july 2014 books.

A Short History of a Small Place
T.R. Pearson
Oh man, guys. This book was so fantastic. I started reading it, and the narrator in my head was speaking with my own accent.

Perhaps I am biased, as this book is set in small town North Carolina, round about where my father-in-law was born, in fact. But it's just good story-telling. There is the main story, about an old woman with a pet monkey who climbs the water tower and jumps off. In the course of telling this story, which continues with the aftermath of her suicide, then her funeral and estate sale (!), the narrator tangents off into dozens of tiny stories about the inhabitants of his little town. It is poignant, engrossing, and straight-up hilarious. This was a book that I was mad no one had told me about, particularly considering the proximity of the setting. So I'm telling you about it, whether you hail from 'round here or not.

Marilynne Robinson
A few years ago, I read Robinson's novel Gilead and was just blown away. Since then, I've gone ahead and picked up everything I find by her. When I picked out a book to read next, I at first grabbed Absence of Mind, which is about the tension between religion and science. I got about fifty pages in before I gave up, because she was talking at a higher level than I could manage. I could have done it, but I would've had to look up a word every paragraph or so. And by a word, I mean a whole philosophical concept (for example, Malthusian). I was not ready to commit to that, so I put it back on the shelf and went for some nice fiction instead.

Like Gilead, this is a quiet sort of book, set in the tiny railroad town of Fingerbone, Idaho. It focuses on two young girls who are passed from relative to relative. The housekeeping in the title refers more to the ways of creating a home, rather than things like sweeping the floor. Some of their guardians are better than others at those sorts of tidy jobs, but those are not necessarily the ones who provide the best "home."

Robinson writes beautifully. Josh says I read like a scientist, which means I read for plot, for the meat. That works for a lot of books, frankly, and so I passed years of English classes without ever knowing that I was missing things in books. You can still pick up things from the mood and tone, and you might even feel those things on some level as you read without noticing that they're even there.

It is not wrong to read this way, but it is limiting. You miss things, and there are whole books that you will not enjoy because not a dang thing happens. Like if you take a walk down the street you drive down every day and realize there are whole houses and yards that you'd never noticed before. Some books paint a picture, some tell a story, some do both.

Anyway, read Marilynne Robinson. She's good.

West into the Night
Beryl Markham
I remember buying this book a couple of years ago, when I was feeling frustrated with the recent streak of book club books about women married to famous men. I admit, I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be married to some well-known man (usually an artist). In fact, I once spent an afternoon in the car discussing with my friend which of the musicians that came on the air we'd go out with (I was down for Bruce Springsteen, but thought Don Henley was probably not my type).


I looked at the back of this book, where my copy has an endorsement by Hemingway (sigh). But as I looked at it, I found out that it was about growing up in Africa, training race horses, and being a bush pilot. And I thought, this is the kind of book a woman's book club should be reading.

This right here is a telling of a fascinating life. Markham seems simply fearless. She writes about being attacked by a lion as a child, and going warthog hunting with some natives and a faithful bulldog. Once her father leaves, she takes up a career training race horses at the age of eighteen. The last bit deals with her flying career. She spent a few years scouting out elephants for big game hunters, and then became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. The episodes are vivid and tense. A story about a horserace in particular had me on the edge of my seat for twenty minutes, when I suppose the race itself lasted ninety seconds.

She doesn't really talk about it, but many times, I was simply incredulous that she was allowed to do the things she did. Not that I think women shouldn't be allowed to do things or that they can't do things, but I was under the impression that people in 1930s Africa would have strong opinions about that. It's entirely possible that she was told she couldn't something or encountered barriers, but she just did it anyway and didn't think it was worth writing about. The only time this comes up at all is when she was talking about flying over a specific swampy area, and women had to have special permission from the British government to do so. She agreed that it was dangerous, but said she was unclear on why it would be more dangerous for a woman. She suspected the rule "had more to do with chivalry than reason." In any case, she got permission.

She seemed a pretty straight-forward gal, always striving but understanding the limits of humanity:

"We fly, but we have not conquered the air. Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and use of such of her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward, starled by our ignorance."

Sounds about right.

Lastly, I should mention that Markham was living in poverty and obscurity when some Hemingway scholar read through his letters and found where he was writing a friend about how fantastic this book was. This led to a reprint, and saved Markham from dying in poverty. So, alright, fine, good job, Ernest.

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
In 1974, a Frenchman named Philippe Petit snuck into the as-yet-uncompleted World Trade Center and strung a wire up between the towers. The next morning, he walked on the wire for forty-five minutes, doing tricks, dancing, and even laying down on the wire while New Yorkers gawked below. This book is centered around that event, telling the stories of various people in the city, how their lives are connected, and what they were doing that August day.

For being about a funambulist, the book spends a lot of time with prostitutes. It starts with a radical priest who lives in the Bronx and takes his Gospel very seriously, spending his time with outcasts. And while the circle widens to include a judge and his wife on Park Avenue, some artists living upstate, and a kid riding the subway with his camera to catch the underground graffiti, it always comes back to the hookers. There are also a lot of mentions of computer projects that would later turn out to be the Internet, so I guess you could say connectivity and the universality of humanity were pretty big themes here.

This book was okay. The story-telling structure was interesting, switching as it did between characters, each of them telling their own part of the story. But it didn't really grab me. I did learn the word "funambulist," so there's that.


showing up.

At our very last Stephen Ministry training class, the fear was palpable. We were known as a lively group - the meetings going on in the classroom next to ours could hear our laughter and wondered what was so funny about this week's chapter on depression. But during this last session, the mood was subdued. After a short class, we were going to go upstairs to the sanctuary and have a commitment ceremony. We had to sign a sheet saying we were really going to do this. We'd spent hours preparing for what we were going to do, but the idea of actually doing it was daunting.

We did role play. We'd done role play many times, always treating it with a sigh and a joke. But this time, we were practicing an initial visit with someone who has asked for our help. We were acting out the first time we meet a total stranger and say, "Nice to meet you, tell me what's troubling you." It was terrifying.

I don't think a role play exercise had ever stumped me like this. I found myself staring, open-mouthed at the person who was pretending to be going through divorce and custody issues. What do I say? At our very first class, we had been told that Stephen Ministers show up. They did a great job telling us all the things we could not expect to be able to do. We can't fix problems, we can't cure people. We can show up, and that helps. I believed that when they told us, but sitting there trying to think of something to say made me feel inadequate. What was I doing here?

One lady shook her head and said over and over that she wasn't sure she could do this. We reassured her and secretly felt the same. In the end, she and I and everyone else signed the paper saying we would try our best, we would show up. Someone said they hoped they got an assignment right away, before they forgot everything. I agreed, and then thought, well, maybe not right away.

We went upstairs for the ceremony. Our classes and meetings are all held at a Methodist church. While a lot of congregations have their own individual Stephen Ministry, we have a combined group of three churches - the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and our scrappy band of Episcopalians. The Methodist church is HUGE. I grew up in a tiny church, and the experience of a big congregation feels too anonymous for me, but I have to admit, they have a lot of cool stuff. Tons of programs, activities, and services, something for everyone.

My tiny home church was also a Methodist church, so the commitment service itself was a warm blanket of familiarity, even in a giant sanctuary with beautiful windows and a gargantuan altar. I knew all the songs. And then, when we had communion, the cup of salvation was filled with grape juice, unfermented. Oh, you Methodists.

And then we were Stephen Ministers, not just trainees. The Presbyterians got name badges, the Methodists got badges and business cards. We were told our badges were on the way.

A few weeks later, though still badgeless, I got the call. Someone was struggling and wanted someone to talk and walk with them. Time to show up.


one in four.

An old friend told me that she was pregnant. After all the squealing and obnoxious questions were over, she also told me that she'd previously had a miscarriage. She found out that one in four women miscarry, and we agreed that was a shocking statistic. I mean, sure, I've had family members miscarry that I knew about, but one in four? She'd had no idea either, but once it happened to her, nearly everyone she told said it had happened to them, too. I thought, that is a dang shame. This is common, people should talk about it.

Well, here we are. Just so you know, there is going to be a lot of menstruation talk coming up.

In January, I took a pregnancy test. It came back negative. I shrugged and figured Aunt Flow would just show up eventually. I had been using a menstrual tracking app, and it said I was super late. But I've had this body a few years now, and I know that it works on some alternate definition of days. My cycle has never been predictable. Technically, I was bleeding, or rather spotting. It was weird and brown (told you this would be gross), but I've had that before, too.

A week later, I took another test. This one had two blue lines. I took it on a Sunday morning, so that if I had to tell Josh something, he would have a whole church service to wrap his brain around it. This turned out to be a great idea. During the service, they have the big prayer in the middle, where they pray for those expecting a child in their lives, with the names of specific parishioners. I thought about how that meant us, even though our names weren't called out.

The next day, I called the doctor to...tell them? I dunno, that's what you do when you get pregnant. You tell the dude, and you tell the doctor. I don't know anything about babies. The nurse asked the date of my last period, and I was all ready with that information, thanks to my handy period tracking app. She told me based on that date that I was 8 weeks along. That did not seem right. I tried to explain to her about my cycle which does not respect numbers, but she murmured "mm-hmm" and scheduled me for a couple weeks from then.

There. I accomplished something. On my way to motherhood, with one thing already checked off. Well, two, if you count successfully combining sperm and egg. But I did not feel right. There was the spotting, which I'd researched and found was probably fine. My breasts were a bit sore in a new and weird way. And I'd had some very minor twingy cramping.

I did not feel pregnant. Not that I knew what I was supposed to be experiencing, but it seemed like something should be different. Some sort of indication that I was knitting a new person in my body. Seriously, that's a pretty big deal, shouldn't there be an indication? I'd heard that pregnant women glow, but I wasn't sure if that was an actual symptom or some kind of radiating happiness or just other people projecting their own radiating happiness. I did not appear to glow.

I did feel a sort of crushing ambivalence. Well. We did it. We knew this would happen if we went off the birth control, and here we are. In seven months or so, our lives will be radically changed forever! Okay then. So along with worrying about not feeling pregnant, I was worried about not feel ecstatic. Basically, I felt a lot of things about not feeling things.

The next day, I called the doctor again, explaining about the spotting and the not-feeling-pregnant-but-not-sure-if-I-should. They asked me to come in for bloodwork. The next morning, I got up early to drive twenty minutes to the doctor, spent ten minutes having my blood drawn, then drove back home to pick up Josh so he could drive me to work.

The day after that, the nurse called and said that I was a little bit pregnant. But they wanted me to come back in so they could draw my blood again.

They were checking for human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which is made by the placenta. It's what home pregnancy tests look for, too. In the beginning of the pregnancy, the hCG levels are supposed to grow very quickly. If they don't, then something is probably wrong. If they go down, then it's a miscarriage. A couple days later, I went back to have my blood drawn again. The numbers went up, but not fast enough, so I had to do it again. I read a lot of pregnancy forums that said this was worrisome, but possibly still okay. The ladies on the forums were all very emotionally invested in the numbers and they wished each other much luck and fat babies. I was fine with either outcome; I just wanted to know. This limbo was making me crazy.

This time, the numbers just went down. The nurse on the phone said she was very sorry, but there would not be a baby in September. I was relieved just to know. And, I admit, I am pretty comfortable in my life, and so if big changes are coming, it's alright if they are delayed. Babies seem like an awful lot of work, and I've got a lot of books to read yet.

Oh, and they wanted me to come back in for bloodwork. They wanted to make sure the hCG levels went all the way down to 0. In the meantime, I kept spotting. For a few days, it got heavy enough to call actual bleeding. There is a misogynist joke that says you shouldn't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die. I bled for six weeks. Did not die.

I heard and read a lot of terms. I didn't want to call it a miscarriage, mostly because I wasn't sad. I didn't know what to call it, and somehow things are easier to process when they have a name. Calling it a miscarriage would bring me a flurry of hugs and concern, and then I'd have to shock people with my indifference. One of the nurses used the term "chemical pregnancy," meaning you had the right chemicals flowing through your body, but there was not really a baby coming. I also came across the term "blighted ovum." I took to calling it our dud.

This happens a lot. If you were shocked by the number of miscarriages, check this out. Up to half of all pregnancies are just chemical. Sperm and egg meet, but chromosomally they don't add up to a baby. Sometimes it fails to implant, which makes me picture a cross-eyed and confused blighted ovum, trying and failing to meet up with the lining of my uterus, which, uh, is all around it. Sometimes the body recognizes that it's a ship that will never sail and just kicks it on out. A lot of women never even know they were pregnant. However, home pregnancy tests are now so sensitive that more and more women do know, especially if a baby is what they're looking and hoping for.

I went in for bloodwork twice more. After the last time, I started getting the bills for all this. It was not a lot per visit, but it was adding up. The nurse called again and said that my hCG levels were at 7. 7. But they still wanted to see a nice round zero, so could I come back in two weeks?

I said no, I am tired of paying you $12.50 for the inconvenience. If I don't have my period again in a couple of months, I'll come in for bloodwork. The nurse on the phone sounded uncomfortable. She'll get over it.

After I found out that I was chemically pregnant but not having a baby, I told my mom about the whole thing. She was very concerned. Miscarriages can be traumatic. The only part that was rough for me were those two weeks when I did not know. In a fit of frustration, I uninstalled the period tracking app. I did not want pop-up reminders when I was late. I did not want to know when I was ovulating. I did not want to mark the days I had sex with a little heart. My mother found out she was pregnant when she started heaving up breakfast every day, and that was going to have to be good enough for me. That way, if there were more of these duds, they'd work their way out of my system without me having to go to the doctor to find out just how not-exactly-pregnant I was.

So yeah. One in four. Now you know.


cookie lady.

Back when Josh was signing up for church duties left and right, he signed the pair of us up for cookie duty. During the announcements for each service, after the sermon but before the offering, the priest invites us all over to the building next door for "coffee, cookies, and healthy stuff," the last item being cut-up vegetables with ranch dressing dip. It's a nice opportunity to catch up with each other and eat snacks. No one would come if it was just mingling with friendly Jesus-folks, but the cookies are how they getcha.

I thought that we were just being signed up to bake cookies and bring them to church. However, we had actually signed up to bring food, set everything up, keep things filled, and then clean it all up afterwards. Later, they sent around another signup to get people to just bake cookies. As a result, I never have to bake cookies anymore, but I do have to cut up vegetables and then wash the tea receptacles.

Fellowship, as it's called, is run by a former nurse named Sandy who likes to bake experimentally and then use her church pals as guinea pigs. I complain about Josh signing himself up for things and then I complain louder when he signs me up for things, but I do enjoy doing Fellowship. It's very well-attended, and is an especially good way for new folks to mingle and be harangued into signing up for things welcomed. So it's an obviously important ministry, but actually doing the work is pretty laid-back and out of the spotlight. I like to serve quietly.

So an unexpected result of joining the Episcopal church is that I suddenly have go-to recipes for several varieties of cookie. Because I do not like to get up early on Sunday mornings, I started freezing dough ahead of time. In my freezer, you might find dough in roll or ball form, all ready to be put on a cookie sheet and baked to perfection.

With such a ready supply, I end up finding other uses for the cookies-to-be, as what I have learned from the Episcopalians is that God loves everyone, and everyone loves cookies. We had family over for a cookout last month, and in an effort to keep things simple, dessert was cookies and watermelon. Then again last weekend, we were invited to a get-together at a friend's, and we brought beer and, yup, cookies. On both occasions, I received numerous compliments and heard many yum-yum noises, but the surest compliment of all is that the cookies disappeared.

I feel like I'm becoming some kind of bona-fide Cookie Lady. I am totally okay with that, because nobody doesn't like that lady. Just think of all the emergency situations that could be handled by a warm cookie. Neighbor helps us move an electric organ? Bring him some cookies! Need a gift for your postal worker at the holidays? Cookies in the mailbox. Surprise guests? NO cookies, because they should call ahead next time. You get the idea.


nerd-jerk reaction.

Josh's cousin, so my cousin-in-law, I guess, is taking an intro programming class. He was struggling with a project and asked if I could sit down with him and look it over.

Inside, I was of a panic. The class was learning Java, and I haven't used Java in years. I mean, sure, it's an intro class, so they're probably still learning about loops or if-statements. I felt fine about helping him with programming concepts, but I was worried I was going to look at the computer slack-jawed and blinking to match the cursor because I wasn't up on the things built in to the language.

Outside, I said sure.

Aside from worrying about my own competence, I wondered whether someone who needed help on an intro programming project was really right for computer science. People say I must be smart when they find out I'm "in computers," but really it's a certain kind of mind. I'm good at thinking this particular way, which has turned out to be very advantageous at this time in human history. I've encountered people who were not so inclined. We used to joke about the kids who transferred from the Computer Science department to the Computer Information Services department, where there was more setting up networks and less coding. We would sneer at their backs and say they just couldn't hack it. They were not one of us. Being computer science majors, we really did not have a lot of opportunities to sneer at anyone.

More likely, it was just not for them. And if you don't enjoy it, why continue? What if you really like setting up networks?

Only once did I meet someone who just did not get it. He was an older student who would come into the computer lab where I worked as a monitor for minimum wage. Mostly, I did homework or played games, but some people would timidly ask if I wouldn't mind helping them out with some homework. And I did, because it was generally a welcome distraction. Usually the kid would nod thoughtfully for a while before finally nodding more confidently and saying they thought they had it now, thanks.

But this one guy. He had a really hard time with concepts that are pretty basic to programming. And he either did not actually understand, even when nodding semi-confidently, or his brain just refused to retain any of it, because I was explaining the same things the next week. I would never recommend to someone that they ought to check out the CIS department instead, but this guy was not going to make it.

I don't know my cousin-in-law all that well, but I was afraid that he was going to be a repeat of that old guy who would never really grasp the idea of a while loop. So yeah, I worried that I was not going to be able to help with the assignment, while also thinking that maybe he just didn't have the right kind of brain. I think you can call that cognitive dissonance at the very least, if not outright arrogance.

But I told him to come over, let's see what we can do.

He said he'd been to see his professor, a grad student, about this project three times. Apparently, the teacher and everyone he'd met in the computer science department basically acted like if you didn't immediately understand everything, then the best you could do would be to go down the hall to CIS. I apologized for my people, who can be a bunch of nerd-jerks, while being sort of amazed how quickly my own nerd-jerkdom had been shown to me.

So we looked at the assignment and his code. Mostly, he was having a hard time picturing the way the code was all supposed to work together, the flow of it. The code he'd already written looked fine. We talked about what the different parts did, and he went from a thoughtful nod to a confident nod in no time.

At one point, he said that despite the unhelpful teacher, he really enjoyed this stuff. He said he liked the organization of it, which made my eyes light up in recognition. Ah. He is one of us.


birthday letters.

One night, about a week after Josh did not receive any proper presents from his wife for his birthday, he announced that he knew what he wanted. "A love letter."

HA. I got this.

He said he got the idea a month back, when some little sister of a childhood friend asked for birthday mail from her Facebook audience. I guess he was feeling inspired in the moment, so he went upstairs to the greeting card stash, selected one from the Blank Inside drawer, wrote a nice note, and sent it on its way.

He was excited and inspired, but I was cranky. Yes, dear, you invented birthday mail. By the way, how is it that you have access to a Blank Inside drawer, not to mention the Occasions Organized by Event drawer, the Postcard drawer, and the Stationery drawer? HMMMMM? Oh wait, it's because your wife has been sending birthday mail since before she was your wife, before she was your girlfriend even.

In fact, we have had bitter fights about birthday mail. Sometimes, I ask him to write a note in a card that I'm sending, usually someone on his side of the family. I think his grandmother would appreciate a nice note from her grandson, rather than her granddaughter-in-law, who she's seen only half a dozen times. And he is agreeable to this idea - he thinks it's great! I address the envelopes and set the cards out on the kitchen table a week in advance of when they need to be sent. And yet we get down to the last day, and I have two choices: nag him to do what he agreed to do and receive a glare as if I am surely the meanest wife, asking him to write a nice note to his grandmother, geez. Or I could just do it myself, which is what I end up doing after he pouts about the assignment and then doesn't do it anyway.

Sometimes, I can get him to write a note if I do it Sudden Prompt! style. As in, here, we are on the way to my nephew's birthday party, I am driving, so write something in this card. And he does such a great job! He's so charming and interesting, and it makes the receiver so happy to get a personal message like that.

After all this complaining, you're thinking I will be unable to write a love letter to my husband, since our relationship obviously consists entirely of fighting about birthday mail. It is a dumb thing to fight about.

But last week, I sat down at the kitchen table with a pad from the Stationery drawer and wrote my husband a love letter. People complain about how no one writes letters anymore (some people do!), but I'm here to tell you that a hand-written letter can make you sound like a lunatic. It is a snapshot of a moment in a person's mind. There's no way to go back and edit, and while you might start with a plan of what you'd like to say, what comes out of the pen can be unpredictable. Also, your handwriting can get pretty gnarly by the third page.

I posted the letter, he received it, and it was a success. He said it made him love me, which I guess is the idea. Now we shall just see if he remembers his own assignment in a few months when my birthday comes along. I'm not going to nag, and I'm certainly not going to give in and write it myself.