Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stuff I Love: Mandatory Fun

It's February! Is everyone excited? February brings us many things: groundhogs, a holiday about love, and the promise of getting closer to the end of winter. This year we're even treated to a leap year - a whole extra day to really enjoy all that February has to offer. I thought I'd spend February discussing "Stuff I Love." I know I'm not Oprah but I feel like if she gets her favorite things, I get "Stuff I Love." That's how the world works.

Up first: mandatory fun.

What's that? You don't know what mandatory fun is? Mandatory fun or "Mandofun" is actually a military term.  It's something that you're "invited" to attend (i.e. told to attend). I don't recall my parents ever using it when we were growing up. However, I can definitely recall multiple events from my childhood that fit nicely into this category. This includes but is not limited to multiple trips to the air show and a picnic that included a group of mildly inebriated Army officers singing the Oak Ridge Boys song "Elvira." Memorable but not really what I'd call fun. In non-military terms, this could apply to things like a company holiday party or that really awkward happy hour you have to attend with senior leadership team members. Y'all know what I'm talking about.

It's also the name of Weird Al's latest album. I saw Weird Al in concert for the first time last summer. If you haven't seen him live before, make sure to catch him the next time he visits your town/city/fair hamlet. It's a fun show; lots of costume changes and cool lighting effects and multimedia elements. He plays a ton of songs from his extensive catalog including all the hits and some songs I had no idea he ever did. His band is awesome - they can play just about any type of music and have fun doing it. Weird Al's latest album is called Mandatory Fun and this phrase has become a mantra of mine. Given the album artwork, Al knows where "mandatory fun" comes from

Personally, I like to use the term to refer to those little oases in the day that allow you recenter yourself and take a little break from what's going on. I'm more on the introverted side of life and I find little mandatory fun breaks help me focus during the day. It's also important for me to have opportunities to be creative everyday. In my job some days are devoted to doing things like reserving conference rooms and updating whether or not a person has attended an education program I run. Neither of those things are fun, interesting, or creative so I have to get that elsewhere. Mandatory fun helps.

Over the summer, several of my co-workers decided that we needed to get on the adult coloring bandwagon and dedicate lunch once a month to taking a coloring break. If you're not familiar with what adult coloring is, check out this article or this one. Lots of people, including doctors and other mental health professionals, see coloring as a way for adults to calm their anxiety, relax, and create something. So for a few lunches over the summer, a group of us spent our break in a conference room, coloring, eating lunch, and chatting quietly. We didn't eat lunch at our desks for a change. We created a little moment of quiet and calm in the middle of busy, often over-scheduled days.

After our first coloring lunch, I started joking with people that I'd really like my title at work to be "Director of Mandatory Fun." In addition to having a coloring book library and art supplies at the ready, I have Legos available whenever anyone needs a building break.

It's fun to be able to spend part of the day coloring or building something cool out of Legos or reading or whatever else fits into your definition of mandatory fun. It's easy to lose sight of all of these things when there are deadlines to meet and people to train and other important work stuff to do. We all spend a lot of time at work so we might as well enjoy it while we're there. Mandatory fun doesn't have to feel like those company parties and military command picnics we're all so used to. Mandatory fun can be just

What other stuff do I love? Up next a special Valentine's Day post devoted to the best musical moments from Quentin Tarantino films. "Stuck in the Middle with You" is the obvious one but there are more surprises to come.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Pumpkin's Guide to Surviving a Blizzard

Y'all really love Pumpkin. Last week's annual "Answer Your Cat's Question Day" post was enjoyed by many AND several people have  commented on how much they enjoyed her photos during the blizzard. She should probably have her own blog but she is a cat. She doesn't have thumbs, can't talk, and doesn't know how to spell. I get the appeal. Pumpkin is super cute, a little bit judge-y, and a smidgen mean. She's basically the Gretchen Wieners of the feline world.

One of my favorite thing about existing along side a cat is that I'm not really needed. As long as she has food and water, Pumpkin can basically go about her day without me. She happens to like me (or at least isn't plotting my death every second of every day) so we exist together in a positive way. We sit on the couch together. Sometimes it's on opposite sides but we're together. Occasionally she cuddles on the couch with me when I've had a bad day. She creepily hangs out in the bathroom when I'm in the shower; I try not to disrupt her when she's sleeping by moving around too much. We work.

In anticipation of the impending doom that was Snowzilla2016, I worked from home last Friday. Pumpkin was confused as to why I would be home but not spend all my time paying attention to her. Obviously, if I'm home my attention should only be directed towards her. That's how it works. However, after me being home for three additional days without an option to leave I've decided that Pumpkin is tired of me. I've been around too much. I'm annoying her. I'm interrupting her doing her cat things.

After discussing this with several friends who have cats and one who does not, I got to thinking that maybe it was because I missed something when it came to surviving last weekend's blizzard. Maybe it's not that Pumpkin is tired of me; it's that I wasn't living up to her standards when it comes to having 48 hours (Saturday-Sunday) to do nothing and two days of working from home that could have been spent being productive but also more cat-like in my use of time. That, of course, means that I'm now going to share with you the only list you'll ever need when preparing for a future blizzard. I give you:

Pumpkin's Tips for Surviving a Blizzard

Survival Tip 1: Variety is the spice of napping
Pumpkin shared last week that science is the reason that she sleeps 18 hours a day. It's true; she is a beast if she gets less than that. The key to napping this much is to vary your napping location. Pumpkin loves a sun patch but those are going to be non-existent during a blizzard. Instead, moving from nap location to nap location does the trick. Pumpkin's essential nap locations:
  • On top of the heater
  • On top of the cable box
  • On my lap
  • On the bed but only if she can lay on my pajamas
  • On the bathmat (but only the one by the sink)
  • By a the second dining room chair from the left (the specificity is important)
Pumpkin likes to start at the heater and work her way through the rest of the list. Sometimes the bathroom and dining room chair are reversed but it's rare that she strays from the pattern. Pumpkin is an organized cat.

Survival Tip 2: Creepily stare at the person (or animal) in closet proximity to you
I read an article a few months ago that suggested cats stare at their owners as a form of affection. Eye contact is a way to show they're connecting to you. There are other articles that imply this is more aggressive behavior and it's only when paired with a slow blink that a cat is doing what's called a "kitty kiss." Consider this:

A little creepy right? By this point in your blizzard experience, someone has to exert dominance and a creepy stare like this one is the way to do it. Think of it this way: if you poorly planned your food or alcohol supply for the blizzard, someone is not getting that last Oreo or glass of wine. Exert your dominance with a creepy stare.

Survival Tip 3: Rearrange your surroundings
Being stuck at home really makes a person consider their surroundings. Is my couch in the right place? Do I believe in feng shui enough to rearrange everything? Should I hang that painting that I bought because it's fun and bright and not because I know anything about buying art?

It can also be helpful to knock things off tables every now and then. See how that stack of papers or those pens look on the floor. Where you drinking that cup of tea? It looks better if the cup is moved just a bit more to the right and then completely on the floor.

Cats know a lot about interior design.

Survival Tip 4: Indulge wisely
Everyone does it: you go to the store to buy your storm supplies (milk, bread, eggs, soup, mac and cheese) and as you walk the aisles you add snacks and special treats to get you through however many days you might be snowed in. Pretty soon you've got a bag of Cheetos, mini Hershey candies, Stouffer's french bread pizza, and queso dip because you need it. Add to it your alcohol of choice and that storm supply list soon becomes a storm party supply list.

Special treats are great and we all need to indulge sometimes. Just remember to pace yourself and enjoy those treats in moderation. Cat vomit is just as gross whether there's blizzard or not.

Survival Tip 5: Plan your entertainment in advance
No you may not watch Troop Beverly Hills again.
Like binge watching tv shows on Netflix? Want to watch every Quentin Tarantino movie in order of release? Enjoying movies set in the tropics to make yourself feel better about the storm outside? This is all fine and good but remember to plan what you're going to watch before the storm begins.

This is particularly important if you are snowed in with other people. Sometimes Troop Beverly Hills is exactly the movie everyone wants to watch; most of the time it's not. So if you want to avoid arguments over the remote or a horrifying realization that you might be featured on an episode of Hoarders in the future, make sure everyone gets a vote. Can't agree on a movie or show? Read a book.

Follow these tips and you'll be able to weather any blizzard or other weather event that keeps you stuck at home for more than a day or two. You can trust Pumpkin; she would never steer you wrong.

Are you sure you don't have somewhere else to be? The blizzard isn't that bad.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Island of Misfit Toys Fifth Annual Answer Your Cat's Questions Day

It's January so it must be time for our annual tradition of celebrating Answer Your Cat's Questions Day! Last year we tackled important questions like why I blocked the sunshine (you know, put up curtains), whether Jack White is a vampire, and solved the mystery of the big, red fabric monster (my new couch). This year, we tackle snow, working from home, and terrible additions to the English language. I hope she appreciates my attempts to answer her questions. If not, there's always next year.

1. What is snow and why can't I catch it? 
Snow is a form of precipitation that occurs during the winter months in many places in the world including where we live in Virginia. In the greater DMV, snow is something that strikes fear in the hearts of all residents forcing them to raid the shelves at local grocery stores as if they will never be able to leave their homes again. It also causes people to drive even worse than they already do (if you can imagine) even when there's no accumulation or reason to act like a moron. For kids, snow typically means a snow day and is something to look forward to and enjoy since school is canceled and it's okay that you didn't study for that Algebra test.

You live indoors and snow happens outdoors so you will never be able to catch the snow. You can spend all day batting your little paws at the window but the snow will always win. You should probably just take a nap.

2. Why are you home but not paying attention to me? It doesn't make any sense.
Today is a work from home day; something I rarely do but maybe should consider more often. Since I didn't take the day off, I'm not sick, and I have a ton of work to do, paying attention to you is not on my priority list until the afternoon. I promise at lunchtime and after 3 pm (when I move from my uncomfortable "office" at the dining room table to the couch) I will pay attention to you. Also keep in mind since all of the snow ever will be falling on Saturday, I won't be able to leave and we can hang out all day. Or you can choose to ignore me as is your preferred way of operating.

3. Can I have the shiny, warm box that makes click-y noises and you seem rather attached to? I mean, isn't all your stuff actually my stuff?
We have discussed the computer before. You're not allowed to have the computer and it would be really great if you could not lay on it, sit on it, or try to bat the mouse around like a toy. It's not a "mouse" in the way that you understand the word. And let's not pretend that you're "helping" me; you're not helping me in any way shape or form. Think of it this way, if you don't "help" me I can probably get work done faster which means I can focus my attention on your for the rest of the day. You decide which option you'd like more.

4. I was wondering about the other house that I sometimes have to go to. I suspect they're feeding other cats. Have I been replaced?
How did you find out about the other cats? Yes, you're right my parents have become the neighborhood cat feeders. Being a stop on the hobo bird trail was not enough for them so they've added stray cats to the mix. You haven't been replaced since the cats aren't allowed indoors, don't seem to like my parents, and are basically just part of the wild kingdom that exists in the backyard. Mom did make the mistake of naming one of them (Grey Poupon) but that doesn't mean she likes you less. Remember, you're the one they hand feed treats.

5. What is this magical covering on the bed? Why do you ever leave? It's so cozy.
Flannel sheets are the best aren't they? It's finally cold enough to use them so let's enjoy it while we can. Soon enough I'll be complaining about how hot it is and that summer is the worst.

6. Why did you make me watch The Real Housewives of Potomac
Did you really watch the show or were you napping? I agree though; it is rough to watch. I have to give it an episode or two more just to make sure I'm not passing judgement too soon. I also want to see how many times the word "etiquette" is used; that might be enough to keep me hooked for the entire season.

7. Did you know I actually need to sleep for 16-20 hours a day? It's science
You know about science now? That's awesome. I know that if you don't get your 18 hours you are a challenge to be around. Please, sleep away the day. I'll also let my mom know; she's always concerned that you sleep to much when you visit but she'll be fine once she knows that it's science and all. Also, you should consider making her your napping buddy the next time you stay there.

8. What does #squadgoals mean and can I scratch a person if they say it in front of me? 
You probably shouldn't scratch anyone for something they say; that's not really the way things work in a civil society (which apparently is what we live in). It's a stupid phrase and frankly, is one more thing in the world that adds unnecessary pressure to life. Instead of scratching I would suggest you use your best "I'm judging you" face the next time you hear someone say it and mean it.

9. Can I drive the car some time?
I'm going to say no to this one. There was a sketch from the good years of Saturday Night Live called "Toonces the Driving Cat." Toonces was not a very good driver and I have a feeling you would be an equally terrible driver. So no, you may not drive the car some time.

10. May I go about doing cat things now? Are we done?
When did you get manners? All of the sudden it's "may I" - that's very unlike you. It makes me think that you're up to something. Do you have plans to climb on top of the refrigerator and not be able to get down? Or maybe you're going to knock things off the table all day? Your politeness is suspicious but by all means go about your day and your cat things.

Have a question that you think Pumpkin would like answered? Add it in the comments and I'll do my best to get her an answer.

Christmas gift from a thoughtful and hilarious friend.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

You're Doing Everything Wrong: Cooking Edition

I used to watch the Food Network obsessively. Favorite shows included Next Food Network Star, Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Barefoot Contessa, and Giada at Home. I miss the Neelys (I hear they've separated - sad) and have a love/hate relationship with Bobby Flay. I used to subscribe to Food Network Magazine (everyone should thank them for teaching me how to make homemade pop tarts) and I feel like I've honed my knife skills watching some of these chefs. I've probably seen every episode of DDD at least twice and I dislike Guy Fieri intensely. My favorite moment is when he makes some comment about the portion size he's been served. Seriously dude? Have to you been to your own restaurants?

However, about a year ago I stopped watching any Food Network programming. I'd occasionally re-watch an episode or two of DDD because it is literally always on. Occasionally I'll catch an episode of Barefoot Contessa if I got home from work early. When I watch this show I often dream of working from home and/or not having a day job so that I can just watch reruns. I can't not watch Ina. It would be wrong. It would be like buying not good olive oil.

Watching Food Network shows made me hungry but since I don't love cooking, it seemed silly to watch it so much. Baking I love, cooking is just kind of meh to me. Don't get me wrong, I love food. Food is wonderful and usually very delicious but I find cooking for one to be a huge pain. I either end up eating the same thing for days (not every recipe can be halved or more), freezing leftovers and never eating them, or thinking I'm going to eat them but then I don't. It seems like a waste despite the fact that I'm a decent cook (with recipes) and I almost always like what I make. And yes, I've tried recipes for one or two people; they're not any better. Some are downright gross. It's like cutting a recipe down steals a little of its soul.

I decided over the winter break that I would try to do better with my cooking this year. My goal includes trying new recipes, cooking for the week on the weekend (like so many of my responsible friends do), trying ingredients I don't normally use, and being better at meal planning. I gave myself one week to get back into things at work and devoted last weekend to cooking. I'm proud to say that I made two of the three recipes I planned plus brown rice to use throughout the week (properly portioned of course) and I chopped vegetables. I don't know what to do with myself.

So what did I make? I busted out my trusty crock pot for a delicious sloppy Joe recipe using ground turkey (my favorite) and mushrooms and the food processor. The most shocking event of the weekend: I made homemade veggie burgers featuring...sweet potatoes. I know, it's crazy. I've never liked sweet potatoes. When I tell people this they either agree with me enthusiastically or they look at me like I just kicked a puppy on national tv. Apparently, everyone has to love sweet potatoes like everyone has to watch Game of Thrones. Sweet potatoes are too grainy and a little too sweet for being a member of the potato family. I'm not a huge fan of sweet foods for dinner so I was surprised that I even thought this would be a good idea. Who do I have to thank for this new addition to my life?

Trisha Yearwood.

Yep, the country singer turned Food Network and cookbook star is the reason I'm on way to coming to terms with my relationship with sweet potatoes. I've seen her show once or twice before but was never a regular viewer. Trisha was focusing on recipes that are good for you but feel like they're not and something about the "Sweet Pea" burgers she made caught my attention. The recipe combines sweet potatoes and chickpeas (my absolute favorite) into a a delicious burger that does feel sort of decadent even though it's not really bad for you. The comments on the recipe were helpful; this is definitely a recipe you can cut if needed and I followed the instructions for freezing the leftovers. Good stuff. I tried the first one with a bun but I don't think it actually needs it so next time just some toppings. Now I don't think I'm ever going to enjoy a sweet potato on its own or baked with marshmallows (seriously?) but I can enjoy this dish and it's a nice addition to my recipe repertoire. What could be better than that? (Please say this in your best Ina Garten voice.)

I planned to make a pizza with a cauliflower crust but this, I'm sad to report, I'm still doing wrong. It was a lot of things but edible was not one of them. I'm going to chalk it up to poor recipe choice and focus on the successes of the week instead. I love cauliflower so my next goal is to try cauliflower fried rice via one of those addictive Tasty videos that seem to be all over Facebook these days. There's something mesmerizing about those videos; if I didn't have a job or a life I could imagine being sucked into watching them all day.

Thank you Trisha Yearwood and blogger Jen Nikolaus and for inspiring me to start 2016 a little healthier and a bit more adventurous. I vow to continue to enjoy the sweet potato in ways I find acceptable and to try new recipes and meal plan like a boss. I will make my lunch in advance and not get talked into not eating it.

How easy was that? (Again use your best Ina voice - it's so much fun!).

This week's menu: Slow Cooker Chana Masala and something with chicken (don't know what yet). 

Ina Garten meme

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Song Went On Forever

"And he was alright, the band was all together. 
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever."
"Lady Stardust" by David Bowie

As I left my apartment building Monday morning, I was stopped in my tracks in the lobby by something I didn't expect to ever hear, "David Bowie has died." I stopped, dropped my bags, and stood watching the television in the lobby turned to The Today Show. I did what any modern person would do and got out my phone to check to make sure the show was reporting accurate information. His family was confirming along with other media outlets. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie was gone.

And the stars look very different today.

I am sad. I cried when I found out and when a friend checked on me later in the morning. I've never met David Bowie, never saw him perform live but his music has and always will mean something to me. It's the music of growing up and finding yourself and imagining yourself as the rock star. It is about reinvention and boundaries, both pushing them and deciding how to deal with them. And creativity - the bounds of his creativity are just unfathomable to me. 

My aunt introduced me to David Bowie but I know that when she did I was still too wrapped up in boy bands (because everyone has a boy band phase or equivalent) to care. It wasn't until seeing The Breakfast Club for the first that I really decided Bowie was someone I should listen to. I know this is true because I bought the soundtrack to the movie and Hunky Dory (the album that gave us "Changes") around the same time. A song lyric is a song lyric until it's something else entirely.

While Hunky Dory was my first Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is and will forever be my favorite Bowie album. The album was released in 1972 and Bowie has said that he was influenced to write about the artificial nature of stardom sometimes being more real than reality. In the liner notes for the 30th anniversary edition of the album (released in 2002), Bowie talks about some of the influences for the Ziggy Stardust character including Lou Reed's replacement in the Velvet Underground (whom Bowie mistook for Lou backstage) and Vince Taylor, "the French Elvis Presley." Taylor's onstage breakdown can clearly be seen in the songs where Ziggy breaks up the band. The album is about the artificial nature of rock stardom as much as it is about this character Ziggy Stardust. It's considered to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time.

I had a cassette tape version of the album in high school but got it on CD for the first time in 1999 when the first 2 CD special edition was released. It was a Christmas present from my parents and I remember that one of the CDs was missing and I was a little jerk about getting it replaced (sorry Mom and Dad). Once I did get the new complete copy I listened to it a lot so much that I've had to replace it twice since. I love the story of Ziggy Stardust; it's so easy to visualize the characters and the story BUT you can also take the songs alone. I found comfort in Ziggy Stardust in college much as I did in high school. I love the music and the lyrics; I can listen to this album on repeat for hours and find new things to love every time. It was not like anything I had heard before (or would hear after). "Lady Stardust", "Moonage Daydream", "Starman", and "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" are my favorite songs off the album; "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide" is my favorite Bowie song. I'd like it played at my funeral.

Over the years I've collected other albums and songs (on CD and vinyl), replaced Ziggy Stardust a third time, and bought books about Bowie including Marc Spitz's 2009 release Bowie: A Biography (I highly recommend it even for a casual fan). I have several Record Store Day releases from over the years and a 1979 promo LP that DJs were given. It is, to this day, the most expensive album I have ever purchased ($60). I eagerly awaited the release of The Next Day in 2013 and was as surprised as everyone else when Blackstar came out last Friday. We'll get back to them in a few minutes.

After Ziggy Stardust, I never really loved a full Bowie album the same way but found songs off of almost every other album that I love ferociously. My top five Bowie songs are:
  1. "Rock 'N' Roll Suicide"
  2. "Heroes"
  3. "Life On Mars"
  4. "Rebel Rebel"
  5. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"
That last one might come as a surprise but it's an awesome song. It's from a terrible 1980s remake of the movie Cat People but if you can get past the synthesizers at the beginning, it's an epic anthem of sorts. I've loved this song since I saw the movie in the late 90s but moved it to my top five after Quentin Tarantino used it in Inglorious Bastards in one of my favorite uses of music in his films (I'll be sharing more about this in an upcoming post just in time for Valentine's Day). If you've never heard the song before you can watch the video from Cat People here or Tarantino here. Seriously, if I were a superhero I'd want this to be my theme song.

There are tons of other songs I could talk about but we don't have all night. I enjoyed The Next Day; I knew I would but at the same time there's always that fear that new stuff could end up being terrible. It feels like a David Bowie album like Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust but different at the same time. My favorite song, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" has a "Space Oddity" feel to it without being a mimic. The title track is one that I could imagine myself dancing to at a club if I was the kind of person who went to clubs to dance. The lyrics are aggressive which I like a lot.

Blackstar is stunning. I think that word has been used by everyone who's written about it since its release and Bowie's death. Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer, has described it as "a final gift" to fans and I think he's spot on. I've only been able to listen to it once all the way through since Monday because it made me cry. It's very different and there's a lot to listen to in seven songs. I think that's what's most powerful about it; until the end David Bowie was doing exactly what he wanted and making something beautiful and amazing.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Return to Transient Suburbia

Happy 2016! I hope everyone had the best week ever getting back to work and school and whatever else you do. I thought I'd kick 2016 off with a new chapter from my novel Transient Suburbia. I mentioned in a recent post that my goal for this year is to finish the novel (I finished the first draft during NaNoWriMo 2014) and to publish it in some way. This is the second new chapter I've written but it's also just the start of the 4th grade letters. There's still a lot more to do including the 7th grade letters, more character development, a few additional scenes I've recently thought of, and the thing I'm most nervous/excited about, writing some songs for the band. 

This chapter picks up right after Harper and Ben begin their friendship as pen pals in the 4th grade. You'll have to imagine a poorly drawn Christmas tree towards the end. 

You can relive the magic of previous chapters HERE

Chapter Five

1988-1989, Fourth Grade

    Dear Ben,                        September 30, 1988
    I got your first letter after I sent my first letter so I couldn’t answer your questions. Hopefully, you’ve gotten my letter by now. How are you? How’s school? What kinds of music do you play?
    I don’t play sports either but it’s because I don’t like them. My older brother plays baseball. I guess he’s pretty good. I go to games and cheer for him with my parents. My sister goes with us but she always sits with her friends. I don’t play with Barbies but I do have Jem and the Holograms dolls. I mostly build stuff with Legos and read. My friends and I like to roller skate.
    Did you finish “James and the Giant Peach” yet? I read the end last night. My mother never should have bought me a reading light. I always stay up past bedtime reading. Miss Spider is my favorite character. I like the part where James rescues Centipede from the ocean - it was scary but exciting. I’m starting on “The Witches” next and some Judy Blume books. What else do you like to read?
    What’s your treehouse like? Do you get to sleep in it ever? We can’t have a treehouse because we move so much.
    Your friend,

    Dear Harper,                         October 9, 1988
    Wow we both just finished “James and the Giant Peach”! That's cool. I like the part with the sharks and when the aunts get in trouble at the end. Grasshopper is my favorite. I haven’t read “The Witches” but maybe I will soon. I mostly read comic books and stuff my older brother shares with me. He just gave me some books based on the “Star Wars” movies; they’re pretty cool.
    My dad makes me play classical music. It’s ok I guess. I want to learn rock songs on my guitar. I’ve been trying to listen and play along but it’s not that easy. My mom says I can take some guitar lessons for fun this year if I keep up my classical piano lessons. I told her I would but so far no guitar lessons. Maybe for my birthday in December. When is your birthday?
    You like Legos? I have a bunch of them too. My brother and I like to build tanks and planes. He got a castle set for his birthday and we’ve been working on it for a few weeks now. We keep it in the treehouse. What do you build? Sorry about the Barbies; a lot of girls I know have them.
    Why do you move so much? We’ve always lived here in the same house. Maybe you could get a treehouse that could some way be moved. I don’t know how that would work but I’m sure they make them. My treehouse kinda looks like my house. My dad had one of those treehouses from the back of a magazine when he was a kid. When we moved into our house, he built us a treehouse that was bigger and better than the one he had. Or at least that’s what he always tells us. It’s pretty big. My friends and me get to sleep in it in the summer. My mom always worries that I’ll fall out of it when I’m sleeping.

    Hi Ben,                             Oct. 21, 1988
    Sorry it’s taken me so long to write back. I got chickenpox from a kid in my class and was out of school for a week. I didn’t feel like doing much except sleeping and watching tv. I had a lot of work to make up too. Chickenpox is terrible. I had red spots everywhere and it’s so itchy. My mom made me take oatmeal baths. Oatmeal baths smell bad but it did help with the itch. My sister made fun of me the whole time. She told me I was always going to be spotty and no one would want to talk to me. She can be really mean sometimes.
    Your treehouse sounds cool. I never thought to ask if I could have a treehouse that could be taken apart and moved. Maybe those do exist. We had a swing set at our house in Ohio but we had to leave it behind when we moved. My dad works for the government (I think I spelled that right). He works with the Army but isn’t in the Army. I don’t really know what he does; grown-up stuff I guess. My dad told me the other day that we’re probably not going to move for a few years so maybe I can get a treehouse.
Bye for now,

Dear Ben,                             December 15, 1988
Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday! You never told me when your birthday actually was. Did you get guitar lessons like you hoped? We’re going to Michigan next week once school is out to see my grandparents for Christmas. I wanted to write before I left since I won’t get any mail while I’m there and may not have time to write.
We decorated outside of our house only this year since we’re going to be gone. Both of my grandmas said they’d leave some of their trees for me to decorate once we get to Michigan. I hope it snows while we’re there; my mom’s mom lives on top of a hill so if it snows we’ll get to go sledding. It doesn’t snow in Alabama!
You said in your last letter that you’ve never been anywhere but Milwaukee. Do you want to go other places? We travel all the time; my dad loves an adventure and my mom loves a road trip. The twins hate everything. I think what I like best is watching the trees and everything pass by. It’s like watching a movie.
What does your family do for the holidays? We baked cookies last night; my mom let me be in charge of the oven this year. Usually that’s my brother’s job but he wanted to decorate this year. His name is Walker. We all have weird first names.
Anyway, talk to you again in 1989!
Merry Christmas,

(Drawing of a sad Christmas tree.)

Hey Harper,                         January 6, 1989
Happy New Year! Hope you had fun in Michigan. Did you get to decorate the trees? Did it snow? How was the sledding?
We had a regular Christmas. We watch Christmas movies and always decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. My mom also lets us open one present when we’re done. It’s always pajamas so it’s not that much fun. We go to midnight mass too. I feel asleep this year (on accident). I did get guitar lessons. I can start in two weeks.
You never told me what you and your brother like to build with Legos. What’s your sister’s name if you all have weird names?
Also, do you listen to music? What do you like? Please don’t let it be New Kids on the Block.

P.S. - I liked your tree.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Year in Words, or I Thought There'd Be More Dinosaurs

Happy Almost 2016! I feel like 2015 has gone by ridiculously fast. I guess people always say that when a new year is approaching but I really mean it; I don't know where this year has gone BUT I'm not sad to see it go. 2015 was a rough year, mostly professionally, for me so I'm more than ready to get 2016 going. I have a good-ish feeling about this year.

But before 2016 dawns, it's time to take a look back at some of the highlights of 2015. I was reading an article earlier this week regarding Time's 2015 Word of the Year (they picked "emoji" - le sigh). This article led me to an NPR story about the American Dialect Society's annual Year in Words list that includes words like "squad goals", "opt-outer", "safe space", "dadbod", and my personal favorite, "unicorn" (referring here to its use in business specifically around startups). This group will select their word during their upcoming conference. I don't know what I can do to influence the American Dialect Society but I'm begging you, don't select "squad goals" as the word of the year. It's a terrible concept that makes me rage-ful. Like "#parentinggoals" and "#relationshipgoals", "squad goals" carries too much weight. It feels like one more way to make people unnecessarily compete with one another. Just hang out with your friends and have fun.

I digress.

The articles got me thinking about the amount of words I used this year. I did a lot of writing in 2015; this blog, my NaNoWriMo novel, edits to last year's novel (two new chapters, almost 4K more words and more to come), two LinkedIn posts, and at least a dozen blog posts for work. For the museum, I wrote three full tours and four conversation pieces. I also have two to-do list notebooks (one for home, one for work) and the notebook(s) I carry for jotting down ideas, short stories, and other short writings. I like words and forming them into sentences and paragraphs and such. I have favorite words although I don't often use them in casual, every day conversation. I like the way "defenestration" and "palimpsest" sound but don't have a use for either word most days. I also love the word "hiraeth"; it's Welsh and means homesickness for a home that you can't return to or that never was. Beautiful.

How would I quantify my use of words? Since I'm not a particularly scientific person nor did I start writing this post months ago so as to have done actual analysis of my writing, I used a free online text analyzer tool that let me copy and paste text and would, through the magic of the Internet and math, provide me with some fun stats on the words I used this year. I decided to use a sample of my writing including my novel, Land of Legends, and the ten most read Island posts from the year (I selected the ten posts that had over 50 views; the highest was 69 views). Before I "analyzed" the text, I jotted down a few words that I thought would be high on the list:
  • Awesome
  • Rage-ful
  • Dinosaurs
  • Hallmark
  • Unicorn
  • Writing/Writer/Write
  • Friend/Friends/Friendship
  • Pumpkin
In my novel, I used the word "kraken" 47 times and unicorn/unicorns 68 times. "Legends" was the most used word in my novel (that wasn't an article or the main character's name) with a whopping 155 uses throughout the story. The most used phrase was "before the end of the summer" and I referenced my main character's name, Iris, 774 times. The title of the novel which is also a place, was used 149 times throughout. The novel was a total of  50,078 words this year to give you some perspective.

Here on the Island, at least in the top ten posts, the most used words were date (35), friends/friend (50), love (27), dress (25), dating (22), perfect (15), tomatoes (9), and movies (8). The phrase "date lab" was used sixteen times and I referenced "Lane and Zach" (characters on Gilmore Girls) five times. I used the phrases "is the absolute worst" and "I have an aversion to" twice each and the product name "dress pant yoga pants" six times. Sadly, both "dinosaurs" and "Legos" were only used three times each; none of my dinosaur related posts were in the top ten. You all seemed (I used "y'all" only three times) very into my posts about dating and pants so I'm not sure what that says about me or my readers.

I made a very conscious choice this year to not use the word "just" as much or at all and was pleased to find it was an infrequent visitor to my writing and I know it was almost entirely eradicated from my work email (I'm very proud of this by the way). I've also reduced my use of "that" (another rather extraneous word) and "also".

Words are interesting - there's another one for you. When was the last time you said "interesting" and actually meant it in the dictionary definition of the word? Honestly, I can't remember. My most frequent use of "interesting" is usually accompanied by a covert eye roll or a snicker. However, I really do think it's interesting to consider the words I use most frequently. I'm sure if I did a full analysis of the Island, "dinosaur", "awesome", "Pumpkin", and probably "baking" would be the most frequently used words. As a writer I need to consider my words and look for new ones to help me create those sentences and paragraphs. I've been working on edits to my novel recently (Transient Suburbia from NaNoWriMo 2014) and I hear a lot of myself in my characters, not as much as some of my other writing but enough. In this case, it's cool and it works. In the future, it might not and that's something I need to focus on as I develop my work.

Here's to a new year of wonderful words and ideas! And hopefully to a year that won't include "emoji" or "squad goals" or something equally horrifying as the word of the year.

Happy 2016 Island Readers! 

Pumpkin hopes you make smart life choices while you're out ringing in 2016. She'll be napping.