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.


precision matters.

We were having a very serious argument about a domestic crisis: who had eaten all the cheesy poofs.

"I told you that I had eaten most of them." This was me. I had eaten most of them. He had been gone, and really, what did he expect?

"Yeah, but you ate all of them."

"No, I ate most of them. There were some left. Most."

"There are like 500 cheesy poofs in a bag, and you left 5."

"That is most, not all."

The argument continued on in this way for a while, but my mind had been hijacked. As soon as he had inserted a number into the conversation, I found myself thinking about how many cheesy poofs were in a bag. There was no way there were 500. It's distracting when someone is wrong.

This is actually a common problem with me. I like precision. It matters in many cases. And then in other cases, not so much. But it's like I can't tell the difference between when it matters and when it doesn't. Before the conversation can continue, I have to go back to this one point and correct it, then we can move on. Except that we rarely move on after that, because the argument becomes about that little thing that I should have just left alone. Nothing ever gets resolved this way.

I saw someone else do this once, another precise kinda guy. Someone was making a point, and he threw a number in there in a way that it was clear that he was just making an estimate. This other dude broke in, scoffing, that his estimate was way off. And we went from having an interesting theoretical discussion to having a completely boring discussion that was something we could have looked up if any of us cared enough to do so, which we did not. I watched this happen, thought, man, that is really annoying. Then I realized, oh wait, this is what Josh has been complaining about.

So I was aware of this tendency of mine during the Cheesy Poof Blowout of 2012. I held up my end of the argument, which was about most vs. all, but in my head, I added "Also, there are not 500 cheesy poofs in a bag" to the end of each statement. I was trying so hard to keep the argument in place, to ignore that pedantic voice in my head. Particularly since I knew I was right anyway. I had said "most," and most is not all. I was going to win this one, as long as I kept it about this, and not about how many cheesy poofs are in a bag.

"Also, there are not 500 cheesy poofs in a bag." Aw, crap.

And there went my high ground. Also, the argument was no longer light-hearted. It changed. Not to be about the fact that I am a jerk who nitpicks random guesses that were not meant to be taken seriously, but about how many cheesy poofs are in a bag. He got kinda mad, which I did not understand. Even though I knew that I should not have contradicted him on that point, I still was confused as to why he was so very angry about something that did not matter.

The paradox of being me - I go to the trouble of correcting people on minutiae, then wonder why they get so mad about such a trivial thing anyway.

"Because you just disagree with me because you like to. You pick some little thing that can't be proven either way."

This is not why he was mad. He was mad because I said he was wrong, full stop. He could've said that I was changing the subject or that I was being unnecessarily nitpicking when I had understood his point. Those would have been good points. But as we have seen, we all don't always go with our best arguments. Still! His loss was my gain, and in his response, I thought of a way to rescue ourselves from this stupid, stupid fight.

"We can easily find the answer to that."


"Let's figure out how many cheesy poofs are in a bag."

See, I am not nit-picky and obnoxious, I am a fun girlfriend who came up with spontaneous couple projects like counting snack foods!

So we did. We bought a new bag of cheesy poofs, opened it, and, after arguing about the best way to count cheesy poofs, counted them. There were 167 in a 11 ounce bag.

The trouble was, now he was even madder, because he had been proven wrong. And I was a little sad, because I felt like I'd been trying really hard not to be a jerk. I had recognized my error before it happened, did it anyway, and then felt bad about it and tried to recover. That is a great improvement over complete obliviousness. Of course, since all that had happened in my head, it was the same to him. Also, I probably could've apologized in there or something. Then he said I was probably going to go write on my blog about how he was wrong and I was right.

He was right about that.



"I joined Curves."

I snorted. "Why?" Not that I knew anything at all about Curves, except that it seemed excessively pink and sorta frumpy overall.

"Because I wasn't happy."

Oh. That's a good answer. I can be a jerk sometimes.

* * * * *

My sister had lent me a girdle, but it wasn't going to work. I'd never seen a girdle before, nor did I realize that they were still being made and used. They're like a pair of high-waisted panties with a line of hooks and eyes on the front, to harness in your wayward jiggly parts. I tried it on with the dress, and while my shape was improved, I had visible girdle lines. So much for my something borrowed.

* * * * *

I asked my niece what that flesh-colored full-body stocking she had been wearing around the hotel room as we had our hair done before her wedding. She said it was Spanx, you could get it at Target, and it cost $30 or more. I sighed to realize that I was going to be spending more on undergarments than I'd spent on my wedding dress.

* * * * *

"I like your new shoes."

"You noticed. $5 on clearance at Target."

"When did you go to Target?"

"Today after work. I need special underthings for the wedding."


"Not that kind. It's called 'shapewear.' I didn't buy any. Shopping for it was discouraging."

"You don't need that stuff. Just take a long walk."

"A really long walk. I'd be back just in time for the wedding."

* * * * *

I walk into Curves and want to run out again immediately, my introvert flight-or-flight system kicking in. It's chaotic and very small, like the size of a small shop in a suburban strip mall, which it is. Around the perimeter are a dozen white exercise machines, all occupied. In between each pair of machines are women in workout gear, mimicking the moves of an enthusiastic Zumba instructor in the center of the room, though some of them are just flailing. The chatter was upbeat, as was the music. I stand awkwardly outside the circle until a lady carrying a baby comes forward from the back to sign me up for my orientation. She tells me that it's a great time to join up, because the activation fee is waived on account of October being Breast Cancer month. I do not ask whether I need to have breast cancer to get the discount, just in case the answer is yes.

* * * * *

"I have an appointment tomorrow morning at 7:30."



Pause. "That's ambitious. Good!"

"I was afraid to tell you. I thought you were going to tell me that it was a waste of money when I can take a long walk for free."

"There's a motivation factor in paying money for a gym membership. You feel like you have to use it since you already paid for it."

"Yeah." Sometimes I forget that other people are not jerks like me.

* * * * *

I am back the next morning, 7:30. I'd been surprised on the mile drive over to see how many people were out at that hour, but at Curves it was just me and Laura, the manager. She takes my measurements, using a scale, a tape measure, and finally a little handheld device like a video game controller that supposedly sent electrical impulses through my palms to measure how much fat was in them. Turns out, my hands are too fat, at least according to some kind of recognized standard. I hadn't known that about my hands specifically, but I could've guessed it, and that's why I was there.

It's early for ABBA, but that's what's playing. Actually, it is a remix, because sometimes ABBA isn't peppy enough. Every half a minute, the music pauses for a friendly female voice to tell us to switch stations. That's how Curves works. You do thirty seconds at a station, which is either a machine or a small square platform. The machines are hydraulics-based, rather than weighted. Laura says that the faster and harder you work at them, the more resistance you get. On the square platforms, which I refer to as SquareMasters in my head, you're supposed to do aerobics. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, when the Zumba lady is there, you follow her, but otherwise you do your own thing: jumping jacks or jogging in place or the can-can or whatever.

Every dozen stations, the voice does a ten-second count so you can take your heart rate. The first time I try to do this, I realize halfway through that I'd been counting the beats in the ABBA remix. When I finally do it right, I am surprised to find how fast my heart is beating, since the activities are so easy. So I guess Curves works. Also, I'm really out of shape.

The workout is two circuits around the room, which takes about a half hour. There are arrows on the squares that point which way to rotate. On Wednesday and Saturdays, they are flipped to point the other way. Laura says that's to switch things up, something about muscle memory. It seems dubious at best, but it could be true.

It's a clever idea, this circuit of strength-training and aerobics. Guided by the stations and the voice, it's a mixture of personal training and setting your own pace. It's a one-size-fits-all kind of place, for Everywoman. Lots of gyms claim to be a judgment-free zone, but the people are so perfectly-formed that you can't help judging yourself next to them. At Curves, I am comparatively young and fit. I certainly am not too old or too fat to be here, though it's possible I am too judgmental.

I feel a little like I am selling myself short here, that I should be at a more ambitious gym, where taut-bodied trainers yell at us to pedal faster, FASTER. Being one of the younger members (under thirty!), the fact that I can actually use the squat machine at all makes me feel like a rock star. You could say it was a gym for real women, with real low expectations. Laura actually tells me not to change my diet for another month, until I get into the habit of exercising, because trying too many new things at once makes you more likely to fail at all of them. Ambitious is not the word for Curves, but after a decade of no regular activity, it's hardly the word for me either.

At the end of my first workout, I am red-faced and sweaty, even though I could've sworn I hadn't really done anything (and nothing for more than thirty seconds). Is it possible that this really works? Laura asks how I like it, and I give her my credit card.

$34 a month. About the price of three cases of sale-priced Stella Artois, as I had figured out when I was preparing to counter Josh's scorn. Laura gave me a scannable keychain with my personal member barcode on one side, and CURVES on the other. I still think Curves is frumpy, and I think about covering up the logo with a sticker that says "NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS CLUB."

* * * * *

That night, I buy a pair of workout pants, because I do not want to wear shorts that bare my unshaven legs in the judgment-free zone. I am oddly excited about having a reason to buy something, even at the Durham Rescue Mission Bargain Center. I try to find something in the giant bins of twenty-five cent clothes, but nothing is quite what I want. As I reject pair after pair of men's pajama pants, I wonder why it matters whether my pants have a fly or are striped. I come to no conclusions, but find a nice soft pair of black cotton pants on the dollar racks and am satisfied.

* * * * *

I go in again the next morning in my freshly-laundered workout pants, and it's just me and Susan, the on-duty manager. Curves is set up to be social - everyone is facing everyone and there's no obvious way for us to compete against each other. As the only set of available ears at the hour, I am expected to chat with Susan, but that's fine. I realize that I am going to meet a bunch of women that I'd never have met otherwise. They even have a group that goes out to lunch on the last Thursday of every month.

Back home, Josh tells me that he is proud of me. I snicker inside at his obvious effort to be supportive. It reminds me of myself when he periodically quits smoking. I tell myself that I see through it, but it still feels nice.

* * * * *

I barely make it in Friday morning, because I stayed up too late Thursday. There are more ladies here today, and I like listening to them and watching them in such a personal setting. Some of them barely move on the SquareMasters and take their time changing stations. Others are focused and driven. You get out what you put in. They take your money either way.

I'm on my fifth station when Susan jumps on a machine two stations behind me, saying that I've got her feeling motivated. I'm not sure how I did that, but good for me/her?

While jogging on a SquareMaster, for just an instant, I feel really, really good. Later I just feel tired, and at the end a bit light-headed. I go home and take a cold shower. The rest of the day, I am more aware of my body than usual. I can feel each individual muscle working, and it makes me feel alive and powerful and young.

* * * * *

The first day, Laura said I probably wouldn't get sore, but that I would feel like I'd done something. And I do, I feel something, as in better than nothing. I'll probably still get the Spanx, but this is something bigger than just a desire to look good for the wedding pictures. Call it a mid-life crisis, because if I kept doing nothing, I am likely to only live to sixty. Plus, I just wasn't happy, and that's a good reason.


this, that.

Thing 1: I promise to never die.
We had a 401k meeting at work this week, because we were switching to Principal. I am a hands-off investor, which means that I completely ignore my 401k. When the quarterly statements come, I don't even open them. My knowledge of the current status of the markets depends on whether I happened to be in the car when "Marketplace" was on the radio, and even then I only think about it in terms of whether they played "We're In the Money" or "Stormy Weather" at the beginning of the show. Money comes out of my check, and in 40 years, there will be a lot of it. That's all I care about.

Because we were switching investment management companies, we had to fill out new paperwork, including a beneficiary form. Previously, I have always specified my mom. But I was thinking that I would put Josh down this time. In another five months, he would get the money automatically, but might as well simplify things in case anything happens before March. Sorry, Ma.

I told Josh about this, about how he'd get like $10k, which would enable him to keep paying the mortgage until he figured out what to do. Then I started thinking out loud, about how he and Trevor could just continue to live there, because between the two of them they could totally make the payments. The more I talked, and particularly the more actual numbers I mentioned, the wider and more terror-filled his eyes got. It wasn't the thought of me dying, it was the thought of having to think about money. Seeing his face, I stopped.

"I just won't die, okay?"


Thing 2: 56 days
The Red Cross called me again this week to set up a blood donation appointment. I think it must have been exactly 56 days (8 weeks), the length of time you're supposed to wait between donations. So I said I'd come in after work yesterday.

It was fine, but I think that from now on, I will avoid appointments at the end of the donation day. The workers seemed a little eager to get out of there, and I felt a little manhandled. The part of my elbow with a needle sticking out of it (the "donation site") continued to pinch a bit the whole time, which is unusual. Also, my arm was numb by the end, which is probably not supposed to happen. But I didn't die or pass out, so I guess it was fine. And I confess that I probably do not do my best work at the end of the day, but then again, I'm not shoving needles into people. Lesson learned.

The other problem is that in 56 days, when I am able to give again, I will probably have missed the period where they give away the Christmas ornaments. I'm never going to get the whole set of blood ornaments now.

Thing 3: Higher taxes and horse trails
We, like probably everyone else in the world, have been getting lots and lots of election mail. Rather than get frustrated by the half-truths and out-of-context quotes, I've been enjoying the imagery. In particular, the ads put out by the North Carolina Republican Party opposing the election of Sig Hutchinson have been wonderful. They never mention what exactly he is running for, or who he is running against, only that he wants to raise my taxes to spend it on horse trails (one of those half-truths - Sig has chaired bond campaigns for greenways, and has supported a group that is turning North Carolina's historic tobacco trail into horse trails. The bonds were approved by voters). These ads come with amazing pictures of horses, which I have cut out and used to start a nice little political ad collage on the fridge. Finally! A good use for negative ads.
Also, I am going to enjoy the heck out of voting for Sig Hutchinson.



As part of my recent de-stuffication, I tackled my desk upstairs. I took the ancient desktop computer (ancient in computer years, of course) and its various components and added it to the growing Goodwill pile in the corner of the living room. Then I started going through the desk drawers. They were full of notebooks. Pretty much my whole college note-taking career was in those drawers.

I can't say for sure why I've been holding on to them, other than, you know, the fact that I am a keeper (sounds nicer than "hoarder," doesn't it?). Maybe I thought the notes would be useful to me someday, or maybe I was saving them for the still-unused paper in the back (only a couple of classes used up a whole single-subject college ruled notebook, so maybe they should be advertised as 1.5 subject notebooks). By now, I have abandoned any pretense that the information within, diligently and neatly recorded by a past me, will ever be looked at again. But I did feel like the blank paper was still good, and I hate waste. I tried ripping out the used stuff, but I only ended up covered in spiral notebook confetti, and so much ripping pretty much ruined the integrity of the binding. I couldn't come up with a good way to preserve all that paper that didn't take much more time than the whole project was worth, so I ended up chucking the notebooks into the recycle bin. Recycling is like throwing away that you don't have to feel bad about.

Before I did so, I flipped through each one to find any interesting time capsules. I remember when I was little, my brother showed me a bunch of his college notes, because they were peppered with goofy pictures and doodles. Like many things my big brothers did, this made a profound impression on me. Gosh, my brother and his pictures of small people with hilariously large heads was just so cool. I wish I could be cool like that. I ended up drawing different kinds of things, like regular-sized dudes with ducks on their heads. It makes me wonder whether I truly am the kind of person who illustrates her notes with irrelevant and irreverent doodles. Am I cool like that or just a copycat?

It's clear that I don't have any real problems if this is the kind of nonsense that I think about.

Anyway, my little girl self would think my college self was just so cool, because I found lots of drawings and doodles and just random snippets of text. I kept some of those pages, because they were funny (well, to me). Even when I purge, I end up keeping a bunch of it.

I also found lots of long-form writing. Some of it was for school, like a line-by-line analysis of a poem that I had no recollection of. Other pages were hobby writing, like rough drafts of essays I later posted on the blog. A lot of it was just train-of-thought on paper, written when I was probably supposed to be thinking and writing about whatever the professor was saying. In one notebook that I must've had since high school, I even found a heavily-edited version of my graduation speech.

All of these I ripped out and put into a folder. I didn't read much of it, because so much of what I did read was sort of obnoxious in that way my younger self always is. Whenever I read my old stuff, I wonder what compels me to produce so much, when anyone can see that it is all the petty ramblings of a stupid, stupid person. I wonder when I will learn to just stop writing it down, because there is a 100% chance of future me reading it and cringing to remember my idiotic and impossibly young self.

One paragraph I found talked about being twenty years old, and that just killed me. College doesn't seem like it was all that far back in my past (I graduated eight years ago December), but twenty? Yeah, that was so long ago that I don't think it was even me. Me as I exist sprung forth spontaneously a year or two ago, replacing that other girl. She could be funny sometimes, and she drew a great duck, but man. What an idiot.

And as I say all that, do remember that I still kept all that crap. Just as I never learn not to write my thoughts down, I never learn to throw away recycle the results.

I really did toss quite a bit. So much that the most depressing thing about the exercise was how much I've forgotten. There was a notebook from a class that I don't even remember taking. As I flipped through the notes, a lot of it was vaguely familiar, but I would do very poorly on the exam if it were given today. And some of it was just gone, poof. I must have known it at some point, but I feel now like I've forgotten more than I know. Like the lost youth and the blank pages in the back, the misplaced knowledge seemed like just more wasted potential.

And that is why I can't get rid of anything. Because I write too much, and somehow that voice in my head turns a bunch of blank notebook paper into a symbol of my nearly-over twenties. I should draw more ducks.


oak ridge.

Last week, I finished reading a book called Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins (fun fact: Wiggins was married to Salman Rushdie for about five years, including the time when the Ayatollah declared a fatwa on him. I told Josh this, and we proceeded to make newlywed jokes about hiding from assassins). The book was beautiful, though the prose was a bit florid for my tastes.

Part of the book was set in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where one of the main characters was a photographer at the government facility built there to work on the Manhattan Project. In 1942, the government started buying up land in this remote part of Eastern Tennessee. Some people were forced off their land; they were compensated, but not really given the option to decline. The project was of the utmost secrecy. While there were physicists and whatnot who presumably had the security clearance to know what was going on, a lot of the people doing support work had no idea what they were working on. They found out when the rest of us did: when we dropped the bomb on the Japanese.

I'd heard of Oak Ridge a while back when I saw a series of pictures taken there. But when reading the book, I was struck by the fact that such a place existed so close to where I live. In fact, it's about an hour and a half away from my sister's house, so I'm thinking that the next time we visit her, we may have to visit Oak Ridge, too.

I was already thinking that, and then in the book, it mentioned in passing that the facility was powered by Norris Dam, which was built on the Tennessee River by the TVA. And I thought, man, that's spooky. Because just last month, when I was visiting that same sister, I went to a yard sale in the basement of a Catholic church and bought a t-shirt for a quarter that said "Norris Dam Marina." I often buy souvenirs from places that I have never been to or heard of. They become souvenirs of the place and time where I bought them, for example the basement of the Catholic church in Morristown, Tennessee. This was a nice vintage shirt, faded teal and soft from many washings, and that's why I bought it. I thought about looking up Norris Dam, but then never did until I came across it in a book. I took it as a sign - we have got to get over to Oak Ridge.

After finishing the book, I did a little more research: on the book itself, the author, the settings. After the war, Oak Ridge gradually transitioned from being a manufactured government town to a regular ole little town. Of course, there is a museum there, to bring in the dollars from the tourists who might like to learn about Tennessee's role in the A-bomb. The museum is called the American Museum of Science and Energy. When I read that, I gasped again. Because not two weeks ago, we went to a yard sale in the parking lot of a Baptist church in Wallburg, North Carolina, where I picked up four goofy tourist magnets. One of them was from the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN.

We have got to get to Oak Ridge. Then I can buy some souvenirs!



Lately, I have been having mini panic attacks about how much crap is in my house. This is not exactly a new situation, but either I brought in one thing too many or my tolerance for clutter went down. I call it stuffication. There's just stuff everywhere, and it's not organized or put away, and I suspect that's because there is too much of it. That amount of junk could never be organized unless I lived in an IKEA. Which wouldn't be so bad, because then people in nice sweaters could come by and buy some of it off me. Also, I could use a different kitchen every day of the week.

Some of the junk is Josh's, because the only reason we don't have blow-out fights about all the mess is that we are similarly messy people. While his piles of crap make my eye twitch, I've got too many of my own piles to harp on it. So I'm going to tend my own garden for a while, and then once I've lifted that weight, I can get to nagging about the random musical equipment lying around. If you're going to nag, do it from the moral high ground.

The first thing I did was to transform ripped futon covers into fabric scraps. We had four of these, four futon covers that were useless at covering a futon, courtesy of my pitbull. I will restate that pitbulls are sweet and faithful pets, but they are rough on the furniture. In her defense, she was not trying to rip holes in the futon covers. She was merely trying to de-stuff the futon mattress, and the cover just got in the way. The mattress itself is sad, but barely two years old, and I will be danged if I get a new one for her to ruin. At first, I sewed up the holes the best I could, and then I tried using iron-on patches, but those were a lot of work when the wound was just going to be reopened by the same muscular jaws. So, duct tape, then.

Futon covers are not easy to come by in the secondhand marketplace, and as a result I've switched to using fitted double sheets. These can be had for a dollar apiece if you're willing to dig through the bins at the Rescue Mission, though sometimes those bins also contain open safety pins and spiders. The sheet idea works great, though it still requires some fine-tuning. For instance, it took me only until the first rainy day to figure out that the sheets needed to be dark-colored, otherwise they get decorated with large paw prints. I don't care if there are muddy pawprints on my couch, but I don't want to be able to see them. The only problem with the sheet solution is that when the futon is in the couch position, the uncovered backside of the mattress shows through the wooden slats, and you can see the duct tape. The solution to this problem is to decide not to care.

I kept the futon covers, because...I don't know, because I did. Because I hate to throw stuff away. Because despite the ragged holes, most of the material was intact. Each cover had been ruined on both sides, of course, otherwise I would have just flipped them over. Obviously, I had already tried that, merely providing a fresh canvas for my dog's teeth. I had grand ideas about using the material in some kind of sewing project. Not that I didn't already have fabric scraps that I wasn't using, but now I had more.

Anyway, I decided that this was hoarding. And that when the time comes that I wanted to sew something specific, I could go to the bins at Rescue Mission. Maybe I'd get lucky and I could buy back my own futon covers. So I ripped apart the seams, and then cut around the holes so that it wasn't completely obvious that these were just ruined linens. And then I had a nice stack of fabric scraps, and I thought about how I could probably make something really cool out of this stuff, maybe I should keep - NO. That's hoarding. It feels good to purge, and it also feels good to rip things apart. Just ask my dog.


dad v. mower.

My dad did not get the memo about being old and sickly, I guess, so he went and flipped a lawnmower on himself. He was mowing the hilly landscape of my parents' acreage, when I guess gravity shifted, and man and mower rolled down the hill as one. At the end of it, the mower was upright and on top of his foot. Luckily, these fancy modern lawnmowers have a safety feature where they will automatically cut off if you lift your tuchus off the seat. Unluckily, my dad had disabled that safety feature, because daggummit, he knows when he wants to turn off the motor, and if he wants to leave the mower running while he goes inside for a glass of iced tea and then catch up to it somewhere else in the yard, that is his business. Luckily, these fancy modern lawnmowers also have a safety feature where if the mower is upside down, the motor will cut off.

Also, lucky: he had his cell phone with him, which he used to call the house and mumble incoherently, which my mom understood as a cry for assistance. My mother was not suited for this task, being no spring chicken herself, but she phoned over to the house next door, and from there my brother sprinted through the woods, leaped the fence like an Olympic hurdler, and arrived to lever my old man out from underneath the John Deere.

My mom was all set to take him to the hospital, but he said he was fine. Then later he got to noticing that he was actually in incredible pain, so they went down to the emergency room. That's where they found out that my father had broken five ribs and two vertebrae, punctured and collapsed a lung, and also there was some general internal bleeding. The good doctors at the small town hospital said that this was a bit over their heads, and they were all ready to ship him down to Charlotte, but he said no thank you, sir. They had to sign a form denying treatment, and then another one when they picked up the oxycontin at the pharmacy on the way home.

At this point, Mama sent an email to all of us with the whole long story. I can't speak for my siblings, but I personally found the nearest wall and banged my head against it awhile, at my ridiculous father who thinks modern medicine is all a scam. Then I thought that if he lived through this, it was really kind of awesome in an Evel Knievel sort of way. Yeah? Well my seventy-seven-year-old father rolled a mower on himself and suffered from severe internal injuries but refused treatment. He could totally beat up your dad, unless your dad is a lawnmower.

A couple of days after that, Daddy decided he was still in kind of a lot of pain. Of course, pain is all relative, and none of us has any idea what kind of pain anyone else is feeling, but based on previous refusal of treatment, let's assume that my pops can take a lot of it. But this was too much, therefore, it was real bad.

Turns out that his lung was okay now, so that was good. They had to give him a shot to help with the internal bleeding, which probably did the exact opposite of those blood-thinners he takes daily. He has to take the blood-thinners because otherwise he'll get blood clots in his brain all the time, and while that was still a risk, the bleeding inside his body thing was more urgent. I am glad I am not a doctor, who has to pick the worse-case scenario between bleeding to death inside your body or blood clots in the brain.

The internal bleeding stopped, too. They fixed him up with a back brace, which for some reason required him to stay in the hospital another night. He says they lose money on empty beds, and he may be right. After all, it turned out that he was right not to go to Charlotte, since lungs are magical things that patch their own holes, but I think that might be the kind of thing that could go either way, and it was just luck that allowed my dad to live to grump about the medical industrial complex another day.

A couple weeks later, he and Mama came to meet Josh's people for the first time at an annual fall family gathering. It wasn't even for sure that he was going to make it, but he showed up, looking like himself, the first day not wearing his back brace. Josh's family knew he'd had a recent accident, and by the way they offered seating and sweaters, it was clear they were expecting someone fragile. He was a little slower and maybe a little more cautious walking around the uneven ground, but not fragile. He was probably not what they expected, but that would've been the case anyhow, because there really is no way you could expect him.



Because we are obnoxious dog people with an obnoxious dog, Josh and I regularly talk to an animal that is incapable of higher thought. But this is not a problem, because we also answer ourselves in an enthusiastic, yet dopey voice. I'd be embarrassed, except that I've found a lot of obnoxious dog people do this. Once, after discussing the voices we use for our pets, a lady at work asked me, "Do you ever wonder if you're getting their voices wrong?"

I told her that it was my dog and that I could project whatever personality I wanted on her.

Her tag says "REMIX," but her full name is Remix Stratocaster Puppypants. I had a classmate in elementary school who had some outlandishly-named hamsters. I think one of them was Whiskey Cheeseball. I thought I was pretty good at naming pets, what with my cat Complainy and all, but this girl was a step ahead.

We most often refer to the dog as "Puppypants." In fact, I've used that word so many times in text messages to Josh that it has been added to my phone's dictionary of autocomplete words. We came up with it sometime in the first week that we had her. It's just fun to say. Try it. I'll wait.


See? Isn't that fun? It's so fun that I use it sometimes to refer to other dogs. Whenever I see another pitbull around town, I refer to it as a puppypants, like it's a breed. Maybe if we called them all that, they'd have a better reputation. Somebody call the AKC.

No, but the funnest thing is that other people now use that word. Trevor calls her Puppypants, and he says it as if it's a completely normal thing to say. And then my sister told me a story about her dog, who she referred to as Mr. Puppypants. I tell ya, it is a gratifying thing to invent a word and have other people adopt it. Particularly when it's such a very silly word. I feel like I've made the world a slightly better place, just by injecting a little silliness into it.

So please, feel free to use your new word, whenever and wherever you like. But remember, this was the first one.



We were fighting, and I guess we'd about reached the end of it without making up. At the beginning of the fight, I thought he was wrong and he thought I was wrong. Now, at the end, I was still pretty sure he was wrong, but it was hard to say because maybe he was right and man, I was just so tired. Either way, there didn't seem to be anything left to fight about without repeating ourselves. So I went upstairs to bed. And that was silly, because it's not like I was going to get any sleep. Who can sleep when you're all wound up and puffy-eyed, because I always cry during fights, I am a crier and there's nothing to be done about that either.

I brushed my teeth, and looked at my post-fight face. In case you were wondering, this is not a good way to make yourself feel better. You will only feel worse, because not only did you just have a fight with your beloved, now you see what you look like during a fight. Maybe it's different for you, but I look very unloveable. Once, I tried to smile at myself in the mirror to see if faking a cheerful expression would help; I burst into tears anew. Some people are criers.

Here is the Catch-22 of the unfinished fight: I wasn't going to be able to sleep, because I was feeling all upset and unresolved. But the only person to comfort me was the person I was fighting with. Sometimes you have to make up without really resolving anything. One of those tried-and-true tips of marriage is to never go to bed angry. I used to think that meant to always stay up and have it out until you can come to a nice resolution and then fall asleep snuggling. But maybe that means sometimes to just shelve it and snuggle anyway, because after a good night's sleep, this will all seem stupid anyway.

Snuggling is a soothing balm for whatever ails you. Sleep is good, too.

So that's what I did. I went back downstairs with my puffy eyes, and told him I couldn't sleep feeling like this, could we snuggle. So I became the little spoon to his big spoon, and after only a couple of minutes, my body was ready to sleep instead of cry. Somehow, we can fight and then end the fight by putting our bodies close together and just not fighting.

I think that this is possible because even in a fight, we are on the same side. He has his perspective, and I have mine, but we are both on the side of making the relationship work. A problem has come up - and they will always come up - so we are addressing it. We can each assume that the other is acting in good faith. We can focus on whatever we are arguing about, the annoying issue that is getting in the way of us just snuggling.

Josh told me once that he feels like I am his mate, which was not a feeling he had with previous girlfriends. And I thought at the time that he just meant that we were supportive of each other, that he was confident that I had his back. And that's very true. We are a team against the world. But I think it means that we are a team against ourselves, too. Us the unit versus our individual egos and fears and limitations and just how freaking hard it can be to be with another person all the time.


bob dole rolls.

Can I just say that I love the Capitol Cookbook? I just keep coming back to it. It lives in a sweet spot of history for recipes. It was before home cooking went gourmet, so most of the recipes have very simple and common ingredients. I asked a woman at work for a good vegetarian recipe with basic pantry staples, and she sent me a link to a recipe with mascarpone in it. Do you have mascarpone in your kitchen right now? Me neither. I'm not even sure where I would buy it.

When I first went through the book, there were several recipes that I knew I wanted to make. One of these was Bieroch, courtesy of Senator Bob Dole. I always liked Bob Dole. And bieroch was a traditional Kansas recipe. They're like Kansas hot pockets, packed with simplicity and nutrition and ground beef. One thing I remember vividly from my last trip to Kansas were the signs put up by the Cattle Growers Council or whatever it's called. There are probably multiple organizations within Kansas that are devoted to promoting beef as America's meat, grown right here in America's beef basket. We stopped one night for dinner at a truck stop diner recommended by my Uncle Paul, where I had an open-faced roast beef sandwich and Josh had chicken-fried steak, which doesn't even make sense, but was delicious anyway.

When I made these, I cheated a little. I looked up a recipe online, so that I could read the reviews of what home chefs had added to improve the dish. Frankly, Bob Dole's version seemed a little bland. For the dough, I used the 20-minute pizza dough recipe from The Tightwad Gazette. I made two pizza's worth of dough and still had some filling left over. Feel free to use whatever dough you like; I bet refrigerated biscuit dough would work if you were feeling shortcutty.

These were a huge hit. Since I'll be making them again, we've been trying to figure out what to call them. Sure, we could just call them by their actual name, but that's no fun. Bob Dole Rolls? Kansas Hot Pockets?

My changes: After the hamburger is browned, I add a little flour, some Worcestershire sauce, and a teaspoon of caraway seeds. Isn't it nice to get to use some of your more obscure spices? Then I throw the cabbage in with the beef, cover the pan and let it get steamed in there. You might need to add a little bit of water to keep stuff from burning on the bottom.