Category Archives: goals

from time to time I feel the need to publicize my goals in an attempt to hold myself accountable to their continued pursuit. because nobody can make me feel more guilty than the internet.

In Which I Ran for a Really Long Time and then Wrote for a Really Long Time

When I first sat down to write this, it had been about 33 hours since I finished my first (and last) marathon, and I still couldn’t quite believe it. If it weren’t for my body screaming at me with every movement, I wouldn’t have believed it at all, the feeling was so surreal. But the arrested sleep, and the desire to sleep more than normal, as well as the fact that, for the following two days, it took triple the usual time to ascend and descend the stairs due to all the pain – all of those things assured me that I had, in fact, run 26.2 miles. In giving you the race recap, I’ll be as concise and as interesting as possible, but bear with me. I RAN these dang miles; the least you can do is read about them.

The morning of race day was very cold, which was an abrupt switch from the temperate weather Kansas City had been enjoying, and I was underprepared. I knew what I wanted to wear, but what I wanted to wear did not match what the outdoor elements required. I’ve always trained and run races in warm or hot weather, so I don’t actually own any cold-weather-running clothes. And I like it that way. It gives me an excuse to take a six-month break from running.

I took no pre-race pictures, but I solved the unequal clothing-to-weather ratio problem by wearing tights under my running skirt and a thermal-underwear long-sleeve shirt under my favorite running tank. The long-sleeved shirt was the only thing I owned that I could stand the thought of getting rid of if I got too hot along the course. I’ve been looking for an excuse to get rid of it for months.

Once at the starting line, I stood in the crowd alone. I had a friend running the half, and we had driven down to the start together, but we split up when he had an issue with gear check and I didn’t trust him to be finished in time for the gun to go off. Plus, we wanted to start near different pace groups anyway, so it worked better to split up. But that meant I was all by myself for about 15 minutes waiting for the race to start. I stood there looking around me at all sorts of people, some with other people, and some alone. I – perhaps for the first time, perhaps not – experienced that awful sensation of “alone in a crowd.” I felt pretty invisible.

I was so far back – because of my estimated pace – that I never even heard any announcements or the gun going off. All I knew was that one minute we were standing there, and the next we were shuffling forward. It was pretty crowded for a while, and I had trouble finding a comfortable pace because I had to dodge all those who immediately started walking. I also had to rein in my urge to fall in step with some who came from behind me and took up a faster pace than I wanted to do. In the beginning of a very long run, it’s always hard to find the exact perfect pace. Too much, and you will run out of gas long before the finish. Too little, and it’s difficult to convince yourself a) that you even can go that slow, or b) that you’re actually doing something more strenuous than speed-walking.

Eventually, though, I found what worked for me, and I cruised around people who started walking even before the first hill, and I relaxed and let people who wanted to pass me, pass me. I kept to the inside corners as much as I could to maximize foot-on-pavement time, and overall I was feeling pretty good. Somewhere around mile 2 I ditched my shirt. I did it right after the first aid station so I could just extend my walk break a little while I adjusted. I did remove both layers of my clothing and was down to just my sports bra in 30-something-degree weather for a few short seconds. It was cold, and putting on just a tank top after removing my long sleeves didn’t do much to alleviate the cold, but overall I thought I felt better, and I assumed I’d warm up, especially since the ascent up to mile 3 was the Liberty Memorial Hill (a.k.a. the worst hill of the entire race; yes, nice that we get it out of the way early).

I was still feeling good on that hill. I had to dodge even more people who began walking, and not only was I still going; I hadn’t slowed my pace down yet at all. I got to the top and felt a little wheezy but kept moving. Shortly after that hill is another steep one that goes up the road that passes behind the dog park and beside the Federal Reserve building, behind the museum and Liberty Memorial. That one is extremely steep but not long, so I managed it fine too. The only hiccup came when one of the traffic cops shouted a dumb question to the runners: “Is this the marathon course?”, and one runner behind me shouted back an even dumber answer: “No, it’s just the half marathon.” I turned and yelled, “It’s both until mile 7 or so,” and then kept going.

When I crested the top of that hill, I felt really good zipping down the other side, and was totally confused by the fact that people were still walking on the downhill (um, hello, that’s the easy part). I continued on, keeping to my strategy of staying as much on the inside corners as possible, which is actually a really difficult strategy that requires you crossing the street a lot. While I was busy focusing on zigging and zagging, I missed the mile 4 marker, and my shoe came untied. We were heading south on Main Street by this time, so the crowd was able to widen up considerably, but overall most runners kept to the right side of the two lanes of the road, leaving the other two lanes totally empty. When I noticed my loose shoelace, I was in about the middle of the pack laterally. Heading over to the empty part of the road as opposed to the sidewalk (trafficked with bicycles, pedestrians, dogs, and other types of onlookers) seemed like the least crowded, most convenient option.

I glanced behind me once to see how far over I needed to go then slipped to the outer edge of the crowd and bent down to tie my shoe. Shortly after I bent down, a guy running all by himself in that outside lane, at least three tall-man’s arms’-lengths’ worth away from the nearest pack member, shouted at me, “Well, I guess I could jump over you” in a sarcastic tone as he ran by. My instinct was to apologize, and I did, but as I watched him gain distance in front of me, I realized he was the one being rude, and I got a little indignant about the whole thing. I mean, I specifically pulled a significant distance away from the pack so I could tie my shoe, and you’re going to get mad at me because you’re not running within race parameters? Yeah. Okay, buddy. 

Coming up on mile 6, I was still feeling good physically, although a little forlorn emotionally, considering none of the sideline cheerers or signs thus far had been specifically for me. I knew going into it that this would be the case, but it was still hard not to get a little resentful about the fact that I’d done all this work, trained for so many months, and everybody but me had friends and supporters on the side cheering for them, and I had no one. I, again, felt invisible. As we rounded a corner in Westport to head down to the plaza, I suddenly heard “AUDRA” from the sidewalk. I looked over, and there was a familiar face! A smiling friend! He wasn’t there to see me specifically; I knew that. He possibly didn’t even know I was running that day, but he was there, and he saw me. And that felt good. That fueled me into another burst of downhill energy, and I realized I was still feeling pretty good.

Down on the plaza, on 47th Street, I crossed the street to give a spectator a high-five. She was bundled up in a coat and gloves, and as I reached out to slap her hand, she said to me, “Wow. You’re making me cold just looking at you!” I smiled and kept going but looked down at my goosebump-covered arms and realized that I couldn’t actually feel my fingers. I could move them, but I could not feel them moving. And I thought that yeah, it actually was kinda cold, come to think of it, and maybe I shouldn’t have ditched my shirt so early. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I just kept going.

Between miles 7 and 8, we split from the half marathoners, and I cried. Not for the first time. Off and on over those first few miles, I teared up a lot. When I crested the first – and nastiest – hill; when I saw the face of my friend on the corner; when I reached the checkpoint for 6.2 miles (10k); when I wondered if my fingers were going to get any more frozen than they already were, and if my limited dexterity would impede my taking water and Gatorade from the volunteers’ hands at the aid stations. But crying when the half marathoners split off was rather more significant. I felt like I was losing a huge group of friends I would never see again. Even though I hadn’t spoken to a single one of them. Silly as it sounds, though, it was a loss because, after that, the crowd thinned out a lot, and not only was I now running this race by myself, I was doing it literally alone. Even the sideline cheerers had disappeared.

On my way to mile 9, the first, second, third, and fourth place runners passed us going back the other way. They were on mile 20 already. Although, now that I think about it, I realize that the only reason I call them the first, second, third, and fourth place runners is that they were the first and last way-ahead-of-me-on-the-course runners I saw. But I suppose there could’ve been runners in front of them even, who had passed that marker while I was still doing even earlier miles. That seems preposterous, but I guess I don’t know. I was hovering at that time around the 5:15 pace group, and the pace leader, when those runners passed us going the other way, said, “They are on about a 6:20” pace, and everyone huddled around him in his group oohed and aahed like we were on a safari or one of those city bus tours and he was the tour guide. It was a little bizarre, and I was happy when they pulled away from me.

I knew they were a group I couldn’t stay with anyway. If I kept to my half-marathon pace for the entire marathon, I would’ve finished around 5:20 at the earliest, so 5:15 was a pipe dream, and I had never intended to be in front of them or finish with them or anything. My running strategy during races is to ignore all pace groups except to take them in when I pass them or they pass me as purely informational. So the information I took in here was that I had stayed ahead of the 5:15 pace group through 9 miles. That meant two things to me: 1) I was doing well; 2) I was slowing down. I didn’t let it faze me. I just kept moving.

Around this time was when I began to realize that I had no real concept of where the course was supposed to go. I have done the half portion of the Kansas City Marathon twice, so I know that course well. I had looked at the marathon course map enough to know generally where it went. I knew which road I’d be on for most of the going-south part, and I knew which road I’d be on that would bring me back north. But there were several twisty-turnies that I didn’t look at closely. Between miles 10 and 11, I noticed that the runners were much sparser. There were much fewer in front of me than there had been. There were still several behind me, but they were way back.

I dutifully followed the two girls and guy who were most closely in front of me, and keeping my eye on them helped me navigate several turns I wasn’t sure about. After a particularly confusing turn, I started to wonder what I would do if I lost sight of the people in front of me. I was between miles 11 and 12 by this time, and I was afraid to slow down at the aid station in case the runners in front of me pulled ahead too much. I reached deep down, found some unused energy, and kept what felt like a rigorous and grueling pace in order to keep them in sight. Before I reached mile 12, however, I happened to glance down at one of the intersections where I needed to turn, and I noticed for the first time that the pavement I was pounding had white spray-paint arrows that pointed the way at each turn. AHA! What a discovery! Had these been there the entire time? I had no idea. But they were there now, and that was what mattered. Direction. Guidance. Assurance that I wouldn’t get lost. I could relax my pace. So I did, and I soon lost the runners I’d been keeping tabs on.

I spent all of miles 12 and 13 in the rich neighborhood. One house I passed had a full-on carnival going in their enormous front yard. There were games, food and drink, people milling about, having a great time. There was even – I kid you not – a bouncy house. Most people who were out on their lawns while the runners went by cheered for us and encouraged us. Not the people at this party. They barely even acknowledged that we were there. As I ran by, I imagined the tweet I would compose if I were able. I would’ve attached a picture of the scene accompanied by the following hashtag: #RichPeopleBeingRichPeople. I kept going.

By the time I reached mile 13, the course had taken so many turns that I was legitimately lost, despite the fact that I was no more than two miles from my own house, and only a few blocks from some of my own training routes. One thing I knew, though. The numbered street I looked up at said 54th Street, which was confusing because I knew I had already gone as far as 58th, and I knew I had to get to 75th before I could turn back north again. So how had I gotten all the way back to 54th? I must have looked fatigued as I passed a particular course volunteer because he called out to me, “There are 4 miles of downhill coming up!” I replied, “That sounds wonderful because all I can see in front of me is uphill.” Then he backpedaled: “Well, yes. You have to make it to 75th before the downhills will start.” Thanks, dude. Thanks for letting me know I still had to go twenty more blocks before I could have a glimmer of a downhill. If I could’ve spared the energy, I would’ve smacked him.

Once I reached mile 14, I was squarely on one of my regular training routes and feeling tired but pretty good overall. Except for the nagging feeling of how close to my own house I was, and how much closer I would get before this was all over, and how far away from my house the finish line was. At one point I crossed my street, and some race volunteers called out to encourage me. I yelled, “THIS IS THE STREET I LIVE ON! I WANT TO GO HOME!” They laughed. They thought I was joking. I guess I was, a little bit. Shortly after that I saw one of my favorite signs from the day: YOU ROCK. YOU TRAINED LONGER THAN KIM KARDASHIAN’S MARRIAGE.

That’s right, I DID train longer than her marriage, I told myself, even though I have no idea how long her marriage lasted. At mile 15, I began to touch the mile markers as I passed them because my head was feeling swimmy, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust that they were real. Things were starting to feel difficult at that point. I tried to console myself with the assurance that the number of miles I had left to go was fewer than the number I’d already gone, but the only thing that kept flashing in my head, without permission, was, ELEVEN MORE MILES. ELEVEN. ELEVEN. YOU HAVE TO RUN ELEVEN MORE. They sure aren’t kidding when they say running is as much a mental sport as physical. Mile 16 brought an important turn. I didn’t have to go any farther south. Any movement past that point would be movement toward the finish line rather than away from it. It also brought a long stretch of sunshine, which I welcomed, but there was surprisingly little warmth.

And then. There was an another aid station. And then: Mile 17. I have no idea where mile 17 began, but it never ended. I have no clue what happened to me during mile 17, but I wanted to die. I did not feel like my body could take one more step. My hamstrings were screaming at me, and burning – the same way they did right after I crossed the finish line of my first-ever half marathon. Except when it happened then, I was able to sit down and stretch. When it happened on mile 17, I had to tell myself – and my hamstrings – to keep it together for another 9 miles. My entire body protested, and I finally realized that I hadn’t yet allowed myself any walk breaks. During the summer I had trained in intervals of 7 minutes. I ran for 7 minutes, and I walked for 1. Over and over and over until the last mile was complete. It was the only bearable way to go past what had previously been my absolute distance limit of 13 miles. The only way I could conceive of getting in 15-, 17-, and 20-mile training runs was to do them in intervals. So when I realized during mile 17 that, except for the brief and brisk breaks at aid stations, I hadn’t walked yet at all, I decided I could damn well take a break. I slowed down to a walk and breathed deeply. I looked around me. Still plenty of runners back there, although now I was about to be passed by quite a few of them, including the 5:30 pace group, which I never saw again. I told myself it was okay. I took in my surroundings. I saw a guy in front of me take a picture of himself and realized I too could do that now. I took my phone out of its running sleeve, ignored all the text, Twitter, and Facebook notifications, and opened up the camera. I tried to look happy, but I felt miserable, and I think the picture shows it. It was the only mid-race picture I took. I put my phone away and sat down to stretch. I contemplated the meaning of life and the point of running and came up with no meaning or point for either. I asked Jesus where the hell he’d been all day and reminded him that he had an open invitation to join me on this run any time he felt like he could spare a minute or two. I thought about the guy who had promised the “4 miles of downhill” and looked ahead, realizing I was past the 75th Street mark where he said it would all change, but all I could see was the road sloping upward yet again. I said out loud, “I feel like I’ve been lied to.” At some point during mile 17 – I have no idea when – I found the courage to discard all the despair and start running again. That was most certainly the longest mile of the course. I would not at all be surprised to learn they made a mistake and crammed two miles into mile 17.

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At mile 18, there was another aid station, and I realized I could feel my fingers again. The dexterity was back! I used the restroom for the first time. I had been avoiding the restrooms up to that point because they all had lines in front of them, and I know myself. I knew I would not be able to make up any lost time I used in the restroom, so I wanted to minimize that loss as much as possible. After that, I had a long stretch down Brookside that led me to mile 20, and I have no idea what happened from mile 18 to mile 20. I was totally in autopilot, just-keep-going mode. But, at mile 20, there were some spectators along the side of the road who cheered for me – the only runner in sight when I passed by them. They said I was doing great, and one of them suggested I do some jumping jacks. I glared at them, and they laughed, and I laughed, and I kept going.

After that, mile 21 appeared very quickly, and then I knew I was close to seeing my friends. They stood in the middle of mile 21, and one of them started jumping up and down as soon as she saw me, which gave me a small burst of energy. The other one held up a sign that said #TeamAudra and had the Royals crown logo on the top with my initials scripted inside instead of the KC. My hamstrings were burning again by the time I reached them, so I took the opportunity to sit on the curb and stretch some more while they lavished me with praise and encouragement. One of them decided to run to the end of the block with me, and when I looked up at the end, I was astounded to be at mile 22.

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After I was alone again, I let myself have another walk break. Things were starting to feel a little hopeless. I was so beaten down and weary, and I still had to manage four more miles. It seemed impossible. I got going again and went up the last two hills, both of which were gradual slopes but long. I rounded a corner and hit mile 23 and was offered FOOD for the first time during the race. It was just pretzels – not at all an ideal race-running food – but I shoved them in my mouth anyway, and washed them down with Gatorade, chased by water. After I finished the pretzels, I had the thought, Hey. I’m gonna make this. I’m gonna finish this damn race. I only have three more miles to go! I CAN DO THREE MORE MILES! I must’ve said the last part out loud because a race volunteer shouted at me, “YEAH you can! You got this!”

A girl who had been trading places with me ahead and behind for the last few miles appeared alongside me and said, “Hey, you’re really doing great. I’ve enjoyed following your bright-orange shirt. Good luck to the finish!” And then she fell behind me again, and I used her encouragement to take a few more steps and keep going.

Then, in the middle of mile 23, my friend who had done the half appeared out of nowhere on the course, which gave me a burst of happiness and excitement to see someone I knew. He started running alongside me, and I asked if he was going to go all the way to the finish with me, and he said yes, if that was okay. I said of course it was okay, and picked up my pace a little (of course, that could’ve been due to the downhill).

I don’t remember much of mile 24 or mile 25. I was so incredibly tired. I kept asking which mile we were on, and if we’d already passed such-and-such a mile marker. I was too weary to think much beyond telling myself to keep going.

And then I saw the mile 26 marker. And, shortly after that, the finish line. I sped up a little and started to cry. Once I reached the corrals, my dad was right there taking pictures and cheering me on. And then my mom was a little ways beyond him, waving a bunch of balloons and some flowers. I started to sprint, at the same time marveling at the fact that I had energy enough left to sprint. Of course, what felt like sprinting to me probably looked like slow-mo running to everyone on the sidelines, but I didn’t care. Tons of strangers were cheering for me and shouting, “Finish strong! Good job! You did it!” and I realized that I had done it. Just before I officially crossed the line, the PA announcer said, “AUDRA MARVIN,” and I threw my arms up in the air in triumph as I stomped down on the finish mat.

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It was over. I had actually done it. And I couldn’t think of a time in my life before that moment when I had felt so proud or so happy. I let them cut the chip off my shoe and hang the heavy medal around my neck, and I let my parents hug me and fawn over me, and I sat down and stretched and ate and drank and breathed deeply, and let the pride and the verbal accolades wash over me.

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And that’s the story of how I officially became a marathoner.

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Filed under bloggy, goals, sentimental

Wherein I Confess That I’m Marathon Training

Yes, let’s get the spoiler out of the way right up front: I’m training for my first full marathon.

If you’re a longtime reader, you know that the half marathon is my “thing.” And you also know that I sort of hate running but do it to practice discipline as well as community as well as general health.

If you’re new here, then you may not realize just how big of a bomb I dropped in that first sentence.

But it’s the truth. In January of this year, I signed up to run the Kansas City Marathon, which will be taking place on October 19. I intentionally kept the news a secret from all but a very few people. I know it seems like an absurd thing to keep secret, but I had my reasons.

First, I’ve never run anything close to 26.2 miles. The farthest I’d gone, as of January when I signed up, was 13.1 miles, and I’ve always been proud of myself beyond measure for doing that distance. And, every time I’ve finished a half marathon, I’ve felt totally spent, incapable of moving another half step, let alone another mile, let alone another thirteen miles. I’ve many times considered signing up for a full and have always chickened out, sticking to what I “know” my body can do.

But over this past winter, the idea started weighing really heavily on me. Should I try? If I don’t try, will I regret it? I’ll never know if I can do it unless I just go do it. I turn 29 this year. I don’t have any “I want to do this before I’m 30” bucket list items, so maybe now’s a good time to make one.

So I decided to sign up, but a primary reason I kept it a secret was that I decided I’d switch to the half marathon if I got into my training and realized my body just couldn’t handle it. And I didn’t want to have the humiliation of having announced that I had signed up for the full and then have to let everyone know that no, it was too much, and I was going to do the half instead.

I had one more reason for keeping it a secret, and this one had to do with some conversations I’d been having with God during that time about humility. As I’ve already mentioned, I am extremely proud of myself for the distances I’ve accomplished since my running career began a little more than three years ago. But I had let my pride become boastful. I spent a lot of time bragging about how far I’d run, and how many half marathons I’ve finished, etc. Truthfully, I did this not because I’m think I’m amazing but because I’m amazed at myself that I could do it, if that even makes sense. Running doesn’t come easily to me, and it’s not something I enjoy, and my pace is not one that will have people getting whiplash as they watch me go by. Using these and other reasons, I found myself easily able to justify all my boasting as “not really boasting.”

But it is, and it was. And God pointed that out to me in our conversations, and I felt disgusted by it. So when I signed up for the full marathon, I decided that I would show Boasting who’s Boss. I would keep it a secret, and not brag about my training distances at all, and nobody would have any idea that I was doing anything more than my routine 13.1 until the week before the full marathon. Then I’d announce it.

I decided it would be lots of fun to lie to people about my training, and I decided it would be okay to lie because, even though lying was wrong, it was simply a means to an end that was ultimately for my own good. And I’d explain it all eventually, and everyone would understand, so it wouldn’t really be lying. Lying’s okay if you have a legitimate reason, right? And what reason is more legitimate than spiritual formation? At least, that is the logic that made sense to me in January.

Here in August, with the last few weeks of training coming up, it seems absurd and totally nonsensical, and I realize now that maybe I didn’t finish listening to God’s side of those conversations we had about humility. Perhaps God had something in mind like that I would train, like normal, and talk about it when asked but not go out of my way to brag about it by posting my distances all over social media like I always do. Or maybe there was a different, even more intelligent plan that I never heard because I received the message “You need to practice humility” and then totally ran away with it, shouting, “I’M GOING TO TRAIN FOR A FULL MARATHON, AND THEY’LL NEVER KNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWW.”

I can see God now, shaking his head and chuckling at me, maybe even leaning over to Jesus on his right and saying, “Welp. This should be interesting. Let’s watch and see what happens.” (I kinda think that exchange may happen between them more often than not when it comes to discussing me.)

Besides the common-sense fact that lying is rarely a smart or healthy or wise way to go about doing anything, it hasn’t taken me long to learn just how difficult it is to lie creatively, whether by misleading someone or by omission. As my runs have gotten longer, it’s gotten harder to evade questions about where I was, why my run lasted so long, and – the most difficult one to dodge – how far I went.

Furthermore, I had forgotten how much I relied on people’s encouragement when I trained for my first half marathon. I soaked that stuff up like a heroin addict. I needed it because I didn’t believe in myself. I’m not sure if I believe in myself yet this time around, and so all the more, I will need encouragement in these last few weeks as I hit some of the farthest distances I’ve ever done (I’ve reached 15; 16 is up next). And what better place to seek encouragement than my communities? My friends? My family? People who appreciate me and want me to succeed. I’ve not only been robbing myself of that joy; I’ve been robbing all of those who would want to participate in the encouragement festivities of the joy of doing so, and if any of you feel hurt by the fact that you’ve been left out of the loop, know two things: 1) I’m sorry; I’m a foolish and silly person; 2) You’re in good company, since I left almost everyone out.

So, there it is. It’s all out there now. I’m training my body to run a total distance of 26.2 miles, which is exciting and terrifying and daunting and slowly becoming manageable all at once.

am still trying to work on my humility, but in healthier ways. I’ll do my best not to brag all the time if you’ll do your best to send me an encouraging word now and then in the stretch of these last few weeks that are going to be increasingly difficult for me. All boasting bets are off if you enter my house, though. I proudly display my medals on the fireplace mantel.

Finally, if you live in Kansas City, I would love to see you at the finish line on race day. I’ll be wearing orange. And I’ll definitely be crying. And probably limping. Or maybe crawling.

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Filed under bloggy, goals

2012: Baseball, Home Decor, Solitude

These year-in-review posts might just be the most consistent thing I’ve ever done on this blog, or any of my blogs, for that matter. This will be my third one!

There are certain parts of my life that are starting to seem a little broken recordy, especially when it comes to the impressive number of ex-boyfriends I’m collecting, as if they’re vintage vinyls (cue wah-wah sound). However, it’s less fun to focus on my hardships, and since I beat myself up about those all the time in private anyway, I’d rather use public settings to focus on the positive parts of my life and personal achievements. Oh, and guess what? This edition – for the first time ever – has pictures!

So, even though 2012 included some pretty icky stuff, these are, in chronological order, the ten things I want to remember about last year:

1) Brad Paisley Concert
In January last year, I went with a friend to my first Brad Paisley concert. Brad Paisley is probably in my top five favorite country music artists. His songs are either really touching or really hilarious. He’s a fantastic songwriter, and his guitar skills are legendary, and I’ve heard he’s an even more quality guy. So Toni and I went down to Kansas City’s Sprint Center (which I always accidentally call the Ford Center first, which is Oklahoma City’s event hall) and saw him perform live. The show was everything I would’ve expected and more from BP. It was truly incredible watching him play guitar, and I don’t even know the half of it, I’m sure, not being a guitarist myself. The other reason this makes the list is that live music isn’t really my thing, unless I’m very familiar with the artist. So the mere fact that I express interest in going to live shows is memorable in and of itself, even if I never actually make it to the show. But I did make it to this show, and it was great.

2) Lady Antebellum Concert
So, of course it follows that my next fond memory is another country music show. Lady Antebellum is not just in my top five favorite country artists. They are the favorite. They came to Kansas City in the summer of 2010, and I hinted strongly to the boyfriend I had at the time that I’d love to be surprised with tickets to their show, but he didn’t pick up on that. (Never mind that I went all the way to Nebraska with him to see Dave Matthews – whom I hate. I guess that just proves who was the better partner in that relationship! Okay, kidding. Kinda.) Anyway, this time I decided that I would just go see Lady A myself, boyfriend or no boyfriend. And that’s what I did. Another of my favorites, Thompson Square, opened for them, although they are still pretty new to stage performing, and they didn’t do that great a job. But Lady Antebellum did not disappoint in the least. I opened 2012 with a whirlwind of live shows (yes, all two of them) and then didn’t go to any others all year long!

3) Individual Counseling
In May last year, I started going to some individual counseling sessions at the recommendation of a trusted friend. The whole endeavor made things tighter-than-tight for my budget, but I managed to fund it all the way into October, and when I told my counselor I needed to quit, she said I had achieved all the goals I set at the beginning anyway, so she felt comfortable releasing me. This was the first time I had ever gone to counseling as an individual (I have had some limited experience with couples’ counseling), and I was not prepared for how helpful and insightful it would turn out to be. I learned quite a lot about myself in those sessions with Vanessa, and if I could afford to keep up the weekly meetings, I definitely would still be going. I hope that sometime in the future my finances will allow me to start going again.

For the last 2+ years now, I’ve been a huge proponent of couples’ counseling for everyone, whether married, engaged, or seriously dating, but especially for married couples. I think it’s a mistake for couples to go to premarital counseling for eight weeks before the wedding and then quit, like that fixes everything. I think couples who find their first year of marriage difficult would discover it to be much, much easier if they went to counseling together. However, let me trade that soapbox for a different one: individual counseling. I am now a huge advocate of individual counseling in addition to couples’ counseling. I’m so glad the stigma around therapy and counseling has dissolved. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making every effort you possibly can to grow and become the best person you can be. You will discover things about yourself, your emotions, and your worldview that you had no idea were in there, and it will be so worth it. I promise.

4) Road Trip to Mississippi
Over Memorial Day weekend, I drove down to Oxford, Mississippi, famed literary town, to visit a friend and see all the literary sights. This was the longest I had ever been in a car by myself, and I thought I was going to be so bored on the drives to and from. But what I discovered was that I quite like my own company! I also discovered I quite like Oxford, and it was fun seeing my old college friend Amy again after several years. There were a couple of things that put a damper on the trip itself, the main one being my severe lack of knowledge about the copious number of authors who make or have made their homes there, William Faulkner, of course, being the most notable. I did listen to a collection of John Grisham stories on the drive down to prepare myself for the mood and southern culture. Amy was sure to take me to all the good places, including the Square (which holds the famed Square Books), Rowan Oak (Faulkner’s home), The University of Mississippi, and Faulkner’s grave, where we paid midnight homage to the author via the reading of a pericope from Absalom, Absalom! and the pouring of some Jack Daniels on his grave (to pacify the known alcoholic for intruding upon his peace at such a late hour, I guess; who knows). If only the moon had been full. It would’ve been so gothic and creepy.

See the liquor? That wasn't what we brought; they were there already.

See the liquor? That wasn’t what we brought; those were there already.

5) ROYALS BASEBALL
The only reason this one is all the way down at number 5 is that I made myself order the list chronologically. Otherwise it would be #1. It would also be #2-10 if I weren’t constrained by my other rule, which is: List different things. Seriously, though. Most of you know I got super into baseball last year for the first time ever, and since I live in Kansas City, the team I became a super fan of was the Royals. My transition to baseball obsession happened almost overnight and surprised pretty much everyone I know, including myself. But I went with it and spent the months from April to October attending somewhere between 20 and 22 games (I can’t seem to get an accurate count from my calendar) and learning more about the sport itself than I’ve ever learned from six months of consecutive study of grammar. But of course, that’s because I was born knowing everything I know about grammar. But, sudden or not, everyone I know accepts me as a baseball fan now, and I’m counting down the days until the season starts again (literally: 4 days until Royals FanFest; 27 days until pitchers and catchers report to spring training; 30 days until the full squad reports to spring training; 76 days until the first game of the season; 83 days until the home opener at Kauffman Stadium). How excited am I? THIS excited:

That's right. I'm Jeff-Francoeur's-crazy-eyes amounts of excited.

That’s right. I’m Jeff-Francoeur’s-crazy-eyes level of excited.

6) Custom Fireplace Bookcase
The number of DIY home projects I did when I bought and moved into my house in 2010 was exactly: 1. I painted my white fireplace a very bright orange. And I was quite proud of it too, and content for it to be the only thing I did to improve – or at least personalize – my living space. But, if I weren’t already calling 2012 The Year of Baseball Infatuation, I would probably call it The Year of Homeowner’s Projects – starting with the custom bookcase I made in July. I don’t really remember how or why the idea came to me to craft these shelves, but I had some wood scraps lying around, and I enlisted my friend Adrianne’s power tools along with my friend Kevin’s carpentry expertise, and what followed was approximately six hours’ worth of man (and woman) hours constructing these two shelves that now fit inside my fireplace. (Don’t worry, the fireplace itself is nonfunctional, so there will be no accidental Fahrenheit 451 reenactments occurring in there.)

The only problem with having such a bookcase was that I didn’t own enough books to fill it. Given that my 28th birthday was coming up a couple of weeks after I finished the project, I decided to throw a party and request that the guests bring books to help fill the shelves. The only stipulation was that the books had to have something to do with fire. The result turned out to be more successful than I anticipated, and the two shelves are now occupied by no fewer than 18 books that feature fire either in their contents, cover designs, or titles (and only three are copies of F451!). There is such a variety too: memoir, fiction, self-help, children’s, trashy romance, religious, family, classic. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading them all (so far I’ve only read one: Stephen King’s Firestarter, though I have previously read Fahrenheit 451 twice, even if not from one of those copies), but I love how the project turned out nonetheless. Below are a few pictures of the construction process, finished product, and final display.

001 014 015 021 026

7) #SoloVacation
In October, I took five days off work – the first vacation I had taken all year from my job – and spent six days on a mini-vacation, visiting a series of small towns just north and west of Kansas City. I went all by myself and Tweeted about some of my experiences using the above hashtag. I was sure I took my camera, but either I didn’t actually take any pictures, or the ghosts erased them all. It’s anybody’s guess.

I spent two days in Atchison, Kansas, which touts itself as the most haunted town in Kansas (and it’s totally true, thus the ghost reference). I took a haunted bus tour, bought and read a book about all the haunted buildings and stories associated with them, visited a couple of haunted houses/museums, and scared the living daylights out of myself spending an hour in a pitch-black park said to be haunted by the ghost of Molly, a girl who committed suicide there. I was there after the moon came out (because that’s the only time Molly screams), and there were no streetlamps or anything. I never did hear Molly scream, but a couple of feral cats walked up behind me and meowed in the dark, causing me to jump nearly out of my skin. (Oh yeah, did I mention I was there alone?) Other noted stops in Atchison included an afternoon visit to the lovely International Forest of Friendship, where I sat on a bench and read for two hours; a tour of the monks’ abbey at Benedictine College; a lunch at the locally famous Jerry’s cafe; a tour of Amelia Earhart’s childhood home; and a riverwalk stroll along the Lewis & Clark Trail that featured historical markers and placards about the explorers.

I left Atchison after two days (which was more than enough time to see everything, trust me) and went east a short way to Weston, Missouri, which was one of Missouri’s first settled towns along the river, and has a quaint little downtown area that has been restored to look pretty much like it did when the town first sprang up. I only spent a few hours in Weston, touring the downtown, eating lunch in their locally famous brewery, and perusing a small graveyard. Then it was off to a remote Catholic retreat center outside Leavenworth, Kansas, to spend four days in wooded Thoreauian fashion.

I stayed in a cabin the entire size of which was smaller than my bedroom at home and which had no air conditioning, no plumbing, no cell service, and no internet access. Since it was October, the weather was actually perfect, and there was no need for AC or heat. The lack of plumbing and running water was an interesting complication. I had a bucket for a bathroom and a gallon-size jug to fill twice a day with water I got from a pump a quarter-mile’s walk away. If ever you want to simplify, unplug, and retreat from the whole world, this is the place to do it. I spent four whole days doing nothing but sleeping, taking walks in the woods, sitting by a pond, and reading, reading, reading. This ended up being the perfect way to spend the week leading up to my half marathon, and as it happened, it also served to remind me (because I’d forgotten since my Mississippi trip) that I genuinely enjoy spending time by myself. (One of my favorite memories from the driving on this trip was making a joke out loud – to myself, of course – that made me laugh really hard.)

8) Running My Fourth Half Marathon
I know I say this every time, but: I can’t believe it myself, but it’s true. I have now earned four medals from running and finishing half marathons. This 13.1 stuff is getting to be no big deal. (Okay, not really. It’s a big deal every time!) Finding a place to put all my medals became part of another of my home-decor projects, and I ended up getting some adhesive hooks from Home Depot and hanging them from my fireplace mantel (much in the manner of Christmas stockings). (As long as we’re discussing home maintenance, this decor decision happened on the same night that I self-caulked my tub and replaced my furnace filter, which was a much bigger deal than it sounds…only because the filter I replaced was going on 2 1/2 years in the furnace, and apparently that’s a no-no.) Anyway, back to the half marathon. I convinced my good friend J.R. to run this one with me, and it was his first ever, so that was a fun achievement of his to be a part of. I also broke a PR for myself, finishing a minute or two ahead of my previous best time, so that was exciting too.

Kansas City Half 4 Kansas City Half 5

9) Becoming an Aunt
As with baseball, the only reason this one isn’t higher on the list is that it didn’t happen until December. But on the 11th of that now sacred month, my brother and his wife welcomed the family’s first grandchild into the world. Her name is Avery, and she was a delicate 4(!!) pounds, 10 ounces, at first weigh-in. I can’t even begin to describe how I felt the first time I met and held her, when she was a mere four hours new. It was a pretty magical day for our whole family, and she totally changed the dynamic of our Christmas celebration this year. Talk about bringing new meaning to the words anticipation and arrival on earth. Avery is nearly perfect, and I can’t wait to watch her grow up. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of her on my computer, since none have been taken with my own camera, but she’s plastered all over Facebook if you care to go digging into tagged pictures of me (she’s also featured prominently in my profile picture).

10) Painting My House
This was definitely the magnum opus of the homeowner’s projects for the year (although it bears mentioning that this was a week-long job that alternated with my final homeowner’s task of the year, which was winterizing 21 of my 27 or so windows; see what I mean about it being the year of projects?). I call it the magnum opus because it’s the only project (except for hanging the medals, which is pretty weak) that I did entirely by myself, with no help from anyone. For Christmas, I got some money to buy paint and supplies, and then my remaining vacation days combined with the way our holiday schedule was set up allowed me two full weeks off from Christmas until the end of the year, so I vigorously attacked the vision I had for my paint. In the end, I added three new colors to various rooms of my house, and I’m extremely pleased with how it turned out. The colors are called Cranberry Whip, Garden Glow, and Amazon Stone, and they appear respectively in the bedroom, the living room, and the room I have started calling the library, although it doubles as the front room.

025 043 061

That’s it for me on 2012. I haven’t made any specific resolutions for 2013, but I’m gonna follow in Ross’s footsteps, go out on a limb, and say, “No breakups in 2013!” So far I’ve made it 15 days. I’m off to a good start.

Oh, and bonus picture showing the orange fireplace, the new gray paint, and the half-marathon medals on the mantel. (Just ignore the dog kennel, if you can; Soren and I had an extended-stay house guest during that time):

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Classic #5: FRANNY AND ZOOEY, by J.D. Salinger

Even though I wasn’t able to get 12 classics read in 12 months, I liked my original idea of reviewing each classic I read, and I still want to record my thoughts on any I happen to read from here on out. So perhaps this will simply become my first blog-post series: reviews of classics. I can live with it if you can. (PS – This might be my shortest review yet!)

My experience with Salinger is limited. I hated The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect I would still dislike it if I read it again, though I don’t know that I would hate it. A few years have passed since my first reading, and I have experienced different parts of life, so there might be portions of the book I can better understand or more readily identify with. On the whole, however, after finishing Franny and Zooey, it seems that existential crises are Salinger’s specialty and not mine at all. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to have an existential crisis (but we’ll get to that).

In any case, for those who aren’t aware (I wasn’t), this book is comprised of a short story (“Franny”) and a novella (Zooey). The two pieces were actually published two years apart originally, but in the fictional timeline of the characters, they take place within just one or two days of each other. I rather enjoyed (and flew through) “Franny” and was therefore excited to dig into Zooey, but I was less enamored of the novella, even though it did make me laugh a few more times.

F&Z is an excerpt from the life of the Glass family, a family Salinger apparently wrote about a lot, in numerous other short stories and (possibly?) novellas. This family, as seems to the be the case with most large families, is dysfunctional to the highest degree. (Why does it seem that, the more family members you add to the pot, the higher the level of dysfunctionality rises?) The Glass children are a product of a wealthy, privileged, even spoiled existence. They were all radio stars through their childhood years, and now two of the seven siblings are dead; one by suicide, one from war.

The primary focus of the story is Franny’s internal crisis that seems to cover three different dimensions: existentialism, spirituality, and identity. The secondary focus is Franny’s and Zooey’s relationship to each other and to the rest of their family. Zooey and Franny are the youngest of the Glass children, with Franny being five years behind her brother. Both pieces are almost entirely dialogue, and the entire arc of the story begins and resolves over the course of four scenes. There is a lunch, a bath, a living room discussion, and a phone conversation. This aspect is what LF says makes the work brilliant. I disagree because it was exactly this aspect that made it borderline boring for me. Dialogue does propel a story, but so does action. As with everything, there should be a balance.

However, that being said, even though the constant dialogue creates a stream-of-consciousness style that I usually hate, I somehow found it less hateful in this instance than in others. When it’s Faulkner, for instance, you just get this exhausted feeling, drained further by a need to follow a train of thought that isn’t even following itself. The effort it takes to connect the beginning of a Faulkner sentence to the end of one is so tiring and completely infuriating once you finally realize it can’t even be done. However, that’s Faulkner narrating. In Salinger’s work, the stream of consciousness comes directly from the characters, so that makes it somehow excusable. When Salinger does narrate, it’s either to provide some character context that is either enlightening or funny (or both, in the case of almost all descriptions of Mrs. Glass), or to poke fun at himself as an author, which is also funny, but also respect engendering. I can get on board with any author willing to make fun of himself or his craft.

Overall, I didn’t love Franny and Zooey, but neither did I hate it. I didn’t even come close to hating it, in fact. But it left me with the feeling at the end that I had missed something huge, something important and significant, something deeply intelligent. So, even though I can’t say I disliked it, neither can I say I loved it because I feel so unsettled in its wake. And that is why I haven’t ventured a more complicated analysis than I have, as I usually do in my reviews. I just feel so ill equipped to address the complexities of the work that I’d rather not attempt it at all.

A non-surprising fact is that LF loves this book. I say it’s non-surprising because he always seems to love literature that I find to be too smart for me. When he asked me if I had anything to say about the book as a whole, I said no. And then I talked to him for a good 20 minutes about various parts I liked or didn’t like or appreciated or didn’t understand. So I guess I had plenty to say, but I’m not sure much of it was coherent. Suffice it to say, I would recommend the book to pretty much anyone but mostly because it just seems like one of those books that it feels good to have experienced. I will probably read it again someday, since it is so digestible, and I hope I will understand and enjoy more of it when I do.

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49 Down: I would like to cancel my _______ subscription.

My paternal grandmother was obsessed with crossword puzzles—to the extent that a book of crosswords was always a good gift for her in a pinch. I remember one time giving her a book of 365 crosswords, one for each day of the year. I opened it up before I gave it to her and did my best work on the puzzle for August 5, hoping it would remind her to think of me that day, my birthday (as if grandmothers need reminding of their grandchildren’s birthdays).

The point is, she was always doing crossword puzzles. When she wasn’t reading or doing housework, she could be found with a crossword. I’ve heard people say it keeps your mind sharp and active and helps prevent Alzheimer’s (how they could possibly know that, I don’t know). And my grandma’s mind was certainly sharp and active, right up until she died. The year after she died (2010), I took up running. It was partly related to my fear of mortality, which I confronted when she died. In 2011, I aspired to read more intelligent books. This was not directly inspired by my grandma, but she did read a lot, and she read super-smart-people books, which I always admired.

This year, in 2012, I made it my resolution to “do more crosswords.” I realize that’s a vague resolution and one that’s extremely easy to keep. Even if I only manage one crossword the entire year, I’m pretty sure it would be more than I did in 2011. Or 2010, for that matter. Luckily, I’ve already done a whole bunch of crosswords this year, so I win! Gee, I feel so fulfilled and accomplished.

Anyway, since I don’t get a newspaper, I needed to find a way to obtain crosswords. I soon learned that a coworker of mine gets the Kansas City Star every morning and, when he’s finished, hands off the sports section to another coworker. This second coworker then began handing off the crossword section (which I guess is located inside the sports section?) to me. It wasn’t long before I realized that I am really good at crosswords. In fact, completing crossword puzzles may just be what I was made to do. And then LF brought me a New York Times crossword. And I soon realized that I am terrible, horrible, no good, very bad at crosswords.

In an attempt to reconcile these polar-opposite experiences, I finally concluded that maybe I’m an average-skill-level crossworder, and perhaps the Kansas City Star crossword is too easy while something like the New York Times (especially past Tuesday) is legitimately difficult.

So LF suggested that I get a book of crossword puzzles that starts easy (so I could feel confident) and gets harder (so I could be challenged) the farther along you get. I brushed off that idea, wisely assuming something like that did not exist—naturally, since I couldn’t find one at that very moment in the Dollar Tree store we happened to be occupying.

Then I kinda forgot about it and just kept doing the KC Star crosswords. And I kept alternating between frustration that those puzzles weren’t more of a challenge and feeling like a crossword master. On Monday night this week, after I successfully completed three KC Star crosswords in a row without even a hint of trouble, I threw all three and the remaining two that I hadn’t started into the recycling bin and told LF I had been considering getting a New York Times subscription. He nodded and said, “Hmm,” and then we talked no more about it that night.

The next day, fresh from my disappointment, I went to nytimes.com and looked up subscription fees. Without really thinking longer than five minutes about it, I got out my debit card and signed up for an old-fashioned home delivery of the New York Times Monday through Friday. My order was confirmed, and I was scheduled to get my first paper Friday, March 23.

After the order was complete, I decided to poke around and see just exactly what I had actually ordered and how much it was going to cost me and how often. The only numbers I had seen prior to providing my credit card information were “$3.85/week” and “first 12 weeks at 50% off,” and this information had been persuasive enough.

Digging around the site for more information turned up nothing about the subscription I had just purchased, but I did find an option for a Premium Digital Crossword package, which cost $40 for the year and gave me access to each NYT crossword daily, plus access to all their archived crosswords. And, I could get the program on my personal computer, smartphone, and iPad. (Never mind that I don’t own a smartphone or iPad. Clearly this was a better deal.) I’ve been rash, I thought. Maybe I should cancel.

My alter ego argued, No, don’t cancel. That’s rude. You got them all excited about getting some money and a new subscriber in an economy and society with a rapidly declining print-newspaper consumer base. You cannot order something and then change your mind only a few minutes later. At least give it a trial run.

Dominant ego almost caved to this argument but rallied at the last second. That’s ridiculous! If I don’t want to buy something, I have absolutely no obligation to buy it! It’s my choice how and where to spend my money, and the financial situation of the New York Times is not going to soar or crumble because of my subscription choice.

So, dominant ego won, and I looked through the FAQs for instructions on how to cancel a subscription. Of course, these instructions were not easy to find, nor were they entirely simple to execute. I was annoyed (but not surprised) when the only thing provided was a telephone number. So I fished my new account number out of my twenty-minutes-old confirmation email and called to cancel.

After pushing four buttons to follow the automated instructions, a live voice came on the line, and this is how my conversation went:

“Umm, yes, hello, I would like to cancel my, uh, subscription.”

“Okay, give me your phone number.”

“Four-zero-five—”

“Area code first!”

“Okay. Umm, Four-zero-five… Six-two-seven…” (You get the idea; no, I will not give you my phone number in a blog post. Nice try, creepers.)

“Okay, and give me your first and last name and your street address, including zip code.”

I gave all this information.

She said, “It looks like you just subscribed only a few minutes ago. You haven’t even received your first paper yet. Why do you want to cancel?”

“Uh, yeah, well… I really just wanted the crossword, and I found out after subscribing that I can just subscribe to the Premium Digital Crossword package instead, so I’d rather do that.”

“But the Premium Digital Crossword package is included at no extra charge in the subscription you have just signed up for.”

“Okay, but—”

“The Premium Digital Crossword package is actually an annual fee, but you’ll pay monthly for the home delivery service, with access to the Premium Digital Crossword.”

“Okay, but I don’t really see how an annual payment is worse.”

“You’re getting less.”
“But I want less. I only signed up so I could get the crossword.”

“But you’re getting so much more.”

“But I won’t use so much more. I just want the crossword.”

“Well, you’re getting the crossword. And the Premium Digital Crossword package. For free.”

“Yes, I understand that. Okay, let me ask you this. I am not really sure exactly how much I am going to be charged for this, or when I will be charged for it. The website said something about 12 weeks, but I don’t understand if that means I’m paying right now for 12 weeks all at once, or if I pay monthly, and will I have to renew my subscription after 12 weeks?”

“Okay, let me look up your account… Oh. Well.”

“What?”

“It won’t show me the payment details because the account is so new.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Since you just signed up, it won’t let me look at all the details yet.”

“Hmm. Well, can we just cancel it then?”

“I don’t think you want to do that. Do you understand what a better deal this is?”

“Yes, but—”

“Ma’am, you are getting the Premium Digital Crossword package for free. And home delivery.”

“I understand that, but doesn’t that mean I’ll just be doing the same puzzle twice? If I do it in the morning at work, using the premium package, and then go home and pick up my paper, won’t that be the same crossword I just did that morning?”

“But you also have access to the entire archive. Why don’t you just try it out and see? You haven’t even gotten your first paper yet.”

“Well, fine. I guess I will just try it and see if I like it.”

“And if you want to cancel or make changes to your account at any time, it’s very easy to do so.”

“Clearly.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No thanks.”

“Have a nice day, and thank you for subscribing to the New York Times!”

I went back to work and mostly forgot about the situation for the time being. Then I went to lunch and got into a conversation about it with a coworker. He listened to my story and affirmed my frustrations and even reminded me that “the customer is always right.” He ended the conversation by wishing me luck next time I tried to cancel and said he hoped I didn’t get the same lady.

I went back to my desk feeling like I could handle a three-month trial of home delivery and making a mental plan to call again after the three months were up and cancel without backing down. I even logged on to my new account and completed a couple of the crosswords that were part of the Premium Digital Crossword package. But all this did was remind me that digital crosswords are just not the same.

Then, later that afternoon, I talked to a friend on Gchat about the whole thing, and she listened politely then asked one simple question: “Why don’t you just buy a book of New York Times crosswords?”

Incredulous, I asked, “Those exist?”

She then linked me to an Amazon page with uncounted listings of NYT crossword books. The one I instantly chose advertised 200 puzzles that progress from easy to difficult. Sold! Also, it was about $5 cheaper and would give me 140 more crosswords than my three-month 50%-off subscription to the NYT home delivery. Double sold! Before I could change my mind, I bought the book, confident this would strengthen my resolve to cancel my delivery subscription even in the face of the most tenacious and determined salesperson.

I called, went through the automated process again, and was connected to Bonnie, who asked how she could help me today.

“Um, yes, hello, I would like to cancel my subscription.”

“Okay, I can certainly help you do that today. Would you please give me your phone number?”

I gave it.

“Would you please verify your name and address?”

I verified.

“Hmm. I see that you have already tried once today to cancel your account?”

“Err, yes, that’s true.”

“And yet you decided not to. But you’ve changed your mind again. Could I ask why?”

“Well, the truth is that I didn’t actually change my mind. I just got tired of arguing with the other lady because she wouldn’t listen to me, so it was easier to give up and not cancel.”

“I see. Well, I do apologize, and I can assure you that you will not have that experience with me. I’ve already started your cancellation process, but can I ask why you would like to cancel today?”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story, but basically I just wanted to get the crosswords, and then someone told me that I can buy a book of New York Times crosswords, so I’d rather just do that because then I wouldn’t have the whole bulky paper, and I wouldn’t feel like I was getting behind if I couldn’t do one every day. And I can stay in the easy section for a while until I feel ready to graduate to something more difficult, rather than be forced to move the very next day to a more difficult puzzle. And I wouldn’t have to worry about keeping all the old newspapers around to check the answers because, well, you know, they’d just be right there in the back of the book.”

“Okay then.”

“You’re still going to let me cancel, right?”

“Certainly. But let me just make sure—did my colleague this morning make you aware of the Digital Premium Crossword package?”

“Yes, she did. Please, let’s not go through that again.”

“Certainly. I do apologize. Please understand I’m just asking questions I’m required to ask. We have a script, you know.”

“I understand. But all my answers are no, and I just want to get to the part where you tell me my subscription is canceled.”

“Certainly. Okay, let me just push a few buttons here, and you’ll be on your way.”

“Great, thank you.”

“Okay, Audra, you’re all set. Your subscription is now canceled, and you will not be receiving your first delivery, which was scheduled for Friday, March 23.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“Nope, just the cancellation.”

“Okay then. Thank you for calling, and thank you for subscribing to the New York Times. Have a nice day now.”

Thank goodness I was able, with only two phone calls, to get it canceled. I really felt like shouting, “I wanna quit the newspaper!” I am relieved it didn’t get that far. (If you recognized that Friends reference, we can probably be friends for life.) Now I’m just waiting for the book to come. Coincidentally, it’s scheduled to arrive the same day my first paper was scheduled to deliver. But now, instead of just one puzzle on Friday, I’ll have 200!

Grandma, I hope to make you proud with my crossword prowess. And if I ever manage to get my hands on a puzzle-a-day book, I’ll make sure the first puzzle I complete is February 1.

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I Can’t Help it if My Personality is Chocolate

A confession. I am one of those people who gives credence to personality tests. In fact, I may or may not have just wasted a half hour taking mini tests at each of those sites to confirm what I already know about myself: that I am an ESFJ; that my love languages are equally words of affirmation and physical touch; and that I am an 8, alternatively labeled ‘challenger’ or ‘boss.’

I didn’t used to think much about personality types, but then one day, something like eight or nine months ago, I gave in and admitted (to myself and at least one other person) that I liked a certain member of the male population. And this certain male also admitted to himself (and at least one other person) that he liked me. And, after a conversation or two of the type that the young people (and by “young people,” I of course mean my own generation) refer to as DTRs, this male presented me with a book called The Enneagram in Love and Work: Understanding Your Intimate and Business Relationships.

After I got over my surprise at this unusual start-of-relationship offering, he asserted his desire for me to read the book and figure out my personality type, and then he pointed out the section that detailed his personality type and asked me to familiarize myself with it too. Our relationship has since involved many conversations that reference this book as well as our love languages and our MBTI profiles. We make these references not as excuses for our actions (I hope, at least) but more as clarifications so that we remember to cut each other (and ourselves) a break every once in a while. When he does something that I cannot empathize with, relate to, or even begin to understand, I can usually be brought around to sensitivity and patience when reminded that he’s wired to operate that way, and of course the reverse is true.

In fact, I still often forget about personality type until I do something that confuses even myself, and LF is usually the one who swoops in with, “Remember, one of your personality tendencies is…” He reminded me of this a few days ago, while I pontificated on my apparent penchant for self-deprivation. I had just finished listing four things for which I am currently on official hiatus. I wondered aloud why I would set up a pattern of deprivation in the first place, and then I chastised myself for not being able to stick to my self-imposed restrictions 100% of the time. He reminded me that one of the traits of an 8 is a pattern of drawing clear lines and then intentionally crossing them.

As I think about this particular characteristic in relation to my reading habits, I wonder if setting goals that I do not (and perhaps even cannot) achieve is a variation of this personality trait. In case you didn’t follow my progress on reading the classics or forgot about it, I managed to get through a whopping four classics in twelve months last year.

At some point near the end of the year, I tried to figure out how many total books I read in 2011, and the number came in somewhere around 34 or 35. That’s an average of just under three books a month. So far in 2012, I have finished 8 books, an average of just under four books a month, and that is only counting half of March, which means I am on pace to increase my total count from last year by a pretty wide margin. So I think I can conclude with confidence that my underachievement problem is not with reading in general; rather, the difference is determined by what I’m choosing to read.

I realize that sounds like an obvious conclusion. And yes, the truth is, sometimes I feel like a sellout when I recognize Harry Potter references faster than a reference to Walt Whitman. Sometimes I feel like a literary failure when I realize I can discuss the themes, motifs, and characterizations in The Hunger Games better than I can for Jane Eyre. And I’m exceedingly embarrassed when it becomes evident that I can claim either Team Edward or Team Jacob more confidently than Paris or London.

It’s true that I am 27 years old and have not read nearly the volume of so-labeled classic literature that I would have liked to be able to boast by this time in my life. But, for me, it’s akin to choosing between chocolate cake and fruit in the middle of the afternoon. Most of the time I will choose chocolate cake because that is more immediately gratifying, and it’s just so much fun. Besides that, most of the time I honestly have very little power to deny myself chocolate cake anyway. And even if I do stop myself and choose the fruit over the chocolate – discipline over fun – I’ll do so grudgingly, thereby zapping all enjoyment from my afternoon-snack experience. Suddenly, having a snack feels like a chore, not a reward or treasured escape.

But every now and then, on a rainy day or perhaps during a full moon, I will actually crave the fruit instead of the chocolate. And on these days, I will eat the fruit, and I will appreciate it, and I will suck every last drop of juice from it. And afterward, I will feel gratified, not only because the experience was pleasurable but also because I feel good and healthy about what I just consumed. But the next day, it’ll be back to the chocolate without remorse.

When it comes to books, maybe I will always have more contemporary reads in my repertoire than classics. But the cool thing is that, eventually, some of those may become classics too. Of course, I probably won’t be alive to see that happen. But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Life is too short not to choose chocolate.

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Filed under bloggy, books, goals

Token Year-End Recap: 2011

Last year I wrote a list of 10 things I wanted to remember about 2010, which fit nicely because of the whole parallelism thing. So this year I was going to do 11 things I want to remember about 2011, but I don’t know how many years I’m planning to do this annual post, and it seemed like I could easily get myself into a pickle once we got up to the year 2050 (and possibly before that). So I think I’m going to stick with 10 because 10 is a nice, round number.

And so, I give you: 10 Things I Want to Remember about 2011 (in chronological order):

1) Getting my First Housemate
Before January 2011, the only time I lived with someone outside my parents’ house was in college, when I had the same roommate for four years. That relationship had its complications and faults, as any roommate situation will, but overall, the fact that we were able to live together for four years, especially in the midst of some of our friends changing roommates every semester, indicated that we had figured out something pretty good. When she decided to have a husband instead of a roommate, I decided to live alone, and I did so from May 2006 until January 2011 – almost five full years – in four different places (two apartments and two houses, the last [and current] house being the one I bought). After about eight months of solo home ownership, some different factors combined to make me wonder whether a co-habitation situation might be more cost efficient and might do a service to someone needing a place to live. Acting on these inklings, I set out to find someone to share my living space and pay me rent, and through the connection of a mutual friend, I was introduced by email to Jordan, who now occupies the master bedroom in my house.

The first time I met Jordan in person was the afternoon he pulled up to my curb with his Jeep and an attached trailer full of all his stuff that I helped him move in. I didn’t know yet how things would pan out, and a wiser person than I would probably have been apprehensive about the fact that all I had was an email exchange agreeing on the rent rate to serve as the guidelines that would govern our living situation. But, without a lease or contract, without setting any rules, and without really discussing our habits with each other, we embarked on the adventure of co-ed, non-domestic-partnership occupation of a two-bedroom house, and I have to say, I don’t know if it could have worked out better if I’d handpicked someone myself (say, my old college roommate, for instance). Perhaps I got lucky, or perhaps the mutual friend who suggested the arrangement knew us better than we thought, or perhaps God has blessed the situation. Whatever it is, Jordan and I are just a few days away from one full year of living in the same house, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has turned out. I don’t know when he plans to move out, and I have no plans to ask him to move out, so I think things are still going well.

2) Cross-Country Road Trip with Grandpa
Hands down, this is probably my favorite memory from 2011. The last time I went on a vacation with my grandpa, I was 10 years old, and my grandma was with us too. So a two-week road trip without my grandma and as an adult was, to say the least, a recipe for a memorable adventure. We spent 14 days driving as far north as Madison, Wisconsin, and as far east as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then back home to Kansas City. We did and saw a lot and had only a few hiccups along the way. I would for sure do something like this again, but I think I will urge Grandpa to get his car’s air conditioning double checked before we leave next time. It broke halfway through the trip, and we spent the next seven days without cool air. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t horrible until the day we drove from West Virginia to Indianapolis. That day was long, hot, and sticky. The air conditioning debacle was the only major thing that went wrong. We had a good time and got some great pictures, and I kept the Twitter world up to date as we went, tweeting such gems as these along the way:

Road trip rule #1: driver controls radio. We`re listening to jazz across iowa.

Unscheduled stop #1: National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, IA.
I was wrong. Driver does NOT control radio. In grandpa`s car, grandpa controls radio. Gospel choir across ohio.
Me: goodnight, see you in the morning! Gpa: Thanks for the warning!
A 2 1/2-mile hike with a swim in the middle fork river in the middle. All at Audra State Park. Now that`s a good day!
Eating at “the most visited restaurant” in this town. They fail to mention that`s bc it`s the ONLY one.
My alarm went off at 5 this am. Gpa wasn’t awake yet. His groggy response: “You play music in the middle of the night?”

3) Running my 2nd Half Marathon
I think we all remember how excited and proud I was when I ran my first half marathon. In April 2011 I surprised myself again by completing my second one. My time was slower, and my training hadn’t been as rigorous, and I was admittedly less ecstatic about this one (due to other extenuating factors surrounding and leading up to the event itself), but in the end, I had another medal and another proud notch on the bedpost of my athletic accomplishments. And a hankering to train again for another…

4) Celebrating a Friendship’s 10-Year Anniversary
That college roommate I mentioned in #1 plays a key role in the significance of this one. We met in the summer of 2001, a year and a half before we would live together for four consecutive years (excluding one semester that she spent in Russia). Since then, we have been through a lot, both together and separately. The friendship itself even went through a tough period that required an emotional reconciliation, which happened, coincidentally, last summer – just in time to acknowledge the fact that we had been friends for 10 years. We have had a few rough patches, but we’ve mostly had laughter and joy, and we’ve racked up an impressive list of inside jokes (half of which one of us can’t even remember). There are people in my life I’ve known longer than Adrianne, and there are people I’ve known the same amount of time. But there is no one else unrelated by blood whom I’ve kept in such consistent contact with for 10 full years. Here’s to another ten years of inside jokes we can’t properly explain. 

5) Becoming a Church Board Member
I have been part of my church in Kansas City now for just over two years, which I don’t consider a long time. So it surprised me when my pastor informed me last June that I had been nominated to serve on our church board, and it was with humble hesitation that I eventually accepted the nomination. I had no idea what it would be like, but after six months of service, I have learned to see the church (local and global) in a whole new light. Serving on the church board has helped me see how the body of Christ really does need to be a body, with many different parts. I have truly found a family in my church, and my service on the board, though occasionally time consuming and sometimes even inconvenient, has been rewarding beyond expectation. I have seen fellow members of my church family in new ways and have learned to feel compassion and empathy in ways I didn’t know were possible. And, above all, I have been reminded, time and again, that nothing in this life is about us.

6) Riding my First Motorcycle
Everyone who gets to have this experience considers it a memorable one, right? Well, if they don’t, they’re a lump of lard. However, I have extra reasons not to forget my first motorcycle experience because it coincides with my first large-scale, full-blown tick infestation. Last summer I made a new friend, and he owns a motorcycle and offered to give me a ride when he found out I’d never been on one. Obviously, I took him up on the offer, and one beautiful Saturday morning in August, he came and picked me up, and we rode all over Kansas City. We rode on interstates, on surface roads, on two-lane roads, on gravel roads, and on country highways. We went everywhere.

At one point, we stopped for an intermission and tromped through some very high grass on an exploration mission of some kind. Unfortunately, that high grass was where I apparently picked up a small colony of ticks. I felt kind of itchy several minutes after we left the wooded and high-grass area, and later, when I got home and peeled off my pants, shoes, and socks, I discovered that my legs, ankles, and feet were completely covered in ticks (and therefore tick bites). I scraped them all off, did a thorough inspection of the rest of my body (having horrible flashbacks of the scrubbings I used to get after coming home from romps in my grandparents’ wooded farm property), and took a scalding-hot shower just to be safe. And then I spent the next three weeks with red, splotchy legs and feet and dark surface scars I was sure would never disappear. Six months later, there is no trace of the markings, and I don’t have Lyme disease, thank goodness. But, even though we have no pictures from the legendary three-hour motorcycle ride, I don’t think I will ever forget it, thanks to the nice insects that decided to host their family reunion on my body.

7) My 27th Birthday
I have had a lot of memorable birthdays in my life (mainly because birthdays are very important to me, and my friends and family know that and do a good job of making them memorable), and 27 was no exception. My wonderful friends J.R. and Jenny Caines (who also happen to be the parents of two of my favorite boys in the whole world, Jack and Cason) hospitably opened their home to me (even though Jenny was 8 months pregnant and it was the hottest week of the year) on the momentous occasion of August 5, 2011, and I threw a party and celebrated turning 27 with 20 of my closest friends in Kansas City. We talked, laughed, ate, drank (cream soda only, no alochol, I promise – even though there are some pictures up on Facebook that make it look like I’m drinking alcohol), played games, and generally just celebrated me. Which, coincidentally, is pretty much my favorite thing to do on my birthday. And then, the next day, LF came back in town, and I got to celebrate all over again with him. We had been dating all of two weeks by then, but we had a blast having a book-burning party on my porch. And so 27 became a birthday milestone I hope I don’t forget.

8) Running my 3rd Half Marathon
Would you believe it, I ran yet another half marathon. That makes three overall. It was quite a year for me athletically. Not to mention the 5, 10, and 15k races I did in June, August, and September leading up to the half. I still sometimes have trouble believing that I have done three half marathons. It’s just such an absurd thought. But the third one was the Kansas City Half, and my dear friend Reese came up from Oklahoma City to run it with me. Half marathons are so much more enjoyable (even if, like me, you hate running) when you run them with friends, and so far I have been lucky enough to run all three of mine with very good friends. This half was my favorite. The course was delightful, and (as I discovered at the half I did in April), I very much enjoy running through my own city. Of course, I haven’t put on my running attire since October, but oh well. I trust I’ll get back to it soon enough.

9) Learning to Love Scrabble
One of the biggest things I am ashamed of in my life is how bad I am at word games, Scrabble especially. As an editor, a writer, a wordsmith, and a general lover of language, linguistics, and all things word related, people assume I am an expert at word games. It has been a point of embarrassment when people have chosen me to be on their teams for word game challenges and then been disappointed to find that I am actually their least valuable player. They say, “But how can you not be good at word games?” and all I can do is shrug my shameful shoulders. Because of this, my attempts at Scrabble have been limited, and I have mostly avoided the game. It depresses me to play it because of how horrible I am at it.

For my birthday this year, some wonderful friends (who weren’t aware of my hate-hate relationship with this game) gave me Scrabble, thinking (sensibly) that I would love it. I smiled and said thank you, knowing I should love it and understanding the reasoning behind their thinking. But I went home and put the game away and did not expect to play it, except maybe once, just to be able to tell them I had. But then LF found out that I had received it, and he urged me to play with him. To humor him (because the relationship was still quite new at that point), I relented, and we played. On our first game, I lost by a humiliating margin. I didn’t really enjoy myself, and I didn’t want to play again. But LF kept asking me to play periodically, again and again, and I began to notice that my technique was improving and that the difference in our scores at the end wasn’t nearly as vast.

I realized that Scrabble is not all about being really good with words. It’s also about strategizing your tile placement for maximum point scoring. Besides that, LF took pity on me in my despair and has been an encouraging, kind, helpful, and – most importantly – lenient Scrabble opponent. He has helped me learn to enjoy Scrabble, and he has even been open to rule modifications so that, twice now, we have played Themed Scrabble, where we only put down words that fit an established theme. And now, I am usually the one who suggests a game of Scrabble, and except for that first game, I cannot think of a time that I have not enjoyed playing.

10) Officially Deciding to Pursue a Master’s Degree
This is arguably the most significant event that occurred in 2011, at least with regard to my future, even though technically a decision isn’t really an event. It felt big for me, though. After I finished undergrad, I declared that graduate school was not in the cards for me. I claimed I was sick of school and was ready to experience a part of life that didn’t center around studying, writing papers, and sitting in classrooms. And I was, and I think that was fair. I had spent my whole life in school. But lately I have been missing the classroom. I have been itching to be challenged and pushed and evaluated.

I haven’t thought a lot about the degree I would pursue because I thought I didn’t have much of a choice. I’m not interested in a literature degree, but English is the only thing I can do, so the only other option seemed to be writing. Having a master’s degree in writing sounds impressive, I thought. And besides that, it certainly wouldn’t hurt my editorial career. And then one day, as I thought about how much I love language – the study of all languages, not just English – I realized that linguistics might be a wiser choice for a degree.

I have been stewing about all of this for a year now, and for a year I’ve been waffling and dragging my feet about committing. But near the end of 2011, I made a firm decision, and I am now enrolled in back-to-back GRE prep courses for the duration of the spring semester, after which I hope to take the general GRE and then enroll in a graduate program. I still don’t have all the details worked out, but these are my goals.

***

I don’t have a lot of complaints about 2011. It was a good year. There are things I am happy to leave behind, though – emotions I’m relieved to have finally shed and unhealthy mindsets I’ve made a conscious effort to change. Just like everyone else, I don’t know what 2012 will hold, but I am looking forward to finding out.

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Filed under bloggy, goals, sentimental

Classic #4: THE STRANGER, by Albert Camus

Wow, I’m zipping through these classics. Getting through eight more in three months should be a cinch.

The Stranger I was familiar with in name only before picking it up. And my only familiarity with Camus was with the pronunciation of his name (which I’ve always found to be fun). So I felt a little intimidated at the prospect of reading this book that is so well respected and yet so foreign to me. However, even though the matter of whether Camus is a true existentialist seems to be one of some debate, it cannot be denied that he is often linked to existentialism, so I felt it was only appropriate that I read something of his, since my dog (Soren) is the namesake of one of the world’s leading existentialist philosophers.

When I was close to being halfway through the book, someone happened to ask me what I was currently reading. When he asked how I was liking it, I said it was okay but that I was mainly frustrated by the main character (Mersault)’s ability to experience or express emotion of any kind. This is so completely opposite of how I operate that I just couldn’t help but be irritated with his passivity and lack of ambition. On one page, in short succession, there are two things he refuses to do out of dislike for them. One is call the cops, and the other is go to a whorehouse. In the margin, I wrote a note expressing appreciation for him finally having some solid opinions.

I continued to be irritated by his passive attitude through the rest of the book, although, given the circumstances and plot twists, I noticed it less often in Part 2 than I had in Part 1. For those who aren’t familiar with the plot, The Stranger is set in French-colonized Algeria and follows Mersault, who doesn’t so much intentionally live his life as follow a course he may or may not deem pre-plotted but that he definitely seems unable to veer from, nor does he appear to possess the desire to veer from it. A series of fairly unrelated events leads him to murder a complete stranger on a beach for no reason other than that, to loosely paraphrase the narrative, he either could pull the trigger or not; it didn’t mean anything either way.

There is the obvious connection of the title to the narrative – Mersault kills a stranger. However, I have been trying to figure out what other meaning I could glean from the title, and I came up with a couple of things that are far more abstract than him simply killing someone he doesn’t know. In a way, that is such a small part of the larger story that I have trouble seeing it as the significance behind the title. Initially I was trying to figure out who exactly the stranger in the story is. I am fairly comfortable saying that the reader doesn’t get to know anyone too intimately, so in essence, everyone remains a stranger to some degree.

But I think Mersault himself – as a result of his passivity, his complete lack of ambition, his ironically intentional avoidance of being intentional about anything – is the stranger. He is as much a stranger to himself as he is to anyone else. He is a stranger to his mother; to his mother’s fiancé, Perez; to the girl he expects to marry, Marie; to his boss; to the owner of the restaurant he patronizes regularly, Céleste; to his neighbor Salamano; and to his “pal” Raymond.

During his murder trial, all these people whom he has kept at arm’s length (even Marie) are interviewed as witnesses of some kind, and all of them are only able to give vague answers that merely drive the nails further into his coffin. (What is the appropriate metaphor when the method of execution is beheading? “Vague answers that merely serve to sharpen the blade of the guillotine”? Rhetorical speculation only.)

To venture slightly deeper into the realm of the abstract, I also want to assert that, beyond being a literal stranger in relational ways, he’s a stranger to emotion; to life; to love; to all the pursuits that most of humankind deems worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. What is Mersault dying for? Certainly nothing noble. He’s headed for execution simply because it doesn’t make any difference to him whether he lives or dies or whether anyone else lives or dies. He is a stranger to everything the rest of us get so violently passionate about.

Part of me wants to be on his side. Part of me thinks he’s uncovered something absurdly poetic and calming in his relative non-participation in the vivacity of life. Part of me wants to think there isn’t actually another component – one of void, of loneliness, of depressing isolation – to make his non-choices (which end up being choices in themselves) not negative. But only part of me. All of me cannot quite get there yet. Maybe I’ll read it again in another fifteen years and see where I’m at then.

There was one place, however, where I found myself able to identify wholly with Mersault. It was the place where he says, “after a while, you could get used to anything.” I say this all the time. So often, in fact, that I have a representation of the very idea tattooed on my arm. Of course, he says this after experiencing prison life, so it’s somewhat absurd that I felt able to relate to him in that place, since I have certainly never had my belief in that adage tested by anything so extreme.

But the fact that it’s absurd is so appropriately Camus. I did not realize, until I did some reading up on him after I finished the book, that one of the principal traits of Camus’s writing is an exploration of the absurd. I’m glad I didn’t know this beforehand because I would’ve been on the lookout for it and might have found it in places that were really sort of a stretch to make fit. As it was, I wrote “this is absurd” in more than one margin on my journey through The Stranger. And, in fact, my response to the very last line of the book was, “how absurdly depressing.” So, if absurdity was one of Camus’s goals, he certainly accomplished it here and assuredly with much more dramatic effect in Part 2 than in Part 1.

My last specific comment is that I wish I knew enough of the language to be able to read it in the original French (L’Étranger). On a cognitive level, I know I missed some nuanced detail and linguistic touches simply as a result of reading a translated work (even if I don’t know exactly what I missed or where), and I also recognized a few details that seem to have been Americanized for a U.S. reader’s benefit, which is theoretically disappointing. And there was one specific instance when I felt that knowing French would’ve been infinitely beneficial.

In one scene, the judge calls Mersault “Antichrist,” but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the passage and seems unnecessarily cruel. So I wondered if perhaps whatever word was used in the original French that got translated to Antichrist – if perhaps that word sounds strikingly similar to Mersault’s name so that, if hearing it in French, it could be passed off as a clever pun. However, wondering is of course as far as I got.

On the whole, I made my way through the book slower than I would have liked, I think for the same reason I have had trouble getting into Crime & Punishment – that being, there is so much psychological action and so little stepping outside the main character, that it was difficult to maintain interest. Part 2 did go much faster than Part 1, so keep that in mind, if you’re thinking of picking up the book yourself. If you can make it to Part 2, you’ll want to finish. In the end, I’m glad I exposed myself to it and would recommend it to pretty much anyone, with the aforementioned qualifiers. It’s good to step out of your literary comfort zones, and I certainly did that with this book.

Am I going to read The Plague next? Likely not. But maybe someday. I’m more open to it now than I would’ve probably been otherwise.

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Classic #3: A CHRISTMAS CAROL, by Charles Dickens

I finished this one a few weeks ago but have been avoiding the review because I have felt inadequately equipped to do justice to such a well-known, well-loved, and well-respected work – especially since I claim to dislike Dickens so much. For once, I don’t want to offend anyone who may (like me) harbor fond childhood memories of hearing, reading, or even watching this story each year at Christmas and maybe each summer too. Furthermore, it’s just such a short piece that it’s difficult to find much at all to say.

However, I will begin by saying that I’m glad I read it. I know I was able to identify one or two differences between the original and the Muppet rendition, which is the version I am of course the most familiar with. (Without Gonzo narrating, it really is a different experience. And it was difficult to imagine Tiny Tim as a human and not a mini-sized Kermit the Frog.)

In hindsight, as I look back through my written comments in the margins of the book, I find that what I wrote most often, by a long shot, was “haha.” Comments that come in a close second, at least as far as their frequency of appearance, include “well written” and “I like this.” Beyond these, I made notes on the progression of the story and truly seem to have enjoyed myself and the read.

I discovered a newfound respect for Dickens and his skill that I didn’t know I could possess. I think I am willing to concede at least that he’s a good writer and had a pretty good sense of humor. However, prevalent in this narrative too are the telltale descriptions of poverty and brokenness that are so characteristic of Dickens, so I did have a proper measure of sorrow and depression through the read as well. (Thanks, Charlie. Wouldn’t have recognized it as your work without that stuff.)

My one complaint is actually double sided. On one hand, I like that the book is so short. It makes Dickens digestible and manageable for the first time ever. On the other hand, I’m not sure the progression of character development and Scrooge’s extreme maturation are entirely believable. After all, we’re merely glimpsing snapshots of his life but are also getting the impression that he has been angry, grouchy, and miserly for many, many years now. And for all that to change in one measly night? Stretching it. But again, since it is such a beloved story, I’ll say only that and hold my tongue against further lashings.

One surprise I encountered is in the portion of Christmas Future, when we witness the looters going through Scrooge’s stuff. I wrote in the margin, “I don’t think I’ve ever known this part of the story.” I’m not sure if it’s been left out of the re-tellings I’m familiar with or if I have just ignored it every time and somehow blocked it from my memory. In any case, it was certainly nice to be confronted with a detail I didn’t feel like I already knew backwards and forwards.

Other than these things, my final three notable margin comments were as follows:
“I had no idea Dickens could be so funny.”
“I know the dang story, yet I find tears in my eyes still! That blasted Dickens…”
[upon finding a word in all caps]: “All caps! Good. I need something to keep hating Dickens for.”

That last comment was written in the margin of the very last page, after I had filled the rest of the book with praise, laughter, and warm words about the story, the style of the narrative, and the author’s skill. So even in my final, defiant stand of hatred, I find myself admiring and feeling grateful to Dickens for throwing me one last bone so I can continue my persistent effort to dislike him. It’s noble and rather old world of him. Which I guess makes sense.

To sum up – read A Christmas Carol. It’s short and it’s great.

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Classic #2: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, by Ernest Hemingway

For the last ten years, Hemingway and I have had a complicated relationship. That is to say, I disliked the first work of his that I read (A Farewell to Arms) and vowed from that point forward never to open the pages of something he’d written ever again. I was disconcertingly stubborn in this resolution, despite positive reports over the years about his superb literary skill. I know I should probably give A Farewell to Arms another chance because I was only sixteen when I read it, and is it fair to keep a decade-long resolution based on a teenage whim? Perhaps; perhaps not.

I suppose it depends on the maturity of the teenager, and while I can’t speak volumes about my teenage maturity, I will say that, as a buddingly independent young woman trying out the world for the first time, the misogyny I perceived to be dripping from the pages of that book really rubbed me the wrong way. I’m no feminist, to be sure, and I can even be said to be a bit on the traditional side now and then when it comes to male-female interaction, but the overt anti-feminist vibe I got in 2001 from A Farewell to Arms left me with a lingering lack of respect for Hemingway. My disdain extended so far and so long that I even spurned an opportunity to take a Hemingway tour of the city while I was in Paris one summer – a tour I now, of course, wish I’d taken.

And I will admit, the main reason I chose to read The Old Man and the Sea is that it’s short (well, that and, I have a boyfriend who is determined to see me succeed in my resolution and has therefore embarked on a quest to find the shortest books possible that can still count as classics). The Old Man and the Sea was the first in a stack of three he sent me home with a couple weeks ago, and I’m pleased to say that I finished it a few days ago within twenty-four hours of picking it up.

It is the story of an elderly fisherman who sets out for a regular day of fishing and ends up attempting the biggest catch of his life. As the story progresses, so does the old man’s frailty, not to mention his resolve, and the reader is pulled irrevocably in to a slow-moving yet suspenseful and endearing narrative that turns the pages surprisingly quickly.

It’s man versus nature, the ultimate test of willpower and strength of both body and mind. I think what I probably liked most about the book was its introspective quality. I sit around and think a lot about my actions and motivations and personality and goals, etc., etc. So I like that the old man pretty much has nothing to do other than sit around in his boat and think about stuff while he waits for the giant fish on his line to get tired of swimming. One thing I found interesting is that, even though the old man spends most of the book alone, either talking to himself or thinking, there is an implicit but strong focus on relationship throughout the entire narrative.

First, there is the relationship between the old man and the boy. The reader is not given a lot of information about their relationship or why they are so close, other than that they have gone out fishing together several times. Their closeness is revealed mostly through dialogue, most notably when the boy says, “‘I remember everything from when we first went [fishing] together.'” To me, this speaks to the deep and long-standing friendship they have shared over the years. Other dialogue and interaction they share serve to provide the reader with a fuzzy feeling that there is a mutual respect between them, each offering and being willing to care for the other, each maintaining a humble independence, and each respecting the other’s right to that independence. This is, in short, my relationship utopia (boyfriend, I hope you’re taking notes).

From the time the old man hooks the giant marlin to the time that he gets back to shore in his boat with the catch, he repeats over and over this sentiment of wishing the boy were with him. It seems a double desire to have the extra strength, help, and fresh ideas (and perhaps even someone to talk to) as well as a pure longing just for the boy to have the experience of being involved in such a monumental catch. He seems to know that none other than the boy would appreciate the adventure itself and understand what it means to the old man so that, by the time the old man gets back to shore with the tale of a lifetime, the reader searches for the boy on the horizon and cannot wait until the old man gets to see him and recount the adventure in such excruciating detail that eventually the boy will almost feel as if he had really been there.

The second notable relationship explored in the book is the one between the old man and the fish he catches. He speaks to the fish often during his great endurance struggle. Two of the more amusing statements he makes are:

“‘Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.'”
“‘Fish,’ he said, ‘I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.'”

There are other instances when he calls the fish a brother and his equal. He often laments his resolve to kill the fish, solely because the fish has proved itself such a worthy nemesis. The old man eventually apologizes to the dead carcass of the fish on the journey home because he is unable to pull it into the boat (because of its size) to keep it from being mangled and eaten by the scavenging sharks they meet along the way. The old man feels this is a disgraceful destiny for a fish that fought as valiantly as this one did, and he regrets that he cannot prevent it from happening.

It seems to me like this is the type of dominion God intended man to have over the natural world when he put Adam in charge all those years ago. Killing for the purpose of eating and surviving rather than for sport. Respecting the qualities that make each component of creation what it is rather than assuming inherent superiority. But the old man really gets it. He considers it a privilege to be towed along, farther out into the ocean, in the wake of this enormous marlin; a privilege to have the chance to participate in what turns into a battle of sheer will with the fish.

The third relationship Hemingway invites the reader to explore with him may not be evident in everyone’s reading, but it was certainly so in mine. It is the relationship between the old man and the reader himself, a connection I was surprised to find existed between the pages of this book. I did not expect to be able to identify so easily with a character who is so different from me, but there are so many universal truths in the book that it was nearly impossible not to. For instance, the way that the old man eats only because he knows it’s necessary and not really because he enjoys it anymore. “For a long time now eating had bored him.” I tend to feel this way about sleep from time to time, and I’ve noticed that my feeling only gets stronger with age. It seems like sleeping only serves to get in the way and waste my time and efforts toward realizing my dream of experiencing as much of the world as possible before I die.

“He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen.” I especially resonate with this idea, though I think here it is more of a nod to superstition than anything else, whereas for me, it is a conscious attempt to guard my heart from becoming too hopeful about its deeply rooted desires. And even though, for the old man, this is purely about fishing and for me, it’s almost exclusively about love, I still find that there is something beautifully common about these beliefs – something that bonds the old man and me in our shared caution.

On page 84, the old man asserts, “…Pain does not matter to a man.” After reading this, I wrote my reflection thus: Perhaps not in the moment, but it might later. At least, that’s how it is with me. Then, near the end on page 117, the narration says, “…From his pain he knew he was not dead.” With this idea, the old man’s experience merges with my reflection from several pages earlier – later, rather than in the moment. And I love the latter quote here. There is something morbidly raw about needing to feel pain to be sure that life goes on. It reminded me of that lyric from the popular Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris,” from back in the ’90s: “You bleed just to know you’re alive.”

As a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old singing along to that song, I had no idea what pain was or what it meant to need such a paradoxical assurance of life. But something about the honest exposure of those words spoke to me, if only for the fact that I was your stereotypical, angst-filled teenager, awed by the idea of emotive pain and all-consuming brokenness.

And now, as an almost-twenty-seven-year-old, I still don’t know that I could claim true solidarity in having experienced such intensity of feeling as Hemingway’s old man – at least, not physically. But I do know that I have been broken, and I have reached into my brokenness and my deep wounds and have juxtaposed seemingly opposing words in attempts to describe my pain – the kinds of phrases that only make sense to others who have experienced the same, irrational-feeling levels of pain and have tried themselves to make sense of it. I can honestly say that I have willingly poured (metaphorical) salt into my numbed wounds in an attempt to stir things up and convince myself that my heart is still beating and that good days will surely come again. Haven’t we all done this at some point? If you haven’t, I dare say you will. And when you do, you’ll be able to identify with Hemingway, with his old man, and with John Reznik.

Finally, I can’t end a review of my first-Hemingway-since-2001 without some mention of his attention to women in this particular work. The first time a woman is mentioned is near the beginning, and it is a reference to the old man’s late wife. “Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.” Besides the obvious indication of affection, there is something even more poignant underlying this glimpse of the old man’s former life and love. I love the seemingly insignificant detail that it is kept “under his clean shirt.” To me, this implies it is not forgotten in a box somewhere. It’s not collecting dust, and it is not under a pile of his dirty clothes. The picture (and the woman in it) are still worth remembering, but the memory is also still painful, so it stays hidden but in a respectful place. There is also the suggestion that he would see the picture every time he removes or replaces his clean shirt. I was encouraged by this one detail, this one sentence. It made me think, Maybe Hemingway isn’t the misogynistic old codger I thought he was.

A few pages later, I reached this description of the sea: “Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman.” It seems to me like men tend to anthropomorphize in feminine ways the things they love and the things they find unpredictable or unexplainable or indescribable and the things they cannot give up or live without. Again, I have to give Hemingway some credit for this comparison because it does, in fact, feel like a rather high compliment. It acknowledges and respects this strange sort of power that women seem to be able to wield over men and have done since the beginning of time. I know many would argue that the power has sexual roots, but I am unwilling to give men such little credit because, speaking from experience, they have certain power over us too. Perhaps, in a perfect world, it is the mere manifestation of pure equality – a perfect give and take, a perfect partnership and likely what God intended all along. But we don’t live in a perfect world; we live in a broken world, where this supposed-to-be-beautiful relationship gets reduced to a psycho-sexual power struggle because we are all just helpless idiots. And maybe, deep down, Hemingway knew that too.

At this point, I was feeling pretty good about the lack of anti-feminism in the book and was willing to reconsider my opinion of its author. And then, just a few lines after this mature insight about the sea, I encountered: “…If she did wild or wicked things, it was because she could not help them.” Excuse me? This is not nearly as flattering! This is the type of line that hearkens back to my old argument a decade ago about how poorly Hemingway understood women. This makes women out to be helpless, inanimate, unable to choose our own actions, and not to be held responsible for reckless decisions. This removes an enormous amount of credit conceded in the previous description, almost as if Hemingway felt he had to have some sort of antipathetic balance, lest any female readers’ egos get too puffed up by his perceived generosity.

But then, after I calm down a little from my rant, I find that I am willing to concede that perhaps Hemingway held these opinions of women because these are the only kinds of women he knew. After all, he did have four wives. Any jerk who can convince that many women to marry him is either an impressive charmer or choosing incredibly daft women. I suppose both are likely. However, if this is the case (not that he didn’t understand women but that he kept the company of silly, unintelligent, ridiculous women who perpetuate all the stereotypes the rest of us are desperately trying to shed), then I still must admit that I have trouble respecting a man who avoids the company of independent women. I have a pretty strong personality myself, and I prefer to deal with secure men who are neither threatened by my confidence nor too weak to handle it; men who let me do my own thing but know when (and how) to stand up to me. I don’t think I would’ve gotten along with Hemingway. Then again, I don’t know the circumstances of why he was married four times. Maybe he married four confident women who all left him (though I don’t think that was the case).

All in all, I can honestly say that The Old Man and the Sea did not leave me with as bitter a taste in my mouth about Hemingway as A Farewell to Arms did. And when I look at publication dates, I can see why. A Farewell to Arms was published in 1929 and Old Man and the Sea in 1951, and I could feel a maturity in his writing and perspective that is consistent with this timeline. There is still some chauvinism (after all, would he be Hemingway otherwise?), but it also feels like there is less naivete and a subtle (very subtle) respect for women, and I can dig that.

On the whole, I really enjoyed The Old Man and the Sea, would recommend it to anyone, and am glad I decided to give Hemingway another chance. My only regret was that I had to take notes and keep my reflections in a notebook. I would’ve preferred immensely to write in the margins of the book, but considering whom the book belongs to and our historical disagreement on how books should be treated, it seemed like a no-brainer to keep my indiscriminate and irreverent ink markings outside the book’s pages.

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