Compass, still spinning

I’ve been thinking about those times in life when you feel like you are on a mission, when the pieces fall like dominoes and suddenly you’ve got yourself a path.

I used to have a mission. I graduated from college with a self-imposed mandate to work in nonprofits, help with all the nonsense that makes this world uninhabitable for so many people. But my mission now looks murky… many nonprofits are sinkholes of in-fighting. I’ve realized that my greatest joy here at The Neos has not been fighting The Man or even the art itself but in the details — smartypants banter with Ian, power brainstorming with Oriana, teamwork extravaganza with Jay.

It reminds me of my last favorite project ever, working on the school magazine in high school. Both of those places have felt like a home, full of creativity and silliness, where I’m in charge of some stuff. Sometimes frustrated, sometimes demoralized, but mostly just part of a misfit crew that makes things happen. So, what I like most is working with amazing people on creative things. There is no grad school that will give me a degree in this. There appears to be no next step, no beacon that promises progress.

For our last issue of the school magazine we photographed signs that said “Road Work Ahead”. I can still picture the grainy black-and-white photos, printed on the school photocopier. Dorky and obvious, in retrospect, but also… still true.

Filling your staffing needs this summer

Help wanted? Here are some part-time summer jobs I can definitely do for you:

–Professional sidewalk cafe secretary. Maybe you need me to record who enters and leaves your sidewalk cafe. I will sit here with my laptop and record that. Also able to dog-sit for pups tied outside.

–Very beginner skateboard instruction. Learn how to go in a straight line without falling, even though you have zero coordination and bones like celery sticks.

–Busker w/acoustic guitar, specializing in the chords E, D, B, G and A minor, with the melody for the songs “Carey” and “Sweet Home Alabama” if you’re really lucky.

–Parking meter monitor. I will lounge by your meter, maybe with a glass of lemonade, and insert quarters as needed.

Also willing to train! Especially for my dream job: Hippie ice cream truck lady.

Missing things

Last week I was craving home. I can’t even describe it, a magnetic feeling, wishing for the curving, flat, empty roads, the fields dotted with scrub trees, the faded farmhouses and even the plastic suburban sameness of my neighborhood, the butter-yellow house and the Barbie pink geraniums on the front steps. I’d like to think I was feeling the collective pull of this even though I didn’t know about it, but I don’t know if that’s true. I just wish I had been there.

First Book

It’s storming out today, heavy curtains of rain, thunder and lightning, plus a few minutes of hail, for good measure. I arrived at work fairly dry thanks to my huge umbrella, a good raincoat and hiking boots, only to splash the water accumulated in my hood all over myself when I took off my jacket.

This reminded me of my first memory of a book: Thick cardboard pages, a yellow bear, an umbrella. The bear didn’t want to get wet so he kept his umbrella up. And when the sun came out he put his umbrella down. But then he fell in a puddle and got wet anyways.

Secondary thought: What kind of bizarre lesson in futility does this book teach developing minds and which of my many neuroses can I blame on it?


Bilal recaps the gaps in American media coverage of Iran and the beauty of human communication via any means possible: “The situation is ugly but the struggle is, in its grim way, beautiful.”


Every year in my neighborhood, the main drag of Clark St becomes a street fair: Midsommarfest. Swedish name, but mostly that means booths selling corn on the cob, hippie dresses, kitschy antiques, plastic cups of cheap beer and good sangria. Plus local bands. Really local, as in the woman from my favorite coffee shop, singing and playing guitar instead of bringing me tea and apple pie.

This morning I realized I’d been to a lot of them.

’05:My first Chicago year, about to become a teacher but thinking of sun and sand, hanging on Matt’s arm, downing frozen margaritas, a dizzy dream.

’06: Just finished exhausting teaching year, meet up with Matt; we sit on the curb, he hands me a pin with an Eiffel Tower charm that he found, we share falafel and talk for the first time since we broke up.

’07: The bad year; when all of my joints locked up thanks to antibiotics for a UTI (thanks, Urgent Care Clinic!). I only realized what was happening when the word “lupus” kept surfacing in my brain until I googled it and found that a sulfa drug allergy creates a temporary autoimmune response similar to lupus. Holy crap.

’08: Working at a booth for the theater. After a rainstorm, assembling our tangled canopy with K = short fuses, tent poles in the face. Saved by the metal cover band and Caleb’s art show.

’09: Gray day, uncrowded = good for wandering, found chips of metal in my frozen margarita from Simon’s, ran into Dan Bloom, so very badly wanted to smuggle out Ginger, with the sad eyes, from the adopt-a-dog booth, smuggled out a cup of sangria instead, for sipping on the back porch.

Returning her glasses

Third grade, school bus on its way home through the winding roads of Clarence. They weren’t dirt roads, but enough dust kicked up on the back roads in the summers that we may as well have been in a covered wagon headed West. I was sitting next to the window and this kid that I hated (we’ll call him Chuck) slid into the alligator-green vinyl seat next to me.

This kid — wire-rimmed glasses,gap-toothed, messy hair and a loud mouth — was a bully, and I pretty much always tried to avoid him, but when you’re both in a bus seat, there’s nowhere to go.

Something triggered it, and suddenly I was getting slapped at by this kid. I’d call it punching, but I’m not really sure this counted; some kind of weird hybrid tustling that kids do to each other. My brown tortoise-rim glasses flew off, and we were marooned in the back of the bus, so no one cared or heard, and I was pretty sure that this hateful kid was just going to keep this up until I missed my stop — a fate worse than death. But when Mrs. T pulled to the curb for my stop, Chuck stopped too, politely handed over my glasses, and let me get out.

The next day I told the principal about this, who of course called in everyone’s parents, and the adults were just baffled. Chuck and I had basically no adversarial relationship. Why had he gone ballistic and scared the bejeezus out of me? I’d made him drop his homework. I’d made him drop his homework? I couldn’t remember doing such a thing. The principal, a young guy — his first year on the job, at this point looked so confused, I suddenly saw that grown-ups don’t always have the answers. He turned to Chuck. “So if you were so mad at her… why’d you return her glasses?”

Chuck shrugged and was just like, “I knew she needed her glasses.”

This exact incident replays in loops in my life — I try to fly under the radar, avoid the center stage of conflict, somehow get thrust out there anyways, and in the afternath realize that people usually don’t have logical reasons for their actions. They possess bizarre levels of anger. They draw their lines of decency at all kinds of subjective, wacky spots, like — he wore glasses himself. He couldn’t fathom the impact of getting mauled at in a bus seat, but he knew first-hand what a big deal it would be to lose one’s glasses.

Swimming today: less buoyant

Taking swim lessons at age 28 wasn’t really bothering me, until today when one of the gym’s two swimming pools was closed for maintenance. Which meant that little-kid lessons were happening in the same pool. Which meant that a wee kid (7 or 8?) happy-as-you-please swam in the lane with me, reminding me of a) how some humans take to water naturally and b) how much it sucks to inhale a faceful of water learning the front crawl when a minnow of a boy is calmly going for his Olympic medal right beside you.

But I enjoy water. Being near it. In theory. How cool would it be to live on a houseboat? This cool.

Sensitive in the mail

I love mail. Real mail, carried by person or pony or robot, I don’t care — if it started at you and got to me, I’m over the moon. Yesterday I opened a hand-addressed envelope and (expecting invitation/thank you/congratulations on an award I have yet to receive?) I found a little packet of seeds from a sensitive plant.

This is a real plant. Not like, a particularly sensitive plant. (Though it is sensitive.) But it’s called a sensitive plant. And its delicate fern-like leaves close up with you touch them. They clench right up, like potato bugs do, but more taco-style (too many descriptors? do you get it? They just gently say “I’ve had enough of you” and both sides fold inwards.)

So Eliina sent me sensitive plant seeds. She had a plant like this in college and I have wanted one since, a moody, romantic, easily flustered plant. I bought one with Mark in Virginia once, at Monticello, but it was too sensitive and died. I’m going to see if I can grow one from scratch this time (like a cake? can you grow things from scratch? from seed.) and then we’ll see if it’s meant for this world.


Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.

— filmmaker Jim Jarmusch

Story development

My fourth grade teacher wore at least one ring per finger, flowing silk garments, and she’d dyed her black hair so that it seemed tinged with purple. She essentially looked like a stereotypical fortune teller sans the head scarf, and I can only imagine what my parents thought when she called them in for a conference and announced that I, the doe-eyed, skinny little bookworm they thought they knew so well, was in fact a pathological liar. I think this was in part because  I was getting out of gym class by complaining about a knee injury and thus interrupting her free period. But also, probably, because I was creative and it was actually very hard for me to distinguish between what I’d imagined and what was true.

I’ve gotten better at that. Thank goodness. However.

This past weekend I was part of a storytelling festival, and I wanted to present a piece that I’d been knocking around in my head for months. But I only started actually writing it a couple of weeks before the event, and I was hellbound and determined to get at the truth of this experience, which was in a nutshell: being slo-mo robbed outside a public school in DC when I was just two months into my stint as a do-gooder AmeriCorps recruit. The robbery felt more like paying a toll. We were there, trying to jump-start a volunteer’s car, and we’d overstayed our welcome. So, no big deal, just give us all your money. The manner of the two guys who did the robbing was like that of airport security about to go on lunch.

But  somehow, over the course of writing it, and re-writing this story, the essential truth about my dose of the messy real world was lost. This robbery sounds boring! I quickened the pace. We need some relationships in here. I invented some flirting between me and a composite co-worker. By the time I was done, I’d changed everyone’s names, eliminated two people, created  dialogue, and gave the whole thing an urgent tenor when the real fear was actually embedded in a simple paradigm shift, like finding out your gentle goldfish was a baby pirhana. In reality, I had to question the role of an outside nonprofit in helping a community with varied and serious problems. It wasn’t just a lack of books that stood as an obstacle. I had to question why I was in a long-distance relationship with someone (who graciously called a tow truck from hundreds of miles away, the magic of cell phones) but who could not relate to my day-to-day. I had to admit that I was a skinny/white girl who could be easily targeted for ineptitude, and maybe I should be on my toes, mmkay? There are other meanings I can’t guess at now, or that are so obvious I can’t see them, or maybe for all the drama there was no bigger message, and big-ticket meaning happens while you’re, I don’t know, scraping butter into toast.