Books you want to read and books you have to read

Good writing makes you feel less alone. You recognize it when you read about a thought or feeling you thought only you had ever had. It makes you realize that not only did someone else have the same experience, but this other person, the one whose name is on this cover, was able to articulate and distribute it in a way that you only wish you could have and suddenly it is not just a thought you had alone, but this perfect, crystalline truth that fear kept you from speaking. You thought maybe you were actually such a deranged individual that none of those normal people – the ones who came off the assembly line without any dents or dings – would not be able to relate. They would have said that you needed help, that there’s medicine for those feelings you described. So you didn’t say what you felt and you didn’t tell your story and the next thing you know, you’re reading it in someone else’s book and saying, with a sigh, “dang, that was good.”

One of those crystalline truths which I read years ago in a Gillian Flynn book came skating through my mind this morning as I was making coffee. The next thought I had was that maybe I should read another Gillian Flynn book. But then I thought, no, I’ve got some classics I’d better choke down before the next lunch table conversation where everyone starts talking about a book I haven’t read and was hoping to avoid for eternity. One such book is “Night,” by Elie Wiesel. I don’t want to read it. But I should read it. But I don’t want to.

I am sure you can understand why I don’t want to. Is there anything more depressing than the Holocaust?

But it’s kind of awkward when you’re an English teacher and you’re eating lunch with your coworkers and they are throwing out references to a book you’ve never read. You feel you should read it, as well as every other book considered a classic in the canon of American and British literature, plus some of the Russians we don’t read in high school but people still talk about. Plus you should probably read all of the best-selling young adult books – the ones students might actually WANT to read as opposed to the ones people read so they can say they’ve read them.

I think that’s one reason I majored in journalism instead of English – because I was more interested in the practical application of modern language than reading books written by men who died hundreds of years ago.

Yet of all the mistakes I’ve made in life, majoring in journalism instead of English might be the one that has haunted me most. It was really bad when I was looking for a job as an English teacher. Did you know that some principals think majoring in English makes you more qualified to teach it? I mean, go figure. I could have tried making the argument that the state’s standards actually require students to apply practical language skills rather than be well-read scholars of classic literature, but the thing is, people like categories, labels, and “majors” because it makes things more manageable, easier to understand. So they want English majors to teach English and journalism majors to be journalists. If only life were that simple and everyone could decide what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives at 18. This is also why you sometimes have people who majored in English teaching journalism when they wouldn’t know a campaign finance report from a real estate transfer or a planning commission from a board of zoning appeals. Not that anyone would want to know these things any more than they would want to read “Of Human Bondage.”

While I’m on the subject of literary shame and regrets, one of the dumbest things I did this summer was take a bunch of my books to Books-A-Million because they had a sign that said, “We buy used books.”

So I thought, OK, I’ve got all these books I’ve already read taking up space in my house. I’ll try selling them to Books-A-Million.

Now I’ve sold books at used bookstores before. It usually isn’t worth the gas money it costs you to drive across town. You’d feel better donating them to a library for their used book sale fundraiser.

But I thought because Books-A-Million is a big company, maybe it would be more … lucrative.

Well, it was different because instead of just looking at the books and then declaring that I could get $5 for all these great books still on the best-seller lists like the owner of a used bookstore would have done, the guy working at Books-A-Million had to scan my books and get my email. I then had to wait half an hour to receive a text, at which point I went back to his counter to find out what he could give me for all of my awesome books, which included Shirley Jackson’s classic, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” and Marie Kondo’s contemporary best-seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” After waiting 30 minutes with my kids in the Books-A-Million coffee shop, where we spent $15 on snacks and beverages, I was informed he could give me $6. I should have taken the books and left, but I took the $6.

That was dumb. I bet one of my friends would have liked to borrow my copy of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” I doubt I could talk any of my students into reading “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” but I still wish I had kept that copy. Kids today are more into books like “The Hate U Give.” When I let them choose, they go for modern books with references to conflicts, clothing, and music they recognize. Go figure.


The clove of seasons

The crickets are really loud right now because it’s nearly dawn in September in Virginia and the insects want it to be autumn almost as badly as the humans who live here. We are in the clove of seasons, a phrase I am borrowing from James Hurst’s classic short story “The Scarlet Ibis,” which takes place in North Carolina sometime in late summer, before the temperature and leaves have changed.

If you haven’t read “The Scarlet Ibis,” you really should, probably today, because if you don’t, you will likely forget. It is seasonally appropriate. Be forewarned, it’s a tragedy, one that, despite being written before the invention of the internet, manages to make an impression even on a classroom of fidgety 14-year-olds, and they are hard to impress. It’s about a boy who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. To me, it’s about sibling guilt. Most of us who have siblings know something of what that feels like, especially if you were the oldest.

The transition from summer to fall is the most nostalgic and bittersweet of the season changes. It’s the last stage before everything freezes up and dies. We want autumn because we’re weary from the intense heat and humidity of summer, and because it is clear and beautiful. And at least where I live, fall is by far the most pleasant season in terms of weather.

But there is a sadness, a minor chord in the soundtrack, as the sun gets stronger and stronger before it fades. Here we have the cemetery walks and ghost stories, the emphasis on dying. Or is it that what we’re hoping to believe in is actually something after death?

It occurs to me, when I haven’t written a blog post in awhile, that I haven’t written a blog post in awhile. I wonder if I should keep it up. One of the main questions for writers is, what’s the point? I am one of thousands of voices trying to articulate something meaningful about the human experience.

Another pressing question is, what can I actually write about that won’t get me fired, disowned, or otherwise ruin my life? What can I write about that won’t annoy people because of its narcissism? Why would anyone want to read my thoughts?

There’s always a risk with writing. It doesn’t feel like as a big a risk as saying something aloud in public, but it’s a risk, nonetheless. You may publish something and get your feelings hurt when you hear the crickets chirping as loudly as they are outside my window at this moment.

But the bigger risk is that you’ll write something that strikes a major chord, find you’ve gone viral, and get yourself blacklisted. I know people who’ve experienced that and survived, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk for me. I’ve been called a feminist and a communist and wondered if my very small reputation in that direction was the reason an invitation to my kid’s birthday party was declined. (It probably wasn’t. Wanna-be writers always think people know who we are and what we said, but they don’t.) Recently I decided I was relieved after I got a rejection email for one of my essays because what I wrote was too personal and it’s probably better if it’s not on my permanent record.

So you think, OK, since I don’t want to be honest enough about my personal life to really get any attention, and I’d rather not be blacklisted for political reasons, maybe I’ll just write fiction.

For me, writing good fiction is a lot easier said than done, and based on what I’ve read from the kids I teach, it’s true for them, too. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read better fiction by high school students than what’s in some of the popular young adult books on the shelves, but all that means is that something doesn’t need a lot of merit or credibility to be marketable, which is obvious in every market. Think about restaurants: Do you choose based on quality? Not always.

You know what high school students write best? Poetry. Because they can finish a poem (or two) within one class period and it doesn’t infringe on their time as much as, say, writing a 50,000-word novel or memoir.

Also, the experiences of adolescence often make for better poetry than the experiences of midlife. Your first love hits you harder than what you feel on your 14th anniversary. Most of us are lucky to even have a 14th anniversary, and if we do, to feel good about it.

Teenagers can usually be honest about their feelings without getting disowned, fired, or blacklisted. Sometimes, they are even rewarded for taking that risk with some kind of recognition or award. I wrote a poem about sex when I was 14 and got a third-place award which led me to continue down the angst-ridden path of the wanna-be writer. Submitting that poem to a contest was the only time I remember my creative writing teacher ever acknowledging me or giving me any feedback or direction, other than writing a one-word prompt on the board every day and turning us loose. To say that expectations for teachers are different now than they were when I was in high school is an understatement.

Usually the worst thing that happens for teens when they write about their feelings is that they might have to talk to a counselor, which, let’s be honest, is something we all need from time to time. Most adults just wish we could afford it. We don’t make time or spend money on our own therapy, but we’ll do it for our children if we think they need it, and we’ll do it for our students.

Living vicariously through the next generation is actually a stage of adulthood for most people. It might even be the definition of adulthood for some and I’m not sure there’s any shame in that. At some point you realize that maybe what you have to say isn’t as important as … someone younger, or maybe, everyone younger. You had your chance, and maybe you still have it, but you don’t want to take it at someone else’s expense.

So I wonder what I can write about if I keep blogging. As my children get older, they can’t always be the main characters of my stories because I have to respect their privacy. Recently, I considered writing a parenting column comparing head lice in elementary schools to STDs in college, but I scrapped that idea because of how it could affect my kids.

Maybe I’ll write more about aging, like Nora Ephron in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which is usually in a pile of books by my bed in the guest bedroom, where I sleep more often than not because of my raging insomnia, which is almost as annoying to my husband as it is to me. I haven’t started having hot flashes yet. Based on my mother’s experience, I might have another decade before they set in.

It is not unusual now for writers to chronicle their dying process, although I’m not sure if I’ll be up for that challenge.

But aging, I can talk about. I do feel bad about my looks. At 40, even if you don’t look any worse than average, it still sucks because you don’t look like you did when you were 25. And I definitely don’t look like a lot of the beautiful girls that surround me every day. I never did. I’d say I get the wicked stepmother thing, although I’ve never committed an act of premeditated evil against someone just because she was younger and prettier, or because she was older and richer, for that matter.

Truly, the aging process is a goldmine of grievances, from little disappointments to aches and pains, elective surgeries and medical bills. Midlife is tragic in its ennui, and that’s if you are lucky.

It is the clove of seasons between youth and old-age. The only part of it I’m looking forward to is writing about it.




Mama Mia

After watching the 2008 movie “Mama Mia” a few hundred times, my daughter has developed a deep interest in Meryl Streep. I know it seems like a somewhat unusual obsession for a 9-year-old, but look, Meryl Streep is a much better role model than Axl Rose, and I was obsessed with him from age 10 until 14 or 15.

So I am thinking of launching a Meryl Streep film festival in our household and taking suggestions of favorite Meryl Streep movies. I know that somewhere in my possession is the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. Wikipedia classifies it as “Chick Lit,” which apparently is its own genre. I will not go into the discussion among literary snobs about how and why anything written by or for women gets less respect than, well, anything else. However, my husband did scoff when I suggested we all watch “The Devil Wears Prada.”

I contend it’s an excellent book and film that I would have classified as realistic fiction. Anyone who’s worked in publishing has definitely dealt with some demanding, ego-centric editors and anyone who’s ever written fiction knows that this kind of story is basically memoir with some of the details changed. Best to label it fiction and hope you lower your risk of getting sued.

I started this morning by waking up at 4 a.m. because it’s important that I get up at least five hours before the rest of the world. At 8 a.m., it was finally time for my yoga class to begin. Going into the yoga classroom made me realize where I’d seen a boy who offered me a gummy fruit snack yesterday when I was on lunch duty at the school where I work. I wasn’t in the mood for a gummy, so I declined. It was just before the bell was about to ring for students to go back to class and I was standing by the doors. He asked, “Are you just standing back here to keep people from leaving?” I said that yes, basically I was, then he shrugged and went back into the cafeteria.

So I realized this morning that I think I’ve seen him before in my yoga class. He’s usually with his mother and he’s one of the few males in the class, which is mostly women 30 and older. Generally, teens don’t frequent the same gym as me, I think mainly because they get their exercise playing sports and video games. Now I want to know more about this kid because I know he’s a true individual, a transcendentalist even, and he likes yoga. But what if I go up to him and ask if I saw him in yoga class and he gets embarrassed?

My own son is in 7th grade and he’s pretty well aware of social expectations and obligations, what you have to do and how you have to act to be considered normal. Just yesterday we went to a potluck dinner and I was going to try to hang out on the playground with the kids because I didn’t know any of the other grownups. My son told me that I needed to walk up the hill and talk to the other moms because I was going to look sad if I didn’t. It was hard, but I did it, and I think I made the impression of someone almost normal.

Not long ago I tried to have my son practice making small talk with me. I said, “Pretend you don’t know me and we have to make small talk.”

Sometimes I do struggle to make small talk with teen boys because I don’t really like sports or video games. I do like some rap music, but everything I know about is at least 20 years old. I’ve never been a boy so I don’t really get some of their behavior. Like why is a trash can always a basketball hoop? Why do you need to jump up in the air and smack the ceiling when I am trying to tell you something? Who do you need to tie and retie your Air Jordans 30 times in 30 minutes?

I’ve never asked any of them these questions and I know if I did, they would not have an answer. So when I tried to get my son to help me get better at small talk with boys, he countered that we probably wouldn’t be chatting if we didn’t know each other because I am so much older than him.

“Well,” I said, “Come on. Humor me. Talk about what 40-year-old women like. What do 40-year-old women like?”

“Starbucks coffee,” was his answer.

“Actually,” he continued, “most grownups like Starbucks coffee.”

Maybe I should not be too proud of exposing my kids to all this pop culture, but I’m telling myself that coffee and PG-13 musicals aren’t the worst vices.

After yoga, I was carrying some cleaning products up the stairs to start on the bathrooms when I saw my daughter run out of the kitchen with something orange hanging out of her mouth.

“Don’t run with a carrot in your mouth,” I yelled, thinking it was a choking hazard. But I shouldn’t have worried. It was only one of those cheese curls with the texture of styrofoam.

Tell me something good

3151B47F-8116-4CCD-B73B-248A15ACDDD4There are a few reasons I don’t travel much. First of all, it’s expensive. Second, it’s a hassle; in most of my travels, I spend about as much time in transit as I do at the destination.

Finally, there’s the issue of a great many experiences being highly overrated. You’re supposed to visit a place because it’s a famous landmark, or order the signature dish at this “amazing” restaurant, or have this certain experience in this certain place because people go there from all over the world to do it.

But then you do the thing that was described as “life-changing,” and guess what? Your life doesn’t change.

Sadly, it didn’t take me 40 years on Earth to develop this attitude. I might have been born with it.

This week I went to New Orleans for what is called a writing marathon. Basically, a bunch of teachers (and a few other people who want to write), get together and walk around the city, sit and write for a bit, and then share what we’ve written. I’ve done this where I live in Winchester, Virginia, with other teachers I met through the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project, and we’ve done it in the high school English and creative writing classes I teach.

In addition to participating in the writing marathon, I wanted to see my dad, who lives in Mississippi, two hours from New Orleans, because I haven’t seen him in several years, and he hasn’t been feeling well at all recently. He has COPD and has to use oxygen, and he suffers chronic back pain.

I didn’t want to go to New Orleans by myself, so I asked my sister to go along. She hadn’t seen Dad in years either. I planned to do a couple of days with the teacher-writers, see New Orleans with my sister, and visit my Dad in Mississippi, all in four days. I knew I wasn’t really going to have enough time to get the most out of any of it, but figured I would do the best I could under time and budget constraints.

I will say New Orleans’ French Quarter is captivating. I had been there once when my father took me almost 30 years ago and I originally hoped he could join me on this trip, but he wasn’t up to it. Like New Orleans, Winchester, the city I live in, has a historic southern charm, but in Winchester you won’t find crowds of people partying on every street corner, eating, drinking, and listening to jazz music all night long.

My sister and I went out to take in the sights of New Orleans when we arrived on Sunday evening, and then again on Monday morning. We had cafe au lait and beignets at the famed Cafe du Monde and then shopped for souvenirs on Decatur Street.

That was when a random guy spit in my face.

Just out of nowhere, this guy passing me turned, spit on me, and kept walking down the street, looking angry. He never said a word.

By that point we had already seen several groups of people begging for money. I heard one ask, “Can you spare some money for whiskey?” We saw a guy passed out with his pants halfway down his legs, exposing his entire hairy backside, on the street corner in front of an expensive restaurant. We saw a woman, probably in her 20s or early 30s, wearing tattered denim shorts and a tiny half-shirt laying in the park at Jackson Square with her eyes closed, rocking back and forth and murmuring to herself.

So it was obvious there were some troubled people trying to survive among the throngs of swindlers and tourists everywhere. I guess the guy who spit on me had had about enough of us all.

It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if he hadn’t managed to get some of it in my eye.

Logically, I knew it wasn’t personal. It happened so fast, I’m not even sure it was premeditated. The guy could have been certifiably insane. But I do think it’s a lot less likely that it would have happened to me if I were a man.

I have often wondered aloud if I have a sign that says “doormat” on my forehead.

Sometimes people ask me for money on street corners in Winchester. Students at the school where I teach often ask me for bathroom passes, explaining that the teacher of their last class, or their next one, won’t let them go.

When I asked my friend Beth if I have “doormat” written all over me, she said, “No, you’re approachable.” But Beth is one of the most well-adjusted people I know. She can put a positive spin on almost anything. I see a doormat and she sees a welcome mat.

Anyway, I tried to put the spitting incident behind me, and my sister noticed a fortune teller’s sign for palm and tarot card readings. At first I didn’t think we should do it.

I’d been to three different psychics in my life. The first two had what I thought were some valid insights. The third was one I interviewed for a newspaper article, and I wasn’t sure anything she said applied specifically to me.

Mainly, I decided to try a psychic reading in New Orleans because I wanted something more substantial to write about than just my general observations of the city. One of the main objectives of the trip was writing, and I didn’t want to sum it up with the spitting incident or the fact that I saw a lot of tacky fashion statements in the French Quarter.

When we were kids, my sister often claimed to be psychic. It was kind of a game we played. She would tell me that she envisioned a certain thing happening. Quite often, inexplicably, her prediction came true. It got to the point that, when I had a question or problem, I’d say, “Susie, I need your psychics.” Usually, I’d want to ask her questions about a boy I liked.

Sometimes she would cooperate and other times she would tell me that her psychics weren’t working because she was too tired.

Lately, my sister hasn’t had much psychic inspiration. We’re both feeling the drag of mid-life that includes chronic pain and regrets. She’s still recovering from major back surgery last year, and I had a recent X-ray diagnosing a back problem that got me a referral for physical therapy.

So I decided I would give my next psychic a challenge: I would ask them to tell me something good. I wanted something to look forward to other than the inevitable losses,  wrinkles, gray hair, pain and ailments that come with getting older.

Well, my psychic didn’t like my little challenge.

“If you’re going to try to control this process, it might not be the best idea for you,” said Geoff the psychic.

He was a tall and lanky 41-year-old with a red beard.

They say things happen in threes and apparently that was true for Geoff in terms of his customers’ names. The two who had come before me were named Star and Stella, he told me.

Once I’d decided to consult a fortune-teller in New Orleans, I figured I’d find an old lady behind a curtain of veils, with a candle and a crystal ball. But the first one I ran into during my writing marathon walking around the city with the other teachers was this guy. He was sitting in a shop inside a cinderblock building selling candles and crystals.

The four other teachers I was with agreed to leave me with him for the 30-minute reading and then come back and get me to continue with our “marathon.”

“I’m just going to lock you in here,” Geoff said as he closed his shop and excused himself to go to the bathroom before we started. At that point it hit me again that he was, in fact, a man. Maybe this was a bad idea. But I didn’t feel scared. Geoff didn’t seem aggressive or predatory, and I’m pretty sure he was gay.

He came back from the bathroom and I followed him to a back room, where he lit a candle. When he got out the tarot cards, I told him I didn’t like them. I’ve had some negative experiences before – pulling a bad card that turned out to be, unfortunately, pretty accurate. Then I asked him if he could tell me “something good” that would happen to me. That’s when he said that frankly, no, he couldn’t promise any such thing.

He described the process he goes through with all of his “clients” and asked me if I was still in.

Sure, I said, figuring that if he said something I couldn’t handle, then I’d just have to add this psychic reading to my list of regrets.

So then he told me to close my eyes and imagine myself in a pleasant, relaxed state. He stood up and started fanning me for several minutes, doing a sort of guided meditation. Although I’ve done this sort of thing before, this time I could not really picture myself in a “happy place” where I am safe and comfortable. I couldn’t really let my guard down all the way and get into the zone, so I just sat there with my eyes closed.

Then he sat down with his eyes closed and proceeded to describe what he saw.

He saw a man in a canoe being swarmed by butterflies. The man was annoyed and batted the butterflies away because he saw them as a distraction and a deterrent.

Then he saw a woman standing in front of a campfire putting her hands to the fire. She had to get “precariously close” to the fire in order to feel its power.

Finally, he saw some men on the roof of a church building. There was hole in the roof letting the light in. The men were trying to decide whether to close the hole for safety reasons.

After that, Geoff shuffled his stack of tarot cards and asked me to shuffle them myself. One of us (I can’t remember if it was me or him, but I think it was him) pulled five cards and he spread them on the table in front of us, explaining the meanings of their positions. This spread, he said, could be used to forecast my opportunities and challenges for the next six months.

Then he started talking about how the cards might relate to the scenes he pictured when he closed his eyes.

He told me one difficulty for me over the next six months will be trying to balance creative inspiration with security, most likely with regard to my job.

He’d pulled the hierophant card – which often represents large institutions, he said.

“It’s time for you to express yourself and express what’s important to you, even if you feel like there will be consequences,” he said. “For you to have this courage, you kind of need institutional support. The obvious thing to do is to find an institution that will support you.”

I hadn’t told him I’m a teacher, but what he was saying sounded valid. I often second-guess a lot of things I’d like to write about or say in public because I worry about the ramifications, socially and professionally. All the teachers I know, even the ones who aren’t doormats, talk about wanting and needing more institutional support. And while I’m mostly comfortable with everything I teach, I know there are some conservative religious folks who would absolutely object to some of the books and discussions we have at school.

He said he thought his vision with the butterflies was about the fact that what others might see as opportunities, I see as distractions, and I push them away because I am afraid of compromising security and stability.

Finally, he told me that the vision with the workers on the church roof was about this need to balance inspiration and creativity with safety.

“It’s kind of no right answer in a way,” he said. “I look at that and I say let the light in. You can always clean up the mess later.”

I saw his point, but I am not so sure taking more risks is possible for me. I have friends who can switch jobs every six months and seem not to burn any bridges. I know people whose friendships and lovers are easy-come, easy-go, and it does seem like those folks know something about living in the moment and enjoying life that has eluded me for a long time.

But I just don’t think I am one who can get away a lot of reckless behavior. I don’t think I’ll ever be the free spirit that my name implies. I walk a line partly because a lot of other people don’t.

“There is a little carpe diem here,” Geoff said. “If you put it off, you may not have the leverage you need further down the road.”

Then he asked if I had any more questions, and he seemed interested in my response to his advice.

“Well,” I told him, “I get what you are saying about the carpe diem thing. Without being too morbid, I think that’s what it is to be 40. It’s kind of like a mid-life crisis, even though my idea of a midlife crisis is painting my nails with glitter polish.”

I shook his hand and left.

Looking back, I’d call what Geoff did more of an intuitive counseling session than a psychic reading. He didn’t tell me anything specific that might happen or how I should react in any situation. Still, with almost no personal information about me other than my name and age, he did hit on one of my big internal conflicts.

Later that evening, my sister paid $20 to a young woman sitting at a card table in the street with a few crystals in front of her. The girl read her palm and told her to stop worrying and being a helicopter parent, and she mentioned something about hand sanitizer. My sister didn’t think what the girl said was particularly useful or accurate.

So I wonder, do all the psychics in New Orleans tell people to stop worrying and cut loose? Is there some NOLA association of psychics where they learn these strategies?

On the way home from the airport, after we’d been driving and flying for about 12 hours straight, I was so tired I didn’t talk much. At one point, my sister turned down the radio and looked at me.

“It seems like you had a good time, other than a few things, but you’re not sure you’d do it all again,” she said.

I still think she’s more psychic than your average palm reader on the street.

Going south

This summer I’m taking two trips, which is a lot of travel for me. My mom used to tell me I should be a travel writer, but as far as I could tell, that wasn’t really a full-time job, and besides that, I soured on packing a suitcase after my parents divorced when I was a teenager and I had to go back and forth between their houses twice a month.

I haven’t been on an airplane since I got married 16 years ago. But this summer I will because in another week I’m going to New Orleans for what is called a writing marathon. The idea is to write with others so that you get a shared experience, but also to incorporate the setting into what you write.

You would think it would not be hard because if you can’t write about what is in front of you, then what can you write about? But for a lot of us, the thing that makes writing hard is not that we have nothing to say, but that we have too much. If we say it all, we will surely offend someone. People do not like when you write about them unless it’s a flattering portrayal, and if you are being honest, you can’t always be complimentary.

One way to avoid that risk with setting is to write about nature. I admire people who write about hiking and the environment, but it isn’t really my thing. I prefer culture and dialogue. I like a good quote with a double meaning, a shady undertone. I like overthinking why people do what they do, say what they say, and wear what they wear.

Currently, I am in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with my husband and two kids. My husband works for a woman who owns a condo here, and he trades his labor for vacation time.

Dan and I are feeling our age some. You notice it when you travel with kids and you realize how, once you’ve seen something before, it can never be like it was the first time. It reminds me of E.B. White’s essay Once More to the Lake.

Just before we hit the road for the 9-hour drive on Interstate-95 from where we live in Winchester, Virginia, to Myrtle Beach, my 12-year-old son asked if we could stop along the way at a gas station we stopped at last year because it advertised clean bathrooms and peaches.

“I liked that place,” Oliver said, “I liked how it had palm trees and little pools of water with fish in them.”

My impression of that particular gas station was a little different. First of all, the peach stand was closed both times we passed through. Second, the convenience store with the “clean bathrooms” isn’t particularly friendly in terms atmosphere. Located alongside a secondary road, it’s a desolate little place where the employees don’t smile. Single men on motorcycles might be inclined to stop there for a six-pack before pulling off for the night. It kind of like a Hotel California of roadside markets.

But we stopped there again, just because Oliver wanted to. He hopped out of the car as soon as we stopped, saying he wanted to take a picture of the mud puddles and palm trees.

Then, of course, we arrived at the beach. After months of what seemed like endless rain at home, clear skies, sand, and the endless ocean were a refreshing change.

Maybe every beach has its own culture, but all of the ones I have been to are more relaxed than anywhere inland. People walk around in various states of undress with tan lines and tattoos on display. Some are tan and toned, but thankfully, others aren’t so much.

When I am at the beach, I could do without a lot of the expensive tourist activities like the all-you-can-eat buffets, and especially the arcades and amusement parks that my kids love. If the weather is good, just the beach itself is enough. For my kids, no trip is complete without a souvenir, which is all the better if it’s alive. So now that they have purchased a couple of hermit crabs, maybe we can all relax for a bit.   

Stop with the eyebrows already

Am I the only one who thinks it’s strange to live in a world where bookstores and newspapers can’t stay open,  but there’s an entire storefront in the mall dedicated to eyebrow threading?

Everyone I know loves bookstores and libraries, and they don’t just go there to drink coffee, hang out, or take up space. They go to get books and read them.

Almost everyone I know, including the most jaded, streetwise teens, can talk nostalgically about a book someone read to them when they were young or a favorite story they’ll never forget. At the school where I work, a lot of kids would rather have a pass to the library than a chocolate bar.

But never have I ever heard someone say they really needed to go and have their eyebrows threaded.

I can understand eyebrow grooming as one of many services at a salon, but a whole store dedicated to it?  

Certainly, eyebrow drama is on the rise. I would go so far as to say the werewolf look is trending. It is getting ridiculous, as are all these cauliflower recipes.

Who is going to put cauliflower in a food processor to make pizza crust? That is just too much to ask.

The next thing you know, we’ll have a stand in the mall selling pretzels made out of cauliflower dough for $10 each, but if you want a book made out of paper, or a newspaper, you’ll have to order it online or drive to Washington.

Day trips to Washington for books will become a thing, kind of like going to Trader Joe’s. People with eyebrows that have been carefully threaded away, then painted back on in deeper, richer color, will gather in the early morning hours carrying canvas totes with quotes from classic novels printed on them. They will load into their hybrid vehicles and make the trek to someplace where there are enough humans to support the sale and consumption of printed media, someplace with tall buildings and escalators.

Strange. Not quite dystopian, but not right, either.

Of course, there’s plenty of dystopia to go around. The one valid argument against reading the news may be that it’s too depressing.

Personally, I just read a poem to a lizard. I’m very worried about her because she won’t open her eyes or eat. My son doesn’t like when I write about his animals because he feels it’s an invasion of his privacy or their privacy, and I see what he means. Plus, when you write about something, there’s a strange karma that comes with it. You can jinx a good thing or in a sense make something real when you don’t quite want it to be. I guess it is like that with any way of documenting your life. That’s why I rarely post selfies with my students. I’ve learned the hard way to be superstitious.

I found a dead baby bird on the street the other day while I was taking a walk. He had probably fallen out of his nest the night before during the big hail storm. I was so tired that I couldn’t really muster the proper emotion or reverence for a dead baby bird who died in an ice storm. All I could do was wrap him in a leaf, feeling the weight and volume of his small body as I laid it in the grass.

There is something about birds that we take very seriously. We believe they are symbolic harbingers of something, and of course, they are. A 9th grader in one of my classes last semester wrote an essay about how he stopped believing in God because of a dead baby bird.

On a lighter but semantically related note, I spent several hours last night making cupcakes and icing with a recipe for Hummingbird Cake because I read a story that said it was popular in 1978 – the year I was born. I followed the recipe carefully and it turned out OK, not as good as it should have been for the effort, but certainly better than if I’d put cauliflower in it.

Lessons I learned from a housekeeper

I did some calculations the other day.

If I am lucky enough to live another 10 years, by the time I am 50, I will have mopped my kitchen floor and cleaned the three bathrooms in my house roughly 600 times. I will have planned or prepared about 20,000 meals for my family and done roughly 6,000 loads of laundry.  

What some people don’t realize about laundry is that you might say that you “did a load” and it sounds like no big deal, but it is a four-step process in which you wash it, dry it, fold it, and put it away. So my 6,000 loads will actually account for 24,000 acts of mindless drudgery.

I am not sure why it would appear that females are better-suited to mindless drudgery than males, but when I have questioned women over 50 about how one is supposed to clean up after an entire family without suffocating from resentment, many say this:

Just hire a housekeeper.

I do understand why people don’t hire male housekeepers. It’s the same reason there aren’t a lot of male nannies – at least not where I am from. I’ve read the stories in magazines like Vogue about “mannies,” but they were obviously exceptions rather than the norm. We’re more likely to trust a woman we don’t know than a man, at least when it comes to housework.

Many years ago, when I lived here with my grandmother, she was a regular client for a married couple who worked as housekeepers for a few different people. For several years, this couple did everything for my grandmother, from cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash to laundry and grocery shopping. By the time my grandmother was in her 80s, the woman in the couple was sorting her medications and helping her bathe.

This couple was very methodical about housework, starting the laundry first thing before gathering the trash. But of course, none of that is very interesting. It is mindless drudgery. This couple would sing while they worked, and the man had a habit of making noises as he moved through the house. Sometimes it sounded like he was saying, “Hee haw!” My mother surmised that it might have been his way of letting us know he was coming so that I didn’t end up walking down the hall in nothing but a towel as he was making his rounds to the wastebaskets.

I didn’t consciously take note of many of their cleaning methods, although clearly I should have. I wish someone had told me how exactly how you are supposed to clean the tracks of a sliding glass shower door, where water pools with hair and mildew, creating a viscous and indescribably disgusting substance.

One thing I do remember about my grandmother’s housekeepers was that they made a lot of stacks. They (and when I say they, I am pretty sure it was the woman who did this) would take books, bills, pens, and newspapers scattered on a table and make neat little stacks and piles with all of it.

When my grandmother’s housekeepers left and I began to assume their duties, I got interested in the Chinese design philosophy of feng shui, which uses natural elements to help people create pleasant environments.

I think I liked the symbolism of feng shui most of all. I liked how, to increase prosperity, you could place an amethyst in the area of your home related to money. If you want helpful people in your life, and you want to travel frequently (don’t ask me why those two things are related), then you might not want the section of your home that is related to helpful people and travel cluttered with wires, DVDs, and dust, as it is in mine.

It is, to some extent, magical thinking, and you need that once you’ve outgrown the idea that the mice should be talking to you and helping you tidy up.

What I’ve learned from reading about Asian interior design philosophy boils down to this: Clutter is bad.

It’s not that I disagree …

If I were to write a book about cleaning and organizing, it would be titled All It Takes Is A Trash Bag.

It would be one of those “cut your losses” books about letting go of the past and giving up your emotional attachment to the piece of skin that your pet lizard shed so many years ago. I would say it’s OK to let go of that massive molar you keep in your jewelry box. You keep it because first you paid a dentist $1,300 to root canal and crown it, and then you paid another dentist to pull it out because the most expensive crown you ever wore felt perpetually wrong.
I do know that, in reality, cleaning up is more complicated than just taking out the trash. Sometimes it takes a dumpster, a landfill, and a week of assistance from several determined and able-bodied people.

So, when I write my book, first I’ll say that you should be absolutely ruthless in your war against clutter.

Then I’ll say that if that isn’t possible, you should put precious gems, crystals, and other symbols of goodness, which may or may not have power beyond their aesthetic value, in various areas for inspiration and hope.

If that doesn’t work, you could try developing a mantra or maybe just a weird noise that you make periodically as you clean to let people know you’re coming. It should be the sound that your spirit animal would make. That might even cause everyone else to get up and help while braying with their own determination.

And actually, don’t worry about throwing away every little useless thing. You can keep your molars and your crowns in a jewelry box. They did cost a lot of money, and they’re not taking up much space.