happy new year or else.

Let's talk about New Year's Eve. I sorta hate it.

It took me a long time to figure out what I hate about New Year's: it's that sometimes I have a crappy one. Not always, but those are definitely the most memorable. It seems like I had a fine time ringing in 2007, or maybe I'm only assuming that because I don't remember it at all. 2011 came in with a lesson about the dangers of champagne. I started 2008 freezing cold, in the car, miles to go before I slept. The first moments of 2005 sucked the most of all.

Of course, that's unfair. No doubt I have had terrible April 27ths, but I don't bear any ill will toward the day. And like I said, some of my New Year celebrations have been fine. I think. Maybe they were so bad that I'm blocking them out.

I realized last year that I had a certain idea about New Year's Eve that was ruining it for me. I think of it as a harbinger of the year to come. So if I have a rotten evening, I can feel the whole year yawning before me in awfulness. This is not logical. But it is an idea that had been hanging out in my head, making mediocre parties seem like portents of doom. It made having a terrific night a terrible necessity. HAVE FUN OR ELSE. One year, I found out that I was going to spending my New Year's at The Farmhouse, and I think I just wrote off the whole next year then and there.

But now, having pinpointed the source of my New Year's anxiety, I can overcome it. I can, you know, just let the evening unfold like I do with every other evening without feeling frantic that I'm not having the best night of my life. It is hard to have a good time when you're obsessed with the need to have a good time.

And if it sucks, well, I'll just write it off as part of 2012. Which wasn't a bad year for me, so if one day was below average, no big deal.

Happy New Year.



This year, we had a real Wallburg Family Christmas, Wallburg being the tiny town where Josh's mother's family lives. Their tradition is to have a big breakfast at the house of either his mom or one of his aunts (all of whom live on the same hillside). Then they play music, and finally, there is a game of Silly Santa. I think the game is a relatively new tradition, brought on by the fact that it became too much of a burden to get presents for everyone.

Silly Santa (also known as Dirty Santa) is a game where everyone brings a wrapped gift, all of which are placed in the middle of the room. We draw numbers to determine the order of who picks out a gift first, second, third, etc. When it's your turn, you pick out a present, either from the stash of wrapped gifts, or from the selection of things already unwrapped. So you can go with a mystery gift, or you can "steal" someone else's selection. If a person's gift is stolen, then they can either pick something from the middle or steal from someone else. Everyone has their own house rules, but we stipulate that a gift can only be stolen 3 times, otherwise the same iTunes gift card would go back and forth forever.

The gifts in the middle are a hodgepodge of good stuff and gag gifts. The fun of the good gifts is that they are more likely to get stolen. The fun of the bad ones is that then everyone can laugh as you hopefully try and convince someone to steal it from you, knowing that you will be taking it home.

Several years ago, Josh and I came across a glass head at a yard sale. We were fascinated by it. Sometimes, when in the secondhand marketplace, you find something so fantastic that you cannot not buy it. But nor do you actually want it. Such was the case with the glass head. It was $2, and horrifying. I did not want it in my house, looking at me with its empty eyes. But it had defied all logic and sanity by simply existing, and I wasn't about to let it get thrown away. Our excuse was that we would bring it as a Silly Santa gift. Surely, hilarity would ensue.

We wrapped it up in a huge box, padded with torn wrapping paper. And then we did not make it to Wallburg Family Christmas for two years. Luckily, our house is full of random crap, so a wrapped Christmas gift sitting in the corner fit right in. And it was better than looking at the glass head itself.

Finally, this year, the glass head would meet its Christmas destiny. We also wrapped up a giant bar of fancy chocolate, figuring it would be smart to bring one good thing and one awful thing. The first year we played, Josh and I hadn't known to bring gifts, so his mother hurriedly wrapped up some stuff she had received so that we could play. This year, she asked me if we had come prepared, and then gave me a big hug when I said yes, saying that I knew the way to my mother-in-law's heart. I thought it was loving her son, but it turns out it has something to do with family Christmas traditions.

The box with the glass head, with its innocuous Snoopy wrapping paper, was the very first thing picked, because the first person to go was using the strategy of picking the biggest box. It was a strategy that would fail him, especially since the smallest package turned out to be someone's old Rolex. As he unwrapped, I barely contained my snickers, and I shared amused glances with Josh across the room. It was a beautiful moment when he pulled out that awful glass head, a moment I'd been anticipating for more than three years.

The second person to go was Josh's teenage brother, who purposefully strode across the room and snatched away the glass head as if he had been waiting for the moment for a long time, too. All these years, his life had been missing a glass head, though he hadn't realized it until that day. For the rest of the game, he hid it behind his back to prevent anyone from stealing it (not sure that was ever a real danger). And then he spent the rest of the day putting things on it and also in it. Meanwhile, his mother tried to keep her sense of humor about having that awful thing in her house. I wondered if that was the way to my mother-in-law's heart.



Six years ago, Josh bought me a wonderful birthday present. Such was my excitement that I wrote an excessively long blog entry about it. While the whole essay was really just an excuse to show off my vintage gumball machine, the frame story was about how some people are excellent gift-givers, and the gumball machine indicated that Josh was among that proud group. I bragged that I had years of excellent gifts to look forward to. Apparently, rather than be pleased that I enjoyed my gift so much, he took it as a challenge that every single gift he bought me had to be to up to the standard set by the beautiful, vintage, cherry red gumball machine.

A few days before Christmas, he announced that he had bought my present. I asked for clues, and he told me that it was blue.

"Is it a puppet?" I asked, because there was no way in the world I was going to be able to guess based on the fact that the thing was blue.

"Yes. And no." He answered, which was not as helpful as I'd hoped. That lead to a discussion of all the things that could be puppets, such as purses or tea kettles, basically anything that you can make talk. In fact, a day or two later, I told him that I'd bought his present, and that it was not and yet was a puppet (it was a book).

It turned out that he was lying. My present was blue, and it was definitely a puppet. It was in no way not a puppet. More specifically, it was a Muppet.

Actually, to be excruciatingly specific, it was an Anything Muppet, or a Whatnot. These are blank Muppets that you can stick features onto to create multiple characters. They are generally used as extras or one-off characters, because of their versatility.

And now I have one, because the world is an amazing place.

Not only can you switch out the nose, eyes, and hairpieces, you can position the features to change the expression, too. The kit also comes with a rod to attach to the hands so that the Muppet can make dramatic arm movements.

As I was gleefully playing around with the different faces, Josh said that he had finally topped the gumball machine, and I found out about all his gift anxiety caused by a silly old blog entry. Then I realized what a great frame story that anxiety would make for me to tell you about the most fantastic Christmas present I got this year. It's blue, and it's a puppet.


music everywhere, all the time.

There are five of us and two guitars on a screened-in porch in Apex. The instruments are passed around, everyone eager to make sure everyone else has a turn. Someone starts picking something out, and whoever is holding the other one will play harmony. Only a couple are songs that the players have ever attempted to play before. Mostly it is songs that we are all familiar with, and it is a community effort to figure out the notes. Listeners call out chords, which are then tried and confirmed or rejected. We sing quietly, because none of us are very confident about our voices and we're not always sure of the words.

* * * * *

The basement is set up for band practice, and when the band is not there, then a band forms. There are guitars lining the walls, a bass, a drum kit, a piano, an accordion. Some people come to the basement with their own instruments, either because they were invited to have a jam session or because they always happen to have a sax in the trunk. Whoever is there will pick up the instrument that they can play, or else sit and wait until someone abandons the instrument they can play. Or if there are five guitarists sitting around and no drummer, someone will give it a go, beginning their drum career then and there. And they all just rock out together, making it up as they go along.

* * * * *

It is Sunday morning, and we are on the covered front porch of a house in the mountains, drinking coffee and looking out at the river. We had talked about maybe trying to go to church somewhere local, but before plans could be finalized, a guitar came out, then another. They traded songs back and forth, one leading while the other listened long enough to pick up the pattern and then join in. It was a different kind of service.

* * * * *

It is Christmas Day, and breakfast is still set out on the counters for grazing, but we are all crammed into the living room, sitting in chairs and on the floor or wherever a body will fit. It's probably Grandmother who gets the ball rolling. While the youngers sit back and make jokes, she is impatient for the music to begin. She picks the closest one and orders them to get to playing, which starts a series of small concerts, like a recital. There is piano, guitar, violin, cello, and it all ends with Cousin Ben on the accordion, playing the song with the tongue twister verses about a proper cup of coffee from a proper copper coffee pot. Grandmother asks me if I play anything, and I shake my head sadly. But she says, "Me neither!" and then looks all about her proudly.

* * * * *

The night before the wedding, the party goes on forever in a two-room rented cabin in the national park. There's one mandolin, three guitars, and six guitarists. Someone is always fiddling, either working something out for themselves or providing the chords to a song that we all sing. We are happy to be in this group of people who know the same songs, even though we have only met some of them this very evening. Some funny phrase floats up in a conversation, and immediately it becomes a line in the chorus of a new song.

* * * * *

Trevor is alone in his room, playing his screaming guitar solo unplugged, because you can't melt faces if you haven't practiced.

* * * * *

The afternoon is mild and the s'mores are delicious. Someone strolls over from the house carrying a huge case, and suddenly from nowhere more cases appear. There are four of them, standing in a loose circle playing bluegrass hymns: A guitar, a mandolin, a fiddle, a double bass. My parents are there, the first meeting between two families that will be joined officially sometime next year. My dad sits at a picnic table, listening to the music, his foot tapping. Then he gets up and stands among them, making requests and then listening with a far-off look of contentment.

* * * * *

Musicians hang out with musicians, and they all get together and play music. They do it when they're happy or sad or drunk or awake. It is incredible magic to me, the making of music, the drive to create sound. I used to worry that my musician would suddenly notice that and make off with one of his own kind. But I don't think about it that way anymore. I'm just grateful to have a passport into these moments when music just happens.


profoundly strange.

*Note: It is not my aim to insult any of the following groups of people: anarchists, socialists, women who pee standing up, sad hobo clowns, Puerto Ricans, people with unusual names or their parents, Franz Kafka, the city of Chapel Hill. You guys are all fine in my book. It's a big world.

"So we went to this puppet show in Chapel Hill tonight-"

"No, no." Ashley interrupted. "Sandra took me to a puppet show in Chapel Hill tonight."

She was right; it had been all my fault. I was the one on a mailing list about local puppet shows. I had said, "hey, let's go to this while you're in town," and I had driven us over to Chapel Hill. I had driven all around the block a few times looking for parking, and I had even paid the $20 donation to get us both in. But I didn't know! I swear, I didn't know. The show was at the Internationalist Books and Community Center, a tiny shop located on the main drag. A travelling puppet show in an independent book store. Doesn't that sound nice?

We came through the door a minute or two late and had a seat among the several rows of folding chairs pushed into cramped rows. I was shoved up against a display of local magazines, t-shirts, knitted goods, and some plastic funnel things that allow women to pee standing up. The stuff at the bottom was free, so I helped myself to a few of the more interesting pamphlets and stickers. The bookstore was clearly a haven for multiple fringe movements. It's cool that anyone with a Xerox can make a magazine and sell it in a real bookstore.

There were a few others already in the seats when we arrived, and more came in. There was definitely an alternative vibe. Some of the people were not regular bathers. Many of them had hairstyles that could be called pieces of art. They were all dressed unconventionally, some of them looking like they were intentionally clashing and others appearing more interested in comfort than fashion.

We felt a little out of place. I wished that I had worn something weirder.

An employee of the book store got up to welcome us and tell us about upcoming events. After all, if we had come to the puppet show, we might be interested in some of their other guest speakers. The very next Tuesday, there was going to be someone that she described as "an anarchist from the South," like being an anarchist was just like being a window washer or a knitter. As it turns out, the name "Internationalist" is not just a nice way to be inclusive, but a reference to a political philosophy. It's socialism on an international level. I'm not sure where the anarchists fit in. It's possible that the smaller groups have to stick together, even if their aims are different. Smaller groups also include travelling puppet shows.

There were two puppet groups that evening. Jawbone Puppet Theatre is a father and son act, the father being dressed as a hobo with a painted sad clown face, and the son being a five-year-old named Corn Snake. Poncili Company is a group of four puppeteers, who were relatively normal-looking. They all had magnificent hair and pretty accents, hailing from Puerto Rico.

Parts of the show were a bit like watching a child play-act with his toys. For example, one sketch was with dinosaur toys, as Sad Hobo Dad and Corn Snake manipulated action figures and made them talk to each other. But the rest of the skits were similar in that there was very little attempt to hide the puppeteer. I don't mind that. Puppetry is a wide open art form, which is one of the things I love about it. A lot of the puppets were plastic toys or stuffed animals, plus some that were constructed with paper mache or cardboard. My favorites were the little cardboard ones with hinged joints. They must have had magnets on the back, because Sad Hobo Clown Dad was able to randomly stick them around the room. He must've had some magnets sewn into his suit, because he stuck them to himself, too, as if he was the stage (okay, that is brilliant). He even had a tiny cardboard Sad Hobo Clown Dad, which rode on an empty coal bucket in an adaptation of a Kafka story. I'm not sure what it says when the Kafka story is one of the more coherent pieces of your act.

I am not sure, but I think that I may have done a poor job of hiding my complete and total confusion during the entire show. It was so strange. I understood some things, while others I couldn't tell if there was even anything to get. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy myself. I liked the puppets, I liked the sets built into battered suitcases, and I liked the sketches. I just didn't understand the point of all of them, nor was I entirely sure there always was one. Then again, I've never been good at symbolism.

At the end, as they were all taking their bows to our enthusiastic applause (Corn Snake held his nose while doing so, which was a nice touch), one of the performers told to us to feel free to stick around and come talk to them after the show, because "some of the skits are pretty weird." I laughed in relief. Thank goodness, it's not just me, this is actually weird. Behind us, a couple of high school kids had different reactions. One was enthralled, either because she is at a higher level of understanding than I am or because she automatically equates weird with deep. The other said the exact same words as his friend, but sarcastically. Either he was at a higher level of understanding than I am or he assumes that anything that he doesn't get is stupid.

I really have no idea. Some of it was really cool, much of it was confusing, all of it was fascinating. It has tumbled in my head since then, hoping to catch on some crag on my brain and find a connection.

Later, we chatted a bit with Sad Hobo Clown Dad. He said he came up with the outfit as a last-minute costume for a hobo party he was going to. For whatever reason, he decided to put on the sad clown makeup, and he said he felt his whole body sort of fall into it, as if he'd really been a sad hobo clown all his life and had only discovered it when he happened to have to go to this party. I wonder how many of us are really sad hobo clowns inside and don't even know it.

We left feeling sort of stunned at the strangeness of at all, discussing what kind of person a kid named Corn Snake and raised in a touring puppet show would grow up to be.

Who does this? Who travels around the country giving bizarre puppet shows? The touring aspect reminded me of Josh's band, but with a band, there is always the hope of getting rich and famous. With puppet shows, there's not really a precedent of someone getting famous from doing this, so these guys really have to be doing it for its own sake. They're just artists, and this is where their inspiration leads them. I cannot comprehend their motivations, but I am glad they exist. Maybe Someone has to be doing this, for our world to be as big and beautiful and strange as it is.


the pod.

Our office bought a Keurig, which is one of those pod coffee makers. You know, you put in a little sealed cup, press go, and a minute later you have exactly one cup of coffee. They're supposed to be convenient for situations where cups should only be brewed one at a time, e.g., an office. We have a coffee machine that brews individual cups on demand, but the results are not tasty. I'm not sure if it's the coffee we are buying or maybe the machine hasn't been cleaned out in ten years, but it is not good coffee. So I just never drink it. I keep a variety of tea bags in my desk in case of caffeine emergencies.

Buying the coffee maker was an act of employee rebellion against the bad coffee. See, the company pays for the grounds that go into the company machine. But apparently my coworkers, the ones who drink the bad coffee, got fed up. So we all chipped in on the fancy pod machine, with the plan that we would each supply our own pods. It was truly an exciting day when the machine came in. We all stood around it, admiring its lovely red shade, waiting for our chance to try out one of the sample pods that was included. We don't get out much.

For the record, I am not really a fan of the pod coffee system. Yes, they are convenient and easy to use. But it's wasteful to throw away a little plastic cup every time you get coffee, not to mention that those stupid things are freaking expensive. My limited experience with a Keurig has been at Josh's dad's house, where they have a plethora of pods to choose from in every flavor except Just Regular Coffee, It's Too Early For Blueberry For Cyrin Out Loud. It's possible that my dislike of pod coffee has a little to do with my dislike of flavored coffee.

Now that I've registered my disapproval, I will admit that I bought get some pods to keep in my desk, for the occasions when I would want coffee. After all, I've been not drinking office coffee for 8 years now (the coffee at my old job was bad, too), so it shouldn't be a big deal to not drink it now. And bonus, the pods are on sale this week at Harris Teeter, so I can pay fifty cents apiece instead of seventy-five. Why yes, that is still pretty expensive, thank you for noticing.


As it turns out, not drinking bad free coffee is really a lot easier on the will power than not drinking delicious and extravagantly-brewed coffee, particularly when there are pods right here in my desk. Because I've already spent the money on the pods, it's easy to forget how much each one cost me. I had a cup this morning...and I'm about ready for another one. So much for my moral stand on the environment and against an over-convenienced society.

There are possible solutions. I can buy a reusable pod, which you then have to fill with your own coffee. The reusable one costs approximately the same as a pack of twelve pods (when they are not on sale). And I'm thinking that I should make it a little harder on myself to give in. I should have to put fifty cents into a bank or something every time I partake of the pod.

I should just go back to tea.


generous donor.

Last year, I read a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer, the founder of a charity called Partners in Health, which provides healthcare to the world's poverty-stricken areas. It's an inspiring read, in that it makes you realize that you are doing nothing at all useful in life compared to Paul Farmer. Some people are motivated to do good all the time, and I don't know how.

When the charity was first starting, they had one generous donor, a small businessman who basically wrote blank checks for Farmer to build facilities in Haiti. There is a scene where Farmer and his donor are standing on a hill in Haiti, overlooking the beautiful countryside, and the donor says that sometimes he feels like chucking it all and coming down to work with the doctor full-time. And Farmer says, no no no, we need your money. You do the most good by making a lot of money and then giving it to us.

While the book did not inspire me to go to medical school so I could treat children in Haiti, it did move me to start giving away money. I figured out my take-home pay for the year, took a percentage, and then gave that away throughout the year to various causes. I made a schedule of the causes and when I would donate to them, as well as leaving myself a little extra to give away when it came up (for example, to sponsor a friend who was doing a walkathon).

It is hard to pick causes. Because there are so many, because it's hard to know which ones are using the money well, because giving money to one cause is taking it away from another. I want to give money to my local NPR station, but how can I justify not giving that money to the homeless shelter when the need seems so much greater? How do I factor in the exposure that NPR gives to important issues against feeding someone a meal?

I tried to cover all my bases. I picked a charity for animals, one for sick people, one for the arts, several for the poor, one for children. I realized that I did not pick an environmental conservation group, so I revised my list this year to include one. I skewed locally, giving as much as I could to causes in Wake County and North Carolina.

I immediately learned that becoming a donor means that you will be asked to donate again (similar to blood, I guess). They will send you letters in the mail, and you will wonder how much of the money you gave them is being used to solicit more money from you. These letters do not make me feel very charitable.

Last week, I got a call from the Raleigh Rescue Mission. The lady apologized, saying that they don't call very often, but for just today, they had a generous donor who was going to match every donation pledged that day, up to $25,000. I was agitated, because just last month, I had sent the rescue mission a nice fat check. Apparently, I had also sent them my phone number. And so I was irritated at being bothered, and yet... I mean, I'm not homeless, am I? What stupid thing have I bought lately? So I sighed and pledged $25. I felt like a sucker, and I felt bad for not giving more. Being a generous donor is hard.


used bookmarks.

One thing that I love about buying secondhand is all the traces left behind by previous owners. What is so neat about these impressions is that they are completely unintentional. They are pure and unconscious, made by someone who wasn't even thinking that some weirdo might come behind them and try to glean insight from an ordinary object. Sometimes there are no actual physical traces, but the very fact that I know there was a previous owner is enough to spark my imagination, thinking about who they might be or what the thing might have meant to them. I love these traces, because they act as tiny threads between strangers. There is a connection between me and this unknown person. I've been buying and donating so long that I imagine a whole web of threads connecting me to people all over the world.

One of my favorite traces is the used bookmark. People read books, and they use whatever scrap they have on hand to mark their place. Or maybe they just shove a bit of paper into a book as a place to keep it. Then they forget all about it when they donate the book to the thrift store, and it is there when I pick it up. I have found some amazing bookmarks. A boarding pass for a flight to Kenya, a hotel receipt from London in the 60s, a written itinerary for a pheasant hunt, a book report on Washington Irving. Maybe I'm weird and most people would just think this stuff was trash, but I love the unintended documentary aspect of it. It's a little capsule of a particular life at a particular time.

Once, I was in Josh's library, and I found a bookmark. I excitedly showed it to Josh, who also thinks that kind of thing is neat, but not with the same enthusiasm as I have. He told me, "You know, whatever bookmarks you find in my books, you can keep." And I was just floored, like this was the most amazing gift anyone could ever give to me. I was genuinely touched, even as I realized that he had given me to the right to keep pieces of trash that I found in used books. And yet, maybe that's one of the reasons we are so good together - the match of a lover of secondhand books to a lover of the things found in them.


priority mail.

Our fingerprint kit came in the mail last week. It included a thermometer and a pair of plastic tweezers, both marked "Please return." There were two little envelopes containing four black strips of some kind of substance that apparently got malleable when heated. There was also a sample strip of someone else's fingerprint. Finally, the kit contained a set of very thorough instructions with frequent use of caps lock to emphasize such things as "DO NOT BURN YOURSELF." All of this, plus some business cards and advertising postcards, in one priority mail flat rate envelope.
I spread it all over the counter and looked at each piece. Josh, freshly home from work, but not yet in possession of his post-work beer, was not particularly interested. He was downright grumpy, when really he should have been excited and grateful at the awesomeness of this kit that arrived due to no work on his part.

But he had work to do now. We read the instructions completely before starting, as we were admonished to do in the second step. First, we set sixteen ounces of water on the stove to boil. While that was going on, we soaked our hands in warm water. According to the information, this would cause the ridges on our fingers to become more pronounced.

Once the water was boiling, we divided it into two smaller bowls. We used the enclosed thermometer to determine when the water was between 145 and 150 degrees. Then we put a little black strip facedown into each bowl and waited thirty seconds. The hot water made the black stuff on the strip become moldable. Once it was ready to be shaped, we pressed our full fingers down onto the strip and waited another thirty seconds.
Finally, we ran our bestripped fingers under a stream of cold water for ten seconds. We peeled off the strips and then started all over again. There were four strips for each of us in the kit. We were advised to make and return all of them, that the fingerprint experts would pick out the best impression to use on our rings. Once completed, we packaged the completed strips back up with the borrowed thermometer and tweezers and shipped it right back to Maine, priority mail.
I guess it all took a half hour on a weeknight, and once we got the first set down, the rest were easy. The hardest part was soaking our hands in water while we tried to do other things. It was fun, like a little kitchen science project for couples. What was really neat was the feeling that we were a part of the process of making our wedding bands, rather than just going to the store and picking them out. We really helped! Or rather, he helped make my ring, and I helped make his. I can't wait until 8 - 10 weeks from now, when we'll get another priority mail package containing the fruits of our labors.


four corners.

In the evenings, when I get home, it is Syrus, Josh's brother's dog, who greets me most enthusiastically. He is waiting for me when I open the door, while Remix looks up groggrily from where she is curled up on the couch. I was flattered by this doggy love, and a little scandalized that an animal who is not my own loved me so, as if canine affection was subject to the idea of fidelity. But I shouldn't have worried. Really, Syrus is happy because I can perform a service for him: open the back door. With that, he shoots out and over to the fence to see what the other neighborhood dogs are up to. Remix follows, with a mighty leap off the porch.

The fence is the thing that separates us from Gail and her foster home for wayward dogs. It used to be that her dogs were only out when she was home. Either this policy has changed or she's not working much anymore. In any case, Syrus charges the fence with a snarl, which is answered by the barking of half a dozen dogs on the other side. And then they start running. Back and forth in parallel, up and down the length of the fence. Syrus will do this forever. Remix gets tired of mindless running and wants to fight, at which point she runs behind Syrus and tries to bite his back leg to goad him into a game of Wrestle. That's her signature move, the back leg bite.

It's funny to me to see the way a dog's original job manifests itself in the life of a pet. These traits seem to pop up in play, as each dog seems to instinctively know certain games. Rottweilers were bred to be shepherds, so Syrus loves to play the game of Run. He also is very good at Wrestle, I guess from generations of keeping unruly sheep in line. Pitbulls were bred to fight other pitbulls while people bet on them. As a result, Remix has a great short game and that's about it. She cannot run forever, though she can run very fast for a bit. Her hearing, sight, and smell are not spectacular, nor is she especially smart. She is moderately stealthy and very nimble. Her grab-bite is excellent.

So whichever of Gail's dogs have running in their blood play Run with Syrus, while the ones whose ancestors had other jobs hang out at the corner and play Bark. Of course, Gail is not the only one with dogs. The people behind her have two, a pair of large shepherd types with the most magnificent flowing white hair. I call these dogs the Clydesdales, after the fancy horses. I can't imagine what a pain they must be. One of my requirements for a dog was that it had short hair. Syrus is only shaggy, and yet whole spare coats of his fur accumulate underneath the futon. We all have our ideals of dog ownership, and mine does not involve going to the groomer or needing to sweep more than once a week.

And behind our house lives a shaggy terrier thing named Hope. She has a wimpy and shrill bark that would scare only the meekest of burglars. I can always pick her barks out of the crowd, as well as Remix's, who has a powerful and throaty voice. The rest of them sort of meld together in a general din.

All of these yards meet in one corner, where the dogs will congregate in order to sniff, bark, and wag at each other. It's tempting to think that they are relaying special dog secrets, but they're probably just saying "Hey" over and over. It is a right lot of noise. Bark bark bark, run run, run, bark bark bark.

Now, Syrus is not a young dog. He is eight years old, which for a ninety-pound rottweiler, is a respectable age. You can tell his age when he gets up from lying down, slowly as if his butt were still asleep. Once, he must have gotten up too quickly, because his back legs just collapsed on him. He sat pathetically on the floor, wagging his nub of a tail. He eats senior dog food, because that is a thing that exists.

But we have all noticed that since moving next door to the foster home, Syrus has regained his youth. Previously, he lived in more urban areas, and he watched a lot of TV. He had a canine roommate, but that dog was part coyote or something; his favorite game was Skulk. Playing with other dogs who know his doggy games has done him a lot of good. He runs the fence a couple times a day with the neighbor dogs, and then he comes inside where Remix pesters him until he finally agrees to kick her butt for her. All that adds up to a strong and energized Syrus. He is a beast. It's especially terrifying when he comes in from a brisk run at the fence. He's also a drooler (not sure what the evolutionary advantage is to that), and after that much exercise, he is foaming, with long trails of slobber running down his front. He looks almost rabid. Except that he looks so happy, gulping at the bowl of water and asking to be let out again.


fingerprint rings.

I ordered our wedding rings this week. More specifically, I ordered fingerprint rings. What are fingerprint rings? I'll tell you.

Some nice people in Maine send you a kit, where you can make an impression of your finger and the finger of your beloved. Then you mail the kit back and they put each fingerprint on the inside of the other person's ring. So when I wear my ring, I will be wearing the impression of Josh's finger snuggled around my finger. It's like we're holding fingers. Awwwwwww.

I love everything about these rings. I love that they are custom-made by a husband and wife metalworks shop. I love that it mimics physical touch, which is an important avenue of affection in our relationship. I love that I don't have to spend forever trying to come up with an inscription that won't seem goofy in fifty years. Of course, anything we picked would immediately become Significant, but that wouldn't keep me from agonizing over it now.

Mostly, I love how the fingerprint works on a much more basic level than anything else we could inscribe. It's him, and it's me. We don't have to try and pick out words that symbolize our relationship. We already picked out each other, and that's really the only choice in all this wedding stuff that matters.


giraffe notebooks.

Years and years ago, I bought half a dozen cute little notebooks at Big Lots for 99 cents apiece. They were brightly colored, with several different designs, all of them featuring giraffes. I bought them with the intention of giving them away to...I dunno, whoever I knew that might want a giraffe notebook. I ended up giving one to my friend Amy, and then the rest got stuffed into a box in my closet.

I did start carrying one of the notebooks around in my purse. The idea is that I would always be ready when inspiration strikes you. 'Cause I'm a writer! But it turned out that inspiration didn't strike me as often as I'd thought it would.

I met a guy at a party once who carried an even tinier notebook in his pocket. It was plain black, no giraffes at all. I found out that he carried a notebook because he whipped it out to write down something someone said. And then he explained that he just had to have this notebook on him all the time so he could write down all the interesting bits of conversation that happened in his life. Of course, the woman who had been talking was all a-flutter. After that first time, he kept pulling out the notebook to write down something else.

This dude really pissed me off. For one thing, the things that were said right before the notebook came out were not interesting. They could have been lost to the ages, and the ages would have been no worse off. So either he was lying about what he wrote down, or he was not an interesting person either. But really, it seemed like a ploy for attention. Look, buddy, if you're going to be a deep and thoughtful person, you can't be flaunting it. That's what bothered me - that everyone else thought he was so cool because of his stupid little notebook with its boring quotes inside. I wanted to whip out my own notebook and be like, dude, you're not special. But I didn't, because I didn't want to talk about my notebook. Even the existence of them is private. I've come a long way since then in terms of sharing feelings with people.

And also in not being pissed off at people for no good reason. I realize now, if not then, that my feelings were completely unfair. I could've easily piped up and said that I carry a notebook, too, and likely we would have had a nice conversation about notebooks. But instead, I was petty and jealous about nothing at all. Not that I said anything. In my head, though, I made nasty comments. Nasty, but funny and interesting.

Anyway, this entry is about my notebooks, not my uncharitable attitude toward people who seem to me to be trying to draw attention to themselves.

Since inspiration was rare, and I didn't whip out my notebook at parties to jot down bon mots, mostly my notebooks were things that I wrote in when I was bored in public. It's like bringing a book to read. I wrote about whatever I was thinking or maybe I people-watched and wrote down made up stories about strangers. I did this a few times at a couple of Josh's band's poorly-attended shows (I would pause to cheer in between songs). Once, in a bar in Rocky Mount, an obnoxious bar patron complained loudly about how the band didn't play any songs that he knew (right, because they write their own songs). And then he pointed at me across the room and said, "See, she's taking notes about what to do next time." While I had been writing about people who dance by themselves, I actually did write down what he said. And you could say I did take notes about what to do next time, if what to do next time was to never ever play in Rocky Mount again.

But my notebooks got a new lease on life when I started reading regularly. I started taking notes about books. I wrote down thoughts, quotes, reactions. For some non-fiction books, I wrote notes as if I was reading the book for a class. This system has worked great for me. For one thing, the act of writing something down helps to seal it into your memory. So I retain what I've read better. And if I forget it, hey, there it is behind the giraffe. And while I used to only pull out the book to write, sometimes I pull it out to review. It's much better reading than my regular journal, which is boring and self-absorbed.

Anyway, that's all I have to say about notebooks. I just finished one yesterday, and so I'll get to pull a new one out of the box in the closet and start fresh. I wonder what this giraffe will hold.


november 2012 books.

I feel like I am not very good at talking about books. I'm not even sure I'm particularly good at reading, to be honest. I know that I frequently miss things that other people pick up on. But then again, maybe I am picking up things they miss. I have noticed that attempting to talk about a book does help me be more mindful in my reading. So maybe the trouble has been that I haven't been thinking enough about what I read.

Ugh, that whole paragraph seems to indicate that I can't write very well either. Anyway, I don't know what to do about this lack of other than practice. So here's what I read this month.
  • Come To Think of It, Daniel Schorr
    Dan Schorr was a journalist for 70 years or so. This book is a collection of short essays he did for NPR between 1991 and 2008. I was alive during those times, but I was not paying attention to current events (in fact, I think 2008 was the exact year I started paying attention). It's interesting not only to learn about the things I missed, but to read about them as they happened, as opposed to reading an account written with the benefit of hindsight.

    Schorr led an amazing life. In between ruminations on the Lewinsky affair or 9/11, there were stories about being slipped a mickey by the KGB and testifying in front of Congress. His perspective is tempered by a long view of history, which I like. It's very easy for us to get caught up in what is happening right now, as if the whole of human history hasn't been played out over and over again. We're like teenagers who think they're the first ones to ever fall in love.
  • Zuleika Dobson, Max Beerbohm
    Man alive, this book was wonderful. It's an old old book, possibly in danger of falling off the edge of the earth. I am a sucker for picking these books up. Nothing delights me more than the possibility of rediscovering an old classic. Zuleika Dobson is about a beautiful woman who comes to Oxford, where all the undergraduates fall in love with her upon first sight. And then they all kill themselves by throwing themselves in the river during a boat race.

    That's pretty much the plot, because it's not a plot-driven book. It's satire! There are a lot of unkind things said about rich boys at Oxford. The prose is eccentric and ornate, and that's really the reason to read the book. Also, Beerbohm just knows a lot of words. I had to look so many up that I started writing them down. For example, did you know that "legerdemain" means "skillful use of one's hands while performing tricks?" Me neither!

    The thing I liked most about this book was how the world of the book progressively opened up the more I read. You start with some people at Oxford, but soon the list of characters and actors grows to include a set of statues, a few ghosts, some gods of fate, a muse. In the middle of the book, right smack in the middle of nothing really happening, there is a chapter about the narrator, who turns out to be some kind of ghost. At the end, all of these actors in their various spheres of influence come together. It's a very cool trick.
  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
    This book was this month's book club selection. It's a magic in this world kind of book. The story takes place amongst people who can do actual magic ("manipulation," one of them calls it), but these people exist in our regular world. Us non-magical folk just don't realize it.

    The ladies at book club complained about weak characters, and once they did, I noticed they were right. Character development is not something I notice, I've discovered. I just thought it was fun. There was magic and weird carnival people and love. The author majored in set design, and each scene is rich with vivid description. Someone pointed out that she hit all the senses in describing each tent in the circus.
  • The Assassins' Gate, George Packer
    I felt like a smart type person carrying this book around. It was only 450 pages or so, but it looked and felt much bigger. Also, it was about the Iraq War (the second one), which is an Important Topic. Thus, I must be a person who Knows and Cares about Important Things.

    All that pretension aside, this is a very thorough and nuanced book. Someone who saw me reading it asked whether it just blamed everything on George W. Bush. While the former president is not spared, the author really finds lots of blame to go around.

    The main point seems to be the disparity between the reality in Iraq and the reality that Washington wanted to believe. What started out as deceiving the American public (WMDs, connections to terrorist, the estimated cost of a war, our mission) turned into self-deception. And since Washington was not looking at what was really going on, they did a pretty crappy job of dealing with it. We expected to go over there, get rid of the bad guy, and then be done with it, because FREEDOM. There was little to no planning for what to do after the bad guy was gone, as if we felt no responsibility for the situation we had created.

    Packer says that the administration saw freedom as "absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free."

    We did not want to be seen as occupiers, and so we didn't assert any authority. There was rampant looting, leading to most of Iraq's existing infrastructure (power grid, water services, libraries and museums) being destroyed.

    "Confused, frustrated Iraqis, who had never before been allowed to take any initiative, turned to the Americans, who seemed to have all the power and money; the Americans, who didn't see themselves as occupiers, tried to force the Iraqis to work within their own institutions, but the institutions had been largely dismantled."

    Besides the lack of public services, a lot of the population was suddenly out of work, partly because we fired all of the local leaders as part of an effort to get rid of any vestiges of Saddam's ruling party, the Baathists. Of course, since everyone was required to be in the party, that took out the good people along with the corrupt. We also disbanded the army. Mass unemployment means the people have no money to live on and nothing to do with their time. And then there was an insurgency and, oh yeah, civil war.

    Then, once we were in the mess, no one could talk about it. Republicans refused to look at it, just saying mission accomplished. Democrats could only talk about the fact that we had been lied to in the first place. Basically, no one thought about the Iraqis, at any point. And it's not even over.

    I admit that before reading the book, I was pretty hung up on the idea that the President lied to the public so that he could start a war. And that is still completely inexcusable. However, the lie obscured the other reasons for going to war and led to a general flippancy on what the undertaking required. There was never a discussion about whether democracy is something that can be imposed on a society or what that would take. Saddam was terrible. He used chemical weapons on his own people. There was no question whether or not he should be gotten rid of. But whether we have any place doing such a thing is a different question, one that was not really asked.

    Anyway. Amazing book.
  • The Giant's House, Elizabeth McCracken
    This book is about a boy (later a man) who suffers from an overactive pituitary gland. He never stops growing. It's told from the perspective of the lonely town librarian, who falls in love with him. The story is doomed from the start, because people who don't stop ever growing die young. Gosh, I sure do give away a lot of spoilers when I talk about books.

    See now, I'm struggling to talk about this book. And I think that it's because its main thrust is the characters. The story of the book is the development of the characters and their relationships. I read it, and I liked it okay, but now it's over and I don't know what to say.

    Which is odd, because there were a lot of things about the lonely librarian that I related to. She keeps herself separate from other people, even as she craves interaction. There is a scene where another character accuses her of being "reserved." She makes a bunch of jokes about the different meanings of reserved, like a reserved table or seat. But the other character says that it's all the same meaning - something is reserved for someone. But who are reserved people reserved for? If they remain reserved their whole lives, then it's all a waste.

    I thought that was a great point, neatly made. The book had lots of bits like that, and yet I am left underwhelmed. I will finish with a quote that I wrote down, just because I liked it.

    "She had parents who were in love with each other, and that is a blow no child can ever recover from."


acquired flat foot.

About two weeks after joining Curves, my ankle started hurting. First, it hurt just when I worked out. But I powered through, because pain is just weakness leaving the body. Then it started hurting pretty much all the time. I limped around for so long that I couldn't tell if my ankle was still injured or if this was just my new way to walk. I also continued to go to the gym and run in place in thirty second increments. I did dig out my old ankle brace from high school.

The weird thing was that there was no time when I recalled injuring myself. I have some familiarity with ankle injuries (thus the brace), and usually you pretty much know when you've gone and hurt yourself. Usually you fall, there is instant pain, and sometimes a great big friendly cracking noise. There had been none of that. Just pain.

While I was having this pain, Josh and I were fighting about it. He was being uncharacteristically sensible, telling me to take it easy and for pete's sake, stop going to the gym. I really wanted to just tough it out. Because I had just started going back to the gym, because I was doing so well getting up early in the morning to go exercise, because I had momentum here, and I was not going to lose it over a silly thing like the thought of never walking again. The lady at the gym had just that morning told me how much she liked seeing me come in, because I worked hard and sweat, while a lot of these ladies barely move and then complain that they're not getting any thinner. I told Josh that I wouldn't jog in place anymore. I would use the machines, and then during the aerobics part, I would do the twist. The twist doesn't require stepping at all! The twist would save me!

He was not convinced by my promises of twisting. He nagged me into silence, which is not the same as concession, just so you know.

He told me to go to the doctor, which was about the silliest thing I'd ever heard. The doctor is going to tell me to ice it and keep off it and then charge me $150. What I did do was fire up the old googler and typed in "inner ankle pain." The first thing I discovered is that the inside of your ankle is called the medial side. I read some internet comments and looked at foot diagrams and diagnosed myself with a inflamed tibialis posterior tendon. The tibialis posterior tendon attaches your leg muscle to your foot and toe bones. It loops underneath your ankle bone, and so when it hurts, it feels like your ankle hurts. I looked at pictures of the tendon, poked my ankle to see where it hurt, and called it a match. Then I found a YouTube video where someone stands on one foot, then raises himself onto the balls of his feet. This was illustrating the work of the tibialis posterior muscle (and its accompanying tendon). To verify I had the right injured body part, I tried this exercise. It was excruciating.

Of course, the thing about a google diagnosis (is there a word for that? there should be a word for that.) is that while finding one, you're going to come across tales of horror. Lots of people have problems with this tendon, and basically none of them ever walked again and also their puppies all died. In fact, tibialis posterior tendon dysfunction is also known as "acquired flat foot." Basically, your foot just sorta collapses in on itself. Awesome. I kept waiting to hear the snap of my tendon breaking every time I tried to go down stairs. I imagined it would sound like a whip crack. Waaa-cack!

But finally, maybe after reading some more about acquired flat foot, I gave myself a few days off from exercise. To my irritation, I found that my ankle did not hurt as much and was not as swollen in the evenings (Did I mention the swelling? There had been swelling). And Josh told me that he was proud of me for not going to the gym, because it showed that I knew he was right. I did not respond.

After a long weekend of not exercising, I went back on a Monday, determined to do what I could without collapsing my foot. I was going to do the most enthusiastic twisting since Chubby Checker. My ankle felt fine, so I did my usual jogging in place during the cardio portions of the workout. After a few rounds of that, my ankle started twinging, so I switched to the twist. I felt moderately stupid, but really, everyone looks pretty spastic doing solo aerobics.

This week, it hasn't hurt at all. So I guess my tendon is okay for now. Which is just as well, because I'm not a very good twister.


approved devices.

I got a postcard in the mail from Time Warner Cable, and that's just never a good thing. I prefer to never hear from TWC. I am content to not be reminded that I pay them money every month despite their wretched customer service. Plus, communication only means that they want more of my money. Either they are letting me know that they're going to be taking more of my money for the same service, or they are trying to sell me something. I receive sales calls every few months from incredulous people who can't believe that anyone wouldn't want cable television.

Oh, the glorious sounds of a company trying to hold on to its increasingly outdated business model in the internet age.

The postcard said that they were going to start charging me $3.95 a month to lease their modem from them. Which is weird, because I've been using that modem for 4 years now. I guess that was some kind of trial period. They also helpfully included a list of approved devices that I could purchase, if I wanted to avoid paying the rental fee. Of course, I jumped at that opportunity. At $80, the modem will pay for itself in saved rental fees after 20 months. But really, the satisfaction of withholding my money from TWC is all that I need. Every month, I will skip to the mailbox to drop my check in, gleefully singing about how they're not getting my $3.95. Or I would, if I didn't use online billpay.

So I bought one of the approved devices. Then I called TWC, because I had to register my new device with them so that they would recognize it on the network and send it all the internets. Actually, I tried using their online chat service first. It took 30 minutes for a CSR to get to me, but I spent the time updating addresses on my wedding guest list. When the guy finally got to me, he told me that I would need to call, because I couldn't chat over the internet and set up a new modem at the same time. Then why do you offer that service on your helpful little postcard? The CSR gave me a special number to call that was different than the regular line, but then he ended the chat, which closed the window and took away my secret number. I had asked to be emailed a transcript of the chat, but of course, I never received that email.

TWC, how I loathe thee.

So I called the regular number and was told that I had a thirty minute wait. I just hung up at that point, because I had other things to do. I waited a couple of days until I had time to wait. The voice cheerfully told me that my call was important to them, but due to unexpected call volume, I was likely to wait for more than thirty minutes. That's quite alright. I washed a giant sinkload of dishes, cleaned the counters, then folded a load of laundry, all while listening to the wait music on speakerphone.

Let's be positive here. The good thing about TWC customer service is that it allows you to get a lot of chores done.

Finally, a real live person answered and then immediately transferred me to another department, which led me to believe that if only I'd had the secret number, I could have avoided doing all those dishes. I waited another five minutes or so, during which time I put away the clothes I folded. Then a fellow came on the line, and we tried to set up my new modem. This consisted of me reading out a special code on the side of the modem. This is the address that the modem sends back to TWC to identify itself, and then TWC looks at it, confirms that the address matches one of their paying customers, and allows access. I read out the code, he read it back to me. But it wasn't coming up on his end. He read it back to me, and I read it back to him a few more times. He apologized for asking me to read it back to him over and over, all the while saying that it's really confusing how sometimes the B's look like 8's, and don't even get him started on how the C's can look like 6's.

After ten minutes of that, he concluded that there was something screwy about the modem's address. He advised me to return it to the store and get a new one. Thank you for calling, is there anything else I can (not) do for you today?

No, no, no, no, no. No. I'm sorry, Mr. CSR, but I've had some experience with both your cable company and Motorola, who makes the modem. I've been carrying a Motorola on my person for the last three years, and I have to say that I am a satisfied customer. So when something is screwy, and it's either TWC or Motorola, I'm putting my money on the monolithic cable company that shows nothing but contempt for its customers because it knows that they can't go anywhere else for their precious internet. You know, the same company that sent the cops to my door because they had my address wrong.

I was going to have to troubleshoot my own issue. "Hold on a sec. Let me reboot the modem and see if that helps." When in doubt, always reboot. It was funny how I was kinda turning around this here service call. I unplugged the modem, waited ten seconds, then plugged it back in and watched the lights come back to life.

"Oh, here it is. It's coming up now." Well, how about that. I guess my brand-freaking-new modem did work after all.

"Oh, good. You ought to add the reboot step to your troubleshooting script." He did not respond to that one. Instead, he told me to reboot my wireless router. I'm not sure if that is in his script, or, having been introduced to the magical power of rebooting, he was going to try it on everything. His next caller was going to be told to try unplugging the microwave.

Internets achieved, we ended the call (58 minutes, with wait time). Five minutes later, I got a survey call. I rated the CSR reasonably well, since it's not his fault he works for a terrible, terrible company. He was helpful and friendly, even if he was working on a bad script. Then they asked me how likely I was to recommend TWC to a friend. I put in 1, for "least likely." This answer was so inconceivable to the nice phone recording lady that she asked me again, did I mean to put that in or was I just confused about the 1 - 10 scale? No, ma'am, I'm sure. While it does seem like anyone would have to be a real moron to be your customer, I assure you that I am not.

I was also given a minute to record a message about my experience, which I used to let them know that hey, rebooting can be a good alternative to sending people back to the store to exchange perfectly good modems. Yeah, I'm sure they'll take that one to heart. They're rewriting the scripts as we speak.

Whatever. Totally worth the $3.95 a month.


open sesame.

We have a phrase at my house that we use to describe someone who is especially enthusiastic about something minor or obscure. We say that the person is on the (Thing) Council. The idea is that there is a specific group of people who promote that thing to their friends, strangers on the street, perhaps even Congress. They buy giant billboards reminding you how great their thing is, and at the bottom, in tiny italicized print, it says "Brought to you by the Thing Council." For example, Josh is on the Breakfast Council. He regularly encourages people to eat breakfast, the most important meal of the day, and will happily tell you about how it boosts your metabolism and gives you energy and cures any warts you may have. He doesn't even really need you to be listening, he'll just go on and on about breakfast. That man loves breakfast. He goes to Breakfast Council meetings, held every third Saturday at 7:30 in the morning at a place called, oddly enough, Clarence's Friendly Lunch.

Anyway, all that is to announce that I have recently joined the Sesame Seed Council.

I can hear you scoff! You're probably thinking that sesame seeds are not good for anything except decorating the bun of your Big Mac. But listen here, I bet if you opened up a jar of sesame oil and gave it a big whiff, you'd realize that all the Chinese takeout you've ever eaten was gently flavored by the humble sesame seed (Indeed, sesame seed was the first seed they figured out how to get oil from). And if you've ever had hummus, then you're eating chickpeas flavored with sesame paste (called tahini, delicious and also fun to say). Sesame seeds are full of antioxidants, protein and the good kind of fat. The plant is hardy and survives in all kinds of terrible conditions, from drought to monsoon.

You really ought to show a little more respect to the sesame seed. And a good way to start would be to make sesame brittle! It's incredibly simple, takes no time at all, and I haven't been able to stop snacking on it. I found small packets of sesame seeds in the Latin food section at my local Food Lion. If you happen to have a Latin grocery store nearby, you could probably find bulk packages there for cheaper than the little baggies. Other ethnic food stores may also have it, as most cultures rightly place the sesame seed on a higher pedestal than a hamburger bun.

Of course, as soon as I realized how ridiculously easy it was to make such a delicious and unusual snack, I had grand notions of making a bunch and giving it away at Christmas in smart holiday-themed plastic baggies (with color-coordinated ribbons!). That may not happen, because my ambitions are greater than my motivation, but if you don't have that problem, this would be an excellent and unusual holiday snack gift. You could even include a nice educational card extolling the humble sesame seed. And at the bottom, you can put "Brought to you by the Sesame Seed Council."

Brought to you by the Sesame Seed Council.


you there!

Josh brought home a Stormtrooper helmet that he found at Goodwill. It has buttons on the side that play phrases like "Halt!" or "You there!" or "Oh man, I think those might have been the droids we were looking for." There is also what looks like a microphone inside, but that does not seem to be working. In any case, as soon as I saw it sitting on the table, I put it on. And that's when we found out that Remix is apparently part of the Rebel Alliance. Even though the helmet had been sitting in the same room with her all afternoon, and even though she had seen me put it on, she was growling and barking at me like I was here to confiscate her Nylabones. She's not real smart.

We saw this as a useful teaching tool. We've been having problems with her being less-than-friendly to strangers, the whole barking and growling bit (basically, "You there!" over and over again). It's really unpleasant for the stranger, very embarrassing for us, and is just not good ambassador behavior. We explained to her that she was giving pitbulls everywhere a bad name and confirming lots of stereotypes, and she looked at us like she understood, but then she did it again.

I did some internet research and found out that, of course, this is our fault. Whenever the dog is bad, it is our fault, because basically dogs are too stupid to have agency (or something like that). When she meets a stranger, she is not confident that the situation is under control. She does not know that the Alpha (us) has everything in hand, so she thinks she needs to assert herself. What we need to do is find a good way to let her know that Hey dog, it's fine, I got this. So what we have been doing is surprising her with the Stormtrooper helmet. She and I will be outside enjoying the lovely fall weather, when a Stormtrooper will come out of the house wearing Josh's clothes. And she'll get upset, but I will shut her down using my very angry voice (which, let me say, is terrifying in its own right). I hush her up and make her lay down. Usually Josh gets bored and starts dancing while this is going on, adding another level of confusion. We also switch it up where I wear the mask and Josh shuts her down.

It seems to be getting better, in that it's much easier to get her down from Red Alert. Of course, we may only be training her to trust Stormtroopers. A whole team of robbers in costume could come into the house and take all our useless crap while she sat meekly in the corner. Also, we're going to have to ask all visitors to the house to wear the helmet. Somehow, I don't think most of our friends would even mind.



Josh asked the groom if they were registered.

"To vote?"

"No, for presents. People get presents when they get married."

"Oh, no, we're not. You could bring some liquor, though."

So that's what we did. We went in together with Trevor and presented a fifth of Four Roses and a fifth of Maker's Mark. These gifts were bestowed at the party the night before. Trevor bestowed the Makers by yelling across the room, "Hey, this is for y'all" and then he opened it up and took a slug of it. The bottles got passed around all night, then periodically misplaced and found again, then passed around some more.

The little brother of the groom brought moonshine, the purchase of which brought no money to the revenuers. He said that since it was a special occasion, he sprung for the nice stuff. Nice stuff meant fruit-flavored. It was in a quart mason jar and also got passed around. I stayed away from the whiskey, but sampled the moonshine, just to be friendly. It was dangerously sweet - it went down way too easy.

The next morning, in the clear remorseless light of day, everything was gone except for two beers. Someone said there was still whiskey left, but we never found it. And all that remained of the shine was a sticky jar. I washed it out in the bathroom sink of the cabin, intent on taking it home as a fun wedding souvenir.

Most of us spent the day sleeping so that we could be fresh for another round of celebrating. There was a wedding, a reception, an open bar, dinner and dancing. As we walked back up to the cabin, I was sober enough to do some gin math and decide that I needed to switch to water. I dug the mason jar back out of my bag and filled it up in the sink. I chugged water like it was my job.

I was sitting next to the groom. He asked if I had gotten some more moonshine. I passed him the jar and he took a big swig. "Oh man, that's good." He was holding an unopened beer. I offered to put it back in the pack for him, but he said it made him feel less lame to hold it. Then he drank some more water. We passed the jar back and forth between us, periodically refilling it. Soon someone else noticed how fast we were pounding the stuff, and we passed it to them, too. The jar went around the room, and each person who drank of it got a sort of relieved look on their face. We were happy to celebrate our friend's wedding, but we were getting too old for this nonsense. We made jokes about how hardcore we were as we refilled the jar again and again. It was so oddly wholesome in the midst of all the revelry. And somehow it was even cool. I'm going to start bringing mason jars to every party.

Pretty soon, we started calling it "H," short for H20. Josh pulled me aside and sternly said I couldn't call it that, because it was slang for heroin. He assumed that everyone else was in on the joke, but not me. Okay, fine, I hadn't known that, but now that I did, it was still fun. Pass the aitch.


feed your sandra.

We were in Podunk, Virginia, trying to find our way to a resort on the top of the mountain. We had an email telling us that GPS wouldn't get us there, but that was all the info we had. The GPS was going, but I didn't know whether to trust it. So I was trying to look up the website of the resort to get old-fashioned directions, the kind that say turn left at the Citgo. Also, both of our phones were moribund. All in all, I was kinda stressing out. Josh pointed out a red hatchback with a Jesus fish that looked like the U.S.S Enterprise. I snapped at him.

I got a text, asking for beer. We already had some, but you can never underestimate how much beer people will drink, at least not the people we were going to be hanging out with this weekend. There were no stores within an hour of the resort, so we were stocked up. We weren't entirely sure whether we were allowed to bring booze into the national forest, so it was all in the back, hiding under an innocuous pink blanket. We stopped at a Food Lion. I didn't feel like bundling up again to go into the store, so I said I'd wait in the car.

It seemed to take forever. If I'd known Josh was going to set up base camp in there, I'd have taken the trouble to put on my shoes.

Suddenly, I realized that I was really, really hungry. It was a special hunger, one that would soon morph into a headache. Once I was at headache, anything I ate after that would come right back up. Trust me, this has happened before, but if I could cut if off early, I would be fine. I needed food. Seeing still no signs of Josh (what was he doing in there? Podunk, Virginia Food Lions probably have terrible beer selection), I laced up my sneakers and ran inside to find the nearest Snickers.

I found Josh at the self-checkout, with a 12-pack of PBR, a pack of potato rolls, some ham, and a bag of potato chips. Sweet, blessed man. We were halfway back across the parking lot when he realized we didn't have anything to drink (well, except for 36 beers and two fifths of whiskey), so I ran back inside and grabbed a Mountain Dew and a Dr. Pepper.

Back in the car, following the GPS, I made plain ham sandwiches. They were quite possibly the best ham sandwiches that ever existed. My bad mood, my hunger, my headache all went away. I was left with a sense of appreciation for the man who knew when to feed his Sandra.


election chili.

For election night, I made the Obama Family Chili Recipe.

We'd both been feeling cautiously optimistic lately. And then, the previous weekend, we'd been out of town and busy with friends, which meant away from all of it. We were way up in the mountains, in a national park, and that meant no ads, no signs, no talking heads. It was awesome. There was some political talk, but luckily we were all in agreement, and so it stayed light. There was a twenty-year-old who argued passionately for Romney, then said he wasn't going to vote anyway because he didn't really care. He reminded me of myself in 2004 - understanding that it wasn't cool to like Bush, but not liking Kerry for some vague reason that probably had a lot to do with my upbringing. I suppose I could've resolved this internal battle by, you know, informing myself, but I didn't. I voted Libertarian. I think the candidate was Mark something (I looked it up, it was Michael Badnarik).

I made the chili, and we ate it while watching X-Files, the laptop on the coffee table showing the auto-refreshing red and blue map. I celebrated when they called Ohio, though Josh was skeptical that "they" were going to switch it in the night. Trevor was happy, too, even though he says he doesn't care because it's all rigged anyway. I live with paranoid people.

The chili was good, but not what I would've called chili. It was more like a spicy beef stew. A really spicy beef stew, because I bought chili powder at the Indian food store and that stuff is potent. The chili is served over rice, which is also un-chili-like. I'm not sure if this chili is from Chicago, Hawaii, Kenya, Indonesia, Kansas, or some mix. Ain't that America. I'll probably make it again, though I'll feel free to make some changes so as to add some North Carolina to it. Also, I won't call it chili, because that's confusing. In any case, it was good hot comfort food on a cold election night, watching the returns come in.


what are you supposed to be?

I left my Halloween costume ambiguous, mostly by just waiting until the last minute to come up with something. Usually to "come up with something" means to ponder a thought for a while and see what ideas result. In this case, I disappeared into the dark places of my closet, before coming up with a pair of mustard-colored corduroy overalls. Well, it's something. I think I shoved these into a paper grocery bag in the frantic last moments of a church yard sale. I have a few pieces of clothing that are like this - I may have another set of coveralls, actually - and the problem is that I can't not take something weird and free, but at the same time, I really have no opportunities to wear them.

If Halloween is not a chance to wear the ridiculous items lurking in the back of your closet, then I do not know what is. Otherwise, I'm going to have to wearing silly things on regular days. That might be fun, too.

But what I had was an outfit, which is not the same as a costume. A costume implies that you are dressed up as something, whereas an outfit is just clothes that you are wearing. I was doing it backwards. You're supposed to come up with your persona first, then figure out the best way to look like that.

Lots of people wear coveralls, so I could just say I was a janitor. But that's kind of boring. I tried to think of more unusual explanations for my outfit. I could add a corduroy hat and be a corduroy enthusiast. I could be a person who has a pair of coveralls that she never gets to wear. Except that's not a costume either, since I really am that.

I still hadn't really thought of anything by the time I was zipping up my coveralls. I stood in stark contrast to many other women who like to wear as little as possible at the end of October. Maybe it's these particular coveralls, but man! These were really unflattering. They were also very comfortable and warm, with lots of pockets.

I wasn't entirely worried about the fact that I didn't have a costume, per se. I figured that most people are more concerned with their own costumes to really care about what I'm wearing. But what I found was that most people will hazard a guess to your costume if they are not sure. And if you are unsure about it yourself, you can just tell them that they are right. To the five people who thought I was a Ghostbuster, I was a Ghostbuster. One guy thought I was a banana, though I think he was kidding, or maybe he thinks I am strange. The lady at the grocery store, seeing me with Josh as Count Dracula, guessed that we were both from Twilight (she hadn't seen Twilight, but she knew there were vampires, and hey, maybe sometimes they have their cars worked on). My favorite, though, was a guy who guessed that I was animal control. Yeah, all the kids want to be animal control at Halloween.

The real lesson here is that if you don't know what to be for Halloween, just put on some silly clothes and everyone else will provide the answer for you. Then pick your favorite and pretend that's what you were doing all along. Just like that one year where I went as animal control.


the penitent man.

When I think of the word "penitent," I immediately think of Indiana Jones crouching in the temple of the Holy Grail, saying "only the penitent man shall pass." What never occurred to me was that it was the root of the word "penitentiary," which implies that the people inside such a place are repentant for their crimes.

Imprisonment as a form of punishment is a relatively new invention. Previously, prisons were mostly holding tanks where criminals would await punishment, either capital or corporal. In the 19th century, someone decided that withholding freedom was kind of a punishment in itself. A couple of different systems were developed around this idea. In the Auburn system, prisoners worked together during the day on chain gangs and in factories. At all times, they had to remain silent. There was also the Pennsylvania system, which required all prisoners to be in solitary confinement at all times. Thus a prisoner could have ample time for reflection and would thereby find his way to penitence.

The Auburn System is sending your squabbling kids to weed the garden. The Pennsylvania System is sending them to their respective rooms.

Eastern State Penitentiary, located right smack dab in Philadelphia, was the first prison built according to the Pennsylvania system (and is the reason for the system's name). It is built like a fortress, taking up an entire city block. It was opened in 1829 and continued to hold prisoners until 1971. The city then purchased it with the intention of developing it into a mall or luxury townhomes. Instead, it sat abandoned for nearly twenty years, as the earth began to reclaim it. Trees grew up into the cells, and a colony of stray cats thrived. I guess you could say that everything man has ever built is in a state of arrested decay, but Eastern State got farther along that path before someone stepped in and stopped it.

Now, the penitentiary is open seven days a week for tours, both guided or audio (voiced by Steve Buscemi). It is considered a "stabilized ruin" (you know, some days I feel like a stabilized ruin myself). Up until the early 2000s, visitors were required to sign waivers and wear hard hats while inside. Much of the prison is open for self-guided exploration, though parts of it are only availabe on a guided tour. Other parts are locked up completely. You can peek in the windows of those sections and see what it must have all looked like before they stabilized it - pieces of ceiling fallen in, tree branches growing through the walls, random institutional furniture tossed around. The open parts are nice, or at least safe. You won't need a hard hat, but you could probably still get tetanus if you tried.

The penitentiary is hauntingly beautiful (and some say just plain haunted). The original buildings were made of hand-cut stone and had vines growing up them, and you might mistake them for the ivy-decorated walls of some fancy school. There was intricate scroll work on the wooden banisters leading up to the upstairs cells. The cell blocks were church-like, with high arched ceilings with skylights and loose plaster. The green paint, put on who knows when, was chipping and crackling away, leaving bare iron exposed. The old wooden doors looked like something that someone would stick legs on and sell as a reclaimed wood farmhouse table.

We are strange beings, to find so much beauty in decay. Maybe it's embracing the inevitable.

We were there on a gorgeous fall day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing. And we were touring this old decrepit prison, where terrible things had happened. But I suppose some of the greatest tragedies of human history probably happened on days that would have been perfect for a nice picnic.

There are several art installations within the prison, because nothing can make something more depressing quite like art. One cell contained an approximation of a cell at Guatanamo Bay, chain-link fence and all. On the cement floor, next to the thin sleeping mat, was an arrow pointing the direction towards Mecca. Another cell showed projections of transgendered prisoners, yet another complicated problem I never knew existed. Scattered around the prison were 39 statues of cats, all in different poses, situated in random spots to represent the stray cat colony that once lived there. They were white, and if you happened to come up on one suddenly, it was pretty spooky.

My favorite installation was one that I did not realize at first was art (art is sneaky like that). There were several blue signs, almost like informative road signs, that pointed in a direction and gave an event on them. Each sign pointed towards another destination for dark tourism - Antietam, Jonestown, the site of the Trinity test. Each sign seemed like an accusatory finger. What kind of person are you, to take vacations to visit memorials to mankind's cruelty? Here, get my picture on the grassy knoll.

But no, I reject the accusation. Touring our past is still better than forgetting it. And hey, maybe that was the point of the installation. Art is sneaky like that, too.

Ultimately, the Pennsylvania system was a failure. For one thing, we put too many people in jail to give them each their own space. For another, the origins are crime are more complicated than a period of quiet reflection can solve.

You can't help but notice how much it would suck to be in prison. We were able to take a tour of the Klondike, the solitary confinement area. It's a hole. It's underground, kept completely dark, and you can't even stand fully upright. It was closed because it was considered cruel. But even the regular cells are hardly luxurious. The cells are cavelike and so old that they pre-date even basic modern comforts.

At the end of the audio tour, Steve Buscemi says that he hopes that your experience at Eastern State Penitentiary will encourage you to put some thought into the problems of punishment, incarceration, and rehabilitation. He doesn't tell you what you should think, just hopes that you do. I am lucky that I've never had much cause to think about prisons at all, and I've come to no solid conclusions since. Other than that if you are ever anywhere near Philadelphia, go to the penitentiary. It's not often that a tourist site can change your life, but this one may do it.



Josh was willing to pay the full $400 asking price to give me this for my birthday, because he had not yet bought me a present.

But I said no. It was too expensive.

We could have gone back to the estate sale the next day, and if it had not yet been sold, it would have been $300. But we didn't, because I thought that was still too much for something that was just a display piece.

Maybe if it was still sitting there by the end of the day, we could have made an offer. But I said to forget it, because I don't even need a block of post office boxes, circa 1906, with bronze doors. Sure, I could've delivered pretend letters to myself, and then pretended to check my own mail, but that's just silly.

Kinda kicking myself now.