Writing

A Story by Any Other Name…

Tonight, on my way home from work, I swung by a thrift shop near my house.  I love to browse around and meticulously read every single title on the shelf.  Sometimes, you get lucky and find a gem hidden among the dross.  (I once found a pristine, anniversary reprint of the first five 1920’s era Nancy Drew books.  It can happen.)  Going through all the titles–award-winners like Bud, Not Buddy right next to Babysitter’s Club #374: Claudia and the Fill-In-The-Blank-Here–is interesting.  I usually find myself imagining what the books with titles I don’t recognize might be about.

I am a writer, by hobby, but for me the title is the last thing I come up with.  I usually refer to the manuscript by the protagonist’s name until it is finished and I have to call it something.  It’s been that way for me since I was a wee thing writing the first grade mangum opus, The Grouchy Horse. (You notice that seven year-old me did not bother to branch out from this theme.)

But I think it might be fun to make up a bunch of titles and then try to work backward.  I’d also like to know what kind of stories other people would write from such a title–I’m sure we’d get a sea of really interesting and vastly different works. (Which a nerd like me would find endlessly amusing…)

There are definite title “trends” that I have observed.  There are the usual juvenile series that give you the name of the series/hero and… titles (Harry Potter AND the Sorcerer’s Stone, Percy Jackson AND the Lightning Thief, etc.)  Chick lit prominently features references to rings, bridesmaid dresses, and bad breakups.  Things like A Ring for the Road, or Stacey Oliver’s Secret, and so on.  It’s actually kind of interesting.

I, of course, had to start developing a prototype list standing in the store, because (let’s face it) this is who I am as a person.  Some of my ideas include:

  • Reading the Novel Backward: This could either be a mystery of some kind, or one of those “Person who leaves home at a young age returning to hometown and making peace with past” deals.
  • Just Out of Focus:  I see this as a potential coming-of-age novel, after the tradition of Stand By Me, etc.
  • The Birds Never Sing: Historical fiction.  I envision the Gilded Age.
  • The Tower to the East:  Fantasy.  Or Medieval historical fiction.  But probably fantasy
  • Turn Left at Decorah:  Sister (or brother) against-wishes road trip.  Relationships healed.  Bonding ensues.
  • 327 Sycamore:  I don’t know what this is about, but there are always books with house numbers.
  • The Magic of Dusk: Harry Potter-Twilight rip off-style hybrid.  Basically it will make a million dollars because those are two monster franchises right there…
  • Call Me After 30:  Chick lit, with a side of “grown-up-ing is hard.”

So, there you go. Writing a novel?  Need a title?  Look no further!  I’m sure all of these will be big winners for you!  (Also–any good ones to add to the list?)

Life generally... · Misadventures

Curly hair, don’t care

I think it’s fair to begin by saying that, as I write this, my hair is completely slathered in coconut oil and is currently clipped onto the top of my head and wrapped up in an old t-shirt.  It has been this way for the past two-and-a-half hours, and realistically, will probably be that way for another three.

If your gut reaction was somewhere between “That’s an odd way to spend a Saturday night,” and “That is downright bizarre,” you are probably among the 89% of people in the world that do not have curly hair.  (I can give you this math because I just looked it up.  Google is such a nifty thing…) If you are one of the 11%, and therefore among my curly haired sisters, this sounds perfectly normal to you.  Curly-haired folk fall into two camps: they that spend hours and hours trying to make their hair sleek and smooth like the straight-haired people of the world, and they that spend hours and hours trying to get their curls to behave in a civilized and attractive manner, rather than like an Exorsist-style version of Cousin It.  It’s very time consuming.

What you have to understand about curly hair, if you do not have it, is that curly hair has a life of its own, and nothing you can do will convince it to do anything other than exactly what it wants.  Oh, sure, you catch me on a day when it’s cooperating, it’s amazing.  But you don’t see all the mornings when I wake up and look in the mirror only to think, “Oh, why?!”  Straightening it is an involved, forty-five minute process that only lasts about an hour, until I walk into anything even moderately humid (say, past a drinking fountain…) Keeping it curly involves trying to tempt and cajole it into doing what you want, which is dicey at best.  I can do the exact same thing to my hair three days in a row, and I’ll get “Meh” hair on day one, “Smashing” hair on day two, and “I Just Put My Finger In A Light Socket” on day three.  It’s completely hit-and-miss.

Most of  my hair-care habits have been picked up from one of three sources:

  1. A really smashing book called Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey. This was my first soirée into accepting my curly hair.  (If you have curly hair and have not read this book, you should stop reading this and go read it. Immediately.)
  2. My African-American students who wear their hair the natural way.  They come in from swimming in gym class and we talk about how insane curly hair is if it gets wet and you don’t put in product, and they’re always like, “Miss D., what you really need to do is…” I’ve gotten some good stuff this way.
  3. Pinterest.  (Because whenever do you not have Pinterest on a list like this?)

Pinterest tends to be my favorite lately, mostly because I like trying new stuff, and like every curly-haired girl of my acquaintance, I’m constantly on the quest for a miracle produce that will give me cinema-style perfection on a daily basis.  (This is totally impossible on the level of waking up at 3 a.m. on two hours of sleep with perfect make-up, but a girl can dream…)

Segue into the coconut oil and the t-shirt.  A Pinterest find, in this case.  It’s ridiculous and it might not work.  But it might.  And the article had 4/4 tried-it-and-loved-it hearts, so that’s something.  Of course, after I had this all slathered up, I read about how some people are really allergic to coconut oil and get horrible breakouts–with my luck, that will be me, but it will be an interesting object lesson.

My hair has gotten curlier as I’ve aged, but even in my teens, my hair was voluminous.  I came of age in the final seasons of Friends, where there was nary a curl or wave or even a hint of volume to be found.

While it’s nice that curly hair (along with brunettes, a membership card I also claim…) are finally back in fashion, having hair that could never be “cool” taught me a lot in those formative late-teens and early-twenties years.  I made peace with being me.  I will never be able to pull of all those sleek, polished looking up-dos.  It always looks, well, wrong and anyway, it would only last about ten minutes. But I like my curly hair.  It’s kind of crazy and everywhere and only marginally following the rules, which is kind of who I am as a person, really.  I only marginally believe in patterns and instruction manuals and believe top-down mandate protocol is open to a certain amount of, shall we say, interpreation. I’m kind of like my hair.  So I guess it’s no mistake that it’s growing out of the top of my head.

I have started finding a few gray hairs (a total moment of panic that would have been worth getting on camera…) mixed into my mass of curls lately.  They are a million times more curly than my “regular” tresses.  I hope this is an indication of what kind of old lady I’ll be one day–no Bea Arthur coif for me, no sir-ee.  I’m going to be that crazy old lady who is always coming up with wacky ideas and bending rules and doing all the things she wants to do.  That’s what curly hair says to me.  And I say, sign me up. 

Life generally... · Misadventures

I hate romance (and other truisms)

So, tonight, I was conned into going to see the new, live-action Beauty and the Beast with a couple girlfriends of mine, and I was reminded (for about the fifteen billionth time) about how much I hate romance in fiction.  Hate it.  I will avoid it at all costs.  I will make up excuses not to go over when people are watching these movies.  I turn the channel when they are on T.V.  A friend lends me a book that clearly features a love story as a major plot (or sub plot), I’ll let it sit on my table for a month, then read a synopsis and give it back.  The rom-coms I own sit in a drawer, unwatched for I-don’t-know how many years.  I have a love-hate relationship with my darling Jane Austen.  So, let me state that again, emphatically: I HATE ROMANCE.

I hate it so passionately, because at my core, I am a hopeless romantic.  I read somewhere once that “Within the chest of every jaded cynic beats the heart of a hopeless romantic,” and I reckon that’s pretty much dead on.  I hate romance in books and films because it’s like a drug to my spirit–I get high on the idea that somewhere out there, there are men who are well-read and can quote Shakespeare (who are not my college English professors).  I get completely bombed on the reckless abandon with which love happens in fiction–the idea that someone sees the funny, quirky things about you and sees them not only as gems but encourages them.  (I will cite that moment when Belle gets that exquisite library, in the cartoon, in the stage show, in the new movie.  It doesn’t matter.  It is such a part of her character, that to me that moment is magical.  I confess I brushed away a literal tear of jealousy in the movie theatre tonight.)

Unfortunately, I am now too old and smart for this.  My little girl, princess days are long behind me.  I know what reality is–I pay bills and clean my bathroom and use a CrockPot and spend more hours than I could ever count dedicated to raising the children of other people.  I have learned that (let us be real) things that make heroines really awesome in books and film does not necessarily translate to great success to real life.

I recently celebrated my thirty-third birthday.  I know, those of you among my elders are thinking things like, “Oh, you’re such a baby,” and cognitively, I agree with you.  But for some reason, this birthday hit me hard.  I don’t know why.  It’s not a round age.  Thirty slipped into my life with zero doom-and-gloom.  This year, though, I started looking at my life, and began to panic.  I think it’s because I feel like I’m such a static person.  All around me, friends, family, have gotten married and started families, while I remain good ol’ reliable me, ready to help–the good friend, the good sister.  Though I’ve always wanted those things, I didn’t worry.  I guess it’s because I subscribe strongly to the idea that you should live the life God gives you, not mope around wishing for something different.  So I’ve done lots of cool things with my time.  I guess I (stupidly?) just figured that when it was right it would happen.

But, then tonight, I found myself sitting in the movie theatre, with my two friends who live in the suburbs and have their husbands and houses and three kids, and I felt lost.  I’m not a starry-eyed idealist all the time–I know that life is just hard.  You give up the right to sleep for about six years when you have a child.  Marriages are tough and your spouse will annoy you.  I have been a steady shoulder for each of them in some of those tough times.  I have walked with these two women, my friends, through illnesses and cancer scares and miscarriages and layoffs and broken furnaces.  But I have also walked with them through the new homes and babies and good report cards and anniversaries.  And through their list of important life events, I just…am.  Good ol’ me.  Always there to lend a hand.

I find myself under the  pressure of time, and the reality that, no only am I in a profession where a girl just doesn’t meet single men, but no one I know knows any single men.  (The whole online dating nightmare is a post filled with enough drama and mad comedy to fit in with your average middle school dance…that is for another day.)  I feel the rising fear of complications that accompany “geriatric pregnancies” (the phrase “geriatric” alone fills me with unabashed terror.)  It’s horrifying.  I panic about what will happen to me if I get seriously sick–who will go with me to the doctor?  Who will help me make hard decisions?  Of course, I know people do these things all the time.  I know that I’m not totally alone, that I have God on my side, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re tired and frustrated and lonely.

The only way I know to avoid the irrational desire to get weepy and call my mom is to just…put my nose to the grindstone and get on with the business of my life.  If I don’t think about it, I’m pretty okay.  I do my job, have my social life, have my little stresses and little victories.  Life keeps on keepin’ on.

But movies and books (I mean, it was Beauty and the Beast tonight, for crying out loud.  It’s a ruddy fairy tale!) knock me off my rhythm.  They feed me that narcotic of people finding each other, and ordinary, lonely people who do not have to be alone anymore.  It’s intoxicating.    And as long as the high lasts, I imagine that maybe one day things will change for me.  But then the lights come back on, I get into my car, and the crash comes, because I am smart enough to know that it doesn’t work like that–not for me, anyway.

But (and someone else very smart said this) “Hope springs eternal.”  The most frustrating thing about being a romantic is that you can’t kill hope.  You can’t kill that stubborn little flame of “just maybe.”  I guess it’s a good thing.  It keeps life interesting.  It keeps you guessing.  I suppose it’s why God gave it to us–to keep us from giving up.  But, wow, is it tough.  Tough, but unbreakable–it’s the reason Jane Austen sits in a place of honor on my shelf, and why I can’t just give away those DVDs.  I guess it’s also why I love writing fiction–it may not happen for me, but in my fictional world, I can make it happen for someone else.  And that is a high in and of itself.

Teaching

Mozart be lit.

So, my choir kids had a concert today.  It’s a big deal.  First of all, because we are still a baby program (when I took over two years ago, the program had a membership of twelve kids), so anytime we manage to pull anything off, people are still kind of surprised.  But, more importantly, because I teach middle school so literally EVERYTHING is a big deal.  My fellow M.S. educators know where I’m coming from.  Just watch the greeting ritual of two seventh grade girls who haven’t seen each other in ten minutes–let’s just say there is a lot of squealing and hugging.  You’d think one of them had literally just come back from the dead.

It felt like an accomplishment to me, too.  I have high standards, and (unlike my colleagues) I understand where a middle school choral program should be.  I look at where we are and can only think of how far we have to go.  There is so much they don’t know.  In so many ways, I am sending kids unprepared for high school choral programs out of my program.  We have such a long road ahead!  It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is undone, how many times I feel like I’m failing them as their teacher and not doing the job as well as I would like to because of the simple fact that I am a One doing the job of Two.

I feel the constant pressure from my students to sing music they already know.  (Not sometimes.  Literally ALL THE TIME.)  Middle schoolers, unlike their high school counterparts, have very little interest in trying new things.  They want to do what they know.  If they don’t know it, well, then just forget it.  It’s probably garbage, as far as they’re concerned.  So doing the music that I know is best for them is the musical equivalent of trying to convince your average six year old to eat spinach.  It is a losing battle.

But there are victories, small ones, when I force feed them enough real choral music that they actually hear the potential that is there–how what sounds best in a choir is not what sounds best on the radio.  My 8th grade girls choir is in the middle of an Epiphany Month.  Every few days, it’s like a new light bulb comes on, and they become a little bit more like the choral singers I hope they will be.

After our concert today, they showed up for class ready to watch a movie.  “Nice try,” said I, their mean, cruel and generally nasty director, “We only have two months until our last concert.  We have work to do.”  They groused.  I preened their egos about their great job a bit, and then I let them choose between two different (non-pop) pieces.  The one they picked (which I really hoped they would) is lush and full and truly choral.   We listened to a recording, and at the moment in the music where I first fell in love with the piece, one of my girls breathes, “Oh, this is awesome.”  Little tittering whispers around the choir, as they write on scraps of paper which song they want to do.  The vote is so far in favor of The Lass from the Low Countree I don’t even have to bother to properly count.

My school has a strong minority representation–which is really cool, because there is a richness in having so many different backgrounds in my classroom.  I have had many (administrators, mostly) who don’t know music well, who insist that choral music doesn’t have a place in culturally responsive education.  I point out that Mozart is just as foreign to my Caucasian students as Spirituals are to my African-American students–both are important, and both help make them better performers.  (I site candy–eat too much candy, your teeth will fall out and you will get sick.  Too much pop music makes it hard to breed a good and healthy young singer. But this is a soap box for another day…)  

Anyway, so we are doing a choral arrangement of a piece from Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute,” titled Papageno-Papagena.  You don’t need to know about it, really (but it’s an awesome piece, in my unbiased opinion…), but you just have to know it’s Mozart.  It was written by some Austrian guy over 200 years ago.  It is light years away from my 8th grade choir and their American ideas and smart phones and instant gratification culture.

But we worked on it today, because I’m “mean” and expect them to sing in choir, like, all the time.  (The nerve, I mean, really…) But we started going, and guess what?  Lo, and behold, it sounded pretty good.  “Why?” you ask.  “Because Mozart wrote music for real, human voices without any digital help,” say I.  Well, that and because my girls are finally starting to listen to one another and are singing as an ensemble, rather than a bunch of soloists all singing at the same time.  They are finally beginning to make music.

We finish the section–at the same time, in the right key.

One of my girls, “Aria,” does a quick improve dance off of the dab.  “Awww, yeah,” she says, “This be lit!”

You heard it here first, folks.  Just remember, the next time you hear a piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…he may be a lot of things, but for some Midwestern, middle school singers, he be lit!

Culture · Life generally...

Confessions of a Sometimes Hipster

I live in the hipster Mecca of my city.  That may not be a big deal to my West Coast friends, but it’s kind of a thing if you’re in the Midwest–we are into things like snowblowing and tater tot casserole.  I did not move to this area intentionally.  I did it because it’s a really cute apartment with nifty 1920’s period features and cheap rent that included free heat…  But, nonetheless, I live in a place with quirky restaurants that cater to whatever weird diet you may have.  (Vegan? No problem.  Gluten free?  Everything on the menu fits the bill.  Something as blasé as vegetarianism or lactose intolerance doesn’t even warrant an honorable mention.)  We have nary a big box store to be found, but I can think of three different vintage record shops off the top of my head.  We are also known in our city for our hip dive bars where all the cool kids (so cool that we don’t bother with the “usual” party clubs, you see–we are hipsters here, after all…) like to go.  There’s this one bar that is literally open randomly, and only when the owner feels like opening it–there are no posted hours.  So it’s open now, randomly, on a Wednesday night, but there is a real possibility it will be closed when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around this Friday–go figure.  I once saw a guy in a purple leisure suit ride past on his unicycle.  I live in that kind of neighborhood.

My friends (especially the ones who got married in their twenties and now live in the suburbs with their SUV’s and 2.5 kids) have started telling me that I’m kind of a hipster.  I used to deny it, but I’m beginning to think that maybe this would be false advertising.  I wear a lot of leggings and the messy topknot is the my Saturday hair jam.  I’m a big fan of baggy sweaters, scarves, and Converse.  I even own a pair of fake Buddy Holly style glasses that I wear when I want to look smart and get people to take me seriously.  My house is full of secondhand treasures and random retro kitsch that nobody really likes except for me.  I own a picnic basket and use it on the regular in the summer months.

Right now, I am wearing a burnt orange puffy vest, circa 1974.  I like old movies and classic red lipstick.  I like to make stuff from scratch and have at various points tried to make my own: shaving cream, candles, lip balm, and face masks.  I read poems.  I have toyed with the idea of getting an old typewriter because it just sounds so romantic to write letters on a typewriter.  (My mom talked me out of it because she said it hurts your wrists after a while.  That, and I didn’t know where to get tape for one if I bought it…)

I feel like, though, hipster-dom has robbed me of my nerdiness.  I liked all that stuff back before the hipster movement made it cool, and watching black and white movies and Glenn Miller were things only nerds like me did.  I simply refuse to allow some early  20-somethings rob me of my nerd-dom!  In the words of my sister, “Emily, you’re a natural born hipster–you always liked that stuff, so it doesn’t really count.  You’re not being ironic.  You’re just being you.”

Plus, I do have my little passive-aggressive, anti-hipster jibs.  Let the record state that I absolutely despise quinoa.  I think the texture is weird and it tastes like what I imagine prison food must taste like (i.e. like absolutely nothing.)  And while we’re at it, I think kale is gross, too.  (Unless its slathered in olive oil and sea salt and baked into kale chips, thereby completely nullifying any intrinsic health value…)  I can’t get into the heavily made-up eye look.  It’s just way too much work, let’s be real, here.  I also hate beer as a general rule, so something crappy like P.B.R. is definitely not part of my world.

And at the end of the day, I’m just not ironic enough.  And when I say “enough,” I mean, “at all.”  I mean, I’m a child of the 1990’s who still associates the word “ironic” with Alanis Morissette.  And, anyway, I actually really like all the weird hobbies I have and old clothes I wear, and I don’t really have enough cares to be bothered by what other people may think about it.  If that makes me a hipster, well, then I’m in.  I figure it just makes me “Me.”  I’ll still be like that when hipsters go the way of Hammer Pants and The Rachel.  And I’m good with it that way.  And there’s nothing ironic about that…don’t ya think?

Life generally...

Illusion of daylight

Daylight savings always throws me for a loop in the spring.  I’m so used to leaving work at dusk (or worse, the dead of night), that I have a very pressing and urgent sense of time.  I know that I need to get things done so that I can go to bed, because night is a reality.

Daylight savings happens, and suddenly, I feel like I have all the time in the world.  When I left work today at 4:30, it was still mid-day bright.  So I ran a few (non-essential) errands, and then got home, and decided to go and get some yarn for a project which I didn’t really need to get.  Even now, it’s after 6:30, and the sun is finally sinking behind my neighbors’ houses, but I don’t feel any sort of urgency.  I know I need to get dinner made, to finish this, to clean the bathroom, and try to get to bed before 11.00 tonight, because I’m exhausted.

But it’s still daylight outside–I have all the time in the world!  There’s still time to sit and stare out the window and let my mind wander.  There’s still time to mindlessly half-do tasks and fantasize about spring break.  And it’s all an illusion!

So, I’m going to keep this post short, and get to it!  Get things done, because now it is nearly dark, and the reality of how late it is is starting to sink in.  Daylight is gone, and so is the illusion.  Back to reality I go!

 

Hygge · Kitchen Culture · Life generally... · Recipes

FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.