I didn’t wrap one single gift this season.
Relatedly: this was my favorite stretch of holiday weeks ever.
It actually started with Thanksgiving, when we curtsy-ed our way out of traditional family celebrations and, instead, invited friends from Massachusetts to visit. Were I to highlight a moment that illustrates why I loved this year’s Thanksgiving, it would be this: during the visiting family’s three-day stay, my college friend, Ellen–a woman who writes, explores podcasting, mothers, wifes, teaches yoga to kids, makes Baked Alaska, contemplates the journey of radiation after a couple of lumpectomies–plopped her earbuds into her skull and listened to voices float through her head while noodling around with the jigsaw puzzle I’d recently taken out of the box. Spotting her in there at the table, staring at the white pieces and absorbing ideas through her ears, I plugged my ears, too, and wandered in to work next to her, both of us unspeaking.
That’s all I ask from a Thanksgiving: being with friends and not talking to or looking at them.
Then, as the next step in our avoidance of holiday celebrations, we traveled to Nicaragua for Christmas. Because of this trip, we didn’t get a tree, didn’t even drag in a dead branch and hang all the crap from it, as we did last year. We didn’t “do” presents, except with family for whom the exchange matters. I’m never one for decorating, but this year, I didn’t even try to pretend that I might be someone who would set out some red balls in a bowl.
I went nowhere near the tub in the basement that contains wrapping paper, and that particular lack of action decked my damn halls from rafter to tile.
As was the case with Thanksgiving, this Christmas was my favorite ever.
We did not participate in culturally induced fuss. We did not bow to the pressures of tradition but, instead, scraped out enough space from expectation that we were allowed, simply, to feel how we felt– instead of sitting in a circle and remarking to the assembled friends or family that, yes, those new socks sure looked warm, those socks recently extracted from a wad of paper now lying under the coffee table, a wad that would lie there, next to bits of tape and ribbon, until I climbed around on all fours stuffing the detritus into a garbage bag after the room cleared, an activity I always carry out while shouting inside my head, “There’s actually a stack of books upstairs next to my bed I’d like to be reading instead of cleaning up a mound of trash.”
This year, profoundly, significantly, I wrapped NOTHING.
Here, now, however, as of this sentence, I’m all about the wrap-up. For as much as I am ornery about traditions and rituals, I must admit to enjoying year-end lists and recommendations.
If you don’t, flee now. Catch ya on the rebound, Gomer.
If you do, settle in for the following highlights from 2015:
- BOOZE: In 2015, I continued to find beer very tasty. In particular, I found that any product of Evil Twin Brewing–which is fairly limited in its distribution–is invariably phenomenal. There is actually the story of twins behind this brewery; their acrimony smacks of Cain and Abel, as is explained in a story in The New York Times Magazine: “A Fight Is Brewing.” All I can tell say is this: if you are one to enjoy a complex beer, and you are standing in a liquor store, hoping to find something to spark your palate, and you see the label Evil Twin, then you should clutch at your ass, pull your wallet out from your back pocket, and roll that beer up to the checkout.
- BOOKS: I fear I’ve never mentioned that I like books. I should fix that. Here. Now. For me, particularly satisfying reads this year came from Italian author Elena Ferrante (whom I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but she deserves repeat mentions), as I fell into her series of four “Neapolitan Novels” and then sought out one of her other books, Days of Abandonment. When I consider why I feel such enthusiasm for Ferrante, I realize it’s that she and her female protagonists are unapologetically themselves. Right now, where I am in life, I’m in the mood for hardboiled over sentimental. Another book I read this past year–well, technically over Christmas itself a year ago–and enjoyed immensely, in a way that had me actually snorting audibly, was Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Even readers not in academia will find the dry weariness of a beleaguered professor writing letters of recommendation to be hoot-worthy. A third read that sticks with me is the essay “Matricide” from Meghan Daum’s collection The Unspeakable. Daum, like Ferrante, has no energy for pussyfooting. Next, I was surprised by how much I got into the book Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. Initially, I grabbed it at the library because I needed something to read, but once I dove into this re-telling of the story of Rapunzel, I was all in. There’s something about probing the darkness behind a fairytale that caught me. And finally, partially because I stretched the reading of it throughout all of 2015 (I would only read it in the car while we drove up the hill to the shopping area of town) and partially because it’s like no other book I’ve ever read, there is Kerry Howley’s Thrown. I would not say this book is ammmmazing, nor is it a must-read for most people, but there is a certain subset of readers (hello, my college pal Tim Nielson!) who might find fascinating this tale of a philosophy graduate student who spends three years serving as a liminal “spacetaker” (aka member of the entourage) for two mixed martial arts fighters. Applying the diction and thinking of philosophy to the sweating gruntiness of cage-based athletes, Howley’s book is truly novel.
- CINEMA: I also love movies although I never see half enough interesting ones during these years when my best movie-viewing hours are spent on kid stuff. More and more, though, I am able to creep off for an occasional matinee at the indie theater in town. A few months back, I sat by myself in the dark and happily melted into the feminist rant that is Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin.
- FRIENDS: I very much like people in real life, but the powerful presence of online friends continues to enrich my days. Over this past year, I have loved many people I’ve never met; one particular standout from recent months is the writer Brooke Takhar, who blogs at missteenussr.com. For her genuine heart, positive energy, lack of agenda, empathetic support of many, and ability to serve as a sort of personal shopper for me on the Internet–so able during late-night hours to toss me links to things that I end up adoring–I want to shout a lot about Brooke.
- MUSIC: I’m always looking for new workout music. I have no trouble finding good grassroots groups or floaty dreams of tunes, but it’s damn hard to find a driving, rousing beat that makes my feet want to move. The aforementioned Brooke transformed my year when she tagged me on an Instagram post about the new release from mashup artist Bruneaux. Quickly, I discovered that I could download his Art of Noise, free, from SoundCloud. More recently, I’ve downloaded his previous albums, as well, so now you can spot me in the corner at the Y, cranking my feet up and down to the beats of stuff like this:
- ADVICE: I try to pass this on in my research writing classes especially, but in this era of web-based communications, it seems solid advice for all of us, particularly for those who channel their emotions into posting passive-aggressive memes instead of initiating direct conversations: challenge yourself to avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias. That is, if you’ve decided something or someone is a certain way, don’t only look for evidence that supports your existing opinion. I dare you to have your brain bent because you’re willing to accept you may not be correct. Look for information that disagrees with what you want to think. Question your opinions. Let your certainty experience vulnerability. Try this one on: we all know what we think of Donald Trump. Yet he has five intelligent, successful, poised children who are unabashedly devoted to him. That doesn’t come from nowhere, and I’m unwilling to cop to the easy quip that their devotion comes from hopes of an eventual inheritance. I will never like the bloviating dipwad, but I should not only try to marshal evidence of his idiocy. His children respect him. He has done something right.
- PODCASTS: In 2015, podcasts continued to be one of my main sources of entertainment and information. Whenever I run or walk, I listen to the voices in my head–and not just the whispering voices that tell me I’d be a good mentor to Khloe Kardashian or guest judge on Project Runway. Like the crazy voices that always dance through my head, the deliberate ones that pipe in through my earbuds influence me. A good podcast can change my day. While I have a handful of favorites, two that emerged this year as standouts were Mystery Show and Longform. Mystery Show is hosted by Starlee Kine, she of childlike voice and wry take on the world; in each episode, she takes some workaday “mystery” (for example, she chases down the story behind a lost belt buckle, found on the street) and wrings meaning and entertainment from it. I actually remember where I was as I listened to that belt buckle podcast: in the sure garden, kneeling amongst hosta plants, yanking weeds. During the story, there came a moment when I needed to wipe tears from my eyes, but my fingers were too dirt encrusted, so I had to rub at my eyes with my forearm. Then there is Longform, a completely different kind of program. Each week, the hosts of Longform carry out an extended interview with a different non-fiction writer. As I listen, I learn the art and stress of writing a celebrity profile, hunting down a story in a war-torn country, being embedded into a marginal subculture, cobbling together an income from freelance writing. Even better, this podcast introduces me to writers and pieces I would otherwise never encounter. One essay that came to me through this podast is Ariel Levy’s “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” which ran in The New Yorker. If you have a few minutes, I recommend you click on that title. Even more, if you aren’t a podcast listener, I recommend you consider easing into this unique, intimate form of media.
- SENTENCE: I don’t know how it eluded me until recently, but I had never before 2015 encountered this beautiful string of words, a snippet of prose by John Updike that illustrates the craftsmanship of a true writer: “On the single strand of wire strung to bring our house electricity, grackles and starlings neatly punctuated an invisible sentence.”
- VISITORS: We are extremely fortunate to have friends and family visit frequently. (Sidenote: this is the year I realized, at long last, that I enjoy visitors exponentially more if we don’t give up the master bedroom to them; traditionally, we have done that, and it causes an extra layer of work and stress. Thus, when we don’t have to move out of our room, we shan’t. WHEW). The most unexpected and delightful convergence of guests occurred this summer through the whimsical chance of schedules, when we found in our house my brother and one of his daughters, the irrepressible Sofia, who flew up from Albuquerque, New Mexico; our great friend Kirsten, who lives four hours south of us in southern Minnesota and who had come to Duluth with one of her high school students and the student’s mother to help the student enroll at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (mother and daughter stayed in a hotel while Kir slept on our couch); and the ever-charming trio of friends Ileyn, aka Elaine, and her two children, Selin and Can (John), who visit the States from Istanbul each year and have worked Duluth into their itinerary these past couple of summers. During The Great Convergence, we had in our house a 51-year-old retired Air Force officer who now is a civilian military employee, a 48-year-old English teacher, a 44-year-old literacy volunteer interviewer, a 43-year-old sociology instructor who also teaches at-risk high schoolers, a 41-year-old elementary school teacher from Turkey, a 15-year-old sandwich shop dishwasher, a 14-year-old anime lover, two 12-year-old goofballs, and a 6-year-old elf. I knew the visit was magic when: I managed to Tom Sawyer a few of ’em into mowing for me, we went to the beach, weaponry was busted out, we went geocaching, and then, later, a few of ’em dyed their hair blue. Oh, yea, and ice cream!
- TEACHING: The college where I teach has long struggled to make developmental education more effective. In previous eras, the word for “developmental” was “remedial,” and the remediation didn’t necessarily happen during college but, rather, before one even considered college. However, it’s a whole new world out there on college campuses these days, especially community colleges, and institutions of higher education are now as dedicated to bridging gaps as they are to advancing higher thinking. In my 25 years of teaching, developmental classes have been, almost uniformly, train wrecks, leaving me uncertain if it’s the students or it’s me who’s failing. After 15 or so years of teaching developmental classes, I did my best to take a break from them, as they were convincing me I didn’t belong in a classroom, and on some level, my instincts weren’t comfortable with that verdict. The truth is, though, that developmental classes aren’t a great experience for most teachers–although some instructors are certainly better wired for the student population than I am. To put a very fine point on it, I struggle to remain compassionate–despite knowing that issues of mental illness, addiction, troubled home lives, and “differently abled” brains deserve compassion–when I’m in a college classroom with students who can’t do college work. Yet. Even though many of our sections of developmental writing might start with, say, 18 students…and by midterm have, say, 12 still attending…and by final exams have, say, eight or nine still showing up, several of whom won’t pass…there is this: for those seven or so students who do pass, maybe three or four of them will continue into college-level classes, and for a couple of them, ultimately, there could be degrees and professional lives in their futures. They may end up being the first-ever college graduates in their families. They may be the first in their families not to work in the mines or in factories. They may be the best possible examples of how a college education can be transformative. They are the reason I was able to say “yes” this past year to participating in a radical overhaul of how we offer our developmental classes on our campus, mostly by turning it from a three- to a four-credit class, with two credits of reading (taught by a reading teacher) and two credits of writing (taught by a writing teacher). It makes sense to treat reading and writing as though they are interrelated, and it makes sense that we stopped basing classes on “this is a noun” and moved more into classes about “write some stuff, and then once you’ve done that, we’ll work with your ideas.” There is always a great deal of sweat the first time one teaches a new class, and so I spent a lot of hours during Fall Semester trying to come up with ideas that would suit the students’ abilities while satisfying my personal need for this pre-college class to feel as though it belonged on a college campus. A lot went well, but the assignment that stands out for me came, again, out of a tip from my pal Brooke, who had directed my attention to the longform essays on Eater.com a few months before. Midway through the semester, as I cast about for an essay that I could ask students to read, annotate, and respond to in writing, I clicked over to Eater. There, I found a piece that wouldn’t trip up pre-college-level readers–yet one containing concepts worthy of college brains: “What It Really Means to Eat a Big Mac at the Arctic Circle.” After students worked through this essay, I had them write journal entries, telling their own story of an emotional connection or special memory they have with a fast food restaurant. Later, sitting in my office, reading those journals, I had a huge, important, affirming moment: the assignment I’d given in a developmental class had yielded fantastic results. I was not used to that feeling. It fed me, made me want to keep trying, gave me hope. Their stories of going to the drive-thru with grandparents, sharing a shake with Dad after his night shift, slinging deli meat across the table at a best friend, getting a chocolate dip cone while listening to mothers laugh–all their rich responses made me think maybe this developmental thing could work after all.
- BLOG: You’ll never guess who turned me on to my new favorite blog this year, but if you guess Brooke then yes, you can guess who turned me on to my new favorite blog this year. When she first shared a link from Samantha Irby’s bitchesgottaeat, I sat in front of the screen, dumbfounded. What was Irby doing? No capital letters? Creating her own rhythms and therefore her own voice? Working in beats and punchlines that made me go back six words and read again, just so I could realize what had just happened? Irby’s writing is, to me, hillllarious, and I adore that her prose requires the reader to shift his/her brain. I have enjoyed each post on bitchesgottaeat so very much that I hoped one day to be able to repay Brooke’s tip by turning her onto a good read, as payback. Fortunately, one night another wonderful blogger, Leigh Ann (she writes at genieinablog.com) shared a piece written by a friend of hers, Heidi Meurer, and I knew this woman’s writing was something Brooke would appreciate as much as I. If you want to become jealous at how funny someone can be in very few words–you know, sort of the anti-Jocelyn–try reading the letters/posts at Your Dear Mama.
- TV SHOW: In this age of streaming, television is the new cinema. It’s actually frustrating that there aren’t enough hours to binge on all the tv shows I want to watch. Jessica Jones, Mr. Robot, Narcos–we’ll get to you eventually, I promise. One show we did get to, and it’s a show that satisfied me in every possible way–actually doing what romantic comedy should do, which is to present appealing people making a relationship seem like something worth exploring–is a British series called Catastrophe, streaming in the States exclusively through Amazon and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. I like my heart to be warmed, but I detest treacle. So far, we’ve only seen the first season–COME ON, AMAZON, AND MAKE SEASON TWO AVAILABLE BEFORE I BURST–and its six episodes felt like perfection.
- MOMENT OF RESTRAINT: Sometimes I start yappin’, and the sound of my voice makes even me tired. As someone who loves to monologue, I often find motherhood a strain because it’s a role in which it particularly feels like I’m supposed to hold forth and pay no attention to my kids’ panicked eyes as I wax on, ad infinitum, about love and choices and confidence and friends. In my best moments, I see an opportunity to hold forth and create panicked eyes, yet I let it pass. Recently, I did just this, and I remain proud of my willpower. This happened: during our time in Nicaragua, Allegra and I were bodysurfing in some high-tide Pacific waves, enjoying the rhythm of the water pushing us around. Then, out of nowhere, a massive wave came along, and before we realized its power, the thing had picked us up, slapped a headache into the back of our skulls, bashed us into the grit seven feet below the surface, and dragged us along the bottom before coughing us onto the shore. In the seconds that the wave held our bodies, scraping our knees and the tops of our feet raw, filling our swimsuits and orifices with sand, making us gasp and push back against fear, we had absolutely no control. The wave owned us, and it was a crystalline example of Nature at the helm. When the wave receded, as we took a few minutes to recover before deciding we were done for the day, I wanted to start talking. I wanted to launch into an extended metaphor about that wave being like childbirth–a time of no control, hurting profoundly, struggling to touch the bottom, moaning for it to stop, and being awash with the agony of knowing all that’s possible is hanging in there until it’s over. Friends, I looked at the sopping, breathless 15-year-old next to me, and I kept my mouth shut. My silence was a significant breakthrough.
- LACK OF RESTRAINT: I will always love shoes beyond reason. A hundred pairs would not feel like too many. If I go away for five days, packing seven pairs seems about right. In fact, one of the most promising parts of 2016 is that it’s 365 more days in which shoes might potentially enter my life. Even better: maybe 365 pairs will drop from the sky–in a variety of sizes and styles–and then I can inventory them, carry out a survey, and send a pair to each and every one of you. Despite my dislike of paper and tape, I’ll even wrap them. Because–
- BLOG READERS: You there, yea YOU, are my utter favorite. Don’t tell the others. I like you so much I’d wrap a pair of shoes for you, and I think we all know that from a Grinch like me, there is no louder declaration of affection. Out of all the many greatnesses of 2015, you’ve been one of the highest of the lights. Thanks, chums, for clapping your eyes on my typing. GROUP HUG ALREADY.