the only pretty pen-pal in Montana.

I briefly mentioned my pen pal before, and I thought that I would take the time to mention her less briefly today. A couple of years ago, I started feeling that I wasn't doing enough to help the world, and so I started looking into volunteer programs. I looked mostly at tutoring math, but most of the programs were more after school than after day job hours. Then I started thinking about those prison pen pal programs that are always the basis for wacky situations on half hour network comedies.

I'm going to pause here to let my mother freak out for a little bit while she thinks about me writing letters to felons. In fact, I'm going to depart completely from my topic, knowing she'll read whatever is next out of motherly obligation. She'll read it as fast as she can, sure, but she'll read it, trying to get to the part where I reassure her about the felons.

I once had a pen pal in third grade or so, arranged through the school. My classmates and I were all paired up with the classmates in some other school in Montana. My girl sent me a picture of her with her pet bunny, and all the boys in my class thought she was really pretty. Or maybe they just liked a girl who could handle a rabbit. In any case, I enjoyed a very weird sort of popularity for having the only pretty pen pal in Montana. Later, the pen pal (what was her name?) wrote and asked for that particular picture back, because her bunny had died and that was the only photo she had of him. Because of the really bizarre popularity that picture provided me, I was very reluctant to send it back. How did young Sandra respond to this early test of her willingness to help out her fellow man? I'll just say that I found a picture of a very cute little girl holding a rabbit in my stuff a couple of years ago.

Alright, my mom is getting pretty antsy now, so I'll just let you know that you have to have a P.O. box to write to a felon, and I don't. I was secretly relieved. No matter how funny it is when Steve Urkel's convicted pen pal gets out of jail and comes to see him, I can imagine other scenarios that would end up on the 10 PM crime drama. And of course, that's very unfair to judge the incarcerated that way, but there you go.

But I did find a nursing home in California which had a pen pal program for its residents. And this sounded like a great idea for me, because I could feel helpful to the world without actually having to leave the house. It also gave me an excuse to buy stationery.

I'd always really liked pen pals. On that old PBS show, Ghostwriter, there was a cute Hispanic kid named Alex who had about fifty pen pals all over the world. He had a map up on his wall with push-pins representing each long-distance friend.

Alex is the cute one on the very left. He's totally working those early 90s clothes.

I thought Alex was really cool.

Aside from the prettiest pen pal in Montana, I had another pen pal for about five years who lived in New York. We wrote each other from about third grade to eighth grade, a time period that seems really long in retrospect. I found some of her letters recently, and I was shocked at the things I had told her, including highly-sensitive information about a crush on a boy that I never told anyone else in the world about. I guess that's the good thing about pen pals, the level of trust that comes with distance. Of course it is possible that the entire town of Victor, New York knows about how I almost "went with" that boy. I found a letter where she told me about her first kiss, and it was terribly sweet, like the stuff of a sappy coming of age movie. Of course, I cringe to think of all the letters of mine that might exist somewhere and how I probably sounded idiotic and naive. But she, she was sweet.

I actually sent a letter to this girl's old address a couple of years ago, but either she moved or she wasn't interested in putting a push pin on Raleigh, NC. I would have liked to inform her that I, too, have since been kissed by a boy (but not by that other one). I like to assume that she moved. Lots of people deride denial, but I personally find it very useful in day-to-day ego maintenance.

I wonder if pen pals have fallen out of fashion now that there is email. Of course, you can just have an email pal. But I'll go ahead and give the usual argument in favor of the old-fashioned and say that it's not the same. It's less personal. Maybe something is lost when you can't hold something in your hands and think that it came from someplace far away. Or maybe it's better because it's instant and easier to maintain. Or maybe it's worse because a friendship which is more difficult to keep inherently means more. Or maybe nothing is ever good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

I can't decide. I wish I knew how Alex felt about it.


a complicated karaoke machine.

Call me unsupportive, but I do not enjoy all of Josh's shows. This has nothing to do with the music, but is usually more to do with the setting. There are lots of factors involved, any of which could sweeten or sour my mood. Josh told me this week that he had a frat party to play on Friday. In a barn. Then he told me that he had another one Thursday, but it was indoors. I think he told me about the outdoor one first so that the indoor one wouldn't seem so bad in comparison. I've been to an fall outdoor frat party before. It was not a good time.

Last year (or was it two years ago?), the band played in a field out near Turkey, NC. I am not even making that up. It was someone's dad's farm, and people had tents set up for camping. It was dusk when we got there and started setting up the equipment on the back of a flatbed truck. They had rented huge lights and a bonfire was already going strong. Once all the carrying is done, I don't have much involvement in setting up. I don't know how the drums go together and I can't tune anything. So during the setting up stage, I start looking around and gauging just what sort of night I'm about to have. I check out the people, the location of the restrooms and beer sources, any possibilities for food.

There are a couple advantages to playing at frat parties. One is that they have their ducks in a row with regards to payment. You play in a bar, you sometimes have to hassle a couple of people to get paid, and even then the band might get screwed over. But frat boys pay in advance at an agreed rate. They pay with checks. You can make your own joke about whose bank account it comes from.

But the big advantage as far as I'm concerned about frat parties is that they are always catered. You probably already know this about me, but it bears repeating: Getting free food makes me way happier than it should. After a big helping of NC barbeque with lots of fixins, I was starting to think that going to frat parties in fields wasn't so bad.

It started getting cold fast. I wasn't really prepared to spend all night out in the cold, but luckily, we were dealing with some particularly resourceful frat boys. Seeing the fire die down, they threw a couch on it. Whose couch was it? I don't know. Did the owner of the couch approve its being burned at the stake? I don't know that either. It sure did burn, though.

But I find that there is one major disadvantage of frat parties: sorority girls.

Give me a chance here. We all know that I can be very catty and judgmental, but I'm not going to complain about girls in tiny outfits in the middle of winter. I'm not going to complain about pretty girls talking to my boyfriend. I'm not even going to make any math-is-hard-let's-go-shopping jokes. I feel like I have a legitimate complaint here with regard to sorority girls, and it's all about how they treat the band.

Here is the progression. First, they start dancing. And that's fine. Some of it is kinda dirty and maybe I'd rather not see it, but whatever, that's fine. They dance some with the guys, but even after a few beers, most guys aren't really into dancing. So they dance with each other. It gets pretty silly. I start to wonder why these girls are so popular.

After a while, they decide they really want to dance to a particular song. I'm sure this is generational, but for the girls at the parties I go to, they want to hear stuff from the 80s. They want to hear "Billie Jean." Really, they'll settle for anything they know. If you started playing something from the mid-90s, they will only pout for a second before they start dancing with their girlfriends again. But note that at the end of the song, they will ask for the 80s again. I feel that I should note that most of the girls have no memory of the Reagan administration. I, uh, remember it a little bit.

I should pause and explain that it's really frustrating for people to request a band to play covers. Some bands only play covers. They are called, appropriately enough, "cover bands." They are incredibly popular and probably make enough money touring college towns that they can give up their day jobs if they are careful with their money. They fill the bars with happy people having nostalgia with their margaritas and so the bars like them. But they never get famous. And if you are a non-cover band, people will get frustrated by the fact that they don't know any of the songs that you're playing. And they will ask you to play songs that they do know. They will get mad that you don't happen to know a particular song out of millions of songs that they favor. You will get mad that you worked hard to write a song and they're not even listening because it's not "Billie Jean."

Okay, back to the sorority girls who want to hear 80s songs. The requesting of covers is annoying, but it's common and not particular to the girls at these parties. At some point, the band gives in and plays something the girls will know. They play Tom Petty or Weezer or even "Billie Jean." This is when the girls start to get really irritating.

They get on stage. It's like a rule, or maybe some sort of law of nature that they are attracted to the spot where they will garner the most attention. They've been dancing the whole time, and it was fun, but now it's time for them to seriously start being noticed. The stage calls to them. "Come dance upon me!" it cries. And they, feeling the call of the stage, must oblige it.

I do not understand this at all. Granted, I'm kind of a wallflower, but even so, jumping up on a stage uninvited during a performance seems beyond the pale. When you go to a play, do you jump up on the stage and sit on the set? You don't go to an art gallery and start touching the paintings. I suspect these girls, being young and pretty and popular, are used to getting their way, particularly from males. So if they decide that they want to be on stage, they do it.

Maybe you don't think that's annoying. You think I'm just irritated that these drunk girls are up there next to my boyfriend. What kind of a prude doesn't like dancing girls on stage? But just wait, it gets worse.

So you've got half a dozen girls on stage now, dancing, shaking what their Mamas gave them. It's not usually a huge stage, so it's a bit cramped. And then, I kid you not, they start taking over the instruments. Obviously, the microphone goes first. They start screaming into the mike or calling out to their friends or singing. They have totally forgotten that someone has been paid to sing into that mike, and it wasn't them. Then one of them starts hitting the cymbals with a finger. A couple of them play air guitar before trying to strum the actual guitars with their manicured fingernails. This is while the band is playing.

Are you shocked? You should be shocked. Think about that some more until you are thoroughly shocked. This is completely unacceptable behavior. The band is here to perform for your enjoyment. They are not a complicated karaoke machine. They are not here to give you music lessons.

And yet it is allowed. Because the band is here to live up to the agreement of playing a show. And the people that hired them want the girls to be happy. They want them to have fun and drink more. And if having fun means playing with the expensive musical equipment, then by golly, that's what they shall have.

But I am ever the optimist, and there is a glittery silver lining to this drunk and screaming cloud. When the girls start taking over the instruments, it becomes pointless for the band to play. So they stop. The girls might try to play with the instruments for a while, but they soon get bored with it once they remember that they don't actually have any sort of ability. Once the music is gone, someone turns on a stereo, and the band is pretty much done for the night. And having been paid in advance, we are free to leave.

That was the way it went last year (or was it two years ago?) in Turkey, NC. And that was the way it went last night. I am not particularly looking forward to tonight, but at least I know what to expect.



Before we start, does anyone have a handy mnemonic device for remembering that stationery (with an 'e') means writing paper and stationary (with an 'a') means standing still? Also, if you could supply a similar way to remember that cemetery is the place where they bury people, and Cemetary is the 90s Swedish gothic metal band? My life would be much simpler.

I have a very impressive collection of stationery. I mean, if you're impressed by that sort of thing. My stockpile includes writing paper, note cards, cards for occasions, fancy paper and fancy envelopes, some of which even match. I get the stuff at discount stores, thrift stores, and yard sales. I've been collecting it a while. I only recently finished up using some stationery that I received from being a member of the Baby-sitter's Club Book Club, not to mention some that my brother printed for me around 1995. I do not currently have any Lisa Frank stationery (careful, that web site is excruciatingly girly). I wish I did, because I would love to send mail featuring my very favorite Lisa Frank character, Bananigans.

I keep it all in a clear plastic storage container. Well, I would keep all of it in there, except that my collection has outgrown its storage. It's a weakness of mine. But like any good weakness, I've found a way to justify it to myself. Seriously, I can quit anytime I want.

My justification is that I do use the stuff to send mail to other people, and receiving mail makes those other people happy. In fact, I have a pen pal. She's a nursing home patient in California. I bet you did not know that about me. You think I'm a good person now.

I find that snail mail has a very good effort to happiness ratio. It really doesn't take that much effort to scratch down a note and stick it in the mail. But people go nuts. Mail! In the mailbox! That they can hold in their hands! You'd be amazed at what one little personal card can do in this age of electronic mail and junk mail. And then your friends will think you are so kind and so considerate and you will feel good because you are indeed so kind and so considerate. It's all about making yourself feel good.

I also use the stuff to send birthday cards. My New Year's resolution last year was to send cards to every member of my family on their birthdays. I get very few thank you cards or emails or any sort of acknowledgment at all. But that's okay, because I don't do it to be thanked, and I don't fault parents for being busy. When I do get a thank you back, it's very sweet. When I don't get one, I think about how cool it is to have time that I can fritter away on mail-related hobbies instead of on expensive and needy hobbies with snotty noses that look like mine.

I do it to throw out a line to people. Maybe someday down the road, one of my twenty nieces or nephews is going to remember that they have an aunt that they don't see all that often but who remembers them and is there if needed. I'm just keeping the communication lines open.

So now you know some things you might not have known about me. Let's sum up.

1. I have a lot of stationery.
2. I used to be in the Baby-sitter's Club Book Club.
3. My favorite Lisa Frank character is Bananigans (since this afternoon when I looked up Lisa Frank on Wikipedia and saw that inspired name in the list of characters).
4. I have a pen pal.
5. I am very selfish and have elaborate plots to make myself feel good.
6. I can't remember how to spell stationery (had to look it up), but I do know how to spell mnemonic. If there is a branch of psychology that deals with spelling, this might provide a very interesting glimpse into my psyche.
7. There was a Swedish gothic metal band in the 1990s named Cemetary.

That last one's not actually about me at all.


me and my magic blood.

I've blogged about giving blood before, and so it's widely documented that I hate doing it. I've covered my traumatic childhood experience that I think developed into my fear of needles, as well as bad experiences I've had as an adult trying to give blood. And I've mentioned the irrational anxiety that comes over me every time I even start considering visiting a blood drive. Did you know that I always picture myself suddenly bending my elbow such that the needle is jammed up into me? Why would I ever do that? Why does that image always haunt me?

I find that preparation is a powerful calming narcotic for me, so I've got the process streamlined by now. I know the things I need to do to make it a relatively easy process and to keep myself from passing out right afterwards. I know to drink lots of water beforehand (no, really, lots) and I know to tell them that they have to use my right arm. Don't even try old Lefty over there, she won't give you nothin'.

Even though I've done it probably ten times and I know what to do to make it easy, I still hate it. So let's talk about why I keep doing it. After all, there are lots of things that I don't like to do, and for the most part, I don't do them (eating canteloupe, jogging, poking myself in the eye). One of the reasons that I do it is because of my anxiety. I always feel a tiny bit heroic when I give blood, because I know I'm so scared to do it. I'm being brave, like St. George facing the dragon, er, bloodmobile, or at least like a ten year old standing up to a bully.

But aside from making me feel like I'm conquering some of my own phobias, I feel like it's an important thing for everyone to do. I feel a bit more connected with the rest of humanity when I give blood. It's recognizing that we all need to help each other out sometimes. Somebody needs help, and it may or may not be because of anything they can control. Because we are the same kind of animal, we have these very basic, biological things in common. But because we're human, I have the ability to decide that I want to give it to you instead of using it myself. "Here, I made this for you. No, it's cool, I got stuff to make more for myself. You need this right now."

I secretly wish that I had a really rare blood type, so whenever I showed up, everyone would cheer for me and my magic blood. Actually, I have the most common blood type, O+. It goes with my brown hair and brown eyes. Luckily, I can still give to anyone else who has positive blood, which covers most of the population. The Red Cross still wants my blood, they told me so.

And they want your blood, too. Unless you're a mad cow, in which case they still think you're a nice person.


we believe in exopat!

Today, I am going to write about one of my very favorite cooking items. I cannot believe the amount of enthusiasm that I am able to muster for a kitchen utensil. It makes me feel sorta boring. In fact, this may be the most boring blog entry ever. But if so, then at least I went ahead and got it out of the way. Now I can go ahead and write about other boring things without fear. After all, they can't be more boring than this.

This kitchen item is always dirty. That's because I use it all the time and also because I'm a crappy housekeeper. It is a powerful baking tool, and is useful in the preparation of many kinds of foods. It also has a great super-hero type name, and I wrote a song for it.


Exopat is lots of fun!
It is made of silicon!
We believe in Exopat!

If you don't have one of these nifty little mats, then I pity you. Not only do your cookies stick to the cookie sheet, you can't sing the song. What joy is in your life? We bake pizza, french fries, bread, and cookies on the Exopat. It as versitile as it is musical. We make pizza at least once a week, and fries might be made every other day. Our Exopat gets lots of use. Sometimes they go on sale on Amazon. Yes, they look expensive when you could just use aluminum foil. But considering other items made of silicon that cost much more and don't improve your cookie-baking at all, I think it's well worth it.

Last weekend, Josh and I were at my mother's house and we wanted to make french fries. I knew Mama had an Exopat and so I went about searching for it. I looked in a cabinet and found the beloved baking sheet. But when I pulled it out, I noticed - what's this? - it was torn! I screamed and fainted at the sight of the gory wound. To see a beautiful Exopat cut down in its prime, when it had many more cookies left to bake evenly without sticking! Poor Exopat!

For an example of what to do with your Exopat, here is our French Fry recipe. I mentioned it before, then had to give it to two people because I hadn't posted it. So here.

French Fries
Adapted from Allrecipes

1 large baking potato
1 T olive oil
1/2 t paprika
1/2 t garlic powder
1/2 t chili powder
1/2 t onion power
1/4 t cayenne pepper

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Cut potato into fries. You can make them as big as you want, but you may need to up the temperature if you do so. You can peel them, but then you'd be missing some potato nutrients. Sing "My Name is Potato" while cutting.
3. Take a Ziploc bag and put in oil and spices. Add potato pieces. CLOSE THE BAG, and then shake it all over the place. You may still sing "My Name is Potato" and dance while doing this.
4. Look for your EXOPAT! Realize it's dirty from pizza yesterday. Wash it and put it on a cookie sheet. Sing the Exopat song.
5. Throw your delicious seasoned potatoes onto the Exopat. Spread them out in nice even rows if you're particular about things like that.
6. Bake in oven for 20 minutes. Take fries out, flip them over and put them back in oven. Bake for another 15 minutes.

We dip these in homemade ranch dressing while we thank the heavens for Exopat.