stuff I’m enjoying right now

It’s time for one of those posts I do every once in a while about things I’m into, from no particular category, in no particular order.

1. The Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The book club I was part of in Virginia (I keep in touch with these friends and try to read the books when I can) chose book one, The Bear and the Nightingale, as this month’s pick. I voraciously consumed it in a little less than a week, and now I’m on book two, The Girl in the Tower. (I decided to buy the whole trilogy yesterday in book form yesterday even though I already have two on my Kindle. They’ll look nice on my shelf.) I’m loving this historical fantasy about pre-tsar era Russia, with its beautiful descriptions, nuanced and mostly likeable characters, and a fairy-tale quality that comes through in unexpected ways.

2. Audm. This subscription app allows me to listen to long-form journalism pieces from some of America’s most respected publications. It entertained me (and provoked thought) throughout most of my drive from Michigan to Pennsylvania on Friday. I’ve listened to articles (just to name a few) about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, why most Americans don’t cheat on their taxes, and a man who got out of a white supremacist group in Britain and started working against them at risk of his life. I also listened to a profile of folk singer Rhiannon Giddens, which alerted me to her new album there is no Other, which I then looked up and listened to for the rest of my drive. (item 2.5) It’s a haunting, minimalist album that I’m not going to try to describe because I’m already using pretentious music review cliches. Two thumbs up.

3. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)My mom is working her way through all of Adam Sandler’s movies because she and I are going to see him live next week–another story for another time–and I joined her for this 2017 Netflix original featuring Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Emma Thompson, among others. It’s about an ageing artist who has a chip on his shoulder about his declining reputation and, more importantly, who’s made a mess of his relationships with his children. Then he collapses and ends up in a coma, and the kids and his flighty current wife have to figure out what to do. That sounds unpleasant, but the dialogue is fascinating. It’s how real people talk. I aspire to write dialogue like that. There were many moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And the ending was pretty hopeful, believe it or not. Two more thumbs up.

4. Dirty Turtle at The Meadows Frozen Custard. Last night I made my mom go with me on a sort of summer-kickoff mini-adventure. I wanted to watch the sun set from a spot where I’d never seen it before, visit a war memorial (in honor of Memorial Day), drive with the windows down, and eat ice cream. It was a cloudy evening, so we didn’t see much of a dramatic sunset–plus we were nervous that the community park was serious about closing at sunset and that we would get stuck in there overnight, so we just did a driveby of the war memorial and then drove to a nearby housing development where we parked by a vacant lot on top of a hill and watched what was left of the sunset. But we did get a delicious frozen dairy treat, even though I was envisioning hand-dipped ice cream rather than the soft-serve custard that The Meadows dishes out. That’s okay, though–I ended up really enjoying the Dirty Turtle my mom recommended: chocolate custard with walnuts and salted caramel. I’m not sure why places like this think it’s cute to put “dirty” in the title of their food and drink items; I think in this case it just meant that the ice cream was chocolate? I don’t know. But I could definitely eat one of those again. FYI, The Meadows is a chain of custard parlors (? is that a thing?) in Pennsylvania and Maryland only (I think); perhaps those of you in other locations can suggest this flavor combination to your favorite local ice cream joint.

Let me know what you’re enjoying in the comments!

 

 

 

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a Christmas thought

This year, I thought a lot about people who had to spend Christmas alone, or far from home, or working, and that made me think about a scene from A Christmas Carol that hardly ever gets dramatized or remembered. The Ghost of Christmas Present, after having taken Scrooge to some of the bleakest places inside London, takes him to some of the loneliest places outside of it:

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped—whither? Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds—born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water—rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

–Charles Dickens, 1843

songs you should drop everything and listen to

Deeply embroiled in grading, I’m taking just a minute to share with you the front-runner for my favorite “new” (to me) Christmas song this year: “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band. This is an old song that I just discovered this year, and I really dig it. I’ve been realizing this year how much I like The Band. Over the summer, I discovered their wonderfully surprising part-bluegrass, part-zydeco cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”

Let me know what you think. And what Christmas songs are you enjoying this year?

Jesus was homeless

This morning while washing my face and putting on makeup and blow-drying my hair, I was trying to keep tears from streaming down my face. Let me briefly tell you why.

I was listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra song “Good King Joy,” which combines the tunes of “Joy to the World” and “Good King Wenceslas” (the moderately obscure carol about the king who feeds, warms, and clothes a poor man) but also contains a blues-gospel vocal riff on the journey of the wise men to bring gifts to Jesus. My first thought was “It’s odd that they would conflate those two stories.” My next thought was “Duh. They’re not conflating anything; those two stories are absolutely connected.” Jesus said that whatever we do for “the least of these”–like the poor man that King W. saw–we have done for him. And that’s why we sing about King W. at Christmas (well, we at least hear the song occasionally–I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually sung it) and why so many people give their time and money at Christmas. Charitable giving at Christmas is not something Charles Dickens came up with in the 1840s; Dickens was drawing from a very old tradition that stretches all the way back to the wise men and even further back to the innkeeper who did, after all, let Mary and Joseph stay in the stable. We give to the poor at Christmas because on the first Christmas, God became poor. He didn’t just become a baby unable to help himself; he became a baby born to a couple who didn’t have much in terms of worldly possessions and who, on the night Jesus was born, didn’t even have a place to stay.

This seems so obvious now that I’m typing it out, and it’s not like I didn’t know all this before. It just hit me this morning in a way that it never has before. This advent season, I want to pay attention to the people around me who are economically poor as well as poor in spirit, because in doing so I am paying attention to Jesus.

fun house!

Over the weekend, I moved into my new house in Wyoming, Michigan (nowhere near the state of Wyoming, just like the college town where I went for my Ph.D. coursework, Indiana, Pennsylvania, is nowhere near the state of Indiana). My previous house, in Virginia, was a modular on a slab, built in 2005, so while it was almost maintenance-free, it wasn’t a home with which I would associate the word “character” (though, to give the previous homeowners credit, they had added a really cool tile floor in the kitchen and some lovely landscaping outside). But my new home was built in the 1940s and has a basement and a little Cape Cod-style upstairs level, so it’s full of character, quirk, and whatever else you want to call it. I have always loved houses with funny little alcoves and cupboard doors in unexpected places, and my new house has plenty of these. Plus, the previous homeowner left a number of built-ins (such as corner knick-knack shelves) and a few non-built-ins (such as an old but functional metal desk in the basement) around the house, so I’ve been having fun running around the house thinking of ways to use these little surprises, even the ones that aren’t terribly functional. Here are some of my favorite features:

  1. The ultimate hiding place. In the upper level, there are two recesses in the sloped ceiling/wall, one of which contains a bar on which I’ve hung clothes. There’s one spot where the recess goes back deeper than the opening, so if I push the clothes aside, I have a perfect hiding spot. But it gets better: You can only get to the upper story through the bathroom, and when the door is shut, it just looks like a closet. Hey, wait, I shouldn’t be telling you this, in case we play hide and seek in my house someday (a likely scenario). I think I mentioned in a previous post that I enjoyed hiding in the sloped closets of the Cape Cod house where we lived when I was a little kid, and apparently I have not lost that joy.
  2. The wonky antique cabinet. In the basement, there’s a large old wooden cabinet that isn’t built-in but appears to be very heavy and unwieldy, and the basement stairs are not conducive to carrying furniture, so it’s functionally part of the house now. (I would love to know the story of how it got down there in the first place–or maybe it was built down there.) The doors don’t quite shut right, and it badly needs to be cleaned out (it’s full of random home improvement stuff, including some paint cans that may come in handy) but as my antiques-minded sister pointed out, if I ever felt ambitious, I could paint it and put new doors on and have a lovely showpiece. Or it could just remain a quirky conversation piece.
  3. All the basement shelving I could ever want. This one isn’t quite as exciting as the others, but because I’m going to be using the laundry primarily for laundry and storage (there’s also a guest bedroom down there, which is slightly larger than my “master” bedroom), and also because I’m kind of a hoarder, the amount of shelving down there is a dream come true. In addition to the built-in shelves and table, the previous homeowner left a large metal portable unit that’s going to be perfect for hanging just-washed clothes. And there’s even a sink next to the washing machine, which I appreciate for its novelty as well as its utility. (I guess it’s not that unusual to have a sink next to the washing machine, but I’ve never had one before, so it’s fun.)

I could go on: There are lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine” painted on the inside of the door frame of the room I’m going to use as a library/reading room (not a design choice I would have chosen, but I can think of worse songs she could have picked); there’s a grapevine Christmas wreath up in the eaves of the shed, so I’ll have to get my ladder and see if I can dig it out, and there are TWO lazy susans in the kitchen cabinets. There are mirrors and coat hooks in convenient places–that’s less money I’ll have to spend at Lowe’s–and I even like the colorful cabinet hardware and light switch plates in the kitchen. I live in a fun house, and I can’t wait to get all my stuff unpacked and make it truly my own (oh, and to decorate it for Christmas!).

planes, trains, and radical hospitality

This past weekend, my family watched the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) like we do every Thanksgiving. This movie works so well because the two main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, subvert stereotypes that are often present in run-of-the-mill comedies. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is a twist on the workaholic dad character so common in 1980s and 90s family comedies. Unlike most of those characters, Neal desperately wants to get home to his family, but can’t because of a relentless series of logistical mishaps. He also embodies the tightly-wound neurotic character type, but whereas that type often appears as an antagonist or as merely the butt of unkind humor, Neal, as the point of view character of the film, is utterly sympathetic. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, (SPOILER ALERT–but seriously, you’ve had 31 years to see this movie) is a homeless widower, a character who might be a tiresomely pathetic victim in a lesser movie, but he’s also that annoying guy who sits next to you on an airplane and talks your ear off. But as we, through Neal, get to know Del, we are led into sympathy with him as well, and we come to understand that he talks because he’s lonely. He is vulnerable not only because he is a homeless widower but also because he is a traveling salesman–someone who, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, survives by the good will of others–but he is also incredibly savvy and resilient.

I realized this year, more than ever before, how much I relate to Neal Page, especially in his very physical and verbal displays of frustration. I really see myself in the scene where he throws an almost acrobatic tantrum–and literally throws his car rental agreement–in the remote parking lot where he gets stranded after he gets dropped off at the alleged parking space of a rental car that doesn’t exist. Co-workers probably think Neal is a calm, mild-mannered guy, but he has high standards for himself, other people, and the universe at large, and when those standards aren’t met, he doesn’t know what to do. So he explodes, and sometimes he hurts people. I can relate, so very much. (I gave a major character in the zombie apocalypse story I just finished writing, Adrian Fallon, this same flaw. I also realized after watching the movie on Friday how much the road trip elements of my story had been influenced by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.)

I think nearly everyone can relate to Neal–who, again, is the character through whom we experience the story–in one respect. The whole way through the film, we’ve been imagining, along with Neal, these idyllic scenes of what his family must be doing at home. Through him, we’ve experienced the gradual stripping away of comforts he has always taken for granted–money, transportation, warmth, privacy, security. (These are things, by the way, that Del, a perpetual traveler, cannot take for granted. I think the heavy trunk he carries around represents the burden of the constant stress of the road.) By the end, we, along with Neal, want nothing more than to go home, take a shower, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and go to bed. Yet (spoiler again) Neal makes the radical decision to turn around and invite Del to share Thanksgiving, one of the most intimate holidays, with his family. There’s a lot of talk today in the blogosphere, the publishing industry, churches, etc. about “radical hospitality.” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shows us, profoundly, that tired, frustrated, flawed people are the ones who can best show such hospitality.

 

 

home shopping tips from a non-expert

I spent the greater part of Saturday looking at nine homes in the greater Grand Rapids area, and my offer on one of them was accepted the next day. So congratulate me, friends–I’m now in some stage of owning two different homes. Fortunately, I’m not paying mortgage on both! (The closing date for both the one I’m selling and the one I’m buying is October 31–happy Halloween to me.) This has been my second time shopping for a home, so from my limited experience, I would like to offer you some simple tips.

  1. Speak your reactions aloud. Even if it’s something really obvious (“And here’s another closet”), process your observations verbally and externally. This will not only reinforce your memory–which will become important when the houses you’ve seen all start running together in your mind–but it will also help your realtor know what sorts of things you like and dislike, as well as what sorts of things you might not be noticing at all. Which brings me to my next tip…
  2. Know your areas of in-expertise, and let your realtor know. Right from the start on Saturday, I told my realtor, “I’m not good at noticing things like the age of the wiring and the furnace, so I’d appreciate it if you could point those things out to me.” Your realtor is not the stereotypical crooked used car salesman, so admitting your lack of knowledge is not setting you up to be swindled. Your realtor wants to help you find a safe, quality house and be satisfied, so even if he/she is the listing agent of the house you’re looking at (which doesn’t happen that often in my experience–maybe it would in a less-populated area), he/she is acting in your best interest.
  3. Accept that you won’t get everything on your list. I stole this one from my realtor. He said, “You’re going to have a list of about ten things you want in a house, and you’re going to get about six or seven of them.” That made-up (but pretty accurate) statistic sounds like a bummer, but as you look around, you’ll start to realize which of those items are the most important to you. And you may be able to compensate for some items: The house I’m buying doesn’t have a garage, which–because of the lake effect snow I’ve been warned of–was a pretty important item for me. But because of the low price of the house and the nice-sized driveway, I have the money and space to get a carport installed. (I could probably put an actual garage in someday too, but that’s more space for me to fill up with stuff. #hoarder)
  4. Take your time, and get a second opinion. I’m not only a hoarder; I’m a rusher. In life in general, it’s hard for me to slow down and really pay attention. I think a lot of people are like this today, so this is one reason why it’s good to have a realtor to help you notice things you might have otherwise skimmed over. If you’re buying a house alone, I also recommend taking someone along with you–I’ve brought my parents along with me while home shopping. Just make sure you don’t end up with a Say Yes to the Dress scenario. That show used to stress me out because these brides would bring huge crowds of family and friends to their dress fitting sessions, and then they’d have huge crowds of opinions to deal with. And it always seemed like there was at least one naysayer, impossible to satisfy, and at least one person who wanted to control everything. Often the sessions would end in yelling or crying. So, for your sanity, when you go home shopping (or wedding dress shopping, I guess), bring only one or two people whose opinions you trust but who won’t be offended if you disagree and who will let you make the final decision.
  5. Have fun! This goes along with the previous tip: It’s hard to have fun if you’re in a rush. On Saturday, I succeeded pretty well in making myself slow down and have a nice time exploring the homes and the area. It helped that it was a beautiful day–a quintessential First Day of Autumn. But regardless of the weather, take the pressure to find the perfect home off of yourself and enjoy the opportunity to snoop into houses you’d never get to see otherwise. Go ahead, open all the little doors and find out what they lead to. (I do this compulsively–I’m kind of like a child in this regard. This is especially fun in old houses, where you might find an old milk-bottle delivery slot, or at least a laundry chute.) Make jokes about what they’re hiding behind the doors, especially if you’re in a creepy basement. Make up stories about the people who live or have lived in the house. And if you happen to visit a home that’s having an open house, make sure you get some coffee and donuts!