Author: paigejohnson (Page 3 of 7)

That Certain Something


Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that she got fat and fell in love with Jason Sanders and got thin again. It also happened to be the year her father died, the obvious catalyst for the weight gain, though not the crush. The crush was normal. Every girl in the eighth grade was in love with Jason Sanders. But Debbie would always think of her father’s death as separate; a thing floating near her fourteenth year but completely detached, existing in a realm exempt from the normal restrictions of space and time. Her mother, Janice, said the weight gain was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds. Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may have actually been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that betrayed her, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen and Austin and Ally. She liked Ellen, and it was especially good if Ellen had on somebody funny, and even better if it was somebody funny or talented but also overweight. Or if she had that little girl on, Brielle, who was, like, a genius. Debbie couldn’t hate Brielle; in fact she loved her. All that bright-eyed cuteness. But even then, she flipped to Austin and Ally a lot because she was in love with Austin, the Austin of years ago when they filmed the show. He was played by Ross Lynch, who was in his twenties now, an actual adult, and not as cute as when he was seventeen. The Ross Lynch who was sixteen and who played Austin Moon was perfect. Easily the most perfect boy in the world, and way better than Brielle, no matter how cute she was.

Sometimes she also flipped the channel to a weird 90s show for kids called Power Rangers, to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and Austin and Ally and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

She had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four-thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Elise and Maddie, or Diane and Caitlyn, or just about anything, but they were dumb old Debbie and Janice, which were not good enough names to be in a story or a show or movie. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as Connor or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

Debbie went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried a purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “if Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back. Kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with tiny, weird Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. But they had a tacit understanding: Debbie said nothing about Judy’s clothes or resemblance to an old lady, and Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through those huge glasses. “Specs,” Debbie’s dad had called them one time, which Debbie thought was kind of cool for a dad.

Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for seventy-five cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. She would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about what actresses looked better with long hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders fooled around with Summer Banks at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, just like Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he went to high school parties and did stuff with girls. This both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history, and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was kissing her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was kissing her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billing’s house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was pretty and had blond hair and got good grades and was nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. Debbie decided that Sarah was of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, though, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. But at least Sarah was only Mormon-rich, not country club rich. The kids who were country club rich had names like Cooper and Summer. They wore clothes that were nicer than the other students. Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made the clothes nicer, but the belts and things often had tiny whales on them, for some reason, and she knew they didn’t come from TJ Max and Khol’s. Sarah Billings was rich, by the looks of her house, but they didn’t belong to the country club, and she might have gotten some of her clothes from Khol’s.

It had been Saturday, so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” They meant Heaven, and she knew all about Heaven, but it sounded boring. Harp music was annoying. So when she got home after the funeral, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the little boy down the street. Peter. He had Down’s Syndrome. He was nine but he seemed more like four, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed. His own parents smiled at that–like it was cute or something–and called him Stevie Wonder, whoever that was.  It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even four days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in the manufactured happiness that went with shopping. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about school and which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll really make those pretty brown eyes stand out.” Eighth-graders were not stupid; Debbie knew that was a very deliberate way of not saying anything about her weight, of trying to point out that she noticed something else. The b-word would probably think how nice a lady she was, like ohh, I was so nice to that fat girl, I complimented her eyes.

Her eyes were just boring brown and not that great.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that traveling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. She was allowed to pick a magazine at the little store in the airport, and there were articles about kissing and sex in there and she felt a rush of adrenaline, reading stuff like that right next to her mom, who probably thought she was reading about new fashions or fun crafts or something. And on the plane, she could watch people as they walked by to go to the bathroom, carefully evaluating their outfits and their general attractiveness, picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited, but her mom said she could come, she wasn’t a baby and they’d be happy to have her. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, though Sarah was going to Meredith Lancy’s party. Meredith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meredith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meredith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

Debbie didn’t want her mom to go to the Billings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

Six weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “Yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the thirteen pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? She did feel cooler; she was starting to have…something. Not the cool confidence of the popular crowd, but the very beginnings of something she couldn’t put her finger on or words to. Just something. And her life had changed: Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want” at lunch the day before. Debbie had felt a little badly about leaving Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research, but she had to. Judy would do the same thing if they’d invited her to the big table; everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner, and not much else. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a charming Jason Sanders (who looked even more like Ross Lynch in the daydream), and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain, her glasses fogging up when she came into the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” Debbie said. It was almost a shout.

And Judy, in a glistening red raincoat with ladybugs printed on it, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie’s arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening sweetness and perfect blond hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need you to help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after baking for the first time since her husband died (apple muffins, not banana bread), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of change and grudges and innocence that was somehow already gone. Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were fourteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie probably heard those words before. And she needed this, this party with other kids; the beginning of a social life. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, sorry that Debbie wasn’t wearing a raincoat.

The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High


The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was watching her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent; it flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, but Katie watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining.

Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out a school psychologist. She wanted to like him. Katie wanted to like most people, particularly adults, and wanted them to like her. She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t one of those girls with simmering disdain for authority, one of those girls who didn’t give a rip what other people thought. She was a pleaser, she knew it, and if that made her meek or anti-feminist or something, she’d deal with that later. In college or her twenties, when she would surely be confident and passionate about things. But  Dr. Berger wasn’t even trying, and she resented him for it. He could at least try to be normal. And who decided to employ this strange, monosyllabic man with his fat fingers and beady eyes? Who decided he would be of use in a high school?

Plus, she was hungry, and the bit of the window she could see revealed a strip of turquoise sky and marshmallow clouds. A Bierstadt painting, she thought, aware that most of her peers would not think of that, would not know Bierstadt. t was a perfect, early October day, and she wanted to be out there with the sun on her shoulders, or at least at lunch. Anywhere but here.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to assimilate, and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her difference, something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; problem, or, worse, learning disability,  sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around. Difference sounded light and special; a blessing. A golden privilege.

She was privileged, Katie knew that. She did not live in a mansion or wear designer clothes, and she went to public school, always had. Even now, despite living in a nice little suburb in close proximity to several posh private schools and only slightly less posh Catholic schools. But Katie had seen the National Geographic specials where a girl her age might already have a baby, might already be worried about how to feed it. She’d seen the commercials for End Hunger Now, the children with distended bellies and dirty fingernails, their doleful eyes pleading with the camera. She knew that the doted on only child of an American Navy Captain was among the most privileged young women in the world. Despite her clothes from Target and knock-off Uggs. Despite her mother’s coupon envelope.

She also knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “How’s it going dealing with your weird color issue?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too.

The thing is, he was weird, with his little eyes; like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. How could hair turn gray in a steak, like Cruella Deville? But it did, apparently.

Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who smelled like cough medicine and seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Mmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was over. She had lunch next; Wally would be waiting soon.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, like at her old school, but a sustained intercom beep. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. It was just a name, based on something that didn’t exist anymore, like phones being called phones, when they were computers that could make calls.

Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck her as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.


Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director or a science prodigy. She had never tried to invent anything in her basement or been written about in any publication. Katie didn’t have a particular talent that she knew of, and her learning difference did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, or enable her to do anything at all. It got in her way.

Katie saw colors. And personalities. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, but in letters and words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though the word table was a green word in her mind, despite the letters T-A-B-L and E having their own color,  and a yellow ball was a yellow ball even if ball was red. Even worse was the fact that ball placed the letter L–an aloof, shy letter, next to a friendly A on one side and an arrogant S on the other. Numbers were similar: three and five were white and orange, respectively, but thirty-five was no color at all in Katie’s mind, possibly because she was too busy noticing that three was bubbly and exuberant, and five was quiet and  hostile; they did not get along.

It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, to one extent or another, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. She decided to give herself a break from the chaos of it, and temporarily ceased reading. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring.  Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors was small potatoes.

In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit! books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second-through-fourth grades, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, which placed numbers not only side-by-side but also on top of each other, in arrangements that clashed and blended, depending on their colors, lending the problem unintentional significance in the wrong places.  Coloring maps was even worse; it took all her strength to follow the directions and color California green, when the correct color in her mind was white. It felt like she was obstructing truth. It felt like a betrayal.

It was Katie’s sixth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Mrs. Houser, taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested, noticed Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to have her tested, an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a  Dr. Doofenshmirtz-like scientist cackled nearby and planned the demise of the Tri-State area. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? For the McDonalds, a few Bs and that one C were better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. She was simply a late-bloomer, a sheltered, only child. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue-gray eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school? They chuckled when they talked about it; yes, everyone was like this in middle school.

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence. Mrs. Houser had been a formidable woman. A tiny woman, but a woman to be reckoned with. She’d have made a good admiral or general, Katy’s father said. So they had her tested, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that other people do not see  letters as having personalities and colors. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side; an arrogant R next to a shy, worried U in the word rural, for example–it was always more difficult with adjectives, since the personalities of the letters interfered with the meaning of the word—and that other people do not panic when they are told to “color Indiana blue” on a map when Indiana is pale sage green in their mind.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

The next year, back in the US, there was a faculty meeting at Macarthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly eighty percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Their good intentions were, of course, humiliating; Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils. She liked the smooth, shiny cylinders of color, liked how they felt in her hand.

Occasionally, a graduate student or PhD candidate arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal. And by then she’d be in college—impossible to think of—and to come home to a place that felt like home would be exquisite.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d known when they were living on base in San Diego and then again in Naples, because Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie not only lost Abby, but the rest of her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. She knew this, and knew that it was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped.

Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had things on her mind other than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from Macarthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

In the second week of sophomore year, at lunch time at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at Macarthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not mean that she was autistic. The Spectrum, it turned out (her parents researched it), is a very nebulous thing. And Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore one strand of his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Her parents insisted she ride the bus freshman year so that she might make friends, and sent her out the door with a kiss on the cheek and the expectation that she do so. So Katie tried to be nice to the eclectic bunch standing grimly on the corner in the mornings, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and if it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, the year before, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school in September unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. Now that Katie was a sophomore, he was a junior, but he looked about twenty, she thought. Maybe twenty-one.  He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still.

Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. Those boys repulsed her when she was young, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, their need for noise and mild violence when playing. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father and grandfather might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. A serious boy, whose t-shirt belied muscles underneath and had just a few hairs peeking out the neckline, which made her dizzy. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” table at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with what she hoped was a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting. Killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with Spectrum Club printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart. Smartest guy in the school I bet.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or bands or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about film making, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and had apparently possessed a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he was autistic or had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if they counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.  And it wasn’t a club whose main purpose was to check a box that said “well-rounded” on college applications, like debate or Model UN. This was a club you might want to leave off your college applications, which lent it some appeal for a girl who always followed the rules.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourette Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen, or at least never noticed. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, Katie remembered, Dagny had been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool hazel-orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe? A boy’s room with dark browns and pale grays, like in Pottery Barn Teen?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Brooks-Pierce said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes, or maybe she looks like trouble in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.”

Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade, leaving a two year gap before he came back again as a freshman who essentially was in graduate school math. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math and science prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, blond father and his regal Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were ethnically un-specific and very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive. There was something about him that didn’t quite register; a failure to connect that even good looks couldn’t assuage, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Natasha were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literally’ when it wasn’t literal at all), carved in stone.


Books I’ve Read

I’m not sure if teenagers fall in love with books anymore, unless they are weird. The thirteen year old girls who are self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers do (you know the type: they already pronounce theater with re at the end, they already dress like an aging librarian, their first love, at age twelve, was Mr. Darcy), but I don’t think the normal ones do. Plenty of normal kids loved Harry Potter so much they read it under the table in social studies and again–twice–over summer break, and sure, lots of millennials say Divergent and The Hunger Games changed their lives and made them want to read, but I’m talking about loving books, books written for grown ups, all books, even the ones they didn’t like.

But I did. It was the 80s, and I was a fairly normal kid; I pronounced theater normally and thought Mr. Darcy was overrated. But Lord, I loved books. I loved their look and smell and the weight of them, from the garish, brightly colored paperbacks that smelled like pharmaceuticals, to the old leather bound copies of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo that smelled like dust and sour milk. They were my friends, my secret comrades. I loved all of them, even the ones I hated, like Catch 22 and Animal Farm. I’m not the first person to say books were my safe place, my escape from hurt feelings, boring teachers and long bus rides. They were also my way of stepping into the adult world to figure out people,  what made them love and hate and aspire, argue and despair and yearn and get married or decide not to.

I loved nonfiction too–any book really, especially if it looked old or the cover felt nice in my hands. Throughout most of ninth grade I carried around a copy of poetry by Byron (The only one I ever really read was She Walks in Beauty) and Selected Works of Galileo. I was fascinated by the stars, though not enough to actually learn about astronomy, and mainly I liked Galileo’s works because I liked the idea of being someone who carried around a book about stars. (I experimented with dark eye makeup that year, too, but it didn’t work out.) Fiction was my main obsession, though. I came home from school and went to my books (though not my school books) the way some kids in the eighties spent entire afternoons playing video games or listening to Duran Duran or talking on telephones for hours, the curly pea-green or golden cords tethering them to the wall.

I hesitate to write paragraphs about the books that moved and shaped me and taught me to think and write and be myself, because it seems a little precious. (It is not lost on me that using the word precious in this way–not as in valuable but as in affected and self-focused–is, in itself, precious. But I can’t think of another word that is right.) I was at a party last month, and I should say first that most of the guest were literary-types, and I heard someone say, “The other day while I was reading Proust…” and I thought, Lord, please let me never sound like that. But I have now had three or four friends ask me, plead with me in one case, to write about the books I have loved, as an adolescent and all the way up to now. Not in a list, but “more of an essay.”  Books that branded my brain enough that occasionally I still think of them or their main character, even if they were purchased from the checkout line of a grocery store. (I’m sure that guy who reads Proust for fun never bought a book in the checkout line at a grocery store.)

So here they are, in chronological order, meaning the order that I read them beginning at about age thirteen. What is missing are the books I loved as a very little girl, and almost any book I ever had to read for school. And of course of the ones that are here, some were deeply meaningful because I was going through something as small as a high school friend being unkind to something as large as the death of my mother. You never know with books; they are like strangers that walk across your path: sometimes you forget them immediately and sometimes you realize later that they came to save you.

I’ll begin with my Madeleine L’Engle phase, and I’m not talking about A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t even like A Wrinkle in Time, except the parts where Meg and Calvin have kind of a moment and he takes her hand. I stumbled on Madeline L’Engle when I read Ilsa (see more on that here:) and a little paperback called And Both Were Young. It was your typical lonely-girl-in-a-boarding-school story; she was misunderstood, and a boy (who was both athletic and intellectual!) came along and taught her to ski and saw her real beauty, especially when she took off her glasses (surprise!). It was an artsy, intellectual book, in a middle-school kind of way.

That book got me searching for anything by L’Engle I could get my hands on, including the series about a big family called the Austins. They were boisterous and wicked smart, and the youngest–the pretty one–was selfish and vain but they loved her anyway. The main character in these books, Vicky Austin, grew up, traveled abroad, solved mysteries and fell in love, and made all the bad choices that sometimes come with falling in love very young, if you know what I mean. That was an eyeopener at age thirteen, I can tell you. But L’Engle, with her tesseracts and regenerating starfish arms, renewed my realization that that science could be beautiful and awe-inspiring and not incongruous to literature. I asked for a telescope for Christmas  that year (and a neon yellow sweater and a Wham album on cassette). If Dava Sobel had been writing then, I’d have been her biggest fan. I picked up the Austin Chronicles recently and skimmed them, and thought the 70s intellectual element was too heavy handed, but they were great stories.

Then there was my Victorian novel phase, around age fourteen, where I reveled not only in the descriptions of the English countryside and the desperately romantic plots, but in the fact that I could actually read and understand these very grown up literary books. I purposely dropped my copy of Wuthering Heights three times in front of a substitute math teacher I had a crush on, so that he might pick it up and say “Wow, you’re reading this?” and be impressed by my maturity and sophistication. Being a math teacher, he picked it up without looking and said, “Uh, you dropped this,” until the third time when he looked at me like I had a disability of some kind, and started speaking louder whenever addressing me.

I remember liking Jane Eyre and Middlemarch around the time my family moved to a new state and I knew no one. It took me over a year to make any real friends, so I figured I might as well be a girl who drank tea after school and read Jane Eyre. But my favorite was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which taught me that the handsome men are sometimes scoundrels (this idea having not been introduced in Disney movies yet) and the nice men are sometimes weak, and basically a girl had better be smart and never fall asleep in the woods. (I had to read that part three times to make sure I understood correctly what Alec did to Tess. Could that be in a book this old?)

Then there was my southern fiction phase, beginning around age fifteen. It started with Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides I picked up at a bed and breakfast I stayed at with my parents. If you don’t know that book, it involves an abusive father, a suicide attempt, a rape and a tiger eating someone (at least it was the bad guy), yet it has all the lyrical language, nostalgia for the south and haunting beauty southern fiction is supposed to have. But holy cow. That one grew me up a bit.  I would not want my own daughter reading it at age fifteen, but my parents had gotten used to seeing the Victorian novels in my hand the year before and decided I had good judgement, and stopped paying any attention to what I was reading. I also read The Great Santini, which temporarily made me think all Marines were abusive jerks, until I realized that a few of my dad’s friends were Marine officers, all of them kind, funny family men. But that father character… wow. He made me think about husbands, and what to avoid. I don’t own a dog, but to this day I can’t look at a can of dog food without thinking of serving it to a person you loath and passing it off as dinner.

Thankfully, I moved on to Anne Rivers Siddons novels, still southern fiction but gentler, and with more complicated, less traumatized characters. I read every single one two or three times, beginning with either Sweetwater Creek or Nora, Nora. Siddons is famous for capturing southern, aristocratic society in the 1050s and 60s, but she’s just as good at capturing the confusion, angst and loneliness of being twelve or thirteen. Being from Colorado, I was baffled and captivated by her descriptions of the culture of Atlanta back then, and Siddons was the first to open my eyes to the civil rights movement, how that went down and what it meant to the “colored” people who lived it. I understood that her stories were fiction, and she was white, so maybe this part wasn’t quite right, or was hyperbolic or one-sided, but mostly she got it right, whereas my history textbook taught me facts, which amounted to absolutely nothing meaningful.

I still read Siddons’ older novels sometimes (the newer ones have an older-gal, chick-lit vibe I don’t care for) and they seem dated now, but they make me draw in a sharp breath of nostalgia for a time and place I never lived in. In retrospect, I see that her novels are a bit like paintings by Thomas Kinkade; real heavy handed with the brush–all those bright colors!–but your eye is sure drawn to them. They make me see all over again the bittersweet dichotomy of something–or someone–being very flawed and very beautiful. (Hey Proust-guy? I actually just said bittersweet dichotomy. But it’s not as bad as what you said.) Or even just problematic and beautiful, which pretty much sums up marriage and motherhood and parenting and parents and religion and growing old and death.

Also Southern fiction taught me it is never a good idea to fall in love with your first cousin.

Eventually I went to college and majored in history because I was afraid if I majored in English I would never get a job. I thought with history, at least I could work in a museum or go around to schools impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt or something. But I did minor in English, and I had to read a bunch of stuff I don’t remember. I think I read Homer, Milton, Donne and Goethe, and I have a vague recollection of a terrible group project wherein we acted out Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. (I can’t even remember which character I played, but I rang a bell and tried to look hungry, and there was a boy whose character, in my memory, was called Swiss Cheese. I just Googled that and it’s true, and the plot sounds horrendous.) This is to say that mostly I don’t remember the stuff I was made to read, except for the Shakespeare, which made it all worth it.

After college I found that I was a real live grown up with an apartment, and once again I could read anything I wanted. My friends were all reading John Grisham and Stephen King if they were reading at all, but by now I was an English teacher and I felt it unseemly for a teacher to walk around with a copy of The Firm or The Dead Zone. In my mind that would have been like walking around with a Danielle Steele novel. (Not walking around with a book at all wasn’t really an option. I took a book everywhere so that I could reward myself when I had to do boring things like grade papers. Three papers, one chapter. That’s how it went.) I was twenty-two and I’d had enough of old English stuff, so I picked up My Antonia, falling in love with poor Jim. Jim was good, and relatable and kind, like a pioneer version of Jim from The Office, so it was kind of like The Office meets Little House on the Prairie, though The Office wouldn’t be on TV for over a decade.

I loved Willa Cather’s descriptions; you can see the sun setting heathery-gold, and smell the wheat and sorghum fields. I was still pining for Colorado and the west in general, so after My Antonia I picked up some Edna Ferber. I will always have a deep affection for Giant and that time in the American west when everything started to change because oil was replacing cattle. Ferber’s characters, especially the father–Rock Hudson in the movie–are flawed and lovable and larger than life when they’re strong, painfully human when they’re weak, like real people. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of books that teach you about families, fathers and daughters, America, bad boyfriends, prejudice, pride and love, Giant would hit all those marks.

Then my mom died suddenly, and I write that not to elicit pity but because when something like that happens, you can’t even go to the post office without every move you make to get there being over-drenched in meaning and pain and grief, much less read a novel. But I had to escape in novels, so I read the novel equivalent of chicken pot-pie: comforting stuff that was like a warm, fattening blanket. I read Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers about five times because my mom liked it and I remember seeing the silver and pink paperback on her nightstand. What a lovely fluff novel. Penelope Keeling is a mother figure, which I needed, and I fancied myself similar to the lovely Antonia: smart and “different” and unhappy with my blond eyelashes. Then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was somehow comforting despite the poverty and despite all the sad, hard things that happen to Francie. She’s a fighter, and at the end when she decides to be a writer, I thought for the millionth time that’s what I would do, too (still working on it). I still think of Francie when we buy a Christmas tree every year, and when I save change in a hidden jar, and I feel like she’s still alive and out there somewhere, observing beauty.

The book that really saved me from my grief over my mom, or at least showed me that grief could actually be funny, in a way, was Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. The main character’s young husband has died of cancer and she is muddling her way through a support group with weirdos and a job she hates until she suddenly loves it. She’s an observant, sarcastic gal so I loved her and thought, “It’s okay to laugh.” By then we sort of had the internet, and some primitive Amazon search told me I might enjoy the novels of Elizabeth Berg. There has never, ever been a more spot-on suggestion to me on a shopping website; Elizabeth Berg is just amazing. She is not Willa Cather or Edna Ferber, and she doesn’t try to be, but she captures life and people in this way that is perfect and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring and comforting all at once. I guess a publisher would market it as chick-lit, but that is not being fair to the beautiful, funny writing. I can’t even write a paragraph about which one I liked best because that would be like writing about which one of my friends I like best; I can’t do it. (Wait, I totally can, but my point is they all have their strengths.) They are all so freaking readable, with characters that break  your heart while making you laugh. But if you’re going to start with one, start with We Are All Welcome Here or Dream When You’re Feeling Blue; you’ll see what I mean.

I went to graduate school and compromised slightly less than in college: I got an English degree, meaning I got to read a lot, but officially the degree was in “The Teaching of Writing and Literature,” so that I could teach again if I got desperate. I had to take a bunch of education and psych courses that I didn’t care for and don’t remember, but my English professors were marvelously accommodating. We could read whatever we wanted (!)  and then talk write about it. I remember wishing I could have gone to graduate school first, instead of college. So I read Shakespeare’s comedies, interspersed with whatever I felt like, from Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter (the first one came out about then). (As a side note, I had two small kids by the time I was in graduate school and one professor told me to deconstruct Goodnight Moon when she noticed it fall out of my backpack, which was also my diaper bag. She was a humorless woman and I didn’t know if this was her idea of a fun challenge or a punishment for the indecency of dropping Goodnight Moon in her classroom. This was before you heard about professors saying cool things like, “Can’t find a sitter? Bring the baby to class!” I’d gotten so good at writing papers that I wrote sixteen pages on Goodnight Moon and got an A. I wish I knew where that paper was now.) But once again none of the books I read for my classes really stuck with me, because even though I chose them, it wasn’t the same; I wasn’t reading for pleasure.

In the years that I was a young mother (an identity I’m having a hard time letting go of, even though a couple of them are about to go to college), I read to get a break and go somewhere interesting, at least in my head. I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto when my oldest was eight; I remember this because it was so good that I snuck it into the second and third graders’ spring concert at school and tried to read during the boring section of “songs from other lands.” People were openly astonished that I would do this, including my husband who knows me, so I had to put it away. It’s a weird, wonderful story I never would have thought of in a million years, and at the end it’s basically a literary thriller you can’t put down. By now we really had the internet, and Ann Patchett led me to Jane Hamilton and A Map of the World. That’s a tough one to read when you have young children but it’s beautiful and hard and deep. For whatever reason, I didn’t read anymore of her books until recently, when The Excellent Lombards came out and I read in the space of ten hours, while taking care of work and home and life too. It’s an odd sort of page-turner and a tribute to farmers and family.

Which leads me to Jane Smiley. I can’t really say when I first read Jane Smiley, but I think it was A Thousand Acres, another book about farming and family, and this one won a Pulitzer so it’s no chick-lit fluff.  I’ve been reading and re-reading her novels ever since. They are my go-to when I have to grab something to read and I don’t want to spend money on the kindle app and have no time for the library; I just grab some Jane Smiley novel I haven’t read in awhile. There was a movie of A Thousand Acres with Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, and it was fine if you’d never read the book, but without the omniscient narrative of the main character it fell flat. It was just people acting out a script, which wasn’t at all the same. The book was a powerful look at fathers and farming and sisters and marriage. I think there was some infidelity in there too. But the books of Smiley’s that really leave me speechless are her  Last Hundred Years trilogy, starting with Some Luck. Here is a portrait of America as big and fascinating as Ferber’s Giant;, it begins in the 1920s and takes the reader through American history in novel form, reminding me of the time my grandparents were becoming adults, then my father, then me, then my children, with all the strong wills and personality conflicts and tensions and loyalties that would be in any big family, with a gorgeous backdrop. Seriously, this trilogy needs to be a movie–this one might work as a movie– except that I can’t think of a single actor who could do Frank justice; he’s so selfish and bad, but not entirely bad. Alec Baldwin is too old and too funny, so maybe Matt Bomer. But back to the books: if I was stranded on a desert island and had to read the same three books over and over, these would at least be in the running.

Then a few years ago I went through a Kingsolver/Quindlen/Shreve phase, alternating books by the three writers until I’d read mostly everything. I think I would disagree with these women on just about every issue in the world–they have such strong, independent voices as writers, but from what I have read, all three dutifully tote the party line and have the “correct” opinions on politics–but all of them are astonishing with words and plot. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is reminiscent of those Pat Conroy novels (the dysfunction, the childhood trauma and beauty all at once) but with dangerous African snakes and spiders, and a strong anti-Christian message, if I recall correctly. But the characters and plot hook you and suck you in and it’s useless to try to get out, and somehow it even makes you laugh sometimes. Kingsolver’s other novels, especially Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are like fingering some exotic and beautiful tapestry in a foreign marketplace: you don’t want to buy it, necessarily, but it’s so beautiful and you can’t stop looking at it.

Anna Quindlen has written some lovely novels; Blessings was the first one I ever read and it lived up to it’s name, so her Every Last One was a bit of a shock in terms of plot. I don’t want to give it away, but this one will make you want to keep your children home. The main character’s oldest daughter reminded me of mine, so I couldn’t shake this story for weeks after reading it, and I had trouble letting her out of my sight. But the writing is hypnotizing.

Anita Shreve captured everyone with her Oprah’s book club pick The Pilot’s Wife, but Stella Bain is wonderful (amnesia!) and my personal favorite is Light On Snow because it involves a grieving father and daughter–been there–and a baby and a young woman who isn’t what she seems. It isn’t a feel-good book, but it is. It’s redemptive somehow, and Shreve writes with an economy of words, which I have grown to admire. And after reading about Nicky Dillon and her dad, I had to go back and re-read Elizabeth Berg’s trilogy about Katie, starting with Durable Goods, one of my favorite books in the world. Yes. Read that one.

Somewhere around 2010 I was given a Kindle, and started reading anything it recommended, obeying it. I still love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but with a kindle or the app on an i-pad you can read free samples, which is a bit like going to a candy store without ever leaving home. If I had to say without thinking too much, what books I read in the last five years that I remember finishing and thinking, “Damn, that was amazing. I wish I had written it and I want to be that writer’s friend and I’ll probably read it again in a few years,” they would be, in no particular order, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon, And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore, and The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog.

All of those above were amazing, beautiful books. But there are three that I cannot just put on a list; it just so happens I read these three in actual book format, with pages and a spine and what-not. We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another one of those epic stories about America, and it is also about family and frailty and dreams you can’t quite reach but want so badly. I don’t know why this book isn’t more well known; it is important and rich and beautiful. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was astonishing; gorgeous historical fiction that leans toward mystery. Gilbert she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, though this is nothing like that. Signature is full of adventure and horticulture, abolitionists and sailors. Just amazing. Finally, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it disappointed me only in that I loved the characters and wanted total happiness for them, but of course Doer knew better. That was the thing about this book–the beauty of it, despite all that suffering. How did he do that?

And real quick, the non-fiction: David McCullough and William Manchester. I know scholarly people scoff at them for writing history books for regular people, but that’s just because they’re jealous. When I had small kids and felt like I needed to re-grow the brain cells I lost every time I watched Barney or had a long conversation about going potty, or why goats are goats, I’d read a history book or biography. I loved being a stay-home mom, and thought I had the cutest, funniest kids in the universe (and truthfully, I did), but I needed to keep alive some small part of my brain that enjoys learning. Fiction alone couldn’t quite do it, so I alternated Manchester and McCullough. My father, I knew, liked The Last Lion books and American Caesar (about Churchill and McArthur, respectively), but the middle ages was more my cup of tea so I tried A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester made this “dark period in time” (that’s what text books always say–it was just darkness and plague and starvation with a little Church corruption thrown in) seem so alive and fascinating that I briefly (briefly!) considered going back to school to study medieval history, and The Glory and The Dream reminded me why I love American history more.

David McCullough’s John Adams makes this seemingly dull second president seem larger than life, and even–oh man I can’t believe I’m saying this–a little sexy. If you absolutely can’t read a huge book about him, watch the documentary with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. I also tried The Great Bridge (seriously, you ask? A huge history book about a bridge? Yes! It’s totally not boring!) and Mornings on Horseback, (Teddy Roosevelt–what a MAN that guy was!) and I’m about to start The Wright Brothers, having once again reached a point where I think my brain cells are dying. (The kids are older now and don’t talk about goats and going potty, but now I work in a school library where all anybody wants is Elephant and Piggy books. Makes me want to cry).

Last but not least, the three best books I’ve read in the last three months: Olive Kitteridge, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and A Man Called Ove (yes, I KNOW, I read books for older people sometimes now! So what of it?) Elizabeth Straut’s Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize too, and in about five pages you can tell why just from the voice of Olive. The book may be fiction but it says something profound about humans and families and getting older, and Olive is funny in the way of a difficult-to-love grandmother. The same goes for Ove, and if you ever tried to read that one and put it back on the shelf, try again and give it a few more pages. It’s actually a joyful little book. I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for giving me a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which involves the English countryside I’m so fond of, a guy that reminds me of my dad, and a love story that is delicate in an age when love stories never are. It’s funny and light-hearted with a below-the-surface depth and profundity, and Helen Simonson didn’t get it published until her kids were grown and she was in her forties or something, which gives me hope.

So there it is. Everything I ever read, or at least the stuff I remember. And my original point about kids not loving books anymore except the weird kids could, I think, be remedied, if we…what? Took away their phones for three hours a day–that would be a start. But it’s unfeasible and unlikely, and they’d just find something else to do. (Where I live, kids don’t even have one hour a day of unstructured time, much less three.) I swear, kids are getting dumber every year. So the weird kids out there who are reading Bronte and Hardy or Manchester and McCullough for fun will, one day, rule the world. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.



P.S. I never read Angela’s Ashes, I think Wally Lamb’s books are just too depressing, and The Goldfinch? I read it, it was amazing, but that part in the middle? What? And I forgot Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Wow. I have to go look for my telescope.

John Cusack and The Situation


It’s been months since the election and I keep hearing the same weird phrase on TV and at public events, and at work functions I attend with my husband. It goes something like this: “in light of the current situation we’re in as a country…” or “Our current situation means that…” Then there are polite, commiserating chuckles. The phrase always involves the situation, meaning Donald Trump is our president, so a whole slew of stuff is bad. Just name it: the arts, education, the state of the US in general; it’s bad right now, apparently. But the situation is not really about inflation or the environment or terrorism or the ridiculous cost of college, because if Hillary won the election, there would be no all-encompassing situation, just a discreet little litany of things we could improve on as a nation. So, the situation is that Trump is our president. Period.

I didn’t vote for Trump either, and I don’t like him. He’s a sleazy loose cannon and I don’t trust him, but I get it. Liberals and others who talk about the situation don’t. No matter how much political commentary they read or listen to, they’re still raking their brains about how he got elected and how people still like him (because most of them don’t actually know any people who do). They don’t get why lots of people seem willing to overlook that awful hair, that smug grin that is more of a grimace, that possibly shady past of his, the occasionally vulgar comments, his mannish wife, and that whole wall-thing. But if you ever watched movies made for teenagers in the 80s, is so obvious.

If John Hughes taught us anything, it’s that popular people are annoying, and the underdog really can win. No matter what name you call them by, high school always has and always will have the jocks and the preps, the geeks and the goths and greasers and maybe a few groups in-between. In my high school we had “grits,” (they wore jean jackets and graphic T’s, had big hair) and “grunges” (dark makeup, hair in the eyes, baggy clothes and Doc Martins) and “perks” (which stood for “perky.” Perks were often in student council, played a sport and did theater, as opposed to just plain “theater geeks”). The perks were usually popular, but there were levels of popularity, and the really popular ones were a little subset of the perks and were simply called “the popular kids.” They knew who they were and we all knew who they were and just like in any John Hughes movie, they had the trappings and accessories of popularity (the clothes, the cars) and wore their identity comfortably enough that it didn’t occur to them that it would ever be questioned or disrupted or overthrown.

And then it was.

I won’t go into details about my own high school, but let’s just say every now and then, along comes someone who doesn’t fit into any group. It’s usually a guy. He’s not popular, in fact he’s done time on the outer fringes of whatever group is the misfits, but he’s so okay with himself that by junior or senior year, he’s got friends in every group. He’s usually funny, in a jaded, dead-pan sort of way, and he’s observant. He knows all those groups, and knows he’s not really a part of any of them, so he’s a part of all of them. He’s a dark horse; he’s John Cusack, in a stupid trench coat and ratty Converse, and he doesn’t even have a car, but somehow it works because all of a sudden, he steps out somehow. He overthrows the administration, wins the pretty girl or even the student council election, becomes Prom King but shows up in jeans. The tables aren’t just turned, they’re upside-down and all over the place and nothing makes any sense anymore.

Only it does. John Cusack (you can substitute Andrew McCarthy here, or possibly Christian Slater, but John Cusack works best) rose to popularity because it turns out there were lots of people who didn’t fit into any group, or had been pegged a this or a that but didn’t identify with that group at all. They weren’t popular, and they didn’t stand out in any way, but they were the very foundation of the school, working hard, keeping to themselves, and feeling unrepresented until John Cusack came along. By then they’re just so sick of the popular crowd, so sick of the assumption that Stacy or Travis the popular kid has the answers, has the right opinions on everything and represents what people want, they’d do anything to upset the status quo. They’re sick of being told what they think and what they need and what’s the right opinion, and they want a hero of their own. A flawed, loose-cannon of a hero, with his trench coat blowing behind him like a cape, looking right into the camera with a screw you look in his eyes.

I don’t know why liberals can’t see that they are not everyone; that Hillary was Stacy the popular girl, and Trump was John Cusack. The current situation we find ourselves in is that the nobodies have spoken and Trump is president of the United States because more than half of the people who voted did so for him, on purpose, and the more Stacy and the popular crowd keep wringing their hands and hanging out at their lockers saying, “Oh my god, I can’t, like, even believe he won, he’s, like, a total nobody, and his hair? It’s like, the worst, everybody totally hates him…” the more popular he gets. It turns out John Cusack has some ideas about government, the reach of its power, and the extent to which it ought to get in people’s business, but if the people who think their ideas are the only possible correct ones keep ignoring him, the regular people will keep championing him, and it turns out they make up a good bit of the high school—or in this case, country.

In fact, the only way to make John Cusack go away is to take him seriously, as a person, as a president, because the second he becomes one of them is the second he’s begins to lose power. Legitimate disagreements with John Cusack, or a politician-turned-hero, make him lose some of his appeal. But so long as the rhetoric of the left is inflamed and incensed that Donald Trump is president—like the popular kids whining oh my god, this is so unfair, he will remain the unexpected and weirdly-appealing protagonist that he is. He’ll have fans in all the groups that aren’t the popular crowd; he will keep wearing that stupid trench coat even in summer (or, in Trump’s case, that stupid hair and pout), and he will represent the actual people, not just the popular crowd who told us what we ought to think. And Actual people, it turns out, think that if you don’t have tough immigration policies, you don’t have a country. Actual people think killing a baby that isn’t born yet is evil, even if you call it freedom or a choice, and even if letting it live is really inconvenient. Actual people think maybe it’s not such a huge deal that the earth has been warming and cooling for centuries, and it isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary now. Actual people think there was a reason for the second amendment, and that people ought to be able to purchase their own health care on an open market, and that open markets work pretty well, and Charlie Gard’s parents should have the right to try to save him, even if it doesn’t work. Etcetera.

I don’t know who the real John Cusack voted for, but it probably wasn’t Trump, because in real life he’s undoubtedly one of the popular kids and has all the opinions they told him to have. But I know what I learned from teen movies in the 80s: the regular kids eventually win, because there are a lot of them. Stacy and Travis just never noticed before. The regular kids are comfortable with their lives, their friends and families, and don’t care what people think. And not caring what anyone thinks might just be part of caring deeply about what is right.


Stand Mixer and Prayer

Michael Giaetto, I’m putting this up for you because you liked it so much! 

Five years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly an eighth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

My friends call this thing a Kitchen aid, the way that a copier is called a X-rox machine even when it isn’t; the way a soda is a Coke, in some places, even when it is a Sprite. But my mixer is not a kitchen aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep, deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and countertop precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “Your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Buick in the 50s, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5 quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are twelve speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

I have now used the mixer to make two different kinds of sweet bread, a cake, meatloaf, wheat bread, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it’s bugging me. The paddle doesn’t reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when anyone is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors. Writers like metaphors, and I still want to be a real writer someday. My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My Evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like “Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, Man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother…” I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station, although I suppose God vastly prefers it to no communication at all.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so quickly that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. Or that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness. It’s fine if you don’t go nuts. Like yoga.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. (As a side note, I recently learned that the swish is supposed to be wings, as in Nike, the goddess of speed and victory, who is usually depicted with wings. Who knew?) I really believe it was God talking to me through a muddy cleat that was seriously bugging me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; three loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to edit somebody’s paper on Holden Caulfield’s angst and put a load of whites in, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. (Except me. I grew into it.) They’re teenagers now, and if my mixer is making noise while they sleep in on Saturday morning, so be it. Pick any apocalypse scene from a movie, and if it were really happening, my kids could sleep through it. Plus, I care about letting them sleep until eleven about as much as they care about putting away their cleats. And the mixer is really not that loud. It has been years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself, and you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray, but if it helps you get the job done, use it. Just do it now.

I never returned the mixer. The store had one of those happiness guaranteed or your money back policies, so at one point I asked if I could return a mixer I’d been using for two years. The the guy asked the reason for the return and I said, “I thought it would make my life better. I thought $300 would make me a better mother. Turns out only me and God can do that.” It was the perfect thing to say, because his eyes got slightly larger, indicating that he was secretly thinking uh-oh, this is one of those crazy religious people, you gotta let them have whatever they want… and of course he said yes. But I didn’t return the mixer, I’d grown used to it. Counter space is overrated, and there was a sale on food processors.


Dear Safeway

Dear Safeway

We’ve been together for years, and I want you to know I treasure our time together. I treasure it because it represents my adult life; my marriage, and most of my years of being a mom. But Safeway, it’s time for us to part ways. I can’t take it anymore. And let me be clear: it’s you, it’s not me. Or maybe it’s a tiny bit me, but it’s mostly you, but since I am the one spending twenty-thousand dollars a year on groceries (I am not making this up), you need to listen.

Safeway, your produce is beautiful. Your meats are cut perfectly and packaged expertly, your dairy cases are full and every baguette and brioche is fresh. But why do you have the prices of a Whole Foods and the service of a K-Mart? Honey-crisp apples are a dollar-fifteen each, a gallon of milk is four dollars, and a package of chicken breasts is fifteen bucks, so why do you have two registers open and lines to the back of the store? Why are there enormous displays of plastic toy trucks or lawn chairs or leggings taking up already limited isle space so that I can’t navigate to where I want to go? And why, when I finally get up to the register, must I be asked to donate to charities I have never heard of, and then be handed a fistful of Monopoly tickets that that are difficult to open for an online game I don’t have time to play so that I may receive coupons for things I do not buy, or work toward a set of cookware I do not want? Why can’t you just charge me less than fifteen bucks for chicken?

And while I’m talking about stores where you must bag your own groceries, I have something to say to you, too, Giant: what the hell happened? Your produce is nice, too, and while there is more of a chance I’ll get meat goo on my fingers at your store than at Safeway, and despite that one time I found live bugs in an unopened bag of rice and filled out a complaint online and instead of offering me a coupon for some free groceries, you had an lawyer call me,  I was willing to cheat on Safeway and come to you for lower prices overall. And I actually like getting points off toward gas. But Giant, did you think I wouldn’t notice that there is only one bag boy (can we call them that anymore?) for six registers now, so the cashiers have to scan and bag my groceries themselves (which they do at a speed that can only be described as passive-aggressive), while the lines pile up behind their customers?

And Wegmans! Dear, dear Wegmans, you are like a glamorous new friend who is sensitive and funny and remembers my birthday, but who turns out to be manipulative and high maintenance. Your prices on eggs and milk are great, but you are trying to seduce me with your platters of pre-assembled prosciutto and melon, your pre-made dinners for two (of which I would need three or four) and your cases of cheeses and breads that cost more than my shoes. You prey on my vulnerability with your bistro, where I stand in line next to cookies the size of my head to pay for shawarma and masala that costs more per pound than coffee or caviar. I don’t need a restaurant in my grocery store; I don’t need a DIY body-scrub bar next to the canned goods, and I don’t want to feel guilty for not supporting women in the Himalayas by not buying bracelets and placemats when I don’t need bracelets or placemats. There may be a day, Wegmans, when I have the leisure time to look at bracelets and placemats while I shop for paper towels and lunch meat, but that day is not today.

Trader Joe’s, you’ve been good to me. I like your prices on bananas and bread, and I love that pizza with the caramelized onions that only costs five bucks, but you lose me every time we need toilet paper, tooth paste and 409, which, I admit, is every freaking week. Your produce is absolutely adequate, and sometimes more, but I would need four bags of broccoli crowns to feed my crowd at one meal, and your prices aren’t that good. And truth be told, Trader Joe’s—and this isn’t your fault, but still– I am weary of the patchouli-smelling thirty-somethings with their reusable bags of quinoa and tofu, sometimes with a screaming four-year-old in a baby-sling who is late to get home and take a nap in the family bed. And yeah, I realize how judgy that sounds, but if I’m being honest, it grates on me. Your stores are small, Trader Joe’s, and you are crowded. Good for you, but not for me.

So I am breaking up with you. All of you. We will have to start living off what I can procure from stores I can emotionally handle, like pork rinds and Pepsi from 7-11, where the lines are short and you get what you pay for. Samar knows my name and carries my ice to the car, and throws in a penny when I don’t have one. I may never again know the pleasure of a Honeycrisp apple or fresh chicken, but at least I won’t leave frustrated. We will be malnourished, but we’ll save a lot of that twenty grand. And actually, ramen noodles aren’t so bad if you only use half the powder.  Let’s try to remember the good times, and maybe someday I’ll come back to you. But for now, you gotta let me go.




Crying Next to Pretty Mom at Soccer

I started crying at my son’s soccer game yesterday. Not rocking back and forth blubbering, and not silent-hiccup sobbing, just a sort of leaky-eyed thing in the second half. Only one other mom saw, and of course it had to be the really pretty one who probably looks great when she cries. The one that looks like Lauren Graham when she was skinny on The Gilmore Girls. Our sons’ team was losing, and I’d been perfectly fine a few minutes before, so of course she put her (perfectly manicured) hand on me gently and said, “Oh, don’t take it so hard! That penalty kick wasn’t even his fault, this ref is crazy!”

I didn’t even know there had been a penalty kick against my son, because I’m the mom who knows nothing about soccer except that you’re supposed to kick it into the net. I thought the ref blew his whistle to keep up morale, or to signal that they were all doing great and it was time for a five-second break. He seems to blow it all the time for no discernible reason, so this was a valid conclusion.

Seeing my confusion, and more tears go down my cheeks, pretty mom changed tactics and went with, “Or… is it allergies? Are you okay?” I could see it dawn on her that this was something deeper; maybe I had recently lost a friend. A friend who played soccer, perhaps, making it all just too painful. I saw the wheels turning in her mind and the thinly veiled look that said she’d just caught a whiff of my crazy, and, wanting to reassure her, I nodded at the field and said, “They’re just so great, aren’t they? These kids?”

I assumed she’d know what I meant. Sort of. She was a mom of a thirteen year-old, too, who is every bit as smart and handsome and awkward and darling and goofy as mine, and I thought she would get it. But I was, admittedly, sort of PMS-ey and she was probably at whatever time in a woman’s cycle makes you your most confident, capable and logical self, so she did what anyone would do: she said, “Um, yeah, they’re awesome!” And then she pretended to be doing something very important on her phone.

She doesn’t have older kids, though, so besides being very not PMS-ey, she also doesn’t know what I know about thirteen-year-olds: in a few short months, you can’t protect them from anything, and they are leaving soon. Right now they are all limbs and they leave stinky socks everywhere and have rather bad skin, but mostly their lives are okay. They may not be the popular kid, but they have friends and they do fine in school and you can buy them Clearasil. But by this time next year they will be in high school.

And here is the thing about high school: it’s real life, with just as many disappointments and figurative land-mines to navigate. There are teachers who will dislike your kid for no reason, and think they are lying when they say they are late because they stopped to help someone pick up their books–you want to call up the teacher, but you can’t. There are teachers who will yell at your kid for asking too many questions, and then tell them later, you should have asked–you want to intervene, but you can’t. There are friends who will suddenly be mean for no reason, for weeks, and break your kid’s heart–you want to call them up and say what the heck, but you can’t. There are assistant principals who will give your kid a uniform slip on Halloween for her Robin Hood costume when the tunic went all the way to her knees, but not write up the seniors being playboy bunnies in shorty skirts and fishnet tights–you want to slap them upside the head but you can’t.

There are pop-quizzes on material that hasn’t been covered, creepy boys who walk right up to the line of harassment but only cross it with their big toe, and bottom-lockers that force your kid to crouch beneath a much larger one under someone who has no intention of hurrying even a little–you want to fix these problems but you can’t, it’s high school. There are people who disagree with your kid’s views because they are not what theirs are, and then call your child intolerant–you want to enlighten them, but you can’t–it’s not your fight.

Despite all the John Hughes movies that taught my generation that high school is strange and surreal but it all works out in the end and the pretty girl falls for the nerdy guy or vice versa, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes the teacher is just mean. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense in the end; Molly Ringwald doesn’t get asked to prom and has to just go with that weird guy who was probably gay and not hot at all, but a good friend.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. You are Sampson without his hair; your hands are tied, you are rendered powerless, because it’s high school and you have to let go. Which is good and right: our job is to help them grow up from home, not jump into their lives at school. We pick them up and brush them off and send them back out there like Rocky Balboa’s coach, whose name I would know if I cared about sports at all.

Which brings me back to soccer, and the game that had nothing to do with the tears. It was about seeing my eighth grader out there laughing with his teammates as he played–and doing this weird floppy thing he does lately when he runs–and knowing it’s all ending soon. This darling awkward phase when he’s still a kid and I’m fairly involved in his life, even if I don’t know what a penalty kick is. (They seem to call penalties when any player falls down now? But isn’t that part of the game? Occasional falling?)

High school is around the corner and that goes in the blink of an eye. One minute you are wondering where to drop off your freshman and the very next second he is looking at colleges, talking about majoring in international relations. Boom. Childhood over. So of course I cried a little. It was like the time my daughter sent off for caterpillars, and we got to see them (Wanda, Trixie, Tracy and Glen) right on the cusp of turning into butterflies. The kids on that filed were short and tall and heavy and skinny and all kinds of awkward; one the size of a fourth-grader and one with a beard, but all of them wonderful. Mine in particular, as I’m sure all parents think. They’re all the kindest, funniest, smartest kid in the world, and pretty mom is just going to have to cut me some slack. “Hold on to this,” I want to tell her. “This is it. This moment, despite the dirty socks left on the floor and the forgotten social studies work sheet. It was boring anyway. But this, this is awesome. Don’t blink.”




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