Archive for October, 2009

still life with narwhal


An old typewriter I bought at a garage sale in high school.

My mom’s wooden file cabinet, water-damaged from years of serving as the stand for my goldfish tank.

“A Cetacean Study”—anniversary gift from Ricky. (what to get for the girl who has everything? a narwhal.)




This semester is hard. But they’re all hard, so let’s not talk about that.

I’d rather talk about old things. Like this typewriter, which caught my eye again the last time I was at my mom’s house. My mom has been moving things around, still cleaning and reorganizing after the great basement flood of ’08. The things of mine that are still there have migrated into a new room, one that hasn’t been my bedroom since I had flannel sheets with skiing polar bears on them—fifteen years ago. It was strange to sleep in that small room again, mine and yet not mine. The creaky eighteenth century sleigh bed that I’ve slept in for the past decade or so has been sent off, finally, for repairs to its massive posts—worn out from years of laboring under retrofitted weight that they were never meant to hold (ropes and ticking, not coils and springs). I woke each morning on a mattress low to the ground instead of in that tall bed—tangled in quilts and disoriented by the unfamiliar angles of the light, filtered pale and green through the ivy.

I own three old typewriters—my favorite is a glossy black Corona. When I bought them, years ago, it seemed to puzzle both the people who sold them to me for $3 and my mother, who still remembers trying to write essays back when “cut” and “paste” were more than just keyboard shortcuts. But the sound, the weight of the keys, and the mechanics of the ribbon fascinated me. I used to write letters on them to my best friend in high school. Often, though, I’d just type empty strings of words—thequickbrownfoxjumpsoverthelazydog—feeding sheets of paper through the dusty rollers and pressing hard on the grimy keys.

I left them behind when I went to college, and again when I began to fill the walls of my own home. This time, though, as I gathered bits of my present life and sorted out bits of the past to stay, I packed the Underwood into its musty box and placed it beside me in the car. Heavy-hearted each time I cross the Mississippi and watch the Arch sink in my rearview mirror, I continue this gradual shift away from the past—or towards it, as it sometimes seems.

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The Twilight Zone


There are a couple of kind of creepy things about this picture.

(( disclaimer: I acknowledge that for many of you, a cat picture is probably just creepy no matter what. ))

Whitish cat on a white quilt in a purplish room. Nothing too surprising here–as you all know, I did just repaint my bedroom. You’ve seen this cat before.

But this is not my cat. or my quilt. or my room.


It’s my mom’s bedroom. Spooky.

October has been busy. Strange. But never boring. Speaking of spooky, I went to my high school reunion. Eating dinner in the dining hall in 2009, it turns out, is essentially like stepping through a door in time. I felt fifteen all over again, and not just because there was a homecoming dance for the real high schoolers going on at the same time. My old friends were still my friends; the people who looked past my head without seeing me in 1999 continued to do so in 2009. Perhaps that’s all just as it should be. I felt confident that I’d become a very different person over the last nine years…until I walked through the door and realized that I could still recognize the band teacher’s handwriting on the white board in the lobby and instantly began fearing that my skirt would get caught (again) in the dining room turnstile. Ricky’s presence there was probably the only thing that kept the fabric of space and time from ripping at the seams.

Now I’m playing catch-up. Piles of papers, piles of laundry, piles of leaves outside that I’ll never rake. They’ll be covered in snow soon anyway.

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I don’t know why I started painting my bedroom today. Objectively, it’s a pretty terrible idea. I’m exhausted. I have to be on campus all day tomorrow.  I have an exam on Friday, and then I have to teach for three hours, and then I’m driving to St. Louis for my high school reunion.

So of course I moved everything out of my bedroom, taped the baseboards, and started to paint. I’m not even sure that repainting was a good idea. I liked the old color. It’s fine. Now I have to sleep downstairs to avoid the fumes. I have to try to locate the perfect outfit in the mess that I’ve created, the one that says to all the people I haven’t seen in a decade: “Yes, I’m still in school. No, I’m not married. Yes, I talk to my cats. But it’s fine.” And today I only finished the priming. I still have to do the actual painting before I can sleep in my bedroom again. And I don’t even know if I like this color any better than the last one.

The more that I have going on, the more that I take on. I’m really not sure about this pale shade of grayish-lavender that I’ve chosen. I wanted something different from the deep aqua that I had–something brighter–something that would make me feel unstuck, and unstressed. And for a while, cutting in the corners and rolling primer carefully around the ceiling fan, I did. I stopped thinking about all of the things that I’m not doing, that I should be doing, that I could be doing, and I just did something. It wasn’t the most productive thing that I could have done with my afternoon, but it was the thing that kept me from screaming. I didn’t need to do it, and I guess that’s why I really needed to do it.

Chipping off the lumps of plaster left behind by my insane and sloppy plasterer— the one who sued me— patching up holes from the many, many times I’ve changed my mind about what should hang where— erasing a dark shade with a clean, pale coat— it feels like starting over, like righting some very small wrongs. The kind of wrongs that aren’t big enough to bother with unless you need something to feel right again, even in a very small way.

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I went outside and cut some hydrangea blossoms from my yard today—they’re already starting to fade, but the tinges of rust are beautiful anyway. When I had a landscaper out a few years ago to remove the tons of white rock that used to cover my flowerbeds, he suggested that I chop down all the old growth—the lilacs, the crab trees, and the hydrangeas—and start over again. There are plenty of houses in my neighborhood where that’s been done. The front yards are lined with carefully shaped walkways and beds of well-groomed perennials. My yard is the wild one on the block—not exactly unkempt, but definitely uncontained.

Despite my relative incompetence in the care and feeding of lawns, there’s always something beautiful blooming by my house. But those blooms have nothing to do with me. They’re older than me, all of them. The crab trees, which burst into messy, hot-pink clusters each spring, have probably been here since the 1940’s. The lilacs—a gloriously mismatched row in shades from white to deep fuchsia—emerge shortly after the last of the crab blossoms have fallen, thick and slippery on the walks. Their tops, gnarled and bare, should be trimmed. Even though I never get around to it, they reward me year after year. The hydrangeas come last, survivors of the long dry summer, fresh and full while everything else passes into dormancy. Someone long ago—perhaps even the first owners of this house—planned this yard to bloom all season long, never to be bare. That sense of history—slight as it may be, for I have lived in older houses, walked through older gardens—surrounds this small home, makes it mine and theirs and all of ours, somehow.

I wonder what I will leave here when I go, what will still grow when springs and summers pass without me here.

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french bread


I’ve never made bread before. Well, with a bread machine, but that hardly counts. It always seems like it takes too much time–rising, rising again, baking. I’m an impatient cook.  And there are some things that I’m content to leave to the fine people at the farmers’ market. Or Trader Joe’s.

But I’ve been stuck in my house for the last few days, feeling icky. I started to regret my decision to cut my cable package, but quickly made up for it by really getting my $8 a month out of Netflix by watching hours and hours of Doctor Who, a couple of bad movies (who am I to turn down Kate and Leopold when Netflix offers?), and almost an entire season of Friday Night Lights (I know, a show about football? I must be desperate). But the streaming video is getting kind of old by this point and I’m tired of eating soup. And I’m just bored. So I did what any logical person would do. . .and made a baguette.

I’m not really sure where this desire came from. I like bread, but it’s not something that I always need to have on hand. It usually takes me a few weeks to get through a loaf (I always freeze them). I think that it was mostly the boredom that led me to my refrigerator, where I found two packages of yeast, both of which were due to expire this month. I’m not even sure how long I’ve had them—or even why, really—but I decided to give it a try. I used this recipe for french bread, which seems to come from Jane Smiley, but cut it in half. I had some trouble proofing the yeast and had to dump out the first two attempts. At first I thought it was because the yeast was so old, but I think it may have been the temperature of the water and of the room. I made the water a little hotter, added a pinch of sugar, and put the mixture in my oven (turned off, but warmed up with a bowl of boiling water). The dough didn’t rise much the first time, but by the end of the second rise it was definitely starting to look like bread. It only took about ten minutes to bake and, after less than two episodes of Friday Night Lights, I had a baguette.

I know, I know. It’s hardly the same thing as a real baguette, but I live in Wisconsin. And I haven’t left the house in three days. So I’m pretty happy with it. And I’ll definitely try this recipe again, though perhaps with some less-ancient yeast next time.

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