The rumors are true: Kansas is flat. Not all of it, you may be surprised to know, but the part that is flat is so overbearing in its flatness that you forget you ever saw a hill in your life. But it's sort of beautiful that way. The open prairies make you feel free and peaceful, nothing to worry about. If trouble were coming, you would see it half a mile away.


all intensive purposes.

My name is Sandra and I've been a bad blogger.

I feel the need to apologize. And yet I feel the need to not apologize. This is, after all, something I do in my free time for your enjoyment. I'm under no obligations of length, frequency, or even quality of blog articles. But I know that some of you are out there, checking this space every once in a while and going, "What's up with Sandra?" I've finally managed to get my mother to stop nagging me about blogging. And she's a nice lady, so she has. Now, instead, she just mentions the last entry I did and talks about it like it was an old friend.

So I won't apologize, but I will acknowledge that I am aware that my blogging has been sub-par lately. Let's get past that now.

In case I am unable to meet your blogging needs, I would like to recommend an alternative, Language Log. It's far superior to my blog, as it has several interesting and educated contributors and is updated several times a day. But it's all about language. So if you're not interested in that and really only tune in here because we're related or because you are keenly interested in the daily lives of young, female computer programmers, then maybe it's not worth your time.

Language is fascinating. It is so embedded in our daily use that many people don't see it as anything to be studied. But it's alive, and what's more, it's evolving. New words are invented and brought into wide use, others fall away or become other words.

A person on an internet forum was complaining about people who start sentences with conjunctions (and, but, or). Lots of people were taught that doing so was incorrect. The person remarked that this technique is often used in newspapers and magazines, and the fact that professional journalists didn't even know such a basic rule was just a commentary on the general dumbing down of our society.

Okay, so that pissed me off. First of all, because it's not a real rule and starting sentences with conjunctions is perfectly "legal." Secondly, even if it had been a rule, once the journalists start ignoring it, it's effectively not a rule anymore. The rules of grammar change as the populace changes, because a rule is no good if no one ever follows it. When the rules change, nothing is good or bad or smart or stupid, it's just evolving.

It's not just the rules, but the words themselves. Have you ever looked at the etymology of a word and wondered how on earth it came to exist as you know it? It starts off as a Greek word that looks and sounds only like a distant cousin. But over the years the word got changed and reshaped as people passed it along and said it over and over until it because what it is today. And years from now, it may be something completely different again. For example, consider the phrase "for all intents and purposes." For about twenty-two years, I thought the phrase was "for all intensive purposes." You know, because some purposes are intense. So I'd been saying it wrong for years until I saw on a web site that it was another of those commonly misused phrases. I'm not the only one who got it wrong. But if more and more people keep getting it wrong, how long before no one knows the real phrase and the wrong becomes the right?

I read a complaint about Language Log written by a woman who didn't get it. She questioned the way the linguists conduct research, which is to search on Google. If they want to find out how often people use the phrase "for all intensive purposes" as compared to "for all intents and purposes," they search for each and compare the number of hits received. The woman did not think that was an appropriate way to do research. While it's not a good way to conduct an in-depth study, it's an excellent way to get a general idea of something for a blog article. Those Google hits are composed of millions of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles - they give a great picture of how people are using words right now. And that's what the linguists are studying, what language is like at this very second and how it's changing itself right before our eyes.

In case you were curious, "all intensive purposes" received 3,250,000 Google hits, and "all intents and purposes" received 1,930,000. Maybe the incorrect is already correct.

Note: Although my entry turned into my trying to convince you that language is alive and changing, I really would like to give a hearty plug for Language Log. It doesn't just study evolution, but also how language can be manipulated or misconceptions that can occur because of language or commentaries on writing in general. It's really everything language-related. To give you a head start, I've linked a few very good articles to get you interested.

A discussion of why we use country accents when imitating old people

How words from tonal languages are written in English

The media's constant scrutiny of President Bush's speaking prowess

Bart Simpson versus the First Amendment


code freeze.

"Where did November go?" a voices cries out over the cubicle walls. It wasn't my voice, but I lamented along with it. I wanted part of November back. No one would mind another Thanksgiving. Let's go back and celebrate our veterans again! Why can't it be more like 60 days hath November?

My company operates on an annual release cycle, that is, we release a new version of our product every year. We shoot for sometime around March. And so we put out a beta version during January and February, which means we should probably finish up the coding...well, really soon. In fact, the official date that we're told to stop writing new code is December 31st. Would you like to learn a new, hip computer science term?

code freeze (n): The time when programmers stop adding new code. The existing code may be tested for bugs, which can be fixed (and probably should be), but no new features are implemented, no functionality is added.

Code freeze happens for us on December 31st. It's not a friendly deadline, because working overtime to meet your deadline means working during the holidays. I suppose I could be bitter about that, if I weren't so stressed.

I'm not exactly stressed out. I've just got a nagging stress, the kind you got in high school when you were assigned a paper and every day you procrastinated there was this tiny feeling of mild unhappiness in the back of your mind which soured your every second only minutely. I've had this feeling since September.

My only relief is that everyone else seems to be suffering, too. I don't mean that I find joy in the discomfort of others. It's just that I'm new here, and so I don't know how much I'm realistically supposed to get done. But if everyone else, even the folks who have been with the company for 15+ years, are lagging behind, then it gives me hope that at least I'm not the lone gimpy sled dog.

Still, that doesn't really make the stress go away. It only calms me when I'm in danger of hyperventilating that I'm not going to make my deadlines, I'm incompetent, I will start out the new year by looking for another job. I'll just take a deep breath and write code for ten hours straight if I have to. Code freeze will come, but it will happen after I get my features in.

Still. Where did November go?


cramp my style.

"Hey, Sandra, would you mind taking pictures tonight?"

I sigh with defeat. I've been going to Josh's band's shows for over two years now, getting in free, enjoying free beer and food and backstage freedom. And yet I never have to run a merchandise table or take pictures or pass out flyers. Sometimes I have to fetch a beer, but I'm free to get one for myself along the way. Still, I knew that at some point, I would be required to earn my keep by doing more than just kissing the bassist (although I do that a lot).

It was Friday night and we were playing at the Cat's Cradle. I say "we," just like a football fan would say it, as somehow part of the band but in no real way contributing. I love playing the Cradle. To anyone who pays any attention at all to bands that play in clubs smaller than football stadiums, the Cradle is a big deal. I remember living in Boone and wishing that we had such a place where bands would be willing to come play. As it was, I made the four hour drive twice during college.

Aside from being a real club that gets real bands, the people that work there are incredibly nice to us. Every once in a while, we open up for a band at the Lincoln Theatre. They treat us like crap. They yell at us, scold us, kick us out of the green room, are generally just jerks to us because we're a podunk local band. Or maybe they treat the big acts that way, too.

But back to taking pictures. I agree to be photographer for the evening and take charge of the drummer's tiny digital camera. I don't mind it so much, except that my photographing philosophy, particularly in the digital age, is to take as many pictures as possible, so that at least five of them will be worth keeping.

The show starts, but I'm still backstage, which turns out to be the place with the best view of the band. The sound board is on a raised platform at stage right, and the technician tolerates me as I wander around taking blurry pictures. Even with a steady-cam button, it's hard to take a good shot of a drummer. I do wander out to the crowd a bit to get a couple of shots of the massive (for us) audience. I'm feeling cocky in my official position as girlfriend/picture-taker/beer-getter. I'm with the band, we're playing the Cat's Cradle, and I describe them using the first-person, plural pronoun.

At some point, the guitarist gives me the "I need a beer" signal. Actually, he gives me several, because I interpret the first few as the "I have a crick in my neck" signal, the "I like to move my neck like a duck" signal, and the "I've got something stuck in my teeth" symbol. So I make my way back to the green room to fetch a PBR, but am blocked by a mass of people I've never seen before. They number half a dozen, and are being led through by someone like me, someone with a band, but not in it. This person is different from me in that he is trying to impress one to four girls by showing them and their friends the green room.

At the tail end of the group is a dude in a leather jacket. He is no way blocking my path. Yet as I pass him to get to the fridge, he says, "I'm sorry we're back here, cramping your style." I reassure him, "It's okay. I don't really have any style." He thinks that's funny, but he would think anything I said was funny. I could have given him the "I like to move my neck like a duck" signal and he would've thought it was great.

I'm so amused. For some reason, this guy thinks I'm someone of importance. He probably realizes that I am just the girlfriend of a bassist in a local band, and yet that means I am cool and should not have my style cramped in any way. After all, I was already backstage when he arrived, and I didn't even need a tour guide.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a They Might Be Giants concert. I've been their number-n fan since I was twelve or thirteen. I stood in line with other fans while a girl my age took our money for t-shirts and albums and hats and bumper stickers. I confess that I thought this girl was so cool. She's the TMBG merch girl! Oh, what it must be like to be the merch girl for a band like TMBG! Who needs programming when you can be a merch girl? If I ran into this girl, I would apologize for cramping whatever style she had.

I should get used to being so revered. Josh has asked me to start manning a merch table.


the generous stranger.

The concept of earning a living by waiting tables is a weird one. You wear a uniform, spend an hour or so with some people you've never met, trying to keep them happy while relying on factors that you have little to no control over, and at the end of it all, they decide how much you are worth. And you live on that.

Some people are schmucks or don't know any better and are lousy tippers. Some servers are schmucks and deserve lousy tips. Most people are decent folks and don't create too much of a hassle for you before leaving you an acceptable gratuity. Then there are some tables that just click!, where you're charming and the food is just right, and they're all ready to slaughter the fatted calf if only you'd come home with them. Basically, you can often predict your own tip based on how the dining experience has progressed before the check is dropped.

And then there is the Generous Stranger.

The Generous Stranger is the one who overtips for no apparent reason. Something you did struck that guy just right and you didn't even know it. The meal went fine, nothing spectacular, and you foresaw maybe seventeen percent. But then you're left with something like thirty or fifty percent, and you have no idea why. These are the kind of reassurances you need in your job, a stranger who owes you nothing and expects nothing in return saying, hey, good job there, tiger.

Now that I'm on the other side of the apron, I like to be the Generous Stranger. I remember my days in the trenches, when some days it was those mysterious people who were the only things that kept my head up. I eat alone a lot and like to be left alone for the most part. At the same time, if I need something, I don't want to have to sit quietly, looking forlorn while my server is somewhere else. It's a difficult balance, but some people nail it. Those servers refill my tea without disturbing me, and if they have to ask me something, they do it quietly and apologetically, as if they were interrupting. They are not pushy, nor do they try to be my buddy.

It's such an easy role to play, particularly when you eat alone. On a $10 check, it's only three extra dollars to go from a twenty percent tip to a fifty, and you're a hero. It's even easier at some greasy spoon where the check is five bucks and the waitress is sweet but looks like she could use some dental work. Servers don't think so much in dollars as they do in percentages when they look at their tips.

Someday, if ever I make it to a status of ridiculous wealth, I'm going to take the Generous Stranger to the extreme. I'm going to leave a hundred dollars or something crazy for a ten dollar check. I'm not just going to make someone's day, I'm going to make someone's year. They'll be telling that story to their grandkids, how some crazy old woman came in, had a tuna sandwich and left a crisp, clean C-note. They'll wonder what it is they did or if I was hitting on them or if maybe I thought I was leaving a Washington instead of a Benjamin. I delight in the idea of leaving that kind of wonder in my wake.

I am the Generous Stranger.


coulda been your twin.

"You know, we used to have a woman that worked here, her name was Tina, and she coulda been your twin sister."

"Really? Huh."

"She had a great personality, too."

I'm not feeling spunky enough to say, "Oh, well, I actually have a terrible personality," though I enjoy the joke to myself. See, by saying that I have a rotten personality, I'm making a good joke, which indicates that I, too, have a terrific personality. You see what I did there?

I don't have a twin sister, though I do have a sister-in-law named Tina. She doesn't look much like me, though I suppose as her marriage to my brother continues, she might be heading in that direction. Frankly, I have my doubts about how much this mythical Tina with the great personality looks like me. I actually get told that I look like someone quite a bit. It's annoying, because I never actually look like my supposed doppelgangers. Had I been feeling really snarky, I would have responded, "Oh, so you mean she has brown hair and wears glasses?"

I'd like to announce that there are a lot of females out there who have brown hair and wear glasses. I look like very few of them. I'm tired of being reduced to the two things that people notice first when they see someone. Maybe next time, I should ask, "Oh yeah? Did she have a mole right here on her neck? Does her nose do this ski jump thing? Was she tall with big feet? Well, I guess we're not related after all!" I want to tell these poor well-meaning strangers that I am more than brown hair and glasses.

Obviously, I'm just going to have to get over it. I'm not a particularly striking person. There is probably a Lego woman who fits my description. So people who don't look very closely might think I look like any other girl with brown hair and glasses. I'm sure this sort of thing happens to lots of people: red heads with big noses, blonds with unibrows, short, fat, bald guys. Looking at those groups, having brown hair and glasses doesn't seem so bad anymore.

I suppose the tiny silver lining of this story is that I'm totally set if I ever decide to rob a store.

"Sir, what did the assailant look like?"

"Well, uh. She had brown hair. And glasses. And uh, actually, you know what, she looked exactly like this girl I used to know. Coulda been her twin. Her name was Tina."



The signs vere placed every block or so, on opposite ends of the downtown street. They were white with moveable black letters, such as you might buy to announce your church barbeque or a sale at the locally owned jewelry store. I was lacking any device that said "megapixel" anywhere on it, so I had to make due with the camera on my cell phone.

"No equine on Main Street except for parade."

Before Saturday, I'd never been to Benson. So maybe it's the kind of town where that sign needs to stay up all year long, to remind the citizens to keep their horses and mules and donkeys to the side streets unless there's a parade on. Then it makes one wonder how many parades there are a year, and whether you have to register or sign up or if you can just throw yourself in there, provided you have a hoofed work animal to ride upon. My favorite part of the sign is the word "equine," because you look at the citizens of Benson and wonder how many of them know what it means. But then you know that it was chosen because the sign originally said "horses," but all these people with mules and donkeys felt they had the right to trot up and down Main Street, regardless of parade status. Someone in the Benson Town Council owns a thesaurus.

The fourth weekend in September is Mule Days in the town of Benson. Someone might ask why a festival about mules exist, and the only answer I can come up with is that some other town was already celebrating acorns. The sad part is that other towns do host Mule Days, and one in Tennessee apparently attracts over 200,000 mule-lovers annually. Poor little Benson, North Carolina only gets about 60,000 mule-lovers. (The official Mule Days web site states that they get between 60 - 70,000 visitors, which seems like quite a wide range.)

I decided that I wanted to go to Mule Days because I had nothing else to do, because I am Southern, because I am charmed by small town weirdness. I've been to a lot of such festivals. I can't say that there is really a lot of variety between them, but I enjoy them just the same. I like being outside and eating overpriced fried food that is bad for my blood vessels. I like looking at the various vendors of crafts, and I like buying things that I could never find anywhere else. I like being surrounded by friendly people in good moods. And Josh shocked me by loving me enough to go with me, because, really, Mule Days? Sounds like a waste of a Saturday.

Mule Days was pretty much what I expected in terms of festivals. We sat in the park and ate barbeque ribs while listening to a bluegrass quintet play old church and country favorites. We looked at the vendors and debated on whether to buy a Mule Days t-shirt (we decided not to). I wondered if my dad would think the statement "If it ain't half ass, it's just a horse" was funny enough to risk wearing a t-shirt bearing the word "ass." The biggest difference in Benson's grand festival was the smell and the fact that you really needed to watch where you stepped.

We got there in time for the last 3/4 of the parade, where lots of equines were free to roam Main Street. The parade halted only minutes after we arrived, but no one moved. What were we waiting on? Why weren't we proceding to other mule-related festivities? Josh and I navigated through the throngs on the sidewalks further down Main Street, where we realized that a train was coming through town and directly crossing the parade route. Apparently no one in the Benson Town Council owns a train schedule.

While we waited on the train to pass, a chubby ten year old boy stopped to talk to the people in front of us.

"You seen my momma?"

"Huh-uh. She ain't been 'round here."

"She h'ain't? I gots to quit this. I been runnin' up and down the street a-lookin' for her."

"Oh, well, honey, there's yer momma, right 'cross the way."

My skills are not up to reproducing the words as well as I would like, but I was startled to realize how strange this conversation sounded to me. After all, I had grown up listening to exchanges like this. There is likely video or audio tape of me participating in such conversations. I already knew of the existence of the word "h'ain't." Here in the South, we like to give our apostrophes a workout. But I'd been surrounded so long by people who were much less country than I that I'd forgotten what English could sound like in a small southern town. Was I horrified? No. In fact, I was strangely pleased that such dialects continue to thrive. Somehow, it's part of my heritage, and though it reeks of ignorance to big city folks, it's just another culture.

Finally, the train passed, and we were able to catch a glimpse of the rest of the parade. I can honestly say that the Beson Mule Days parade is the best parade I've ever seen live. But perhaps that was only because of the relative lameness of the Christmas parades of Lenoir and Blowing Rock. Josh told me about the Macy's parade in New York, but does it have a rodeo man on a mule riding on a horse trailer cracking a whip?

Now, I can't say this is exact, but I've concocted a short recipe for creating your own Mule Days parade.

A dozen classic American trucks
3 high school marching bands
2 cheerleading squads
Half a dozen road buggies
2 dance troups of 20 - 60 little girls in tap shoes dancing to techno remixes of bluegrass songs
2 dozen beauty queens of a range of ages with various cheesy titles in fancy convertibles borrowed from local doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers
A vintage McDonald's truck featuring long-forgotten advertising and Ronald McDonald
Any golf carts lying around
3 pickups blaring gospel music, advertising local churches
6 Shriners dressed as clowns with silly bicycles
A dozen classic tractors, one of which should have "Old Rusty" painted on the side
A dozen small carts pulled by shaggy, half-pint ponies
All the equines you can find, with riders of every race
60 - 70,000 spectators

Line spectators up along Main Street. Make sure they have to stand close together so as to best mingle their flavors. Mix the remaining ingredients well. There will be many more equines than anything else, so just shove them in a big group at the back. Teach the beauty queens to wave (elbow, elbow, wrist wrist wrist). Send equine/queen/tractor mixture down Main Street between lines of spectators on a sunny fall day. Wave. Holler. Enjoy.


not a movie review: judgment at nuremberg.

If I told you that I watched a movie featuring Judy Garland and William Shatner last night, you'd be intrigued. "Captain Kirk and Dorothy? Awesome!" And then I'd sigh, because watching the movie for a bizarre combination of supporting actors is fine in some cases, but this is actually great cinema we're talking about here.

Judgment at Nuremberg is a black and white film from the 60s, which means it was black and white on purpose. Unless you're more than unusually slow, you can probably guess that it's about the Nuremberg Trials, specifically the Judges Trial. To me, this is a particularly fascinating time in history. How do you try someone for six million counts of murder?

This movie has many strengths, but we'll start with directing. I have a hard time deciding whether the direction is good or bad in movies. It seems an impossible task to tally up the quality of decisions in all aspects of the making of the film solely as a viewer. There are people who do it, I know. However, I strongly suspect, with my completely uninformed and amateur powers, that director Stanley Kramer knew what he was doing here. That opinion is mostly based on one item: the handling of the bilingual nature of the trial. It's the story of a trial held in Germany with German defense attorneys and defendants and witnesses, yet with an American prosecutor, judges, and audience. The participants in the trial constantly make use of headphones, into which translators are speaking. At the beginning of the movie, the defense attorney is giving his opening statement in German. He is seen through a long shot from over the translator's shoulder. His voice is dim, while the translator's voice is prominent. This goes on for several sentences. As you get used to it, you think, hmm, that's a good way to handle it, though you suspect that it might make the movie a bit long. Then, there is a sudden zoom into the defense counsel, as he switches mid-sentence from German to accented English. You understand that in reality, he is still speaking German and the translator's voice is still ringing in the headphones of the America tribunal. It's important to understand that there is a huge language barrier in place here, but you don't have to wade through that to watch the movie. This crucial aspect was handled so well that I decided to trust Kramer in everything else.

The cast is impressive, a list of people who have already proved themselves in other roles. Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Burt Lancaster. Even the relatively small performances were absolutely perfect. Judy Garland broke my heart, guys. Shatner was good enough that I didn't recognize him until the credits rolled. The roles in this movie are so powerfully played that I feel certain that I will think first of them whenever I see these actors in other parts.

But while the acting was fantastic, they really seem only to be a part of the whole, a vehicle to get this story told. One of the things that I loved about this movie was it showed just how many shades of gray there can be (Perhaps the black and white film was a good choice, eh?). On trial are four judges, and each represented a different kind of mindset. Each approached the problem differently, but arrived at the same destination of assisting the Nazi government in sterilizing and executing innocent people. One was scared, and one was obedient. Only one was a really terrible person, who took the government's policies of hatred and ran with it. And finally, there was the tragic figure, a patriotic, brilliant, and dignified man who thought he was helping his country be great. As these men are on trial, you feel that all of Germany is, too. Where does the blame of letting something happen stop? Are the rest of the citizens of the world fully guiltless? The defense brings up Winston Churchill's praise of Hitler as late as 1938, as well as American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes support of the idea of sterilizing the mentally incompetent.

Tense is maybe the word of the day for this movie. The German people are rebuilding, ashamed of what happened, embarrassed for their country and anxious to prove to the occupying Allies that they are not all Hitlers. The Soviet Union is making advances, and as a Cold War seems imminent, many U.S. officials want to make sure that the Germans are on their side. Both the defense and the prosecuting attorneys are passionate about their cases, one wanting to recoup some shred of dignity for Germany, the other haunted by memories of liberating Dachau and wanting to see justice done. And then there is the main judge of the case himself, as he is forced to pass judgment on a man that he respects within his own profession.

Judgment at Nuremberg is both an investment in time and emotion. Surprisingly, the three hour dialogue-driven film does not drag, though I suppose you have to be into that sort of thing. It raises a lot of questions and then leaves them for you to answer for yourself. It is a beautiful, powerful film that represents a very tense and sticky time. If I were a history teacher, I'd make it required viewing. As I am not, I'll just recommend it heavily. See this movie, even if it's only for Captain Kirk and Dorothy.


my special day.

My birthdays are traditionally underwhelming. I have no one to blame but myself. I don't like to make a big deal about my birthday. I hate it when people manage to bring up the fact that the anniversary of their birth is today or tomorrow or next month. It feels like a plea for attention and above the age of, oh, say 16, is just sort of obnoxious. (There are people whom I love that do this, and I'd like to state that I do love them still, but sometimes even people you love do annoying things.)

A notable exception was my twenty-first birthday, when I was just so over the top with excitement that I found myself unable to keep it in. (Addressing whether my excitement was indicative of a larger problem is not a topic for today's discussion.) People asked me how I was, and they were informed that it was my birthday. They reacted about the way that I do when other people do that. "Oh. Happy Birthday." I don't feel that I was trying to get attention, I was just excited. And maybe that is what other people are feeling, because it's their "special day."

Birthdays are not inherently special, but we live in a culture that makes them so. If you'd spent your whole life believing you'd been born on one day, only to find out at age 45 that you were actually born three months earlier, which day would you celebrate? Okay, probably both.

I can yammer on about silly cultural traditions all day long, but at the end of it all, I was still raised in this silly culture, and so I expect my special day, too. "You know, this birthday business is just an excuse for people to feel good about themselves and have a party. It's just another day that doesn't really mean anything. I suppose you could argue that it's a good time for reflection upon your life, but do you really need an assigned time for that? Wait, is that cake?"

Because of all the build-up that birthdays get, I always expect to feel different somehow on the actual day. I am apparently a very slow learner, because I never feel any different. I don't feel older or wiser or even sort of glowing. In fact, I have to keep reminding myself that on this very day in 1982, I made a wet and screaming entrance into the world. Hmm, I need to pay rent tomorrow...but it's my birthday today. I'm out of milk...on my birthday. This code that I wrote isn't quite working...on my birthday.

To sum up, I don't want to make a big deal on my birthday. But if someone else wants to make a big deal about my birthday, then that is just fine. Pass the cake, give me a silly crown to wear, just don't say that I asked for it. I'm just special today, that's all.


Christmas cakey.

Upon hearing that I was about to turn 25 without a ring on my finger, my Uncle Jack called me a "Christmas cakey." I was confused, because that doesn't make any sense at all. Is that like a Christmas cake? And if so, is that like a Christmas pie? I don't really eat cake at Christmas.

"A Christmas cakey?"

"You know, because it gets passed around and no one wants it."

"Oooooh, a fruitcake!"

"A Christmas cakey is how they say it in Japan."

I thought about how weird the Japanese were, that they adopted this English term and then pronounced it wrong. Granted, we do this sort of thing all the time, as it seems the French are often bitching about how we've stolen a word of theirs and tainted it with our German-derived pronunciations. Just go to a restaurant in Paris and ask what they've got "a la carte" and then taste the haughty French spit in your drink. It just never occurred to me that other cultures might do the same to us. And, given the word sake," to say "cakey" actually sounds like a pretty reasonable interpretation of "cake." What's really funny is how they've taken this phrase, Japanized the pronunciation and then applied it as a metaphor for women who don't get married young enough for arbitrary societal standards.

It makes you wonder, of all the things that we could have given the Japanese, why fruitcake? Did all the people who have received fruitcakes they didn't want finally catch upon the idea of sending them to foreign countries? I really wonder whether they just heard the custom of passing around fruitcakes or if perhaps they developed it on their own because even they didn't want them.

All these thoughts passed through my mind before it occurred to me that I'd just been insulted. Maybe that's why I'm still a Christmas cakey.

* Wiki research shows that the term "Christmas cake" is used in the UK. In Japan, it's not a fruitcake at all, but just a spongy one marinated in liquor. The cakes are often saved to be eaten the following Christmas as a symbolic high five to the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The cakes are also used in a growing New Years custom involving hurling them at the girls who turned 25 that year without nabbing a husband. This last part was completely made up by me, but if you saw it in Wikipedia, I bet you'd believe it.


we can always use some more electrical equipment.

My boyfriend is a collector of vintage electrical equipment. Most of you would say that he collects old, broken crap. Some days, that's what I say, too. But usually, I'm more generous with my phrasing, perhaps because I'm used to it. My ex-boyfriend also collected old, broken crap and there are members of my family who have old, broken crap collections, too. I should admit that I've held onto a piece of OBC longer than I should have once or twice, though usually, I'm more into ugly, kitschy crap.

Anyway, Josh and I were driving through Cary one day and happened upon the largest example of OBC that either of us had ever seen. Josh requested that I take out my new, working digital camera (not crap) and take pictures, as he could hardly add this particularly stellar piece to his bedroom-based collection.

I sort of like vintage electrical equipment, myself. (See what I did there? When I like it, it's called "vintage electrical equipment." Writers are shifty.) It's sort of fascinating to look at it and think that it used to be state of the art. Back then, the concept of a digital camera had not been born. Then I try to think of things that might be state of the art once my digital camera has become vintage electrical equipment, but I give up. I get as far as go-go-gadget helicopters and realize that I can't think outside the box enough to realize what would even be possible. The future is kinda fun that way.

But here's to the past.


tumblin' tumbleweeds.

We were at a stoplight on our way to the zoo, and the eighteen-wheeler in the lane next to mine was over the line that should have been running between us. Driving next to trucks in a compact car always makes me a little nervous anyway, but I hate it when they start to infringe on what the department of transportation mandates is my turf. But what could I do? I could ram the guy for all I'm worth, and perhaps on his next stop he might have noticed a little red paint on his bumper.

The light changed, the truck pulled ahead. Lying on the road underneath the truck and explaining its position was a tumbleweed. Apparently, trucks give birth to tumbleweeds. There's so much about this Midwestern life that I know nothing about.

Josh was excited, because he had never seen a tumbleweed in real life before. I wasn't that excited, because though I couldn't remember specifically when, I did have the vague notion that I've seen one at some point previous.

"We should go get it," he exclaimed.

"And do what with it?" I asked, quite logically.

"Take it home!" he replied.

"Home?" I responded, afraid of where he was going with this.

"To North Carolina!"

I'd like to pause at this point in the story and point out that I consider myself to be a much mellower person than my mother. She is, bless her heart, a bit uptight and excitable. While this trait makes her very detail-oriented and a good person to plan for something, when things go a bit awry, she freaks out. I have a trace of this in me, but either I hide it better or the trait is one of those that becomes more pronounced with age.

However, when Josh started talking about transporting this two foot tall tumbleweed back to North Carolina, I freaked out. I was already picturing driving around with the tumbleweed behind us, explaining its presence to my parents, carrying it through the airport, taking it through security.

"Ma'am, what's this in your bag?"

"It's a tumbleweed, sir."

"Why do you have a tumbleweed, ma'am?"

"It's my boyfriend's. He's going to keep it in his room at the mental asylum. They took away his pet boulder."

Despite every bone in my body, even the tiny ones in my ear, vehemently protesting the idea, I agreed to turn around and get the tumbleweed. I didn't want to be a killjoy, a party pooper, a Salsola spoilsport. Secretly, I was hoping that Josh would come to his senses. Sometimes in love, you have to gamble a bit.

We continued on to the zoo, our new pet in the backseat, already shedding. By the time we got there, the back of the car was covered with the beginnings of little tumbleweeds. I suppose that's part of the design. The tumbleweed is like a sailor sowing his oats at every port, its transient nature is the key to its continuation as a species. And either the sight of the mess already made or the sight of my frown was enough to bring Josh back from the brink of insanity change Josh's mind.

He was contented to allow me to take pictures of him standing proudly next to the tumbleweed before releasing it in the wild, sort of, but not at all like the end of White Fang. I would post the pictures for you to see, but I'm afraid that you, seeing my handsome boyfriend, would try to lure him away from me.

"Hey, sugar, I'd let you have a pet tumbleweed..."


local color.

There are several steps to true thrift store patronage.

1. Entering a thrift store, perhaps accidentally.
2. Buying something used as a joke or costume.
3. Buying something that you would actually use/wear on a regular basis that you happened to notice while looking for a joke or costume.
4. Entering a thrift store while not searching for a joke or costume.
5. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store because you're financially disadvantaged.
6. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store because money's a bit tight.
7. Buying multiple items on multiple trips to the thrift store when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
8. Entering a thrift store with the intent of looking for a specific item (e.g . jeans) when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
9. Buying a gift for someone else at a thrift store when you have no financial restrictions other than personal thriftiness.
10. Entering a thrift store while on vacation in a town other than your own.

I know these steps, for I have taken them all. You may be horrified. If so, we probably don't hang out much. There may be more steps yet; I'll let you know when I find them. I see the ten steps as an evolution of thought. You start out with the idea the new is better, then work up to the idea that used is just as good, but cheaper, til finally you start thinking that something is better because it has been used.

While I could probably write long, passionate entries about each of those steps, I'm still in Kansas mode, and so it's the last on which I'll concentrate: Thrift stores are the best places to get souvenirs.

I'm a big fan of used items anyway. I like things which are unusual, I like things which have a history, and I like things cheap. It's a win-cubed situation. Each trip to a thrift store is a treasure hunt through the trash of other men. And so to pass up the opportunity of visiting the trash piles of people in a completely different part of the country is more than I can bear.

But there is something more genuine about thrift store souvenirs. This souvenir shot glass is a remembrance of my visit to Kansas, but this used flannel work jacket and this university football practice jersey are relics of daily life in Kansas. We are remembering the place itself instead of just our limited experience as outsiders. Yeah, there's a space museum there, but so are there hundreds of people who pass by it daily on the way to work.

Perhaps you need the nine steps before to appreciate the ideas behind the tenth. I would not be in the least surprised that most people don't give a crap about the daily life in their vacation destinations, and that's fine. You can still have a great time in Kansas eating at Applebees (*shudder*) and buying t-shirts at the airport. I guess I just want to soak up every bit of new experience possible, the stuff that I cannot get at home. I want local color, not Anytown gray.

If you don't get it, you don't get it. You take your vacations your way, and I'll take mine. Just don't expect any used presents from me, bucko.


salt of the earth.

We can be happy underground.
-Ben Folds Five

People are naturally curious about Kansas. The most common question is "What are you going to do there?" However, they don't mean it the same way they do when they're asking about your upcoming trip to the Bahamas. They really mean, "What is there to do there?"

There is stuff to do in Kansas. I know, for I have done them.

In the town of Hutchinson, known as "Hutch" to natives and visiting North Carolinians, there exist two sites that may interest any wayfaring wanderers. In fact, both of them have been nominated to be one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. I have no idea why Kansas in particular gets a whole extra wonder than the rest of the world, particularly since none of the Wonders of the World are in the Sunflower State. One of these Hutch-based, wonder-worthy sites is a space museum, and the other is a salt mine 650 feet below the town, leaving one to believe that Hutchinson isn't that exciting at ground level. The town is also the home of the largest and longest grain elevator in the world. I viewed the grain elevator in question, and was heard to remark, "Man, that's a big grain elevator. Uh, honey, I think we're lost." I guess I was less than amazed.

Hutch is the Salt City, though it used to be called Temperance City. Perhaps the name change came when the townspeople started drinking a lot of margaritas. More likely, it came when the salt mine was discovered and ten or so salt companies suddenly popped up.

I've always thought that your guide could make or break a tour experience. A good tour guide is interesting, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the subject matter. A good tour guide is willing and able to answer follow-up questions. A good tour guide makes you want to spend lots of money at the requisite gift shop.

In case it is not obvious yet, I would like to state plainly that we did not have a good tour guide. He was not interesting, knowledgeable, or enthusiastic. He was unable to answer follow-up questions. Not only did we not want to spend lots of money at the gift shop, we wanted our $13.50 tour fees back. Our experience was so bad that we purposefully voted against the Underground Salt Musuem in the 8 Wonders of Kansas contest. We filled our ballots with checkboxes next to sites we'd never been to, just to make it clear that the salt mine should not get a vote.

The Underground Salt Mine and Museum tour started out well enough. We were given hard hats, a safety lecture, and a personal rescue device meant to allow us to breathe for up to ninety minutes in case of a gas leak. We were advised not to lick the walls. As far as tours go, that's pretty hard-core. We boarded a two-level elevator and descended down, down, down towards the general direction of China in the pitch black. Someone asked how long it took to get up and down, to which our guide replied, "About a minute. It's the same going up or down."

"Only if you take the elevator," I said.

Once we reached the bottom, we found ourselves in a long room, hundreds of feet long. The ceilings were high and patterned, as if cut by machine. The walls were striated various shades of gray, and never before have I felt such an urge to lick a wall before. The floors were smooth, the air was cool. We boarded a small tram and waited. I was excited at the time, because the idea was so neat. A museum! UNDERGROUND!

Had the ballot for the 8 Wonders of Kansas included a category for "Site with Most Wasted Potential," I would've given it to the salt mine. It's such a great idea and very different from any museum I've ever been to. Where else do you get a personal breathing apparatus? What other place recommends that you do not lick the walls?

So sitting in my tram, taking goofy pictures of Josh and me with our silly hard hats, I had no idea that the best part of the tour was already over.

I'm about to say unkind things about our tour guide, who I'll call Steve. If he gave us his name, I didn't catch it, which is bad form, I think. How can I be your friend on this, our underground journey, if I don't know your name? However, since I am southern and therefore don't wish to seem like a mean person, I'll be sure to throw in a "bless his heart."

Steve, bless his heart, had a speech impediment.

I feel for those who stutter, I really do. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be unable to express yourself fast enough that people will listen to you. How irritating it must be for others to constantly finish your sentences for you! Even if a stutterer is never cured, I do hope that one can find people who are patient and understanding as well as a career where one can thrive and be happy.

Don't be tour guides. Other careers to mark off your list: disc jockey, telephone operator, TV weatherman, auctioneer, President of the United States.

I think that I could have been okay with St-St-Steve as a tour guide had it been worth it to listen to what he was trying to say. I could probably be patient if I was rewarded at the end of it. But Steve did not reward listeners. He talked, badly, and said nothing.

"Up here, on your right, up here, you'll see, a, uh, well, it's what's called, a, uh, a wall, uh, the miners call it a...gob wall, and it's called a...we call it a, uh, a gob wall, because you see, it's called a gob wall, and the miners, they, uh, well, they just gob things together to make...it, the gob wall, they gob together stuff to make the, uh, gob...wall. In the, uh, mine. They do this, they make this gob wall, what is called...the gob wall, to close off part of the mine, with the gob wall, and that's done to control air...to control air flow. So to control the air flow in the mine, they, the miners in the mine, build this, what's called a gob wall, to control the air flow."


A tour guide should answer your questions, not create more. Going down, down, down in that elevator, I had one question. Just how do they mine salt anyway? After that one speech in front of the gob wall, I had a bunch more. How do they decide where to build the wall? By control the air flow, does that mean control where the air goes or what kind of air comes in? How do they know if bad air is there? Does bad air mean poisonous air or just too much or what? Where does the air come from? Is the bad air caused by the sighs of frustration from tourists? Also, just how do they mine salt anyway?

Every stop was like this: a mangled speech about something that we were looking at that left me more confused than before. It was painful. I wondered if my personal rescue device would give me access to some sort of air that would put me in a better mood, like pure oxygen or laughing gas. It seemed like Steve had simply glanced over some information before starting - perhaps he did it in the elevator on the ride down. Later, Josh and I toyed with the idea of doing the research ourselves and sending them a script with strict instructions to use it exactly.

At one point, we were allowed to vacate the tram and dig through a big pile of rock salt. We were given tiny canvas bags and told to fill them with as much free salt as we wanted to commemorate our visit to the Kansas Underground Salt Mine. I wondered if this was how the miners did it. I could've asked Steve, but he might have tried to answer me.

By the time the guided part of the tour was over, we were left to wander through some exhibits. One of them was the display created by the marketing minds at Underground Vaults and Storage. A long time ago, someone came up with the brilliant idea of charging people to store things in the salt mine for them, where their valuables would be safe from weather, natural disasters, theft, and slugs. A lot of movie studios and some governments make use of the underground storage; in fact, the master copies of The Wizard of Oz are there.

The display was basically a timeline of twentieth century events that could have caused damage to items stored in traditional methods. However, it all seemed pretty irrelevant. That is quite impressive that the storage units were unaffected by either the 9/11 attacks or Hurricane Katrina, but I bet that had more to do with the fact that they were hundreds of miles away. Now that I think about it, nothing in my apartment was harmed in those events, either. Perhaps I should get into the storage business. I understand that the point is that the units are immune to the general idea of terrorist attacks, but couldn't they just say that? It irritated me that the whole thing was a sales pitch, when it could have just been fun trivia. I'm just Jane Kansas-Tourist. I don't have anything worth saving underground.

And then finally, it was the underground gift shop, where they had t-shirts and hats that said things like "Salt of the Earth" and "Where the sun REALLY don't shine." I am related to people who would enjoy this kind of humor, but they didn't have my dad's size. Okay, fine, I thought they were kinda funny, too. Back up, up, up the elevator, where Steve encouraged us all to vote for the Underground Salt Museum to be one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas. It was dark, so I felt free to roll my eyes.

It's not that I'm saying you should never visit the Underground Salt Mine and Museum. I would just, you know, wait a few years. Give them a chance to do a little research, train some tour guides, get speech therapy for Steve. They've got a fantastic space down there, if only they'd figure out how to show it. Go now, and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Someday, I hope to have a wonderful time 650 feet below the town of Hutchinson, Kansas. Sadly, that experience has not been (groan) mine.


my kansas roots.

To: Developers_Group; Support_Group
From: Sandra
Subject: Vacation

I will be on vacation from Wednesday, October 10 - Friday, October 12. I will be in Kansas.

Go ahead and start with the Dorothy jokes.


For the most part, it's a good thing to work in an office where everyone can joke around. But if you're announcing your upcoming vacation in what is widely considered the most boring state in the country, you can expect all your quips and asides to come back at you.

I'm going to Kansas, maybe for the last time. Even if I do someday enter within the borders of the Sunflower State again, it won't be the same thing as "going to Kansas." See, our annual family vacations consisted of piling the whole bunch into as many vehicles required and then driving from North Carolina to Kansas. While there, we would spend several days enjoying the local, uh, attractions and visiting my maternal grandparents. Then we'd drive back. Each leg of the trip was two full days of driving, rising earlier than the sun did and arriving at our destination sometime after it had disappeared over the horizon.

People have always found our annual pilgrimages fascinating. In fact, they find the fact that I have a Kansas connection fascinating. Suddenly, I become the closest thing they've ever known of a person who came from Kansas. "I'm not from Kansas," I tell them, "My mother is from Kansas." They shrug and ask if it's really as flat as they've heard. Josh is particularly amused by it. His last two ex-girlfriends had Nicaraguan and Chinese heritage. Yeah, well, his current girlfriend is half-Kansan.

I don't know how Kansan I actually am. There is a lot of my mother in me, but how much of it is from her home state and how much of it is just her? I do claim my midwestern heritage, but I'm not sure why. I feel certain that it's a part of me, but I'm not sure which part: my skin tone, my sense of humor, my love of corn? Is it really only from all those week-long visits as a kid?

It seems now that my Kansan roots are being uprooted. My grandmother, eighty-seven years old in the shade, is moving from her gigantic farmhouse, which is mere miles from where she was born, to a tiny town in the mountains of western North Carolina. My parents are going to fetch her and bring her to her new home, vastly different from her old in that it has trees and hills and, you know, neighbors. Not a lot, and you can't see them because of the aforementioned trees, but neighbors nonetheless. She's selling the farmhouse and the barn and a chunk of the land. So even if I happen to find myself driving down a long and straight road with neverending fields on either side of me, I can't go back to the farm. I suppose I'll just be like all the other Kansas tourists. I can only assume they're from Oklahoma or Nebraska or somewhere really boring.

And, because it's my last chance, I'm taking Josh. It seems like a big deal to me, like bringing him to Thanksgiving at my parents', but times a hundred. I've watched all my siblings bring spouses through the initiation ritual of a Kansas trip. It's bonding by shared experience. I'm sorry that you don't like taking baths, but this dusty farmhouse with no showers is a part of my childhood. That decrepit barn is important to me, so take my picture in front of it before it falls down. To us kids, it's a shared family memory. Even though everyone didn't get to go every year, we all have the same idea of what going to Kansas smells and sounds and tastes like. It's a bit hard to explain to our peers, who went to the beach during their summer vacations. How can you know what it's like to be in this family if you've never been to Kansas?



"Would you like to try the mealworm marinara?"

The thing about eating food with bugs in it is that it's all in your head. I have a history of unpleasant bug eating, starting with chowing down on a locust after receiving some bad advice from an older brother, on to eating a cricket in a sucker as a matter of pride. But I found myself in line at Cafe Insecta only for personal pride. No one knew me there, so I wasn't going to lose face by not getting my recommended daily allowance of grasshoppers. I'm not sure why I was in line, really, except that I knew that I was dreading it, and somehow that was reason enough that I should grab a plate and say, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

Bugfest is put on every year in downtown Raleigh by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. I like festivals, and I guess bugs are pretty cool, so I wanted to go.

The outdoor activities were mostly hands-on things for kids. They varied by the sponsors. So the North Carolina Beekeepers association had a bunch of hives on view behind glass, and some local dance studio led a bunch of little girls dressed as butterflies in basic frolicking around a giant flower. There was also a sort of bug Olympics, where little kids pretended to be dung beetles and pushed giant balls around with their stomachs. The balls were brown, of course. There was a flea circus, and I found out once and for all that flea circus is a pretty literal term. It was a circus in a suitcase. I guess there were fleas involved, though it was hard to tell from my vantage point of ten feet away. Maybe the entertainment is really in having a lively ringleader.

Inside the museum was four floors devoted to educating minds about all kinds of bugs. There were live bugs for holding and live bugs only for looking. There were dead bugs held in place by stickpins. There were a billion little kids, and not only little boys. Perhaps some little girls have some snakes and snails mixed in with the sugar and spice. I wished I had a little kid to drag around, because my excitement over the creepy crawlies was really not enough to sustain my interest at any one booth for very long. It was truly a lost opportunity to be a cool Aunt Sandra. I did spend a little money, because I'm really good at that. One booth was selling beautiful rainforest butterflies in frames, the proceeds of which were to benefit the beautiful rainforests. I didn't buy a bug coffin suitable for framing, but I did buy a necklace charm which contained a butterfly wing. Of course it's gorgeous, especially if you don't know what it is. Whether it's cool or just creepy, I feel no need to decide.

But then after I'd looked at all the exhibits and admired all the many six-legged creatures, I found myself facing my fears at Cafe Insecta. The buffet was a free service provided by museum dollars, an opportunity to gross out all the little kids. It started innocently enough, with a smashing shrimp dip, but then it quickly went downhill with ant hummus. There was grasshopper stirfry, lasagna with mealworms, and some spicy crawfish with vegetables, the last which I would have gladly eaten anyway. There was a lovely worm and watercress salad, some hush "grubbies," and some friend crunchy thing with six-legged crunchy things inside. It was all undeniably gross, and I will allow the teenage girl inside of me to confess that the Ew factor was very high. But I did it. I didn't go back for seconds, and I had to talk to myself a little bit ("it's all in your head, you can't even taste it, it's all in your he- ew, a worm!"). So now I've done it, and I feel no need to do it again. Sure, I'll wear dead insects on a string around my neck, but I'm definitely above eating them.


return to sender.

I occasionally get misdirected emails. There are people out there who think that they have my email address. Perhaps they wish to be more like me. Or maybe they're just forgetful. It's a bit annoying, having people who forget that they're not you, because you get spammed that way. So I get emails from companies directed to Sandra SomeOtherLastName. But I also get some real correspondence, too. I always read them, because I have no moral qualms about reading email that was sent to me, whether the other person knew they were sending it to me or not. Sometimes I delete it, and sometimes I respond, telling the other person that they've got the wrong address, please stop sending me e-cards of butterflies and flowers. I periodically get reminders to get pick up my cat's medications in Houston, and I once had a really hard time convincing a Colorado technical college that I had not missed my meeting with my academic advisor.

The problem was actually worse with my previous email address. I would get daily emails meant for other people. I got several letters from a guy in prison who thought he was writing to his mom. He told me a lot of fascinating details about some sort of Little Debbie scandal. Apparently, he'd been framed by some execs, thus his stint in the big house. I really wish that I had saved those.

I got a new email this morning, one from a teacher at the Anglo-American School of Moscow.

Good Evening!

As you may know, we have had a substitute teacher assistant all week. Today our substitute teacher assistant needed to go home ill and another substitute assistant arrived to assist our class. Brian* had great difficulty with this change and was not listening to the substitute's instructions and was acting very silly during the break and at lunch. I know that change is a difficult thing to deal with, but Brian needs to listen to all adults that speak to him and also needs to stay in control when these changes occur. The substitute assistant spoke to him and so did I. Could you also speak to him about listening to adults and showing respect for all?

I felt such a plea needed a response. What if Brian's problems continued, and he became President of the Russian Federation and restarted the Cold War...all because of me! I had to reply.

As much as I would love to give little Brian a talking-to, I think you have the wrong email address. I don't have any children. If I did, I would be sure to teach them to show respect to all adults.

I hope you're able to track down Brian's parents and that his behavior problems desist.

Ladies and gentleman, I have saved us all from certain Strangelovian doom. Thank me later.

*By the way, the kid's name was not Brian. Trust me, you'll never guess it.


my aim is true.

I'm not really an Elvis fan, but I did see him last week.

When a free concert ticket comes my way, I generally take it. And so it was in this way that I ended up stuck in the line of SUVs on the way to the Elvis Costello concert. This was Josh's dad's birthday present, to take his two sons to see Elvis with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. His oldest son's girlfriend got to come, too.

Like I said, I'm not really a fan of Elvis Costello. His music is something I'll probably be really into at some point later. When I listen to it, I enjoy it, but I don't really come back. Then someday, something will click in my head and suddenly, I'll know every word to My Aim is True. I tell you this from experiencing the same phenomena many times with other acts. (See The Violent Femmes, Ween, Modest Mouse).

I don't say much on the drive over. I like Josh's dad, but I grew up in an environment that didn't stress either music or literature, his true loves. Besides, I like watching the three guys interact with each other, because they're all so much alike. Later, I will ask them to postpone the discussion of who is the greatest living guitarist until after the concert. I sometimes wonder how much the father lives through the sons. He's got their band's CD playing in the car, and they talk about the possibility of covering a song from his old band. I am at most every show, but he's probably the biggest fan. For now, they're talking about cartoons, another of their shared interests. Josh's dad says he isn't able to stay awake to see the late night ones, but he can usually catch the 10 PM reruns of Futurama.

One thing I can participate in is the running joke of making fun of Cary, the high-class suburb of Raleigh where the concert is being held. I have to admit that the venue is beautiful, all cobblestone and pine trees, but I know I'm paying for it with these $6 beers. Yeah, that is the fancy beer price, but when the Budweiser is $5, you might as well pay the extra buck and drink something good. Our seats are general admission lawn seats, and so we stand at the back.

Costello comes out in a tuxedo and says lots of charming British things. Or rather, they were normal hello-how-are-you things, but they sounded charming with a British accent. He introduces the "band" - the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra. That's a long way from The Attractions. "Give it up for my main man on the cello!" (insert long, rockin' cello solo here)

The first few songs are purely instrumental, written by Costello (I think). He started out in 1977 as a rock star, but like most of the audience, he's mellowed in the last thirty years. He then starts moving into the old favorites, saying "If I don't play 'Allison' tonight, there might be a riot later." He plays the guitar, but there are no face-melting solos. He's playing rock and roll songs, but is he playing rock and roll?

The men are torn. I can see it in the way they bob their heads to the drums and guitar sounds that aren't playing right now, but are in the albums in their heads. They play a little subtle air guitar and make the noises that the symphony won't. They're happy to be here, but sad that this is the way it is.

We slip out during the encore, after Costello has fulfilled his promise of playing "Allison." Josh's dad talks about how good it is that Costello has not sold out, how if he just played the old favorites as he wrote them, he could sell out huge auditoriums. Instead, he's doing what he wants, experimenting with new music for less money. Me, I think Costello probably makes more than he can complain about, but if he does that doing what he wants, more power to him.

Later, when we are at home, Josh plays My Aim is True for me from a vinyl disc older than either of us. He's grateful to me for listening to it with him, despite having spent the evening listening to the same songs. But to him, they were not the same songs.

Some rock stars never get old, but the ones who survive age along with the rest of us. We're still young enough to think that there's nothing worse than getting old and slowing down. But Josh's dad understands, because he was twentysomething in a rock band back in the 70s, too. Now he can't stay awake to see the late night cartoons. It's not good or bad; it's just the way it is.


trois choses.

Thing 1: Come to our school!
After I wrote that spirited entry about supporting my college football team, I received an email from the computer science department at ASU. Apparently, they're making a brochure to try and tempt other people to come to their fine school, even geeky people who probably duck whenever a football comes near. They wanted information from me, basic stuff like my job and employer and a smiling photograph. I've been feeling pretty good about the quality of my education since I got this new job that requires me to actually use things I learned in college, and so I've even written a cute little testimonial that will tell prospective students that ASU is a good decision. Of course, they may not use my cheesy blurb, but I wrote it, unasked, just because I was feeling frisky.

I started thinking about the people they might have contacted for this assignment. Obviously, they're limited to the people they're still in touch with, and they probably didn't track down any flunkies. But the more I think about it, the more I think I got this email because I'm a girl. "Please, come to our school! You, too, ladies! This chick went here and look, she's only a little manly!" If I wanted to be really egotistical, I could toy with the idea that I might be bait for computer science boys. "Please, come to our school! We have girls that will understand what you're talking about, and they're only a little manly!"

I don't know why there aren't more girls in computer science. Maybe it's a gradual thing and other women are shy of entering a field where they'll be the minority. Maybe there's something to that "girls are bad at math" thing. I don't know. But I guess I'm doing my part now, a smiling female representative of the Appalachian State University computer science department. I'll try not to let it go to my head.

Thing 2: Bang!
I've completed another step in board game geekdom by actually purchasing my own obscure board games. My favorite is a spaghetti western game called Bang! I've played this with my sister-in-law and two nieces and it's always a good time. What's really funny is that you shoot people by playing a Bang! card against them, at which point you can say "I banged you." And then everybody giggles at the silly double entendre.

We were playing one night and my sister-in-law played a Bang! against my niece. "I banged you," she said with such sauce that we all giggled more than usual, except for my twelve-year-old niece, Sarah. There was a pause, before Sarah said confidently, "I know what that means." We laughed out loud at that.

Thing 3: Recipe exchange.
I participated in a recipe exchange recently. It was like those old chain letters I did when I was ten, except for a couple of differences: it was for grown-ups and I actually continued the chain. It was one of those things that threw me into a tizzy because of my lack of domesticity. Not only do I not know many good recipes, I don't know that many people that cook. So forwarding on to twenty people was out of the question. But I scrounged up an easy, but yummy recipe and eight or so people I thought might know how to use an oven. I felt very womanly in a truly unenlightened sense. I was even feeling bold enough to cook some salmon from a recipe I received in exchange. The grease burns on my arms were enough to put me back in my place, which ironically, is apparently somewhere outside the kitchen.


sleepy tiger.

I was jarred from a power yawn by the car in front of me. Oh man, what a yawn, eyes shut, full view of my fillings. I was doing an impression of a sleepy tiger. But then the sleepy tiger let up the pressure on the brake pedal and attacked a Nissan (too bad it wasn't an Impala). My next impression was of the kid from Home Alone.

I waved sheepishly at the driver of the Nissan, who was of course looking right at me. He pulled into the office park. Rather than pull over immediately, he drove down the winding road to his office. I struggled to keep up and wondered why he didn't stop at one of the many convenient places along the way. Finally, I was able to pull up beside him as he examined his rear bumper. I jumped out and dived into apologies. He shrugged and said I hadn't done any damage. "No harm, no foul." I breathed a sigh or relief that if I was going to be an idiot this morning, at least I was going to be around reasonable people. His bumper had scratches on it, but I guess they were old familiar ones to him.

I got back in my car and started it up to continue on my way to work. I was thinking about how it's good that there are still decent people around. The man tapped on my window.

"Do you not work here?" he gestured at the nearest office building.


"Oh. Well, thanks for stopping."

"No problem."

Hey, maybe I'm a decent person, too.



I was driving through an intersection this weekend when the SUV behind me started beeping vigorously. Startled, I looked around and tried to figure out what I had done wrong. The SUV pulled up into the lane next to me, and the people inside rolled down their windows and started yelling. I braced myself for profanities, insults, and a general order to turn in my driver's license. Instead, I heard "Whooo! App State! Whooo!"

Oh. Okay then, "Whooo!" right back at ya.

For the past couple of years, football has been a big deal at my Alma Mater, Appalachian State University. People who know that I went there, either by knowing me or reading the sticker on my car, imagine that I care. I mean, I care a little bit. I'm happy that my school is getting good publicity and recognition for something other than the cheesy Hot! Hot! Hot! video. But I never attended an ASU football game, and whenever we do win a big game, I find out about it by someone else congratulating me. I guess I'm supposed to act excited or even take some sort of credit for the win. Yes, they won because I went there. Of course, I do pull for the home team and I do root for ASU. But it's more in an after the fact sort of way. "Hey, we won? Cool."

While I got some congratulations over the national championship wins the past two years, the recent victory over Michigan has seemed to really get everyone in an uproar. I am sort of amused about all the attention. Strangers give me compliments on a game in which I didn't play, guys in SUVs honk at me. Everyone seems more enthused about it than I am. Ohio State fans have apparently been calling up the ASU campus bookstore and trying to order t-shirts. I bet I could drive through Ohio this week and get beeped at so much as to cause me to have a nervous breakdown. We made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Sports Illustrated. But the neatest result of this whole Michigan State game was that now Division I-AA teams are now eligible to be nationally ranked. Of course, now that we've had our big win, we'll go back to beating teams like Lenoir-Rhyne, and so we probably won't get enough attention to break the top 25. Still, that's quite a legacy for the Mountaineers.

Even Wikipedia is becoming an ASU fan. I just imagine some undergrad bragging to his friends about "hacking" into Wiki to make the following change (click to read):

And then his friends say, "Dude, you misspelled 'awesome.'" Oh well, as long as we can play football.


biz cas.

I'm sure that to a lot of people, the invention of business casual (or as those of us who are hip and in the know like to call it, "biz cas") was a much needed relief. Some boss figured out that employees hated dressing in suits all the time, and since their business didn't really require people to be dressed to go to church with their grandmothers, they could improve morale all around by allowing slacks and polo shirts.

But then to some others, business casual is a burden. For while some bosses would not have the guts to require suits and ties for their employees, they're happy to require slacks and loafers. I'm speaking, of course, of software engineers.

It's stupid to make us dress up, and I'll tell you why. From what I understand, dressing up at work is about image. It's about creating the illusion of being professional. It's to impress other people into trusting you with their money. Some might argue that it makes you work harder when you feel professional. It makes me surly. Even if I were not naturally given to surliness, I would constantly be aware that I was wearing dress-up clothes. I would be distracted. And surly.

Back to image. So if we've established that you're trying to impress other people and you're trying to do it by gussying up a bunch of softare engineers, then you've already failed. Engineers should not be meeting customers. We became engineers because we're bad with people, and the machines understand us. Your clients majored in business in college, were popular in high school, and made fun of people who would become engineers. We don't like them, and they probably won't like us, no matter how starched our shirts are. It is in your best interest to keep us separated.

Our job is to sit in front of the computer and sweet talk it in a special language to do what you want. Your job is to supply us with caffeine drips and no reason to ever want to leave our desks and stop working. If our loafers are hurting our feet, you have failed, and there goes your willing slave. You may think we're updating software specification, but we're actually updating our resumes.

Give us jeans or give us death! We will happily be your devoted minions, hacking away on our off hours, too. Extend casual Friday to casual Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and we'll log in on Naked-At-Home Saturday and see if we can't get a little work done. We won't even complain when you make us fix your kid's iPod if we're allowed to do it in our Levis.

Please. Biz cas is for grown up frat boys. We think for a living. Don't make us surly.


all in your head.

Nightmares are sneaky. They come at you when you are unsuspecting and defenseless, and they come from inside your own head. Then again, I suppose all these things are the advantages of nice dreams, so maybe I shouldn't complain too much. One of the most upsetting things about nightmares is that they continue to be upsetting. As a kid, you might have thought they were terrifying, but at least your Mom didn't get them.

But that's not true at all. The worst nightmare I've ever had was as an adult, in college. I dreamed that I was testifying at a trial, saying that my dad had abused me. I was sitting in the witness box, looking out at Daddy sitting at the defendant's table. The absolute worst part of it was that I knew that I was lying. I knew Daddy had never touched me, and I didn't understand why I was doing all this. It still makes me shudder.

I have tricks to combat nightmares. They don't actually work, but since I think that they do, somehow that means that they do work after all. That's the most brilliant and nonsensical thing about them. They're just little things that grown-ups told me when I was little and earnest and nightmares were my biggest problem. I believed the grown-ups, because they were grown-ups. Then the tricks worked, and so I really believed in them. Oddly enough, two-thirds of my tricks are religious in nature. If you don't think that's odd, I have a brother who does.

The first thing is prayer. Some Sunday School teacher told me once that praying not to have nightmares would prevent them. I added that to my prayer routine that very night, along with protecting my family and pet cats. I never did any sort of study to see if it worked. You know, develop my hypothesis, pray not to have nightmares one night, then don't pray about it the next night for control purposes. My thirst for scientific knowledge was not strong enough to risk bringing bad dreams upon myself. Of course, I still occasionally had nightmares, but I wasn't going to get mad at God for letting one slip through. Never did it occur to me that I was asking God to please enforce mind control over me.

The second trick was from a preacher, who told me that if you invoke the name of Christ during a nightmare, it will go away. So while the prayer was a preventative measure, this was actual battle. I remember the first time I tried this one. I was probably nine. I don't remember what the nightmare was about, but I remember having that pivotal moment when you realize, Oh wait, I'm having a nightmare. I'm really asleep and none of this is real. So I gathered up all my mind strength and screamed out "Jesus!" in my head (and possibly out loud). The dream actually faded into wispy smoke and a completely different setting appeared, a view of a chimney on top of a building in London at sunset. I wonder if my parents thought I was a sleep-blasphemer.

I was enthralled with this effective maneuver. I tried a thing and I got results. Of course, now I realize that the important part was probably the realization that it was a dream and the decision to take control of the dream. Obviously, at that point, I was at least somewhat conscious and could control my thoughts. I mean no disrespect to Son of God. While logically, I believe that the actual word has nothing to do with it, I'm not going to start calling out "Zeus!"

The last trick doesn't have an interesting story and is not religious at all, or at least no religion I've ever heard of. If you wake up in the middle of the night, having had a nightmare, roll over. This will "clear" the nightmare and you'll go back to sleep to dream about something else. There is nothing more irritating than escaping from a terrible dream into reality only to go right back into it. Logically, this probably has more to do with waking up enough to move. But who wants to be logical all the time? It's magic.

None of these things work, and all of them do. Try them, or don't. It's all in your head.


three little words.

At fourteen years old, I did not know much about love. Shocking, I know. Ten years later, I can say that I know a little bit about the way I experience love. See how I carefully qualified that statement? I did that, because learning about love for me has been a series of disillusionments. I'll have an idea based on unreliable sources (friends, movies, Country Crock commercials featuring hands), which is then tested in my life, and I come to the conclusion that those butter commercials are not about real love. Rather than make you laugh by trying to explain what it is I think I know about love now, I'm going to discuss a very specific part of love, namely, the phrase "I love you."

Three little words, as pop music is so quick to remind us, but of so much importance. Blah blah blah. The phrase gets more credit than it deserves, because it's so easily and frequently abused. Take a survey and see how many people have said it without meaning it, either intentionally or not. Just words, guys, just words.

That's an opinion I had even at fourteen. I'd heard stories about boys, evil and horny boys, callously tossing those words around just to get to second base. I was not going to let that happen to me. I would not fall for those three little words, nor would I let them pass my lips until I was good and sure that I was in love. That seems like a pretty reasonable attitude for a fourteen year old. Unfortunately, my implementation of that attitude was, well, misguided.

My first boyfriend tried to tell me that he loved me. He was so nervous and cute. We'd been talking on the phone a lot for a few months, seeing each other at church youth group every week or so. We'd held hands once. It was textbook puppy love, very sweet and innocent. He probably did want to get to second base, but that was more of a long-term plan. When he tried to eek out those all-important words, I stopped him. I was so sure of myself as I told him that I wanted to make sure this was love before we let those words out between us, and I just didn't think he'd given it enough thought.

The first time you say you love someone is portrayed as being very crucial on TV. You put it out there and then you wait to see what the other person will say. No one wants a nice hug and a thanks. That's heart-breaking. But that is nothing compared to being told that you're actually wrong. Fourteen-year-old Sandra took heart-trampling to new heights.

To that boy, I say: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was an idiot. But you knew that.

Somehow, we survived my obvious lack of understanding about relationships and the feelings of others. I did eventually allow him to tell me that he loved me. But I didn't say it back. I had learned a little bit, but I still was firm in my belief that I surely wasn't going to tell someone that I loved him unless I knew it. And so I waited to be "in love."

How do you know when you're in love? I still can't define that. There ought to be a test, something more significant than a set of ten multiple choice questions in a teen magazine. The only thing I can figure is that I was waiting for gongs. I would have accepted bells or flashing lights and streamers, but I was waiting for some sort of big sign, a giant epiphany that told me I was really and truly in love. Sudden, swelling music would have worked as well. Life in general would be easier if there were more gongs.

To all you fourteen-year-olds out there, I would like to state that there are no gongs. No, really. No gongs at all. Is this getting through to you? I'm imparting wisdom here. Are you even listening to me? Of course not, you little twerps. Kids these days.

The result of that debacle was that I ended up not telling that boy that I loved him when I did. I'm embarrassed, nay, ashamed to admit that was the state of things for two years. It's lucky for me that he was just a kid in love for the first time, too. Otherwise, he probably would have told me to buzz off, because I was clearly incompetent at life.

Again, I say: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I was an idiot. You knew that even then.

This was all a long time ago and that particular relationship advanced much farther, allowing me to make new and more serious mistakes. Now it's all over, and I suppose only water under the bridge. I was young and foolish then; I feel old and foolish now.

The first time Josh told me he loved me, I hesitated. I hadn't been in the beginning of a relationship for years and years, and I'd almost forgotten about the first time those words are said. My fourteen-year-old self told me to tread carefully. But then I thought, no, I'm not doing this again, and I said it right back. And the world continued on, everything was wonderful, because I was in love. It shouldn't have to be that hard, and really, it isn't.

I used to think that the words could get old. I knew a lot of people who seemed to say it to their mates automatically, without feeling. I thought that came from overuse of the phrase itself. My ex-boyfriend was in the habit of saying "You, too" to my "I love you." I hated that. It seemed so routine and insincere. It's also what he said to his mom. I realize now that the staleness of the words has more to do with the state of the relationship than the tally of times the words are used. Still, I think that even if I was in the best relationship in the world, that "you, too" crap would bug me. Even Demi Moore got mad at Patrick Swayze for saying "Ditto," and he came back from the dead to love her.

Having come to that realization that the words do not get old on their own (or at least they haven't yet), I abuse the phrase. I use it a million times a day, at the end of every phone call, after being handed a glass of water, in the middle of a James Bond movie. It's like I'm testing it for robustness. It always comes back to me, and it has not gotten old. I love, and I am loved. We don't get tired of communicating our affections to each other, but maybe that's because we use a lot of silly voices.

We even have The I Love You Test of Anger. You know how you can count how many seconds between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder to figure out how far away the strike hit? You just count how many seconds it takes the other party to return the "I love you" to find out how mad he is. It's quite effective. It also has the added benefit of putting the argument into perspective. Yes, I know that you're mad right now, but remember that I love you and more importantly, remember that you love me, so we're just going to have to get over this. Like any good relationship trick, we each know what the other person is doing, but it still works.

Even with all the mileage those three little words get in my relationship, I still think they get more credit than they deserve. The words only mean as much as the people saying and hearing them allow them to mean. They have no inherent value. To boys trying to get to second base, they mean nothing. To the girls who fall for that, they mean a lot. Love should be communicated, but not necessarily in that manner. "Tell me about your day," "Let me rub your feet," or even, "Have some of my ice cream." You don't have to use words at all, just hand the ice cream over and start rubbing my feet, and I'll know you love me. The words are just one of many ways to communicate love, and I want to use them all. Maybe I'll even get a gong.


snapping beans.

I'm sitting on the floor of my living room, facing a blank TV screen. I've got a big kitchen bowl to my right and a plastic grocery bag full of green beans to my left. I am snapping beans. Pinch one end, then the other, snap the bean into even pieces about two inches long, drop the pieces into the bowl. Pinch, pinch, snap, snap, snap, drop. Each step has a different noise, distinct, yet quiet enough that were the TV on, I wouldn't hear them. As I snap more, a familiar smell comes back. It's not like picking the beans, which has the smell of sweat and close spaces and dirt and broad yellow-green leaves sticking to your t-shirt. And it's not the smell of cooking the beans, which is hot and hungry and buttery. It's a fresh green smell, earthy and homey. They say smell is the sense with the most powerful memory, and as I snap, I think about beans.

A handwritten list on the kitchen table, scrawled in the pre-dawn hours, sometimes with a note below. Chores for summer vacation, from my mother who knew that she didn't make us do enough housework. I dreaded the List. At first it was long, because my sister was there. Sometimes Mama doled out the jobs herself and we each had an assigned column, our names like bylines. Sometimes she left it to us to fight it out who would have to sweep (hard, boring) and who would have to empty the trashcans (easy, quick). Then later, my sister left for college and the list got shorter, sometimes only one hastily written item to make my mother feel better about not making her daughter work harder. The seasons of the summer can be told by the chores, as sometimes we must pick strawberries, then pick blueberries, and then we must snap beans. I hated the garden chores, because I hated all chores on pricinple. I hated picking berries, because our fulfillment of the task was measured by how much we pick, and I ate half my crop. There's no reason I should've hated snapping beans. Snapping beans is a chore done on your butt in front of the weekday game shows. Snapping beans is a chore assigned by a mother who is trying to pad out the List.

A neighborhood swimming pool, sometimes empty and sometimes teeming with live little bodies. Mama doesn't swim, but sits in the shade of the carport. She pays as much attention as any seasoned mother, that is, none at all unless the soundtrack of shrieks changes volume. She brings beans in a kitchen bowl nested inside another bowl. She holds the bowl of beans in her lap and tosses the broken pieces into the empty bowl at her feet. As the hour progresses, the levels of the bowls switch. When we are the only ones there, she snaps and thinks about whatever Mamas think about. When other kids are also taking advantage of the pool, there is a row of Mamas in metal red-checked patio furniture. Some of them have also brought their beans, because everyone we know has a garden. Those who haven't brought their own help, too, and they talk about whatever Mamas talk about.

I am not at the pool, and I am not watching The Price is Right. I'm just sitting on my much-larger butt, snapping beans. I consider putting in a DVD, but decide that I rather like the noises made by bean pieces snapping and then tumbling all over themselves in the bowl. I feel oddly quiet and centered.

I think about whatever Sandras think about.


ze plane! ze plane!

So I wrote that little entry a couple weeks back about the tiny airplane ride and how I took all these pictures. And then I posted one picture. That was kinda mean, wasn't it? To make up for my teasing ways, I'm going to post more airplane pictures.

The view from atop my shoulder. Seriously, guys, tiny plane.

I took this one while dangling from the wing thousands of feet in the air. Or, uh, on the ground.

Finally, this shot was taken while we were flying over Kansas. Not really. It just looked cooler in black and white.



I'm lugging incredibly heavy equipment, one of the less glamorous aspects of dating a musician. It's about a block of walking between the club and my car, back and forth, navigating between pedestrians of varying levels of intoxication. People pass by in groups, looking happy at the best and a bit tired at the worst. A hot dog vendor with a mullet and white handlebar moustache sets up on the sidewalk, sensing opportunity. I walk past a doorway with a disheveled girl standing inside. She's struggling with her shoe, a shiny silver stiletto. Her belt, though purely ornamental, is hanging half off and her hair looks like she slept on it. She looks up as I pass, as if looking for a friend she lost that might help her with her dire shoe situation.

The buildings in downtown Greensboro are familiar, though I've never seen them before. They're old, half abandoned with junk piled inside behind dusty windows with "For Lease" signs. Old barber shops and five and dimes, they stand like old men on a porch complaining about kids on their lawns. A couple of them have been converted into clubs or posh restaurants in an attempt at downtown revitalization. The town planners see this as a great shining hope.

We pass through another group of people, a bunch of college kids heading home to sleep it off. They're not that drunk, and whichever one of them is the designated driver might even be able to pass a breathalyzer. The guys don't look that different from how they probably appeared hours earlier, maybe a few extra wrinkles in their polos. The girls, however, have obviously been undergoing a gradual deterioration. They're carrying their uncomfortable shoes, and they've pulled their hair back into messy ponytails. Jewelry has been stashed in a purse somewhere, makeup is smudged. Hours spent getting ready for a night of drinking, only to have alcohol make you realize how uncomfortable it all is. Still, they've not had enough to take them across the line from youthful and pretty into haggard.

Finally, we reach the car, and go about the process of piecing together the equipment so it all will fit into a sedan. A girl passes by, alone. Hair stuffed up into a rubber band, no shoes to be seen. Her balance is not what it should be. Her sequined halter top bunches around her stomach and over her miniskirt as she slouches down the sidewalk. She meets a group of six black guys on the sidewalk, who start talking to her. They're probably a bit tipsy, but she's wasted, and I can hear every word she says from twenty feet away. She was in the club (she doesn't remember which one), took some ecstacy, left because it was too hot, then lost her friends, and now she doesn't know where her ID is. The guys talk to her, one at a time, then two at a time, rotating themselves out, laughing out loud as she says something about how trashed she is. From an unseen nearby street, sirens sound, and she screams, "The police are coming! It's the cops!"

Finally, we're loaded up and we can leave Greensboro behind. It's almost last call, and this is not where I want to be. The girl with the silver shoe is walking unsteadily next to a muscled member of club security. The group of college-age kids have been replaced with a different version of themselves, five minutes later. The girl in the sequined halter top is leaned against a lamppost, one of the guys talking to her intimately. I start the car.

"I hope she gets home okay," I say to Josh.

"She will. She's probably got people looking for her."

"I don't think those guys are going to do her any favors."

"Yeah, you may be right. It's too bad. She was pretty."

I hadn't noticed.