Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

This December has been busier and more wonderful than expected so far... which means I've been short on blogging.

So I just wanted to take a moment to say Merry Christmas to all you readers who are celebrating it. The next week, like the past few days, is full of family gatherings for me, so I may not post again until at least the 29th.

In the meantime, I'm wishing you all a warm, healthy, happy holiday.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another OPB

Things are far enough along that I can write about this in my semi-anonymous blog: my older sister is expecting her first child in April.

This has been a strange and interesting journey for me so far, as the auntie-to-be: my sister is my only sister, and we look and sound similar enough, despite our seven-year age difference, to have been confused for twins in the past. Seeing the changes she's going through in her pregnancy make me wonder how similar my experience might be someday in the future.

My big sister has been very generous with information about the process of pregnancy, which I'm grateful for - there are so many things a woman just doesn't think to ask about these things, so many changes that make some sense, but that I could see not considering until it's my own body surprising me. Like with many things in life, my elder sister is learning from experience and then handing me the cheat sheet, telling me to file these things away until I need to know them. This is definitely the advantage of being the youngest sibling.

While I continue to appreciate the top-notch job my sister does of being a good sister, I am also - like always, when encountered with a pregnant woman - in awe of what she's doing right now. She is growing a person. And she is doing this while going about her days: walking the dog, going to work, taking a swim. She's been growing a person for 22 weeks now, every hour of every day. Women really are incredible in this way, and sometimes the sheer wonder of this capacity we have is a little overwhelming.

My sister was staying at our apartment a few weeks ago when she felt the baby move for the first time in a way that she could definitively tell (she had been feeling "gas" before, but she confessed that the whole pregnancy made her so gassy she wasn't sure what she was feeling! Another note for my future files). When she described the little "dum-da-dump" tapping feeling she felt, right at the front of her belly, I envisioned the tiny hand that played this rhythm, and was amazed. She's growing a person. As I type, even, she's still growing that person. That's... pretty cool.

Over this past weekend we spent a good deal of time with my husband's two new cousins. One is 6 months old, the other 5 weeks. When I was holding the 6-month-old and gazing at sparkling Christmas tree ornaments with him, I realized I had some trouble imagining a time when he didn't exist. I've heard people say this about children before, but this little trailblazer of a cousin might just be the first tyke who made me feel it: there was a whole family, a whole world before him, but now that concept doesn't make sense, because he's here.

I understand that the Mormons believe we all have "eternal" souls, that is, our souls were hanging around waiting to be embodied before we were born - it's part of the reason they have large families. It's not a belief I necessarily share with them, but when a 6-month old baby makes you confused about what life was like before him, it makes one understand where they're coming from.

It's a bit intimidating to think that, this time next year, I'll feel the same way - though surely with more intensity - about my new niece or nephew. Right now it's still hard to imagine my sister and brother-in-law with a child of their own, and myself as an aunt. Soon, we won't remember anything but that.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Good Causes for the Holidays: Greater Chicago Food Depository

I've long been a fan of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, since I first learned about them in 2004. They support a host of housing programs in the city, including the agency where I used to work. I have, in fact, directly benefited from the Food Depository: free lunch was one of the benefits of my former job, and it helped out the staff of a non-profit that really couldn't afford to distribute large paychecks.

When this report came out about American "food insecurity", and this article was posted in the New York Times about the spike in food stamp use, I realized this group has even more work to do this winter... even after the need for food pantries had already increased the last couple of years.

From the report: "This is the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted."

This, in the United States, still one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.

Locally, I like to support the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a group that not only assists individuals and families, but supplements all kinds of local charitable organizations - including the program where I used to work. Without food support, I know that many non-profits in the city would have difficulty making ends meet while they are trying to provide services for people who need it most.

After Thanksgiving, which is a holiday of Too Much Food, and in the midst of the baking and overeating that is common during December, it's especially jarring to consider our neighbors who are having trouble putting enough food on the table to meet their nutritional needs.

Of course, this group is location-specific, but I'm sure if you aren't in Chicago there's a similar group fighting hunger. Feeding America (Formerly known as America's Second Harvest) hosts a handy food-bank locator for groups all over the country.

My current workplace is having a Chrismukkah party next week, and we're collecting donations for the Greater Chicago Food Depository as part of the celebration. I've heard of several places doing things like this: hosting parties with a "cover charge" of nonperishable food. It's an easy way to do a little good.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A quick note

Well, it's December already, so I wanted to do a quick little rundown of November and think about what I'd like to do here this month.

* NaBloPoMo was a moderate success for me - I posted 11 times, which fell short of my 15-post goal, but is still the most I've ever posted in a month. (You know, in my long blogging career.) At the moment I'm thinking roughly 10 posts a month is a good average to shoot for while I continue to get my blogging bearings.

* My busy quarter is finished, so I have no classwork to worry about this month... except perhaps some work on my thesis proposal, but I'm giving myself a couple of weeks of not-school thinking.

* I've thought of a few fun stories I'd like to recount here, but I'm still mulling over the multi-part post vs. one huge post format. Readers, which do you prefer? Shorter, episodic storytelling? Or one big blast of reading? If they're shorter posts do you find it annoying if an unrelated post goes up between episodes?

That reminds me, have you read The Pioneer Woman's love story? That was episodic and took her like two years to finish (if it's finished now... I keep hoping she'll pick it up again where she left off, after the wedding). Good reading. I want to be like her when I grow up.

*I'm planning a few more good causes posts. If y'all have suggestions for causes you'd like to hear about, let me know!

It just started snowing outside, so I think this counts as the first day of real live wintertime for Chicago. I love this time of year, when snow is still exciting for everyone, we're all decorating and baking and plotting gifts, school years are winding down and family plans are getting firmed up.

Happy December!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Making a list of stuff I'm grateful for and posting it the day before Thanksgiving is so obvious it's almost trite, but this is my first Thanksgiving with a blog, so I'm doing it!

*I'm grateful that I'm married to someone I really, really like. I love him, too, of course, but you know how you can love someone and not like them? I'm glad I'm not in that situation. My husband rocks. He takes good care of our kitty and he fixes broken things and he remembers to pay the rent every month and he's very tall and gets things off of high shelves for me. Also, he plays several musical instruments very well and writes good songs. And he went to a fabric store with me this weekend and didn't get bored... which makes him better than me, in that regard. He listens to my endless yammering with patience. He laughs with me, especially at fart jokes. And he's a good hugger. This is becoming a list-within-a-list, so I'll pause there. But I'm a fan, and I'm very thankful for him.

*I'm grateful for employment, which in this economy is not to be taken for granted. And it's a job that indirectly does good things for people, and it's working with grad students which means there's always food around - I'm mostly grateful for that, except when I start to show that I've been visiting the cheesecake bites a little too often.

* I'm grateful for the students I work with. They. Are. Awesome. Well, most of them. Most of the time. Which is a pretty good record for anyone with whom one works, right?

* I'm grateful that I'll get to spend some quality time with both of my siblings and both of their significant others and both of my parents, all in the same place on Thanksgiving, and that we'll get to meet my new baby cousin, and that another cousin of mine (who, once upon a time, was considered the "baby" herself) will be there from Europe with her fiance, who we all get to meet. I'm happy that all these people are alive and healthy and talking to each other (OK - the baby's not really talking yet. She was born in July).

* I'm grateful for good friends I can trust, and who trust me in return. I currently know exciting secrets of two close friends - which I'm obviously not going to write in this list - and it's touching to hear "listen, I haven't told anyone else about this but I'm really excited and had to share it with you..." It makes me feel like I'm doing something right, to know people trust me like that. I think the first step is not telling anyone else the exciting secret. So I will stop typing about this... now.

* As much as I complain about it, I am grateful for the opportunity to go to grad school. And I'm very grateful that I'm mostly finished with it at this point.

* I'm grateful that I'm basically healthy, that I'm still (occasionally) running, and that I've got a couple of athletic events planned in the next year or so that could be awesome.

* I am grateful for inspiration and prodding and minor butt-kicking that prompted me to start a blog. Writing is good for me, and this format seems to suit me.

* As a part of that, I'm grateful to you few stalwart folks who read this blog. Thank you for taking the time to read these words.

I hope you all have a safe, warm, fun Thanksgiving full of turkey and cute babies and board games and laughs... or whatever family traditions you tend to go for. I expect that posting will be light-to-nonexistent until Sunday around here, on account of food and family and whatnot.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Plenty of writing... just not here

I'm wondering if I really will manage this 15 posts in one month thing... it's getting down to the wire.

Also, I have some slightly more pressing writing to do this weekend: namely, a final paper which is due on Tuesday, and which will potentially serve as the foundation for my thesis proposal literature review.

So, friends, it's going to be a quiet weekend on the Yo-hah! front, unless I pop in to tell you about interesting research - and I sincerely hope I don't do that to you.

(Hm... my blog has an exclamation point, just like "Jeopardy!"... which reminds me of a story... But I'll save that for later.)

Happy weekend-before-Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Good Causes For The Holidays: PAWS Chicago

Since Thanksgiving is almost upon us and Christmas is right around the corner, it occurred to me that I'd like to highlight some of my favorite causes for the holidays. This is partly for my own benefit: I'll have all of these links saved on my blog for some day when I have more funds and can become a fat-cat contributor.

But in the meantime, I can spread the word a little about them to you, my lovely readers.

And, you know, donations to good causes make nice Chrismukkah (the name of the season at my Catholic workplace filled with Jewish attorneys) gifts for those who have everything already.

So, the first Good Cause I want to highlight is the source of our little kitty, Corina:

Corina, the week we brought her home.
She was so little!

Corina is one of the most sociable cats I've met in my life. As long as someone is in our apartment, she's purring. She tolerates being held, but mostly enjoys curling up nearby if you're, say, typing on a laptop on the couch. She even travels well: When we go to my in-laws' house, we take her with us in her kitty carrier. She only meows if she falls asleep in the car and wakes up a while later, disoriented. Which is cute.

We found Corina at PAWS Chicago, a charity that already boasts a long list of famous supporters (including Oprah!). One distinguishing factor of PAWS is that it's a no-kill shelter: when they accept a dog or cat, they will keep it as long as it takes to adopt that pet out. On the cat side of the shelter (called "Kitty City", as opposed to "Dog Town"), that means they have a room for senior cats - older kitties who became homeless later in life for whatever reason. It's comforting to know those adult cats aren't going to be euthanized, and of course sometimes people are looking for a calmer, grown-up cat to adopt.

Corina was the oldest kitty in the kitten room, at roughly 9 months old, and she stood out among the playful fur-balls as a diplomatic little lady. She walked right up to my husband as soon as we entered the room, and sniffed his face. The tactic worked: he was smitten. I got distracted by a couple of other kittens for a moment, but we kept coming back to her.

The volunteer in the kitten room confided that, if her husband would have let her bring another cat home, it would have been Corina. The volunteer seemed thrilled that we saw what she saw: a sweet companion.

An hour of waiting (some of it at the pet supply shop across the street - we were excited to look at cat toys for OUR cat!) and a pile of paperwork later, we were ready to take Corina home. I rode in the back seat with her while the hubs drove. Though she made no sound, Corina reached her paw out through the front grate of the cat carrier and touched my leg. It made me feel like we made the best decision possible.

If you're familiar with cats, you know that they generally act skittish in a new place. It's common for a cat to dart under a couch or something while she gets her bearings: new smells and sounds can feel pretty threatening. We don't know if it's a toughness developed during her life on the streets or what, but Corina didn't do this at all. When we let her out of her carrier into her new home, she walked the length of the apartment, sniffing everything, then did it again. No hiding, no slinking around, no hissing. Within roughly half an hour, she had found her litter pan, food dish, water, and scratchy pole, and she seemed to have declared the place - and the people in it - hers.

That was in March. She's since filled out and grown up, but she hasn't lost any of her sweetness.

If you're thinking of getting a pet or contributing to an animal welfare group, I'd encourage you to check out a no-kill shelter. The PAWS folks like to say that adopting a pet from a no-kill shelter saves two pets: the one you bring home and the one you open a space for. I'm grateful for the people I'll probably never meet who found homeless little Corina somewhere in Chicago, to the vets who gave her medical care when she was a sick little kitten, to the donors who funded that care, and to whoever adopted the cat whose open space in the shelter was filled by our kitty.

Thanks to all of them, we have a goofy, healthy, purring housemate who is helping me look forward to winter break even more than I usually do. What better way to spend a cold evening than with a good book, a warm drink, and a purring kitty by your side?

Together at my in-laws' house this summer.
She's a master relaxer.

Not much. But helping other homeless pets can feel just about as nice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Other blogs have "Wordless Wednesdays", and "Wedded Wednesdays", and perhaps my personal favorite, "Unitasker Wednesdays" on Unclutterer.

I just like Wednesdays, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give them an alliterating theme on this here blog just yet.

There is a lot to like so far about this particular Wednesday. It's raining here in Chicago, and I kind of enjoy rainy days. My coworker gave me a surprise coffee-and-donut treat this morning, and oh, how I love coffee and a donut. I don't have class this evening - in fact, I'm finished with class meetings for 2009 - so I can go home this evening and spend time with my husband and our kitty and probably some acoustic musical instruments.

I will probably chat with my mom on the phone this evening, because she and I chat on the phone every Wednesday - something we've done since I moved out of the house 9 years ago. This is the grown-up version of Wednesday afternoons many years ago, when I was in kindergarten in the mornings. Mom would take off work midday and would walk me home from school so we could spend a little time together, just the two of us, before my older siblings got home from all-day school and my dad came home from work and the house got crowded again.

I think this means it's my mom's fault I like Wednesdays. That's OK. I hope my kids like Wednesdays in the future, too.

So, happy rainy/coffee/time-with-loved-ones Wednesday, everybody.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camping: Giving it another try - Part III.

Haven't read the rest of the camping epic? Get some background here , Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

On Saturday morning, I awoke in a self-built cocoon. I was wearing:
  • Wool socks
  • Long underwear
  • Flannel pajama pants
  • Blue jeans
  • A long-sleeved technical running shirt
  • A hooded sweatshirt
  • And a fleece jacket.
All this, inside a mummy-style sleeping bag that was rated to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, lying on one of those inflatable camp mattresses that gives you a buffer from the cold ground, and covered over with a thick comforter that we had thrown in the car at the last minute, just in case.

I shuffle-rolled over on to my side, and it took me a moment to figure out where my husband's face was, because he was wearing a winter hat while burrowed deep inside his sleeping bag, which was cinched almost shut.

It was a bit cool that morning.

I should also note that I enjoy cold weather: one of my incentives for moving to Chicago was the winters. My husband is even more of a polar bear than I am: there's a favorite story in his family about how his grandfather slept with the window open until his grandmother put her foot down when she awoke to snow on their bed.

But they were both still indoors, at least.

We climbed out of our tent into the brisk, bright morning and looked around. I had noted the night before that we wouldn't really know what the area looked like until the sun was up, and I was right.

Our campsite was between a thicket of woods and some prairie area. None of the sites near ours were occupied. There was a clearing across the little gravel lane from us, where there wasn't even a site. The other three sides of our site were surrounded by short trees and tall bushes, all of which were in bright autumnal colors.

After a quick hike to the latrine, we got started with cooking. My in-laws had given us their old Coleman camp stove. For those of you unfamiliar with this beast, it looks like this:

That red jigger (note: technical term) on the front is mostly full of liquid fuel. One has to use a little pump to pressurize the fuel, and then light the first burner.

We knew that, once we got this little stove going, we would have coffee and a hot breakfast in no time. We also knew that no one had used this stove in years, possibly decades. It took roughly 30 minutes of pumping, attempted lighting, tossing used matches into the fireplace, rubbing hands to thaw out fingers, and pumping again, but finally hubs got the idea to warm the fuel tube that feeds the burner with a match. Somehow, that got the whole thing rolling.

And with that, the morning was suddenly much warmer.

I scrambled eggs and made pancakes, which I flipped with a spatula fashioned out of wire coat hanger and aluminum foil by the hubs - we had forgotten to pack one. But it worked! We drank instant coffee with powdered milk. We watched the world wake up around us, and we began to notice the fantastic colors of Wisconsin autumn. We were both feeling glad to be there.

There is so much less chaos to report for this camping trip, really. When my last bit of coffee got cold (I take longer to finish a cup of coffee than anyone I know), we decided to head to the nearest town to thaw our feet and explore a little. In town, we found an enormous and charming antique mall, a tiny independent coffee shop and a hardware store that had everything we needed for the rest of the trip : a tent pole repair kit, weenie roasting sticks, another flashlight, and - my new favorite product in the world - toe warmers. We then found a local ancient history/geology station that explained the local topography, and took a series of hikes around the park.

While it was still light out, we returned to our camp site and I began building the fire we would use for cooking hot dogs, and then roasting marshmallows, and then just warming our feet and hands as the night grew colder. Saturday night was crystal clear - not a cloud to be found. We could see the Milky Way, and we spent some time not talking at all, just watching the stars over the clearing.

It was about then that I put the toe warmers in my boots. Are you familiar with these?

People, if you live in a climate that gets cold, check these things out. "6+ hours" is a modest approximation. I slapped these things on my socks as the sun went down, and my feet stayed toasty for most of the night. They're little miracles of modern technology, that's what they are.

Where was I? Oh, right. Sitting by the fire with my favorite person as the night got colder and the stars sparkled in the sky. We were full and (mostly) warm and happy. We schemed and planned about things, and kept watching the stars, and breathing in the cold night air, until we were both yawning.

Another cozy night in the tent (with warm toes!), and I awoke around 6:00 Sunday morning, absolutely relaxed. When I climbed out, I realized it really had gotten much, much colder that night: everything, including our tent and the parked car, was covered with a thick layer of frost.

Like this:

Photo by my taller half.

But my toes were still warm.

The morning required more hot coffee and breakfast, and then it was time to slowly pack up our things and move along back home. Even the traffic cooperated, and we got back to Chicago in the three hours it was supposed to take.

So it turns out we can go camping without near-death experiences, after all.

Until next time, at least...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Because I'm not used to having readers.

Before I started writing this blog, like, ten minutes ago, I was reading other people's blogs. My reader has a long list of regularly-visited blogs on it, but I realized a while ago that the one I've visited most regularly has been That Wife. There's a simple reason for this: she just finished posting every single day for the last year. And she's a very interesting writer.

This week, Jenna (that's That Wife's name) has been having a celebration week of giveaways to commemorate her 10,000th comment. Part of qualifying for the giveaways is having commented in the past. I wasn't sure if I'd commented enough to qualify for the big giveaway at the end of the week... but she informed me that actually, I've commented more than almost anyone else.

Uh, wow.

I'm still not sure if this makes me a scary blog-stalker or or just a fan. I do think that it shows I should have started writing over here sooner, rather than leaving tomes on someone else's blog. But as long as she doesn't think I'm creepy (and I hope she doesn't), I suppose this status of frequent-commenter might work out for me - especially because she actually offers perks to the perennially opinionated over there (hey, I did not know that before, like, a week ago. I just write too many comments - it's not mercenary, it's compulsive.)

One of these perks is that Jenna is telling her readers to check out the blogs of those who regularly comment. Which includes my blog. Which is an infant.

I am accustomed to thinking of this blog as a project with 1.5 readers, both of whom I know well in real life. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens when more people check it out.

If you're here from ThatWife, please leave a little comment to say hello. And if you wouldn't mind, let me know what you think of this space. I'm still working out how to write a normal-length post, for instance, and am pondering incorporating more graphics, though as you can see, text-heavy is sort of my style. Also: how's the color? This background seems to look different on every computer. Does it stab at your eyes? I wouldn't want to do that to you.

In short: welcome! I hope you enjoy it over here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Camping: Giving it another try - Part II

Just joining the story? Get some background here and the first installment here.

The car was speeding through the darkness, and I was praying we would make it to the state park in time to get a camping site. It was a few minutes after 7:00pm, and we had until 8:00 before the gates closed. Before our hopes were dashed. Before we were left homeless in the cold and dark in the middle of nowhere.

At least, that's what I thought. So I was starting to sweat.

The four-lane freeway began to shrink to two-lane highway, then to verified country lane. We drove through the small town whose name was on the mailing address of the state park headquarters, which gave me hope. But it was 7:17 and there was no time to lose.

My better half used a flashlight to read off the directions to me. These directions, provided by the state park, gave no distances between turns, so every minute or so I would ask, "Turn here? Is this it? I can't see that sign yet... wait... no. OK. Turn here? Is this it?"

I am the most fun person, ever, for whom to navigate.

Finally, at just about 7:30, we saw the sign for the state park. Hallelujah! We wouldn't be stranded! We pulled up to the tiny, lighted guard house at the end of a gravel driveway, and a blond woman opened a little service window. I was feeling very confident, now that I'd gotten us to the park on time.

I leaned out of the car window and said, "We'd like a tent camp site!"

The woman asked, "Which one?"

So, long, confidence!

I stammered: "Uh... one for... a tent? We don't have a camper."

I'm fairly certain she rolled her eyes. "We have 60 sites open tonight. You can drive around and pick one and let me know what you want, but I'm leaving at 8:00."

"Oh... OK, we'll be fast."

"If you get back here after 8:00, you can just write down where you're staying and put your fee in that box out there."

She pointed to the box that was located just outside the guard shed. We both stared at it for a moment. The woman looked like she wanted to yawn.

So, apparently I didn't need to have four conniption fits on the drive up. If we had rolled in at 8:02, we would not have been homeless, we would merely have been deprived the experience of annoying a college student.

Suddenly faced with loads of time, we drove slowly around the grounds and found a remote camp site, and drove back to the guard shed. I walked inside. It was 7:50. The woman was reading a nursing textbook that was roughly the size of her desk, and she seemed annoyed that we hadn't taken ten minutes longer so she could go home without dealing with me a second time. I got through our campsite reservation formalities with time to spare, then we bought some firewood from the nearby woodshed and headed back to our new little home away from home for the weekend.

At a few minutes after 8pm in rural Wisconsin in October, it is very, very dark. It is also, you may not be surprised to learn, cold. We had chosen an uncharacteristically frigid weekend to go camping, so the process of putting up our tent - in the spooky glow of our car headlights - involved some fumbling with numb fingers. Once the main portion of the tent was up and we'd discovered two of the non-structural tent poles were broken, I set about starting a campfire while my husband devised some temporary pole repairs that involved cannibalizing one of my hair elastics. He's crafty that way.

Some differences from our first (disastrous) trip were already showing themselves: Though the drive had been stressful, we were now getting settled and feeling good. Thus far, no sore throats or wonky stomachs had shown themselves. We began to chitchat and joke around. We took note of the stars overhead - something we rarely see in our daily lives in the metropolis. We sat close together on the picnic table, warming our feet by the crackling fire and allowing ourselves first to relax, and then to get sleepy.

Things were looking up.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tidbits about America.

I saw a new penny today. The back of it looked like this:

I really like this image of the American hero, sitting on a log, reading a book. It speaks to me about the best qualities of this country.

The image reminds me of something I learned a few years ago from a professor of literature who had translated Conrad's Heart of Darkness into Italian. He pointed out that Italians have no word that is the equivalent to "wilderness".

"It is," he said (and to do him justice, please envision this being said in a lovely Italian accent), "an American English word. In Italy, we haven't had truly wild places for thousands of years."

That's cool to think about. We in America still have wilderness... and we even have federally protected wilderness areas. I grew up presuming wilderness is a part of everyone's life, but wilderness is American.

Speaking of Pioneers and wilderness and America, have you seen those new ads for Levi's jeans? I don't want to get emotionally affected by someone's ad campaigns - and I'd feel weird providing a link for an advertisement, but they're just beautiful. And very, very American.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Camping: Giving it another try - Part I.

When I left off the last camping post, our heroes had limped back from the campsite, early and riddled with disease, in August of 2003.

Six years passed before they really tried camping again.

The camping trip was an important milestone for us (yes, I'm changing back to the first person), as we repeated to ourselves several times that, if that trip didn't break us up, nothing would.

In the intervening six years, we figured out how to live in the same city, dated like normal people for a little while, got engaged, had a wedding and reception that involved my three favorite things (my husband, cake, and dancing) settled into married life, moved a couple of times, survived my changing of jobs and beginning grad school, and so on.

Some friends of ours gave us a tent as a wedding present, and my in-laws gave us some very nice camping gear for our first married Christmas. Clearly, the people who know us considered us People Who Camp.

Only, we never went camping.

Finally, after we'd been married three years, we decided to actually give it another whirl. I blocked off a weekend this October on our little calendar, and as the day approached we found a state park that was still open and bought a bunch of groceries and plotted out a driving map.

The plan was to leave on Friday afternoon for the 3-hour drive to Wisconsin, where we would camp for two nights. Just a little weekend trip.

We were both feeling tired and cranky on Friday, and I was considering calling the whole thing off and staying home so I could lie on the couch and pet our cat all weekend.

The dialogue at roughly 3:00pm that Friday, as he was about to walk some stuff out to the car:

Me:Do you really want to do this? Because if you don't, we don't need to go.

Him: [exerting valiant effort not to roll eyes at me because I just spent the last month obsessing over this camping trip]: Don't ask me that. Let's just go.

Me: That means you don't want to go, right? Right?

Him: [carrying a cooler loaded down with enough food for six people for a week]: I'm taking this out to the car.

About an hour after that conversation, we were sitting in the car, in construction/rush hour/weekend traffic that had been crawling for most of our drive.

Me: [to self] We're not going to make it to the state park before the 8pm closing time, and we'll have to sleep in the car, and that's really uncomfortable, and he's going to be really ticked off, and he'll hate camping forever, and I'm already hungry but we can't even get off the highway if we need to.

Me: [out loud]: Why are you looking cranky? We'll make it! Plenty of time... I'm sure the traffic is going to clear up in a minute.

Him: *sigh*

Two hours after that, we were finally beginning to get out of the horrible traffic... and we were nowhere near the state park yet. We had less than 2 hours left to get there, and we were starving. We stopped at a Wendy's (in Wisconsin! I know, I know... we were blind with hunger and couldn't find a Culver's anywhere) for the fastest dinner ever, and then I drove at unreasonable speeds (unless you're my mom. Mom: I don't speed.) on dark country highways, hoping to make it to the state park before it closed.

(Also: we saw roughly three dozen signs for different Culver's locations after we ate. Figures.)

Did we make it? Tune in later to find out...

Monday, November 2, 2009


Apparently, some people call November "NaBloPoMo" because they can't type out "National Blog Posting Month". The concept is that one posts something each day for the whole month.

My camping backstory post went up Sunday, the 1st of November (at least, that's what blogger claims... I'm still learning how this system works), so technically so far I'm managing to post every day this month - even though this wasn't the goal when that post was written.

And it's only the second day of the month.

With everything else happening this November - I'm finishing two of my master's classes and, you know, working and living a life and stuff - I'm going to aim for fifteen posts this month, roughly one every two days. This should offer some practice in shorter posts, which is something I'm obviously not great at (see camping post below).

2 down, 13 to go!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Camping: A Back Story

This was going to be about a recent camping trip, but I think a little back story would help first, so this post is just an account from a few years ago.

In August the first summer we were dating, my husband and I went on a camping trip together that was a complete catastrophe. About three days before we left, I ate some pizza that had been sitting under a heat lamp for too long and greatly impressed my future in-laws - we're talking the whole extended family here - by projectile vomiting on the outside wall of his grandmother's rented cottage. My Taller Half was sweet enough to hold my hair back through the ordeal, which gained him several thousand bonus points in my book, but I spent the next day - my twenty-first birthday - feeling fairly close to dead while my body discovered creative ways to empty my GI tract. Despite all this, we decided to go ahead with the camping we'd planned, because hey, when else could we do it? We'd both be heading back to college in different states in a few weeks, so this would be our last chance for some alone-together time for a while.

So, roughly 72 hours after the outdoor redecorating incident, the two of us rode in his beater van with no air conditioning to a campground in Michigan. I was still feeling off, but had been maintaining a mostly liquid diet and it was no longer touch-and-go. We found a spot at a crowded state park campsite and set up our borrowed tent. I built a campfire, a skill I had honed as a camp counselor, and he was impressed. We cooked up some brats over the fire and I recall gingerly trying one and waiting for bad results. There was no problem. Things were starting to look up.

In my memory, there was a one-day period of that trip when neither of us was horribly sick. During that time, though, I was on the mend and the state of his health was plummeting much, much faster than I realized. I'm going to blame this on two things:

1) We'd been dating for only a few months, and this nice guy's camping-geek girlfriend was really excited about this trip, and he's a gentleman, so he didn't want to whine.

2) The Dutch don't believe in illness. I'll elaborate on that in a moment.

Probably in an effort to show how strong and resilient I was, I was all about a long hike over the dunes our first morning at the state park. A very long hike. On a ninety-plus degree day. I recall one section of parched, sandy, never-ending hills which yielded zero shade, through which I continued climbing while he looked peaked and thirsty. There was a little whining from his direction at this point, and he was moving a bit slower than I expected. But if I had been as sick as he must already have felt, I would have been more likely to dig a little pit in the sand for ease of my own body disposal.

We eventually made it back to our site, and I remember asking him if he wanted to do the long hike the next day. I contend that I must have been drunk on the outdoors, or love, or something. Besides, I really didn't know him the way I know him now. If I had, I would have told him to remain seated, I'd pack the car, we're leaving immediately.

It came to that later, but not as soon as it should have.

What I know now, and what is important for the rest of this story, is that my husband still has his tonsils. If anyone should not have tonsils, it's this guy - but whoever his pediatrician is should be fired. Except, of course, that it may not be his pediatrician's fault because he never saw the kid.

The doctrine of disease in my husband's childhood home was that if there was no vomit, there was no illness. When this was fully explained to me - long after the Camping Trip From Hell - I had trouble believing it. My siblings and I all suffered from terrible tonsillitis when we were kids, and all three of us had our tonsils removed at a young age after battling nonstop throat and ear infections. I have vague memories of that misery because I was 4 years old when I had the surgery. Those memories mostly involve crying. To need to vomit to prove illness is also difficult to grasp because my in-laws are generally very nice people: generous, good with pets and babies, understanding, nice people.

I'm not sure why I expect the family of the man I married to be completely consistent, because no family is, but there you go.

So this was the problem: this poor guy had grown up with the concept that complaining won't get you to the doctor anyway, so you have to suffer for DAYS until someone gets tired of you looking half-dead and takes you to the doctor, who tells you it's almost run its course, go home. And it was with this understanding that he only slightly complained as his throat felt as if he was attempting to swallow shards of molten gravel and he couldn't see straight from fever and his excitable new girlfriend forced him to hike over hot sand in August.

If you think I feel guilty about this, you're right. But in my defense: I didn't know.

By that evening, when we sat by the campfire, he must have been looking pretty awful, because I started to get concerned. We turned in a little early, hoping he was just tired from the afternoon's forced death march.

This was the beginning of one of the longest nights in my memory so far.

I can't recall what we ate for dinner that night, but we had washed our mess kit plates and left them out on the picnic table to dry. Neither of us were aware of the temptation for absolute annoyance we were leaving out.

Drying mess kits! Do you know what those do? No?

Oh, I'll tell you.

Drying mess kits attract every oversized raccoon in the tri-county area to your camp site, where the fun begins when Obese Raccoon A gallops over your picnic table, trying his best to smash into every dish en route to the campfire ring. This is followed by Even Larger Raccoon B, and so on, with seventeen or thirty spectating raccoons hanging around in nearby trees, chattering their applause.

All this is taking place roughly 2 yards in front of your tent, the same tent inside which your boyfriend, who at this point cannot properly breathe because his tonsils are the size of limes, is struggling to sleep through his rising fever. Then you'll climb out of your tent, which causes the raccoons to amble up the nearby trees in a "oh, wow, lady, are you intimidating!"move. You, half-asleep and temporary relieved that they stopped the noise, will believe them, for reasons nobody quite understands, even though they are looking right at you and waiting for you to go away. You will climb carefully back into the tent, briefly interrupting the strangled snoring sounds coming from your ill boyfriend's side of the tent. As you begin to relax just a bit, you will be startled awake by another clangity clang clang clang! Followed by chattering raccoons. It begins to sound like they're laughing. At you. Your boyfriend will roll over for the six thousandth time, trying to find a position that allows him to breathe. You will climb out of the tent again, pissed this time, and will illustrate your rage by actually shaking your fist at the raccoons as they watch you from the trees. You will pack up the mess kits into one unit and, because you're brilliant, leave them on the picnic table and climb back in to the tent.

This adventure of sleep-deprived brilliance, ultra-loud, ultra-fat raccoons and suffering, whimpering, loudly-snoring boyfriend will continue all night as you repeat the pattern of climbing out of the tent, doing something useless and angry, and climbing back into the tent.

That's what happens.

In the morning, after I had enjoyed a refreshing sleep of a combined three hours or so, I was apparently still feeling disconnected with reality, because I thought sleeping would have helped my camping partner feel better.

He looked miserable, sitting by the fire ring in the morning light, staring at the ashes of the previous evening's fire. And I asked him - because I'm brilliant - how he was feeling. His response sounded like embodied pain. What it did not sound like, actually, was English. His throat was so closed at this point that he could make only rasping sounds while looking as if he'd like to cry if it didn't require rapid breathing.

We called off the rest of the trip, which was supposed to last two more nights, and we packed up the van. I called his mother from the pay phone at the entrance to the campground and asked her to make a doctor's appointment, and then I drove the three hours back to his parents' house while he tried to doze in the passenger's seat of the hot, noisy minivan.

When we got to the doctor's office, I waited in the waiting room, trying to interest myself with old magazines or daytime television and realizing that this was something I had never done before. Sure, I'd had a couple of boyfriends in high school and college, but never before had I found myself worrying and waiting in a doctor's office, hoping for some kind of good news or relief about some guy.

When you're in it, and it's new, sometimes it's hard to recognize you're in love. What if it's just infatuation? And who on earth would think about love here, in a chair that's impossible to get comfortable in, on a beautiful August day when people should be outside? I thought back to the night before and realized I had been so angry at those stupid raccoons because this guy really needed the sleep. I had made the drive back, on unfamiliar highways, to a town I didn't know, in record time because I was worried about him.

And when he walked into the waiting room and triumphantly rasp-growled, "One hundred and two point three" - his temperature - in a manner that told me he thought I hadn't believed that he was sick, I was angry, because I wanted him to know that I believed him.

Over the course of the next two days, he took antibiotics (horse pills! For someone unable to swallow! Cruelty, that's what that is) and slept for roughly eighteen hours a day. We rode the train together back to Chicago, where he continued to rest and I fed him warm grits and hot tea. Slowly, he got better. And at about the point where he was recovered, he left to go back to his college in Ohio while I stayed to start my last year at mine.

It would be six years before we tried camping again.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Note: This is a quick post - I have a few in the hopper that keep growing, so I think a couple of multi-part series posts will happen soon.

I've been enjoying a strange version of baby fever.

On the day before a cousin of mine is scheduled to be induced (Best of luck, Mollie!), I've been thinking a lot about what we in our little household call "OPBs" - Other People's Babies - and how much I love them. Are you, or someone you know, having a child? That's great! Once said child has reached that stage where he or she can hold his or her head up, I'll be happy to babysit. Need someone to hold your 5-month-old for a moment while you do a quick chore? Count me in. Snuggly 10-month old? Yes, please. I will sniff that fuzzy little head with glee. Have a toddler? I am ready for goofy dance parties at any moment.

This morning we rode the elevator down to the first floor with a woman and her two sons who looked to be about 5 and 3 years old. The older boy had a small bike, and he explained with excitement to my husband that "We're going on an ADVENTURE with our BIKES! It's going to be SO SUNNY outside!"

We both smiled and told him it's a great day for an adventure. As we walked out of the building, we talked briefly about how our own someday Far Off In the Future babies will hopefully be so cute and enthusiastic about the great outdoors and bicycles, but those are conversations about Theoretical Events that will happen A Long Time From Now, whereas other people's babies are already birthed and fed and clothed by someone else! How convenient!

I'm fairly certain where the real craziness for OPBs got started: another cousin's redheaded son was born this past June, and he's one of the first babies I've gotten to really watch grow up. People, babies grow fast. Dude was just an intimidatingly delicate lump in late June, but by August his personality was really beginning to present itself. By the time I saw him a few weeks ago at a family party he was sitting up, quietly playing with my hands, reacting to the room around him, and - most striking - keeping tabs on his mom. Anywhere she moved in the crowded room, his gaze would follow.

That constant awareness of his mother's presence tells me that those "Other People" are pretty critical for Other People's Babies, and seeing the obvious bond that little guy has with his mother is both fascinating and daunting. When I think of the level of responsibility being a mom entails, I get a bit anxious... which is why I'm happy, with another new little cousin to hang out with in the very near future, to rest on my laurels as Cousin/Auntie/ Family Friend Schmei for a while longer.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


One of my favorite bloggers, JD Roth, posted today about being happier , and it got me thinking about my own happiness.

I tend to be pretty happy in October: the weather is cooling down; I can go back to my daily uniform of "whatever pants are clean and a sweater I haven't worn yet this week", which makes getting ready for work a snap. Football is on TV on Sunday nights, something that I've inexplicably come to love the last few years. Stores are selling pumpkin-flavored treats. The leaves are changing. I can start making chili again. Classes have started up, and I do find a sense of purpose in my homework - especially this quarter, when both of my classes are quite interesting.

One conspicuously absent part of that list? My job. Monday through Friday, I roll out of bed and take a shower and make coffee and get dressed and walk with my favorite guy to the train stop and I kiss him goodbye and I get on the train. I work nine-ish to five-ish (or six-ish or seven-ish) in an office downtown and then I take another train home. As much as I talk about and complain of my job to whoever will listen (read: my long-suffering spouse), it didn't manage to make it into the making-Schmei-happy list. Which means I need to spend less time doing the job, and less time thinking about the job when I'm not there.

I should be fair: In general, and as recently as last week, I enjoy my coworkers. They're smart, they're doing good work for people who need the help, they are generally funny and often polite. Sometimes one of them will show up with donuts or something, just because. A few of them are folks I can see staying in touch with after I move on. But the job itself does not make me happy.

I need to re-read that sentence to myself every day. My job does not make me happy. And so I should take the advice of Boppa, my grandfather-in-law, and give it no more than the 35 hours a week I'm contractually obligated to give it, and then spend the rest of my time doing things that will, actually, satisfy me. (Baking bread? Happy.)

This job I have - and that I have now had longer than any other job - is a means to a check for rent and a tuition waiver for my master's degree. Because it's helping me avoid homelessness and helping me get an M.A. that I can use for getting a job I really love, I suppose this job may contribute to my long-term happiness. But that doesn't make it worth stressing about.

I can't quit yet, but I can quit making it the biggest part of my life, especially since it's a time-suck that makes me feel like I'm treading water. I've been making small steps toward at least making the best of it: getting off the train a stop early and taking a mile walk before heading in to the office; making note of the cool buildings and interesting people in the city (and telling myself "you'll miss this when you live in the sticks"); heading around the corner at lunchtime to get a salad at the health food store (something I'm sure I really will miss when I live in the sticks). I just need to add the step of leaving at five o'clock on the dot every day no matter what.

So blog? Try to keep me honest. It's in writing now. I will leave my job 8 hours after I get there, every day, and I will take breaks during the day, and I will complain less about it when I'm at home.

And that's enough resolutions for one day. But it could help make me happier.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mo Hype, Mo Tourists

For Labor Day weekend we spent a little time exploring the state park offerings of the state of Illinois. The smart move was to head to the most-hyped of our selected parks first. Starved Rock State Park is noted for several things: winter nesting sites of bald eagles, hoardes of foreign tourists, wedding receptions at the lodge, and a large lock on a canal.

We took a look at the lock.

It's very large. Apparently there is a lock visitors' center on the other side of the canal that one can visit and, along with the hoardes of sweaty international tourists, learn all about the history of these locks on this canal. For some reason we were unable to fit this in to our weekend.

For all the hype, Starved Rock was disappointing. We agreed that in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, the hoardes are gone, and the eagles are around, it could be magical. We'll need to check back in about that.

Next, we checked out the place that was recommended to us by some locals: Mattheisson State Park. It was tough to find a parking space there, on account of so many family picnics, but eventually we found a spot and headed to the lone hiking trail. Which took us down to this:

(click for a better look)

Mattheissen State Park, it turns out, is a gem. That lone hiking trail leads directly into a dramatic canyon complete with beautiful waterfalls and some frickin' large rocks.

We wound up spending hours down in the cool canyon, climbing around on rocks and meeting new friends who were doing the same with their holiday weekend. My favorite characters included this kid:

Who climbed to the top of a slippery tree trunk:

And then challenged his brother to do the same:

While a father or uncle or other troublemaking guy with them was alternately encouraging them to climb, taking pictures, and telling them he wouldn't try a stunt like that because he's not stupid.

The perfect family vacation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

This summer, I learned how to read.

I'm trying to finish my master's degree, and have been plugging away at it for a while. In March or April some time, I registered for a summer class, just like I did last year. Summer is a slow time at work, so I might as well get a class in. In May, I was informed that said summer class had been listed in error, sorry, no class for you. In a panic, I searched around for another course to take and found nothing.

So I - reluctantly - took a break.

Do you read books for pleasure? Because I used to, in, say, 2007 and before then. But I realize now that I simply hadn't done much reading for pleasure in the past two years. I do recall quickly devouring the first three Harry Potter books on my first winter break, and feeling almost bad about it - they had nothing to do with Big Issues or Papers I Need To Write. It was a stolen, guilty pleasure. In that six-week break I think I inhaled three of those books. And then came the new year of 2008 and another school term and... no more reading for fun.

Finals for my spring term coincided with the busiest season at my job in June, and then suddenly both were over and I didn't have to stay late at work or go to class or do homework. I was a little overwhelmed with free time, and when I allowed myself to reflect on it, I had become dull. Graduate school is threatening to make me even more boring than I was before. I'm not sure that's what I signed up for.

It took a week or two before I started reading things that were actually fun. I had been kept away from it for so long, and I had so much more time to waste - not just a 6-week winter break, but three months stretching before me - that I felt a little uncomfortable. What I did not feel, however, was an obligation to read anything in particular, and that was liberating.

The first book was Tortilla Flat, a paperback that was sitting on our overfilled bookshelves at home, wedged between other volumes of stuff one or both of us will get around to reading some day (though I think my better half has actually read most of them). I read it on the train to and from work, mostly. Each chapter is a self-contained story, and as the reader goes along she gets to know all these quirky characters. It's a good re-introduction to the leisure read. I paced myself. The ending is sad, but it's Steinbeck so I wasn't surprised, and it's poignant and fitting so I wasn't disappointed. I set the paperback down, satisfied... and wanting more.

I decided to do some heavy lifting, to pick up a book that's been recommended to me by several folks (and probably most strongly by my helpmeet): To a God Unknown, which was fantastic. It's a book that I would put down at the end of a chapter and try not to pick up again because I didn't want it to end. But it did, quickly, because I would pick it up again ten minutes later to read more. I was reading it on the train at a particularly tragic part, and found myself staring at the other commuters on the train, wondering how they could just go on with life the same way... didn't they know what had just happened?

Immediately I started casting around, looking for the next good read. My mother-in-law had a dogeared copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which two people in two very different areas of my life had recommended. They were right - I read it quickly, absorbed in the characters.
Still interested in China, I read The Joy Luck Club, another home-bookshelf selection. It's a classic on its own, but I think I gained from having a bit of cultural background from Snow Flower.

Are you keeping track? In the span of something like 4-6 weeks, I had read 4 novels. I haven't had time or mental energy to read more than quick newspaper articles or blog post for roughly 2 years.

Then, over the week we took for vacation, I read a thin volume of nonfiction, half of a novel that didn't hold my attention, and three-fourths of another novel that grabbed me with such a force that I then finished it in the bathroom of our apartment back home at 1:30am on a Tuesday. I simply couldn't put it down... which was why the trick ending felt like a special kind of betrayal.

That novel, which I'm not sure I want to name, insulted me. I read 500 pages thinking the author was doing something cunning, and the last 5 pages made me feel like a turd. Not a "Woah-ho! You're so clever, author!" feeling, but a "I'm sitting in this tiled room on the toilet lid with a numb butt in the wee hours of the day while my spouse sleeps in the next room and you give me this? I want my money back." But it was a borrowed book. When I paged back through it, I realized I had forgiven the author some repetition, cheesiness and clunky language because I was just so darn interested in the characters. It's a shame. I wish those characters had occurred to someone who cared a little more about them, because that ending was just cheap.

Still annoyed, apparently.

A few days after that disappointment, we decided to go on a little date to the library, where, after wandering around the fiction section for a few minutes, I found myself standing in front of the Stephen King books. Several years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed King's On Writing. Up until that day in the library, however, that - and a couple of newspaper columns - was all I had read of Stephen King. (I had had my reasons, sort of, which involve a traumatic slumber party when I was in fourth grade for which the cool kids rented "Carrie" and I didn't sleep for, oh, a couple of days afterward.) The Green Mile caught my eye, and I picked it up. I knew it was about death row prisoners or something, and so I thought I'd give it a try. Prisoners are a research interest of mine. I can handle real-world scary, I thought. Just none of the murdering prom date stuff.

The Green Mile actually made my heart pound. I had to take a break from reading it because I got so freaked out. A botched execution is about as real-world scary as you can get. But the book didn't give me nightmares. In its best parts (but it's all good parts) it made me want to go hug everyone I love right now. Stephen King did what a lot of stodgy writers about prison brutality don't do very well: he made me feel very deeply the wonder of humanity.

That sounds kind of tacky. I'm trying to find another way to write it, but this is how it is. I didn't cry when I read the bit about the botched execution - I nearly vomited. It was horrifying. Later on in the book - and if you haven't read it I'll try not to spoil it - I did cry, and I think Stephen King did such a fantastic job of holding up the horrifying side of humanity against the beautiful that the comparison is appropriately shocking.

Also - and this is just good writing - there are no tricks. There was something of a treat, a little surprise at the end, but it wasn't cheap smoke and mirrors crap. It tied up loose ends. It left me closing the book slowly, late at night, with still-wet eyes.

Stephen King respects his readers. I got that sense from On Writing, but now that I'm actually included in the legions who read his fiction, I appreciate it even more. I think that may be an unfortunately rare trait in popular fiction authors, judging by the two recent novels I tried reading lately.

Not that anyone is reading this, but if you are, feel free to throw out a fiction writer who treats readers like they're somebody. I've got two weeks of summer vacation still yawning before me, and I'd like to fill them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It helps to have a good research assistant

Thirty minutes ago I had never heard the term "Yo-Hah!" (Or yo-hay... or yohay). But Batholudens used his usual prowess with verbiage - and his uncanny skill at opening the Oxford English Dictionary to the Y section - to find it. Fine detective work from a fine life-partner.

Yo-hah is a happy word. An exclamation of joy. I hope that, for the most part, this blog will be just that... though at this early stage I'm not promising anything.