Friday, December 17, 2010

the light of the wood stove

One week and so many new words: mediastinoscopy, adjuvant chemotherapy, hilum, labulated, adenocarcinoma. The language of disease feels foreign in my mouth, the metaphors strange, the translations insufficient. I wonder if a new voice will begin to emerge.

One week and new places: the University of Chicago, the back room of a radiation lab, a pulmonary procedures waiting room.

One week and 1200 miles of driving and more to come. The days are blending together underneath the low and gray midwestern skies. I feel without revelation, without air, without lightness. But a lingering bit of hopefulness remains on the edges of my mind, on the edges of the horizon.

{This Moment}

The chest. The lungs. At the University of Chicago this morning.

Monday, December 13, 2010

gardens in the sky

One night last month I was tossing and turning, trying to coax my anxiety into sleep. Like sleepless people everywhere, I tried to conjure some tranquil surrounds, some balmy beachside or some wooded glen. I often, though, trade these prosaic locales for my own imagined spaces. I like to picture fertile backyard gardens, the kind in which all of the tomatoes are staked and the carrot tops line up just so. In my mind’s eye, I see raspberries growing with the stubborn persistence that they’ve shown during my whole life in Michigan. The berries I’ve always imagined planting would be transplants from my Dad’s patch, ones that he’s raised up for four decades and before that, grew up in his parents’ garden. They’re berries with a past and I’ve always imagined that I’d have them as well.

Whenever I think about this garden, I think of my Dad coming to Kentucky–or wherever it is that J and I settle–and helping me till the soil and plant the rows. My Dad is good at things like planting vegetables and training vines up an arbor. He’s good at other things too, things that call for coordination between hand and eye, between muscle and memory, between space and certainty. Lately, I’d been thinking that he’d be good at making dollhouses and wooden toys for his grandchild and the grandchildren who will arrive sooner or later. I’d had planned to offer up this idea over Christmas, to suggest that we start building them together. After all, he’s spent his whole life rebuilding people’s bones, their internal architecture, all with hand and eye and muscle and memory.

But now it seems that it’s time for him to care for himself with that same tenacity. On Friday we learned that he is very, very sick, and so I’m not sure what this space will become over the next several months. I don’t know how much I’ll feel like making and doing. How much I’ll feel like writing and thinking here. Or how much my own life will change as I watch and wait, nurse and fret. I’m headed home soon and I suspect we’ll just take it moment by moment.

I suspect that the sunsets will begin to feel more vivid and taste of meals together more rich.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Keeping on

There’s been too little handwork around these parts. It’s been days since I picked up the needles for more than ten minutes on the train. This Shalom has been waiting for its buttons all week, perfect buttons that I bought and then promptly lost. It’s not good to be slowing down before the holidays, but a weekend wedding in Cincinnati (that featured an amazingly spirited 45-minute hora, the likes of which have never been seen before) turned quickly into a week of book talks for my Bryn Mawr history. Today is the last one–thank god–and then I’m hoping to get my life back on track. Have I mentioned how much I loathe giving talks? Fortunately, this one was almost fun to write. Instead giving over to my clunky, tangled, tortured academic voice, I wrote it in what I think of as my nature writing voice, something closer to what I use in this space. The difference is astounding.

But who am I kidding? Life never really slows down. I need to write a paper for MLA, prepare for interviews, and figure out the coming semester (I've been starting to do just that here). And on top of all of it there’s Christmas and the 35 or so family activities we have planned.

Each night before I go to bed, though, I think about all the writing that I want to do in the coming months:

1. Write a panic narrative for a side project a friend and I are working on.

2. Write a book proposal for a biography of Elizabeth Zimmerman (I think this could be really cool). It would be sort of popular, but sort of scholarly and would tie into my desire to write about new domesticity. I’d also like it to have a web component.

3. Work on my essay “Prude: On Being a Prude” (you think that’s a joke, but it’s not)

4. Revise that god-forsaken essay on Alcott

5. Maybe, just maybe, look at my dissertation. But maybe not.

Friday, December 3, 2010

{This moment}

{this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

small miracles

Here’s a secret for you: I almost never meet deadlines. At least that’s the way it feels.

I’m quite sure that I shouldn’t be admitting that. I mean I used to meet every single deadline. In high school and college and even early in graduate school, I practically turned in my papers early. Okay, so maybe I did actually turn in a few early. I was that girl. I never—well, maybe once—had to pull an all-nighter.

My dissertation changed all of this. Behind schedule, late with drafts, evasive about my progress. It’s a miracle that I finished as “quickly” as I did. Seven years, of course, isn’t quick to anyone but a graduate student in the humanities. It’s not even that quick to them.

But this is all beside the point. I mention it only because when I accepted my current job, I was asked again and again if I meet my deadlines. I lied. My advisor lied for me. I said, sure, of course, everything is always on time with me! They needed to know this because they had this outlandish idea to publish an institutional history in twelve months. Yup, I said, I’ll certainly have it done on time. I had my fingers crossed behind my back.

A week into my job I realized that that was the stupidest thing I’d ever promised. There was no way. It wouldn’t even be close. I’d be lucky to finish at the end of my two-year fellowship. Surely I'd get fired long before that.

So you can imagine my surprise when the first seventeen crates of this arrived just moments ago.

On time. It's actually two days early, but who could be counting? It could have used that extra year--really, it needed that extra year--but I'm trying not to think about it.

Now I'm just bracing myself for alumnae critique, outrage, vitriol, mudslinging. Bring it on.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Hour 5

Oh the beauty of the empty seat on a Thanksgiving bus

Is there anything more glorious than an empty seat to stash your bag and pleasure?

Travel begun

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Today may be one of the last quiet days until after the new year. There are holidays, weddings, conferences, papers, talks, planning, and trips to come. But today there is quiet, crepes, orange pekoe, reading about readers, yoga, knitting, perhaps some meditation. I'm trying to keep my brain at peace, to store up a bunch of calm for the days and weeks ahead. You can store most things in a crepe, so why not tranquility?

Saturday, November 20, 2010


It's a very quiet morning around these parts. Since working a "real" job over the last year and a half, I've come to relish silent Saturdays in my little urban nest. I have a whole pot of tea steeping, three projects on the needles, two new promising books about panic, a tiny bit of reassuring news about next year, a stack of books to skim for next semester's class, a craving for more lentils, and all day to flitter between them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

{This moment}

{This moment}: When I'm getting better, getting grounded, getting calmer, I start to see more and see better. I think these are weeping cherries and if not, they're just two of the most beautiful trees around.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Note to self

I don't know why you keep forgetting this Anne, but when you can't bear to write a sentence, when there are no thoughts in your head, when you can't stand even the idea of arguing for anything, it's time to turn off the computer. Turn it off. Unplug it. Ignore it. Walk away. It's that damn white screen that's doing it to you.

Now go and find the stack of yellow legal pads. Even the kind with flimsy paper will do. Then dig for your favorite pen, or even choose two. Now it's simple. Just put pen to paper. Don't bother with complete sentences. Don't worry about structure or organization or weak verbs or tentative qualifications. Just scribble. Pretty soon those pretty yellow pages add up and before long, you might just have that talk written. But not if you keep babbling here. Go. Go back to it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Shuttered from the schoolhouse

As I sent off my most recent application to Eastwestern Praire State University in Somberville, I could help but feel that this is a very good year not to get a job. Imagine it was four years ago and I was brimming with enthusiasm over the 63 jobs in my field, and imagine how disappointing it would have felt not to get even an interview, let alone an offer. That would have been a horrible year to not get a job. This year, though, it’s great. I can fail to get a single MLA interview and no one will dare tell me that it’s because I’m not good enough, because my project is inherently boring, or because I didn’t publish enough. Failure is built right in. With maybe two jobs that really match my interests, I’m almost guaranteed to fail. Oh what a joy!

Somehow I take tremendous comfort in this lousy market. It’s as if all the forces in the academic universe are conspiring just for my benefit, to ensure that I find something better to do with my time. There really seems to be no reason to worry about not getting a job. The real concern is actually getting a job and then having to do all that work of writing lectures, finding new research topics, revising that mildewing dissertation of mine.

So instead of bemoaning this situation, I’m going to embrace it. From now on and for good. Here’s to a great year of not getting a(n) (academic) job.

Monday, November 15, 2010


When you live in a studio apartment, you get just four corners of a home. I guess that technically I have eight, if you count those in the bathroom. With what little space I have, I need to be able to nest in new ways. On Saturday, I decided my lonely windowsills could use some color. A selection of left-overs from my rapidly dwindling yarn stash (could anyone ever have too much of a stash?) did just the trick.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

z bread

I’m always trying to explain to J just how limited the midwestern palate was circa 1983. Dinty Moore beef stew, jell-o molds, casseroles; hard-shelled tacos were considered exotic. But he grew up in L.A. He doesn’t really understand.

I’m also always trying to explain to him my mother’s relationship to cooking, which has essentially remained non-existent for as long as I’ve known her. When her husband, Don, goes out of town, she gets most excited not about having that liberating extra room in the bed for a couple days, but about not having to “think about meals.” That’s an exact quote. She’ll probably be mad that I’m telling you this, but it’s true: she doesn’t like to cook. I’d even venture a step further: she doesn’t really like the kitchen to get much use at all.

This proved challenging to negotiate as a child. Somewhere along the way she—or maybe it was my stepdad Paul—coined the frequently-used phrase “Let’s just do a G.Y.O.” Get Your Own.

I’m not kidding.

Fortunately, we all survived. This wasn’t the great Irish famine or anything. We ate a lot of cheerios, relished fresh toast for dinner, and became rather proficient prep cooks on our own. I don’t hold it against her, at least not anymore. It makes for a good story, the one about growing up in the wilds of northern Michigan with a mother who never fed us.

But none of this is really, totally true.

She made at least two meals, or rather two dishes, again and again and again. For her, each of them constituted a meal of their own: strawberry shortcake (with ice cream, of course) and zucchini bread.

I’ve remained a devotee of all things strawberry. I’m wild about them, and in early summer, buy quart after quart, eating them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even a bedtime snack. I don’t go in for the shortcake as much, but I eat the berries until they come out my ears.

The zucchini bread, though, never held the same appeal. So you can imagine my surprise this morning when I woke up to an intense craving for it. I was dying for that slightly metallic quick bread taste, and I also really wanted the sensation of grating all of that zucchini. I wanted the white flour and that white sugar that I rarely taste these days. I wanted to scrape the hot loaves out my old pans.

I dug out my trusty Bread Bible and set to grating.

And then I set to eating. A lot of eating.

I think it might be wrong, but it was lunch and dinner, a pre-walk snack and a post-walk snack, and now, a bedtime snack. Fortunately, I froze the second loaf, so it's officially off-limits, at least until it thaws.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

seven day candles, voodoo, or the just the sound of silence

If you hadn’t noticed, I tend toward the rosy in my writing. Even my academic prose inevitably morphs into hagiography. Without fail, I fall into narratives of progress. I become Hegelian without really understanding Hegel. I don’t know why this is. Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a fundamentally poor thinker incapable of sustaining complex thought. Or maybe it’s just because I’m an optimist at heart. It's not a little galling.

In all the rosiness in this space, I don’t reveal as much as I should--or could--about my struggles with panic and anxiety. This is especially glaring because there’s too little support for people suffering with panic, even in a big city like Philadelphia. I know this because I’ve been seeking it out for nearly two years. I keep hoping to stumble upon an AA-like group for panic, a network of the afflicted who could gather together and prop one another up, who could together learn to be different people altogether.

Though I don’t have such a group, I do spend a lot of time trying to get better. Recently I was rereading Reid Wilson's Don’t Panic, a kind of user’s guide to the disorder. A couple years ago, I did cognitive behavior therapy at Wilson’s clinic in Durham, and for a while, I got much better. But the last three months have been very, very tough. On me. On J. On my family. On my friends. Part of having panic is feeling like no one is going to catch you when--not if--you fall. 

One of Wilson’s suggestions is that you try to track where your mind goes just before you begin to panic. You try to identify a pattern, a set of thoughts that habitually trigger an attack. I’ve spent the last couple weeks trying to do this, trying to be conscious of the moments--seconds, really--just before everything begins to feel utterly terrifying. In the process of listening to those moments, I had a major breakthrough.

My panic is almost always proceeded by the sound of silence. And this ain’t no Simon and Garfunkel melodic silence (save, perhaps, for my own “restless dreams of walking alone”). It took me a long time to figure this out because I couldn’t seem to identify a common thread of thinking, and then I realized with a start that I couldn’t identify a common thread because there was no thinking at all. Panic was filling up my spaces of silence.

One of the least intuitive things about panic is that it has to be conquered head-on; the “I just need to relax” approach almost always fails. The “you just need to relax” approach that friends and family prescribe will always fail.

The “bring on the panic” (a kind of perverse mantra repeated in the moment of panic) is what works. Sitting and allowing--inviting, really--the panic to wash over you is what takes the wind out of its sails. 

So in thinking about my own silences and their proclivity to turn toward panic, I feel a compulsion to sit with my silence. I bought a candle in a tall glass jar (it was the only unscented one in the grocery store on my block) and have sat on my floor each of the last three evenings, lit the candle, held a kentucky acorn in my nervous palm, and let the silence come. I invite it in. The first night, I lasted about three minutes before I needed to get up and move. Last night it was fifteen, and as I went to blow out the candle, I noticed a label on its side: “Seven Day Candle.” 

It turns out that Seven Day Candles are ritual candles, used for hoodoo and voodoo, by Christians and Pagans, Greeks and magicians. It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that I’ve been casting a spell over myself, that I’ve been cleansing my ailing mind without really meaning to. I’m hopeful about this new approach, this getting comfortable with my silences.

One of my closest friends is coming this weekend, and I’m eager to share this process with her, to make it something about which I’m not ashamed. Panic wants to be hidden, but when you force it out into the open, it can’t really survive, at least not in that very moment.

See, damn it, I can't help but write about  progress, once again. Surely it's a sign of feeblemindedness. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

{This moment}

It may be neither bucolic nor beautiful, but it's early morning commuter knitting.

from soulemama: {this moment} - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A discovery

When I returned to Philadelphia on Saturday night, I found a changed season. Kentucky had been flirting with fall, but Philadelphia had embraced it several weeks back while I was away. I felt a bit like coming into a party sober when everyone else is already drunk. The people on my street had begun donning their hats and mitts, woolen scarves were already wrapped to earlobes and I couldn’t help but feel like everyone was jumping fall’s gun. But sure enough, I awoke at 10 am (!) on Sunday to a decidedly autumnal sniffle that I suppose may be more airplane than autumn, but that slowed me nonetheless.

My postnasal drip, though, did have its positive side. I was determined to fish out my cold weather clothes, finally take my coat to the cleaner, and stash away summer’s sandals and dresses. As I was scrounging around under the bed––among long-ago-moth-eaten cashmere that I can’t bear to part with for sentimental reasons, even though I have just 20 square feet of storage––I lit upon a strand of pure white, or rather, not pure white, but perfect white. Yanking it out, I discovered this sad, little gem.

Hello old friend. The last time I saw you was on a couch in 2002––or was that 2003?––just after a relationship that had lingered throughout much of my mid- to late-twenties in miraculous fits and starts and with moments of clarity and then long bouts of confusion came to its final and ugly conclusion. I still have the scar on my left calf, from the moment I crashed my bicycle on Yom Kippur when he called me to tell me that he was seeing someone else. The cell phone and I both went over the handlebars, and as I lay sprawled out in front of the graduate library at UNC, my leg bleeding, my head pounding, the spine of my Sensational Designs broken, my cell phone split in two, I knew that my relationship was finally and decidedly done.

As my leg healed and my ego gradually regenerated, I cast on this sweater. It’s beginnings were auspicious, it’s fibers almost bouncy. After all, I had bargained for eight of its enormous skeins on a cold, but sun-drenched day in Patagonia in December 1998. I had gone to the end of the continent to see my sister Molly, who was spending the year in Argentina. It was a funny trip--my father and I unlikely travel companions--and I was obsessed with just three things: seeing Patagonia, finding the kind of perfect wool that I knew had to exist (even as this seemed unlikely in a period dominated by Brown Sheep and Cascade 220 in the U.S.), and uncovering the truth about the country’s Dirty War.

On an estancia outside of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares––where we watched the Perito Moreno Glacier advance in crumbling chunks of iceberg that plunged into Lake Argentino––I came upon this wool. Molly and I met its sheep. And then on a tour we found ourselves inside an enormous sheep barn listening to a farmer’s description of his process. I couldn’t understand his Spanish and so I left Molly to listen while I snuck out the side door. There I found terrific mountains of raw wool roughly the size of four double-wide mobile homes. When I later got Molly to ask the farmer about this wool, he said that it was surplus, that the estancia simply couldn’t process all of its wool profitably (this was a meat producing place, not a knitter’s paradise). They couldn’t even seem to give it away. It was there to rot. In a flash, I decided that if I had half a nerve, I’d rent a few semi-trucks and drive around Argentina picking up this wool, importing it, and ta da, I’d have a life’s work. At 22, I didn’t have the nerve.

So I just stuffed my backpack with about ten pounds of dirty, smelly raw wool. It’s a wonder that I got through customs without getting searched. I can’t seem to remember what happened to that pile. I suppose that it got tossed during some cross-country move when it seemed a poor idea to keep toting it along. But in any case, I emerged with this white magic that I then looked at lovingly for about five years before an atrocious breakup set me on to this sweater. (I also bought some heavenly midnight blue silk and wool that I squandered on mittens for another boyfriend who then broke my heart, but that’s another story).

I can’t remember why I put this one down. I suspect that as the sting of my breakup lessened, I got off the couch and returned to my reading and my running.

When I discovered it the other day, I had little faith that it would still fit, but indeed, it almost seems that I made it for my 34 year old body instead of my 26 year old one. It had no sleeves on Sunday, but as of last night, it has half of one. It’s riddled with funny, inexplicable mistakes that I suppose I could try to correct, but I kind of like that it’s an index of my younger knitting self, an autobiography in stockinette stitch.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


LEX to PHL via DTW. Just as the cold Kentucky nights arrive, I depart, back again to my commuting life and the city of brotherly hatred (née brotherly love).

Friday, November 5, 2010

This moment

A final Friday in Kentucky. The laundry mat, packing, a bourbon party tonight, anticipations of another absence.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

chicken and flesh

I made a roast chicken last night for J’s department chair and his wife (who is also in the department). I was stewing about which recipe to use for most of the day, flitting back and forth between the famous Zuni Cafe roasted chicken or the simpler Jamie Oliver one. I salted the bird beforehand, leaving open the possibility of the Zuni recipe, but when J’s electric oven refused to play nicely, topping out at a respectable-but-too-cool 425º, I had to switch to the Jamie Oliver one. I worried that the salting would screw up the prescribed basting, but I found that I really never needed to baste it. I had planned to photograph the whole process, from bird to bite, but alas, my camera battery died and I don’t have my charger in Kentucky. Argh. I couldn’t find my phone for most of the day and so I’ve got little proof that splitting the difference between the recipes yielded a rather tasty meal.

When our guests arrived, I really droned on about how horrible the chicken was going to be, about how I was a poultry novice, about the damned oven, about my playing fast and loose between recipes. I’m a firm believer in the magic of lowered expectations. That way when the first tentative bite makes its way into your guest’s mouth, you can watch the palpable relief wash over his face. It’s a real treat, even better than cake.

That first bite, though, was delayed by my grabbing the 425º skillet with my bare hand.* It was just one of those quick and scorching moments of mindlessness. I spent the rest of the evening with my hand plunged in a bucket of cold water because whenever I tried to pull it out, I was beset by a shocking amount of pain. As we strategized our job situation with our guests, talking about ways to better position myself here, I couldn't help but feel my heart beat in my developing blisters. You know that feeling, when you're so attuned to the pain that you can listen to your heartbeat right there.

I tried to fall asleep with my hand in the bucket but--surprise--it just wasn't working. J insisted on strapping frozen peas to my hand with an ace bandage. It did the trick. I slept most of the night and awoke to a slightly-shriveled-but-hardly-worse-for-the-wear hand. Now if I could only remember all the advice his colleagues offered...

*It took a relaxing jog in the woods to jog my brain toward the obvious: yesterday I was flip-flopping between recipes because I was obsessed with getting the skin of the chicken just right. I wanted it super crispy, the way my father used to make it, and the Zuni recipe promised just such a thing. I was crestfallen when the low temps of the oven prevented my using that recipe. I burned myself--duh--in a moment of obsession about charring the flesh. It might as well have been intentional now that I think about it. And then what does that say about me?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

30 on the 31st

Dear Molly,

I made you a birthday cake today. It's an applesauce spice cake with cream cheese frosting. It has hearty doses of cinnamon (the good vietnamese kind) and ground ginger. I lit just three candles because I thought 30 would be going over board. Wanna come over and have a bite? It's just 551 miles from D.C. to Berea. You could make it here in time for a cake breakfast.

I suppose that you're not going to come. I suppose that I'm going to have to eat all this cake myself. I'm going to take more than 30 bites, but during those first 30, I'm going to be thinking about this kind of thing:

1. you're pretty nice. most of the time.
2. you're a damn good seamstress.
3. you believe in bulk eating, which I respect.
4. you have a new fancy job that you're rocking (and that might translate into good presents, right?)
5. you have the most beautiful hair east of the mississippi.
6. all that hair is on a spectacularly large head. it's a wonder, that head.
7. you're generous, especially with your sister.
8. you like wind-up toys, which is just funny.
9. you're not afraid of anything, at least I don't think so.
10. you even have a scary birthday, but you've never seemed frightened to me.
11. you're efficient, like a good WASP.
12. you're frugal (also like a good WASP)--some might say cheap, but I'd just wallop them for you.
13. you're a world-class world traveler. wanna take me next time?
14. you're nice. did I already say that?
15. you're actually not that nice, so when you are nice, it seems really real.
16. you got me turned on to yoga, for which I'll be forever grateful.
17. you showed me how to make bunny loaf.
18. you know why bunnies are special.
19. you manage to have a pretty perfect balance between work and everything else.
20. you're really nice to your boyfriend, which is a good model for me to try to emulate.
21. you can hold your liquor.
22. you can sleep anywhere, anytime, even in a booming karaoke joint.
23. you have enormous, but nonetheless rather pretty, feet.
24. you have fabulous taste in shoes, even if they sometimes look a little funny in a size 11.
25. you know where to find a bargain.
26. you are technologically challenged, but it's sort of cute.
27. you have an astounding lack of interest in popular culture.
28. you're practical.
29. you're not swayed by flimsy argument or excessive emotion.
30. but you still manage to be emotionally engaged.
31. you're getting old!

I'm getting full with all this eating. There's still half a cake left. I think you must come and get it. It's not going to travel well.

me, your much older sister who is always grateful that you came along, even if you wrecked my halloween that day in 1980.

Friday, October 29, 2010

country living

Yesterday I invited a friend here to take a lunchtime walk. She and her husband live just on the other side of the woods, so when we go for walks we meet at an old iron bridge that spans a would-be creek at the base of the hills. I like that my landmarks here are old bridges and giant maples instead of the corner of 18th and Pine or that overpriced grocery store on Spruce that smells only sometimes. I suppose my country idyll is like most idylls: unsustainable. It would get old after awhile and I’d start champing at the bit for art museums and Whole Foods. But for now, it’s just what I need.

As we were walking, I mentioned how impressed I was when I saw this friend’s chest freezer while I was dog-sitting a couple weeks ago (yes, ask me to dog-sit and I’ll riffle through your edibles, inspect your frozen corn, and swoon over your homemade sausage and individual baggies of pesto). Without skipping a beat, she said, “Well, that country living for you.” For a second, I misheard her and thought she said, “Well, that’s good country people for you.” I was thinking about the creepy Flannery O’Connor story of the same name (she was, after all, one of the reasons that I went to grad school in the first place) and wooden legs and arboreal fecundity. I realized that for me there’s a bit of perfect tension between country living and “good country people” that keeps this Kentucky hamlet a gripping place to be.

Mostly, though, I’m cultivating the former. Last night was a butternut squash and chickpea salad from Orangette. It’s a pretty close to perfect salad. I put it over romaine because that’s what we had. It's quick--save for prepping the squash--and I love its warmth and its crispiness.

I then set to battening down the hatches around here. I plasticized the windows last night as J read Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece on the Tea Party. I love it when I get to do a project, like pimping out J's ranch with plastic, as he reads to me. If that's country living, I'll take it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

luxury, cowls, and why I don’t want to be an adjunct

In an extraordinary act of kindness and generosity, a special friend--whom I’ve gotten to know through her work on the board of the college where I work--gave J and I a weekend at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia as a wedding gift. When I told her that it was far too generous (this was after she said to charge everything to the room), she said that she was paying it forward, that someone had given a similar gift to her and her husband. I tried to explain that J and I would likely never be able to replicate her gift for another. She was undeterred, “You will.” It seems unlikely, but I just smiled, nodded, and imagined my shiatsu massage scheduled for the next day.

It was just wonderfully relaxing. I should have taken pictures, but in the midst of all my unwinding, I kept forgetting. The only evidence of our stay is this shot from one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, I gobbled up most of it before I remembered to take the picture, but you can see J delighting in some pastrami miracle.
I read Jeannette Wall’s Half-Broke Horses in the bath (not as good as The Glass Castle, but there’s still something deeply compelling in her narrative voice and I’ll take a half-baked, but compelling memoir any day); we watched the Phillies lose while squirreled up in a bed blessed from above; I knit up a couple birthday treats for a special spooky sister; and I didn’t do one lick of work.
While the tightness in my shoulder seems to have been worked out and I seem to be breathing a bit deeper, we returned to Kentucky and back to the pressures of life outside of the Four Seasons oasis and amidst the job market. Yesterday I officially signed off on all of the pages of my Bryn Mawr book. It's done. Like really truly done. 404 pages; 476 images; 374 texts. Done.

With the book out of the way, I can focus at least half of my anxieties (I do like to keep them well distributed) on finding a job for next year. The pickings are slim, of course, and nothing seems particularly well-suited to my interests (though a position in the Upper Peninsula feels strangely compelling). There's even less hope in J's field, and so it looks likely that we'll remain in Kentucky, at least for another year (unless we're blessed by some unbelievable stroke of profoundly good luck). I'm not opposed to this eventuality, but I'm eager to find fulfilling work for myself here. Unfortunately, it looks more and more like that means filling in here and there, a sabbatical replacement (maybe), some adjuncting, some piecework. I feel like a 19th-century woman who might take in some sewing to make ends meet. I'm actually sort of surprised that I just can't bear the idea of adjuncting at 35, making less money than I did as a grad student and begging--like Oliver Twist--for another section of composition, please. I'd rather teach high school, get benefits, and have my summers really, truly off. And so I'm beginning to try to unlock the mysteries of the labyrinthian Kentucky Board of Education.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

knee deep

In my book proofs.

They arrived yesterday and weigh about 30 lbs. I'm so excited to see this process--in all its ugliness and its delights--come to a close.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I should be working on my job applications, my ACLS letter, my book talk. But alas, I’m thinking about dinner. And it’s before noon! I’m wondering about those two onions, that sack of pinto beans, that can of tomatoes, that bevy of lemons. It’s a very strange feeling, this thinking about making dinner. You see, J is the cook. I’m the dishwasher. He’s the foodie. I’m the rapid eater. In the established order of things, I have two left feet in the kitchen (a convenient reputation when you’re eager for others to cook for you) and he makes magic from canned beans.

But in recent days, all sorts of shifts have been perceptible around here. I’ve been making dinner—red cabbage and lime salad, butternut squash gratin, shrimp tacos (my culinary heart throb), basil ceasar—and J has actually been eating my creations with tremendous relish. It’s gotten me thinking that so much about relationships is about that peculiar mix of well-worn patterns and new flexibility. Last summer, as I gradually lost my mind with too much work, J cooked carefully considered dinners that greeted me when I warily came in from the office. Now I find myself doing the same for him. Instead of feeling like an unpleasant push and pull, it feels wonderfully natural to find these rhythms together.

Four months of marriage have begun to suggest that there may really be something to this commitment thing. Instead of feeling emotionally bent by indecision and second guessing (oh, how I don’t long for my twenties!), I’m loving watching these synchronizations unfold. Now only if I could convince—or rather, not have to convince—J to pick up the sponge after dinner.

Monday, October 18, 2010


In recent days, I’ve begun thinking about what it would mean to live in Kentucky full-time, one of several possible eventualities for me and J and one that I’ve warmed to over the last six or eight months. I think about this most often as I wander through the woods behind our house here. When I’m out there, amidst the auburn leaves, it feels vaguely like the Vermont I came to love while a student at Middlebury. Modest rolling mountains and proud maples. Dogs run free and life feels somehow quieter. But then, in so many other ways, it’s just not Vermont. Bernie Sanders isn’t senator; there aren’t a half dozen yoga studios in spitting distance; there isn’t even a grocery store in town. The accents are thick and the verbs spasmodic.

I’ve always thought that in the realm of life’s major decisions, geography mattered most. Living on the east coast for more than a decade counted heavily in some equation of myself. But, as with most things, this began to shift in my late twenties and now it feels phenomenally less important. The cracks in the east coast allure began in North Carolina. I came to love the South, its easier ways, its kindness, its patience. A trip to Columbia, Missouri several years ago revealed a different midwest of hip college towns and affordable living. Summer visits to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been both restoration and revelation. And now Kentucky.

It seems like geography, for me, has come to be about a certain feeling. Because surely in a list of pros and cons, Kentucky is never going to win. It’s poor; its public schools stink; it's overwhelmingly conservative; it's unhealthy; it's powered by coal; it’s far from the friends that I love. But when I’m here, I’m calmer. I’m slower. I’m not as nervous or as worried.

That has to count for something in my latest equation of self.

Friday, October 15, 2010

the cool down

Serious runners take a couple extra laps after each race. It’s part of a recovery process that reregulates one’s natural rhythms. It lowers your heart-rate and protects your muscles. I’ve been a runner for more than a decade, but never really subscribed to this logic. I also resisted the whole pre-run stretching fad until I was about 32 and had already wrecked a knee and faced the end of my afternoon gallops through the woods. Until then, I just slipped on my asics and went long and hard until I collapsed in a heap at my doorstep. But warming up and cooling down, I’m starting to accept, are essential.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last ten days: cooling down. For the last five or six months, I’ve been sprinting to get through it all--a book project, a major conference, a wedding, an article, job materials, teaching, a long distance relationship turned marriage--and in the last eight weeks, I’ve been doing it at such a pace that I was just starting to crumble. So when I finished (!) my institutional history on Monday and sent it to the printer, I turned off that part of my brain and have slowed to a crawl in the cool Kentucky sun.

There are things to do, lots of them, but I’m letting my body and my brain begin to recover. The first step was a quick retreat to Florida with J’s family. We spent the weekend snuggling our nephews (and maybe feeling just a bit like the odd ones out without a babe of our own) and visiting with J’s great aunt Bea, a 94 yr. old firecracker who still hits half a dozen card games a week and chauffeurs her friends about because they’ve aged-out of their privileges behind the wheel. We ate fresh seafood, and I got to float in ocean until I shriveled up like a dried apricot. We lay on the hot sand and whispered about how strange a world south Florida can seem.

En route to Florida, I caught up on some long-neglected knitting. This scarf began a year ago and just came off the needles last night. It's entrelac in Noro. I can't remember what the colorway was called. It was supposed to be a gift (both last year and this), but I'm becoming quite certain that I'm not going to be able to part with it. Usually I'm happy to knit and give, but this one--maybe because of it's lengthy residence in the basket by my bed--seems a bit too close to my heart to send off. Is that wrong to admit?

Since getting back to Kentucky, I've tried to restore some balance in my life. I slip out the door in the afternoons for long rambles behind J's house. Right now we're dog sitting and so I've got a lively pooch to trot ahead of me. The autumn woods are ten times more splendid with a dog in tow. Yesterday we came across this little guy:

In the woods I breathe just a little bit better. Actually, a whole lot better. The gravel beneath my shoes and the cascading vermillion leaves settle me. They remind me of my attachments to the earth and my connections to all beings. And off to those woods I now go (after I stretch, of course)...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


He would have been 94 today. I'd have called him first thing in the morning to wish him a happy birthday. He would have answered the phone as he always did: "Frank Riggle." It always made me laugh that he didn't bother with "hello." He got right down to the business of identification. It was both greeting and affirmation.

He died five years ago. One day he just sort of decided that it was enough. I think he died by force of will alone. But it's not his death that I remember today. It's that long and brilliant life that I never really escape.

J says that I talk about him a lot. I'm sure that I do. But I mostly try to talk like him whenever I can. When we're on the road and have miles to go before we get there, I try to throw in a "heck, we've gone pert-near a hundred miles already." Pert-near is my all-time favorite expression of Grandpa's. It's the midwestern combination of pretty and near. You'll find it's infinitely useable. One can be pert-near through with just about anything.

I often have reason to go "over ta _(insert place)_ to have a little look-see." Grandpa and Grandma spent a lot of their retirement driving around Michigan looking at things: small-town parades, sales at Sears, new buildings, boats on the bay. I try to remember this when I'm rushing about, furiously trying to get from one thing to the next without really looking around. When J is in Philly on the weekends, I often invite him to have a little look-see down ta the yarn store or over to the river. It's a kind of innocent invitation to see what happens.

I also try to keep alive his use--perhaps even overuse--of "doozy." (This shouldn't, of course, be confused with what he actually called me--"Boozie" (I like to think it was less for the drink and more for the endearment)). Sort of like pert-near, almost anything can be a real doozy. Well, that's a doozy of a hand, Boozie.

We liked to play a lot of gin rummy at Grandma and Grandpa's house, the kind where you put your sets face up as you accumulate them. This allowed for endless supplies of both pert-near and doozy. "Well, that was pert-near three pairs but for that doozy of a deuce." He always called twos "deuces." Maybe everyone does, but I liked it best when he did.

I think about him just about everyday. When I'm parking, I always look for the two open spaces, one in front of the other. He'd always bellow, "pull through!" because he never understood why anyone would back up when he didn't have to.

He also believed strenuously in hide-a-key. I believed--and continue to believe--strenuously in him.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

when you want it bad

So what do you do when you fall madly in love—I mean, like, deeply, madly in love—with a new pattern only to realize that you just don’t have the extra $100 to buy the most beautiful yarn to knit it up? Well, you bemoan your career choice and you calculate the relative harm of living on boxed macaroni for a month. Then you remember, in a stunningly wonderful moment of clarity, that you might just have all the yarn you need. You find yourself at your other house in Kentucky, furiously pawing through boxes of old fabric and tangled yarn. You remember that your kindly dissertation advisor once handed you a whole bin of sea blue merino that she had knit up into a kind of shapeless mess of a tunic before her arms failed her and she had to retire her needles. Her misfortune becomes your fortune.

You feel guilty for about ten minutes. You look at all that knitting and you imagine her working that stockinette stitch between bursts of critical brilliance during a cold Massachusetts winter long before you met her. You even imagine her, for a second, as Penelope spinning her fleece in anticipation of another's arrival.
But then, well, then you can't stand the guilt any longer. You rip into it. You frog it in the most ravenous way. And then you find yourself enveloped between piles of plush and curling merino. You feel both totally delighted and a little bit devious. You wonder if you should tell her about the destruction, err, the recycling. You think maybe you will, one day.
You stuff the permed skeins in your suitcase and return to your other house in Philadelphia. There you draw them a good, warm bath. You think for a moment about joining the skeins in the tub, to really luxuriate in their supple goodness. You decide that that's downright creepy.
You let them soak on their own for a good thirty minutes or so, until they've drowned and straightened themselves out. The water cools and you squeeze it out. For a second you wonder if this is a bit like milking a cow, and you wish you were on a farm in Minnesota, the place you've decided you and J really should live. You decide it's not at all like milking a cow.
You hang them up to dry over night. You decide that it's a good idea to open the bathroom window wide and even raise the blinds. You think J would be horrified by this, but you do it anyway.
In the morning, you lay the perfectly straightened skeins on your bed and you revel in their apparent perfection. Then, in flash of terror, you wonder if you really do have enough merino. You realize that you made no attempt to measure the skeins and you realize that running out of yarn would be a disaster in this case because you have no idea what kind of yarn this really is. But you forge ahead because that's what you tend to do.

You find yourself with eleven balls, some a bit beefier than others. Surely you have 1176 yards. You love them in any case. You decide to reconcile yourself to the fact that this sweater might just have three-quarters-length sleeves.

You realize that writing in the 2nd person might suggest that you're coming unhinged. But then you remember that the 2nd person always works in small doses.


In 17 days I’m getting on a plane and flying to Kentucky to be with J for a whole month. Imagine that, married folks getting to be together for four sweet weeks. It’s too bad that those will be weeks of intense job hunting and ones without a reprieve from my work here. But still, we’ll wake up in the same place each day and that seems about the best thing I can imagine these days.

The only glitch is that between now and then, over these next 17 days, life gets really nutty. My history of the college is due in a week. There are about 75 unfinished things left to do, some tiny—like rechecking page numbers for the 5th time—and some huge—like making sure we secure all of the permissions we need or actually drafting the last 30 captions—and I’m super anxious that at least a dozen won’t get resolved. Then there’s the conference I’ve been working on for the last year that opens on the 23rd. I can’t even bring myself to articulate all that needs to be done between now and then on that front. Oh and then there’s two guest appearances in different colleagues courses this week and the on-going revision and drafting of my job materials for yet-to-materialize jobs. As I often reiterate, it’s too much and it’s been too much for me for too long. But in 17 days, well, in 17 days, I’m going to sit outside in Kentucky, breathe the Appalachian air and let it go.

Monday, August 30, 2010


It was a long, long weekend here in my little 550 square feet. I’ve circled back to panic recently—my August guest, I suppose—and it’s been a tough few weeks without J around to rally my spirits and check my crazies. So I tend to take very, very long walks through the city, the dirty, smelly, sticky August city. When I'm not walking, or nervously noodling with my C.V., I'm trying to wrap up unfinished projects.

On Saturday, I blocked this sweet little number (I'm not sure why the photo is appearing fuzzy):

I’m spoiling the surprise, I suppose, but he won’t know the difference. It knit up in a couple of days and I kept giggling to myself about making a sleeveless sweater vest. A sleeveless sweater vest. It’s just funny in itself, but even more so because I spent years in the 1980’s teasing my mother about never knitting anything with sleeves. During car rides in Michigan, my mom would ride shotgun and knit with big needles and big yarn. Twack. Twack. Twack. She never seemed to ball her skeins and so they always ended up in a tangled mess at my feet in the back. I’d stubbornly root out the knots and feed her cotton mixes through my young fingers, letting the fibers tickle between my pinkie and my ring finger. And it seems that she was always knitting exactly the same thing: two rectangles that she’d seam together on the sides and neck. A sweater vest. I didn’t understand it then (and, to be honest, I came to believe that she actually couldn’t really knit sleeves and then I just sort of felt bad for her, but I’m sure I was quite wrong indeed)

I still don’t totally understand it. But I do get it’s charms, and I really shouldn’t speak because I certainly don the down winter vest and the autumnal fleece vest (that I’ve been wearing since 1992) with a relish. I like that vests keep the important parts toasty and they allow for maximum mobility. I think this little number might just do the trick.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

blocking board, wrap ups, and longing

I've needed a blocking board for knitting for a long time. Usually I just refuse to knit anything larger than an ironing board so that I can block on that lousy, but passable surface. But I've promised myself that I'll wrap up several lingering projects this fall, several of which just won't do on the ironing board. A fortuitous stack of boxes ready to go down the freight elevator at work reminded me that there was no time to lose. I'd just make one (after hauling 4 strapped-together boxes home on the train):

As you can see, I first taped the boxes together. I think you probably need the board to be at least four layers thick in order for the pins to sink in but not come out the other side. I then simply staple-gunned old towels to the surface. I used two, but you could probably get away with one or even go up to three. And that's it. The best part is that you get to use that staple gun that gathers dust on the shelf.

I did it mostly so that I could block this number, the ubiquitous "owls" pattern that every other knitter finished last year. It came together in less than a month: bulky wool and big needles. I'd model it for you but it's 85 degrees and I can't bear it. Also, my faithful photographer (well, perhaps not my faithful photographer, but my lovely pal) J has gone back to Kentucky and I can't very well balance the camera on the cabinet. I'd just end up with a lousy shot of my belly. But it does fit and quite nicely at that. It's also supremely warm.
The only problem is that the next project I need to wrap up this weekend or next is the "tea leaves" cardigan that I started last winter. I have no idea how this happened, but it's exactly--and I mean really, truly--the same color as the "owls." Apparently I only buy sage green wool when it comes to sweaters for myself. I don't know what that means.

I seem to have more time for knitting in the evenings now that J is gone and I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel on my book project (which doesn't mean that there's a light at the end of the four other tunnels that come next). But anyway, I'd rather take J than the extra time for knitting (I'd rather take him, in fact, than just about anything right now).

But alas.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

a lingering question

In the late autumn of 1993, my Father took me on a series of college visits. We leapt from one small New England town to another in his wisp of a plane. The trip was scheduled not long after he had learned to fly, but enough time had passed for him to terrify several other family members with forgotten reserve gas tanks and reversed readings of apparently critical gauges and monitors. I approached with the trip with equal measures grave trepidation and pragmatic determination. I needed to get to these interviews and this was my ride.

It was the interviews, though, that I was thinking about last night, not the ride. Actually, it was just one interview that I’ve never forgotten. All the rest, at leafy colleges with big endowments, bad football teams, and scores of a cappella groups were the same. What did I hope to study? What had been my greatest challenge? How might my life look in ten years? They were big, lofty, silly questions. But one was different. It was at a place I never matriculated, but in some sense, it planted something that’s endured just as long as my “real” education at Middlebury.

Amidst all those other benign questions, this one interviewer—having picked up on something I can’t now recall but something I must have said—stopped and got this half-excited, half-confused look on his face (it’s a face I’ve been trying to do for more than a decade in the classroom). He blurted out, “Well then, what is the different between art and craft?”

I was quick with my tongue at 17. I made a habit of speaking first and thinking later, which got me in loads of trouble but also seemed to be quite a lot of fun for everyone else. So without really thinking, I gave an answer that today—17 years later—still kicks around in my head:

“Craft is about turning precise corners on a tea cozy and choosing suitably neutral colors for a needled-pointed seat cushion. It’s not about expression or idea.”

I still get a bit sour in stomach thinking about how obnoxious this response was, how quick I was to judge, how dismissive I was the entire history of craft. All I could think about were 1980s church bazaars with their cross-stitched slogans like “Home is where the Heart is” inside neatly tatted hearts.

But it’s not my obnoxious answer alone that keeps this memory so vivid. Instead, it has something to do my deception in that moment. Even as I curtly dismissed tea cozies in public, I knit hats for my ski team in my high school dorm room and I sewed patternless skirts during vacations in Michigan. I was simultaneously repulsed by the idea of craft—and what at 17 I thought it stood for—and totally engaged in it. In my turned-about world, I thought about the things I did with my hands as private, as almost shameful, as certainly not serious.

Even at Middlebury, I took studio art classes and studied line and perspective. I was a lousy drawer and could never really "commit to the line." But even as my daylight hours were spent in the respectable fine arts studio, I walked down the steep hill each wednesday night to take pottery classes at Frog Hollow, a meeting ground for local craftsmen and women. I was infinitely more happy there.

The rehabilitation, or rather the reappearance through the Internet, of really, rather exceptionally beautiful crafts in a moment of “new domesticity,” has been like a smart rejoinder to my earlier naïveté. And yet, I’m still thinking about that question. I still make excuses for the things I turn with my hands. Even as I admire them, I still dismiss them as silly or fussy. I do it less now, but I still search for ways to reconcile the work I do with my head with the work I do with my hands.

It’s job season now and I know that I’m thinking about these questions because the fractured, anxious prose of my job letter and dissertation description tell only part of the story of me and the rest of the story, the one about thinking about, looking at, making, and finishing things will remain hidden from view.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

saturday, the last one for a long while

Today was one of those perfectly balanced Saturdays. The kind when it feels like the day just divides itself into little parts that all make sense together. The kind that begins with a special sweet treat like this:
It has all the things that make me most happy at once: fruit, yogurt, bread. I should have included the steaming cup of orange pekoe that rounded it all out. This is the kind of breakfast that I used to eat with a bit too much regularity, the kind that leaves you blissed out on sugar for at least an hour.

But Saturdays have more to offer than contraband starches. They offer the promise of my beloved "kiddie bouquet," a $3.70 burst of botanical loveliness that's just a block away at the farmer's market. A pimply teenage Amish boy with braces--no, I'm not kidding, though the braces do seem a bit of a contradiction--hawks them at his family's stand. I buy one each week and it feels like just the right kind of indulgence.
Each week I cut the stems and put them in this little vase my mom gave me during a wedding shower this spring. The bouquet sits on the center of my table and each morning I gaze at it while I gulp down my usual fare: 3 egg whites and a cup of green tea. On Wednesdays, I daydream about the coming Saturday. I imagine a "kiddie" with feverfew and zinnias. I hope that they might be particularly full or tall or a bit different.

But back to the divisions. What makes Saturdays so lovely these days, so perfectly right is that they're the one day each week when J and I seem to share a routine. It's not an exciting routine, but it's something that kinda sorta resembles normalcy. It's a day when we're just really together doing life. Often it looks like this:
I sit and alternate between writing thank you notes, knitting a few rows for a swiftly growing lad, reading about teaching, and writing my job materials. J, as he's wont to do, reads. Occasionally he laughs to himself and sometime I can coax him into sharing the joke with me.

We go on this way until one of us needs to squirm (it's usually me) and I lace up my sneakers and head off for a slow Saturday ramble on the shores of the Schuylkill. I ran too many miles in my twenties, hundreds and thousands of miles chasing a yellow hound in the woods. I can't do that anymore, but I still convince my knees that one day a week they can let me go long and steady. I come back from my run wonderfully tired, all the tension and all the panic gone, if only for a moment. This Saturday was particularly sweet because we closed the afternoon with a long break in Fitler Square. As J read aloud, I kept knitting, aware that this was the last Saturday of our summer together, the last time, in fact, that we'd spend a lazy day together for a long time. He returns to Kentucky this week and we begin the all the missing, all the longing, all feeling like our lives are just a bit less full, a bit less lovely, a bit more harried and dull for missing one another. But there is, I suppose, the promise of more Saturdays ahead. We might just have to wait awhile.