Thursday, December 1, 2011

In which I cram my Shakespeare (and other things that make my mother question my sanity).

"Forsooth! What news doth thou bring on this morrow?"

There was a long pause and, after a puzzled silence, my mother asked, "What?" Then, without waiting for an answer, she went on. "I need you to talk to your brother."

I racked my brain for a suitable, Shakespearean way of responding, but could think of none. "Why?"

She explained the situation to me, one which, in brief, involved his not wanting to pursue a winter internship that would potentially open some doors for him later, once he graduated college, and ended with, "And since he won't listen to me, you should talk to him."

"Ambition should be made of sterner stuff," I agreed.

"He thinks I don't know what I'm talking about."

It was a perfect lead. "A fool thinks himself wise," I answered, "but a wise man knows himself to be a fool." Then, after a pause, I said, "Children wish mothers looked but with their eyes, mothers that children with their judgment looked. Either may be wrong."

She seemed to disregard that. "So you'll talk to him?"

"No, I will be the pattern of all patience. I will say nothing."

After a moment, my mother sighed. "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit," she warned.

I nearly clapped my hands with glee, or would have if it wouldn't meant dropping the phone. "You got it!"

"Movies or plays?"


"All right. Call me when you're finished reading Shakespeare."

I grinned. "Okay," I promised. "I only have one play left. So until then... Farewell, my mother, fare thee well!"

I could practically hear her rolling her eyes as she said her goodbyes and hung up the phone.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Family Tree

One of the happiest memories from my childhood, and in fact one of very few drama-free moments with my mother, was the weekly dinner at my grandparents' house.  It wasn't the dinner so much as it was the time afterward when Mom, Nonna (my grandmother) and I would squeeze into the tightly packed galley kitchen to begin washing and drying all of the dishes.  Speakers over the fridge would pipe in whatever we had playing in the living room, so often our washing and drying system included sing-alongs with Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra.  Sometimes we'd sway and Nonna would go off-key, but for that glorious half-hour or so, we wouldn't be arguing or bitterly dissecting the latest family catastrophe.  It was almost as if we were normal.     

Last weekend, my grandmother had a bit of an accident in her house and had to be taken to the hospital for stitches and X-rays.  She was alright, but it left all of us pretty shaken.  My mother's been staying with her this week, and my Dad and I have both been visiting and checking in as often as we can.  It's been a very stressful time filled with questions regarding our family and my grandmother's future.  Tonight I spent awhile in Nonna's kitchen by myself cleaning up all of our dinner dishes alone.  It made me think about finding joy in simple, everyday moments.  Even with some awful situations at home and at work, these past six weeks have had a lot of good moments too, including some goal fulfillment.  Maybe it's the crisp chill in the air that makes us nostalgic for childhood moments or nature's way of telling us to slow down and look at the beauty around us, but fall's always been my favorite time of year.              

To kick off the fall season last month, Catherine and I went apple picking.  We did as much walking and reflecting as we did actually gathering, but it was worth it to feel the sunshine and take in the calmness of an apple orchard.  Since it was October and already late in the season, we met with lots of rotten apples, so the ones we found that were perfect and ripe and ready to eat right off the branch seemed even sweeter.  We made sure to pick apples that could be used for baking, as I had grand aspirations for working towards another goal as well - cooking something out of my realm.  I've never made apple pie before, so I hauled my 10 pounds of apples home and started sorting.

The pie baking venture was an all-day affair.  You see, I not only made pie, but learned how to make pie crust from scratch.  After a lot of flour and time in the freezer because the butter kept melting on me, I turned to the long task of peeling and slicing apples, which was a surprisingly calming experience.  I added my own spice mixture to the apples and rolled out the crust and trusted it to my rather untrustworthy oven.  When the timer finally sounded, I squealed in delight at my beautiful pie!  The crust was a bit dry and thick, but still delicious.  I've since made two more and fixed the density by tweaking the recipe, so now I can honestly say I have my very own pie recipe.  Who knew that something as simple as apple pie would be so rewarding?       

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In which we sample the local cuisine (and other forays into the intercontinental culinary abyss).

"Is this your first time?"

Amanda and I glanced to one another. On any other occasion, I may have offered her a mirthful smirk and she might have returned it with a grin. This time I just grimaced and she answered with a nod.

"Yes," I finally answered. "And we're a little nervous."

Our server smiled. "No worries. This is the best place to try it in all of Scotland. We only buy from the most trusted butchers and it's all done in whisky*."

"You had me at whisky," Amanda said. "Bring it on."

She sounded braver than I felt, that was for sure. We had decided early on while planning our two-week venture to Ireland and Scotland that while there we were going to sample the local cuisine and that, of course, included haggis.

Our guidebook swore that haggis got a bad rap, and that while it was an acquired taste it was nonetheless delicious. I had my doubts. Meat and I had a tumultuous relationship to begin with, and though my brief foray into vegetarianism had ended rather abruptly upon discovering I was borderline anemic and thus prone to dreadful nosebleeds if I didn't get enough iron and protein in my diet, I mostly stuck to chicken and, now and again, cheeseburgers. There were some exceptions to the rule, sure, but for the most part I simply didn't much care for meat.

Naturally, I assumed that, on top of the knowledge that I was trying to swallow sheep stomach, wouldn't do much for my appetite. To be safe, I ordered a very big glass of wine.

On the way to Edinburgh from Dublin, Amanda and I had already pushed the boundaries of our palates. I didn't care for either potatoes or onions, but when the soup of the day in Dublin was potato and chive, I dove right in. I even tried some of Amanda's mash and found I didn't absolutely hate it. In Galway, Amanda ordered the local specialty -- mussels. Then she ordered them the next night as well, and again at lunch a few days later. I had squid for the first time in Belfast. Amanda followed my recommendation and tried banofee pie.

And now we were going to eat haggis.

When it came, I took a big gulp of wine. "I can't believe we're going to eat this."

Amanda took out her camera and snapped a quick photo. "It won't be so bad. Think of it like meatloaf."

She sounded brave, but I noticed when she set down her camera she picked up her beer, not her fork. I was going to have to take the first bite. Which was only fair: I'd set the goal to being with. Then again, I'd suggested we eat blood pudding, which she'd vetoed, and that had left us with haggis. But since there was no use squabbling over the details, I took a bite.

"Oh," I said.

Amanda considered me a moment before she followed suit. She chewed thoughtfully, then set her fork down. "Oh," she agreed.

Our waitress came back. "Ladies, what do you think?"

We answered as one. "It's delicious!"

And it was. It was savory and cooked with scotch whisky and we ate our fill of it without hardly stopping to breathe. I ordered it again the next day for lunch, served on a chicken sandwich (a surprisingly good combo), and when we perused the gift shops in Edinburgh I briefly considered buying "haggis in a can", although after ten seconds of thinking about how gross meat in cans could be I changed my mind. It would have to remain an occasional, when-in-Scotland dish.

We tried a handful of new dishes over the course of the next week and a half, although nothing quite as adventurous as haggis, and it wasn't until we were back in Dublin that we came across a menu item that puzzled us. We had seen it before, but until now we'd never considered eating it.

"Okay," I said, frowning at the menu. "I really think I want the full Irish breakfast today. But I'm not sure what black pudding is. Do you know?"


We considered it for a little while longer before I nodded. "I'm going to get it," I decided. "I'll figure out what it is once I have it in front of me."

Amanda was quiet a moment, then nodded. "Me too," she decided, and went up to the bar to place our order.

It is important to note that while the word "pudding" in the United States typically refers to dessert, Ireland and the United Kingdom have a different use for the word altogether. While they do also use it to refer to desserts (or, if Wikipedia is to be believed, anything sweet served after the main course), it's just as commonly used in reference to savory dishes. Anything from popovers to sausage can be termed a pudding, so when we ordered the black pudding we really weren't sure what to expect.

In the end, our plates came out piled high with eggs, ham, sausage, beans, and toast, and we spent a moment considering the banquet before us.

"This one must be the black pudding," I decided, prodding a round patty with my fork. "Right?"

"It's the only thing I don't recognize," Amanda agreed. Then, after a substantial pause, "You try it first."

I did. All in all, it was different and nothing wholly remarkable, and I told her so. She tried hers and agreed with me, and we ate the rest of our meal. As we were preparing to leave, however, I half-remembered something I'd read a long, long time ago. Rather than bring it up there, however, I decided I would confirm my suspicion the next day, once we were back home, before telling Amanda what I suspected: that we had just eaten the one thing she'd refused to try during our entire sixteen-day excursion overseas. And besides, until I had the internet in front of me, how could I be absolutely sure?

Which reminds me: Amanda, we (accidentally) ate blood pudding. Surprise!

 * Not a typo! This is how they spell it in Scotland.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

How I was almost eaten by the Loch Ness Monster

So how was the vacation?  I think I've heard that question a hundred times since my plane back from Dublin touched down.  Catherine and I spent two and a half glorious weeks in Ireland and Scotland, and the break from my daily life couldn't have come at a better time.  There is something wonderfully freeing about knowing you will be gone for a substantial amount of time at your office and all the stressing and all the preparation is finally done.  Letting go felt wonderful - letting go of work stress, relationship stress, responsibilities and more.  To paraphrase Amanda in my favorite chick-flick, The Holiday, a vacation means you're supposed to vacate your life, right?  Do things that are unexpected. 

Two years ago, I never would have dreamt I'd have the opportunity to take such a trip.  I'm a stressed-out person on a normal basis, so the overwhelming planning for a long vacation started to take a toll.  Add in the additional considerations of traveling overseas (for me, this was the first time I'd gone overseas aside from a family trip when I was 10), plus the fact that I had one week to train a new temporary worker at our company to cover for me, and I thought I'd have a breakdown before even getting on the plane.  Somehow I managed to keep it together, even with a delayed flight, a taxi ride to Philadelphia to make our connection in time, massive traffic, and running through the Philly airport to make our flight.  And then my very worst fear about traveling happened - they lost my luggage.  My precious, brand-new suitcase, so eager to see the world, had decided that Tel Aviv would be way more fun than Dublin.  Walking away from the lost luggage desk with my forms and contact info, all I could do was breathe.  A great calm washed over me - it was all out of my hands.  I did nothing wrong, I was not being punished, I had not been the one to make a mistake.  Stressing or crying or screaming wouldn't help my bag get to me any sooner, so I decided to just enjoy the trip as is.

Ireland and Scotland were far more beautiful than I had ever imagined.  There was just so much to see and do, it was hard to figure out just where to go first.  Catherine and I had done some preliminary planning and set up our itinerary, but other than that, we hadn't nailed down day to day activities, which suited both of us just fine.  My favorite day of the trip came while we were on the West Coast in the area of County Galway.  We drove through some of the greenest, most beautiful places in the world.  And even though the rain and gale-force winds started to blow, it took on a surreal sort of beauty.  At long last we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher, where I've always wanted to go.  It was the end of a lifelong dream to be standing there overlooking such timeless majesty.  I know I'm waxing poetic here, but there just aren't any words to explain how, for the first time since June, I felt totally, completely happy.  So happy in fact, that I braved the weather to climb the wet iron spiral staircase onto the top of O'Brien's tower.  Catherine and the guy selling tickets were in the tower at the base of the stairs telling me I was crazy.  But truth be told, I've never felt more calm or more at peace with everything than I did in those raging gale-force winds (clocked at 51 mph) and  stinging rain.  I braced myself on the ancient stone turret and just let myself enjoy it.         

View from the top!

It was around this point of our trip when I seriously considered never returning home.  Getting away from daily stresses put a lot of things in perspective.  Better still, Catherine and I also hunkered down in a sweet little B&B outside of Edinburgh, which forced us to walk more and also blocked us from using phone, Internet and television for a glorious weekend.  We even wrote a postcard to my boss back home saying I had "disappeared" somewhere near Loch Ness (which we didn't actually visit) and that I wouldn't be returning to work.  Although I wished we could stay forever, Catherine and I did return back to work and our normal lives.  But something had changed.  I had seen a life without stress.  A life where the hardest decision I had to make was which beer to have with dinner.  Plus my absence had brought about positive changes (for me at least) at the office and I am enjoying my job more than ever.  I promised my father I'd keep the "vacation attitude" for at least a week after getting back, and I'm trying to hold that promise still.  There's more I could write, but I'll have to save it for another post.  Before I go, here's a rundown of goals completed since my last post:
  •  #1: Travel - Ireland and Scotland!!
  •  #2: Road Trip - We've booked the hotels and ironed out the details of a New Years' road-trip!
  •  #3: I finished my 10th book on the plane back from Ireland
  •  #10: Bed and Breakfast - in Edinburgh
More adventures are to come!  Stay tuned for Catherine's new update on some of the fun (and slightly scary) stuff we ate on vacation :)     

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In which I prepare to become a member of the undead (and other tales from the crypt).

"I'm going to be a zombie!"

Amanda and I work with a great group of pretty laid-back people, but her exclamation still turned a few heads. It was so out of context, in fact, that it took me a minute to catch up to her.

"Ohmigod," I answered once it finally clicked. "You got the email? Why haven't I gotten the email?"

A few weeks before this, I'd run across Run For Your Lives, a 5K zombie obstacle course scheduled for late October and taking place just an hour or so north of me. Volunteers would run an obstacle course while avoiding other zombie volunteers -- a race for their lives, so to speak. Better yet, not only was the site looking for runners, but they were also looking for zombies. And when another friend of mine posted on her facebook that she'd volunteered to run... Well, of course I was going to volunteer to try and eat her delicious organs. I contacted the group to convey my interest and, after some persuasion, convinced Amanda to join me.

She talked me down from the verge of hysteria. "I just got it. They probably emailed you and it's just sitting in your inbox or something."

"It had better be. If they accepted you and not me..."

At this point, at least one of our coworkers and my boss's boss were looking our way with a mixture of interest and amusement. While Amanda rattled off a quick explanation, I went to check my email. I held my breath as I waited for the inbox to pop up, and when it did...

"I got the email! I'm going to be a zombie!"

This announcement was met with an eyebrow raise from my boss's boss and a bemused smile from our eavesdropping coworker, who demanded a few more details and, after finding out that the zombies were going to be professionally made up so as to add to the "realism" of the event, decided she was going to go, too, and take pictures.

"But just so you know," she said, "you guys are a little weird."

Our weirdness -- or at least mine -- wasn't exactly a secret. My desk was decorated with a string of ghost lights and toy dinosaurs (which I regularly distributed around the office), and I was well-known for my fascination with the walking dead. All kinds of zombie paraphernalia had been gifted to me by various coworkers, including a "What would a Zombie do?" decision wheel, a stuffed "Dismember Me!" zombie, and a large "Zombies vs. Unicorns" poster, and I had on at least three birthdays been presented with homemade cards featuring either zombies or zombie movie references and quotes.  My love for zombies had come up in conversation at a meet-and-greet for our new department leader a few months before, and we had spent at least ten minutes discussing the various pitfalls of horror as a genre as a result.

I only nodded. "Yeah," I answered her. "But how many chances does a person get to be a professional zombie?"

She considered that. "Technically, I think you're freelancing."

I made a mental note to add "Freelance zombie" to my resumé, and once we'd wrapped up our conversation and went back to our desks, I re-read the email again. There wasn't much to it -- it really boiled down to "Thank you for your interest in Run For  Your Lives!" and "We will contact you with the full details as soon as they are available". Enough to know that I was on the list and get me excited, that was for sure.

"This is better than some silly zombie walk any day," I told Amanda later, as we were heading out the door.

She looked at me skeptically. "You were really looking forward to the zombie walk."

"Yeah, but I didn't want to have to do all that work. Making yourself up to look like a zombie is hard. And messy. There's lots of cornstarch involved, I think."

Amanda just shook her head, but I convinced myself that she agreed with me (even if she wouldn't admit it), and when she looked at me again, I just grinned.

"We're going to be zombies."

She sighed. "You're going to make me regret this. I can already tell."

Considering we had a whole three months to wait before the event, this was very likely true. "Yeah," I answered, "but it's totally going to be worth it."

The event Run For Your Lives! takes place on October 22 in Darlington, Maryland. Runner registration ends on October 1, so sign up today! In the meantime... Prepare for the zombies.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Come Fly with Me

or How I Learned to Roller Skate, Sing Karaoke, Survive a Hangover and 
Oh Yeah, Fly an Airplane

Will’s voice crackled through my headset: “alright, you ready to take the controls?”  My stomach clenched as I looked at the plane’s gearstick between my knees.  Here we were at about 5,000 feet in the air, cruising over the Delaware Bay in a plane whose inside was smaller than my closet.  I had spent the flight over to Cape May blissfully snapping pictures from the back seat, windows literally adjacent to each of my elbows.  Will was directly in front of me, pointing out sites and listening to the radio communications.  He had mentioned earlier that if I did indeed fly with him, I would at some point have to take over so I could share in the experience.  I had thought he was kidding.  Until that moment.
            “Not really!” I said.
            “C’mon, it’ll be fine! It’s pretty smooth here.”
            I had in fact told him I would try, but that promise had been made with solid ground beneath my feet, not the thin floor of a Citabria and a long drop into the water. 

I think my hands couldn’t have clenched onto the gearstick any tighter.  I followed Will’s instructions and ever so gently started to push it to the left.  The plane responded just as gently and my heart jumped.  Why were we going this way? I kept thinking.  Oh God, did I tip it forward too? Are we going to nosedive?  I felt like I should pray, but only muttered “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” and pulled the stick back to center.  The plane did not stop banking left.  Now, I don’t know if you know this about planes, but in order to get one back to a straight flight, you have to pull the control in the opposite direction until the plane starts to straighten.  It’s a lot like paddling a kayak, though I wish I had realized that sooner.  I got it back to center and Will motioned for me to bank the other way.  I did, but got a bit freaked out with the rush of freedom and responsibility and the thought that I was holding our lives nearly in the palm of my hand.  I could imagine myself slipping and sending the plane into a downward spiral and even though I had complete confidence in Will as a pilot, I worried that I would throw him something he wouldn’t be able to figure out and then bam, there we’d go into the Delaware.  And I have a fear of drowning. 

That weekend and several weekends leading up to it all made me wonder just how much control I had in my own life.  About seven weeks ago (wow, where has the summer gone?), my friend Chelsea came home to Maryland for a short visit.  She came into Baltimore and met up with Jessica and me for a night on the town.  Chelsea wanted to try out a karaoke bar after dinner, and as it was on my list, I was game to try.  That night I learned a very important fact about myself – the amount of alcohol required for me to sing karaoke is the same amount required to make me quite sick that same night and hungover the next day.  (Side note: do not do shots of Jack Daniel’s.  You are not bad-ass if you puke outside of the bar you just patronized.)  But before I learned such a valuable lesson, the three of us did a number of shots and then rocked the whole bar while we sang “Carry on My Wayward Son.”  I think some air guitar was involved and some embarrassing photos on Facebook. And we had a blast.  Not only did I let my inhibitions go long enough to poorly belt out a rock song to a room full of strangers, but I realized how lucky I was to be sharing this with two of my best friends.  I felt a lot closer to these girls after that experience, especially since it was Jessica who held her liquor the best and got us safely back to her house.  She even ran to the store to get me Gatorade, pretzels and a McDonald's breakfast sandwich the next morning (which is how I survived the hangover). I’d do the same for her a thousand times over, though I hope I never have to do so. 

A week after my drunken singing debut, I flew out to Ohio to visit my friend Meghan.  I already wrote a bit about this in my concert post – the timing of the trip was based on my desire to go see Glen Campbell in concert.  While there, we decided to go roller skating at an old fashioned roller rink near Loveland.  Now, I hadn’t been skating since I was about nine years old or so, and let’s just say my center of gravity has shifted.  Considerably.  My hips are also slightly uneven (one’s higher than the other) and it’s something I am extremely self conscious about.  I stumbled out onto the rink and after only a quarter of a lap, I fell.  My leg curled under me and the whole skate hit me right on that area between my buttocks and hip.  An inch or two to the right and I would have had a fractured coccyx.  (I blamed my paranoia on those damned medical books at my office.)  I limped away and sat icing myself and watching my friends spin by and I couldn’t help but lose it.  The trip had been a very stressful one and, looking back now, it had not been the easy, stress-free vacation I had so desperately needed.  Recently my life had been (and still is) dizzy and out of control.  I was so deep in backlogged jobs at work that I felt like I was drowning every day.  My love life was promising but still haunted by those demons of self-doubt and low self-esteem.  I seemed to be careening towards a break-down and lost the cocky confidence that my 25th year would matter or that I'd even come out of it alright.       

What the hell, I then thought as the ice pack started to melt, I don’t know anyone in Loveland.  I can fall on my ass as much as I want and no one will care.  I waddled back onto the rink and rejoined my friends.  I kept skating and eventually worked up my balance and courage to make it all the way around the rink without holding onto the wall.  My movements were still stiff and uneasy, but I managed to do it.  Tears dried and the bruise faded after several days.  But that glimpse into a breakdown had left an impression. 

And then I found myself both terrified and thrilled to be flying a plane with Will a few weeks later.  For about two minutes, I held onto that control stick and guided us through the sky.  After banking to the right, Will wanted me to try another kind of turn where we’d drop a little, but my nerves gave out and I turned back the controls.  Maybe it hadn’t been enough to really impress him, but I had impressed myself and that was what mattered.  The old me would have completely chickened out; heck, the old Amanda wouldn't have even gotten into a biplane.  But this new version couldn’t say no.  That freedom felt amazing - I was Amelia Earhart tearing through the sky.  Who knew when I’d have such an opportunity again?  Will had mentioned that he also had his motorcycle license, and if I could find a bike to borrow, he'd take me for a ride.  Knowing another plane ride would be a long while coming due to expenses, I grew excited for this new promise of adventure.  After we had landed and Will fueled the plane, I thanked him again and drove away from the airport, still reeling a bit from the whole experience.  I looked up in the rear-view mirror and had to wonder just who was this beaming, confident woman driving my car?  

After giving Will the controls back - look at those clouds!
I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the way home, or even for the next few days.  Unfortunately the smile left after a day or two at work.  The unrelenting stress at the office started to build up and when it combined with some other personal stressors and disappointments, I felt myself starting to break.  I got into a very bad habit of working late, coming home, eating crappy food while watching even crappier television and going to bed an hour later.  I started to break down at work, usually in the aptly named break room or even at my desk.  For awhile I thought I might even be developing an ulcer from the twisting pain in my stomach.  I didn't understand until very recently just how dangerous burnout can be.  I asked myself when I had last been truly and completely happy.  And I realized it had been when I was on that plane over the Delaware Bay. 

Knowing when you can handle the controls and when you have to hand them over to someone more experienced is what life is really about.  Once I saw that, I started taking the steps required for me to get out of this depression.  I’ve talked to my bosses about workload and burnout and I’ve gotten a lot of support.  I started confiding in my friends and finding other ways to manage and minimize the stress in my life.  I still have a long road ahead before I’m back on course entirely, but I'm getting there.  Today I slowed down to check out a motorcycle for sale in my neighborhood.  I hope someday soon I'll even look up and see that woman in my rear-view mirror smiling again.      

Friday, July 1, 2011

In which I clean my room (and other prom dress-related surprises).

Near the beginning of April, I met my mother for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. As we finished our shared chips and guacamole, she leaned over the table toward me.

"Your brother," she said, "is moving back in with us at the beginning of May."

I paused, considering that. I had two brothers: one in college and another living in a house he rented with a group of friends about thirty minutes away from me. I had no idea which one she meant.

"Well," I said, venturing a guess, "that's what happens when school lets out for the summer. The students all go home."

She looked at me oddly and I knew I'd guessed poorly. "No," she said, confirming it. "The other one."

"Oh. Why?"

"The man who owns his house is selling it once their lease ends, so your brother is moving back in until he finds another place." She scraped up the last of the guacamole and looked up at me. "And he's bringing a friend with him."

This brother had a lot of friends. I frowned at the empty dish of guacamole and instead covered my chip with salsa. "Is it anyone I know?"

"I don't know. I don't think so." She paused, perhaps weighing her next words. "We were thinking of putting him in your old room."

I smiled, which I don't think she expected. "Does he know the carpet is pink?" A hideous shade of pink, at that. I'd picked it out when I was seven, grew to hate it in my teens, and finally learned in my early twenties that seven-year-old me had made a number of bad decisions and I would just need to learn to laugh at them. In fact, I'd eventually just found myself grateful that the walls weren't pink, too. At least, not anymore.

My mother shrugged. "I don't know. Your brother may have mentioned it to him."

"Maybe his friend is colour blind."

She didn't answer that, instead going straight to why she'd brought this up in the first place: "I was hoping you could come by and clean out the closets and such so he'll have a place to put his things."

This wasn't shocking, or even unexpected. My mother had been nagging me to get whatever junk I'd left at their house out of their house for months now. I'd put it off just as long, not at all looking forward to it. I had never been good about throwing things out, much to my mother's dismay, and had developed some relatively impressive pack rat tendencies over the years. However, I had to admit that a strange boy living amongst the scattered remnants of my childhood made for some pretty good incentive.

I sighed. "When are they moving in?"

"First of May. Maybe a little earlier."

I went through my mental calendar and cringed. "I don't know if I have any free weekends this month, and I can't really do evenings..."

"You could always take a day off work."

"To clean my room? That's ridiculous." I took another chip. "I'm not going to do that."

But that was exactly what I did, and within just a few weeks I found myself driving to my mother's house so I could clean my old bedroom.

She wasn't home when I arrived, further rubbing it in that she has a more impressive social life than I do, so after I made myself at home and raided her refrigerator, I decided to get a head start.

"She'll be so surprised," I chortled to myself on my way up the stairs. "I bet I can get this done before she even gets back."

It was a nice thought. If I could get this chore out of the way within the span of a few hours, I'd prove once and for all that I was and always had been neat, clean, and orderly. Considering how often she'd nagged me to clean my room growing up, it would be a huge achievement on my part.

The bedroom itself was pretty well put together, heinous pink carpet and all. There was no clutter on the floor or on the surfaces, and everything was in place. My bookshelves were a little over-crowded, but even that wasn't so bad, and would definitely be better once I took out some of my favorites and brought them home with me. This was going to be a piece of cake.

Then I opened the closet door.

I've seen cartoons and sitcoms where people pile as much as they possibly can into a small space and then shut the door before it can spill out. It always ends horribly, though, with either the door breaking open or the person they were trying to impress opening it on their own, only to be met with an eruption of odds and ends.

It was a little like that.

Luckily for me, nothing actually toppled out of the closet, although it seemed like a few things teetered. Probably everything was packed too full for anything to really budge; somehow my childhood closet had turned into a sick game of Tetris where I'd filled up the board waiting for that one crucial piece that would clear it all away. Considering how much Tetris I'd played, I had to wonder if maybe I'd done that on purpose.

"How did I let it get this bad?" I asked aloud. I half-expected something in the closet to answer me, but thankfully nothing did.

My quick-and-easy chore had just turned into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, but the only way to get through it was just to start. Gritting my teeth, I carefully took things out of my closet and set them in piles so I could look through them later. Old writing notes went on the desk. Old toys and books went on the bed. Shoes went into a pile by the door. Other knick knacks found their way to other piles, and when it was finally at least kind of sorted, I eyed them all.

"Which of you is the smallest?" I addressed the piles. I was met yet again with silence, but luckily it was an easy answer: the clothes. I hadn't left much behind when I'd moved out, so it was pretty easy to go through them. Most everything was relegated to the "donate" pile, and I found myself both horrified and amused by my once-horrible taste in clothes.

"Really, teenage-me?" I asked the fish-net--sleeved black shirt with "LOVE" stamped across it in mesh. "Why did you ever think this was a good idea?"

Since teenage-me was not around to answer, I tossed the shirt into the "donate" pile, thought better of it, and threw it in the trash, considering it a favor to teenagers with bad taste everywhere.

I managed to get through the clothes relatively quickly until, at the very bottom of the pile, I found it: my senior prom dress.

I considered it thoughtfully. I could donate it, but would anyone actually want it? I'd only worn it the once and except for a small tear near the hem -- easily repairable, I knew -- it was in good shape. So yes, probably. But I'd loved that prom dress. I'd searched for it for hours (a hardship back in high school, when I'd hated clothes shopping) and had been thrilled when I finally found it. It was one of the first things I bought with my own credit card. Even without the prom, that dress and I had history.

But what would I do with it? Not wear it, that was for sure. I'd look pretty strange walking around the city streets in a beaded prom dress, and there were enough crazy people in Baltimore without my further enticing them. There wasn't much room to modify it or make it into something new, either. But then again, who was to say I wouldn't need a fancy prom dress sometime in the near future? Things happen all the time, after all, and even though I'd never had occasion for a fancy prom dress in the past (excepting prom, of course) there was no reason to think it would never happen.

It was a non-issue, I decided, already moving the prom dress to the donate pile. I was seventeen when I went to my high school prom, and eight years meant the stupid thing probably wouldn't even fit anymore. On a whim, though, I checked the size tag... and then I did a double-take. If all my latest shopping ventures were any indication, I still wore that dress size.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I put on my prom dress, stared at myself in the mirror, and found my cell phone.

'I still fit in my high school prom dress,' I texted Amanda

My phone buzzed a few seconds later. 'I hate you,' it read. Then, a moment later, 'Picture?'

The camera built into my phone was notoriously blurry and low quality, but I had to give the public what she wanted: I took a picture and sent it along. After doing a quick twirl in the dress, I started rooting through the pile of shoes still sitting in the floor of my closet. When my phone buzzed again, I nearly fell over trying to reach it over the pile of old riding boots and strappy high-heeled sandals.

'I want to see in person,' the message read.

I frowned at the message, glanced down at the dress, and then looked back to the "donate" pile a few feet away. Some similarly-sized teenage girl might really love to find a dress like this sitting in a consignment shop or something, but Amanda wanted to see it. And, anyway, it wasn't like I couldn't donate it some other time, after I'd shown Amanda. I still had to go through my closets at home, after all, so I could just add this to that Goodwill-bound collection. No problem.

'Okay,' I replied. 'I'll go put it in my car.'

So I did, along with a handful of other things I decided were worth moving from my parents' house to mine. My mother eventually returned to the house, marveled at my progress, and then for some reason kept trying to distract me for the rest of the afternoon. I did eventually finish cleaning the room and returned home, only to find that I didn't really have a place for any of the stuff I'd brought back with me.

"Well," I said to my cats, "I guess this is as good a time as any to do that closet purge."

They looked at me for a moment before the two of them stalked off to inevitably destroy something in my kitchen. I smiled after them.

"At least here I know I won't find any surprise prom dresses."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gentle on My Mind

My mother was the one to hit me with the news the other night when I called her for my weekly check-in.  Having moved out into my own apartment last year, I still call home every Wednesday night.  Usually I just nod and say my usual "uh-huh" as my mother excitedly talks about her week, from going to Curves to the latest scuttlebutt at the American Legion Post.  Instead she opened with  "did you see the news this evening?"

"No," I said.  Her voice didn't sound worried; usually when it's bad news, her register lowers.  "Why?"

"You know that concert you just went to?  In Indiana?"

I rolled my eyes upward.  In my 25 years, I'd only been to three concerts.  Of course I knew which one I had just gone to that also happened to be a plane ride away.  I had gotten tickets to see one of the only singers I love who is still alive - Glen Campbell - and only three weeks ago had cheered him onstage in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis.  It was a part of my 25 list after all, as most people my age haven't even heard of him, let alone wanted to go to his concert.   

"Yeah, Glen.  Why?"

"It's going to be his last tour."

I had already counted on that, since he was getting older and had seemed a bit disoriented onstage, even forgetting that it was actually a theater in the round (at one point he looked behind him and seemed a bit surprised to see people back there - which is where I was sitting, of course!).  But I mean, the man is 75, he's entitled to be a little forgetful.  However, I wasn't ready to hear the rest of the story -

"He's been diagnosed with Alzheimer's," my mother said flatly.  "I just saw it on the news crawl."

Alzheimer's has been a bit of a big deal in my family; my grandfather had suffered from severe dementia in his last year or so and it took a toll on my mom and grandmother.  Now my grandmother had been showing similar early signs and my dad's father can't even remember who we are anymore.  I had also spent one summer working at a retirement/nursing home and helping some of the residents who didn't remember me from one day to the next.  Whenever I think of Alzheimer's now, I remember the woman in her wheelchair who would start screaming at thin air - it took me two months before I realized she was yelling at a young man she thought she saw, who never answered her.  I couldn't even respond to my mother.  I tried not to think about what Glen's family might be going through or how he will be in a few more years; I can't imagine him winding up like one of the residents I used to work with all those summers ago, shouting nonsense into an empty room.  Luckily my mother changed the subject of our conversation and once I was alone later that night I started playing my collection of Glen's songs on my computer. 

I had harbored a bit of a crush on Glen Campbell since I was a teenager.  I had found one of his old vinyl albums tucked away in my mother's record collection and thought that the song titles appealed to my somewhat cockeyed view of romance, like "Take My Hand for Awhile", "If This is Love", and "Where's the Playground, Susie?" (which truth be told, I still don't really understand).  This was the Galveston album and the title track intrigued me, even if the cover art was pretty garish.  I remember going home and looking him up on the computer and buying a few CDs after sampling them.  I started with the Greatest Hits and soon learned all his biggest songs - "Gentle on My Mind", "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Witchita Lineman" and of course, "Rhinestone Cowboy."  The summer before college, I remember driving through my hometown in the last bit of evening light, the windows rolled down and the humid summer air of Maryland just drifting through the car as I blared "Southern Nights" from my VW's little speakers, and later I know I had some of his lesser-known tracks like "Old Hometown" on repeat in my room.  If Frank Sinatra is the singer I rely on when I feel completely heartbroken, Glen Campbell is the singer I rely on for all those wistful long summer afternoons or lazy winter nights.

I'm not sure how much I believe in fate, but I think it was no coincidence that I was able to see Glen Campbell in concert when I did.  Who knows how long or how expensive his last few performances will be; if people know he's retiring for good, it might be even harder to get tickets.  If it hadn't been for this 25 at 25 list and my goal of seeing a concert I've always wanted to attend this year, I may never have gotten the chance to see Glen.    
It's taken me awhile to write this post, or any others for that matter, not because I haven't been working on my list, but because I've just been so swept up in living.  Aside from the concert, I've been spending time with friends, singing karaoke (post on that to come!), gone roller skating, started planning for Ireland, and taken some chances on new adventures.  I can tell that I've been changing and growing as a person.  I know I still have a bit of writing ahead of me, but for now I'm looking forward to some peace and quiet.  Here's what I'm listening to at the moment, and I think it sums up my attitude right now.  It's Glen's duet with Bobbie Gentry on the song "Gentle on My Mind."  This is Bobbie's verse: "The shutters creek in autumn winds that make me draw inside myself in silence / cross-legged now I sit and watch the endless chase of leaves across my yard. / And layin' down my hairbrush, I lean back within my windowseat and find / that you're moving through the backroads by the rivers of my memory / ever smilin', ever gentle on my mind."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In which I succumb to the lure of shiny technology (and other small acts of terrorism against the print industry).

It was a bit like fate, except in the form of a surprisingly pricey gift card. I went to the company holiday party for the free lunch and the promise of time away from my computer, and although I knew they were doing a raffle, I hadn't expected to actually win something. Yet they'd called my name, and there I stood with an American Express gift card in hand.

There were other prizes, too, and next to me a friend murmured "Too bad you didn't win that iPad." I didn't bother telling her I was shocked enough to have won the gift card: I'd never won a raffle before in my life, and I'd entered enough to know the odds were stacked high against me.

In any case, the prize was well received, even if it wasn't an iPad, and I already knew what I wanted to do with it. A dear friend of mine had purchased an eReader several months before and then convinced another mutual friend to buy one, too, so I'd been hearing about the glories of the eReader for months. As it happened, the gift card was enough that I could buy an eReader of my own and still have some funds leftover to splurge on a few cheap accessories.

Still, I agonized over it.

"Maybe I should treat my coworkers to a lunch or a happy hour or something," I mused over the phone to my mother. "I mean, they worked just as hard as I did this year."

My mother waited a bit before she answered. "It was a raffle."

"Yeah, but they deserved to win stuff just as much as me..."

"It was a raffle," she stressed. "It has nothing to do with whether or not you deserve it. It's just luck, and you were lucky."

"Well, yeah, but --"

Clearly she could tell this argument was going nowhere; she gave up. "Do what you want with the gift card," she said. "No one is going to care."

She was right, of course. When I casually brought up the idea of using the gift card for a happy hour to my coworkers, they shook their heads at me. "Use it for something fun," they said. "Go on a shopping spree. Go wild!"

Even though they'd more or less made the decision for me, the gift card sat in my wallet, unused, for several months. I've never been the kind of person who goes on huge spending sprees or buys something without thinking it over first, and even though I'd mostly made up my mind that I did want this eReader, I couldn't bring myself to go to the store and actually purchase it. Instead I spent untold hours researching it online and doing side-by-side comparisons against its main competitor. I read reviews on about a billion tech-oriented sites until I understood the ins and outs of the device. I convinced my friend, the one who had been raving about the reader since buying it in early October, to let me fiddle with it while I was at her house so that I could get a feel for the device. I tried desperately to find someone who owned the competitor so I could play with that as well, but wasn't too devastated when that didn't pan out.

My mother didn't quite understand my fascination with the eReader.

"You could just buy the book," she argued.

I put the phone to my other ear. "I could, except I don't have anywhere to put it. My bookshelves are all full, and if I add anything else to that pile on top of my dresser, it's going to fall over and probably give one of my cats a concussion. They have enough problems."

"So why not just get a library card?"

"I have a library card."


"My library isn't very good." This was only partially true. My library had an extensive inter-library loan system, but my actual branch rarely had the books I wanted and, quite frankly, I didn't have the patience to wait for them. "Besides, there's a great eBook library. So after I get the reader, I don't even have to buy all the books. I can just get them loaned out to me."

"I guess," she said, though her voice was riddled with doubt. "But I'd rather just have the book in my hands. I like the feel of paper."

"Yeah," I agreed. "I do, too."

Working in the publishing industry, I was sensitive to the plight of the print book. I was also more than a little in love with the look, feel, and smell of paper. But as I'd told my mother, I had no space for books, and with an eReader... Well, at least it took up less space, and killed a few less trees.

In mid-February, almost three months after winning the gift card and nearly half a year after I first found myself coveting my friend's eReader, I headed to the store. I made sure Amanda was with me, in case I needed to be talked out of the purchase, but when I made my way to the counter, it was an easy decision. The sales person was honest about the perks and drawbacks to the device. He explained the battery life and memory to me, and when I spouted off some of what I'd learned about the features in my months of research, he confirmed what I'd read and showed me more or less how to use them.

"I own one of these myself," he said. "But it's for reading, definitely, not for web-browsing. So as long as that's what you want..."

"That's what I want," I confirmed. "I have a laptop for browsing."

He laughed. "Yeah," he said. "That's what people get the iPad for."

As he went into the back to grab an unopened eReader for me, Amanda and I perused the selection of covers and accessories. Having already spent hours upon hours on the store's website, I knew exactly what I wanted and found it quickly. I gushed over the leather working on the case, and, when the sales person brought me the eReader, I clutched it to my chest with glee. He laughed and walked away to do his job; Amanda shook her head at me.

"That guy almost talked me into buying one," she said. "You'll have to let me play with yours."

The eReader mania was clearly infectious, and the more I played with mine and discovered new features, the more I fell in love with it. When I found out that the eReader offered up a discount on electronic newspaper subscriptions, well... That was an easy decision, what with my failed attempt at meeting my "Keep Current!" goal with the physical newspaper. I quickly purchased a subscription and went on with my life.

The local paper, however, clearly didn't get the message. About a month and a half after I canceled the paper subscription and shortly after I bought my eReader, I received a card in the mail telling me that I had a "99-cent balance" on my account and that they would be continuing my service in order to use that balance... unless I called them and refused the service, in which case I could instead receive a check for the ninety-nine cents. Of course, the last day I would be able to call to refuse the service was the day before I received the card, and I really didn't want a check for ninety-nine cents anyway.

The paper had learned to be sneaky.

After pacing back and forth in my kitchen for a while, I called the paper and, after a twenty minute argument as to whether or not I should get the paper, I finally convinced the person on the phone that really, I didn't want the paper. No, really. The words "your paper is useless" apparently did nothing, but when I pulled out my eReader and asked 'Well, why didn't your paper cover such-and-such story this week?', my question was met with silence.

"Yeah," I said. "That's the kind of news I want. Not the stories about sports."

"Well, we have two very in-depth sections devoted to local and international news..."

"No," I said, flipping through those sections. "You have one page covering international news and you have about half a section devoted to local news. The rest is all about sports."

The paper representative was very, very quiet.

"Thank you," I said. "I don't want the check. Just please take me out of your database. All right?"

They sighed. "All right," they conceded, and hung up.

Confident that I'd won that argument, I did a victory lap around my kitchen while my cats stared at me like I'd gone crazy.Victory lap aside, this wasn't entirely unusual.

When I received a letter from the local paper two days later offering me a so-called deal of a lifetime if I'd only just sign back up for a physical newspaper subscription, I shred it with no small amount of glee and went back to reading the New York Times on my eReader. I still get the letters periodically -- about once every few days -- but since they make good cat toys when crumpled up, I'm not quite ready to call the paper and complain (again).

Besides, I'm waiting for them to offer me a pony. Or at least something with buttons, a rechargeable battery, and an e-ink screen. And it would help if I could also use it to read books and subscribe to newspapers that actually write about things that aren't sports.

Waaaiiiiit a minute.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

That's why this lady is a tramp

There's a story that's been going around lately about how I've become the office tramp.  Now, it's not what you might think.  A few weeks ago I was allowed to go down to D.C. to represent our company at a conference.  I decided I needed a nice professional outfit to make a good impression, so Catherine helped me shop for one.  I got a two piece skirt and bustier matching set with a nicely fitted black suit jacket.  It looks pretty sharp, if I do say so myself.  And the bustier is very high and doesn't even look much like a bustier.  Anyway, I told my mother excitedly about my new clothes and how great it was all going to be, to which she replied from her end of the phone, "that sounds completely inappropriate for a business function."  The disgust in her voice (probably from hearing the word "bustier") was apparent and my self-esteem took a bit of a blow.  However, when I told Catherine about it, she burst out laughing that my mother thought I was a tramp for wearing what was by all means a conservative outfit.

Now I'm not one to flaunt what I've got or even wear anything remotely suggestive.  At least, I wasn't until a few months ago when I started getting more confident about how I look and act.  Wearing better fitting (and sometimes even a bit sexy!) clothes does wonders for how you feel about your body.  When you feel good about how you look, it shows.  I've had some issues with body image, but nothing too major.  Anyway, I feel like learning to dance has helped me find a lot of confidence.  I find I'm taking chances and by going out to salsa clubs, I'm meeting people and putting myself out there.

Which brings me to a completed goal (finally!) - goal number 22: Put Myself Out There.  Something about social dancing used to make me very anxious and uncomfortable.  If you've ever seen the film Marty, I was definitely Clara - all alone on the sidelines of the dance hall getting passed over by guys and not having enough guts to take the initiative.  I never even went to my senior prom.  But this new challenge to try a dance class helped me to get over that shyness.  Imagine my surprise when all the guys in my class were also nervous and couldn't dance!  I'm still a bit shy when I go to the salsa club, but even that's starting to change.  And there's a lot to be said about pretending to be confident - about two months ago I met a guy there I really liked and with a lot of encouragement from my wing woman (Catherine), I got up the nerve to give him my email address.  We have since started to hang out with other salsa folks and very recently have been on a few dates.  I'm not about to spill my whole story here on a public forum, but what I really want to say is that at long last I feel good about myself.  I have no idea if anything serious will happen or not, but that's not the point.  The point is that I'm taking a chance again.         

Another plausible title for this blog post would be "I Wish I Were in Love Again."  I've always chuckled at the lyrics to that song, which talk about all the awful aspects of being in love, yet the singer nevertheless wishes to be in that place again.  Here are some of the best lines: "The broken dates, the endless waits /The lovely loving and the hateful hates/The conversations with the flying plates - I Wish I Were in Love Again."  During a phone call with a college friend of mine who is now in San Francisco, I told her about this conundrum.  Taking a chance on love (ha! another Sinatra song title!) is really just opening up your heart to a whirl of emotions, like going from a merry-go-round to a roller coaster.  But when it comes right down to it, I'd rather be on the roller coaster, plummeting blows and all.  Because even when you go through all those endless waits and broken dates, it's the experience that makes it all worthwhile.  I don't know now if it's been the salsa or the new clothes or even just meeting the right people at the right time, but that confidence I've been faking since January is finally starting to feel more genuine.  I promise to keep getting out there taking all kinds of chances on life and on love, and for you, dear readers, I promise to report back.  :-)

Friday, April 15, 2011

In which I have an unfortunate relationship with punctuality (and other personal failings).

I'd prepared for this day for over a year. I'd put on and set aside innumerable outfits, checked almost a million times that my ticket was in fact still in my wallet, and, when my windshield cracked earlier that week, took an emergency day off work to get it replaced just so I'd be guaranteed a mode of transportation.

My brother probably hadn't expected his 2009 Christmas gift to me -- two tickets to a Met opera streamed live to our favorite movie theatre -- also came with a small list of problems and complications. Indeed, at the time I hadn't expected it either, but as a year passed and every opera showing I wanted to see sold out before I could exchange my ticket vouchers or was canceled the day of due to problems at the Met or a gas leak at the theatre, I started to suspect the tickets were cursed. I gave up on seeing an opera in 2010 somewhere midway through the year -- probably after receiving the near-devastating news that my opera of choice was sold out (the sixth or seventh time I'd been turned away for just that reason) -- but ordered my brother to let me know the moment the 2011 schedule came out. True to form, my brother failed spectacularly and forgot, but already anticipating such an occurrence, I checked the website almost daily. The schedule went up just after Thanksgiving, and I immediately conferred with the only other person I knew who liked opera as to which shows would be best. On Christmas Day -- my first opportunity to get to the theatre, I arrived at the ticket counter armed with a list and my ticket vouchers.

I was an old pro at explaining the vouchers; the teenager at the counter was not as used to dealing with a semi-crazed opera fan, and apparently had no idea the theatre even showed opera. After staring at me a moment, she glanced at the schedule in front of her, back at me, and then to her left.

"Okay," she said. "Let me get a manager."

I gave her my brother's name. "He's a manager, and he's here today. Is he available?" I at least wouldn't have to explain my ticket vouchers to him: he'd started this mess in the first place.

"Oh," she said glancing at the schedule again. "He's, uh, unclogging a toilet."

It was good to know he was putting his college education to good use. "All right. Anyone else is fine."

She disappeared for a moment and returned with a young man I vaguely recognized -- perhaps one of my brother's friends, or a high school classmate's younger brother. As I explained my ticket vouchers -- again -- I watched his eyes gloss over and his face go a little blank. I cut my story as short as possible and ended with a near plea.

" I'd like to exchange these vouchers for tickets to Iphigénie en --"


"Iphigénie en Tauride. February 26. Here. With Susan Graham?" It seemed worth mentioning; this was my first choice of shows only because of Susan: it's rare for an opera to feature a mezzo-soprano in the title role.

He frowned. "Never heard of her. How did you spell the name of the movie?"

"Opera. It's I-p-h-i-g-e-n-i-e..."

"Got it." He typed something in two or three quick bursts, and I nearly sighed with relief when the printer started to spew out a pair of tickets. "How did you pronounce that?"

I said it again. "It's French," I explained.

"I thought operas were all Italian."

"Some of them are," I said as I took my tickets. "But this one is French."

That seemed to satisfy him. "Enjoy your movie!" he answered brightly as I walked away.

Later, when I told my brother I'd retrieved my tickets while he was elbow-deep in toilet water and damn it, the theatre had better not close down again the morning of my show like it did the last time, he laughed.

"I'll see what I can do." Then, he paused. "You're going to be the youngest person there," he told me.

This was likely true. Every other time I'd queued up in the theatre's parking lot with a horde of disappointed opera fans looking to exchange their tickets for vouchers, the other opera fans had primarily been senior citizens who arrived en masse via a bright blue bus belonging to the local retirement community.

"Not if I invite someone younger than me," I answered, and said my goodbyes.

And that was how I roped Amanda into seeing her very first opera.

Having finally settled on an outfit and committed to a brunch plan with Amanda, all I had left to worry over was getting to the theatre on time. Already half-convinced that this attempt would be foiled by the theatre shutting down yet again, I made sure Amanda and I left plenty of time to get through brunch -- and that we had a backup plan in case something went wrong and we were turned away from the show. At first, this seemed like an easy enough task: Amanda arrived at my house on time, city traffic was light, and when we discovered the restaurant we'd chosen for brunch had a twenty minute wait for a table, we found an alternative almost immediately. Everything was going according to plan.

Of course, that was before ten or fifteen large parties walked in, swamping our otherwise diligent waitress and causing us to wait for the check about ten minutes longer than we could spare. Aware that we were already cutting it close, Amanda and I paid as quickly as we could (a process that basically involved handing the waitress our credit cards before she even set the check down in front of us) and rushed out of the restaurant. To add to my anxiety, every light between the restaurant and theatre turned red as I approached it, and the left turn into the theatre parking lot was held up by a Volvo with what was either spectacularly poor depth perception or an inability to ascertain how long such a turn might take.

We finally arrived at the theatre with just two minutes to spare and my nails bitten to the quick, proving that my parents had no idea what seeds of anxiety they were planting when they first taught me the importance of punctuality. After determining that perhaps punctuality and I needed to try seeing other people, Amanda and I made our way to the screening room. As we approached, she started to wander away.

"Where are you going?" It came out somewhat like an accusation. "The show starts in, like, ten seconds!"

She looked at me like I'd spontaneously grown a second head. "The bathroom. And we're fine."


Amanda pointed out how many pitchers of water we'd gone through over the course of brunch, then cast me a curious glance. "You don't have to go?"

I checked the time. The show was scheduled to start in just a few moments. "Bladder damage builds character," I decided, and the two of us temporarily parted ways.

The moment I stepped into the theatre, I knew going in alone had been a mistake: the theatre was packed almost full, and as I came around the corner I felt virtually ever pair of eyes turn toward me. Most looked away after a glance, but those that didn't seemed to be scrutinizing me as I searched the rows of seats for two empty chairs.

I was, as my brother had warned me, easily the youngest person there, and while that shouldn't have bothered me... it did. More so when I finally found a pair of empty seats near the front, right ahead of a pair of elderly women who were using those seats as coat racks.

"Sorry," I said as I approached. "May I use these seats?"

One of the ladies squinted at me. "Are you in the right theatre?"

Momentarily taken aback, I just stared at her for a few seconds. "Yes?"

"Are you sure?"

I immediately regretted having worn jeans. "I... Yes." I cleared my throat. "So, may I..." Just then, I spotted another set of empty seats. They were all the way up front, about two rows ahead of these ladies, but at least I wouldn't have to offer them my ticket stub as proof of admission. "Never mind. Thank you."

As I slunk over to those seats, I overhead a snippet of conversation from the ladies:

"She's theatre hopping, I just know it. Won't she be in for a surprise!"

The other woman tittered. "Honestly. People these days..."

I slouched in my seat, bit my tongue, and looked desperately toward the entrance, hoping to spot Amanda. The women behind me kept murmuring to one another, and, though it may have been my imagination, I swore I saw them glancing my way now and again. When Amanda finally waltzed in and I waved frantically at her so she could find me, I saw one of them shake her head. I paid it no mind and, as Amanda took her seat, I leaned a little toward her.

"They're judging us," I told her. She didn't answer, and since the lights were going down and the music swelling, it clearly didn't warrant a response anyway.

The opera itself was wonderful. Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo both had colds, as the Met director told us before the beginning of the show, but neither showed any signs of it. The intermission offered a few behind-the-scenes extras, wherein we watched as Plácido Domingo gazed longingly at a cup of hot tea as someone fixed his makeup, Paul Groves covered himself in fake blood, and Susan Graham admitted to having hidden a handkerchief in the sleeve of her dress, just in case. When the second half began, we were just as enthralled as with the first.

At the end, after the applause died away and we left the theatre, I looked to Amanda -- knowing full well that the ladies from earlier were just a few paces behind us.

"So what did you think?" I asked.

She had only praise. "It was wonderful! I'm so glad you convinced me to come!"

"I'm glad you liked it. Any chance you'd want to see Le Comte Ory later in the season? It's really funny. It's about this guy who tries to get into women's bedrooms while their husbands are away at war, and..."

As I went on my spiel about the plot and the kind of performers who would be in it, as well as the various arias, the two ladies passed us. And, again, it may have been my imagination, but I could have sworn they were trying to hide their faces with their coat collars.

Want to know more about Iphigénie en Tauride? Read all about it here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let's Face the Music and Dance

Celebrity Sightings, Random Acts of Elbow Violence, ABBA, Cupid, and oh yeah, Salsa Dancing
I can hardly believe six weeks ago Catherine and I launched this blog and pledged ourselves to 25 resolutions for 2011. This past Wednesday we were able to cross off the first goal on both of our lists. That’s right, we finished our first level salsa class! Tonight, our dance studio had an all-levels salsa night mixer. There was a lesson beforehand, followed by salsa, meregue, and cha-cha dancing (as well as something called “machato” or “machado” – we’re not really sure how to say it or spell it, and the closest thing I could find online is “maxixe”). The three hours of dancing marked the capstone of our learning so far and seemed like a good time to give you a bit of a taste for what we learned.

Well, before I finish that story, I should go off course a bit. Catherine and I have a game of spotting celebrity look-a-likes. I think it started when we were at the airport and thought we saw Sally Field. Today was an extraordinary day for celebrity sightings, quite possibly because I was in such a good mood. First, I saw Jimmy Stewart on the light rail. Then when we reached the dance studio, the instructor for the class looked like Liza Minnelli (and acted a bit like her – I thought she was going to break into song at one point). And finally one of the guys from our beginner’s class came and when I danced with him under all those colored lights and disco balls, he suddenly looked just like Robert Duvall. But I want to focus on the Liza look-a-like right now. She went very fast and kept stressing the lessons were for the intermediate class, which Catherine and I braved. I’m proud to say that for the most part, we kept up well. Sure, I had a few missteps and topples, but I was still learning. And then I had to practice with a partner whom I had never met before and, well, let’s just say I tried to do a spin and accidentally whomped him in the stomach with my elbow. And forearm. And probably some wrist too – it was so embarrassing! Luckily it must not have hurt or he felt sorry for me and my overflowing apologies, because he danced with me again later in the night too. Catherine also turned into a dance machine, having guy after guy ask her to dance. Afterward she said she was a regular “dancing queen” and you know what, I believed her. A lot of dancing is about confidence and release – having faith enough to let go and know you will be alright.

Earlier this week, I was talking to our friend Rachel, an avid swing-dancer, about how much I've been enjoying salsa. "It's a good way to let go," she said. "I mean, swing helps me give up control - you just have to follow." I found myself doing just that tonight. In fact, there were times when my dance partner would try to get me to do a complicated move several times in a row and on the last try, I just closed my eyes and stopped thinking. And it worked, no wayward elbows or tangled up wrists either! In fact, looking at it now, that’s really what I did in our usual weekly classes too. In the first few lessons, I kept trying to be in control. I wanted to make sure I didn't slip or take a wrong step. But as we went on, the more I let go and just trusted my lead, the better the dance went. I still had to know what I was doing and how to cover during a misstep, but it went much smoother. It was a great, liberating feeling – how wonderful to have enough confidence to let go!

Which brings me at last to my last point. I believe certain things (people, events, etc.) come into your life at certain times for a reason. Taking salsa recently has been a great way to dive into my 25 goals, and it’s also been a good way to loosen up those other white-knuckled grips of control I’ve had on my life. In case you are one of the very rare people out there who have yet to be bombarded by Cupid-themed advertisements everywhere for chocolates and diamonds and oyster dinners, let me tell you that Valentine’s Day is upon us. Technically, Monday is the big day, but everyone wants to celebrate Saturday - that's the purpose of Saturdays, after all. Now, I have been staunchly against Valentine's Day for the past few years. Not just because I’m still stuck in some rebellious phase, but because of some personal tragedies, none of which I should delve into on public cyberspace. Usually Valentine’s Day would render me useless; my time spent steeping in depression and isolation. But I digress. I've been very grumpy so far this week (par for the course), but my mood changed unexpectedly after salsa class ended Wednesday night. I logged onto my email after a dizzying last class (seriously, how many times in a row do you expect me to do an underarm twirl?) only to see more ads for Valentine's Day. I simply rolled my eyes and tried to ignore them. Then tonight I faced the same promotions as I got online, but this time something clicked. My mood change wasn’t just about finishing a goal. It was about letting go and having the self-confidence to find my way. If I'm ever going to relax and enjoy life again, I need to calm down a bit. Beating myself up about past failures and breakdowns isn't going to do any good in the present. I think I’m finding I have more confidence lately, in salsa and other areas too, and am starting to restore faith in myself. “Always keep your feet under you,” our instructor said tonight. Stay grounded, but keep moving. It’s hard to face those other 24 goals wondering if I’ll have courage enough to finish them all, but as salsa has taught me, I just need to face the music and dance.

End notes: 1) When she's not swing-dancing, Rachel's rockin' the world of publishing in her blog: Trac-Changes. 2) Also, a fun list of types of dances. 3) Yes, I used another Sinatra song for my title. This may become a theme. Be forewarned.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In which I am easily swayed by attractive young men (and other misadventures).

At some point in December, shortly after Amanda and I put together our to-do lists and threw them on the internet, I was met in the grocery store by a very attractive young man who offered me ten dollars off my groceries and free movie tickets if I signed up for a discounted subscription to my city paper. I wasn't really interested in the movie tickets, but ten dollars is ten dollars, I already had the "Keep current!" goal in my brain, and, as I said, the guy was very attractive. So I signed up, paid twenty dollars for the paper subscription, and went back to my shopping.

A week later, I realized I had yet to receive a paper. I checked my receipt and, sure enough, the first paper was supposed to arrive the previous Saturday. I gave it a few more days, and then I called the paper. After a few minutes of listening to their surprisingly catchy hold music, I finally got through to a representative. He made his general introductions, and I pressed forward.

"Hi," I said. "I bought a subscription on December 16th, and so far I haven't received a paper. Any idea when that might show up?"

He hemmed and hawed a bit, asked for my information, and then spent a minute clicking around his computer. Finally, he answered in the affirmative. "Yeah," he said. "That should have arrived by now."

Not quite the answer I was looking for. "Except it hasn't. Do you know when I'm going to start getting the paper?"

"Um." The clicking began again. "No. But we'll fix it, and I'll credit your account."

Much better. I agreed to this, requested a vacation hold for the Christmas holidays, and hung up the phone. Sure enough, the representative took care of it: I received my first issue of the newspaper the Monday after the new year.

Reader, please imagine my dismay when, upon opening my long-sought paper, I realized that it was composed of at least seventy-five percent garbage. The sports section was larger than the part actually containing news, and the comics, horoscopes, and crossword puzzle took up two pages of the already brief news section. There was an additional, slim section for auto enthusiasts, and a collection of coupons and advertisements I didn't even glance at, as none were for stores I frequented. Worse: the front page of the paper -- the part that's supposed to contain news? -- was dedicated to football.

This was not a happy "You got peanut butter in my chocolate!" scenario. The entire front page of my newspaper was dedicated to football, in addition to the already thick sports section. A little disgusted, I read through what little news was actually there, credited the slim pickings to it being a "slow news day", and tossed the paper in the recycling bin. A fluke, I told myself. The next day's paper would be better. It would actually contain news.

The next day's paper was not better. It at least didn't feature football on the front page and the auto section had been swapped out for one devoted to food -- relatively more interesting, at least to me --, but the actual news still made up less than a quarter of the paper. I ran into a similar problem the next day, and the next, and the next, and finally, one day, I brought this issue up to a friend.

"Oh, right," she told me. "Didn't you know? That paper is pretty much all about sports. If you want actual news, you have to go read the Post or the Times or something."

That explained it. Clearly, this paper had learned to cater to its audience -- admirable, considering the print industry's growing problems with maintaining its market share -- and its audience was Not Me.

Left with the option of either supporting the print industry by paying for something I considered mostly irrelevant or actually reading, you know, news, I called to cancel my subscription. After twenty minutes (literally) of the representative trying to talk me into purchasing a weekend-only or a weekday-only or a "reduced" subscription (whatever that is), I finally convinced him that no, I really didn't want the paper anymore, and he canceled my account. However, since I had the credit from December, I would still be receiving papers for a few more weeks. Was that okay?

Yes, I told him. That was okay.

So now, nine days into February, I am still (temporarily) receiving a daily newspaper, I've finally realized that the New York Times publishes online for free, and my cats have decided newspaper tastes delicious.

...all the more reason to receive my news electronically, I guess.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's February Already?

I feel as though this year has already started off in a headlong rush, so I thought I’d take a breather and get down some of what’s been happening lately. I can’t quite check off any of my goals just yet, but I’ve started several of them. Here are the highlights:

1) Salsa Dancing. Our class is three sessions in, and I’m still loving it! It’s so much fun to meet people and get moving to some great music. I’m feeling more confident, even when I do get the steps wrong. Still haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes, though I came very close!

2) Wine Tasting. My lovely coworkers gave me a wine journal to help me start keeping track of wines as I try them. Tonight I made my first entry for a glass of Gewurtztraminer. I’m still not entirely sure of what I’m doing, but it’s nice to make notes and read up on things like aromas and flavors. Plus I now know how to pronounce the name of the wine – go me!

3) Time with friends. It’s been tough getting out and about lately because of the snow and ice, and I’m sad to say that there have been days when I’ve been too tired to do anything but sit on my couch in my pjs watching television or reading a book. But I have tried to stop that and my calendar for the next few weeks looks nice and busy – book clubs, birthday dinners, and all kinds of mayhem. I’ve also reconnected with an old friend of mine from middle school. What did we do before Facebook? Wait, don’t answer that….

4) Light Rail Buddies. I haven’t really made friends with anyone I commute with just yet, but I have talked to some of them. It usually involved the train not coming as we shivered on the platform with snow drifting down onto our heads. I’ve also run into my friend from college, David, on the train from time to time and that has also been a nice surprise. We didn’t realize that sometimes when I work later, we wind up on the same train.

5) Books. I made a decision to read 10 books outside of the ones I’ve read so far for book club, and to date I have read 2. First was Mark Rotella’s wonderful history of Italian Americans and their culture – Amore: The Story of Italian American Song. I loved it so much, mainly because I grew up with that music. It was not just the story of Italian singers, but of all Americans with Italian heritage. I could see my grandfather in those stories and for those 264 pages, it was like he was here with me again. That’s the power of good writing. The second book was also well-written: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I really enjoyed this novel of a circus vet that is told in the present (when he’s a 90+ year old man in a nursing home) as well as the past (when he first joined the circus). It’s very touching, especially the present day chapters. I read the whole thing in a week because I was so enthralled. I’m so excited to keep reading, too. I’ve got some of those books I mentioned in my earlier post coming up, as well as two more I got for my birthday: Julie & Julia and Film Club: A True Story of a Father and a Son.

6) And, drumroll please, I am going to a concert! I am so excited, I can hardly sit still. First, I should explain a bit about my music taste. Almost every singer or band I like have either retired, split up or died (most fall into the last group). So when I saw that Glen Campbell was not only out of retirement, but that he was finally touring in the US, I knew I had to see his concert. As fate and luck would have it, he is performing in Indianapolis this summer, and I am going. My friend Vanessa is coming with me, as is our friend Meghan, who lives out near Cincinnati. It’s going to be a great trip and a wonderful reunion! I know most people my age don’t know who Glen Campbell is, but gosh darn it, I’m thrilled and I’m going to enjoy it!

7) Upcoming Plans. I’ve been making a few plans for the near (or far) future too. I’ll probably go ice-skating soon, thanks to some coaxing from my friends. I’m also planning a roadtrip to a winery (that’s right, two goals in one!) and a trip to Ireland later this year. Sometime in February I also plan to have a writing weekend to myself where I just relax and focus on getting back into writing.

Looking through my list again, I realize that many of my goals are not quantifiable, so they cannot really be reached. I mean, how can I check something off my list like “Be Happy in My Work”? Although it’s been a stressful few weeks, I do feel a renewed energy this year towards my job and hope that I continue to stay on top of tasks and get more organized. Maybe at some point in the year I will feel more confident, and therefore happier with myself, in this role. These goals are all really just guidelines for how I want to spent this year and I think the only way I’ll get all 25 checked off the list is to sit back on New Year’s Eve and be able to say without reserve, “that was a very good year.”