Just Do... Something


The dirty gym clothes I hadn't yet bothered to wash went right back on this morning within five minutes of waking up. Sneakers laced and an almost-battery-dead ipod in my hoodie pocket, I wandered out the door, stopping briefly at Jojo's for a large to-go cup of coffee. I didn't have time to wait around for skim milk, so I splashed some half-and-half in there (which I hate), started chugging it, and made my way down the rest of the block to the snazziest building in downtown Hartford, a 35-floor apartment complex called Hartford 21. 21, while unrelated to the number of floors, is a good denotation of this building: it's ritzy and sort of stupid like a blackjack game, or a kid on their twenty-first birthday ordering their first legal martini. I walked in the doors, signed some waivers, chugged more coffee, picked up my number, and got in a line, all before I was really awake. Within eight minutes of entering the building I was at the starting line of a stair climb. Just as I felt I was really waking up, someone said, "GOOD LUCK! GO!," I hit play on Stronger (I'll let you guess whether it was Kelly, Kanye, or Britney) and began to sprint up 36 flights of stairs. Within about seven minutes, I was done, and headed home to make breakfast. I didn't do a great job on the run-- but I did it, and that was enough.

I'm a terrible runner. My friends have heard about my informal standoffs with a man who runs on crutches faster than I do, or the guy who appears to be over eighty who routinely streaks by me in Hartford races, or the little kids who dash past while chatting during the Turkey Trots. I am slow. I have a pathetic stride. ("Greg," I say, "the barefoot running guy says that shortening your stride is better for you," "Julia," Greg says, "your feet are barely clearing a shuffle.") I make weird breathing sounds, talk to myself, drop my arms too low. Trust me. I'm bad.

But I have come to like it. A few times I have hit a clear runner's high and floated along a few miles without convincing myself to keep going. Mostly, running is so hard that it's an act of mediation: keep going. Keep going. Keep going. I like how hard it is, and I love that there are a thousand different ways to set goals, a thousand different achievements possible. Personal records, new races, mileage, new routes. The best thing about being bad at something is that you know you can improve a hundred times over.

My new years' resolution was to run one race a month for the year of 2012. I've done three: a Cupid's Chase 5k, the O'Hartford 5k (winter races are so holiday-based), and the stair climb.  Each time I don't really feel like going. In today's case, I didn't even want to get out of bed. But I've signed up-- I've paid, and I really should just get it done. I want to be doing longer distances; I want to be working out two or three hours a day. Of course, that's impossible. I just tell myself, "do something. Do anything. That's enough." Sometimes it ends up being just walking briskly the mile and a half to work. Sometimes it's a nine mile loop.

I'm going to tell you guys something that is probably already apparent: writing has become very hard lately. I don't make enough time, mostly mentally. I used to be a dogwalker and had all day to think things over. Now I don't. I get home at ten or eleven and I'm happy to read, but writing is harder. It requires so much focus and perfectionism and creativity and taste and time and voice. It's not something I ever want to be sloppy with.

Tonight, I'm tired. I'm tired from the stair race, I'm tired from an hour-long children's improv show I did with Sea Tea, I'm tired from socializing with everyone for an hour afterwards, I'm tired from doing my finances as soon as I got home, and I'm tired from even looking at my to-do list. I'm just about to go to bed, and it's ten-thirty-- shockingly early for me. That's like 7:30 to a normal person.

But I said to myself, "no! Goddamn it. I have to write tonight."

This is a blog post not half as good as the others. I took the picture with my phone twenty minutes ago. I don't even have a real story to tell. This post isn't going to launch the next phase of my writing career, or earn me any new subscribers, or elicit any comments. I'm trying to just do something: the equivalent of a slow mile on the treadmill that will bring me no immediate pride. A tiny workout. A tiny idea. A little training.

As I was writing I almost hit "save draft" many times. But no. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

Whiskey and Friends

Ten years ago, I met a girl who received a grilled cheese maker for Christmas. She lived across the dormitory hall from me, and we had settled into the amicable friendship of two people who would rather get along than not. She was, after all, my neighbor, and we each had a respect for old-fashioned friendliness, as well as an optimism that neither of us could surpress (despite the fact that she was a bit of a badass, by my suburban Jersey standards). Image

Had I been the one to receive a grilled cheese maker for Christmas, my friends and I would have dined on Cheddar cheese for a few weeks and then slunk back to the dining hall. Katherine, on the other hand, used that crappy old grilled cheese maker to experiment with viscosity. "Try this and tell me what you think," she'd say, and I would eat it, and say I liked it every time.

I lived across the hall from Katherine for two years, during which time I was dating a vegan. He and Katherine made a portabella mushroom Thanksgiving feat for the whole dorm, using only a toaster oven and a wok. We moved off-campus and she starting stuffing chickens. She made pasta of tremendous quality and proportions. She was the first person I'd ever known who truly loved cooking, and it didn't stop when we moved into an apartment together in New York. 3 AM nachos, 9 AM eggs, 5 pm prociutto. My "helping" was, for a while, chopping an onion at a pathetically slow rate, and eventually just drinking wine and chatting about our lives in good ol' NYC. On the day I left New York for Connecticut, seven years into our friendship, I ate a breakfast of egg and mushroom tarts (or something-- please correct me, Katherine). It doesn't matter what it was called. I looked down at that lovely little white ramekin and nearly started crying, because I was leaving for an apartment where neither the food nor the friendship would ever be so filling.

She had crippled me, Katherine had, with good taste. You see, everything Katherine makes is unbelievably delicious. Not long ago, my college friends and I wandered the streets with her around two o'clock in the morning, because we had had several buckets of beer and needed to find the proper cheese for macaroni. I would have eaten a piece of the sidewalk at the moment, but Katherine has class in these situations. We found the treasured cheese and ate possibly the best pasta I have ever had in my life on Charles street that night.

She is now living in Israel and is, unsurprisingly, a successful food writer. So when I found out I'd be hosting the next installment of a whiskey club Greg and I weaseled our way into, I called her up. Actually, I emailed her, but I want you to picture two 1950's housewives with aprons on pink-corded phones, because that's what the email felt like. Basically, I said: "Help! We're hosting a whiskey tasting and I have no idea what food to serve."

She suggested a lot of great things: an onion tart, stuffed dates, crostini, and baba ganouj. I said to myself, "I will make it all! And they will be amazing!"

To back up for a second, a statement of fact: I'm an awful cook. Just awful. I spent too long in the cozy company of Katherine, and then too long eating at restaurants. I know what I want my food to taste like, and what food I want to eat (if I was one of those people who only liked pizza and sandwiches, this would not be a problem), and I just can't make it happen. It's an uphill battle every time.

ImageI ordered all of the necessary ingredients from PeaPod (Greg and I are carless, and there is no adequate grocery store within walking distance), and they were delivered the morning of the party. Feeling like Mrs. Dalloway, I bought a couple of bouquets from Karl the flower guy and headed home to prepare.

I knew I wouldn't have time to make my own baba ganouj, so I'd ordered it pre-made, and the fates had punished me for my cheating-- the Stop and Shop warehouse was "all out." Yeah, right. Zeus was screaming, "You should have just bought some eggplants!" No baba ganouj, and worse, now I had irrelevant crackers. Barbecue chips were going to have to serve for the smokiness that Katherine had suggested I highlight.

ImageI did manage to make the recommended crostini-- aka, sliced baguette with a smear of fresh ricotta, drizzled with honey and topped with a blackberry. I made Greg do most of this work, because I was busy stuffing dates with parmesan cheese chunks, and he'd noted that dates look like cockroaches. I found that to be a wildly unhelpful point of view.

As for the onion tart, I ran out of time. I considered making it at the party, but then I had to come to terms with the fact that no one would care. "Cooking is about being flexible!" I imagined a Katherine/Julia Child hybrid saying, and I abandoned my tarty desires.

I also had on hand a large batch of oatmeal butterscotch chocolate chip cookies that I'd made the night before. Making cookies is my kitchen forte, and I was glad I'd done it: butterscotch and whiskey go well together, we all found out.


The party guests arrived. The theme of the evening was "Whiskeys from the Finger Lakes," and our whiskey expert for the evening gave a slideshow on the Finger Lakes reigon and why it's great. Did you know that Seneca Falls, New York is the basis for Bedford Falls, the tiny town in my favorite movie of all time, It's a Wonderful Life? Between that piece of trivia and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I am seriously considering moving there. (Did I mention this is the nerdiest possible whiskey tasting club? I love it.)


We tasted, oh, five or six types of whiskey that night, Ryes and Bourbons and something too smokey to even be enjoyable. The crostinis were a huge hit, and so were the dates, even though it turns out that "dates look like cockroaches," is a commonly held belief and a fun talking point with strangers. The cookies vanished, the chips vanished, and I learned what picklebacks were, and also learned that I love them.

The night drifted to an end, with many wonderful friends and, I must say, some pretty good times for our taste buds. As I put the dishes in the dishwasher I felt I had touched on something nice about Connecticut; although hosting a whiskey tasting club is undoubtedly a yuppie activity, it is, at heart, like those days in the dorms with Katherine and our friends. I knew these people a little, and trusted we might become friends. I had a home to welcome them into, and while they didn't have to sit on an extra-long twin bed, the gesture of "come in, come in," remained the same. "I'm somewhat hopeless," I still say in my mind, "but someday, maybe, we will look back on this as a beginning."


Please visit Katherine's website and do her recipes some justice. They are incredible.

Ten thirty, two weeks later

It's ten-thirty on a Sunday night. Usually, at this time, I'd be with my comrades of Sea Tea Improv, sitting around at Vaughan's pub, drinking Ten Penny ales and talking about something funny we'd read or seen or did. But, since our members are busy with so many fabulous things now (teaching our own classes, seeing shows in New York, shooting sketches), we cancelled rehearsal and our subsequent hangout tonight, and I'm left here in my apartment alone, wondering if I made the most of the last fourteen days. I had logged a tremendous amount of comp time at The Mark Twain House and decided to take it all in one fell swoop this winter. For the last two weeks I've been mostly at home, under my own jurisdiction. You may wonder: what did I do?

I finished things. I finished six books I was in the middle of; I finished writing a number of letters. I cleaned out every closet in this apartment; I polished off a lot of Christmas candy. I watched all of Downton Abbey, Portlandia, the current season of the Biggest Loser, and Sherlock.

I discovered that some things are truly neverending: my Netflix queue, literary magazines, dishes, and vacuuming. These particular things make me feel like a hamster in a wheel, although I enjoy working on all of them to a degree I found shocking. Particularly the dishes. I will do dishes any time.

There were a few attempts at self improvement, I'll admit. I recently got a juicer and vigorously juiced carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, kale, fennel, celery, and parsnips on the one hand; grapefruit, pears, blackberries, apples, and bananas on the other. I have a brand-new and passionate relationship with the parsnip now. I also cooked a great deal more than usual. Tofu was fried. Ravioli was boiled. Eggs were doused with both Worcestershire and Sriracha sauces. Pecan chocolate chip banana bread was baked. I made some unbelievable brussels sprouts, roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I ate things out of the refrigerator that usually languish in the back, like applesauce and super-hot pickles. I drank something in the range of 40 cans of seltzer, and I'm drinking one now. Actually, I just finished it, and I'm about to open a new one. Excuse me for a second.

I slept in so late for me-- 8:30-- and went to bed early, say, midnight. Improv knows no vacations, so I also helped launch a new monthly show, taught five seventh-grade Hartford Performs programs, held rehearsal at our place, answered a shitload of emails, and ran our Annual Meeting. Speaking of which, I also went into work at the Twain House one night to represent our book club and attend that annual meeting.

The guest at that meeting was a professor from the Ballard Institute of Puppetry, and it was worth going just to see him. Puppets are coming ever-larger into my slightines these days. The day before I began this vacation, I went into New York to see Avenue Q. Three days ago, I went back into New York to see War Horse. I was seated separately from my friends, and was between a couple watching in silent shock and a woman who cried for the entire two hours. I loved both, but I loved the life-sized horse puppets more.

I tried-- and got shockingly close-- to get my to-do list down to zero items. Normally, I have between a hundred and two hundred items on there. As of this moment, I have only seven. (The failure is so bitter, but there's no way I can finish five books, buy a particular cable, and mail out the last of my Christmas cards tonight. So bitter.) I made eye doctor appointments, printed posters, finagled budgets, ordered a knife sharpener and sharpened my knives myself, returned an ankle brace to its rightful owner, got rid of bad DVDs, put things in the mail, sorted files on my computer. I dragged out the Christmas tree. I tried to be PRODUCTIVE, the great American virtue which, I'll admit, I am perversely obsessed with these days. It all started on a snow day in January 2011 and I've been trying, and failing, to get my to-do list to zero ever since that day. I wish I'd saved the crossed-out list of everything I did, but I deleted it in a moment of glee when it was done.

But all of those things were mere distractions from my two main purposes: be a writer, and be an athlete.

I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I'd written six new essays in a week for a reading at Real Art Ways only a few days before my break, and I wrote five more in the two weeks I was here, and many blog posts, too. On Friday night I read one of my new pieces at La Paloma Sabanera in front of a whole new audience, and it was good. I submitted the same piece to a national publication; we'll see how that goes. I wrote a huge number of letters by hand (maybe 80) and about the same amount in journaling. It never feels like enough, never. I wrote about the similarities of running and writing, I wrote about Mark Twain, I wrote about what it feels like to improvise, I wrote about my fictional north stars, I wrote parodies. On this blog I covered jellyfish, heroes, books, dizziness, my reading series, and Christmas cards. None of this feels like enough.

And, to train for the Tough Mudder, I got very serious. I ran a total of eighteen miles and lifted lots of weights. Truth be told, it was the best part of the break. It felt so good to work so blindly hard at something. Working on this race is the hardest thing I've ever done in certain ways. I've been dreaming about doing pullups. Good ones. At this moment I can barely move because my body is trying to heal itself from a sixteen-part circuit I did yesterday.

But nothing, nothing feels like enough. I'm scared to go back to work and say "this is what I did." I know that I'll always feel like I could have done better. My gadgets are charged, my clothes are washed, my bag is even packed: but the to-do list reigns supreme. The goals, the projects, the calendar.

One eight-hour work day isn't going to take everything away-- I'll be the same person, just a little bit more organized. I do feel more peaceful. I love my home more. I'm rested and full of carrot juice. The entire back side of my body (shoulders, back, butt, hamstrings) are sore from my forcible attempts to improve myself. I have many more books to recommend.

Did I learn things? Yes. I learned that it is still absolutely wonderful to get photos developed and pick them up days later, and that you'll still open them on the steps of the camera shop and rifle through them. I learned that Greg owns every season of Robot Chicken. I learned a lot about Steve Jobs. I learned how to edit posters with Photoshop-like applications. I learned that no one can comfort me like Greg. I learned what the cats do all day when we're not here. I learned what I thought about many things I've been writing about.

Two weeks under my jurisdiction, and here is what the jury of one says: I have an excellent life. I live it to the point of gluttony. And I am grateful for it all. Now, to attack my job again. Full force. I'm working late two nights this week, and have whiskey club on Wednesday. I can already tell that things will be the same, and different. Productive and peaceful both.

Pictures of Jellyfish

Here's a pretty good definition of my family: my brother Alex, my sister Emily, my cousin Jessica, my boyfriend Greg, and I were all on a little boat speeding out towards a coral reef. It had been windy for a few days and all snorkeling had been canceled for a few days, so our co-passengers were all excited to get in the water and see some fish. Then a man got on the intercom and delivered a warning: there were huge jellyfish all through the water. Was everyone cool with that? We were. No big deal.

Within three seconds of jumping in the water, dinky underwater disposable camera in hand, I put my face in the water and saw a large pink mass right in front of me. "Jellyfish right there!" I yelled over to Greg, who had just plopped in himself. It's tough to scream with a snorkel in your mouth but I think he may have done it. Alex, Emily, and Jessica were splashing around up ahead and had already seen a barracuda. We wanted to catch up and get to the coral, so we started swimming.

Here's the thing about huge jellyfish. It's the tentacles that sting, so those big, imposing heads are harmless. These particular ones were large-headed with small tentacles, therefore avoidable. But there's just something terrifying about a huge dangerous animal drifting into your field of vision. These were between about six and twelve inches in diameter, and every time I saw one, I gasped underwater.

It quickly became apparent that the best way to avoid jellyfish was to, against instinct, keep your face in the water and look for them. Sure, we were also looking for beautiful fish, and we saw many. But in order to enjoy the really unusual and beautiful things in the ocean-- and maybe everywhere-- you have to go to a place that's perhaps a little more dangerous than you'd like, and be as vigilant as you can.

After a while-- after barracudas, and lots of fish whose taxonomic names I don't know-- I began to love the jellyfish. I was still shot through with fear every time I saw one, a sting perhaps greater than if I'd actually been stung by one, but it was impossible to ignore how beautiful they are. They're like UFOs moving through the water. Unlike fish, they have absolutely no urgency to their movement, and yet you know they're alive. It's like a brain floating in the water. Weird. Electric. Ominous.

One of my favorite things about snorkeling and scuba diving is that it shuts up my usual chattering. In the water you can't talk. You point, or you use minimal hand signals. In the water, we pointed at jellyfish to signify "danger ahead." We pointed at coral to signify "wondrous thing ahead."

Later, when we got out of the water, Greg told us that he'd seen from a distance that either Jessica or Emily had accidentally kicked a jellyfish. The force of the kick set the creature in motion, and perhaps some of its tentacles had broken off and dispersed, still harmful, into the water. When we surfaced we had small welts on our arms, and we laughed about how Emily could get fired from her job at Greenpeace for possibly kicking a jellyfish in Florida. We all felt a bit bad, I think. Something that weird should be left alone.

It is a good thing, once in a while, to go to a place where you can't constantly spout off your opinion. It is a good thing to just point at things and say "this thing is amazing," even if it is dangerous, even if it's wild, even if it's something whose life you can barely comprehend.

What's in a Hero

I have a friend here in Hartford whose favorite label to put on people is "hero." I am always happy when this exclamation is tossed in my direction, usually in hashtag form, when I have done something as noteworthy as finding the missing Season 4 Wire DVDs. It's a very flattering thing to have said about you, and I'm glad that she uses the phrase so often, because it makes a lot of people feel great. We should all call people heroes more often, in my opinion.

But I rarely use the term myself. I don't think of many people as heroes-- even people I adore or respect. If I were to be asked in an interview who my personal heroes were, I would have no answer. Part of my job at the Mark Twain House is to brainstorm celebrities to entice to visit our site, and I'm actually not very good at it. I had in-depth conversations with both Jodi Picoult and John Grisham this year, and I was much more delighted to find out that they were funny normal people rather than superhuman artistic entertainers. (Side note here... isn't it terribly cruel that we want writers, people who have chosen a life of solitude and thinking quietly to themselves, to also be awesome public speakers?)

This is the cultural era of the Superhero-- the Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, Fantastic Four era. The era of wizards and elves. The era of wanting our politicians to be able to solve all of our problems in one term (that might not be limited to the current day.) Even the show Heroes really was about Superheroes. I love superheros, and I love magic and fantasy and science fiction, but maybe the ever-presence of these things has made me forget that regular heroes actually exist.

As I continue to work hard at being a "real" writer, without quotation marks-- that means writing and getting paid for work that I hold to the highest artistic standards-- I think I should also work at identifying my heroes. I have a couple in mind already, but I'm going to save a full list for a later post, when I've given this important subject due consideration.

I'm thinking about this tonight because a friend directed me to the Stephen Colbert interview with Maurice Sendak. I thought, for the first time in a long time, "This man is my hero." Then I read his 2008 New York Times interview and learned that he loves many of the same things I love-- Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. Sure, lots of people love these things, but that doesn't diminish their greatness. This heroic author and illustrator is going to guide me on this little quest.

I'm hoping that if I can identify some personal heroes, it will help me clarify the person I want to be. What do you think? Who are your personal heroes, and why? I sincerely want to know. Let's find heroes together.


The Christmas Cards

What the hell is wrong with me? I still haven't finished writing or sending my Christmas cards. In fact, I have over 50 left to write.

Every year this happens, and every year I have a series of self-abusive thoughts. "Why do you wait so long," "why do you do this at all," "just save them for next year, nobody will know," "you might as well by non-themed cards and just give up and send them in February every year anyway" and "everyone is going to make fun of you." Then I think "no, NO! The point of this is to write to people and spend a minute thinking about them. That is not a Christmas-only sentiment."

I order a ton of letterpressed cards, which is my biggest personal vice. They're expensive, and I suppose they will mostly end up recycled, but to me they are the most beautiful things on earth. If I were a billionaire I would surround myself in letterpressed items. I have some letterpressed stationary, which I've never used, because I don't want to use it up. So I'm not going to waste these cards by doing a shoddy job with my letter-writing. I spend a while matching cards to people (this year I ordered a variety of about 15 different cards...overboard even by my standards), and then get to writing.

That part isn't easy, either. I want to write a good letter to everyone. I want it to be meaningful. I want to perfectly express how impactful this person or family is in my life. Somewhere in this part of the process I start to feel weird about how hard this is for me-- the art of the personal letter is eroding, I feel, and despite my four pen-pals, I can't seem to master it.

Once that's all done, the hardest part begins: tracking down addresses. I have address books and emails, but half the people I know seem to move every year. Or they get married and change their names or don't change their names, which takes some investigation, or they have a kid and I have no idea what his or her name is. Addressing the cards takes even longer than writing them.

But somewhere in this stage, looking up apartment numbers in Poland or the name of a baby boy born in upstate New York, I am slammed with how lucky I am. I know so many good people who are too cool to stand still. There are cousins I'vereconnected with and old friends I've hunted down, just so I can send them a piece of thick white paper with a pear pressed into it. My friends are librarians, food writers, parkour instructors, occupy Wall Street leaders, opera directors, opera singers, teachers, puppeteers, foundation project managers, writers, parents, kids, and professors. They are really busy. Some of them had really wonderful years and some had really terrible ones. Some of them I haven't heard from in a long time, so I have no idea how their years were at all. It's worth sending them paper and stamps and sentiment, to say, here, I still love you, you know, just a reminder.

By Rock Scissor Paper

Why I Run a Reading Series

A long time ago, by my standards, I lived in New York. I had just quit an office job that I hated for its rigidity, repetitiveness, and complex managerial structure. I wanted something made of the magic I had come to New York for.

My roommate at the time was a girl named Beth whose life, to me, seemed compiled of random details. I met her in Ghana and I found in again in South Korea. She had a great sense of humor, was enthusiastic about pie, and, like me, would do anything for the sake of a good story. She was also a poet. Beth did things like go the the Russian Tea Room and read Oblomov, which she didn't like, but was trying in earnest to love. She was a truly outstanding roommate.

Beth had somehow gotten a job selling books at reading events through a service called Mobile Libris. Every once in a while a little suitcase packed with books would linger in our living room. We'd open it up and look at the new poems Beth was selling that day. It was an education in everything the poetry world was up to those days-- who was reading and where, what books were selling better, what clubs were opening their doors to poets at night.

I started working for Mobile Libris, too. It was probably the best job I ever had, in terms of adventures. Every day I'd make my way over to the apartment where Sharon and Rebecca ordered and organized the books. I'd whisk away a suitcase to some far-off corner of the city, and sell cookbooks or treatises on the luxury industry or New Yorker cartoon compilations or novels at private parties. I always met the author, and I was always surprised by some detail or other. I have many stories from that time and I'm still trying to make sense of all the information I absorbed: flashes of lessons about class, or wealth, or ambition, or failure; the degree of sheer weirdness; the universality of books as something people wanted to buy.

But I always loved the reading series. I started signing up for them all the time; their recurrent nature made it a relaxing night (I always knew where the venue would be and what it would be like, rather than running around the subway in a panic trying to find a neighborhood I'd never been to before), and the readers were so lovely. Their writing was often not as good as the bigger authors', but they wanted it more. They would stand up at KGB Bar or Happy Ending or wherever, and, in a trembling voice (or sometimes overconfident), read their newly published piece or work in progress. And then there were the people in the audience: there just to hear something new, or support their friend, or have a place to be that was interesting. It seemed such an important part of New York. There was space to listen, space to be quiet. There was space to be around literature, and room to breathe. And there were so many book events that you could hear just about anything on a given night.

So I wanted to give that to Hartford, to make that space. I had no idea what or who would fill it in, and I was surprised by the answers. I wish I had more time to work on it, or that I could make it even bigger and better than it is. But for now it is a small and beautiful thing in a small and beautiful coffeehouse. I'm glad it's there, and I hope that it gives someone else the ten minutes they need to take a breath, and read their hard-worked paragraph out loud.



Book delights

People who've had a bottle of wine with me in the last year may be familiar with the following scenario: I put my head in my hands and moan "I don't want to live in a world where books don't exist. I just don't." The conversation frequently turns to the future of the book-as-fetish-object for weirdos like me, which I suppose is better than no books at all, but still is less than ideal. However, I will say that the book-as-fetish-object defense has brought about some beautiful things into this world. People send me links and pictures, probably to cheer me up from my apocalyptic nightmare visions. I think it's time to share them with you all and dance triumphantly in our still-intact heavenly, bookish world.

1. Caroline Hadilaksono and her Harry Potter travel advertisements.


2. The Scottish Library Phantom. A person snuck into various libraries and museums and placed tiny art objects made of books in places where people would find them. My favorite part of this story is that the Scottish public voted to never find out the identity of the person. I love you, Scotland.

3. Guy Laramee, who carves landscapes into encyclopedia sets and other old hardcovers.

4. Moby-Dick in Pictures by Tin House Books. One of my favorite books, turned into pictures, turned into a book, turned into a video.


5. Out of Print Clothing. I bought the Moby Dick shirt a whole back at McNally Jackson's, and I'm saving it for a special occasion. If I hadn't spent all my money on actual books, I would only wear these clothes.

6. Cats! Puns! Book covers! I'm sort of embarrassed of how many people sent this to me.

7. My favorite thing ever published on McSweeney's.

8. Sherlock, the BBC adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels and stories. It's only six episodes long, but each one is ninety minutes, so basically the BBC just gave us the six best Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. I'm serious. It's on Netflix Instant now, so there's no reason you should not be watching this, unless you're reading. I know it's blasphemous to put something digital on this list, but honestly, I love it so much.

9. Would you like a Zora Neal Hurston finger puppet? Who wouldn't? I assume everyone knows about the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild by now, but that's probably because I spend enough time on their website for the whole human race.

10. Just go into Etsy and type in "books," "literary," or "literature." It gives me great hope. (This is a Shakespeare pendant.)

I think we're going to be fine, everybody. Turns out everybody loves books after all.

A long and dizzy silence

Around noon today I became quite dizzy. It could have been several things, I thought: the late Friday night, the cruel workout I'd put myself through the previous afternoon, the sugariness of the grapefruit blackberry pear juice I'd just drank, the coffee I'd washed it down with-- but the dizziness persisted. Now it's nine-thirty at night and I still haven't quite shaken it. My concerns grew larger as the time went by. My sister gets terrible vertigo, and I worried that I had it, too. Eventually I started to worry that it would just never go away. Though I knew I was probably just tired or have a slight ear infection or something, I found myself unsure of what to do with myself for the day. I'd had big plans (as always).

Being dizzy is a strange little symptom. It's hard to admit that there's really anything wrong, as you are yourself, but just off-kilter. By that definition I have been mentally dizzy for years now, asking myself silly adolescent questions like "If I'm not being the person I wanted to be, am I still me?" Sometimes I look at pictures of myself and am shocked by how much I do not look like my mental self-image.  Sometimes I reflect on my own behavior and don't recognize myself. And sometimes I say the words "I live in Connecticut" and feel very distant from this little story I've quietly held onto in my heart for years.

In order to fend off mental dizziness, I've taken goal-setting to ridiculous lengths. Today I had nothing planned, but my "day off" was to include rigorous writing, calisthenics, closet-cleaning, to-do-list checking, email-answering, complex cooking, and peppy socializing. I do not easily admit defeat, but I just could not do any of these tasks. I wandered the apartment for a little while, halfheartedly sharpening some knives with a new sharpener I just bought. (Probably not a great idea to do while dizzy, in retrospect.) Around two I gave up on the entire day and decided to just read.

I have a stack of ten books that I'm one-third to halfway through. They are (in order of when I started them):

The Life and Death of Great American Cities, nonfiction book about urban planning and what cities are all about. Read 126 of 448 pages back in August. Completely amazing book but too meaty to sit down with for hours, so I petered out.

The Book of Ebeneezer La Page, a novel about a man's life on Guernsey, which, after reading 80 pages, was already obviously amazing. I have no idea why I stopped reading it.

Midnight's Children, modern Indian fiction my Salman Rushdie. Started for a book club and never finished it; really dense with details, and you can't just snatch up a couple paragraphs in 20 minutes-- it takes a real time commitment to know what's going on. Read 194 pages, entirely on trains back and forth to New York.

The Lost Sailors, translated French novel about sailors stuck in Marseilles. Started it on the plane ride home from Greece. My Athens - Istanbul ticket was still tucked in page 71, and the two main characters are Turkish and Greek, which I thought was neat.

Dinner with Persephone, a traveloge about a year in Greece. Started when I got back.

A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece, Greek poems, essays, etc, which I was not reading in a linear fashion.

A Dance with Dragons It was such a pleasure reading these George R. R. Martin books that I got really sad that it would be over, so I intentionally stopped reading it for a while, in order to savor. I'm 463 pages in out of 959.

Steve Jobs I got totally derailed by this book over Christmas break-- read 277 pages (total 571) of my brother's copy. This is an excellent read and I just ordered myself my own copy.

Mockingjay After seeing the trailer for The Hunger Games, I got really excited and re-read all three books, stopping about 100 pages before the end of the third because I felt guilty for re-reading when I should be dealing with the rest of the pile.

The Chairs are Where the People Go Reading this for another sort of book club with a couple of friends. Transcribed monologues about self-help, modern philosophy, and (surprise to me!) improv. I just started it yesterday and I'd read about 40 pages so far.

So that's about as clear a picture of my reading life as you're every going to get: three novels (none of them American), one biography, one travelogue, one book of poems and criticism, one book of essays, one treatise on urban planning, one young adult dystopian novel, and one book in a series about dragons. All about halfway done.

My dizzy brain and I gathered all of these books together and arranged them in a stack. I crawled onto the couch and started reading.

My brain goes into a special place when I read. As a child I trained myself to read in the car without feeling carsick-- it took a lot of work but turned out to be an amazing boon for all of the traveling I've done. Nothing makes me feel as calm and steady as reading a book. Every hour or so I'd get up and think "yup, still dizzy" and then return to the bookmark.

Today I read all day and finished Mockingjay, The Chairs are Where the People Go, and the Lost Sailors. By my estimation I have 2,400 more pages to read in this stack. When I'm done, there will be only two kinds of books in my house: read or not read. No more fits and starts. No more simultaneously being a person who reads, and a person who doesn't finish what she's reading. I will steady myself on these books. It was a very quiet day: no movies, no music, very few interactions with other human beings. Mainly just reading.

I'm already beginning to feel better.

The Pull-Up

For someone with almost no resolve, I have an astounding amount of resolutions. Have more moments like this:

Read more, write every day, exercise every day, stop spending money like an idiot, stop eating garbage, stop gossiping, make big strides in my writing career, be neater, be more punctual, be a better friend, think better, learn stuff, try new things, be kind, be generous, be a better citizen, be happy with what I have, be calm, finish what I start.

These aren't New Year's resolutions. These are little orders I fire off to myself at five in the morning when I can't sleep; these are the things I think about when I'm doing one productive thing and can think of a hundred others I should be doing instead; these are the things that make me realize I am deeply, truly American, and addicted to the culture of self-improvement.

When New Year's day comes around, I wallow in resolutions. I weigh them, I consider them, I roll them around in my brain for days. Well, it's January 7th, and that's almost 2% of the year gone already. It's time to go public with my resolution.

I'm going to do a pull-up. And not by December 31st. As soon as possible.

That's it. It's my simplest resolution ever, and very common. It's really just one small, very attainable goal, and to many people, pathetic. There are probably fifty thousand blog posts about this very thing. But you know what? I don't really care.

The crux: it bothers me when people say things like, "I'm not creative," or "I'm not smart." And all my life I've said "I'm not athletic," despite having perfectly fine faculties, having two half marathons under my belt, and having taken goddamned gym class every weekday until I was eighteen years old. The only thing standing between me and athleticism is a pull-up, symbolic of all the things I can't do and have never done.

So we'll see how long it takes me to do something I thought I could never do, until the day I resolved I would. Bets?

A Year in Full Sentences (from 2010)

Hello, everyone. I'm currently working on a post that meditates on all of 2011, but it's clear that I'm not going to finish tonight. For your New Year's pleasure I am happy to copy my writing from last year (which ran only as a facebook note). It feels so long ago.


A Year in Full Sentences



Two thousand and eleven has already been an aggressive and unpredictable year- snow has decimated all semblance of a normal schedule and I, finally having chewed through the lingering projects that only a series of snow days ever gets finished, have decided to revisit 2010 and see what I can l learn from it. Thankfully the time of resolutions and reflections is long past so I can break away from the pack and, in my procrastinative glory, really make meaning of 2010 during this reflective month of January.


You may see yourself in these paragraphs. These are just notes to myself pulling together the year, meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously. It is very long.  Enjoy if you wish. If not, happy February!



On New Year’s Eve of 2009 I was working one of my last shifts as a waitress. After midnight I sat on the red velvet couches and heard about everyone else’s good time, and then took off to an pub and saluted the night with friends and strangers. I don’t remember what I thought as I went to sleep that night.


In January I sat on a not very warm beach in Miami with my parents and my sister and talked about missing my brother, who was in China. We put our feet in the water even though it was cold for Florida. Upon returning home I was awarded “most crossed-trained” and thought, I really have to focus.  A few days later, after working fourteen hours to serve patrons on their way to a Kenny Chesney concert (one five-minute break to eat celery sticks), I saw Mt. Rainier at sunset on a clear day from above and wrote a page in a brand-new notebook about it.  I looked for eagles outside of Vancouver, unsuccessfully, I gorged on bookshops and coffeeshops and friendship in Seattle, I finished my Christmas cards in Portland. I drove the coast of Route 1 stopping only at townie dives and I walked through the redwoods when my audio Dostoyevsky got boring. A dog took me on a tour. By this time I was in California and was thawing out from Connecticut. In Los Angeles everybody had a project and some coincidental way I knew someone else, and in the desert people swung their golf clubs in a way that showed they hadn’t been retired too long.


I crossed back into February, real, Connecticut February, airborne by the little magic stories of episodic travel and thrust by the promise of a brand-new attempt at a Real Job painting fake picket fences and reading three competing biographies at once.   On lunch breaks I wore official NPR headphones for the first time, and on Sundays I stood around in a black box trying to learn to be funny.  My valentine was a crowd of people in a comedy club, and I bossed them around and found I was a relatively good host if the party was not in my house.  I heard the words of Huckleberry Finn between washboard melodies and I told a girl she should leave her fiancé between her damning stories.


In March I went again to the radio to declare that I was awful and stupid at something, namely basketball, and someone else declared that I should have a fellowship to write (sometimes about being awful at things).    I heard other people’s sad and half-done memoirs. I heard a writer talk about women prisoners in a way that reminded me that I was free. I saw a play written by high schoolers about not getting along and then later getting along.  I crossed a junkyard to get to a performance space, and afterwards I dragged a children’s easel into a truck, and the easel would later bring us stardom. A friend did a literary reading at a bar called Happy Ending and I hoped that this wasn’t the ending of a lot of things. Sea Tea, my improv group, was part of a Radio Adventure and I had a feeling I was making some new friends.  I did a Rubik’s cube in a basement while waiting for ghosts to be hunted.  Few ghosts were found and I did only two sides of the cube.  March is hard.


April, though, is foolish the whole month: two men might have a territory dispute over impersonating a dead literary figure. You might make music with old friends whose pregnancies make them even more sexual than when they were twenty and drinking tequila and telling you who you could be. You might, of course, see an opera of Tom Sawyer and your workplace embodied in a very expensive cake. You might enjoy a séance more because you know it’s not real. You might meet a writer whose work you like but whose disdainful style is definitely real, based on her personality.  You might accidentally bid on a fancy vacation while standing up to go to the bathroom, or you might force seventh graders to read poetry to their peers, or you might write notes on a play about drug wars, or you might laugh at any little thing because things are really going well.


For me the whole year got really grand on May 1st, when, at a Derby Party where I should have worn a hat, I was recognized as a performer and my father chose the winning horse.  I said the wrong thing at a baby shower but the other women laughed in a nice way.  It rained on a lunch where new ideas were forming, and many of my friends fell out of love.  We put puppets into our act and called our mothers. I hiked a little mountain in a historical way.  My sister wore a purple sundress, and a nice boy with a broken wrist, to her graduation and then we all went swimming and Thoreau-quoting in Walden pond together.  My cousin married a girl with an eye for a beautiful dress, and afterwards we examined an ice luge in the shape of Abraham Lincoln and said “Have a great time in Nepal! Thanks for the cake server!”  Mostly, though, I spent May stalking a family of feral kittens. I sat under a bush until finally I was the mother of two of those kittens, and a failure to the other three.


In June I turned twenty-seven, but not until the end. First I learned that I can’t wear high heels to a work event in a Tiffany’s because my feet will get tired and I will put my fingerprints all over the glass, for balance. Then I figured out that Porgy and Bess is something I should have seen some time ago, and that absinthe is too disgusting to pretend to like, and that pirates will dutifully stand around in the rain waiting for some children to entertain.  I started running with no direction—literally, I entered races without knowing the routes—and I dashed to a drag show and a party in Vermont the same day. I knew that maybe I was starting to go too fast when I went to a campsite two hours away from the one I was supposed to be at, but I couldn’t stop the speed of 2010 now—not with Cirque du Soleil coming, not with a barbershop quartet waiting to teach me a little snippet of song, not with a show in Rhode Island with professional improvisers to impress.   And then it was my birthday, which was a Monday, and which is mysteriously blank in my records. It was probably the beginning of something, since it was a Monday.


And then it was July, hot from jealousy of wanting to be in that improvised 80’s teen movie, and from legends of a circus fire, and from a sunburn on a long day of kayaking. I researched Steampunk and wore a hairy moustache under a rainbow because in the summer you can get away with that kind of thing.  I stood in a park that really needed to be cleaned up and wished I had time to do it myself, if only I could bring myself out of the shade.  I was introduced to a real live Civil War gun.  Greg and I took the Vespa to a party in Southern Connecticut and though it wasn’t quite hot enough I went swimming many times. The only videotape of me in July 2010 includes me in the background of a marriage proposal.  I moved, briefly, into a house with two dogs who fetched Frisbees from behind weedy fountains.  I drank about a thousand ginger ales and watered the dogs as if they were flowers.


August fell into what August always falls into, a sleepy hope for fall to arrive, and I lolled about my grandparents’ home as I have done each August since I was born, thinking, “I should really take the canoe out today.”  I saw a production of Macbeth where Banquo breakdanced and MacDuff’s baby was drop-kicked, and I thought man, this is a good use of summer. I got into an argument by the State House, and screwed up at an academic conference and was feeling generally terrible about things, and then suddenly, Greg’s grandmother died and we were in Arizona.  We took a trolley up a cactus mountain in the morning and by evening we were in the Buddhist Community Center picking up on the chant and I met aunts and uncles and neighbors and strangers and someone who picked up the sandwiches. I ate pie on the top of another cactus-y mountain and saw, from above, adventurers summiting after terrifying rock climbs. On the way home we flew through a long lightning storm, an argument between small, tough clouds, and it was, without question, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.


In September we got down to brass tacks. Dreaming was over. My improv group taught people how to toast better and I taught myself to go away for a weekend and really, really write. I forced myself to register for a half-marathon and said goodbye to a friend who moved to Israel, for a length of time that seems like forever. A clown had a heart attack and I was the backup plan; more kittens were born and this time I grabbed them with my bare hands after one day of stalking.  I assigned times to nearly everything I had to do.


And oh, oh, October. My favorite month. Everything happened.  I got to meet all twenty brewers and all twenty restaurateurs who gave their things to me for a love of Twain.  I performed the next day for a crowd there to see a forum on civility; later I saw a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and civilly laughed in all the places I was  supposed to laugh. I went on a hayride to pick a pumpkin. I spun spooky stories into improvised short plays, and I was a nun and an alien. I ran nine miles one day and then fourteen miles another day and then 13.1 miles with many other people, and came in right behind a man with one leg, under my goal time, and then went to work to help a man set up marionettes.  I saw Greg as Huckleberry Finn and was proud.  It was my job to dress as a Steampunk for tea, to skype in a zombie expert, and to hang up decorations for another basement production of Macbeth.  And then I painted my face with eyeshadow and went as Smurfette for Halloween. My grandfather turned ninety.


November feels so recent, with its disappointments—a grant we wrote that we did not get, a gala that Val Kilmer did not come to but instead sent in a videotape. We came in second for Hartford’s Best New Business and took the loss with tremendous sadness. Greg and I visited one heartbroken friend in New York and helped another one move into a new place for a new start. We dressed as 70’s stars and ate fondue. I went to my old apartment in New York and put my old furniture in the car and cried because, though I hadn’t admitted it, that part of my life had long been over. I took the furniture back to Connecticut and missed the probably now dead feral cats, whose names were my passwords on various online accounts, a weird and secret access code to my old neighborhood and my old self.  But Thanksgiving came, of course, and I was thankful for the long run in the morning on the first truly cold day of the year, and thankful for my brother being home, and thankful that a few days later the first little snow fell right before I saw La Boheme on a nearly bare stage and played with a baby in a refurbished schoolhouse.


December did not feel like any sort of end. We moved into a new apartment with my old table and chairs from the Bronx and our new kittens from the drainpipe.  We had a party on the Mississippi for Mark Twain, and I read aloud as Eve while my boss transcribed her words for a new play. My father dragged in a lopsided Christmas tree that he’d cut down when visiting his sister in Maine and we put a string of lights and four ornaments and fresh flowers on it.   Everyone came over.  And everyone came over to Twain’s House, too, and everyone came to celebrate my great-uncle’s eightieth birthday to hear him tell about all the relatives he wished were still at the table.  Greg and I went to Boston and put on a play, a real play on a real stage, and then we walked the Freedom Trail and ate cannolis because we had been doing things like that for eight years, and we were celebrating. We went ice skating in the town we love and we saw my favorite movie in the most beautiful theater, and I cried because I didn’t know what the world would ever be like without me but I did know that this life seemed worth it.  And I went to see a friend’s designs hanging on a clothesline in an unfinished building that I had once hoped I would fill with my unfinished projects, but it was better to see his instead. And I began to warm up my voice for a new play. And we made the Science Center laugh. And we made the Funny Bone laugh. And I bought a puzzle that, after the new year, we would work on as if it were our job to do something that silly.


And I went to New Jersey, and I saw my mother at the door, and we went to church and I hugged someone I never thought I would hug again. And my sister was already gone for the next stage of her life. And my brother had returned and did not quite know what to do. And we went to Cape Cod, and exchanged gifts, and when it began to snow we walked long and hard and silent through the holly forest because it had been a difficult year. And when the snow kept on coming, we went out to get beer and lottery tickets. And the next day I drove home, west against the snowy glare of the road, and really and truly nearly died. And I made it. And many, many of my friends came to visit. And on New Year’s Eve, Greg kissed me long before midnight, when my mittens were still on.  It was the same pub as last year, and the same people, and this time I didn’t feel like I had missed anything. And when the bar was finally crowded, and people were thinking that maybe next year they might do some new things, and I knew that nearly every single thing I’d done was new, and that I would fall asleep tonight just across the street, we raised up our little plastic cups and we toasted to 2011 and drank and hugged and went outside for a quick breath of fresh air. Then we came back inside.

Our name is Mud

My brother, Alex, played soccer for years and then did cross-country and basketball. In his free time he plays volleyball, goes rock climbing, and is training to run in Vibrams. My sister, Emily, held the pull-up record for third grade girls at Washington School for many years (I believe at that time she could do twelve). She was a gymnast, and went on to play ice hockey, soccer, and truly excellent Frisbee.

My cousin, Jessica, was a black belt in Kung Fu at a young age, and has played rugby (again, excellently) for the last five years.

Her sister, my cousin Jordan, was a star cross country runner in high school. She's about to turn twenty-one and is also playing Frisbee these days.

Our summers were centered on swimming, badminton, ping pong, basketball, and jogging. We just went kayaking together last month. On Thanksgiving morning, we (and our parents) ran a 5k together after breakfast.

Loping around the fringes of this family pack is, of course, me. I've never done a pull-up. I've never been in tip-top shape. My gym teacher used to look into my eyes and say, "Ok, Julia, just don't hit the volleyball out of bounds when you serve it. You can do it." And then put his face in his hands five seconds later.

It's not that I didn't love my body and the outdoors, I just found the least-mobile possible ways of enjoying them. I rode horses and went on walks. I paddled a canoe at about .1 miles per hour on a lake. I was a terrible ballerina and a worse tap-dancer; my tennis was the shame of Summit. I swim with confidence but without clean strokes. My archery could have killed someone, my high jump resembled a troll crashing into a toothpick, and my bat was a virgin when it comes to touching baseballs. New Jersey public schools mandate that their students take gym class three times a week in elementary school and every day from sixth grade through graduation, so I can say with certainty that I once sucked at sprinting, running the mile, basketball, volleyball, pickleball, archery, handball, tag, sit ups, pull ups, push ups, gymnastics, Tae-Bo, weight lifting, baseball, frisbee, and flag football. I know the sound of the heavy sigh of a disappointed teammate better than nearly any sound in the world.

Actually, this was wonderful for me. The daily failure did more for my character than the rest of my moderate successes combined. I recall being not-horrible at badminton, and feeling the glorious thrill of sheer survival. For my lack of time faking illness to get on the bleachers, my gym teachers rewarded me with arbitrary B's throughout my high school career. Since then I've miserably put on sneakers and trudged around once in a while.

And then, last year, at age 27, I started running in earnest. I started signing up for 5ks on a whim. Last year I did the Hartford half-marathon (only because I promised myself I would, and signed up months in advance, the optimist that I am). When race day approached I was undertrained and terrified, but more than that, really angry with myself, so I got up early, drank two cups of coffee, and did it. It was one of the best feelings of my life. I did another one this year, as well as a bunch of other short races. I'm loving running now because a runner always has some kind of goal to beat: farthest distance, fastest time, best hills, best course, best feeling throughout. There are so many ways for an achievement-addict like myself to improve.

So Alex, Emily, Jessica, Jordan and I just signed up for the Tough Mudder in Vermont. It was my idea.

If you don't know, it's a 10-12 mile race and obstacle course designe by the British special forces. Some of the least terrifying obstacles include: sprinting up a steep ski trail, jumping off a 15-foot wall into freezing water, crawling under barbed wire in the mud, doing monkey bars that are greased in butter, and crawling through a dark touch tunnel with strangers. And those are the ones I'm excited about. Look at the rest.

But here's the best part: you can sign up as a team. So we are going in our pack of five. We'll haul each other over walls and jump into jacuzzis of suspicious liquids together. Our mothers' maiden name is George, so we're thinking of calling ourselves "Furious George."

I am the weak link. I have the furthest to go. I have so much to prove to myself, but I'm thrilled to get going on my training. We have six months, and I can honestly say I haven't been this excited about an event of any kind in years.

Tough Mudder: get ready to get murdered by Furious George.

Oh, shoot

Sorry, everyone. I disappeared. I last posted on September 2nd. I'm not dead. I'm not depressed. I have lots of excuses, all of them true. I was improvising to raise money for AIDS research.

I was in Boston meeting one of the major founders of improvisational theater in America.

I was running a half marathon along a beach.

I was organizing an Oktoberfest at which I expected 250 people-- and 350 showed up.

I was running an art exhibit opening at which I expected 40 people-- and 350 showed up.

I was on TV (against my will) three times.

I was backpacking across Greece with Greg. (More on that soon.)

I was working on a super-top-secret-nerd project that I hope to tell you about imminently. For this project I've already read five books.

I launched a reading series.

I hung out with John Grisham for two days.

I got a pumpkin before the shortage hit and before the crazy snowstorm blew in.

I designed a Moby Dick costume to wear to a Halloween wedding.

... none of that is an excuse for not writing, but it's something. Right? Right?


So much more, coming soon.

-- Julia



The Annual Manual

Small piece of news here: the Hartford Advocate asked me to write five suggested walks around Hartford. So I did. It's in print, too, which is even more thrilling. - Julia


This morning I am waiting for a hurricane. I've been checking the New York Times hurricane tracker and a few weather websites, and I should easily have a few hours before we lose power, if we lose it at all. Waiting here in the darkness of an early storm morning is like opening the blinds on memories long dormant. The hurricane is blowing them around, too. I have not lived through many natural disasters; in fact, I have lived through nothing I could call a "disaster" at all. I've never been in a car accident, never had surgery, never had major property to get damaged. Most times I have that disaster-feeling, I can quickly recast it as an adventure, like a time my sister and I missed a once-a-week-only train to Mongolia, or when I was caught on the back of a bolting horse without a helment, or another where a friend lost her passport days before going to meet her birth family in Korea, or when I was absolutely and completely convinced that my small Thai ferry was going to sink. Those were, of course, not true disasters, but there is no discounting that awful feeling when you realize what exactly has happened. In my case, usually with a crowd of Chinese men shaking their heads at you in disdain.

Our ability to get through a disaster lies in how deeply we are convinced that everything will be fine soon. I was ten years old when that horse bolted underneath me, and in my abject fear I knew that there was no way I was fucking falling off that thing. I knew how to ride, I knew that horse had bad, skittish news all over its face before I even got on it; I knew that any stable that would put a bunch of girl scouts on horseback, un-helmeted on a paved trail, was not to be trusted. I knew from falling off gentler horses in softer paddocks that falling off hurt, and would hurt ten times more now. But above all, I knew from hundeds and hundreds of horse books that horses don't have any nerve endings in their manes, so I dropped the reins, wove my tiny fingers into the coarse hair of that miserable animal, leaned forward as if to become an un-buckable growth on the horse's neck, and held on. My position indicated to the horse that I wanted to go as fast as possible, but I decided I would rather be going unbelievably fast on a horse I hated than stock-still crumpled on the ground. We flew through the forest, that horse and me, uncatchable. We were one huge, dangerous mass of terror. I rode into the stable a few miles later, sat up, untangled my fingers, and dismounted properly. It seemed very important to get off correctly, to maintain complete control, and not to cry. I went to my regular riding lessons a few days later. I had made myself know that it would be alright and so it was.

Sometimes, though, no matter how many horse books you've read, there is simply nothing you can do except retreat into your mind and wait. My friend Abby and I had decided to take a ferry from mainland Thailand to Ko Toa to swim and play around on mopeds. It was an overnight ferry, during which we were supposed to sleep on the floor with approximately 200 Thai people and 4 other backpackers, but as I lay there I remembered that we had actually known someone on a boat just like this whose boat had sank in the middle of the night. He had survived by swimming like hell, but others had drowned, including the friend he was with. When our boat began to rock hard, I stuffed my passport in my underwear, reviewed my swimming strokes in my head, and gripped Abby's hand. Nothing happened except in my imagination, but that was terrible enough for me to remember it always.

When Hurricane Bob hit, I was eight and spending the summer at my grandparents' home in Cape Cod. Their house had one side entirely lined with sliding glass doors and my family sat in the living room and watched the light pine trees come down. The trees were very tall and wispy and had no hope of making it through the storm unscathed. I loved watching them topple, and after the storm my parents let me play in this new wonderland. I promptly got stung by some wasps whose nest had been destroyed, and recused a chocolate lab who was wandering around far from his home on the other side of the lake. It was one of the most exciting summers of my life.

I loved digging cars out of the blizzard of '96, and I loved watching a lightning storm roll over the Hudson River when Greg and I were staying overnight in a lighthouse. Because weather has never brought me harm, I also love losing power. My parents were always very calm about it; we usually just sat in the living room and read books by candlelight.

But for one month of my life I had no power at all. I was living in Ghana. I had walked into the study abroad offices of Skidmore College and said, "I want to be challenged." They handed me a booklet of offerings from the School for International Training. A few months later, I was in Ghana, studying arts and culture. In practice that meant I wandered around markets, learned to say "I like orange Fanta" in Twi, danced every day, and lived in the homes of four different families. It was the greatest half-year of my life and there and I have far too many stories to put in this post.

Ghana loses power all the time, and for no apparent reason. This condition is referred to as "No lights," and Ghanaians are so accustomed to it that it is often barely noticeable. Having lunch and you'd like a cold soda? Sorry, no lights. Have it warm. Finally dragged yourself to an internet cafe to check your college email for the first time in a month? No lights: return tomorrow. Reading in bed? No lights! Switch to a flashlight.

For the final month of our program (I was with twenty-one other college students), we had to choose a final project and strike out on our own for a full four weeks. All we had to do was call our leader, Yemi, in Accra once a week to check in. One boy decided to shadow a garbage collector for the month. Another girl decided to apprentice a bead-maker who used recycled bottles. Yet another played in a drumming circle.

My friend Jessica and I decided to move to a remote village on the border of Togo and study dance and elementary education, respectively. Krache-Nkwanta had no electricity or running water. No lights. Ever. We could not wait to go.

When I say it was remote, here's what I mean: one van would pass through the town at an undetermined time. Once a week, Jess and I would sit by the side of the road eating oranges all day until it came. We would flag it down. The van drove three hours. We would get out in the nearest town with power. We would make a phone call at a pay phone. "Yemi," one of us would say, "we're alive." "How are your projects?" "They're fine." "Need anything?" "Nope." "Enjoy your life!" Then we'd hang up, get a cold soda, and get immediately back on the parked van and wait (sometimes hours) for it to drive back in the direction of our compound. Once a week, that was our entire day.

No lights did not feel difficult. It felt slow, and sometimes hot, but more than anything it felt simply like living in a long summer. During the day we would wander around talking to people in the town, or rode bikes up and down the road, or sat in school listening to the kids learn about the planets. (Because of No Lights, the setup was basic: kids, teacher, desks, chalkboard, books.)

At night, though, the darkness would come in stern and strict. There was one good lantern on the compound and we would leave it with the kids, who stayed up late huddled around it reading aloud to each other. We had flashlights if, heaven forbid, we had to get up and use the Spider Bathroom (an outhouse a few hundred feet away that had all four walls absolutely covered in spiders, I swear right here on my life), but since the only thing worse than using Spider Bathroom was using Spider Bathroom with endless pitch black darkness around you, I tried to avoid it.

Every night I zipped myself into my mosquito net and lay on the ground, staring into the dark. It was maybe eight o'clock, but really I had no idea. Jess and I would sometimes talk but we had settled into a long stretch of quiet that lasted most of the month. I could hear the kids outside reading to each other from a book I brought them about American Indians. Once in a while there was some kind of animal sound and I felt afraid. Before I went to sleep, I would try to find all the little biting ants that had made it into my mosquito net and smash them one by one in the dark. But mostly, Jess and I would lie there and think or talk about ourselves, what we've left and where we'd come from and who we loved and how this experience would change our lives. We wanted our lives changed. That's why we were there. It was the smallest and largest thing I have ever sought out.

We took the van out to the pay phone four times, and the third time, there were no lights in the town. We had a warm bottle of coke together instead. The next week, there were still no lights-- the greater area had been without power for over a week and we hadn't even known. A few days later, our project ended and we took a bus back to Accra. On our way home the bus caught on fire-- a story for another day. I survived. We made it back to Accra. We wrote our final term papers in an internet cafe whose power kept going off, so we kept having to start over. No lights, no lights, no lights, no lights.

All of that seems a very long time ago. When I returned from Ghana I bought my first cell phone and moved into my first apartment. Greg saved my handwritten letters on their airmail paper and they are somewhere in this apartment, unlikely to be blown around by this hurricane. Even if the power goes out I will feel safe. Jessica got married on Martha's Vineyard last night, no doubt scoffing at the weather.

My mosquito net is much bigger now. It is this whole apartment, this whole building, this whole city, this whole country. It is all designed to keep me safe and comfortable. I feel-- sitting here with my coffee, my books, my pets, my refrigerator full of beer and ice cream, my computer, my two couches, my six lamps-- incredibly, shamefully rich. I feel very far from and very close to the girl who lay in the dark. The girl who loved no lights. I wish I could tell myself that everything was ending there: that when I came back I would get a cell phone, and facebook would have just come out, and I would get an internship at a publishing company, and my life would be changed. Just as I wanted.

Disasters will happen. They will happen to me, and despite me. Sitting in my apartment with no lights will not count. Things will get worse. But I hope that, when the time comes, I can find a horse's mane and hang on.

Where I've Been

This month contains multitudes. On the first day Greg and I dashed under an umbrella to have gin, tonic, and Thai food with a sculptor. On the second I giggled my way through a script full of typeo-s and confusions that I myself had inserted. On the third I sat with my feet up on a seat and watched eleven-year-olds get swallowed by murderous plants. On the fourth, a friend from college came by, and we had free cupcakes and watermelon beer before dashing off to do improv in the dark, and be pulled into drum circles, and say "spicy cukerita" over and over, and generally stay out too late.

On the fifth, my voice began to hit national radio. Strangers heard it first. Little bursts of excitement came in over email and twitter to say little burst-y things. But at the Mark Twain House, things were not easy. We looked each other in the eyes. We waited things out. We went down to New Britain and performed the writer's works as if he were the person we were trying to make laugh.

On the sixth I rose at six and put on running shoes. I sat on the couch and waited to hear myself. The person being interviewed before me was also from my hometown, and I thought of Summit and the girls I used to know there. I sat and listened until the girl I was a few months ago came on the air and said some things about lunch. When it was over I turned off the radio and ran over a bridge. I ran through the rest of the day: lunch and a tour of an old curtain factory, laundry and coffee and another show, this one raucous with the joy of doing it a second time, and then a late night drive to Cape Cod.

On Sunday morning, the seventh, my grandmother, my grandfather, my parents, my siblings, my aunt, and my cousins sat on the couch and waited for my voice. My grandmother had arranged the living room for the occasion. The station was fundraising, though, and they cut me to make room for Ira Glass. The certainty that they'd cut me settled into the room quiet and deep. We looked around at each other and decided to go swimming in the rain instead, despite the muskrats and swans in the pond water.

I read a book about rock stars, a book about pen names, a book about fundraising. I thought about what it meant to have a public identity, even a small, three-minute-radio, one-hundred-readers-blog. Because of Carmela Ciuraru's book, I thought about being a woman writer, or a shy writer, or an insanely prolific writer.

By then I was on vacation, saved from the temptation of googling myself and my newfound radio voice. Days eight, nine, ten, eleven: blueberry pie, baby turkeys, dirt-road jogs, rainy day antiques, kerosene lamps, sunflowers, fried clams at a defunct girls' summer camp, nights too cloudy for stars. My dad and his sister told stories. My mom took photos of every little thing. It was the usual.

We landed in Portland, out of the woods, on Thursday night. Greg wandered off a train looking sleepy, and then we went for a swim at sunset as a three-or-four-sail-sailboat went out. That night we laughed a lot. The next morning I swam again and was happy that it was becoming a little vacation habit. My friends showed up and my real world crept back in-- staying up late and making fun of each other. The margaritas were awful. The new morning swim was idillic. The bad sunburn was only awful for an hour or so, and then we got on a boat and looked at islands and I felt better. When we got our chance, that night, we used the whole stage.

It was only as we drove back that I realized the weather had been beautiful, and that all was well. I am sorry to have made my grandmother hope to hear my voice for two hours, but I am not sorry that my real life occurs mostly in theaters with a real, human audience whose eyes I can look into and whose laughs I can register. And when my life isn't there it's usually with someone else who is making me laugh. And when it isn't there, it's usually buried completely, entirely, hopelessly, madly in a book.

Sometimes I think I am still the exact same person I was when I was twelve.




A book I love: The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. It's been a while since I've read it, because it's been a while since I've traveled (terrible excuse, as traveling is a mindset more than an action), but I just planned a short trip to Florida for a wedding and am reminded of this passage from the first chapter, "Anticipation":

"It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern with the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come-- how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere other than where we were. There is a purity both in the remembered and the anticipated visions of a place: in each instance it is the place itself that is allowed to stand out."

Right now, my long weekend in Florida in November is a perfect, glittering reprieve from my busy fall. I will crack the spine of a fresh book. I will swim. I will sleep late. I will spend time with old friends. Never mind that I will probably overpack and overspend, that I will feel guilty about not keeping in better touch, that I will consider what I am missing at home, that it might rain. Those are worries for when I get there.

For now, Florida is a perfect Florida. I have five months to polish that pearl of anticipation.

In the meantime, I recommend you read that book.

Another summer



Today I am remembering a summer when my friend Abby and I went hiking and scuba diving in Thailand (on vacation from teaching in China). Thinking only in pictures today.



As I was uploading these I suddenly remembered that this was January.