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.