Monday, December 31, 2012


This is a year-in-review-via-lists thing I used to do on my LiveJournal every year that I want to do again. LiveJournal! Every year! Seriously people, I never let go of ANYTHING!

Best Concerts of 2012:
Okay, maybe I wanted to do this again because I remembered this is always how I started it off, and we didn't really go to ANY concerts this year and what the hell is up with that, right?

Well, this month I splurged and made us go to a Christmas concert with a gospel choir and the Oregon Symphony, which was badass. So at least I have that to show for myself.

Albums I listened to the most in 2012:
- Lungs, Florence and the Machine
- Electra Heart, Marina & the Diamonds
- The Family Jewels, Marina & the Diamonds

And look, that was really the bulk of it. My lists from previous years were normally three times this size. Reasons for revisiting this are becoming more and more apparent.

Songs I listened to most in 2012:
- Rivers & Roads, the Head & the Heart
- Pursuit of Happiness (Kid Cudi cover), Lissie
- Mr. November, the National
- Devil Town, Bright Eyes
- All the Rowboats, Regina Spektor
- Emmylou & The Lion's Roar, First Aid Kit
- Same Love, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
- Help I'm Alive & Gold Guns Girls, Metric
- Sweet Nothing, Calvin Harris f. Florence Welch
- Alas I Cannot Swim, Laura Marling

Also, I'm just gonna say it, I really liked that Phillip Phillips "Home" song that they overplayed at the Olympics, and I enjoy the new "Some Nights" Fun. song a lot, and yes, I listened to "Somebody That I Used to Know" too many times until I suddenly didn't want to anymore.

Best Movies of 2012:
- The Avengers
- Hunger Games
- Beasts of the Southern Wild ("In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know, once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the bathtub.")
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower
- Les Miserables

Best TV of 2012:
- Parenthood
- Parks & Rec
- Doctor Who
- R&B Divas (Most under-appreciated reality show of the century, okay)
- The Good Wife
- Happy Endings

The Most Upsetting Thing of 2012:
- See previous entry. Syria also continues to be awful, and Israel made me real mad, although it's sad that that isn't really new.

The Best Thing That Made Me Hopeful For Humanity & Politics:
- Everything that happened around the election. What a good night for life.

The Best Things I Did in 2012:
- Quit Target/Starbucks, kicking off almost a full year of, for the first time, only doing things I care about.
- Books 2 U: another library volunteer program I started working with; requires brief but intense bouts of work and bursts of nerves every other month before a presentation, yet it's one of my favorite things I've ever done.
- Was taught to doubt myself and then taught myself to stop it and like myself again.
- Wrote for AfterEllen, a lot.
- As a consequence of the above, befriended some of my favorite authors, and when I say befriended I mean "they followed me on Twitter," so take that as you will.
- Kept a working connection with the middle school I care about most.
- Befriended a lot of good people; in particular, Amy, new remarkable and supportive AE writing friends, Steph, and a reaffirmation of the awesomeness of Manda and Cat, among many other good, old friends. That wasn't a very coherent sentence but it's OK; it's all good stuff and good stuff doesn't always have to be eloquent.
- Spent time in an actual darkroom for the first time since 2006. Amazing.
- You know, got married and stuff, which if I do say so myself, was fucking awesome.

The Absolute Most Fun:
- Getting to hold my cousin's baby Kee in the hospital after she was born, and watching her grow throughout the year. Getting to meet my first ever nephew, and my other cousin's baby. 'Twas the Year of Babies I Actually Care About.
- A much needed brief solo day trip to Seattle for lunch with Ashley & hanging out with my dad
- Trips to Eugene in continued celebration of the return of Kim & Cliff to Oregon, including another Thanksgiving together
- Finally getting to take my mom to the tulip festival in Woodburn
- Watching Kathy graduate
- Summer visit from Manda
- That weekend with Ashley & Jennie
- Trivia Thursdays at Bare Bones, Team DTMFA
- Enjoying another lucky year sans any health problems for my children. I mean, our animals.
- Best random visits with Meredith, including Baby's First Zebra Cakes and the Tardis Room
- Speaking of the Tardis Room, mentioning "watching Doctor Who" in this list when I've already mentioned it in the TV section would be over-the-top geek, right?
- Watching Doctor Who
- The wedding thing again, including our extremely successful Portland Love Ceremony and the weekend in NYC before the Boston ceremony; our 'bachelorette' party the night before; the day of Boston Honeymooning the Monday after.
- Sam and Steve's wedding in Pittsburgh!
- Kim & Johnny's wedding in Martinsville! BBQ in Charlotte!
- Sara and Dave's wedding in Philly!
- A Friends Christmas with Zoe & Kim & Cliff 

States I Spent Time in in 2012:
- Oregon
- Washington
- Massachusetts
- New York
- Virginia
- North Carolina
- Pennsylvania

Things I spent too much money on:
- Taco Bell
- ice cream
- beer
- gas

(This list is the exact same as it was last time I did this with the exception of gas, since I really drove more this year when I could have biked. Bad Portland lesbian. And so we're clear, I don't really regret any of the beer or ice cream.)

Best Books I Read:
- Scratch this one; I've been doing a much more in-depth reading roundup the last few years with the help of Goodreads, which I'll complete soon. #NERD

Things I'm Looking Forward to in 2013:
Last year, I made a drawn out resolutions post in January full of emo pictures of myself, because I was feeling particularly 1) self-reflective, or 2) temporarily full of myself. Still can't decide on which one. In either case, this year I've made a list of really boring, typical resolutions that I'm actually super duper pumped about but which are literally too mundane to even mention. But really: super duper pumped.

2013 also marks the first year in a long, long time that we don't have a gajillion weddings of family members or close friends already lined up, or family members about to pop out babies, which all feels a little strange, although I already have a feeling some of this will change as the year progresses. Regardless, these are some other fun things that will happen:
- Another visit from Manda, very very soon
- Reunion for my study abroad group from college in NEW ORLEANS, organized by the amazing Erin, another cool-people-re-connection which was also a 2012 highlight.

Things That I Really Want to Happen But Who Knows:
- A small honeymoon-ish trip since we never really took one, to San Francisco
- Start a serious savings for New York
- Start getting serious about selling photographs.

There will inevitably be things I missed. But in the end, 2012 ended up being pretty damn good.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Charlotte, Daniel, Rachel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Dawn, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Anne, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Lauren, Mary, Victoria, Benjamin, Allison.

On Grief & Politicizing.

If there is one thing that is true about the entire world right now, and particularly the United States, it's that we are in a state of grief. Every last one of us. Sometimes, though, in our need to understand and make things okay, we forget that people grieve in different ways. I have been thinking about this a lot this weekend in relation to accusations of "politicizing" towards those who can't stop thinking about gun control (of which, in full disclosure, I am one). What nags in my heart about this isn't just the obvious pro-gun folks who disagree with the ideas, but the notion from others that this is the wrong thing to do at this time. What I feel is missing from this conversation, though, is that "politicizing" is in fact a work of grief in itself. It's not ignoring the tragedy at hand; it's one way of dealing with it.

For some people when these things happen, all they can do is wrap their arms around their knees, or curl up in bed, and sob. (I am often one of these people.) For some people, they get angry. They want action; they want to do everything they can to make things better--right. now. And neither--I repeat, neither--are wrong. And both are wrapped in grief. Both can't stop thinking about it. Both can't truly comprehend what has happened, and are filled with horror everywhere in their insides. Thinking otherwise also reinforces a common belief in our society that rage is shameful, that anger often lacks intelligence and compassion, that simply wanting to hold hands and talk is better. Yet people who are angry often want to hold hands and talk, too. Our anger, and our desire to turn that anger into action, does not make us bad people. If all that I've done for the past two days is post articles about gun control all over the internet, and all you can do is wallow in ache and not think about anything else at all other than the people in that one town and the children in that one elementary school and can't bring yourself to say much of anything at all about anything, neither of us are doing anything wrong, and rest assured that both of us are very, very sad.

(Maybe this seems like common sense and not something I should necessarily have to point out, but on Friday I had the pleasure of witnessing people on Twitter calling anyone who mentioned gun control at a time like this "human garbage," and that people who are pro-choice and support the "death of babies every day" didn't have a "right" to feel sadness over such a tragedy, etc., etc., all of which I felt was, you know, going against what our common goals should be at "a time like this.")

I've also heard, in another line of thinking, something I frequently hear when the entire nation is plagued by attention to one single tragedy: that while this event is awful, people get shot across America every day. Children were slashed in China, too, on the same exact day. Innocent kids and civilians are killed by our very own drones across the Middle East all the time, and no one talks about that.

These things are all true. Attention should be paid to all of those things, as well. Yet that does not make the overwhelming feeling of grief about this one event "wrong." Nothing about this grief is wrong. Every single tragedy is worthy of being mourned, and it is also only natural to feel more strongly about stories that seem to hit closer to home. It makes sense to feel more rocked by something that happens in our neighborhood than something that happens in Pakistan. It is not right, necessarily, but it is logical, and human, and we can't beat ourselves up over it. Our capacity for empathy and grief can only reach a certain limit before we all go insane. If I could ask my ultra-left-wing friends one thing, it would be to please, please, please stop pitting one tragedy against another, like one is more "worthy" than another of our attention, that one grief is "better" than another. Doing so only increases the feeling of living in a divided world full of antipathy. No one purposely ignores other things that are bad in the world, but we can only do what we can and what we know about. If someone needs to feel sad about something, do not take that right away from them. And just because everyone else in the country seems to be feeling sad about the same thing does not diminish the reality of every individual's sadness.

And when it comes to politics, I wish I could give a gentle reminder to the entire country that politics does not have to be a dirty word. It often becomes one, yes, but it doesn't have to equal greed or callousness. While a completely different topic, all the desires to "not be political" during this time evoked the same emotions I felt when my Facebook wall became a storm of people complaining about "everyone talking about politics" during this year's election. The comment that burned me the most was the comment that it "didn't matter" which candidate won in the end anyway. There are people who this statement is in fact true for: white, middle class, straight people. But it DID matter to me who won, because one could pave the way for my equality in society, and the other would veto any attempt to grant me my full rights as a citizen. I talked about politics a lot (and still do) because politics MATTER to me; they very literally affect my life. And I care about them even when they don't affect my life, because they affect SOMEONE'S. They're not there just to create a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy, or to raise taxes, although they frequently do all of those. At the heart of things, politics are meant to make the world better. And the belief that politics in that sense can still exist is essential to our country not collapsing in on itself. So if politics can decrease the probability of this happening again, even by, like, 10%? Then hell yes, I am going to be political.

On that "But there will always be evil" argument.

I believe in gun control for a number of reasons, most of which are supported by hard facts and logic and stuff. But the argument against it that gets me the most riled up is this "but there will always be crazy people" idea. That even if we didn't have guns, there would be wackos who made bombs, who took up knives, who would create something destructive and harmful and hurt people. The really damning thing about this argument is that those who believe it steadfastly hardly ever follow it up with ideas about better mental health care; it is more a "that's just the way it is" type of sentiment.

The first thing that has to change about this is the notion that the world is full of "crazy people" and "wackos" instead of "severely mentally ill individuals who lack efficient care" or "people who have experienced unknowable trauma" or "mis-medicated people who are not acting from their own mind but by artificial chemicals and hormones that have taken over their body." Etc., etc.

But the second thing is: really? This is your argument? That "Oh well, the world is full of shit, so, guess we can't do anything"? Is your belief in humankind really that low? Because that makes me saddest of all. What's the point of living at all, then? Of doing anything? Of ever trying to make anything better? Because there are countries in the world where these types of things don't happen, so does that mean that Americans are just made of nastier stuff than everyone else? There are no countries in the world that are perfect, no. But there are countries that are trying really hard to get it right, and being at least semi-successful. I know because I read about them in the paper, in my magazines. Why don't we want to try really hard to get it right? Why don't we want to be at least semi-successful? What if we were brave enough to believe that this WASN'T something that was "eh, just going to happen again, no matter what we do"? Because maybe it's just me, but the idea of Newtown being something that we should just get used to happening because "you can't change people," well, that seems like a pretty fucking awful future and I don't know if I want to live in that world. But I don't think we do live in that world.

So stop, just stop, saying that we can't help people get better mental health care, that we can't change the world from being evil. The world is not evil. I am not a completely naive optimist (though I know I probably seem that way to some); when I read about civil wars ravaging Africa and Syria and child soldiers and the drug wars in Mexico and the way people slaughter one another in different areas of the world, the word "evil" does sometimes come into my mind, and I wonder how such a world could even exist. But after my gut reaction, I know that "evil" is still a trick of rhetoric taught to us by religion and the media; that there is a reason behind every single one of those conflicts, a way that all those things begun and became what they are. The only way the world will become evil is when every single person living on it believes it is evil, that there is no longer any reason to love one another or find things that make us happy or to try to make things better for each other.

So stop using defeatism as your logic and your defense against the ones who want to make things better. It is faulty, and in the end, the people who want to make things better will win.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Coffee in PDX: Random Order.

While our departure date from Portland still hovers in the distant future, uncertain and annoying to practically everyone, I make slow lists in my head of the things I know I will miss about it someday, as I do with practically anyplace I have lived or visited or loved. For Portland, while there are a lot of things that could fill out this list, two recently have been sticking out: the houses, and the coffeeshops.

I used to be a Not That Big on Coffee, Although I Love Tea type of person. Whether through working for Starbucks for an obscene number of years, or from living in Portland for any duration of time at all, that has changed decidedly. What a bummer it would be to live in Portland and not love coffee and beer. The missed opportunities! Although with coffee, you could still sneak by and indulge in all the glorious coffeeshops there are to be enjoyed, as coffee is frequently only one level of awesomeness in these places. From the atmosphere to the pastries to the local bagels to any number of things, there's something for everyone, and particularly, there seems to be a shitload of good pie.

And when it comes to the best pie of them all, Random Order is undoubtedly at the top o' the list.

strawberry rhubarb
Strawberry Rhubarb: Be still my heart.
Random Order is right in the thick of Alberta Coolness, a street in the northeastern neighborhood of town that oozes with hipness and Young People Crowding Out the Black Folk Who Used to Live There. An act which is especially tasty with pie! In seriousness, while Alberta, like all hip streets in Portland really, can teeter on the balance of almost-too-annoyingly-hipster, and, oh-my-God, so-many-cute-shops, I-want-to-live-here, I learn more towards the latter every time we make our way up there. It's a tough totter to teeter.

You can get a range of things at Random Order which are available at most local coffeeshops, namely delicious coffee beverages as well as alcoholic ones. They add the fun touch of writing your name on the cups though, which always makes one feel pretty special.

Bonus: A slice of Kathy leg!

Sometimes I'm spicy, sometimes I'm sweet, y'know?
But then there's the real reason everyone goes there: the pie. Their claim to fame is the Vanilla-Sugar Salted Caramel Apple, which was declared by Travel + Leisure to be one of the best pies in America, and which also wins for Perhaps Gratuitous Number of Words in a Pie Title. They always have a variety of seasonal fruit/traditional pies (using only LOCAL ingredients, duhhh), and a number of tantalizingly fluffy meringue/cream pies, as well. Today, to fulfill my lingering Thanksgiving spirit, I had the SDF-PDX Salted Pecan, made with LOCAL BOURBON. We think local for our fruits AND our liquors here, thankyouverymuch.

And if all of that shit isn't enough--seriously, there is a LOT OF PIE CHOICES--they also then have a case full of SAVORY pies, full of all sorts of things that could comprise an actual meal, for those who don't think sugar/coffee/alcohol alone counts. I've never gotten to try one of the savory ones, as when I'm around sugar my brain automatically blocks out all other sensations or desires, but, they always look damn good.

A mother playing Memory with her daughter: seriously, this kind of shit happens every day.
Also included: half of Cameron Browne's beautiful beard.
Final thoughts about Random Order, if for some reason you aren't yet extremely jealous that you're not there right now: they're open late most days of the week, an occurrence which is sadly lacking in many other PDX shops. Also, their store isn't too large, in a cozy way, but has beautiful windows facing the street which are adorned with festively warm lights, and I love a good string of lights on a window/storefront. Their logo also features an ostrich, for whatever reason, and you can get a free ostrich sticker at the front counter, and really, on top of everything else, what more can you ask for?

[I'm planning on making this a regular series. Here are some coffeeshops I've mentioned before which should also be included: Speedboat, our local neighborhood favorite. The blog entry about it also includes 1) a somewhat hilarious, if I say so myself, table about the differences between being a young person on the East and West coasts; 2) a shitload of blathering about how I'm going to spend more time writing in coffeeshops, finished off with a comment by my mom saying, "Went here with you. Didn't see you write anything."

Other local favorite: Sweetness Bakery. A nod should also be given to the now-out-of-business Guapo Comics & Coffee, which I wrote about at some point somewhere. RIP.

This particular entry could also fit in my abandoned-but-not-forgotten series, Cake v. Pie? Because life is too short to not ask the big questions.]

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

31 Days of Places: Memories of Rt. 507.

The house I grew up in, built by my grandfather, sits on the top of a hill surrounded by trees. If you go down the hill on the gravel road, the stones crunch beneath the car tires as you break at the entrance to the main road, route 507. Turning right takes you towards town, towards school. The road veers slightly after a brief stretch, past the sports bar that changed names every few years, and then inclined again until you reached Circle Green. Circle Green was an upscale community of huge townhouses with views of the lake, a set up that didn't fit with the way most people in our town lived, but marring this high class environment was the stone building that sat on the right side of the road, across from the main entrance.

This stone building had been abandoned for as long as I could remember it, a squat, square simple thing. Moss crept over the stones and the roof; scraggly grass grew between the cracks of the square of pavement that sat in front of it, a semblance of what must have been a minuscule parking lot at some point. I had no idea what kind of business ever occupied it, if any ever had at all, but the inside was empty and gloomy, visible through a few front windows. I passed it every day of my life.

I developed a fantasy: this is where I would open my bookstore.

Looking back at it now, I know the structure was too small to ever host a bookstore; it could fit shelves for one genre at most, and a small town isn't exactly the place for a niche market. Add on top of that that it was probably never inhabitable in the condition it was in in the first place. But I pictured the mahogany checkout desk I'd have up front; the plants I would place everywhere; the cat that could curl up in the windows. I never pictured any other employees or a business plan or marketing or budgets; I just pictured that space being mine, and it being filled with books. There wasn't a bookstore in my town; clearly, there was a need waiting to be filled, and the abandoned stone building on 507 at Circle Green was going to be it.

I can't remember exactly when they tore it down. Maybe I was in middle school; maybe it was way before or after that. But one day it was gone. From what I know, that space still remains empty, nothing ever built to replace it; just that weed stricken square of pavement left on the ground, preserving the ghost of my childhood, nerdy dreams.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

31 Days of Places: Krakow.

The best surprise of my time in Europe was Krakow.

We were stopping in Krakow on our larger journey to Auschwitz, not too far away, and to say to my Polish heritage, "Hey, I went to Poland." In actuality I know nothing about my Polish heritage, but there's a bizarre American white person desire to pretend like you are close to whatever heritage it says on the books you are. Other than that, I don't know what expectations I had. I think I had none, which is perhaps why it ended up being so delightful. You have expectations about Paris, about Rome, about Amsterdam, about Dublin. Who has expectations about Krakow? The unknown can be a glorious thing.

There were a few things that were different about Krakow. It was far away, for one thing, farther than anywhere else we'd gone. It was the first place our Eurail pass didn't work on the train, a convenience we had gotten used to and which caused a bit of confusion once we crossed the border. It was also a place not many other people in our program went, which made it feel more personal to the four of us who made the trek (I think there were four of us?)--everyone went to Germany, to England. Not everyone went to Poland.

It rained the whole time we were there. While traveling in the rain is never much fun and I'm sure I wasn't thrilled at the time, the rain is now ingrained in my memory of it and it seems to fit right. The foggy grey shroud I now forever picture Krakow under only enhances my fondness for it.

The first thing I remember are the pierogis. We got into town kind of late, and once we figured out how to get from the train station to the main part of town in the dark and the rain, tired and flustered, we somehow ended up collapsing into a little pierogi restaurant on a side street. I remember it being small and warm, smelling of wood, and I immediately felt happy there, as we put down our bags and my feet started to dry.

Growing up, we had consumed box after box of Mrs. T's pierogis in our household, which we prepared in a way that somehow mashed up our Polish heritage with our Italian one, and in a way that's probably offensive to real Poles--boiled, and then covered in spaghetti sauce. Sometimes my brother was fancy enough to fry them in a pan with some onions, to which I believe the rest of us always looked to and said, "Well, that seems like way too much effort." The only variety of filling we ever consumed was potato and/or cheese. All the starches, please!

But in this pierogi joint--I know there's a name for this--pierogiera? That's probably just the Italian-Polish jumbling again--the pierogis were small, they were perfectly fried, and they were full of more fillings I had ever dreamed of. And covering them with spaghetti sauce really would have been atrocious, because these things were more than perfectly tasty enough on their own. They were divine. And lord, were they cheap. This was also one of the only countries we visited, along with the Czech Republic, which hadn't been taken over by the Euro at this point and the prices of these pierogis blew my mind. I paid around $20 for some mac and cheese in London; I paid $5 or less for these pierogis in Krakow. The pierogis were better.

I liked this pierogi place so much that I ached to go back to it the next day--I would have eaten there for lunch AND dinner!--but Sam insisted that, only being in each city for a day or two at most, we had to take advantage and eat at as many diverse restaurants as we could in each place. This was a logical argument, and one that she won. But if I ever find my way to Krakow again--and I'd really like to--tiny, warm, welcoming pierogi place, I will find you again.

My other favorite memory of the city were the sculptures in the main square. There were these disembodies statues that were missing limbs, or missing heads, or their whole body.

Some of them were angels; they were all completely disorienting, and disturbing, and beautiful. I sort of feel like the more Eastern you go into Europe, the less scared they are of showcasing all their weird shit when it comes to art. And bless them for it. I'm sure I saw more statues in Europe than I can remember, but without a doubt, I remember these the best.

The most famous tourist attraction in Krakow is Wawel Castle.

We went, and I'm sure it was neat. But to be honest, I had almost forgotten about it until I started looking through pictures. When I think of Krakow, after I revel in the memory of those pierogis, I think of those statues in the square, so piercing, so absolutely wonderful. It was a gorgeous, fascinating place--even in the rain.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

31 Days of Places: Washington, DC.

As the youngest, I watched my brother and sister leave home before me, subconsciously absorbing their examples. While I'd taken the various trips to New York City and Philly, the first city I really felt like I "knew," or that I at least felt a meaningful impact of, was Washington, DC. It's where my sister lived for many years, followed by my brother as well. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a tourist in DC, but there's something different about visiting a place where someone you love lives. They know the places to go. They know which restaurants are best. You walk around trying to see it not just through your eyes alone, but through theirs, trying to absorb the daily life they lead without you.

My mom and I would take the occasional weekend trips to DC throughout high school, a five hour drive from our house, and they were my favorite things. I've still never been to another city like DC, one so vividly divided: the DC of The Government, of The Tourist, of The Monuments. Then there's the DC where, you know, people live.

Both sides always seemed wonderfully overwhelming and fascinating to me. I've been to a lot of the major cities in America now, and population wise, Washington DC pales in comparison to a lot of them. But a lot of the neighborhoods, a lot of the landmarks in DC, the streets, still seem bigger in my memory, some more majestic, some more gritty, all dramatic. 

Part of me believes this is just because I view it through my heightened memory of this being The Place Where My Sister Lived, my cosmopolitan, smart, loud and quick-witted sister, where she fit in and where, as a high school kid, I still did not. A lot of the things I did for the first time in Washington, DC I'd go on to do every day in the other places I'd soon live, but they were all things I couldn't do when the weekend came to an end and we went back to Northeast Pennsylvania. This is not to slam Northeast Pennsylvania--I really have a lot of love in my heart for it and I don't mean to sound condescending--it's just that the lack of any of these things there made them even more exciting. Eating thai food. Going to museums. Hearing different languages on every street corner.

Thai Iced Tea.

All the restaurants we went to always stuck with me, from Ben's Chili Bowl to that barbecue place that had the five different kinds of barbecue sauce on the table. We went to Cosi, which isn't exciting to me now, but ten years ago, a place where you could MAKE S'MORES AT YOUR TABLE? Um, yes please! And that place that both my brother and sister took me to once that had the group unisex bathrooms. I had never even heard of Ethiopian restaurants before. That huge ass Cheesecake Factory in that huge ass fancy mall. Et cetera. And her apartments seemed so sophisticated--this part is still true. My sister's apartments will always be more sophisticated than mine.

But while I know that my exaggerated high school perceptions play a part in my feelings about DC, a big part of me thinks that's just how it is. In a lot of ways, there are things about DC that ARE bigger than anywhere else. I've ridden on a lot of subway systems, but absolutely nothing feels like you have suddenly jumped right into space than the DC Metro. And the sprawling Smithsonian Institutes? Please, those aren't just "museums." The Holocaust Museum? Not a museum, an all-day, life-altering experience. The last time I was "in DC" was for the briefest second last fall mainly to hop on a train to the airport, but Union Station STILL made me feel awestruck.


And a lot of those streets on the other side of DC, the side where the people live, they ARE unique in themselves, too; they do contain more grit and diversity than a lot of the Oh-So-White places I've chosen to live; the architecture is its own impressive thing. I still haven't seen streets like the ones full of those rounded pastel colored townhouses.

In the end, I feel that my sister's emotions about DC after living there for many, many years are mixed. Apparently, it can also be a town full of arrogant douchebags. (Seat of the government? No way!) But overall, as a place to visit, I feel DC is underrated. It's seen as this tourist destination that you flock to as a kid or as a grown-up nerd, but no one ever lists it in the same breath as Chicago or Boston or Seattle or whatnot. And they should. And when my sister disclosed to me recently that she and her soon-to-be-husband may be moving back to it, maybe, a little part of me cheered. Because I want excuses to visit it for a long time. And my sister always knows the best restaurants.

Friday, October 12, 2012

31 Days of Places: The Pacific Northwest; Rainy season.

It rained in Portland today for the first time since June. That's not an exaggeration, since Kathy renewed my long-dead subscription to The Oregonian for my birthday, so I'm now a semi-informed citizen again and it tells me these things. We haven't had a significant rainfall since June. That is a long time. While this has been a particularly long dry spell, it's not that unusual. 

Growing up on the East Coast, you associate West Coast cities with One Specific Fact. There are gay people in San Francisco. There are movie stars in LA. There's a lot of rain in Portland and Seattle. That's it! Geography knowledge BOOM.

This is slightly deceiving though, since for a good portion of the year here, it actually hardly rains at all. It's sort of all or nothing with the Pacific Northwest, which is a cycle that still throws me for a bit of a loop. There are two seasons: rain, and no rain. 

For instance, while summer is the typical gardening season in Normalville (Normalville being places which are not here), and people do engage in plenty of it here--this is a bad example because people really do live for the gardening--by the end of August or September, all the flowers have shriveled and everyone's yards look like this:

Our "yard;" ie., strange patch of grass in front of our apartment. 
Thank goodness for alienesque weeds, right?

Except for the fools who waste water on their artificial lawns all summer long like idiots, everyone else's is this lovely pale dead color. And then it's the middle of winter or early spring, when things are normally brown and frozen in Normalville, that the world is bursting with green. Because by that point here, of course, it's never stopped raining.

The rain today means a few things: all of the barely-hanging-on plants of the world rejoice, and I get to bust out Toby's raincoat. And believe me, he looks quite handsome in his raincoat. 

While the outside world has been drifting into fall for a while now, and my birthday has come and gone so I know time is moving forward, there's been something about the consistently lovely and dry weather up until today that dulled my brain and made these last few months slurry together. But suddenly when it rained today, it was like I could actually hear a snap inside my personal atmosphere that yelled CHANGE! I ran around the house closing storm windows; I felt rather cheery about the gloom and started planning out in my head how I could squeeze in more reading time through the next few months, more snuggling in my bed time. I turned on the heat for the first time. I had a rash urge to watch Christmas movies even though I have a strict no-Christmas-movies-until-after-Thanksgiving rule. I felt ready to rock this nesting, hibernating season! In other words, I went a bit batty. Because goodness knows, in no time, the rain will have seeped its misery into everything and I will look back and want to smack the giddy girl of today.

The rain of the Northwest is strange. It hardly ever downpours in a torrential way; although the rain today was pretty serious. There's only thunder or lightning once in a blue moon; it's always a cold rain. More often than not, it's not so much a constant rain as a constant drizzle, a constant greyness. And this greyness seeps into your bones after a while.

I've never doubted that seasonal affective disorder is a real thing for many people. I wouldn't say I'm affected to the point of a disorder, but after five years of living here, I can't deny that the long, grey winter affects me somehow. While winter drags on for even longer on the East Coast, at least snow livens things up, is different, seems exciting. While I know a lot of people who don't necessarily get amped about snow, I would prefer it any day to the neverending grey.

And so my knowledge that I would one day soon be not so excited about the rain like I was today wasn't even necessarily like a funny-but-unavoidable fact, one of those things that you groan about but bear it. It felt fraught with a certain anxiety. The last two winters in particular have been tough for me. I can't recollect for certain how the winters before that went, but for the past two years between the months of December and April, things have been rough, for a multitude of different reasons. And maybe it just sounds like an excuse to explain my mopeyness, but I feel that that endless grey must have exacerbated them. And while I'll hopefully not have to worry about those different reasons this year, part of me can't help but worry that the grey will suck me in again, will do its job of highlighting all the negative thoughts and burying the good ones.

So I'm trying to make a pledge to myself, on this first day of rain, to like myself this winter. To hold on to my self-esteem until the sun shines again. To funnel the grey into reading and writing, to catching up on TV and movies, and nothing else. I'm going to work and save as much money as possible. I'm going to try to get back into cooking. I'm going to be boring, but happy. 

Of course, if we could control these things, then SAD would never even be an issue, but I'm just telling myself and you, Blogger, that this year, I'm going to do my damndest to try.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

31 Days of Places: The Columbia River Gorge.

When people visit Oregon, there are a lot of favorite places that I never tire of bringing people to again and again. Of all those places, there is no doubt that the most repetitive is the Columbia River Gorge. We have brought so many people to Multnomah Falls that I've started a collection of photographs of people whose picture I've taken in the same exact spot, year after year. I've returned on my own countless other times, gone on a number of hikes and seen things even more spectacular than what you can see from the highway. And I never get sick of it. From Portland to Hood River, everything about the Columbia River Gorge is my heart.

Yet two of the visits I remember best are two of the earliest ones. (Like I said in another post, coming first often counts more than you realize.) The first time I ever drove through the Columbia River Gorge, we were nearing the end of our cross country trip here in 2007. And I'm almost certain it caused a fight. While driving across the country is an amazing thing, it's also a tiring thing. It's a thing of not having a regular bed for many nights, of so many hours on the road that your eyes glaze over. I imagine it could be even more trying when you have me as a companion: over-ambitious over-planner extraordinaire. We were so close to Portland. We were almost there. So tired, and so close to the waiting arms of our friend Zoe, whose apartment we would crash in until we found our own, so close to something resembling stability. Thirty miles away close, after days and days of plotting out our mileage by the hundreds. Most sane people would have probably wanted to just plunge on, as I believe Kathy wanted to. But no. There were these waterfalls I had read about. I wanted to see the waterfalls. I'd learn about the Missoula floods later, all the secrets this landscape holds, but at this point, all I knew were that waterfalls were good. 

This is a difference that will probably persist until the day we die: Kathy is a person who knows her limits, who knows when to stop and rest. This is not a fault. I have trouble with limits. Trouble recognizing them; trouble listening to them. (I'm the only one who's allowed to admit this. Try to call me on it, I will feel pout-y and boxed in. Limits? Psh, life is short.)

So we saw the waterfalls. To be honest, I don't think they blew my mind. I had already seen Chicago and the Black Hills and Yellowstone. My capacity to absorb was weak. I was tired. My limits shrugged. You win some, lose some.

But the first time the Columbia River Gorge really mattered was a few months later. My dad was the first to come West, late that October, and we headed out on the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway. It was the fall, is what did it. The fall makes everything magical. The light is right. And while the range of color here can never surpass the East Coast, ever, there's still something about the yellows and oranges that's very lovely, and it fringed everything that day.


The perfect drive.

As we drove, I felt the calmness in the pit of my belly that lets me know I am truly happy and where I am meant to be. The Columbia River Gorge, which I've tried to wax poetic about at many points before in various places and failed miserably at every time, is always where I'm meant to be. But especially, particularly, most wondrously, in the fall.

31 Days of Places: John's Italian Restaurant; Greentown.

Growing up as a small kid, Friday nights were spent at my dad's house, watching TGIF and waking up in the morning for Pop Tarts. As an older kid, the sleeping over faded away but I still always met my dad for dinner at least once a week. As we lived in a small town, the options of places to eat for dinner were few, and we made the rounds to all of them again and again. But one of my absolute favorite ones was John's Italian Restaurant.

John's Italian Restaurant was on Route 507 right next to the on-ramp to Interstate 84. Head West to Scranton; East to Port Jervis, or continue on 507 under it to the netherworld of Newfoundland and beyond. Right next to a big gas station, it was one of those generic restaurants frequented by truckers. And us. It was a big restaurant, big enough to have one of those boards with table numbers lit up hanging on the wall, unused but still there. It was separated into three rooms. You walked through the door into the first one, past the gumball machines and newspaper stands in the entrance, past a hall holding a claw drop and some pinball machines, and you'd wait by the counter that housed all the cakes and pies and desserts. The kitchen was behind. The room on the opposite end of the building had tables under huge curved windows that were full of condensation in the winter. We normally sat in the room in the middle. The decor was plain: gold vinyl flooring, red booths, red backed chairs, generic Italian paintings on the wall, the odd tropical houseplant. There was a coffee station for the waitresses against one wall in the middle room; pots of regular and decaf on the burners at all times; stacks and stacks of white coffee creamers in little ceramic bowls; extra silverwear sets wrapped up in napkins.

There were better restaurant choices, closer to town, more personal settings, but I liked coming to John's Italian Restaurant for one reason: the ziti. Like all these big restaurants, I'm sure the menu was also huge, but I got the same, exact, astoundingly boring thing every single time: ziti with red sauce. Not even a damn meatball or two. Nothing special about the ziti, nothing special about the sauce, other than it tasted perfect and I wanted it all the time. I'd pour endless grated parmesan from those ubiquitous globular shakers, and I would eat every last drop. It became sort of a joke, the way repetitive, reliable things become jokes. "Well, guess Jill's going to get the ziti." These jokes are never actually that funny but they are always good jokes because they remind you of the solidity, the roots of your life that allow you to be so hilariously predictable. You're lucky to be predictable.

Sometimes it was just my dad and me, sometimes whatever sibling(s) was around, although as I was the last to leave home as the youngest, I tend to remember the times that were Just Me the clearest. But the best times were when Grandma or Aunt Anita were able to come, too, which was most of the time. Maybe even sometimes a cousin, Jodi or Jenn, if they were in town. A childhood where your extended family was not a part of your life every week is a childhood I don't understand and one I pity. Aunt Anita was such a good talker that there was never a struggle to make conversation; you wouldn't even have to say a thing. I could just listen to her talk about whatever she wanted to talk about and eat my ziti and it was best.

The other thing about these restaurants that were close to the Interstate was that they were frequently open late for the truckers, and in a small town, not much is open late, so you take what you can get, you and the truckers on Saturday nights. I remember going to John's Italian Restaurant once or twice on the way back from a trip to Scranton in high school, with my friend Jenna or a few other people, sitting around and eating bread and drinking coffee even though I never normally drank coffee. We always sat in the first room, closest to the door, those times. It was fun, but it always felt sort of weird anytime I was there without my dad, without the ziti.

I tried to Google John's Italian Restaurant before I wrote this, but as with a lot of Google searches involving things from my hometown, it wasn't an entirely fruitful search. I found a website which may be of the right restaurant--it has the right area code and there can't be that many John's Italian Restaurants in Greentown, Pennsylvania--but the pictures on it showed a much more sophisticated-looking place, full of tables made of fancier wood and booths sheathed in darker colors and it just didn't seem right. I hope it hasn't changed. I would be really depressed if John's Italian Restaurant was a fancy place now.

That's the thing, though, with leaving your hometown. You forget it's a place that doesn't exist merely for your nostalgia. It changes, and you have no right to fault it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

31 Days of Places: Providence.

When I was in college, pre-Kathy in my particularly angsty days, one of my favorite things was a solo trip on the commuter rail.

The commuter rail that spread out from Boston was a glorious thing, a system that should exist everywhere: for a cheap price, often little more than a subway ticket, you could hop on over to North Station or South Station and have a sweet ride out of the city, a simple and easy escape. And it was so organized; there was just the one system, run by the MBTA, trains stamped with the T against a dark purple circle, no need for transfers, just get on and go south, west, north. I took a lot of commuter rail trips with other people; a lot with Sam, and a few with Kathy, too, later, and others. But when I got the chance, I liked to pick a spot on the map and head out alone, for all the reasons I always like to do things alone: to clear my headspace, to see someplace new, and to take pictures.

One of these solo trips spread to another state, albeit the tiniest one: Rhode Island. I visited Providence again later with Sam to check out the zoo--as briefly mentioned in Koln, we had a thing about exploring zoos in random cities--but I like the pictures I took on my solo trip the best. I remember it being overcast, which was appropriate for the film I had in my camera, 100 speed. When you want good, crisp pictures, when you want to capture action, the higher the speed the better--800, 1600 if you're super fancy. 400 is generally the standard for whatever. But 100 is perfect for an overcast day, for low light, for moody black and white emo shots: The grain is the thing. Of course, none of this really matters these days with digital, but, it still matters to me.

When you leave the train station--as all I ever knew of the cities I traveled by commuter rail to were what I could walk to on foot from the train station and still return in time for a decent train back to Boston from--you see this beautifully manicured canal with a lovely backdrop of buildings and a pleasantly cobbled walkway.

I feel like this happens a lot in cities: this one new, perfectly manicured spot. It's entirely enjoyable, yet entirely disjointed from the rest of the roots and bones of the old town. Once I left it, the streets seemed to wander in a somewhat haphazard fashion, and many of them had the slightly dilapidated feel that a lot of New England towns have. It fills me with this feeling that's simultaneously on the edge of depression and on the edge of comfort. It feels like so many of these towns are aching for an uplift, like the streets are just a tad too empty and a tad too shifty, stuck a decade or two behind. But at the same time that's their charm, and there's something wonderfully blue collar about it all. And all of it is perfect for 100 speed film.

Traveling places with a companion, or several, is of course always much more fun. There always comes a point in these solo journeys that I feel a stab of anxiety, or loneliness, or just a desire to be back on familiar ground. 

But still, the need to hop on a train, or jump in a car, or just head out on foot, by myself--with film--just for a short jaunt--will never leave me.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

31 Days of Place: The Dom; Koln.

I visited a lot of cathedrals in Europe, to the point where they started to blend together towards the end. Gothic arches, marble floors, stained glass, history and awe, yeah, yeah, I miss home.

But for some reason, the one I always remember the most is the first one I saw. Actually, scratch that "for some reason;" this isn't that mysterious; it makes sense. Sometimes coming first does matter. Coming first has greater sticking ability in my slippery mind. Sorry, Notre Dame. I remember the Dom a million times better than you.

And the stairs!

The Dom resides in Koln (Cologne) Germany, a town so close to the place we lived across the border in the Netherlands that it seemed like the first logical trip to take after we settled into the continent: easy, quick trip, but we could still say we knocked another country off our list! And what a perfect choice from the start: the train station couldn't be beat, and I love a good train station.

And then dominating the skyline, one of the first things you see: the Dom. It wasn't just the first cathedral I saw; it was one of the first things in general I saw in Europe, and no wonder it sticks in the memory. It took my breath away. So looming, so intricate, so dark. There were too many details, too many towers to even comprehend. While other cathedrals I'd meet later on seemed almost shiny in their clean bright stone, the Dom was sort of dirty in the best of ways: I remember the outside appearing like a kaleidoscope of varying shades of soot. This only seems right with these structures: they should look old. They should look intimidating. The religion they often housed was.

I can't remember the details of the interior. What I remember is that Sam, Kerri, and I climbed to the top of one of the towers you could walk up, and it was over 600 steps. Or something. At least. Or was it 800? It was a lot. I am clearly feeling resistant to Googling any factual information so I can present my shoddy memory instead. It was the beginning of a series of walking-up-towers-with-lots-of-stairs, but none felt as epic or as much of a real accomplishment as the Dom. The stairs, as with most stairs in towers, were of the spiral variety, the kind that give me vertigo almost immediately, causing me to grip the handrails until my knuckles are white out of a dizzy anxious fear. The spiral would pass windows, as in the top picture here, proving that the cafe tables on the street were indeed getting tinier and tinier. The room at the top was full of graffiti. I love graffiti. We paused before the descent, where the vertigo really kicks in, making landing back on solid ground feel like the real accomplishment. Anytime I get amped for a big staircase even now, a small part of my brain cheers for the memory of the Dom.

There were other things that made Koln memorable: I remember walking over a bridge--also a favorite pastime of mine--and there was a chocolate factory involved. And beer. Basically not much more is required for bliss. So many street vendors selling cologne in tiny glass bottles of turquoise and gold; Sam talking with German boys by the river; and of course, our trip to the zoo. But the Dom is the crown jewel. The Dom is what I want to see again.

I should note that as this is my first entry about Europe--and there will probably be many this month, and I'm already over feeling pretentious about it, so deal--I busted out my journal and my scrapbooks from the trip before opening up this blog post, all ready to cringe but secretly love the over-sentimental words I wrote about the Dom and the city of Koln. Turns out my first entry in my journal isn't until we had already returned from the city. I wrote sitting the next day in a chair outside our bedroom and talked about a mosquito flying around my head and how I didn't get a good night's sleep because we ate too much pizza upon our return.

So. Yeah. That also sounds like me.

I also talked about how Sam, Kerri, and I sat down and planned out the rest of the trips we wanted to take; our goal was to visit 10 countries, which, as I wrote, "made my head hurt." We did. Including the Netherlands, in fact, all in all I visited 11.

Boom. Almost 10 years later, just really beginning to count my blessings.

[And yes, I will make up for the days I missed this week while I was horribly sick, somehow.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

31 Days of Places: Los Angeles.

Once, when I was in high school, I went to Los Angeles for the day.

I can't remember if we left from Philly or New York, our two closest airport options to my hometown. It's two or three hours to each, and then a five hour flight to Southern California. We must have done two red eyes. It was the first time I'd been on such long flights; I remember my back hurting and scribbling in my journal when I wasn't staring out the window or anxiously half sleeping. 

We had a family friend who worked for United; they got special deals on flights each month but you had to use them before the end of the month. One month, they hadn't used them, and offered them to us. My dad and I took them. We could go anywhere in the US we wanted. We had exactly a day to use them. We chose Los Angeles.

I had never been to the West Coast before, but at this point had already listened to enough of the Mamas & the Papas to know the California yearning in my East Coast soul. My first sighting of a palm tree felt unreal. The sky was perfectly, cloudlessly blue. The thing I remember most, stupidly, is our rental car. Looking back now, I know it was just some crappy Chevy, but all I knew then was that it was wonderfully shiny red and it felt like the only logical car to drive in California. I was full of a teenager's-ideas-of-LA cliches.

We somehow crammed in all the most touristy LA things. We went to Rodeo Drive. We went to Venice Beach. It was the first time I had seen mountains behind an ocean horizon. It was the first time I had seen so many freaks with piercings and dyed hair and tattoos outside of New York, in a place that was warm. I felt giddy and free. We drove around windy roads in Beverly Hills where all the mansions were hidden behind huge fences, but it felt fun anyway. We saw stars on the sidewalk. And then we went home.

In school later that week, I was able to say the bizarre sentence: "So I went to LA on Tuesday." Or whatever day it was. I expected everyone to be so thrilled about what a strange thing that was. I had been around palm trees! Palm trees! I had seen the Pacific Ocean! Most weeks, the most exciting thing to happen to any of us was a trip to the movie theater in Scranton. But no one seemed to care. Maybe they didn't believe me, or maybe my bragging was just annoying. Probably the latter.

But I was able to hold it inside. I had seen oceans with mountains behind them, and my world already felt bigger. I'd return to LA several times, later, when I was more grown up, and I'd go through lots of Southern California emotions, good and bad, but nothing felt as magical as that day. Because I had a dad who was as crazy as I was, who thought that going to LA for a day would make a good story to talk about later. And it did. It always will be.

31 Days of Places: Pittsburgh.

This weekend was brief, like most trips are, and the time we spent in actual downtown Pittsburgh even briefer. A few hours, maybe. The time it takes to actually get to know a city, to know its bones and for its ghosts to always roam your brain no matter where you are, that amount of time makes every place special, every place unique. But I've found that in the brief moments, I've been to enough places now that each place, at first glance, simply seems like a puzzle of places I've been before. 

 Pittsburgh rests between the merging of two rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, which join to create one with a much less interesting name: the Ohio. Accordingly, it's a city of many bridges, including remarkable shiny yellow ones. When I see them, I think of another city of many bridges: Portland. When we wander into little Italian markets in an authentic-seeming area of town called the Strip, I think of other little markets in other authentic-seeming areas of town in other cities in the Northeast: Boston, New York, Philly. They are the kind of markets you can't find on the West Coast.

The first thing that comes to mind when walking around Pittsburgh is, "Holy crap, people really like the Steelers." We pass a Hispanic market, two workers sitting under an awning selling churros and fresh tortillas in the rain, a "Si Se Puede Steelers" Terrible Towel hanging over the side of the table. It feels comforting and familiar in the way that towns that are defined by a single sports team are, at least the ones that I've known: the Red Sox in Boston. The Tarheels in Chapel Hill.

We stay at a Spring Hill Suites still technically in Pittsburgh, but just on the other side of the Monongahela. The decor inside is exactly like the last Spring Hill Suites I stayed in, which I realize was in Bend, Oregon. Memories of being in the high desert with my dad come back to me as we take a jet-lagged nap and the rain continues outside, surrounded by hills and trees, some starting to turn in fall color, so different from that last dry landscape of red dirt and scraggly trees of Bend. We eat at a German style beer hall restaurant, where I get a dunkel, a "dark" beer that tastes the closest to the dark beers I had in Europe, that seem so different from the dark beers of America. I feel closer to Europe in this beer hall than I have in a long time, even if it's manufactured, even if everything is just costumes.

The majority of the rest of the weekend is spent on either a farm or driving along stretches of suburban strip malls, the combination of which made up my childhood, which was spent on the opposite side of this same state. In fact, even though my hometown is many hours away, and there are notable differences between the two sides of the state, the scenery and the curving roads seem almost exactly the same. The green everywhere is the same, the trees are the same, even the names of things sounds the same. We could be on the way to my grandparents' old house, on the way to Woodloch. On the way to the airport on the last day, the GPS takes us a sort of strange route which passes through a small town, slightly dilapidated, slightly stuck in the past, yet bearing a certain kind of dreary charm. It could be Allentown, it could be Scranton, and I feel weirdly connected to it.

In the end, all of these comparisons are unjust to the place itself. They represent not a place but the memories that a place triggered. Pittsburgh is its own town that exists outside of those connections it fueled in my brain.

What it most truly is is the hometown of a very dear friend. And hometowns of dear friends, even if I don't ever know them in a personal, just way, will always be important marks on the map. Because we should all strive to know our friends well, and we are all made up from the places we are from.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Notes to Self, Pertaining Sadness and Stuff.

In the midst of a rather productive day, this afternoon I also decided for whatever reason to listen to a mix CD I made myself in March of this year, a time when I was remarkably, deeply sad. I know I wrote about this sadness, or at least referenced it, multiple times here. And maybe it was a result of everything else today going so smoothly, but as I drove around town listening to these songs that helped me curl into my sadness like a blanket six months ago, several things became wonderfully clear. I've been feeling healthier mentally this month than I have in a long time, but this helped cement it. And since only documenting the bad things is never a fully worthwhile or honest pursuit in a life, I thought I should take note of these good things for myself while they're still clear.

Signs Of My Consistently Improving Mental Health, Mostly Assessed Through Music:

+ I can now listen to the Head and the Heart and feel a comforting, sweet shade of sentimentality, a feeling that I have always held within me and which has always led me to slightly weepy music, instead of feeling a simple bonecrushing sadness. This seemed the most surprising to me to realize of all.
+ Things with Florence are more touch and go, but this is okay. It depends on the song and album--Lungs generally feels empowering; Ceremonials is still sort of rough. But that one B-side song that I listened to in a specifically masochistic, beating-myself-up way for months: it's a good song, but there's no reason to make myself listen to it anymore.
+ That Gotye song now seems hard to listen to because it was overplayed, not because it hurts.
+ I think I'm ready now to absorb that Brandi Carlile album. Regina's, too.

Other Signs/Thoughts Had While Driving Around:

+ I feel equally 100% happy to be in Portland right now as I am thrilled about being in New York within the year. Earlier this year, there were so many times that I ached to be back on the East Coast, closer to family, closer to friends, closer to the place where I feel closest to myself, and there is nothing that will slowly kill your soul so surely as not being satisfied with where you are. But Portland, Portland is beautiful. I feel perfectly happy at the moment about everywhere: where I've been, where I am now, where I will be.
+ Along that vein, it occurs to me that I have maybe severely underphotographed Portland in my years here. I will remedy that, and will also make it a point to make as many Portland-centric blog posts as possible over the next year, to make sure I remember the awesomeness. I also yearn to return to the darkroom like whoa, but my finances probably won't permit it for a while. But when I do, I should focus on some Portland prints, too, for myself, for once.
+ One can examine the same exact things and view them in entirely different ways, depending on the emotions one is unconsciously (or maybe a little consciously) desiring to feel. This does not mean that any of the variety of different ways are worse than others, or that any of them are bad at all. It's just a good thing to remember when examining a thing, to remind yourself that your mind can play tricks on you, or that that thing may contain secrets and truths you're just not seeing at the moment, and that everything deserves time and kindness to be understood, or perhaps what I'm saying is that nothing can ever be truly, fully understood at all. And there's a certain freedom, beauty, resilience, and forgiveness in that.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Books That Changed Me.

Through the maze of the Interwebs, I stumbled upon this sweet video yesterday of bookstore employees and patrons listing the books that changed their lives, and it made me start to think about my own. It's hard to distinguish between just 'favorite books' and 'books that changed your life.' They can often be the same thing, but they just as often can differ. For instance, I frequently name To Kill a Mockingbird as my favorite book, even though naming a single favorite of anything is so hard, but I didn't include it in this list.

I view 'life changing' as meaning: 1) changing or enriching my previous viewpoints on a subject; or 2) influencing my life in a lasting way. Accordingly, while I'm mainly a fiction reader, a lot of these turned out to be non-fiction. In any case, here's my list of 10 that I came up with over the last 24 hours, that I will inevitably want to shift and add on to as soon as I press publish.

1. Matilda, Roald Dahl

In everything I've read about literacy research, the first book(s) you fall in love with influence the rest of your reading career. Basically, you might not ever even having a reading career if you don't find that "home-run book," the book that makes you fall in love with reading. For a lot of non-readers, the issue often isn't a matter of ignorance, it's simply a matter of having never found that book. Anyway, literacy rants! Roald Dahl was what made me fall in love with reading, and although I devoured almost all of his books, I paged through Matilda the most times as a small person. As an adult, I hardly ever re-read anything due to all my Reading Stress of all the books I have yet to read. Whenever I hear about people re-reading things, I always think to myself, "But, there just isn't TIME!" But as an elementary schooler, I don't know how many times I re-read Matilda. A tale about a girl who, after devouring every book in the library, can do magical things through the power of her mind alone, while rising above the idiotic adults in her world? Sounds like the perfect story to me!

Tied with Matilda is The BFG, which was always my favorite Dahl book in terms of pure imagination and fun.

2. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

I read this book of my own volition in high school for whatever nerdy reason, and it remains one of the most amazing reading experiences of my life. It was one of the first significant works of non-fiction I'd read on my own, and all the knowledge and urgent pleading within it fueled an environmental fervor in me that was really strong throughout high school, and which has continued in less stringent but still consistently present ways throughout my life, to the point where environmental studies was a serious consideration in both undergrad and grad school thoughts. Ha, funny me, thinking I could do science! Regardless of the personal influence activism-wise, I couldn't get over how well written and power packed the whole thing was: every page so eloquently said, so passionate, without tipping into sentimentality, and with so much solid fact backing up every single statement. I still have a hard time believing that anyone could read this and dispute anything Carson said within it, and I think very few people have. It is a masterful, near perfect work of non-fiction. Beyond that, or perhaps in direct consequence of that, this book, more than almost any other book, shows that Books Matter: the issue the whole book deals with is the effect of pesticides, DDT specifically, on ecological systems. Silent Spring can be cited as a direct influence for the nationwide banning of DDT shortly after its publication. Indeed, this book is often credited as kick-starting the entire environmental movement that swept the country in the 1970s. Not bad for one book.

3. High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver

Take everything I just said about being blown away by the power of eloquence in non-fiction, and apply it on a more personal level here. I always loved Barbara Kingsolver's books, and read many of her fiction ones, but for some reason her essays impacted me the most, with this older collection being particularly fantastic. While most of the pieces included slant political--her protest against the first Gulf War in Jabberwocky being one of the most famous, which I've written about in here before--there's so much of her personal life wrapped up in all of it. She intertwines facts with her own personal experience to make her point, and in the end this is what I feel closest to in my own writing. Whenever I finished a Kingsolver book in high school, I was always left with the feeling as soon as I reached the last page of wanting to jump from my bed and start writing myself. Commenting on the wider world by telling your own stories: it's what creates empathy between all of us. What always impressed me too was Kingsolver's ability to be researched, to be impassioned, but most of all be unapologetic. Her strength and conviction was moving.

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, &
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Yes, I'm lumping some books together, even if they are very different books, because they give me similar feelings. Both of these novels influenced me in the way of The Word As Art, in the way that I didn't know what the hell was going on half the time in either novel (although I don't know if Invisible Cities can really be considered a novel, but rather a series of vignettes), but I didn't care, because it sounded so pretty and wonderful either way! And as those pretty words twist around our brains, they take us to gloriously strange places we never knew existed. "Magical realism," they call it, which is a pretty good phrase. Nothing can quite describe the feeling a good string of words put together in a certain way can create, other than magic.

5. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. & Nellie Y. McKay

OK, so I don't know if including a Norton Anthology on here seems super douche-y or not, but oh well. As a lit/writing major in college, I took a whole lot of literature classes, but African American Lit was without a doubt the best one. "American" Lit, British Lit, all the others, they reviewed names and texts I had at least heard of before, but as I read pieces from this anthology throughout that semester, from slave narratives to Toni Morrison, I couldn't believe how many of these remarkable works I hadn't just not read before, but that had never been mentioned in any English or History classes in my high school. Basically, this class made me realize how white-washed our entire history and culture is, and maybe that sounds like a naive realization now, but it felt huge at the time. I'm still a firm believer that this is one of the most important books I will ever own, and will forever be an advocate of African American Literature being a REQUIREMENT at all high schools, let alone colleges. It's pretty gross that it's not.

6. Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, &
The Power of Reading, Stephen D. Krashen

In terms of my education/literacy advocate life, these two books remain the most powerful and important ones I've read. Kozol has written many books in his lifetime, but Savage Inequalities remains the classic, still touted by educational activists around the country. It is impossible to read anything Kozol writes and not be outraged. No, I take that back; you may be able to read Savage Inequalities and not be outraged, but if so, I don't want to know you. Seriously. I keep telling myself that I need to catch up on Kozol's other works, so I can be reminded of how important it is that we all give a shit about our schools and the society that inevitably reflects the injustices born in them. Less social activism, more research, The Power of Reading is undoubtedly a drier read but gives solid evidence for--uh, er, the power of reading--at every turn, and also disputes the effectiveness of the way a lot of English classrooms address reading. (Guess what, forcing kids to read shit they don't want to read doesn't work!) It seems sad that we would even have to defend the importance of reading in education, ever, but this volume is an essential for every librarian and teacher to have whenever someone challenges them to bring up research to back the sentiment. Because this book shows that the research is there.

7. Maus, Art Spiegelman, &
The Arrival, Shaun Tan

It seems cliche to even mention Maus, because how many essays have been written about how much Maus changed everything? A ton of them, that's how many. But I wanted to include graphic novels in here somehow, and being that Maus pretty much began the graphic novel genre as we know it, and as it was the first I ever read, it had to be included. Similarly but differently, Shaun Tan's The Arrival taught me the power of wordless stories. I've read a few wordless picture books, which are also always surprisingly effective, but The Arrival, while certainly far from being a gigantic tome or anything, took the artform to a different height and depth. The story of an immigrant and his family, it says more about the experience of being thrown into a new world in a shockingly powerful and moving way, while containing hardly a single word of text. Amazing.

 8. The Pigman, Paul Zindel, &
A Solitary Blue, Cynthia Voigt, &
The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier

All right, all right, I know I'm pushing it by including THREE in one here. It's a little out of hand, but, I can do what I want. My bestest friend and fellow book fiend Sam chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower in response to the "What book changed your life?" question, saying that it was both happy and sad; it taught her it was okay to be sad at a time in her life when she was quite sad, i.e., high school. Being as I also loved this book, and my entire teenagedom was also a big angst fest, I wondered why it didn't come to my own mind first. I started thinking about what books kept me in the best company when I was at my loneliest, and while I read Perks and Catcher in the Rye and On the Road like the rest of us lonely teenaged freaks, these three books, all written in the 70s and 80s, occupy the top spots in my heart forever and I couldn't leave any of them out. The Chocolate War is shockingly violent and angry, feelings every teenager knows well. In A Solitary Blue (I also devoured every other Cynthia Voigt book), the loner main character relates to blue herons because they're always alone. (Talk about the angst!) The Pigman, then, deviates a little from the other two because it's not about a single angry or lonely person, but two people--and an old man--being lonely together. And there was something about that sentiment that appealed to me most of all.

9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

While the previous three books definitely qualify as young adult (some of the first "young adult" novels in the modern "young adult" movement, in fact), I realized that I should include a contemporary young adult novel as contemporary young adult is purportedly "my thing," and it would seem strange if I didn't include one on this list. As this remains my favorite contemporary young adult novel, this one it is. I wrote a whole blog post about it once so I don't need to prattle on even longer about it, but listen, it is good. Sherman Alexie is wonderful, and important.

10. The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

Duh. Was there any doubt? And you know why? Because that feeling my number one choice on this list, those Roald Dahl books, gave me when I was a kid? Of being able to fall completely into another world through reading? These books reminded me that I could still feel that, at any age, and that that feeling is more magical than can be described. And that, my friends, is absolutely priceless, and the most important reading lesson that can be taught.