do. He went to tell his family the news, then left to see another brother at a friend’s house. In shock, Ahmet made the decision to save his brother. Somehow – he doesn’t remember how – he managed to slip past the ISIS watchmen and get into the train station.

The building was still on fire, with bodies littering the ground. He found his brothers hiding inside, safe because when the car bomb went off they were somewhere else eating their evening meal to break the Ramadan fast. Later an ambulance managed to reach them, so Ahmet helped load the burned bodies and body parts of his cousins into it. Ahmet found a rifle and called his brother to find out what to do. ISIS still surrounded the building. His brother told him wait for a while. At 1 a.m. the order came from the main FSA base telling all of them to leave Raqqa. Their leader, Ahmet’s cousin, was dead, and they needed to rest and regroup outside the city. Ahmet watched as 65 men loaded up their weapons and started to leave, but he didn’t want to abandon his family. At 2 a.m. the remaining FSA in the train station fired huge anti-aircraft guns into the air to create a diversion so that they could escape. Ahmet and two of his brothers and two cousins didn’t follow; they took their guns and 150 bullets each and ran off behind the train station to the Kurdish FSA base where they asked for protection until morning.

Ahmet stayed awake all night keeping watch while the others slept, not knowing how far to trust his Kurdish protectors, but they were kind to him. At 5 a.m. he looked across at the empty train station and saw ISIS fighters streaming in. They put up flags and shouted “Allahu akbar!” over and over. At 7 a.m. Ahmet and his group left their guns with the Kurds and took a taxi to a friend’s house. The taxi driver was a Kurdish friend of his brother’s, and he brought his children in the taxi as a cover for Ahmet’s group. They laid low for a while.

Ahmet had another brother, Tarek, who lived in Saudi and had no involvement in the war. He had come back to Raqqa for his wedding and lived with his new wife in a different neighborhood, away from the fighting. One day he was coming home with some test results from his mother’s doctor. ISIS kidnapped him. The family searched everywhere, fearing the worst. 10 days later, a friend who worked at a local hospital called Ahmet to say that an unidentified body had come in. In accordance with Muslim tradition he had been buried the next day, but hospital staff had made a video of the body so that it could be identified. Ahmet watched the video and recognized his dead brother, horrifically tortured. Ahmet took the video home to show his family. He broke the news to Tarek’s wife and to his father. Everyone was crying and screaming. Tarek had lived a peaceful life, and he and Ahmet had been very close. Ahmet spent the next few days consoling his distraught family. It’s God’s will, he told them. You have to accept this. He struggled to be strong for everyone else when he felt destroyed by grief.

Ahmet took his injured brother back across the border to Urfa and left him in the care of friends. He went to Mersin, also in Turkey, with his friend to search for a job and to start a new life. His parents left Raqqa five months later and settled in Mersin. After 20 days in Mersin, he got a Facebook message from another Syrian he had met in the hospital in Urfa while he was looking after his brother. Yusuf was in Istanbul, paralyzed by a sniper bullet. His brother had been taking care of him but left him after they had an argument. Ahmet went to Istanbul and nursed Yusuf for 6 months, taking him to the hospital for physiotherapy every week. Eventually Yusuf was well enough to travel, so Ahmet traveled with him back to the Syrian border, where his family collected him. (A few months later, Yusuf died in Syria, emaciated and neglected.) 

Ahmet again got ready to join his parents in Mersin, but was approached by a man who was involved in setting up the interim Syrian government in Turkey. Political opposition groups (bankrolled by Qatar) were optimistic that they would defeat Assad, and the man said they needed trustworthy people to work for them as bodyguards. Ahmet worked for two years in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Eventually, plans for the interim Syrian government fizzled. Ahmet tried to figure out what to do. He had a passport and could have gone to Europe, but he wanted to stay in Turkey to help other refugees.

In Gaziantep, Ahmet’s friend Memo was going out with a young woman named Juju, who worked for an NGO. The three became good friends. Juju invited Ahmet home to central Turkey, where he met Juju’s mother and her friends and learned that there were several hundred Syrians in the village who were struggling to survive. Ahmet, Juju and Memo wrote a proposal with help from a friend and worked out a budget for a project to help the Syrians in the village. Ahmet moved there in the spring of 2016. He lives a modest life and hates the label “refugee” because he feels it puts him in a box and limits what he can do.

While living in Istanbul, Ahmet says he felt destroyed inside but didn’t talk about his loss anyone. One event changed his perspective completely. He was in Istanbul taking care of his paralyzed friend Yusuf. One day Yusuf told him that his barber, Abu Mohammed, would arrive soon to give him a shave. Ahmet put him in his chair in the lounge and got him ready. A few minutes later the barber arrived with a young boy standing next to him, so Ahmet went back to his room. Then Yusuf called him into the tv room, asking for towels. The barber’s son was sitting on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him, the towel behind his back. “Ammu,” he asked the boy, “can you please sit on the sofa so that I can get the towel?” The boy just stared at him helplessly.

From the next room, Abu Mohammed said in a loud voice, “You put him on the couch.” Ahmet bent down to pick up Mohammed. He put one hand behind his back, and as he went to put his hand under the boy’s thigh, he was shocked to feel not warm flesh but something felt cold and hard – both legs were made of plastic. He put the boy on the couch, gave the towel to Yusuf, and then went back to the tv room, sitting next to the boy and wondering how bad the story was. He asked his friend what had happened.

The family were from Aleppo. Abu Mohammed, the father, went out to work one morning and then heard an explosion. He ran back to find his house bombed. There was no trace of his wife, his mother, or his two other children. Five-year-old Mohammed was on floor, his legs mutilated. Ahmet says was haunted by this story for a month afterwards. He came to understand that the father survived because his child survived. For Abu Mohammed, there was hope: taking care of his disabled child was a reason to continue with his life. If his entire family had died, Abu Mohammed would have allowed himself to die, too. After that day, Ahmet says, he “stopped feeling like shit.” He had lost a brother and three cousins, but he realized that he had lost nothing compared to others in this war. “This is the thing about the Syrian situation”, he says. “It doesn’t make you feel good, but it makes you feel stronger. If you lost a brother, someone else lost two brothers. If you lost two brothers, someone else lost their entire family. This is what makes us continue with our lives. I am so thankful and grateful that I still have something, when so many other people have nothing.”

Ahmet is now 29; if the war hadn’t happened, he would probably be practicing law in Syria. When he was growing up, he says, Syria felt completely stable. War seemed unimaginable. Everything unraveled so quickly. He feels that the war has made him stronger, and working to help other Syrians is a catharsis, the only thing that makes him feel happy. “The hardest thing in life,” he says, “is not breaking up with your girlfriend or losing your money. It’s seeing someone that you love get suddenly taken from in front of you when they’re young, before it’s their time, and you can’t do anything to save them.” Ahmet has keep his sense of humor, though he says his jokes have turned from “white” to “black.”  He desperately misses city life and playing football.

And he is kept awake by terrible nightmares.


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Open Arms: Syrians in Turkey

This post is the first in a series of four guest essays written by my friend Diane, whom I met during our year in Turkey:

First, a bit about me. I was born in Boston and spent my teenage years wrestling with an urge to escape from the suburbs and get out into the world. For almost 20 years, I’ve taught linguistics at the University of Leeds in England. In 2004, I took a career break to go backpacking and met a Turkish man. We got married, had two children, and then the marriage came to an end. Along the way I learned to speak basic Turkish and met a collection of friends, both Turkish and foreign, who are still an important part of my life. I love Turkey and go there once or twice a year so that the children can spend time with their father and his family in their village. Some of my friends there are now involved in the efforts to help the Syrian refugees living in Turkey. There are an estimated 3 million Syrians in Turkey (probably more, since many are still undocumented). Only about 10% live in the UN-funded refugee camps near the Syrian border. The rest are distributed throughout Turkey. They’re not entitled to any housing or financial support directly from the Turkish government but can get support from charities and NGOs working in the country. Most Syrian adults speak little or no Turkish, and a lot of their children aren’t enrolled in schools. This year I spent my Christmas vacation talking to people who are running projects to help the refugees. I wanted to tell their stories, the stories about what happens after the newspaper headlines die down, the stories about lives passed  in years of limbo, waiting to go home or to feel at home in a place that is not home.


While visiting Turkey April 2016, I heard about a grassroots charity called Open Arms in Kayseri (OAK) set up to work with refugees. A sprawling, industrial city a few hours’ drive roughly due north of the Syrian border, Kayseri has been a magnet for Syrian families for several years. Some friends and I arranged to visit OAK’s new premises in the Danisment neighborhood, where a community of Syrians has sprung up. We filled a van with food and household provisions and set off for the center.

OAK’s director, Narjice Basaran, greeted us at the door. I have never met anyone quite like Narjice. A British-Iraqi consultant from North London who married a Turk, Narjice is a whirlwind of energy in her fashionable headscarf, talking a mile a minute, zig-zagging around Kayseri while taking calls in English and Arabic. She started food deliveries to around 10 Christian and Muslim families in Kayseri in 2012 after meeting Iraqi and Syrian refugees who had settled there. As the war intensified and more and more Syrian families turned up in the city with no housing, food or medical care, Narjice dedicated more of her time to OAK. She joined forces with Nilgun, a soft-spoken Canadian accountant who gave up a lucrative salary to work with her. OAK now has about 150 families on its register, and more arrive every week.

After a huge bureaucratic struggle, OAK was able to legally acquire a 3-story house and was registered as a charity in May 2016. The center is a distribution point for food and clothes, and children’s groups staffed by volunteers meet there for play, crafts and language classes. Narjice showed us the basement full of racks of donated clothes, the ground floor level with children’s activity rooms and a kitchen, and the upper floor, set aside for women. The center is bright, warm, and welcoming. The aim, Narjice explained, is not charity but social enterprise: OAK provides a safe space where women can learn knitting, crochet and beadwork and then use their skills to generate an income for their families. OAK wants to help Syrian families become self-sufficient, to help themselves instead of taking handouts.

Schooling, specifically integrating Syrian kids into Turkish schools, is a big priority. OAK volunteers provide Turkish language classes to prepare them for entry, and school attendance is a requirement for registration at the center. All of the children from all 150 OAK families go to school. As is the case in a lot of towns in Turkey where Syrians have settled, the local schools in Kayseri have come up with creative ways to handle the influx of extra children: from second grade to high school, the school splits into two sessions, running classes for Turks in the mornings and Syrians in the afternoon. OAK also invites local Turkish children to the center to help with the integration process.

Listening to Narjice, I was in awe of her passion and dynamism, and she and Nilgun quickly became personal heroes of mine. They’re not people who read about the refugee crisis in the newspaper while wringing their hands and wishing they could do more to help, like I do most of the time. Narjice and Nilgun simply put in the work to do what is needed, often at the expense of sleep and time with their families, and by all accounts, OAK is a huge success. But the obstacles are huge, and both women are starting to feel exhausted. While dozens of “humanitarian” NGOs in Turkey are creaming off aid money to pad salaries and find ever more creative ways of embezzling funds, Narjice and Nilgun don’t get a salary or even enough money cover their expenses; they work very long hours for free, and their money and energy are starting to run out. They need more full-time staff to help them cope with the expanding scale of the project. Last year Narjice worked for OAK full time for nine months without taking any paid work, so she recently went back to London to recoup her losses and continue to fundraise for the families. The center has a grant from Concern Worldwide to pay for the Turkish classes, but the red tape is overwhelming.

Most irksome for Narjice and Nilgun is the bureaucracy and administration they face. Despite being a licensed charity, as Narjice explains it, the Turkish system has no room for an organization which is neither charity nor business, but social enterprise helping generate an income for the families through their own work. Having grown up in vibrant, multicultural London and being British Iraqi, she sees the roots of the problem in Turkish attitudes toward outsiders. Turkey’s century-long suspicion of foreign powers and intense focus on ethnic, linguistic and religious national “unity” seems to have damaged its ability to deal with diversity and this massive influx within its borders. The three million Syrians in the country are now suffering from this legacy, and it can be a struggle to help them integrate.

On the day we visited OAK, two of our group stayed in the center to do a movie project with a group of children. Léonie, a French art therapist who works with children with special needs and trauma, worked with Ahmet, a Syrian, to help them write a screenplay, make play-doh animals and create sets for their movie. She uses art to try to give the kids a voice, and give them a chance to tell their story.They were soon completely engrossed in the project.

While the children were making their film, the rest of us went to distribute food and clothes in the van. Narjice had heard about a family of recent arrivals living in a run-down neighborhood in another part of the city, so we joined her while she did her assessment of needs. The family lived in a tiny concrete house with a small dirt yard. About a dozen children flocked around us as we got out of the van. They ranged in age from about 3 to 8, and it wasn’t clear how they were related to each other. Some were barefoot, and they eagerly snapped up the lollipops we brought for them.

Inside the house, six or seven men and women wearing drab clothes sat on foam cushions on the floor. One of the women was severely disabled and lay on the floor on a filthy mattress. As I looked around the house, I wondered how the family had managed to get her this far out of Syria. Another bare room was a makeshift bedroom with half dozen foam mats on the floor. The kitchen of the house was grim, bare concrete, with a sink and a single cooking hob but no other furniture. A few dishes were stacked on the floor, but I couldn’t see any food.

Narjice spoke to them in Arabic, gathering as much information as she could about their circumstances. A man arrived waving a piece of paper, and the room erupted. He had just come back from the hospital with test results confirming that he and his wife both had Hepatitis B and would need treatment. The rest of the household, including all the children, would have to be tested too. We went back out to the van and handed out second-hand clothes from a huge bag, trying to be discreet to avoid stoking tensions with the Turkish residents of the slum neighborhood. More kids emerged from the surrounding houses, pulling faces for photos and asking for more candy. They had no toys and only the streets to play in, so the arrival of foreigners with lollipops was the most exciting thing to happen to them in a long time. Narjice went back later to help with medical care and deliver food, housewares and other supplies.

In the car she told us about some of the other refugees on OAK’s register. There were a few Romani Gypsy families who lived in the same squalid conditions they had lived in in Syria. Then there was the was blind family, whose story was, as Narjice put it, “like something out of a horror movie.”  All five members of the family are blind because of an inherited condition. Narjice first encountered them along with their extended family – 32 people were stuffed into two rooms, in some of the worst conditions she had ever seen – living in filth with no shower and wet from the snow leaking in through cracks in the windows and doors. They had paid traffickers to get them out of Syria in small groups when ISIS took over their village and had endured unimaginable hardship and danger on the way. Narjice organized housing, food, and clothes for the entire extended family. She tried to arrange cornea transplants for the blind children, but Turkey has a law that donated corneas can only be used for Turkish citizens, so their vision may never be restored. More pockets of the family continue to escape to Turkey, but only some have made it, others having been shot at the border. 

On our way back to the OAK center we stopped off at a small house in another suburb of Kayseri. Narjice asked us to wait while she took a shopping bag of food and went to speak to the woman inside. She came out a few minutes later, rolling her eyes. “She told me she’s pregnant again!” she said, waving her hands in exasperation. “I told her, what the f**k are you doing? You have six kids already; you’re like one of those cats on the street!” I asked Narjice why people so destitute would want to have more children when they couldn’t feed the ones they had. “Arabs like big families,” she said. “And they want to build up their country again. But I really lose my patience with them sometimes.” 

We returned to OAK to see the children finishing up their film project. Their faces were glowing with pride as they showed us their drawings, their play-doh animals, and the set they had created. The story was about a lion and giraffe walking by a lake. In the story, the animals are tired and bored, so they decide to have a picnic. Then a bus arrives and takes them to that glittering destination for Syrian refugee children: Istanbul.

We walked into the kitchen, where volunteers were sorting the food we had brought into plastic shopping bags. Some of the Syrian mothers helped too. One woman looked thin, pale, and exhausted. Not knowing any Arabic, I tried to catch her eye over the piles of food to smile at her, anxious to convey that I cared, that the world cared and was trying to do something to help. Her eyes stayed glued to the floor. The surge of self-congratulatory pleasure in me ebbed away. She is too tired and traumatized to share in this happy moment, I told myself. Only later did I understand that her response came out of deep shame. Syrians are proud people, and their instinctive response to visiting strangers is to spoil them with Arab hospitality and feed them delicious things until their bellies explode. She had nothing to give. For her, taking charity was the ultimate humiliation. She accepted it to keep her children alive, but she hated having to take it at all. And so we stood in that kitchen in a deadlock, on one side the American with a burning liberal do-gooder’s urge to help and to have that help acknowledged because it would make me feel good, and on the other side a Syrian mother, unable to meet my eye because it would mean a loss of her pride, her face, her honor. 

This crisis is not about me. It’s about her, and millions of others like her, who don’t want to be where they are.


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Navigationally Challenged

A couple of nights ago, we sat in a “preparing your child for high school” meeting at the middle school.

Several times, the speaker referred to the date of an open house “which was in the email we sent out last week.”

Leaning towards Byron, I whispered, “Did you see a date in that email?” No, he did not recall seeing a date. “We should stop and tell her on the way out, then, that they didn’t include the date, so they should send out a follow-up email.”

Before we did that, however, Byron whipped out his phone and scrolled through past emails. Ah, the date for the open house HAD been in the original message — in an attachment that neither of us had opened. 


It seems to peak around the tenth day of class.

I log in, and both the email and the “Ask Jocelyn” folders within my online classes are peppered with messages from students. Although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of each message is the same: “How do I know what I’m supposed to be doing?”

In response, although the wording and nuances vary, the essence of all my replies is the same: “Take a look around the class. Maybe start with the announcement that greets you on the homepage.”


In November of 2016, Outside magazine published an article by David Kushner about an American man, Noel Santillan, who decided to take a much-needed vacation in Iceland. After landing at the Keflavik airport at sunrise, he hopped into his rental car, input the address of his hotel in Reykjavik into the car’s GPS system, and began driving the forty kilometers towards the city.

After about an hour, Santillan started to worry; he didn’t see anything that looked like a city. However, he was committed to this adventure, so on he drove, following the directions given to him by the GPS.

By mid-afternoon, jet-lagged, understanding that he was off course — “There was no one else on the road, but at that point there wasn’t much else to do but follow the line on the screen to its mysterious end. ‘I knew I was going to get somewhere,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know where else to go.'” — Santillan pulled over in a small village and walked into a hotel. After he handed the receptionist his reservation, she burst into laughter.

Santillan was standing in a village on the coast of Iceland, 380 kilometers north of Reykjavik.



Good evening, I was just curious as to when you are going to give out information on the topics for the papers.

If it is a choose your own thing, or you assign the topic. That is all.


All the dates for everything in the whole class are on the Semester Calendar on the Content page (under Introductory Information); I have suggested everyone print it out. Also, you can click through the weeks of the class on the Content page and see all the assignments for the rest of the class. It’s all there…including the Research Paper Assignment sheet (there is only one “big” paper in the class, due at the end).
So click around, and you’ll get a sense of what will be due and when. All the activities build up to the big paper at the end, including shorter “papers” of writing a Brief Summary Report and a Research Proposal.
Thanks for checking!
After the hotel receptionist stopped laughing long enough to post about Noel Santillan on her Facebook account, word of his epic lost-ness spread. In short order, he became a bit of a sensation in Iceland, posing for pictures, doing interviews, eating comped meals, taking free tours of museums. Most exciting of all, the marketing manager of the world-famous Blue Lagoon hot springs and spa offered Santillan a free visit. 
The Blue Lagoon is such a popular attraction that its address comes preloaded in rental cars’ GPSes, After half an hour of following the directions he was given, Santillan reached the address and parked. He was in front of a convention center on an empty road.
Once again, because he turned off his brain and fell victim to automation bias — “the human tendency to trust machines more than ourselves” — Noel Santillan had no idea where he was.


Are we supposed to have done a discussion question prompt this week? Also, would you like us to keep track of the three week rotation, or will you tell us the specific Mondays that we are supposed to post on? Or… I am just thinking… is this on our calendar for the class?


You are not supposed to have done a discussion prompt for this week. And the three-week rotation is and will be laid out in three places:

1) The Semester Calendar (under Introductory Information on the Content page — I asked everyone to print it or transfer all assignment due dates to whatever calendar system you use)

2) Within my instructions for all the assignments that are on the Content page

3) And each week, on the main course homepage, within my weekly announcement, there will be a listing of what you need to do, along with deadlines. So, for example, you can look at the current announcement (this week’s starts with the eulogy my friend Nina gave at her dad’s funeral and ends with the assignments for the week) to see what all is due by this Sunday night at 10 p.m.

I’m glad you asked; I don’t want you to be confused or uncertain!


The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists who shed light on human beings’ “internal GPSes” by discovering two new types of cells in the brain: place cells in the hippocampus and grid cells in the entorhinal cortex. Both types of cells contribute to spatial problem solving and recognition — to the creation of cognitive mapping systems.

Basically, the more we move through the world tracking where we are, the better we get at “dead reckoning,” taking sightings, recognizing familiar paths, correcting ourselves when our location doesn’t make logical sense given our understanding of where we are in a larger picture. As David Kushner notes of these scientists, “Their work has profound implications — not only for our understanding of how we orient ourselves but for how our increasing reliance on technology might be undercutting the system we carry around in our heads.” 



For each of the free writing exercise that we have to do for each chapter, do we continue to submit these “journals” into the folder called “Reading Journal Annotations?” 


I’m so glad you’re asking! You, in fact, will not be doing each freewriting exercise for each chapter, and you will only be doing journal annotations (mostly to learn that this way of interacting with a text exists and that you might want to use it in the future) next week. So there is only one document you will ever submit to the “Reading Journal Annotations” folder.

If you want a preview of everything you WILL be doing, you can skim the Semester Calendar (or print it and hang it from your ear like a huge earring) and take a gander at everything that will be due, along with the due dates.

Thanks for checking in on this.


When we rely on our own brains to navigate, the challenge activates cells to the point of growth. Literally, the size of the brain increases in those who don’t just stick to known routes, in those who memorize new paths and ways of moving throughout space. 

According to David Kushner:

University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire has used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of London taxi drivers, finding that their hippocampi increased in volume and developed more neuron-dense gray matter as they memorized the layout of the city. Navigate purely by GPS and you’re unlikely to receive any such benefits. In 2007, Veronique ­Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill ­University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, completed a study comparing the brains of spatial navigators, who develop an understanding of the relationships between landmarks, with stimulus-response navigators, who go into a kind of autopilot mode and follow habitual routes or mechan­ical directions, like those coming from a GPS. Only the spatial navigators showed significant activity in their hippocampi ­during a navigation exercise that allowed for different orientation strategies. They also had more gray matter in their hippocampi than the stimulus-response navigators, who don’t build cognitive maps.

Put another way: if we push ourselves to decipher unfamiliar landscapes instead of sticking to the known and the easy, we get smarter.


Student: While reading the (very interesting) assigned text, I simply wrote notes and annotations on a legal pad. My question is this: in what form should this assignment be typed and submitted? Should I simply type out my notes as I wrote them or should I rearrange them into more coherent sentences and paragraphs with a little more finesse? Thanks!

Me: Probably the easiest way to communicate what I’m looking for would be to direct you to Week Two on the Content page; there you can see an example of this assignment as completed by a student in a previous semester! Also, if you’d like another example, there’s the one I refer to in my instructions on pp. 107-112 in your textbook.


Wikipedia has an entry for “Death by GPS,” a phenomenon common enough that the phrase has been coined. Fortunately, more often it’s the case that lost people — individuals with limited experience in creating cognitive maps, whose hippocampi are measurably smaller, who put faith in screens and computerized voices over noting landmarks and sensing their position within a larger context — have near-misses or become the protagonists in sheepishly recounted stories. In the summer of 2016, The Guardian published an article, “Death by GPS: are satnavs changing our brains?”, detailing multiple stories like that of Noel Satillan. There were the Japanese tourists who drove their car into the ocean in Australia; the woman who drove her car into a lake in Bellevue, Washington, because her GPS told her it was a road; the woman who was aiming for Belgium and only realized she was in Croatia when she looked at the language on street signs; the Swedish couple who were certain they’d arrived at the island of Capri but who were, instead, in an industrial town called Carpi, never wondering why they hadn’t crossed a bridge or needed to take a boat to get to the “island.”



I am in the Emu group and I read that there is a three week rotation between: favorite discussion, group discussion, and discussion question posts. But I couldn’t find anything about which weeks I will have to complete which task? Did I just miss or skip over it? Also I was wondering when the presentations are due, I am assuming you will let us know after we have have signed up for a specific book? Sorry to bother you, but please let me know.

Thank you, have a great day!


I’m glad you’re asking!

If you go to the Content page, you can look under Introductory Information for the Semester Calendar. That document tells you what each Wild Animal group will be doing each week for the entire semester. It’s also laid out, week by week, on the Content page in my instructions there. As well, each week’s announcement on the main homepage will tell you. 

As far as presentations go, all the due dates are listed on the Semester Calendar, too, along with being listed in the weekly instructions on the Content page (and they will be in each week’s announcement on the homepage). Your one chance to choose the book you do your presentation on is now — I’m still waiting for a few more volunteers on The Moon Is Low — but after this first book, I’ll be assigning everyone presentation topics on specific books!

Thanks for checking in. In summary: use the documents on the Content page, and read the weekly announcement, and you’ll be golden.


In 2003, a heavy fog suddenly descended on Nantucket Sound. Disoriented, hopelessly lost, two young kayakers died. A half mile away, John Huth, having made note of wind and wave directions as he started out that day, was able to paddle his kayak — blindly but correctly — back to shore. 

After that day, distraught that he lived while others died, Huth found a kind of therapy in immersing himself in traditional orienteering techniques. Even more, he wrote a book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, and began teaching a class on ancient navigational methods, both of which, according to writer David Kushner, make “. . . a powerful case for learning how to get where you need to go simply by paying attention to the environment around you.”


In my online classes, it’s difficult to remain upbeat and patient when I’ve already spent hours creating and posting documents intended to provide clarity. For example, the tenth day of class — when confusion seems at a maximum — occurs during the second week of the semester. And yet from day one, the entire class is there for them, already revealed, completely ready for digestion.

For example, during Week Two the announcement on the homepage says:

So, during the second half of week, please complete Assignments #5-7:

#5–Read Chapter 3 in your Veit and Gould textbook. Savor it. Roll around with all that fun prose.

#6–Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments by Sunday at 10 p.m.

#7–Participate in the whole-class “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) discussion; this means you should post your own freewriting and then respond to at least two classmates’ freewritings by Sunday at 10 p.m. I urge you to remember that your posts really need to be well developed and well edited. Put some thought and time into your posts, and make sure you proofread them (no text messaging-type writing, either…please: no LOL usages!).

Supplementally, there is this from the Semester Calendar (which, in case you don’t recall, is under Introductory Information on the Content page. I thought you’d be tracking this shit by now, GENTLE READER):

Week Two–(January 16 through January 22)

Assignments #5-7, explained in greater detail on the Content page

Read Chapter 3, “Strategies for Reading”    

Read “Pressure and Competition: Academic, Extracurricular, and Parental” (pp. 119-125) and write at least five annotations per the “Keeping a Reading Journal” example on pp. 107-112; your five “reading journal” annotations are due to Assignments (this was previously called the “Dropbox) by Sunday at 10 p.m. 

Read “What Meets the Eye” (pp. 191-198) and freewrite for fifteen minutes in response to the ideas presented in this essay; then participate in the discussion on these essays (post freewriting and responses to classmates by Sunday at 10 p.m.)

And then there’s the listing of the week’s various instructions, also on the Content page. Students can — in a beautiful dream world where whoopee pies are calorie free, tubes of lipstick are tossed to onlookers at parades, and no one ever needs an alarm clock — click on each link and read my detailed instructions for every last individual assignment:

What’s more, in an initial effort to get students to seek out the helpful documents, I have them take a quiz the first week of class in which they answer questions such as, “You will have a big research paper due towards the end of this course. Referring to the Semester Calendar that is located under the heading Introductory Information on the Content page, look for the date when the rough draft of this paper will be due. What date will the rough draft be due?” 

Within the landscape of the class, students have been given cues, sign posts, lodestars, street signs, constellations, landmarks. Thus, I feel well justified when I have to inhale slowly…one…two…three…four…lungs are filling on five…six…seven…pushing into eight…nine…TEN…before I reply to each “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?”

It should be easy. They need only take some time to stare at the links on the screen in front of them and then do some clicking and reading.

Everything is there, if only they know how to look.


Ancient Norse explorers divided the day into eight sections, each corresponding to a section of the horizon; the spot on the horizon smack in the middle of any of the eight directions was called a daymark (dagmark). In such a way, Scandinavians associated the passing of hours with what they could see in the world around them.

Current online college students are presented with a toolbar across the top of the classroom, a series of five links containing drop-down menus. At eye-line as they sit in front of their computers are these visual “classmarks”: Content, Materials, Communication, Assessments, Resources. The learning curve, for brains used to being told where to go when navigating a new land, requires paying attention to the markers in a way that engages their hippocampi.

Unfortunately, for brains accustomed to instant gratification, navigational confusion is quickly followed by impulse that precludes the engagement of the hippocampus: they send the teacher a message.


Mostly, I am able to remain patient with students because I have empathy for their confusion.

Always, I’ve had a terrible sense of direction, have called myself “spatially challenged.” Reliably, when in a new place — heck, when in a place I’ve been many times before — I get lost. To me, GPS, which I rarely have used, is just another method of landing me in Borneo when all I needed was a dozen eggs from the Super One.

Trust: I will NEVER excel at covering the shortest distance between two points.

A fortunate result of a lifetime of being lost is that I’m relatively comfortable with having no idea where I am. Floating randomly around impossible geographies as darkness falls is just another Tuesday to me. Although my hippocampus is undoubtedly smaller than a single tear of panicked desperation, it has grown enough over the decades that I now know to stop myself and take a few seconds of reckoning when I’m running on a new system of trails. Looking at a map before heading out gives me a broad sense of the route, but stopping at every intersection, turning around to see from another perspective what I’ve just passed, and making note of what letter of the alphabet or celebrity face the tree branches resemble has saved me more than once.


An article in Directions Magazine explains that landmarks have: 

use as organizing features to “anchor” segments of space; use as location identifiers, as to help decide what part of a city or region one is in; and use as choice points, or places where changes in direction are needed when following a route. In the latter cases, on-route landmarks may actually be choice points or may “prime” a decision – such as “turn left after the church.” In an off-route situation, a landmark may provide information about relative location, distance, and direction – as in “if you can see the tower on your left, you’ve made a wrong turn and have gone too far.”

The same article recognizes that some landmarks, the famous ones, are communal while others are person-specific and not necessarily known to others; think “favorite fishing hole” or “the bench where I cried when Idris asked me to move in with him.” This type of landmark is idiosyncratic.


I connect with the world through its idiosyncrasies. Many of us do, including people pursuing college degrees.

However, online learning platforms are deliberately free of idiosyncrasy; in the interests of clarity and logic, their design is standardized and uniform — built around communal landmarks. For students whose brains track idiosyncratic landmarks more readily, the class appears devoid of signposts . . . even though there are all those easy links right in front of their eyes, begging for a good clicking, all those laboriously typed instructions from the teacher, begging for a fair reading. 

For the brains in the class that nod knowingly when they are told “turn right at the huge rock that looks like Richard Nixon’s profile,” the carefully laid out learning space is a maze where all the walls are white and fifteen feet tall. 

It is these students whose messages fill my Inbox. It is these students with whom I remain patient.

I have to. I’m the person whose husband told her of an article in Outside magazine about how our brains are losing their abilities as “wayfarers” due to technology,

the person who then sat in front of the computer for half an hour the next day, typing in every possible search query, 

the person who could not find the article to which her husband had directed her attention,

the person who had to text her husband at work and ask:


Now it’s your turn, Gentle Reader:

Where in my online course can you find the Semester Calendar?


If you care to share, click a square:

I Recommend

This Little Red Hen has spent a great deal of the past year with her beak tipped to the clouds, anxiously clucking “The sky is falling!”

I could detail the challenges of 2016, but we all know what happened. For some people, it actually wasn’t that tough of a year. Their presidential candidate won the electoral vote; their pretty lives still feel pretty; their heroes didn’t die. They watch their shows on cable, eat some take-out, shoot some cans off a fence post. 

However, for the people whose voices fill my ears most frequently, 2016 was devastating. Gutting. Wrenching. A betrayal of fundamentals. For us, the candidate who won the electoral vote is a horrifying example of everything except narcissism and late-night Twitter insanity. At those, he excels. My head nodded hard when I read the words of Thessaly La Force, editor-in-chief at Garage, when she noted of Donald Trump: “Given how he’s stacked the administration with men whose careers have never reflected the kind of world I want to live in nor the one that I want for the generations who will follow me — I don’t have much hope at the moment.” This is not a liberal snowflake’s whining complaint. Progressives weren’t thrilled with Reagan or the Bushes, either, but the reservations there were purely political; with Trump, it’s different. With Trump, the objections are moral, mental, social, ethical. With Trump, there is a sense of foreboding. With Trump, we will have a petulant toddler — his dyed melon peeping over the top of the wheel — steering the ship.

For us, many of whom also enjoy pretty lives and a greasy box of take-out lo mein, the continuing disparity between our random luck and others’ lack of it is crushing. We see the news about Syria and think not, “It’s their business; keep it over there” but, rather, “Those poor people, being strangled by the tentacles of an epic tragedy. Can anything be done? What can be done?”

For many of us, indeed, 2016 felt like a series of punches to the ribs — with the deaths of Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams, anyone?), Phife Dawg, Pat Harrington (Schneider!), Garry Shandling, Patty Duke, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Garry Marshall, Gene Wilder, Janet Reno, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Sharon Jones, Florence Henderson, Fidel Castro, Ron Glass, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Ricky Harris, Richard Adams, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. As the hilarious and zesty Elizabeth Hamilton-Argyropoulos summed up:

It’s a wonder this Little Red Hen didn’t drown in the rain, so frequently was her beak turned upwards, her mournful cluck echoing through the birches.

But I didn’t drown this year, and the sky is still affixed above my head — for, as much as it taxed, 2016 also rewarded. Always, always, always, there is good. In the small moments, away from the news and the clamor of online distress, I found joy and escape; I found intelligence and laughter; I connected, expanded, learned, and played. Here, then, are a few highlights and recommendations:

Books: Goodreads tells me I read something like 60 books in 2016, and when I consider that I also read the work of 12 sections of writing-based classes (25-35 students in each section, usually writing 6 papers each, most of which can be revised and resubmitted, along with daily and weekly smaller assignments) and that my bifocals, no matter how much the doc ups my prescription, always leave the words blurry and my eyes squinty, I am impressed with myself. In a few days, I will be having LASIK eye surgery (I’M SO SCARED, BUT THEY SAY THEY WILL GIVE ME A HAPPY PILL, AND I’VE NEVER TAKEN A HAPPY PILL BEFORE, SO MAYBE IT WILL HIT ME HARD, AND I’LL CHUCKLE QUIETLY AS THE LASER CUTS MY EYEBALL OPEN); to be honest, I love the accessory of glasses frames, and I don’t particularly love my looks without them, but, as my pal Ellen has been known to say, “Sometimes my face gets tired of glasses.” And sometimes — lots of times — I’d like to be able to see when I wake up, see when it’s cold or rainy and I’m outside, see clearly and not through smudges and scratches. Since I’ll need cheaters for reading, and since I read about half of the hours of my life, I’ll just enjoy frames on my face that way. Anyhow, as I was saying, I read some books this year. Some of them were overrated (Sweetbitter and The Girls, I’m lookin’ at you), some were not worth the time (The Mountain Story made me shouty), some were intriguing but uneven (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), but many of them were glory. 

  • Loitering: New & Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio — I do appreciate a writer who uses all the words available to him, and D’Ambrosio’s vocabulary is rich. But that’s not why I love his writing. Dude is smart and honest and teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a reason. There is no easy slapping of words on the page with him. He’s a craftsman. Here’s an interview with him from The New Yorker: “Instead of Sobbing, You Write Sentences.”
  • Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe — This charming novel works as a stand-alone, but it is the sequel to Stibbe’s earlier Man at the Helm (equally charming). In her latest, Stibbe continues the story of 15-year-old Lizzie as she takes a job at a home for senior citizens. I do enjoy a wild cast of characters, their appeal hinging on their myriad flaws.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles — This was probably my most-satisfying read of the year. Due to the strife in public discourse, I have been leaning more easily into writing that is “sweet,” and there’s something perfectly, not sappily, sweet about this story of a Bolshevik-era Russian count sentenced to live out his days inside a hotel. From first to last pages, this novel provided everything I wanted.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi — Many people still don’t understand what’s being discussed when the word “racism” is used. The discussion is not about you, the individual, avowing you take each person as he/she comes, no matter the skin color. Rather, the discussion is about deeply ingrained systems that make success in life easier for people if they are white. Go to any institution in the United States — yeah, we have the portraits of presidents to gaze upon, but also look back at the faces of all the presidents of the college you attended, the heads of the bank you put your money into, the CEOs of the major corporations you patronize. Take a minute to scan the photos of their faces. 97% of those faces will be white and male. That’s racism; that’s privilege; that’s the heart of the discussion: what needs to change so that everyone has an equal shake at success? To get our heads around racism, it’s necessary to look beyond current realities and consider how they came into being. Okay, so black men kill each other at incredibly high rates. Violence in many communities of color decimates the lives of inhabitants. WHY IS THAT? Read Homegoing, an easy-to-absorb generational tracking of two African women (one of whom is sold into slavery and one of whom is not) and their descendants. Connect the dots. The injustices of the past have lasting resonance.
  • Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements by Bob Mehr — Too often, rock journalism seems promising, but then, not halfway through, I lose interest. This empathetic dissection of one of my favorite groups, in particular the dark difficulty of lead singer Paul Westerberg, kept me invested ’til the end.
  • The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits — This book is a series of diary entries written by a woman in her forties, most dealing with kids and aging and relationships. Even better is that the entries aren’t presented in chronological order, a conceit which creates more depth and sense of a real life than strictly arranged daily entries, one after another, would. More than anything, I loved Julavits’ voice.
  • The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor — I respond well to intelligence and an original point of view. Even better if a person has a passion for peahens.
  • Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter — This is an uncommon book. I would love to have been in the room, or in conversation with, author Max Porter as he came up with his ideas. Whoa.


Podcasts: If I could keep only one form of media in my life, it would be podcasts. They unearth overlooked individuals, create new methods of storytelling, and provide superior company. While I listen to quite a few different podcasts, I vigorously recommend the one that made my (and Byron’s) year. Please, if you aren’t one to take pride in the refinement of your tastes (and if you are, sit up straight; you’re slumping), consider listening to both seasons of My Dad Wrote a Porno. The title tells you what it is. No surprises. In each episode, the son reads aloud the erotic novels his father has written, and he and two delightfully witty friends react in real time. It helps that they’re British because clever. While listening to the episodes of this podcast, Byron and I both startled strangers with our guffaws. I almost broke the toes on my left foot when I dropped a 20-pound weight at the gym, due to an unexpected hoot. Broken toes would have been worth it. This podcast is everything.

For those who aren’t enthusiastic about listening to ridiculous porn as its idiocies are laid open, I would recommend Gimlet Media’s Heavyweight. In each episode, quirky host Jonathan Goldstein helps people redress moments in their personal histories that remain unresolved. In the first episode, Goldstein reconnects his 80-year-old father with his long-estranged 85-year-old uncle; in another story, Goldstein helps his half-jerk of a friend, Gregor, come to peace with the loss of a set of CDs he loaned to musician Moby a few decades ago. I quite like whimsy and difficult characters and uncomfortable moments, so this podcast is a huge find.


Lipsticks: He was about thirty, his beard admirably filled out. The name tag on his smock read “Nathaniel.” My credit card had gone through, he was waiting for my receipt to print, and I could tell he was fighting an impulse. Two times, he opened his mouth, only to close it through an act of will. Finally, he gave over. “Um, I don’t mean to sound weird or anything, but I want to tell you” — gesturing in a big circle around my face and torso — “what you’re doing with color is awesome. I mean, the lipstick is just great, but then there’s your coat and your purse, and it’s all so fun. I really like all the color.”

Unfortunately, workers in the drugstore aren’t allowed to accept tips. All I could do in return was thank him, tell him that I was on a blew-in-on-a-hot-wind lipstick kick, and, yes, as far as my coat and bag were concerned, I always had been a fan of saturated jewel tones and the color chartreuse.

“Well, I wasn’t sure if I should say anything because I didn’t want to be weird, but then I realized if I didn’t say anything, then how would you know?” he summarized, sliding the bag with my purchases across the counter.

My lipstick was purple that day, a bold color that catches some folks off guard, delights others, and makes me feel like I’m skipping down the sidewalk holding hands with a special friend. In recent weeks, I’ve upped my number of friends from the Liquid Suede line of lipsticks put out by Nyx cosmetics, and every day of late, my smile has stretched ear to ear as I play with bright, wild, unusual, goofy colors.


Television and Movies: I group these together because the best movies being made these days are television series. Certainly, I went to some movies this past year, but most of them were major franchise movies that I saw because I love my boy and (sub-plot) I love a huge, refillable vat of popcorn. So in terms of movies, I can say this:

I am enamored of Dr. Strange‘s cloak and can’t believe how epically online shopping options, including Etsy, failed me in my quest to buy a decent one for myselfIMEANMYSON, for under, ummm, $250; 

Kubo and the Two Strings was gorgeously rendered;

It took me by surprise, the way my eyes filled with tears and my heart did a slow rrrrrrrrriiiiiipppp during the last moment of Rogue One;

Oh, and although Paco didn’t watch it with me, I found a perfect kind of joy in Sing Street, for its rich callback to the ’80s, its hero whose interest didn’t come from a crisis of confidence, and its purely upbeat vibe of hope.

More frequent in my life is the watching of tv series on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. ALL HAIL THE ERA OF STREAMING. I was wowed by a lot of shows this past year — from Jessica Jones to Daredevil to Bojack Horseman to The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Making a Murderer. Particular stand-outs were:

  • Catastrophe: This British comedy following a couple figuring themselves out after a surprise pregnancy makes my every hair curl in the swirl and whirl of a happy girl.
  • Fleabag: Can a show be perfection? This one was for me. Six episodes and only six episodes, adapted from an award-winning play, this show is raunchy and honest and flays the heart.
  • Chewing Gum: When a 24-year-old whose family is strongly evangelical decides it’s time to lose her virginity, that quest is worth watching. The star, Michaela Coel, is a gifted comedienne, reminding me of a couple other women with an ability to win an audience through bumbling earnestness: Lucy and Carol Burnett.
  • The Crown: Because Byron and I watch shows together, yet he gets tired at night while I do not, sometimes I look for a program that I know will appeal to me more than to him. This show’s lush, detailed, intimate depiction of England’s royal family is currently my most-delicious late-night snack.
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: This show is even better than its summary promises — it’s so much more than the story of a sad woman who uproots herself from a successful career in NYC and moves to the random suburb of West Covina, California, in the hopes of winning back her teenage summer camp boyfriend. Despite that premise, the women in this show avoid most of the common tropes (Yay! They talk to each other; they are smart; they like each other — as creator Rachel Bloom explains, “I wanted to invite women in”). Even better, the show is a musical: every episode features songs that leave me snorting. For example, the song about protagonist’s big breasts made me limp. Listen to the lyrics, guys:


Music: There were some great albums released in 2016, some of which will remain on permanent rotation in my playlists. 

  • Beyonce’s Lemonade
  • Frank Ocean’s Blond
  • A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It from Here . . . ; Thank You for Your Service
  • Solange’s A Seat at the Table
  • Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love!


Thinking: Yes, yes, yes to this:

Example: if you strongly feel that the protesters at Standing Rock are noble and just in taking a stand . . . and that Native Americans’ rights have been trampled for hundreds of years . . . how can you celebrate Thanksgiving — that artfully crafted tribute to Native American and white colonialist collaboration — with truth in your heart? 

It’s okay for us to question what we do and have always done. Inspection often proves we creatures of ritual don’t make much sense. Analyzing the disconnects between what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is an excellent critical thinking exercise. It could, just could, lead to change.

Wow. That blowhardy last paragraph is a clear indication I’m revving up for another semester of teaching. Anyhow, my dudes: thinking. It’s recommended.


Shoes: I have a decades-long emotional relationship with hoof covers, but each passing year has confirmed we get what we pay for with shoes. Whereas, when I was a teen, there was nothing more exciting than a cheap pair of flats bought for $9.99 at Payless, I’ve discovered in the subsequent decades that quality is worth the price. 

In fact, let’s file that as the true lesson of this final sub-heading. Say it out loud. Internalize it. It’s a tough lesson, particularly because there are exceptions, but I would ask you all now to jot down in your journals of Jocelyn Wisdoms these words: “Quality is worth the price.” This is true with shoes, foundation garments, food, and life partners (Byron cost me a cool seven trillion).

Recently, I got a new pair of spendy shoes, thanks to two of my best friends, Virginia and Kirsten. Virginia has been writing a book about one of her former pets, Lurch — a hunchbacked, club-footed cockatiel — and she asked for my help with editing and revisions. As payment for my time, she offered me money or shoes. 



So one weekend, Kirsten took me to the Fluevog store in Minneapolis while Virginia remained in our hotel room, writing a new chapter of the book. Even weeks later, I am giddy that a new pair of clompers came home with me. There is no rational reason for the joy I get from these shoes, the same way getting excited about lipstick is frivolous and, oh yes, shallow. Trust me: I can see a frantic energy behind my devotion to fripperies; I can see it’s a way of deflecting feelings of worry and fear; I can admit a certain amount of my excitement about platform boots named Gear is actually a desperate counter-reaction to the grimness of the public landscape — dancing as fast as I can and all.

Then again.

When I stomp around in my new boots, I think of Virginia. I think of Kirsten. I think of friends and love. Hell, I put those things on, and I actually smile while doing housework.

They make me feel powerful.

They make me feel

— like I can kick 2017’s ass.

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I Suck at Badges. Reading Emails. Following Rules.

“Do you have your badge with you?” He smoothed his lapel, his gum chewing at odds with suit and tie. 

“Yeah, I do,” I assured him. “It’s buried somewhere in my bag, but if you hang on a minute, I’ll set this other stuff down and dig for it.” My arms were laden with folders, grade book, stapler, pens, and the invisible but weighty emotional baggage of sixteen weeks. Next to my feet sat a maroon satchel containing dry erase markers, staples, paper, keys, phone, lipsticks, bandaids, snacks, clips, and extra ballpoints. “Do you want me to find it?” I asked the man helping me gain access to my classroom. 

“No, that’s okay,” he eased back, grabbing the badge hanging from a lanyard strung around his neck and swiping it in front of the door.

Then, after a pause, he couldn’t help himself: “But do you have your badge? I’d like to see if it works.”

As we negotiated, dozens of students pushed past, nerves hustling them to seats so that they could boot up the computers and get ready to write. 

It was final exam day. We were running late. To everyone’s surprise, the classroom had been locked, leaving students milling in the hallway, wondering if the teacher was going to show, joking that maybe the final would be canceled. 

The teacher showed. The exam wasn’t canceled. 

Unfortunately, the teacher had no key.


When it comes to my job, there isn’t enough Me to engage with All.

Many of my colleagues have more adaptable circuitry and thrive when they explore the breadth and depth of All. Teaching? Just go in there and do it. Meetings? A meaningful way to make an impact. Changes of staff in the various campus offices? Chances for new friends. Updates in policies? Not hard to track; just read the emails! Planned social hours? FUN! It’s great when we hang out and get to know each other better!

Not so for me. Teaching is exhausting; meetings of questionable worth; revolving personnel impossible to track; new policies a buzzing that will change pitch again in a few years; planned socializing an outright hardship.

Confoundingly, I present as expansive, breadthy, and depthy, yet the truth is I am someone who has X to give, and in my equation, there are seven-foot-thick cement walls forming parentheses around X.

Indeed, if I hope for career longevity, I have to pick and choose which things matter the most, which things dovetail with my abilities, which things not only tap but also fill. I have X. Work pushes for All, striking chinks into my walls.

Many days end with me, squatting, piling sloughed off cement chips onto my open palm. There. I stacked them into a little tower, I reassure myself. 


He stood in the door frame, peering into the classroom with curiosity, his eyes alert, watching with wonder the energy of students settling into their seats. Thanking him again for his assistance while dragging a trash can to the doorway and using it to prop the thing open — “in case anyone needs to run out in the next couple hours and use the bathroom” — I promised the man in the navy suit I would dig out my badge and test its efficacy before leaving the classroom that day. 

Shucking off my thanks, he asked one last time, “Do you usually meet in this classroom?” YES. “And you’re scheduled to have a final exam in here right now?” Um, YES. “And the door has never been locked before?” 

No, never in the entire semester of class meetings held in this room, on this day of the week, at this time, had the room when locked when we arrived. Never before had we been locked out. Of course, haha, isn’t it just the way that something unusual would happen on the very last day, when everyone’s already stressed out?


As much as I projected bright and confident to the suit wearer, I felt sheepish that I hadn’t remembered faculty badges are programmed so they can open classroom doors with a quick swipe. I mean, months before I had read the email about it.

Skimmed it.

As I hit “Delete.”

I was probably eager to move onto the string of student emails — the daily peppering of “Could you maybe…?” “I messed up…” “When you told us to _____, did you mean…?” “My grandma…” “I don’t have the textbook…” “My meds aren’t….” “I have to be in court…” “How do you cite a government document when there is no author?”

Even more, although the gum chewer wasn’t overt about it, I knew I was busted.

I’d also read the emails about staff and faculty being urged (some might say “required”) to wear their badges at all times while on campus.

Here’s something really interesting that goes on behind my thick cement walls, though: we don’t wear badges and name tags there. Rather, we use words to say our names to each other. We look at each other and talk. Or, if a stranger breathlessly topples over the top of the 15-foot-high barrier and stirs up a puff of dust as he lands at our feet, we might just pat his shoulder and point, wordlessly, to the barrel of beer next to the blacksmith’s forge. We don’t need to know his name; he can just be there. Maybe later we’ll get to know him. Without the gimmick of a name tag. Moreover, if we get brave and drop the drawbridge so we — in full armor! — can gallop our fine steeds across the moat, say, to a fundraiser in a fancy house or to a cocktail party, we know immediately that we’ve made a terrible decision if we spot “Hello, My Name Is” tags in the foyer. 

One time I pinned a stack of fifty such tags to some William Morris wallpaper with my lance before clanking out in a rage.

I do understand why a workplace might want employees to wear badges. I get it. However, I’m an ornery juvenile — or maybe I cleave to an old-fashioned notion of college dynamics; at any rate, I sidestep the policy.

My badge is in my bag.


As the man in the suit, his cud in full chew, started to turn, raised a hand to indicate his departure, I offered a suggestion.

“You know, there were a couple of classes, not just mine, waiting in the hallway when I first ran down to the administrative offices to ask if anyone had a key. That’s never happened before today. The doors have always been unlocked when we show up — until today. But when the assistant in your office, the one who handles the switchboard, tried calling Security and Maintenance to see if anyone could come help, no one answered the phone. Then she realized that they all are out of the building right now, down at the main entrance to the college, because there have been multiple accidents in the last half hour on that stretch of road heading to the stoplight. It’s super icy, I guess, and a bunch of cars have slid off or crashed into each other. It’s apparently quite a pile-up. So I’ll bet the people who usually oversee opening the classrooms are otherwise engaged.”

His eyebrows jumped off his forehead and hovered two inches above his hairline. Cars crashing and sliding at the main entrance? What?

“Yeah,” I affirmed, turning to face my students as I reiterated. “Everyone might want to use the back exit after finishing the final because the main road is a mess.” I didn’t tell them the switchboard operator had cupped a hand to her mouth while whispering confidentially, “They never put salt or dirt out there. They can’t be bothered.”

The man in the navy suit had follow-up questions, but as his mouth opened, his voice was overridden by those of the students. Just as the president of the college started to ask me for details about the crashes, a firefighting student in the second row, his face scrunched, called out, “Wait, what do you mean ‘back exit’? Where is that? How do I get to it when I’m done today?”

The president’s mouth continued to move, but he couldn’t be heard, for the tall-haired guy in the back row shouted an answer, “So, when you get in your car, you’ll follow the main road, but the other direction. You’ll want to head that way.” He gestured out the window.

Simultaneously, three other voices chimed in with instructions and commentary. 

Taking a step backwards, eager to return to his natural habitat, the president gave me a wave, and I reiterated, “I’ll be sure to test my badge, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll get it updated. Thanks again!”


Two hours later, the room was empty. As I sat marking essays, cross-referencing paper and online grade books, wondering if the tennis player was going to earn enough points to pass the class, the room went dark. I flailed my arms like an orangutan feeling the beat; the lights switched on. A few minutes later, it went dark again. I put my hands over my head and swayed back and forth, my body bending side to side. I pretended it was 1986, I was at a Boston concert, and they were playing “Amanda.” An imaginary Bic lighter reached high. The room stayed dark. 

While this felt like an insult to Boston, I knew automated technology was finicky. Sometimes it took standing and walking to trigger the sensors. Then again, maybe it was time to pack up and head to my office, a place with thick walls and eternal light. 

Before loading my arms with papers and folders, I leaned down and dug through my bag. Ah, yea, there was my badge. It was clipped to an anchor and on a retractable string. Well now, that had been very organized of me. Apparently, at some point, I had carefully attached it for easy future access. Huh.

Killing the just-back-to-life lights, stepping into the hall, I let the door fall closed against the dim, hushed classroom. Satisfyingly, it clicked as it locked. 

Then, in a moment of anticipation and “What if…?” — the best kind of moment — I waved my badge in front of the key pad.

There was another click, the sound of a door unlocking. 

It worked. All along, like Dorothy longing to get back to Kansas, I had everything I needed. I just didn’t know it.


In his suit, behind his desk, protected in the confines of his office, he was a perfect figurehead.


Even though I had the key, even though I was fully capable without involving him, I’m glad the president was pulled from the easy comfort of his snug office. I’m glad my need extracted him from his cocoon. I’m glad he rubbed shoulders with the people he serves, glad he entered the fray, glad he saw how easily his voice could be drowned by those of his constituents. It was important that he be relegated to the sidelines while the chaotic masses created an energy that rendered him superfluous. It was important that someone’s desire for help woke him to the disorder just outside his door. 

The president may have a badge.

But the rest of us — with our muddy boots and overflowing arms and shouted ideas and stressed-out hearts — together, we are the power.


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Walk of Shame Snow Woman

Three years ago, back in 2013 when good things still seemed possible, I started a serial on Facebook involving a snow lady we’d made in the front yard. Periodically, when we weren’t shoveling out from the latest blizzard or fending off mid-winter fluesies, I’d toss out another post about this snow lady and her imagined life. 

About six people got really into it, and the rest of FB either ignored it or were bamfoozled by it. 

No matter how many understood the snow lady’s very particular vibe, I kept tossing out updates on her until one day I stopped — probably because it was so blasted cold outside that my camera kept seizing up whenever I’d go out to stage another photo shoot…or because my fingers went to frostbite before I could get the shot…or because I was sorry for how thoroughly I’d freaked out the mail carrier. All he wanted to do was drop some envelopes through the slot, but every time he got near his house, he saw this crazy white-fingered lunatic dancing around, stomping her feet, hollering swear words at her camera and carrying on an animated conversation with a snow person. 

And then, because it was the snowiest April on record that year, a few more crazy storms dropped inches of fluff, and eventually the scene out our front door was obscured by nature. There will come soft rains and all that jazz.

Anyhow, the other day on Facebook, a friend saw a photo of the snow lady crop up in his memories from past years, and he commented on it. This, of course, in the weirdness of Facebook, meant that the photo showed up in the feeds of a few other folks, and eventually, it became obvious that I should go back and dredge up the posts about my snow lady and pull them together somehow.

That somehow is here. Now. 

Please, then, very kindly: enjoy the exploits of our spirited heroine.

The mustachioed man at the bar had her in fits of laughter by her fourth gin & tonic.

After her fifth G & T, they hit the exit together.

The next morning, her head pounding, her mascara smudged, nursing a little hair of the dog, she stumbled home, vowing “Never again.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Walk of Shame Snow Woman.



Their eyes had met across a crowded bar.


Dapper. Mustachioed. How could a tipsy girl resist?


After last call, they stumbled back to his place. During the walk, she tried — that minx! — to grab his rear end.

Her vision blurred, she missed her target and punched him in the testes.

Fortunately, his balls were made of ice. He never flinched.


Forty weeks later.



It was only after part of her face fell off (warm temperatures and sheer fatigue) that Walk of Shame Snow Woman’s postpartum issues became obvious.

She was tired of standing in the same place all day, every day, feeling like she was never getting anywhere. She was tired of the baby’s clove-scented breath wafting into the hole where her carrot used to be. Damn it. She was just. so. tired.

Those once-lovin’ arms weren’t so lovin’ any more.

baby-drop baby-drop2


It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number during their one night together. Even more fortunate was the fact that she’d entered his digits correctly, given the five gin & tonics sloshing through her system.

It was fortunate she’d taken his phone number because now, nearly a year later, she needed him. She needed his help. She needed her Baby Daddy to step up.

As Walk of Shame Snow Woman applied herself to postpartum recovery, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy, having just learned he was a father, revealed a strength of character that would have surprised both the Boy Scout troop leader (“NO, THAT IS NOT HOW YOU TIE A FARMER’S LOOP. IF YOU’VE DONE THE KNOT CORRECTLY, I SHOULD NOT BE STRAPPED TO A TREE RIGHT NOW”) and the pastor (“WHEN I SAID ‘LIGHT THE ALTAR CANDLES,’ I DIDN’T MEAN ‘SET FIRE TO THE ENTIRE NAVE'”) from his youth. Dismissed by so many, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up guy came into his own as a father. The babe, so recently tumbled from his mother’s overwhelmed arms, was surrounded by love at Daddy’s house.



In the meantime, rallying emotionally and physically from the demands of new motherhood, Walk of Shame Snow Woman decided it was time she did something for herself, something that would help her look forward to the future with hope and a positive attitude.

She scheduled a visit with the plastic surgeon. A few weeks later, recovering from rhinoplasty, Walk of Shame Snow Woman eyed herself in the mirror, smiling as hugely as her straight stick allowed.

Finally, she had the little button nose she’d coveted her whole life.



He called her and left a message: “Could the baby stay with me for a few more weeks? I know you’ve been feeling better since getting that little button nose, and I’m sure you’re eager to have the baby come back, but, well, we’re having a really good time and enjoying all the new toys I bought, so maybe if we could extend the stay…?”



And although she was feeling more like herself again as the post-partum haze lifted and her new nose settled into its pit, Walk of Shame Snow Woman knew that the baby was still better off with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, for the time being.

…because she still had some livin’ to do before settling down, returning to motherhood, and introducing Baby to its first solids (softened ice cream sandwiches). Thus, two days after agreeing to let MBH-UBD continue to care for their child, WoSSW left him this gleeful voicemail: “I did it! I’ve always wanted some ink, so I did it! Thank you for helping me find the time and space to make some of my tattoo dreams come true! I’m sending you photos of the work I had done last night after last call. They closed the bar, and then Charmaine and Patricka and I walked down to The Poison Pin and got inked! Check your phone; I’m texting pictures! I got one tatt on my bottom ball and one on my middle ball–wanted to get one on my head ball, too, but chickened out. Probably a good thing I didn’t have that seventh Fuzzy Navel, actually!”

He checked his phone. He saw the images of her tattoos.

hungry-hippos tattoo

He wondered how hard it would be to gain permanent custody.


Whistling “The Wheels on the Bus” as he and the baby exited their Daddy and Me Gymboree class, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy checked his messages.

Well, there: a message from Walk of Shame Snow Woman. She was finally checking in. It had been a few days since he’d heard from her. MBH-UBD had been starting to worry she’d been hospitalized for Tattoo Infection or jailed for Exuberant Denial of Motherhood.

She picked up her phone on the first ring, bursting out, “HI! How’ve you and the baby been doing? Bonding a lot? I’m really glad you two are having this time together–”

“Yes, about that–” he tried to interject, but she interrupted.

“I know I sure am having a blast. Charmaine and Patricka liked my new ink so much that we had to go back the next night and get some work done on them. And then today, I thought to myself, ‘Girl, you need to pamper yourself; life is short!’ so I went to the salon and had LeTrice do my make-up and give my hair a blow-out, and now I’m feeling like a kajillion!”



Although his first reaction was to redefine “pampering” as “selfishness,” he counted to ten and aimed for compassion. These last months hadn’t been easy on WoSSW, and, to be honest, he, too, had gone through phases of self-exploration, like the time he got into ear gauges and stretched his lobes to the point of sporting 3/4″ plugs.


“Well, okay, then,” he replied slowly. “I’m glad you’re flying high, albeit from your same frozen spot, and I’m sure that blow-out looks appropriately storm tangled. I’d like to propose an idea, though: why don’t we have the baby continue to stay with me while you work on some things that are less, well, body oriented. Since you’ve put in some time on your appearance, could I ask that you now focus on strengthening and improving the other parts of your life? I really feel like our baby could use a mother who can read books more than pour drinks; who can tell stories that aren’t about hours in the tattoo artist’s chair; who can make food instead of eating other patrons’ Happy Hour leftovers off the bar; who can play freeze tag instead of quarters.”

There was silence on the line. Finally, she spoke: “Huh to the what at the where?

Trying to clarify, he asked more directly: “I ask this with complete empathy — I mean, I’ve definitely sown a few wild oats in my day what with being the drummer for a major rock band and all — but how about you take some time now to grow up and become a parent?”


Still on the phone with Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy, registering his strong words regarding her need to grow up, Walk of Shame Snow Woman felt defensive.

What was wrong with getting a nose job? She’d have him know her confidence had skyrocketed since getting that little button nose! She was handing out her number to all the elves at the Horn O’ Plenty since the rhinoplasty! And what was so bad about her new tattoos? They were symbolic…of…you know…things. Like how sometimes she got hungry just like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo.

However, the same sense of self-preservation that had gotten her through eight months in juvie when she was fifteen kicked in now. If she lit into him and tore him another carrot hole, he might get peeved in return and refuse to keep the baby for a few more weeks.

She wasn’t quite ready for the baby to come back to her place yet. She and Charmaine and Patricka were going to the casino to play some keno Friday night, and then she wanted to go get her nails done at Klassy ‘Cures like that one lady at the bowling alley who never bowled. It wasn’t easy, having a broken lacrosse scoop for a hand; what girl wouldn’t want to freshen that look with a kick-ass mani?

Her cuticles were shredded.
The lady at the bowling alley who never bowled.

What she needed to do was buy herself some more baby-free time.

Thus, Walk of Shame Snow Woman tamped down her urge to shriek and instead warmed her voice so as to sound less icy:

“You know, MBH-UBD, you’re right. I do need to start being less selfish. I do need to start improving other parts of my life besides my own appearance. At some point, a girl should just say to herself, ‘Sweetheart, relax. Your bottom ball of snow is already as taut as a watermelon rind. It’s okay to miss a day or two at the gym.'”

Stuttering a bit, for he’d rather expected to melt in the face of a blistering response, he managed, “Tha-, that’s great to hear. So maybe you can get your life pulled together, and then the baby can have some time with you.”

“Yea, sure. Just give me a few weeks to, y’know, do some laundry and find the toaster and catch up on Springer. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”

Attempting to rub his head with frustration, but finding his arm couldn’t bend, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy put on the pressure: “You might need to fast track some of that. The thing is, I actually need to you take the baby next week, because I’m going out on tour with the boys.”


What? What boys? What tour? Whaddya mean you’re ‘going on tour with the boys’? Wait a moonshine minute: do you lead rich dicks on some sort of Grand Tour and drag them through Les Invalides or something? Do. not. tell. me. you are a cicerone who exposes the upper crust to fencing and the Alps? Do you bend the ears of callow youth in the Uffizi as you babble about about the subtle use of light in di Cosimo’s ‘Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi’? Well, well, well, slam the rusty gate on my festering big toe and get me a tetanus shot!” she bellowed, scratching her armpit and inhaling as she lit a Marlboro (menthol).

Completely exasperated, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy clipped out, “Come ON. No, I am not a cicerone — and by the way, your accent is amazing — nor do I lead lads from the Hamptons around Europe. You know full well what I mean when I say I’m ‘going on tour with the boys.’ I told you the night we met that I’m a drummer in a band, that I’m known for my unique style of not using drumsticks. I told you how I just use my arms because they percuss and chshshshsh and whama-whama-whama like no manufactured stick ever could. I told you all this.”

Although his words beat a faint bada-bing on her mental hi-hat, WoSSW didn’t exactly recall all this information, what with the five gin & tonics she’d had the night they’d met. Attempting to appease him, WoSSW asked, “You know, although I was very clearly attracted to your sassy knit cap that night at the bar, I actually am a little fuzzy about the rest. Like, for one, how we got a baby out of it. Also, um, that you’re in a band. Do you do, like, a drumline? Whenever drums go by in a parade, I jump around like I’m moshing and can’t stop until the woodwinds body surf me over to the clown candy.”

Sighing deeply, once again blaming the eleven shots of Jägermeister he’d had at the bar that night for messing up what had previously been a relatively simple life, MBH-UBD informed her, “NO, I do not make my living playing in a drumline. No one does, you powder-for-brains goose. I’ll send you a picture of me with the guys, and then you’ll get it. And once you realize who the lead singer is, you’ll understand why I’m so good at taking care of babies. Hang up. I’m sending it.”



Given a timeline, motivated by the hope that she might gain access to Slash, she reassessed. Frick yea, she could do this.

Giving it her best “wastrel tramp who likes Jim Beam” effort, Walk of Shame Snow Woman started to make some changes. Two days later, MBH-UBD’s phone rang; it was she. Breathlessly, WoSSW announced, “Dude, I rule. I got a job. Sure it’s seasonal, only a couple of days this week, in fact — but that just means I have more time to work on getting my trash heap of a subsidized apartment ready for the baby to move in while you’re touring with Axl and the boys. And the great thing about this job is that I totally get the idea of working now. Working is killer! I just stand there and vape a little Peach Schnapps e-cig and chat with my colleague Aunistee while people drop stuff off. I get seven bucks for every sixty ticks — and that’s totally two margaritas at Happy Hour!”

Wanting to be supportive but feeling flummoxed, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy managed, “That’s great, Walk of Shame. Yea, work can be all right, depending on the job. I know with Axl, sometimes things get tense, especially when I suggest he consider a little bit more in the pants department, but mostly, being a drummer rocks. Soooo: what IS your new job?”


A bit distracted by the notion of Axl’s lack of pants, WoSSW didn’t answer at first. Eventually, though, she revealed, “Oh, I’m a Christmas Tree Drop-Off Site Logistician and Coordinator. I run the chipper.”



And that’s where we left this romance of and from the snow: with two lost souls lurching through their days, banging their way through the world. The baby is now three — benefiting from the enrichments of Head Start. Currently, Mustachioed Bar Hook-Up Baby Daddy is drumming for Kings of Leon.

And our heroine? 

Sometimes she still gets overwhelmed. Sometimes she spends her rent money on new ink. Always, she drinks too much. Every week, she spends two hours at her job — emptying the quarters out of the machines at a laundromat, pouring them into a heavy plastic bag that she then thumps onto the desk of a cigar-chewing guy named Lenny. 

And twice a week, she has a session with her therapist, the renowned Dr. Paco. Known for his unorthodox methods, he reclines on a snow chaise longue while WoSSW stands rigidly in the corner. But as soon as the kindly doc looks her in the leafy eye and asks — with the only compassion she’s ever known — “Why do you suppose you’re so bent on self-sabotage?” — 

she melts.


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