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Today’s Hit Music

I had a conversation with my child a couple of months ago that has resulted in some pretty significant life changes.

In response to yet another one of her groans regarding my singing in the car, I said, “Zoe, when I was your age, my mom sang to me in the car. So when you grow up, if you have a child, you can sing to him or her, and you’ll see just how much fun it is.”

My child replied, “Yeah, okay, but I won’t be able to sing the songs of my generation, because we always have to listen to your music.”

Touché.

She has a point. She’s probably the only 11-year-old in the state who knows all the words to every Tom Petty album. Even the B-sides. Even the Mudcrutch stuff. She’s familiar with Boston and Toto and REO Speedwagon. She can identify Van Halen in the first three notes. Countless times, she’s had to listen to her mother belt out Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and GnR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and I’m pretty sure she has a video on her phone of both her parents jamming to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the car. She likes Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, but they’re a far cry from the music her peers enjoy. Or so I’ve been told.

Okay, so this is an easy remedy, right? We’ll start listening to your music, kiddo. I didn’t know where to find it, because I am old, so I had to ask a young(er) colleague what stations play Today’s Hit Music. (Do they still call it that? I remember the DJs using that phrase when I was a kid. A hundred years ago.) The whippersnapper gave me a station list and I plugged them into the presets in my car, and was thankful that my car allows two separate tabs of presets. No way am I saving Today’s Hit Music over KSHE-95, Real Rock Radio.

I admit that I hated her music at first. How can people listen to this crap? This isn’t music! And then I realized that I was one step away from yelling, “Get off my lawn!” and tried to be more open-minded. Because I’m a cool mom. Really. Stop rolling your eyes.

So I listened. At first I was mostly pissed that I didn’t know the words. I really like to sing in the car. It feels weird to be quiet and just listen to music. Zoe, as you can imagine, relished it. Then I came to some realizations:

  • Still love Lady Gaga. I shall be a Monster forever.
  • Taylor Swift is whiny. Not a fan. Stop crabbing about your ex-boyfriends and people you think are mean to you. Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
  • Ed Sheeran is okay, but way over-played. Holy crap, DJs. There are other musicians with good music out there. Give ol’ Ed a break and maybe not play his stuff every other song. The guy has gotta be tired. He’s even taking a break from Twitter, he’s so tired. Or so I’ve heard.
  • The Chainsmokers are the bomb. Master collaborators. Especially “Something Just Like This” with Coldplay. Because Coldplay. (I do not hold that “conscious uncoupling” bullshit against Chris Martin. That was all Gwyneth and her Goopy crap.)
  • I dig Imagine Dragons. Yes, I know I’m late to this party. Whatever. I’m 43. I’m late to every fucking party now, if I even bother to make it at all. I’m tired, people.
  • Twenty One Pilots is (are?) my new most favorite thing in the whole wide world. Last year I watched my beloved Cincy cousins lost their shit over Twenty One Pilots, but they’re younger than me and clearly on time to the party. I should probably hang out with them more.
  • I would like to invite Flo Rida to “My House,” and hang out for awhile. I think we could be friends. I’m going to make him call me Miss Ouri. Ha. I bet he hasn’t heard that before. It will be fabulous.
  • Adoring “Body Like a Back Road” because it’s all about a curvy girl, and I think curvy girls should be celebrated in a world where starved stick figures are held up as model women. I happened to mention how much I like this song at book club, and my friend whipped out her phone and showed me a picture of Sam Hunt, which served only to enhance my listening pleasure. Hoooo, boy.
  • Cake by the Ocean.” I didn’t have a clue what it meant until I googled it. Okay, I still don’t really understand it, but it’s fun to sing and dance to.
  • I’ve admittedly been a fan of Katy Perry for some time now, and not just because I think she could wipe out T. Swizzle in a nanosecond in direct head-to-head combat, but I even like her new stuff. I watched her “Swish Swish” on SNL and grew obsessed with doing the Backpack Kid’s dance move. Zoe mastered it quickly, and I eventually got it down. It’s not pretty, but I can do it. I’ve also taught it to M, several coworkers, and a Panera HR person I met at PrideFest. It’s like I’ve found a new mission in life.
  • I have no freaking clue who Zedd and Alessia Cara are, but I like their “Stay.” Seriously, who are these people?
  • I’ve at least heard of Selena Gomez, but I’m in the dark on Kygo. Doesn’t stop me from belting out “It Ain’t Me.

Basically, thanks to my kid, I could now watch a music awards show (if I can manage to stay up late enough) and know something, which hasn’t happened for a few years. Okay, ten years. Okay, fifteen. Or I could at least enjoy the music awards show once total strangers open their mouths and start singing songs that I recognize now.

So now Zoe and I sing together in the car. I welcome Tom Petty back once she hops out at school or camp and we’re both happy, so long as Ed Sheeran doesn’t come on yet again.

*Editor’s Note: the image for this post is from the Tom Petty concert earlier this year. I may be a fan of Today’s Hit Music, but Petty is still – and always will be – number one in my heart.

Watch out. She’s writing again.

I finally, for the first time in well over a month, have time and space to write. It feels amazing. And yet, I sit here and struggle to think of some topic worthy of committing to paper. Or screen, rather.

I pulled out my laptop here at the coffee shop and, after wrapping up some membership business for St. Louis Writers Guild, decided I would actually write. I would think of erudite words and I would type them into pithy phrases sure to delight both me and my readers. If I have any readers left, that is. They’ve probably all gone off to greener pastures, tended by people who say they’re going to write and then actually do it.

There’s plenty that has happened lately, so I should have a variety of topics from which to choose. That plenty is what has, by and large, kept me from writing. It’s all so packed with emotion, though, and I don’t really feel like crying in the coffee shop. Again. Maybe I can summarize.

My mother went into the hospital, because when you keep screaming at the husband who has been caring for you for years and then throw a lamp at his head, you don’t get to stay at home any more. She is now at a facility that we don’t necessarily prefer, but is the only one that will take her given her behavior issues. Turns out lots of places don’t want to take someone who screams expletives at her aides and spits on them when they try to do such terrible things as feed and bathe her. She will never return home again. That part is hard. No, wait, all of it is hard, and all of it sucks.

I find myself in new territory: parenting a tween girl. This means that I am reviled 10% of the time, considered annoying at best 25% of the time, and clung to the remaining 65% of the time. Keep in mind these percentages shift from day to day, and there is no warning which defcon alert state is currently active. What buoys me is that her father seems to be in the same boat, so we’re paddling furiously in circles together, just trying to stay ahead of the riptide. We spend a lot of time looking at each other and shrugging. She spends a lot of time rolling her eyes and texting.

The news. It’s getting in my head and generally wreaking havoc. I find myself spending way too much time reading and watching the news, and then reading the massive amount of commentary by people who argue not with reason, logic and fact, but by lobbing ad hominem attacks, most of which are rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. Honest to God, I don’t know what bothers me more: the news itself, or America’s steady, inexorable decline away from the long-established norms of the English language. I realized that I needed to stop reading the unceasing breaking news headlines and start reading literature. So I charged up the Kindle and downloaded my book club book, which I couldn’t remember the topic of until I started reading and then remembered: freaking Nazis. Fascism is apparently quite prevalent these days. How charming.

M has launched into another one of his charming “I’m gonna travel to all the places” periods. He’s been gone over a week now, and will be gone on and off for the next, oh, month to month and a half. He’s visiting places like London, Dubai, Taiwan, Beijing, Shanghai, San Jose and other places I don’t know because he hasn’t updated the family calendar beyond blocking weeks at a time with “M on Business Travel” yet. Keep in mind that I think it’s hilarious that he’s going all over the world…and to San Jose. Yes, he knows the way. He leaves Shanghai and flies east. I think. Sometimes he flies over the North Pole, but that’s when he’s coming into the Midwest. Not sure if it’s a more direct route to the west coast.

Our email server blew up at work last week and the short story is that I went about 48 blessed hours over the weekend with no email at all, and have not had work email on my iPhone since. Then today I discovered that by granting my employer permission to tighten the electronic leash with installing email on my personal phone, I also gave them the rights to do whatever they damn well please on my personal phone. This was discovered after they inadvertently took both Safari and my camera app off my phone, without me knowing about it and most definitely without my permission. I won’t get into the details of my discovery of the missing apps, melt down, frantic Google search to figure out what the hell was going on, and rant at the tech guys, although looking back it was probably fun to watch. One of the tech guys said, with a sly smile, “Oh yeah, we could totally brick your phone if we wanted,” which may or may not have sent shivers down my spine. *cough*stalkers*cough* So I’m seriously considering scrapping work email on my personal phone altogether, both because the mental space it has freed up has been most welcoming and because I don’t need IT all up in my personal iPhone business. I google some crazy stuff sometimes, because I’m a writer, yo. Freaked me right the hell out. No, thanks.

I got a call from Zoe’s school a couple weeks ago. Or rather, from a parent at Zoe’s school. It started like this, “Hi, Amy? Yes, this is ____ from Zoe’s school. SHE’S FINE.” And then the woman explained she’s with the parent association and we laughed about how when someone from the school calls a parent it’s best to lead with the fact that your child isn’t hurt/in danger/flunking out. She then went on to ask me if I would serve as the volunteer vice chair of Zoe’s class next year, which would make me the chair of her class the following year. She told me that my name had been proposed during a nominating committee meeting and that I had been enthusiastically endorsed and then I asked what kind of drug they were all smoking because can I have some please. I also wondered if they had just gone down the parent list alphabetically and finally got to the last name and hoped I’d be the sucker to say yes. And, of course, I’m exactly that sucker. So next year I have to help put together some weekly news, which mostly involves looking at what happened this week last year and then changing the dates, and also help set up some coffees and finding hosts for a parent party or two. I’m sure there’s a whole slew of duties and responsibilities that she forgot to cover, like setting curriculum, hiring teachers, cutting the grass, and walking the head of school’s puppy, but I’ll figure it out as I go. I’m taking a calculated risk that things with my mother will be more settled by then, so I won’t be stressed out and crying every 2.5 minutes. However, given my history, there will be a whole new crisis du jour and I’ll have my hands full, but hopefully crying only every 3.7 minutes. It’s good to have dreams.

So that’s what’s been going on with me. Or some of what’s been going on with me. There is stuff I haven’t told you, like my dirty laundry. And by “dirty laundry” I mean actual dirty laundry. I have a ton of it at home. And a basket overflowing with clean laundry that I haven’t folded and put away yet because tonight…tonight was about the writing and not about the laundry. And damn, it felt good.

These are some of my recent Project 365 pictures. The project is doing exactly what it’s intended to do, and I’m so glad I decided to embark on another one. Want to see them every day? Follow me on Instagram.

Goodbye, 2016. Hello, 2017.

On the face of it, 2016 stunk it up, and so many of us are happy to see it go. 2016 brought a torrent of cultural and political pain from which the country is still reeling. On a personal level, it wasn’t exactly a banner year, either. As I reflected on the past year over the past week, I found myself scowling and angry, and frightened for what’s to come.

The year dealt multiple blows; we lost: Harper Lee, Bowie, Prince, George, Rickman, Wiesel, Cohen, Wilder, Ifill, Frey, Glenn, Ali, and more. The year dropped trou with a flourish by taking Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds back-to-back at the end, an enormous hand gesture to America that’s too crude to type here. The political scene was chaos and pandemonium, and most of us sat horrified and watched it unroll before our eyes, not believing that what was happening was actually happening. I don’t know whom to blame for that. The media? Nah. Russia? Naw. I think we have only ourselves to blame. And I think recovery is impossible until we admit that.

Personally, this year brought turmoil, too. A lung cancer diagnosis for my father sent my family into a tailspin. In addition to the fear for his health, we were forced to face some hard truths about what it takes to care for my mother, whose posterior cortical atrophy/Alzheimer’s continues to wreak havoc. His recovery was hard and scary, and everyone was pushed to the limits in multiple ways.

The foundation of our three-year-old home cracked and water poured into our finished basement. We ripped out drywall and baseboards and the front porch and, eventually, the entire front yard. Jury is still out on whether it’s completely fixed, but needless to say this wasn’t something we expected to have to do in a three-year-old home.

A dear friend at work learned that instead of launching into a new and exciting academic year he had to instead start fighting leukemia three days before the school year began.

A beloved family member on M’s side was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

We lost our parish, a huge blow from which I’m not sure I will ever fully recover. Thankfully we did not lose the community we’ve built there.

2016 gave me, at the end, the awful cold/flu crud that’s been going around. I was down for almost three weeks and had fought my way back to 99% when it slammed in again two nights before Zoe’s already-much-delayed birthday party. I self-medicated with caffeine and DayQuil, and forged ahead. A visit to the ENT the morning of New Year’s Eve confirmed that I needed antibiotics, nasal spray, rest, and quarantine from everyone. This made me crabby and hate 2016 even more.

Clearly, I was happy to see 2016 come to a close. Even with the uncertainty 2017 promises, I was just ready for the year to end. I spent the last six months praying that nothing happens to Tom Petty before he gets to St. Louis on tour again, because even though he’s been here a thousand times I’ve always had a conflict. He’s coming May 12. Hold on, Tom!

While sleeping half the day on NYE and grousing that I felt so crummy when I was conscious, I realized that I needed to flip my thinking. 2016 wasn’t all terrible, despite the fact that with little prompting I can reel off a litany of crap. So I made myself find 16 things that didn’t suck in 2016. Here we go.

  1. Zoe applied to, was accepted, and started at a new school that is challenging her in so many ways that we are continually reminded that we made a good, if tough, decision. She transitioned beautifully, made new friends easily, and is excelling academically. I cry when I think of the new worlds opened to her with this move. We made new friends through her new school, too. Our horizons are widened by these unique experiences and backgrounds, and the perspective gained is invaluable.
  2. I launched a new book project, a non-fiction work that I am still so excited about even while feeling bummed that life got in the way this year. It’s still there, waiting for me, which gives me hope and motivation. I hope to re-tackle in 2017 and get it moving again.
  3. The three of us enjoyed a mega-vacation that involved sleeping multiple nights on a train (one of Zoe’s most ardent desires) and experiencing San Francisco and Seattle. It was an amazing trip that gave us time together and memories I will cherish forever. M did an incredible amount of work planning this trip (mad props to him), and we all had a wonderful time.
  4. I got off my butt and started walking. I walked and walked and walked – almost 300 miles starting in the fall – and left nearly 30 pounds behind. I feel better and have retired a significant part of my wardrobe (significant both in size and in quantity). Better health led me to sign up for two fun runs late this year: the Girl Scouts Run for the Cookies and the Hot Chocolate 5K. We ran these as a family, creating more memories.
  5. I became more active in a private Facebook group for writers. This amazing group of people from all around the world is inspiring and motivating and supportive. We are collaborating on an anthology and I committed to writing a piece. It was hard, but I wrote it and gave it to two friends to beta read and edited it and submitted it and am so glad I did. Now I have to work on my bio, which I think may actually be harder to write than the original piece. I’m toying with, “Amy Zlatic lives, writes, photographs, mothers, wifes, plays and works in St. Louis, Missouri. She owns a cat that sneezes constantly. She likes pickles.”
  6. Because M retired the Christmas display, we were able to do the fun runs and more together. We decorated our tree as a family. We spent a Saturday in St. Charles to support a friend’s book launch and enjoyed the kick-off for the holiday season on Main Street. We’ve done Wild Lights at the Zoo and Way of Lights at Our Lady of the Snows. Never in my marriage have I had so much access to my husband before and even during the holidays. When people ask if I miss the display I am honest. No, I do not miss it. I spent too many years missing my husband. I’ve fallen in love all over again, with him and with the season.
  7. I won my second NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), this time finishing the middle grade novel I began last year. I haven’t brought myself to print the entire thing out yet to start editing (and oh boy does it need editing) but that’s on the 2017 to-do list. Word says it’s 323 pages. Not sure I’m ready to kill a tree yet, but I know it’s inevitable. It’s too hard to edit properly on-screen. I need hard copy and a red pen. And lots of coffee.
  8. I grew closer to two wonderful women who support me and love me and accept me and make me feel not so crazy. These women inspire me and motivate me every single day to try to be a better person. I love them and their families, and feel so grateful they have fully embraced me and my family. One of them actually happens to be extended family, which is just icing on the cake. (She can’t get rid of me, ever!) They taught me patience and the insanely valuable lesson of “Always respond in love.”
  9. We road-tripped to Cincinnati and enjoyed a jam-packed weekend full of fun and family. I don’t think we could have crammed more into that weekend, which included a Cardinals-Reds game, a big family bike ride, shopping, and a Labor Day party complete with fireworks and Boom! I love our Cincy family so much my heart hurts when I think about how much I miss them.
  10. Zoe participated in two piano competitions and earned highest marks in each. She continues to stun us with her talent, and I continue to marvel at the fact that I get to regularly cook dinner and clean the house to live piano music. At the second competition, she exited in tears, convinced that her errors had tanked her score. There was a lot of snuggling and reassurances and discussion over what to do to not feel that way ever again (more practice!). She was shocked to later learn she had received highest marks, and her teacher told her, “It’s not about the mistakes. It’s about how you recover, how you keep going.” What a great lesson for us all.
  11. I read so many good books. So, so many, including two books by writers of color which reshaped my world view. The last book I read in 2016 was “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be chewing on that one for a long, long time. I highly recommend, but offer this caveat if you are not a reader of color: you absolutely must go into it with an openness to accept that your point of view can be – and should be – challenged.
  12. My dad recovered from lung cancer and surgery. My colleague is in the final stages of chemo and has beaten leukemia. Our cousin had successful surgery and appears to be doing remarkably well. For all of this, I am grateful and relieved. They’re all staying on the daily prayer list, though. Just to be sure.
  13. For the first time in my life, I voted for a president who looks like me. Even though she didn’t win, I have a new sense of purpose and resolve. I never again want to feel like I felt on November 9, when I was overwhelmed with feelings of, “I could have done more.” I am now exploring involvement with She Should Run and EMILY’S List.
  14. When my work friend was diagnosed with leukemia, I volunteered to take his advisory until he recovered. I had no idea what I was getting into, taking on nine boys freshman through senior. It’s way more work than I anticipated, but the rewards far outstrip the work. I was also asked tasked with the position of faculty moderator for the yearbook, overseeing four seniors who are the editors. I have grown very fond of all of these students, and find myself worrying about them and championing them like a mother hen. It has been my privilege to take all of this on, and I’ve received far more than I’ve given. They make me laugh every day, and they challenge me in the best possible way. This has injected a new passion into my professional life.
  15. I rode a camel. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  16. When I couldn’t attend the big NYE family bash, I sent my family on without me. My husband, who shall be henceforth known as The Greatest Husband in the World, came back home to check on me and bring me food from the party. He sat and watched Parenthood with me while I sniffled and wheezed on the couch. When he was at the party, he texted and called me, so I didn’t feel quite so alone. And right before midnight, he and Zoe returned and made Sprite and orange juice mocktails so we could ring in the new year together. It was pretty damn special.

Come to think of it, there are a helluva lot more than 16 things to be grateful for last year. Happy New Year, my friends. Hang on, because I think 2017 will be a wild ride.

Dear Henry, let’s talk chickens

I’ve been reading about writing lately, which is not as good as actually writing, but some days it’s the best I can do.

And I keep being reminded, over and over, that the only way to be a writer is to actually sit down and write. Duh. This sounds easier than it is. Butt in chair is surprisingly difficult. At least it is for me, right now.

Stephen King says, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

He also said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” which is awesome and true, but that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post.

He’s actually got quite a few good quotes about how sitting down to do the work is the hardest part, but I’m too lazy to go look them up right now.

When I was journalism school, my favorite professor was a crotchety old adman named Henry Hager. He was of the 3-martini-lunch generation who didn’t cotton to the newfangled sensibility that it wasn’t a good idea to get hammered halfway through the work day. He bought me my first martini, Henry did, that next year when I went from being his student to being his teaching assistant.

One of the exercises he had us do was write him a letter each week. One page, double-spaced. It could be about anything we wanted. It was an exercise in sitting down and just letting the words flow. It was my favorite homework ever, even the weeks when I struggled to find something worthwhile to write. He read every single one of our letters, leaving comments about the writing or the content or both. I treasured them. At the end of the term, we were to choose our favorite ten, print them out and bind them, and hand them in. He gave us a grade that didn’t really matter in the scheme of the semester, and handed it back. I still have staple-bound packet, and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. A snapshot into my life as an undergrad journalism student dating a cute engineer who lived hundreds of miles away. Now, as a crotchety old person myself, I understand that the whole point of our turning in our ten favorites as a collection was that it gave us something to hold on to, a package. I may have all those loose letters somewhere, but I doubt it. I only have the packet because he made me make it.

I should get back into that routine of writing whatever I want, stream of consciousness, regularly. I can write to Henry. He’s pushing up daisies now; I cried when I read his obituary in my alumni magazine a few years ago. But I could still write to him, or at least to the idea of him. I imagine he’d get a kick out of it, even if I’m as far away from Hemingway as you can get.

Dear Henry,

I have two friends who are amazing and who keep me laughing and who keep me grounded. Well, I have more friends who do that than just two, but for this letter we’re talking about these two phenomenal women. We call ourselves The Chickens, mainly because of many experiences and jokes that all stem from a Jenny Lawson blog post. We didn’t start out calling ourselves The Chickens, but we ended up there and now our husbands call us that and, apparently, so do our children.

It’s incredible how well our children know us, despite the front we try to present to them. “Oh, hey, I’m your super-cool, awesome mom who always has her act together, who loves you more than you could ever imagine” is what we like to think we are. Instead, my kid is all, “Oh, hey, you’re my mom who tries really hard and who is innately human and therefore makes plenty of mistakes, and who loves me more than I could ever imagine but sometimes just needs some beer and a good cry.”

We were taking Zoe to camp on Sunday and I was doing my whole Woe-is-Me routine about how I was going to miss her and how she was going to have all the fun while I had to go to work every day. I lamented, “What will I do without you?” And she deadpanned, “You’ll get together with The Chickens and drink wine.”

Touché.

Just for your information, I haven’t seen my chickens at all this week. This is my busy season at work (well, busier season…there’s never really a slow season) and I’ve been putting in long hours. And I got my hair cut last night. Which, come to think of it, is a lame excuse for not getting together with friends. But still, what I’m trying to say is that I don’t just get together with my friends and drink wine, although I do that sometimes and with enough regularity that my daughter has lodged it in her head, and therefore knows when she grows up and becomes a busy mom that it’s important to have chickens. And wine.

So maybe I’m doing okay at this mothering thing after all.

IMG_5532Today’s pretty picture is from Sunday’s sunset. We dropped the kiddo off at camp and picked up the car with only two seats and went for a Sunday drive.

Regulation 1: Good Conduct

Over spring break, on our magnificent train trip out west, we visited Alcatraz. The island has been on my bucket list for many years, and it did not disappoint. Here and there, the parks department had posted signs and placards with tidbits from the United States Penitentiary Rules & Regulations book that every inmate was issued upon entering his cell for the first time. The more rules I read, the more I realized that these rules are actually pretty good for those of us who aren’t incarcerated for committing heinous crimes. At the end of the tour, when we were dumped into the gift shop (as all tours now tend to end), I felt compelled to purchase a book of 24 Rules & Regulations postcards so I could remember them.

Regulation 1, for instance, says:

Good conduct means conducting yourself in a quiet and orderly manner
and keeping your cell neat, clean, and free from contraband.

That first part is what I’d like the girls in my scout troop to learn. They don’t do anything quietly or in an orderly fashion. Ever. In fact, I think they go out of their way to be loud and disorderly. We had to implement rules and regulations for our inmates scouts that, upon reflection, may have worked well at Alcatraz, too: no shrieking, no cartwheels, and keep your shoes on. Although the administrators who put together the USP Rules & Regulations book probably classified cartwheels under being orderly in general, we found we had to be quite specific. “No gymnastics” could be interpreted, by some, as “cartwheels are okay because even girls not taking gymnastics lessons do those, so they aren’t really gymnastics.” They are wily, those scouts.

When I worked in a cube farm, I would have very much appreciated if my cubemates kept their desks neat, clean, and free from contraband. Contraband mostly being the stinky remnants of their fishy lunches. I would have liked if they didn’t cut and file their nails there, too. Ew.

Really, the person I would most like to apply these rules to is my child. She could use some good, old-fashioned, penitentiary-style raisin’. She is mostly quiet and orderly (save when she gets around a gaggle of her peers), but she most definitely does not keep her cell neat and clean, and she relishes her giant collection of contraband.

I had no idea how much kid contraband is out in the world until I got one myself. A kid, that is. Then the crap level in my home exploded exponentially. There are bits and pieces – her stuff – everywhere, all the time. Right now, without even being home, I can guarantee that there is a pair of sky-blue slippers, size 4, sitting on the floor of the great room somewhere in the vicinity of the couches. I don’t know that she ever actually wears them, although I sort of suspect that she might as they do move around. They never move into her room, though. They always hang out by the couches, and are usually lurking in places where I will trip over them. At any given time, the kitchen counter is home to: sunglasses, piano music, pencils, bookmarks, earrings, books, Hoot, candy, water bottles, school or camp papers, and a variety of bags in which she carries all of the above in random combinations. After weeks of clutter, I finally cleared the entire island counter the other night. There wasn’t a thing on it. It shocked me every time I walked by or looked that way. The great expanse. A huge plane of blessed emptiness. It lasted less than an hour, basically until she came out of her room again.

I don’t even want to look in her closet. That closet is the nexus of the contraband universe. We (meaning: me and I) go in and clean it out every few years, and she’s decently good at letting me get rid of stuff. She is not as good as her mother who would take the entire contents of said closet and stuff them into garbage bags for trash pickup Monday morning, but she does let stuff go. I have cleaned out Valentine’s from last year and countless trinkets gathered at the annual school picnic that she is thrilled about winning that day and then forgets she ever laid eyes on by the next morning. Plastic slinkies and googly-eye glasses and tiny prism kaleidoscopes and flags and capes and a flamingo hat that she can wear for only five minutes at a time because it makes her head hot. There are enough stuffed animals to staff an army of fur. Most of her bears have wardrobes far more extensive than my own. She does not have a food stash, probably because her militant parents have threatened her with solitary if they ever catch food in her room. And also because she doesn’t have siblings who steal her candy, so she can keep it in the giant candy bag in the pantry that also requires a good clean-out every year or so.

Right now, it is time to do that most dreaded task of mothers everywhere: cleaning out her clothes. Her drawers are stuffed full of clothing ranging in size from 8 to 12 (except for that one bizarrely large size 4 tie-dyed t-shirt she got at a preschool friend’s birthday party and won’t part with because it’s the softest shirt she owns) and for all seasons. Looking for her special Independence Day shirt the other day, we tore every shirt she owns out of the drawers. Both of us were close to melting down and I left the situation in M’s capable hands. He engineered the problem (because that is what he does, which is one of the many, many reasons I married him all those years ago, and because he kills bugs). He found that her drawers were so over-stuffed that, “she had a whole wardrobe of clothes that had been shoved out the back of the drawer and had fallen into the no-man’s land under the bottom drawer.” He found the desired shirt and rescued Fourth of July, and I took that as my cue to suck it up and clean out her damn drawers again. This is a job that takes half a day, infinite patience, and a bottle of wine. The patience is required to argue with the inmate over keeping a tie-dyed t-shirt that is finally too small.

This rule about contraband applies to my child’s parents, though, too. I’ll admit that there is something appealing about the idea of living a life that is neat, clean, and free from contraband. Monks actively choose this life, giving up their worldly possessions in return for room and board and life of prayer and good, honest work. Their rooms are even called cells. The cells in the monastery where I work are a good size, not tiny but not large, either. They are austere. It takes only minutes to straighten up your space if there’s not much in it. The inmates at Alcatraz had a bed, a small table and chair, a toilet, a sink, and two shelves. They were allowed only 12 books at a time. My cell, personally, must have wifi, and I could probably get around the 12-book rule with a properly stocked Kindle. But then I think I wouldn’t need much else. Not really. Neither monks nor inmates have extensive wardrobes; both essentially wear the same thing every day. There is no need to root around under the bottom drawer to find a missing garment. There is no need to argue with your inmate over whether these shorts from last year are suitable or have risen into hoochie-mama territory with a year’s growth of leg. (And, by extension, there is then no need to explain to your inmate what a hoochie-mama is.)

We have things in our house that bring me joy when I see them. This is the rule, right? Only keep what brings you joy. It’s the theory behind the tidiness movement. I have objects that bring me joy. The small pottery bird I found in Ireland when I went on my graduation trip with my father. The clay saki jar given to M by the owner of a small restaurant when he visited on two consecutive trips to Japan. A tiny black Squamish eagle acquired when we toured an aboriginal sweat lodge atop a mountain in Vancouver. These things spark wonderful memories when we see them, and bouts of cursing when I have to pick them up, dust them, and dust around them. I don’t know if I would remember that night in the Squamish lodge without the bird, or if M would ever think about that restaurant without seeing the saki jar. Do I need the rusted buffalo sculpture to recall our first Corvette trip out west, or the train that circled our wedding cake to remember the day we married? Are these items necessary memory totems, or are they just more clutter in lives already overly-bombarded by sensory inputs?

I think a human’s natural inclination is to collect, to gather. That’s why it’s so powerful that the monks choose to relinquish their possessions, and why it’s such a punishment that inmates aren’t allowed to keep theirs. There is a relatively new tiny-house movement that appeals to so many of us. It appeals to me, too. (Except for the composting toilet part. No way am I giving up the conveniences and cleanliness of modern plumbing.) With tiny houses, it’s the idea of freedom that is appealing. Because with possession comes responsibility. With possession comes commitment. A grounding. Roots in one place. I have to stay here, because here is where all my stuff stays. I have too much to leave behind. When I reflect on this, I have to fight the urge to take everything I own to Goodwill.

Here is what I think, though. Ultimately, I don’t want my daughter to always be quiet and orderly. Sometimes it’s necessary to raise hell, to speak out, to shout, even. It’s necessary to do these things to stand up for yourself, and to stand up for others. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up with a cartwheel. I want to keep the small clay bird that makes my heart sing when I hold it, cool and heavy, in my hands. I smell the damp peat of an Irish October when I hold it, and feel the wind at the Cliffs of Moher all over again. I want to keep things that, when I look at them, flood me with feelings and memories from the places we’ve been, the things we’ve seen, the experiences we have shared. Our home may be cluttered at times, but it’s not cluttered with the latest home decorating trends. It’s filled with evidence of lives well lived. We have done a good job of being very conscious about our purchases. Do we have a place for it? Will this evoke a memory? Does this bring us joy?

And so, I will sometimes raise hell and I will keep my beloved belongings.

I can probably get rid of most of the crap on the counter, though.

Dispatch from the Rails (#2)

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This has been written over a few days. I maxed out my data plan on my cell phone, which is what I use for wifi on my laptop when there’s no true wifi around. My photos piled up on my phone because I couldn’t post, and my essay here just kept growing. Took me two days of pestering to get M to grant me hotspot access on his cell phone, and I didn’t dare take the time to post to the blog. As it was, just pushing some photos through, he asked me every 30 seconds, “Are you finished yet?” We’re at a hotel in Seattle now, so at least in the evenings when we are back in our room I’ll have wifi, plus my data plan billing cycle starts anew tomorrow. Freedom!

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I slept far better the second night on the train. It may be that I was finally used to the train’s motion. Or that Zoe slept in M’s compartment, which opened up mine above my berth. Not that I’m claustrophobic, but it is a little weird to be sleeping in a bunk bed at the age of 42. Or maybe it was that we had only one stop, in Elko, Nevada, at 3:03 a.m., so there weren’t the stops and starts of the first night. I woke up once, around midnight, to use the bathroom, and fell right back asleep. And then at 6:20 a.m. local, I was awake. I laid there for a few minutes, confused as to whether I needed to get up.

I have, for most of my life, been a night owl. I do my best work late at night. I’m wide awake while the rest of the world sleeps. This means, naturally, that mornings are hard. When M and I were first married, I loved weekends because I could sleep in until 10. This pattern has been intact for years, since high school. I adored the weekend ritual of sleeping in.

Lately, though, I’ve annoyed myself by habitually waking up early. I can no longer sleep in, even when I stubbornly try. This probably has something to do with trying to ensure I get an appropriate amount of sleep for health reasons I consciously lay down to go to sleep earlier, and that with my busy schedule I’m tired and actually ready for bed at a reasonable hour.

That morning, when my eyes opened and I “ran out of sleep” as my Uncle Cloyd says, I didn’t fight it. I didn’t try to go back to sleep. I finally realized that I ran out of sleep because I had slept enough. My body was telling me, “Okay, we’re good! Time to get up and start the day!” I sat up, watched the beautiful sunrise for the second morning in a row, and was quiet with my thoughts for a few minutes. Then I changed out of my pajamas, got Zoe’s clothes ready for the day, organized our compartment bag, put our seats back in order, and fetched a cup of coffee. I was writing by 6:45 a.m. This is a revelation for me, and I’m loving it. M has had this habit for years. I think he’s on to something.

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Readying our compartment for sleep and then for the day is a fairly easy process. We could, of course, push the attendant call button and ask Derrick, Car 531’s steward, to come do it for us. We did that the first night, only to discover that everyone else in Car 531 wants to go to sleep at the same time. Poor Derrick was running all over the place, and we waited patiently for our turn while the minutes clicked by. We watched while he did it, so we were ready to handle it ourselves the second night. (On our first train trip years ago, our steward made up the beds when we were at a late dinner or hanging out in the observation car, so we never saw him do it. He was like a bit of Disney magic on Amtrak.)

There are two seats facing each other in an Amtrak roomette. They are far enough apart for two adults with long legs (i.e. M and I) to sit comfortably together. The seats also recline a bit, if you want to lean back and enjoy the view. When the seats are reclined, they are at a perfect distance for M and I to rest our feet on the other seat, which is easy to do since the seats are crazy wide. To turn them into the lower bunk, you press a small, stainless steel pedal under the seat and pull out base with the lower cushion. Or push down on the upper cushion. The seats glide down and meet in the middle, forming a bed that spans the width of the cabin. The pallet mattress and sheet set are stored in the upper bunk, which during the day is securely latched against the top of the compartment. There’s a stainless steel handle that you press to lower the bunk down into the flat position for sleeping. Its pallet mattress stays there, and there is webbing you can attach to the ceiling that ensures the occupant won’t tumble out in the middle of the night. Each mattress has a fitted sheet and a flat sheet, and comes with one blue Amtrak blanket that is some sort of space-age technology because it’s the thinnest blanket I have ever seen and yet is completely warm and perfect for sleeping in a cabin with the heat turned off. (That’s another thing that has changed for me: I used to be perennially cold, and now I get so hot that I can hardly sleep with any covers at all.) Just in case, Derrick steward gave us each extra blankets. We haven’t needed them.

In the morning, you simply reverse the process. The lower bunk mattress is stowed in the upper bunk and folded against the ceiling, and the the seats glide back into their upright positions. It’s ingenious how well this small space works for both day and night inhabitants. More houses should be designed this way, like boats and ships. Every space useful and, hopefully, beautiful.

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And now for the segment where I try to gross out my readers as much as possible. Seriously, if you are of weak stomach, either grab a bucket or skip to the next section. I won’t mind either way. Go ahead, I’ll wait…still with me? Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A couple days before we left, in the early morning when we snuggle before starting our hectic day, I discovered a huge growth on the side of Zoe’s left pinky finger. I was messing with her hands when I felt it, said, “What in the heck is that?” and switched on the light to discover a horrifying lump. It looked disgusting. I called the doctor as soon as the office opened that morning and he saw her at 11, where we learned that she had an enormous wart she’s been growing (and hiding from us) since December. This wart was bad; it made her pinky finger about twice its normal size. Ew. She also had a small infection from a hangnail, so he prescribed an antibiotic and instructed me to get Compound W. I did all that, and we began treatment immediately. The pediatrician also told me that after a few days of the Compound W, a hard white shell would form over the wart and that I was to, um, remove it. I nearly barfed right there. I also realized immediately that I would be the one doing this as M gets squeamish over tears and boogers, and downright suicidal over vomit. I’m pretty sure if he was told he had to do this task he would run away and we wouldn’t see him again for years.

Fast-forward a couple of days and sure enough, the hard white shell had formed. I had been messing with it on and off, since I was the official parental caretaker of the wart, and knew that this day, Holy Saturday, was D-Day. Or W-Day, to be more precise. I grabbed some tissues, cornered her in our compartment, and started in on the wart. M heard the crying (from Zoe, not from me…I was silently grimacing and telling myself over and over again that it had to be done and to not throw up), came over, turned green, and promptly stopped watching what I was doing. He grabbed yet another tissue, wadded it up, and dabbed at the tears streaming down Zoe’s face, because God forbid he should actually touch a tear while I extracted a freaking wart.

Extraction is exactly what it was. There was no pulling it off so much as pulling it out, leaving a gaping hole in my child’s finger that promptly filled with blood. Zoe, by this point, is nearly melting down and M is right behind her. “Oh my God. Is it supposed to look like that? Did the doctor tell you to do this?” If I hadn’t had my hands full with wart, blood, and tissues I’d have clocked him. Even Zoe tearfully told him yes, the doctor said to do that.

The good news is that her finger is doing great, and is nearly back to its normal shape and size, and is pain-free. She is thrilled that the wart, which we had named Warty because that’s what we do, is gone. M has reached the point where he can finally look at her finger without gagging, and after I render my verdict of, “This is looking great! Lots better!” he renders his, “Oh, yeah, Zo. Your finger is looking a lot better!”

Wart extraction on a moving train. I’m like a regular Hawkeye Pierce.

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We went to Easter Vigil at St. Patrick’s in the financial district of San Francisco. M had done a boatload of research and found that both the time and location were perfect for us. We could easily walk there after dinner near our hotel. (Dinner, by the way, was at a place called Thai Stick, which M found using Trip Advisor, and which was the best darn Thai food we’ve ever eaten.) What his research didn’t tell him was that the old and traditional St. Patrick’s Church now houses a large, warm, and welcoming Chinese population. We entered, genuflected, prayed, and sat back. I looked around, and realized quickly that we were three of the very few Caucasian people in attendance. There were four priests concelebrating the Mass: two Asian, one black, and one an ancient white dude. The two Chinese priests did most of the work, and the Mass was beautiful. The homily was fantastic, too. What an incredible experience.

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Zoe crashed pretty hard after Mass, which was good because the Easter Bunny had work to do. What was somewhat surprising (okay, not really) was that M crashed pretty hard, too, leaving the Easter Bunny on his own to get everything done. Not that he was tired himself or anything. Not that he was exhausted from three days on the train and packing and unpacking and removing warts. But the Easter Bunny doesn’t complain. Easter Bunny just gets the job done, yo. He’ll hide eggs in room 1708 of the San Francisco Hilton at midnight. He’s crazy magical like that.

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Easter Sunday was spectacular in its oddity. We certainly broke tradition this year. There was no family brunch, no making the rounds. Instead, there was a boat trip to Angel Island and a tram tour, then a boat trip to Alcatraz Island and a walking tour, then a boat trip back to Fisherman’s Wharf. On that middle boat trip we saw a humpback whale surface twice in San Francisco Bay. Our captain assured us this is a rare sighting. We also saw several seagulls who were intensely curious about what the people on our boat may or may not have been eating, and we may have laughed at the terror of others when it came to the gulls. I know that’s not very Christian, but darn it was funny.

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Angel Island is a best-kept secret in San Francisco. Most tourists that end up there only go because the Alcatraz-only tickets were sold out and the package was the only way left to get to the old federal penitentiary. M found the package before we ever left and we thought that Angel Island sounded pretty cool, too. We didn’t know the half of it. It’s extraordinary, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting S.F.

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Before our Angel Island tram tour left, the driver instructed anyone who might need to use the restroom to do so immediately, as the tour takes about an hour and there are no bathroom breaks along the way. By the time the three of us visited the facilities, we were in the last tram group. I had pointed out a cool, old blue tram from the 1950s to M that was parked practically in the bushes alongside the road, well behind the modern trams pulled up to the loading space. We laughed and figured they were keeping it around just because it looks cool. Imagine our surprise when the two, full modern trams pulled away and we saw our driver climb aboard the retro one and struggle to get it started. The Miss Caroline rumbled up and we all loaded in, M and I eyeing each other skeptically. The tram’s engine seemed solid once she was finally started, but her transmission was a whole other matter. We jerked and bucked up every single hill, and I honestly thought we weren’t going to make it a couple times. Okay, every time. But still, the tour was wonderful and we were afforded stunning views of the bay from all sides of the island. Miss Caroline and our trusty driver got us around and back to the dock in time for lunch before boarding for the trip to Alcatraz.

My favorite part was the smell of eucalyptus. The island had been deforested by loggers when the military took it over early last century. To “help,” they planted all sorts of non-native species which still thrive there today. The California Park Service is slowly culling those back to designated areas and trying to repopulate the island with native species, but they’ve got years of work ahead of them. To my benefit, we drove right through several eucalyptus groves, and for the first time in my life I got to smell my favorite smell live. I have always loved eucalyptus candles and lotions, but the actual real smell is so much better. I was inhaling deeply, over and over, before our tour guide finally told me what it was. I think she thought I was hyperventilating. It makes me want to go home and plant eucalyptus trees all around the house, but I don’t think they’d thrive in Missouri’s environment and I’m pretty sure M will kill me if I plant anything but grass. He is staunchly anti-tree, having been the one to clean up their droppings every fall. The story of Angel Island is pretty cool, too, but I’ll leave you to google that for yourself. At one point on the tour, M was worried that Zoe was bored. She was sitting quietly in the window seat of the bucking Miss Caroline, taking it all in. I asked if she was okay, and she responded, “Yeah. This is just so relaxing!” She’s a kid of many flavors.

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Alcatraz Island is stunning on so many levels. The island itself is beautiful. The architecture is interesting. The history is intriguing. I didn’t know that before it was a federal penitentiary it was a military installation. I didn’t know that many of the children of prison employees grew up on Alcatraz, ferrying into San Francisco each morning to go to school. I didn’t know that an attempted prison-break resulted in the U.S. military bombing the cell block – with uninvolved prisoners and guards still inside – to get it under control. Our tour included an audio package, which was brilliant in both the scope and depth of what it covered. Even Zoe was fascinated. She wasn’t too thrilled when I made her stand in a cell so she could get her picture made behind bars. Good. Nothing like teaching her early that crime doesn’t pay.

My best find there was a small book with a series of quotes from the Rules and Regulations of the Federal Penitentiary on Alcatraz. There are some real gems in there that I plan to share with you all later. The book is packed in one of our stowed suitcases, and I’m typing this on the way to Seattle. I’m too lazy to go downstairs and root around in the bag to find it. Suffice it to say that it astounds me how many of the rules and regulations are applicable to our lives. More to come on that.

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After dinner on Fisherman’s Wharf, we took Zoe to find a cable car. M figured out the map and we went to the beginning of the line, where there’s a turntable to get the cars facing forward again. We waited forever, because cable cars are in no hurry or are on a timeframe that no one knows but the operators, and they ain’t talking. It didn’t help that we waited behind a large Indian family with a strong matriarch who was more excited to show the cable cars to her son Krish than Krish was to see them. I made a video of one of the cars coming down to the turntable, and I’ll have to figure out how to lay a music bed over it because the natural sound includes a woman screaming, “Krish! Krish! The cable car! It’s coming, Krish! Krish, turn around so I can get a picture of you facing the cable car! No, Krish, you need to smile! Krish! Turn around and smile so I can get the cable car behind you! Krish! It’s coming Krish! IT’S COMING KRISH IT’S COMING HERE COMES THE CABLE CAR KRISH!” What you don’t see on my video is a bored 9-year-old boy who is barely humoring his mother, while his two teenage sisters stand nearby and roll their eyes and his father stares at the ground and says nothing. The next cable car that came was terminating in Chinatown, about halfway to the end, so we didn’t take that one. Poor Krish climbed aboard with his mother still screaming in his ear and telling him how excited he was over this whole experience. They pulled away, and we were happy to wait a bit longer for a quieter ride. Finally, it was our turn, and I took a seat on the bench while M and Zoe hung off the side. Zoe grinned nearly the entire time, and was beaming with joy. We rode the entire length of the line, and loitered a few moments at the end to get some pictures. Our conductor invited Zoe back into the cable car to ring the bell, teaching her the proper technique to get both tone and frequency. I think it was the highlight of her day, even though she won’t admit it because she’s too polite to say, “I can’t believe you dragged me to a prison and put me in a jail cell, but the cable car ride made up for it!”

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After a quick stop at the hotel to pick up our bags and change back into our train-traveling clothes (i.e. athletic wear, or athleisure, or yoga pants, or “softie pants” as Zoe calls them, or sweat pants as we used to call them back in the day), we summoned a friendly Uber driver. I’ll call him Mohammad, because that’s what his name is. (We were driven around San Francisco by Omar, Tim from Hong Kong who has been in this country longer than I have, and Mohammad, and we celebrated Mass with the Chinese…this has been an awesome multi-cultural experience!) We asked Mohammad for a special favor that we were, of course, willing to pay for: would he drive us down Lombard Street before taking us to the train station in Emeryville? After several minutes of confusion – Mohammad kept calling it “the block with the flowers” because he didn’t know for sure that the name was Lombard and M didn’t remember any landscaping and could only say that the name is Lombard and I finally put them both on the same page because a.) I’m an international interpreter and b.) I know that Lombard Street has spectacular flowers and c.) I can also remove warts when needed, by the way – we were on our way. Zoe thinks it’s the craziest street in America, and I think she might be right. Down we went, while she giggled and wondered why anyone in the world would build a street like this and I wondered at what a great country we live in where we can so easily arrange to go down a squiggly street in the back of our new friend Mohammad’s Corolla. God bless America.

We have become spoiled with our train travel. In this whole trip, we had one night – and one night only – in coach class. The seats are extra wide and they recline like crazy, plus there are two outlets for every pair of seats and giant windows to gaze out. I had brought two blankets and my Irish cloak, because Amtrak trains are notoriously cold, so we were set. That is, until the two adults on this trip made fatal errors. M didn’t realize I had planned on using my cloak as a blanket, so when I offered him a blanket as we were going to sleep, he declined. He knew we had two blankets, and he was chivalrous and left them for his girls. He froze the entire night. I, in mama bear mode, placed Zoe in the window seat while I took the aisle. She’s small enough to curl up on the seat and make herself comfortable, while an adult really should use the side of the train (the window) to lean on to get really comfortable. For most of the night I tossed and turned, trying to find a way to sleep without my head bopping all over the place. Finally, early in the morning, she woke enough where I could switch positions with her. She snuggled into my arms, I leaned on the window, and we both fell asleep. None of us slept as well as we do when we have beds in the rooms, so clearly we are now train snobs and completely spoiled rotten. Also, I realized just how much I appreciate the privacy afforded by having rooms. Out here in coach we are at the whim of the people around us, and people can be pretty freaking annoying. Like the dude behind Zoe and I who wouldn’t shut up even after the conductor announced we were now in Quiet Hours and that people who wished to continue their stupid conversations should move to the observation car, you idiot. Also, I’m not quite so embarrassed when I fall asleep and then jerk myself awake with a start and a snort if I’m in a private room. We have rooms on our long Seattle-Chicago trip, and we’re all looking forward to them.

More animals we have seen on our trip: lizards, a sea lion sunning itself on a bay buoy, a humpback whale, cheeky seagulls, a cat in the lobby of our San Francisco Hilton, and the jerks who sat behind us on the Angel Island tram who kept talking loudly over the recorded tour despite our guide repeatedly telling them to shut up already.

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We went to sleep late last night somewhere around Davis, California and woke up in Oregon, well on the way to Klamath Falls. The sunrise, as usual on this trip, was breathtaking. I can really get used to this whole early-riser thing. Oregon, it turns out, is just as beautiful as the rest of this country. Amazing. In this one state we experienced sunshine and dry land, gorgeous pine forests full of freshly fallen snow, rain, and dry land again. We saw Klamath Lake and a huge water reservoir and two waterfalls and a string of paper mills that was beautiful in its own right as industrial decay. (If you dig that sort of thing. I do.) As I type, we are now in the great state of Washington. It’s pretty here, too. Picturesque mile after picturesque mile. I’m about ready to lead this whole coach car in a rendition of “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” I don’t think the foreign guy behind me knows the lyrics, though, and I don’t want to make him feel bad so I’ll hold off for now.

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We crammed a lot into our 24 hours in San Francisco, and will move at a slower pace in Seattle. Tonight’s agenda includes only checking in to our hotel, dinner, and unpacking. Zoe opted for pizza delivery to the hotel, and noshing in the room. She wanted to dine “just the three of us, together.” I love that girl.

Since I’m celebrating being connected again, ya’all got pictures in this post. You’re welcome.

Tomorrow brings new adventures!

Dispatch from the Rails (#1)

I’m having trouble starting this essay. Do I begin with Zoe’s request to “sleep on a train,” or do I talk about my own feelings on this journey, or do I just start with the trip itself? I have started the same sentence over and over. I think because this trip is so big, so grand, that it’s hard to know where exactly to start.

Traveling by train is unlike any other form of travel, for the simple reason that when you’re on the train, the journey itself is the vacation. Flying is a necessary evil. Driving offers flexibility, but also exhaustion and the inability, for the driver at least, to take in much of the surroundings.

I have found it hard to unplug. The relaxing is good. I sit and watch and wonder at how lucky I am to get to see places that many people never will. I make photographs. I let my mind wander.

And then my stupid mind wanders and wonders, “How many likes are there now on that last image I posted?” And then I get frustrated because my phone says, yet again, “NO SERVICE.”

No service is a blessing. I know this. I get this. I understand the value of disconnecting. However, like any addiction, it’s hard to just walk away, to flip the switch and be okay without your vice. So this trip has shown me, unequivocally, that I am not only addicted to social media, but that my ego feeds upon it like it’s an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. For years, I have told myself that I don’t photograph for money, because that would be like selling my soul to the devil and turning my art over to others. I’d be selling out. I’d worry more about what my clients want, need and like, more than what I do. It would cease to be art and become a j-o-b.

And yet here I am, practically begging for likes on Facebook and hearts on Instagram. I do not like this about myself. It is uncomfortable to see what’s reflected in NO SERVICE. I will have to work on this.

At the Glenwood Springs, Colorado stop, after people had stretched their legs and gotten back on board and others departed for good, the conductor made an announcement. He called a woman by name, first and last, and with humor in his voice told her that this was her stop and she needed to get off the train. Her friend was waiting for her. He made this announcement twice, before a woman took over and also good naturedly asked her to please depart the train so we could leave the station. I wondered if she had already disembarked and perhaps had gotten past her friend and was waiting in the front of the station by the road. Soon, the announcements lost their friendly tone. “ANN ____. YOU NEED TO GET OFF THE TRAIN NOW.” The public address system on the train is loud and very clear. There is no mistaking that the woman could not hear the announcement no matter where she was sitting. I started hearing nervous laughter up and down the train as the announcements got more impatient. Finally, about ten minutes after the first announcement was made, we started rolling again. I wondered if Ann had gotten off the train.

Zoe and I overheard a conductor and a couple of stewards talking about it. Her friend finally boarded the train to find her and escort her off. Someone said she claimed she didn’t know the announcement was for her, despite the conductor giving her a five-minute warning before pulling into the station. She said that the name in the announcement was Ann and not Annie, so she didn’t know it was for her, despite her last name also being used in every announcement. She was not elderly and confused. Our steward estimated she is in her 20s.

I had so many story ideas fly into my head around this.

  • Annie is autistic, and this solo train journey was an attempt to find some independence.
  • Annie is a victim of domestic violence, who was debating whether she really wanted to get off the train and go back to her abusive husband after the trip home to see her sister.
  • Annie has finally recovered from a nasty divorce, and met her soul mate in the seat next to her; they were so engrossed in conversation that neither of them heard the repeated announcements.
  • Annie is blonde, and is the reason for all the blonde jokes ever created. Blondes everywhere hate her for what she’s done.

I’ll never know the real reason Annie’s friend had to drag her off the train. But I bet it’s a good story.

Speaking of stories, I have a couple of gems from our dining adventures on the train. The tables in the dining car seat four each, and since there are quite a few passengers who wish to eat in the dining car (versus the café car that serves cup o’ noodles, packaged sandwiches, microwaved pizzas, and the like) the dining car staff fills every table at every seating. When M and I did our trip a few years ago, we were always seated with other couples. We had a lovely time meeting people from all over the U.S. and even the world. Now, as a trio, we are always seated with singles. Our first night at dinner was nice; about halfway through an IT consultant traveling back home from visiting his granddaughters sat with us. The two meals since…not so lucky. The experiences make for great stories, though.

I sat next to a woman at breakfast this morning who immediately took it upon herself to invade my personal space. I wondered if it was just me being weird, but after the meal M confirmed that yes, she was pretty much in my lap. After five minutes of small talk, she convinced herself that we had met on the California Zephyr five years ago. She then gave me a brief rundown of her personal statistics to help me remember her. She has six children. She works as an American Sign Language interpreter. She was on the California Zephyr five years ago and every time I say something she thinks it’s déjà vu. She had forgotten her glasses and couldn’t read the menu, only she took the opposite approach of everyone else I have ever seen who needs cheaters (including myself on occasion now, though I am loathe to admit it). Instead of moving the menu further away, she held it about an inch from her face. It looked painful, so I gave her a brief rundown to help her through. She wondered if she could order the children’s scrambled eggs as she wanted only one, and I thought that she probably could but that it definitely didn’t hurt to ask. Before the attendant could return to take our orders she dispatched hers to me and bolted for the bathroom. And to retrieve her glasses and medication. Clearly she had come to the dining car completely prepared. Before leaving, she thrust her bag at me and instructed me to watch it carefully. “All my money is in there.” And then she second-guessed telling a complete stranger that information (she hadn’t yet figured out that we knew each other from five years ago), laughed nervously, and said, “Um. Just kidding. There’s only enough in there for lunch. I mean breakfast.” And she was off. Later, as she was jabbering about something or another – I had tuned out by this point – she asked the attendant if there was any way he could heat up the inch or so of coffee left in her paper cup. He fetched the coffee pot and refilled her cup while she prattled on to me. As he was turning to leave, she noticed that her cup was full and announced that no, she didn’t want all that coffee and that she should have been paying more attention and now she’d have to dump some of it out. Without hesitating, she reached across my plate to my nearly empty plastic soda cup and, an inch away from grabbing it, finally thought to ask me if she could have it. I nodded, dumbstruck by her audacity. She then proceeded to pour hot coffee into a plastic cup while the attendant stuttered that she really shouldn’t do that because it’s a plastic cup. She poured out almost the entire cup of coffee and handed it to him. “There. That’s better!” There was an inch of coffee left, but now it was hot again.

At lunch I sat next to a woman who clutched her enormous handbag on her lap throughout the meal, forcing her elbow up and right into my space. I gave up trying to use my left arm at all, hunched against the window, and awkwardly ate a hamburger with one pinned right arm. The burger was excellent. The woman was a little nutty. When I would turn to look out the window – we were rolling through some spectacular scenery – she would comment, “Oh, I’ll stop talking. You’d rather look out the window.” I saw no reason we couldn’t do both, but evidently she was exercising some passive-aggressive muscles. She had various reasons why should couldn’t order anything off the lunch menu, the first and foremost being that she was experiencing stomach issues. This is exactly what one wants to hear from a woman sitting practically on top of one. She asked, “Do you think apple juice is okay when I have stomach trouble?” No, I think it’s pretty acidic. “What about cranberry juice?” Same thing. I dispensed advice my mother had given me when I was a kid, and she ordered white soda. It seemed to do the trick, as near the end of the meal she thanked me for the excellent advice. She also offered me her potato chips as she can’t digest gluten. I declined.

M has watched all this roll out through the last two meals, and when Zoe announced that she was ordering the steak for dinner, he immediately said, “I’ll sit with her, so I can cut up her steak.” He’s not fooling anyone.

Update: M sat next to Zoe at dinner tonight, and I sat next to a wonderfully funny Brit named Mark. He’s a lecturer, and he speaks on media and politics. I discovered this after he and M had a decades-long conversation about football and American football and Stan Kroenke, during which Zoe and I amused ourselves by making faces at each other across the table. Right now, Mark is co-writing a piece about media and politics and celebrity, so you can imagine where the conversation went. We aren’t the only country with divisive politics: Britain is currently facing a referendum to remove itself from the European Union, and the debate has divided their conservative political party much as ours is currently cannibalizing itself. It was a good dinner. I had the lasagna. Delicious, but the steak and baked potato are better.

Our compartments are lovely. We are almost directly across the hall from each other, which has worked beautifully. We can see out both sides of the train, and there is enough space for all three of us to be comfortable. Both M and I get the more spacious bottom bunk in each compartment, and Zoe was thrilled to scramble up to the top bunk in mine last night. She slept well her first night on the train, which didn’t surprise me as she can sleep through just about anything and she was exhausted from getting up at 3 o’clock that morning. She, being 10, is not quite as enthralled with the scenery as we are, but I’m still glad she is experiencing this. She will appreciate it later. This morning she snapped a few pictures, saying she was going to show this one to Mrs. D as they had just learned about the Rocky Mountains in social studies, and that one to Mrs. M as they had learned about mountain environments in science. After awhile, she asked, “Can I get a picture printed?” I told her of course, we can get all of her pictures printed. She went to town after that. I think she’s snapped at least 200 pictures. I am thankful that Walgreens is inexpensive, especially when you can find a good coupon.

In an attempt to curate her independence, I let her pack her own rolling bag. I did caution her that it was her bag, so whatever she loaded into it she was responsible for carting around. She packed some games (Uno, a deck of cards, Farkle, Bananagrams) and Hootie, of course. She also packed her retainer case and two pairs of sunglasses. I did not check her bag before we left, and was surprised to find several journals and notebooks and her pencil case when we were waiting in Chicago’s Union Station. She has written in several of them already, and up until I pulled out my laptop this afternoon she had done far more writing than I. I envy her ability to jump right in. I needed time to decompress first.

We have played games, coming out even in Farkle and Uno. A game of war was begun and abandoned when we pulled into a station long enough to take a fresh air break. We haven’t tackled Bananagrams yet as we need a full table in the busy observation car and have chosen instead to enjoy the quiet privacy of our compartments.

M has spent time getting to know his new work computer. After years of being staunchly pro-PC, he finally caved and requested a MacBook. He’s got a bit of a learning curve, but I think he’s enjoying it. I’m glad he has this time to mess with it; being under pressure at work would make learning a new platform stressful.

As we rolled through Illinois farmland and small towns, I was intrigued by the number of people with hoarding problems who live close to railroad tracks. Is it a requisite to live there? Is being that close to the tracks some kind of economic indicator, and is that financial status endemic to never throwing anything away? Yard after yard full of junk, mounds and heaps of old children’s toys and rusted cars and pieces of boats and trailers. Crap everywhere. Some people had taken time to erect temporary structures from fencing material and tarps to protect their belongings, but then abandoned them to deteriorate over time and weather. They were like mini-dumps, and I was fascinated. So many stories there, I’m sure. Iowa was better; the land started to open up and I saw less trash discarded by the tracks. We rolled through Nebraska in the dark, emerging into Colorado with the sunrise and the open skies and the redemption of America. No matter how much we’ve messed things up (whether it’s physical trash or political trash), coming out here always gives me hope.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve been disconnected for 24 hours now, unable to check the news. I’ve quickly scrolled through Facebook and Instagram when we roll through a town and our phones start pinging with incoming text messages that have built up, and have seen nothing of great importance posted. Facebook is how I learned David Bowie died, and that there was a terrorist attack in Brussels, so if people aren’t posting big news like that, I know nothing major has happened. This method keeps me off the major news sites, where I would go right down the rabbit hole and be depressed every day over the bad-news click-bait continually posted. M loves the news sites, which I find funny given how much he wrinkles up his nose over my Facebook habit. Same addiction, different drug, my friend. He was on a kick lately with watching nature videos, one of which included a panther tearing up a baby wildebeest. He was rooting for the mama wildebeest, who was nearby and getting involved when she could, to tear up the panther. After several minutes, I had to ask him to mute his iPad as I couldn’t bear to listen to the baby wildebeest’s cries any more. Yesterday it was a shark attack on a huge marlin. By the time it was all over, the fisherman had barely a head left to show for his struggles. M gleefully showed me the bloody footage, “Look! There’s virtually nothing left! Can you imagine?” No, I don’t have to imagine, thanks to you, your iPad, and CNN.com, it’s all there in gruesome color.

There is a small child in a compartment down the hall from ours who has been crying most of the day. The parent(s) have stayed locked up in the room with the child, and I can’t imagine what their stress level must be. It’s not loud enough to be annoying to us because the rooms are incredibly well insulated, but it’s loud enough to know that it’s ear-splitting in that little compartment. The baby must be teething or ill, or simply doesn’t appreciate the view. Perhaps he or she has had terrible dining companions and can’t take it any more. Dinner hour is nearly upon us, after all.

Our train is set up like this: Engine-Engine-Baggage Car-Coach-Coach-Coach-Observation Car-Dining Car-Sleeper-Sleeper-Sleeper. This is the perfect set-up. On one of our routes last time, the sleeper cars were up front, close to the engines. We got the diesel fumes and a grimy coating that resembles coal dust, plus we clearly heard every whistle at every crossing. The train crosses a lot of roads in the middle of the night. This time, we can barely hear the whistle, and overall I feel a lot cleaner. I heard a woman asking the steward why we are in the back. He shrugged and said he didn’t know, and I mentioned all the reasons I was happy to be last. She nodded thoughtfully, and no longer felt slighted to be the caboose. You’re welcome, Amtrak.

I learned that the reason we have two engines is this: the first engine pulls us along, and the second one supplies all our power. Much like a good marriage.

At work before I left, several of us were talking about the west, and what it’s like out here. Someone hadn’t ever been, and another person wrinkled up his nose and said, “Oh, it’s awful.” I was surprised, as I think it’s beautiful. M and I just talked about it. He would move out here in a heartbeat. There is a beauty to the desolation, the rugged rocks and scrappy sage indicate life lived hard. I enjoy visiting, but think I would tire of the beige after awhile. I like color. I like green and flowers and tall trees that provide welcome shade in the summer and spectacular firework foliage in the fall and spidery webs against bleak skies in the winter. I like the variety, and would grow resentful of the sameness. But coming out here, where I feel small under the big sky and insignificant in the face of mountains formed over thousands of years, everything is placed into proper perspective. The deserts and the mountains and the Colorado River will still be here no matter who is elected president.

Animals we have seen so far: wild turkeys, bald eagle, horses, cattle, sheep (including some black, my favorite), elk, ducks, geese, dogs, ponies, miniature ponies. Also, two children at the table behind us during dinner tonight, one of whom alternated between raucous laughter and sobbing, and both of whom threw salad dressing packets at each other for fun.

I had no idea what to write when I started today. Looks like I figured it out. Good night from Provo, Utah! (Where I have a blessed signal and can get this posted.)

Saturn’s parenting lesson

I’ve read countless articles about how important it is to let your child do projects on her own. It’s also a hot topic among the mothers in my daughter’s class. At the beginning of the school year, her new 4th grade teacher told us parents that it was time to let go, let our children grow and develop on their own, and suffer (or enjoy the rewards of) the consequences of their own actions (or inactions). We’ve been really good with this so far this year. We check her homework only when she asks, or quiz her on spelling words upon request. We’ve been very hands-off, which has given us a lot more free time in the early evening and has made her more responsible. She gets good grades, so there’s little room for worry.

This past weekend, though, I fell off the wagon. I traded my haughty, “I let my child do her own projects,” mother-of-the-year award in for the worst of kind of helicoptering parenting. I blame Saturn.

Right before Christmas Zoe told us about an upcoming science/English project. Each child chose a planet (maximum of three children per planet, which meant someone was getting stuck with Mercury, which is so not a cool planet) and had to do research, write a report, and then draw a picture or make a model of their planet. Zoe, of course, chose the most popular planet among 10-year-olds: Saturn. And my first thought was, “Oh God, the rings. The rings! How in the heck are we going to attach rings to a sphere?!” And so the worrying began, along with my steep decline into control-freak over-helping. And by over-helping I mean pretty much doing a huge chunk of the project myself.

The kids have been doing research in school, and Zoe had been showing us her notes along the way. I wasn’t worried at all about the report part of the project, but the model kept me up at night. I searched the interwebs for help, and found an adorable (and easy) little Saturn model made from a small foam ball and an old CD. I showed Zoe, and of course she wrinkled up her nose and deemed it “too small.” Of course.

As most people who dread something do, I put off the project until this past weekend, even though it’s due Friday. I just couldn’t tackle it during the holidays. Zoe and I had Monday off for MLK Day, and I figured three good days would be plenty of time to wrap this up. Then M scheduled a family eagle-watching trip on Saturday, so that left us two days. Cool. No worries. We can do this. Then he left for Shanghai, and I crumbled under Saturn’s weight, even though it’s a gaseous planet and therefore very light.

We hit Michael’s on Sunday to pick up a foam ball. Foam balls, it turns out, are in the floral department, not the planet model department, and are not cheap. I once again wondered if grade-school teachers get a kick-back from Michael’s for creating all these projects. I felt lucky to find two half-spheres that fit together, which meant that I wouldn’t be worried about sawing one giant foam ball in half, which I was fairly sure would look as though a drunk in detox had handled. By this point, I was sweating and willing to pay whatever amount of money it took to make this easier. Then we found a piece of sparkly card stock that was large enough to cut a circle for Saturn’s rings. I considered myself genius for finding an easy way to do this: sandwich the ring-circle between the two hemispheres and glue together. Viola! Easy-peasy.

Turns out, the whole thing is not easy-peasy. It’s stupid hard. It’s exasperatingly excruciatingly difficult. But let me not get ahead of myself.

We headed over to the spray paint aisle and Zoe chose her colors: a rusty red for the base and a sheer blue, for the ice that swirls around Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere. We dropped $45 on Saturn ingredients and headed home, and I felt confident and relaxed for the last time in 48 hours. (The money rankles me, but it was worth every penny if the project was fairly easy.)

That afternoon, we I started The Project from Hell.

Turns out that spray paint needs 40+ degrees. I checked the weather. It wasn’t forecast to be above 20 until well past when Saturn is due. Okay, Plan B. We I would have to paint inside. The only place I felt comfortable doing that was in our fairly-packed unfinished storage room in the basement. I wheeled the giant chair racks out and cleared a space in the middle, then set up a few large cardboard boxes as a paint hood. A dark, unventilated paint hood. Brilliant. Zoe sat next to me, shaking the first can of paint. I pried off the lid and told her, “I’ll get this started so you can see how to do it, then you can take over.” I pressed the nozzle on the can, sprayed a few swipes, and took my finger off. The paint kept spraying. And spraying and dripping and spraying. I could see this was gonna be a one-take shot. I waved her out of the room as the mist engulfed us, and then turned my fingers rust red with sparkles as I turned the hemispheres and tried to get an even coating while gasping for air and cursing. We were off to a great start.

Once the base coat was on, I brought her back in to do the “ice” streaks. She could barely push the button on the spray can, so I ended up doing most of those, too. This was definitely turning out to be more of my project than hers, and I wasn’t happy about it. We let the paint dry and turned our attention to other things.

The next day, Saturn’s two halves came upstairs and Zoe chose a large plate to trace the ring. She cut it out, and we super-glued one hemisphere to the bottom. It worked beautifully, and I saw the end in sight. After it set, we went to super-glue the top, on the shiny side of the posterboard. Turns out that Saturn’s rings are impervious to super glue. I didn’t know anything was impervious to super glue. That’s what makes it so super. It sticks everything together. I started sweating again, and the expletives made another appearance. I ended up stuffing a bunch of Elmer’s Glue into the crevasse on one side of the top hemisphere, between the foam and the ring, and then held everything together, still sweating, and prayed to whomever the god of foam planets is that it would stick. After a few moments, I realized that it was going to take a lot longer to set than I wanted to sit there. I had Zoe bring two of her book box sets over and we braced Saturn between them. The books, heavy as they are, weren’t enough. We ended up using the two book boxes, book shelves, and a heavy chair.

Then I left Saturn there, stuck between “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “The Dork Diaries,” for three days. I was afraid to take it out. I reviewed the directions for the project and saw that the planet model was supposed to be the student’s interpretation of it. So I shrugged and decided that if all else failed, I’d place the Saturn pieces in a box and instruct Zoe to tell her teacher that her interpretation is “Saturn Deconstructed.” This is what happens when your mother is full of blarney in public relations. I removed Saturn this morning and it seems to hold. A friend, whose child created Mars, texted a photo of the finished Mars, which is displayed on a labeled base and has the two moons of Phobos and Deimos sticking off it. Impressive. Saturn has 53 known moons and 9 awaiting confirmation. (I know this because of my Saturn project I just completed for 4th grade). So, yeah. No moons. We have rings, though!

Saturn

Zoe has another project due. It’s a “how to” book report. After I lectured her on thinking ahead and choosing a project that is reasonable, she found a simple recipe for blondies in one of my cookbooks. She wanted to make them Monday night. Coming on the heels of Saturn, I agreed on the condition that I wouldn’t do a darn thing. I sat at the kitchen island with my head on the counter, rising only to snap photos for her presentation. She did it all herself, and did a great job.

If only I had taken that route with Saturn. Clearly I learned more from this project than my child.

These are not the teeth you’re looking for

Zoe had a big day today.

She has been messing with two loose teeth on the bottom for about a week now. Wiggle wiggle wiggle. She’s been late losing her teeth and her mouth is already over-crowded, so I’m big on the “Wiggle it a ton and get it out” mantra. This afternoon she came home and showed me a small plastic box shaped like a tooth. Inside was her tooth, which she pulled out herself in art class after a friend told her, “Just twist and pull!” She was happy it was out, because it had been hurting for over a day and she just wanted it gone. The nurse keeps a supply of the little boxes so the kids have a safe place to put their lost teeth so they don’t get lost all over again before they get home.

Then, because she’s on break from piano and got her homework done in after care, we had no obligations and were able to start her on the long-awaited Star Wars saga tonight. M and I have been stoked about this for awhile, and he finally pulled the trigger over the weekend and ordered the first six on Blu-Ray. They came yesterday, and have been shouting their siren call from the counter ever since he unwrapped them. He wanted to start her on I, and I wanted to start her on IV. He had a good case: it makes total sense chronologically to start from the beginning. You can take in the full story that way, no interruptions. I get it. But I also remembered the huge plot twists in the original three, the reveals that make you gasp for air and fit another piece into the puzzle. “Luke, I am your faaaather” won’t be powerful if you already know the results of the paternity test. I wanted her to experience those moments just like we did, just as George Lucas intended when he made IV, V and VI not knowing if he’d ever do I, II and III. Besides, it’s just not fair to start her off with Jar Jar Binks. She needs to have the history so she, too, can hate him as much as we do.

She loved the movie, of course. What’s not to love? Lucas is an epic story teller. I have so much respect for that man’s ability to craft a tale. Star Wars has everything: tension, resolution, cliff-hangers, loyalty, sacrifice, good vs. evil, love (both platonic and otherwise), comradeship, a sense of mission and greater purpose, and heroes. Lots and lots of heroes. Boy heroes and girl heroes and droid heroes. I almost burst into tears when wise Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrificed himself to Darth Vader’s light saber tonight, committing himself fully to The Force and enabling himself to be with Luke Skywalker through all his adventures. Everyone needs an Obi-Wan in their life. It was so much fun to watch with Zoe, and see her reactions to big scenes and funny asides. She loves Chewbacca. She thinks R2-D2 sounds like her guinea pig. She is now part of The Force.

As she was getting ready for bed, she showed up in my bathroom clutching a tissue and begging me to pull out the other tooth, the one on the left side of her mouth. Being in the middle of brushing my own teeth, I sent her back to her bathroom and told her to keep trying. I found her in there a few minutes later, melting down. I tried to reason with her. “You pulled out your own tooth in school today, right? Just do the same thing here.” She shook her head and wailed, “But I didn’t expect it to come out when I did that today!” So I took the tissue and gave it a try, only she wouldn’t open her mouth very wide and as soon as I got within a quarter inch of it she started wailing again. I pried her hands away from her mouth and tried to calm her down. That wasn’t working, so I moved to distraction. “Go ask Dad to pull it out.” That made both of us crack up laughing because he gets completely skeeved out just looking at an already-pulled tooth and darn near hurls if he sees her wiggling a loose one. When she started laughing she stopped crying, and then I pulled an old trick out of my dad’s bag: Let me just see how loose it is. I fell for that every darn time he pulled it on me, and she has fallen for it every time I have tried it on her. The man’s a genius. She didn’t think I was going to pull it so she relaxed and opened wide. I had the tooth out in two seconds and she didn’t even know it, just like I never knew it when Daddy pulled mine. M showed up a moment later, turned green, and made faces that caused us to laugh all over again.

Star Wars bookended by losing two teeth. What a day.

Hello, Harry

At 21 weeks, when we found out we were having a baby girl, M and I had very different reactions. They so aptly describe our personalities.

M thought:

  • No one in the family has had a girl in forever. We’re not going to get any hand-me-downs.
  • We’re going to have to pay for college and a wedding.
  • I have to get a gun because there will be boys. And I don’t even like guns.

I thought:

  • She will be a Girl Scout, and I will be her troop leader.
  • Ohmygod I’m going to mess her up because I didn’t exactly have the best role model in this department.
  • We’re going to have to pay for college, a wedding, and therapy.
  • We will read Little House on the Prairie and Harry Potter together and she will love them as much as me!

Our girl wasn’t an avid reader at first. She didn’t show much interest in consuming books much beyond having one of us read to her. I always suggested reading when she was bored and looking for something to do. No dice. She’d weave a million pot-holders on her little plastic loom over picking up a book. I’d glare at M, who thinks libraries are the scariest places on earth, and silently curse his wicked-smart engineer genes. “Fine,” I’d huff. “I guess she’ll be good at math.” And then I would shudder because any time I think about math I get the heebie-jeebies.

When I thought it was time for her to take on the Little House series, I offered to read them to her. This way we’d go through the books together and she’d be more likely to enjoy the experience. So we started, and within about four chapters I was wondering how the heck I ever loved these books because Laura Ingalls Wilder is not the most talented writer in the world. I know, I know. There are people who will consider me blaspheming because I dare go against the Little House cult. Let me just say this: when you have to devote hundreds of paragraphs to prairie grass, you might want to consider different subject matter. Prairie grass: how it looks, feels, smells, blows in the wind, is weighted down by snow, burns in a flash fire, regrows after a flash fire…not exactly riveting material. I honestly think Laura participated in some sort of frontier National Novel Writing Month on the Prairie (NaNoWriMoPra?) and was strapped for words to hit her daily goal. Enough with the prairie grass, sister.

We have gotten through about half of the Little House books. So far Nellie Oleson, by far the most interesting character, has gotten half of one paragraph, while the prairie grasses have gotten three of the four books. This is not a good ratio. In this time, Zoe has turned into a little reader on her own, devouring books at breathtaking speed. (M would want me to point out here that she’s still cranking out an A+ in math every term, and that libraries are still scary places.)

I’ve been thinking it’s time for Harry Potter. Zoe has a friend who recently tore through them all, so I figured she’s about the right age. And she loves books where exciting things happen. Well, no place is more exciting than Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling didn’t dedicate a single sentence to prairie grasses. I had originally thought that I’d read Harry Potter out loud, too, but given how long it has taken to get through the Little House books I reconsidered. We can’t read together most days because of schedules, but she reads quite a bit on her own now, including during free time at school. I don’t want to hold her up.

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-cover-imageI gave her a nudge towards Harry and his friends yesterday, after she finished her book report and the book she had been reading for fun, and was casting about looking for something new to start. I gave her a quick summary of the introduction to Harry’s life, just enough to pique her interest. She pointed at the later books in the series. “Holy cow! Those are HUGE!” I pulled out the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and showed her that it wasn’t any thicker than what she’s been reading. “Check this out. It’s regular size. Start on this and before you know it, you’ll be looking forward to those longer books because you’ll get to read so much more about these characters you will come to love.” She supposed that was true, and started reading. The line has been cast, she has taken the bait, and the hook is being set.

We snuggled together in her bed tonight as she read the third chapter. I read over her shoulder, reading not just for pleasure but also as a writer and editor. I’m watching how Ms. Rowling crafts the story, how she describes surroundings, moods, and expressions. I’m already thinking I may need to buy the whole series for my Kindle so I can read them again without having to steal Zoe’s books that are actually my books.

I love sharing this with her. I love sharing this love of reading and this love of good books and this quiet time together. She’s working on an essay for class this week about what would change in our lives if there was no television. She shrugged and said, “It wouldn’t make much difference for us. We never watch it.” And then she told me where she was in her Harry Potter book and how she couldn’t wait to read more.

Maybe I won’t need quite so much in that therapy fund after all.