Year In Review: 2016

2016-collage

I’ve started writing this blog post four different times, and it keeps trying to become a novel. Twenty-sixteen was an enormous year. It’s hard to summarize my own experience without explaining the hundreds of things that happened all over the world.

Externally, it was widely regarded as a bad year. There was more gun violence than ever in the news. Turmoil in the Middle East, to put it diminutively. A worsening of the racial conflict in America. A tide of political squabbling powerful enough to pummel a person into the sand day after day after day, and a completely unthinkable outcome. And so many voices passed away: Bowie. Prince. My princess, Carrie Fisher. I even had to put my beloved dog to sleep, because he was getting so fearful and aggressive so quickly, I felt I had no choice but to keep my family safe.

But 2016 was one of the happiest years of my life.

Winter

Before 2015 ended, I read a book that changed my life, and saw one of my fondest childhood dreams come true in a huge way when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. A FEMALE was front and center of the highest grossing movie in America, wielding that tremendous power created by life itself—the Force. That movie actually made me weep with gratitude, and I denied how much it meant to me until recently when Rogue One came out and I could no longer contain my enthusiasm. Star Wars is just a movie franchise, but it has always been something far greater than that to me. I admit it, I’m a hopeless Star Wars geek, even at 31.

So I went into 2016 with a huge grin on my face, and a heart full of hope and exuberance.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in the creative realm, though. I’d read Big Magic and it was somehow inspiring and discouraging at the same time. I nearly gave up on writing fiction because I didn’t enjoy the act of writing it, but I decided not to quit because frankly I’m tired of giving up on everything. I rediscovered that quote in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?” And I decided to spend the year asking myself that question, and paying attention to the answers.

Spring

In the spring we traveled to New Zealand to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, worth the many pennies we paid for it. We hiked and kayaked and relaxed in a hot spring and rode in a helicopter and ate some wonderful seafood and slices and savory pies. Hobbiton was even more magical than I expected, with the milky way and shooting stars showing so clearly overhead that it was like I’d never truly seen the night sky before. I’d go back to New Zealand in a heartbeat (but there are other places I need to see first).

One of my best friends got married and moved to Minnesota in May, and I was her shivering Maid of Honor. I honestly never thought I would be somebody’s MoH, and it meant the world to me. It was bittersweet to send her into the next chapter of her life. I gave a toast, which I had carefully written and revised and memorized and worried about, and it went over really well. After that, feeling high on adrenaline and a little bit intoxicated on old fashioneds, I couldn’t stop dancing to the phenomenal playlist she had put together for the reception. It took me two or three days to gain my strength back after that party.

I caucused for Hillary Clinton for the second time, and I was unabashedly happy to see her make history as the first female nominee of a major party for President of the United States. I wasn’t the least bit worried when Trump won the Republican nomination, because a person like that couldn’t conceivably win the election. A female Jedi-to-be and a female President-to-be. I was over the moon.

We went to California to surprise my grandmother for her 91st birthday, and I got to see some old family documents and hear my great-aunt’s stories. Apparently my great-grandmother was under five foot tall!

Summer

In the summer we roasted a pig and visited Wisconsin and rode bikes and learned to make sushi rolls and painted our living room a nice teal color. I got new glasses. We went to St. Louis for Nathan’s birthday and saw LCD Soundsystem perform at a very muddy Lou Fest. I went to half a dozen concerts in 2016—seven if you count the two days of Lou Fest. So there was much dancing and singing and driving and being happy.

I gave a pint of blood. I rescued many pounds of food from the garbage and presumably fed some people by donating my company’s leftover catering to the local homeless shelter three times. I donated more money to charity in 2016 than I ever have before. I read a book called Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler that was about a racist, hostile, desolate future America, and I couldn’t fathom a story like that ever coming true.

Fall

In the fall I was still feeling great. Ambitious, even, which is an unusual feeling for me. I finished my first article for Wikipedia. I wrote a dozen blog posts. I wrote and revised a short story, and I started to believe that even though my fiction isn’t good, I can make it better through the process of revision. I started to feel hopeful about writing fiction, and even started to enjoy it a little bit. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the third time, and I managed to keep going even as the unthinkable happened. I was writing away as state after state fell to Trump on Election Day and my husband reported that there was no longer any way Hillary could win the presidency. I wrote every single day in November and I hit the 50k word goal, but unfortunately I failed to keep the momentum going afterward. Maybe I was too stunned by all the bad news rolling in each day like clockwork. Bad news for the environment. Bad news for immigrants and minorities. Bad news for everyone relying on Obamacare. Bad news for women. My first draft has yet to be finished, but I haven’t stopped working on it yet, and I don’t plan to. I must keep writing this story. I found my answer. I must.

We dressed as Morticia and Gomez Addams for Halloween. We saw Arrival, and it made me cry, too. I put my dog to sleep, and that made me cry a fucking river. We hosted Thanksgiving. We got norovirus before Christmas and had to somewhat quarantine ourselves over the holiday. My brother and his girlfriend visited us for New Year’s Eve, and we were there when they became engaged at the close of the year.

At the end of 2016, I still had a smile on my face, in spite of everything. There was a lot of ugliness this year, and I believe there’s a lot more ugliness to come, but there was also a powerful undercurrent of beauty and joy in my heart, and it persists. I’m posting this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because over the course of the past year I’ve come to believe his words, the same ones President Obama used in his farewell speech last week: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I’ve become an optimist. I believe that there’s good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (which is a J.R.R. Tolkien quote, and also belongs in this blog post). I believe it will eventually win, and I’ve realized that I have the power to help.

I don’t think 2017 is going to be easy, but I’m ready to stand up and be an agent for good in small but important ways. I have big goals I’m working toward personally, and I’m happy to have both the work and the goals. I’m enjoying my own journey. I’m ready for whatever is coming next.

Book Giveaway Winner Announced!

giveawayI just filled out the form to nominate someone to receive a copy of Doing Good Better, and I was able to choose THREE people to receive a free copy! How perfect, since I had three people enter the giveaway: lahgray, Calee, and Emily C.!

(Note to the winners: You will receive an email from the Centre for Effective Altruism sometime in the next couple of days offering you your free book. If you change your mind, you don’t have to accept it. You’re always welcome to borrow my copy instead! :))

Thank you so much for entering my first (and probably only) giveaway, ladies. I appreciate it! I sincerely hope you find this book uplifting.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

BOOK GIVEAWAY! The Book That Changed My Life: Doing Good Better

giveawayI received an exciting email this morning from the Centre for Effective Altruism. They invited me to nominate someone to receive a free copy of the amazing book Doing Good Better by William MacAskill.

I read this book a year ago, and it changed my life. I had a total Ebenezer Scrooge moment. I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about it anyway, so what better time than now?

Before I read this book I was feeling pretty cynical about the world in general. Humans suck at doing good. We’re cruel to each other. We’re careless with our planet. We aren’t very kind to animals on the whole. What’s the point in even trying to make a difference when each of us wields so little power against the enormous darkness in our world: hunger, poverty, cruelty, oppression? Why bother caring when so many people who could help refuse to do so? Why save people when the planet is already struggling to support our population? Why bother sending $10 to a charity if they send you $20 worth of marketing materials in return?

I talked to a friend about it. He told me that it’s harder to be kind and altruistic than it is to be cynical. But when you get right down to it, every person has a story, and everyone who’s struggling deserves to be helped. He told me about this movement called Effective Altruism that aims to identify the most important and fixable causes in the world and get people to focus their efforts there.

So that gave me a little glimmer of hope, and then I picked up this book, and it gave me so much more. It made me feel rich and powerful. It made my somewhat meaningless day job feel suddenly full of meaning. There hasn’t been a day since I read this book that I’ve felt sorry for myself for having the job I have, so that alone is testament to how it has changed my life.

Here’s one of the most important things I learned from this book: small amounts of money can do tremendous good. Somehow I always thought that the highest moral action was to volunteer. Spending time physically dishing out soup to the hungry or knocking on doors to drum up political support or traveling to Africa to build homes seemed like the only real way to make a difference, and I’ve always shied away from those things because I highly value my free time and because—well—I’m shy. But in reading this book I learned that a little money can actually go a long way, and giving money to an organization is often far more valuable than giving time. I won’t bother trying to rehash the information in the book, but this guy is a brilliant economist and he did the math for us, and you can read all about it. It partially depends a lot on the type of charitable work you would do and how good you would be at it (I’m starting to think that getting involved in political action might actually be a very powerful use of one’s time), but the point is that giving money is a deeply charitable act as well. You don’t have to be super rich or influential to make a difference, and you don’t have to feel like a lazy a-hole if all you do is give money. And choosing a charity with your brain instead of your heart is a particularly kind thing to do, because it’ll greatly increase the impact you can have. Money has great power, and compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot of it. Giving money is a wonderful thing to do.

That might not sound like a very exciting premise for a book, but if you have some interest in altruism, I strongly encourage you to read it. It’s well written and not a slog to read. And in the wake of recent events, I think we could all use as much hope as we can get our hands on.

So if you’d like a copy of the book, just leave me a comment and convince me that you want to read it. 😉 I’d also love to know about books that changed your life. I’ll pick a winner next Wednesday (11/23/2016)!

(Apologies to Sandy Underwood and Cincinatti Magazine for shamelessly stealing their amazing photograph.)

7 Types of Crappy Gift Givers & Receivers

veruca salt willy wonka animated gifBrace yourselves: the holidays are coming. That means many of us will be thinking about gifts soon. The thought makes some people groan, others rub their hands with glee. Whatever your attitude, this post may insult you, possibly in multiple ways. It’s meant to.

Here’s the thing: I think we as a society have some terrible attitudes about gifts, and we hurt each other’s feelings all the time over something that’s supposed to be joyous. We need an adjustment. We’ve got a variety of different crappy ideas going on, so I want to shed some light on them. I’m guilty of almost all of these myself, so in no way am I trying to say that I’m a model gift receiver or giver. But I’m trying to get better. Here’s what to watch out for:

Crappy Receivers

1. The Expecter – Expects to receive gifts on certain occasions. Yes, most of us do this, and yes, it’s kinda crappy. Unless it’s for a shower event, of course, since gifts are the point of a shower. (And, by the way, this is why you can’t throw a shower for yourself.)

2. The Princess – Even though you put money, time, effort, or thought into the gift, it isn’t the “right” thing, so the princess is ungrateful.

3. The Guilt Tripper – Feels bad and consequently makes you feel bad because you gave her a nice gift.

4. The Mute – Never acknowledges that a gift was received.

5. The Refuser – Preemptively requests No Gifts, or refuses gifts that people try to give. This is usually meant to be kind, but it counts as being an Expecter and/or a Princess.

6. The Veruca – Requests a specific gift from you without being prompted.

7. The Victim – Views a gift as an act of aggression. Sometimes this attitude is the result of having previously received a gift from The Gangster (see below).

Crappy Givers

1. The Grinch – Hates giving gifts. Sees it as an obligation instead of an opportunity to make someone they care about smile. This attitude is sometimes the result of having to give to a crappy receiver.

2. The True Love – Gives mass quantities of gifts. …And a partridge in a pear tree.

3. The Poor Planner – Forgets to leave room in his budget or schedule to give gifts.

4. The Clueless – Has no idea what to give, even if she knows you intimately. This person sometimes imagines that anything she might give will be somehow wrong.

5. The Puppeteer – expects you to keep every gift he gives you for the rest of your life. Feels personally insulted if you part with something he gave you.

6. The Genie – Asks you what you want as your gift. Depending on the situation this can work, but often it puts undue pressure on the receiver.

7. The Gangster – Gives a gift with an ulterior motive. May intend to make you (or someone related to you) feel inferior, obligated to reciprocate, or otherwise bad.

Now, here’s what I think is the correct attitude to have when it comes to gifts:

Giving: if you choose to give a gift—and yes, you do have a choice—do it with love. Do it because you want to make the receiver smile. Go forth and choose something that you think they might like. Then give it to them. The moment the gift has been received, understand that the receiver has the right to do whatever she wants with the gift, including give it away immediately, and don’t take such behavior as a sign of ingratitude.

If you don’t know what to get, gift cards are perfectly good gifts. The receiver gets to go to a shop she likes and pick out something she might not have gotten for herself otherwise. Just don’t judge her for what she picks! Alternatively, you can give gift cards for movie theaters or restaurants. Who doesn’t love going out on someone else’s dime? Spa treatment gift cards are also awesome and usually appreciated.

Another great gift for the right person is a charitable donation in that person’s name. I’ve done this a couple of times and it was well received. It’s easy, and it makes everyone feel good—as a gift should.

Gifts don’t have to be expensive. If you just can’t afford to buy or make gifts, you can probably still write a nice note on a card and give that instead. And that’s perfectly acceptable.

Receiving: don’t expect to receive a gift. From anyone, ever. (That said, it’s wise not to buy too much for yourself in the couple of months preceding your birthday and major gifting holidays.) If you do receive a gift, lucky you! Someone cares a lot about you. Be grateful, no matter what it is or how much money you suspect was spent on it. Say thank you. It would be especially kind if you tried to put the gift to use, but you have the right to do whatever you want with it and not feel guilty.

Look—when someone offers you a gift, they’re not just giving you the thing itself. They’re offering you their love. That’s the whole point. So even as the receiver, you have a job to do. You need to accept the gift with grace and gratitude, especially if you know that a sacrifice was made when this gift was acquired for you.

I think it’s okay to keep a Pinterest board of things you’d like to receive as gifts. That way, nobody has to directly ask you, and you’re more likely to receive things you actually want. Keep it up-to-date, otherwise you might receive things you don’t really want anymore. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see someone’s Pinterest board if you don’t have a Pinterest account yourself, but it’s still the best option I’ve encountered. You can also create wish lists on many e-commerce websites, and those are usually easier for your friends and family to view. You can add absolutely anything to your Amazon registry, even if it isn’t sold on Amazon.

Most importantly, whether you’re the giver or the receiver, remember this: the moment a gift is received, it has served its purpose. The true purpose of any gift is to make both the receiver and the giver smile for a moment. If the thing happens to be useful and/or desirable to the receiver, great! If not, that’s okay, too. In this society where we all have hundreds of possessions and everyone has unique taste, the thing itself is not essential to your relationship. It really is the thought that counts.

Agree? Disagree? Did I forget any distinct types? Tell me in the comments.

Why I Wrote an Article for Wikipedia (and You Should, Too)

I’m happy to announce that my first Wikipedia page is now out in the wild. I am not going to mention it by name in text for the sake of protecting my identity, but you can see it in the screenshot below and then go find it, if you’re interested. As of this writing, the page hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. It received a rather poor rating from the mods, and I’m not entirely sure why yet, but I am proud of it anyway.

Wikipedia article screenshot

So why did I decide to write a Wikipedia article? I had never heard of the subject of my article before I picked her somewhat randomly from a list of redlinks (missing articles). I was certainly not an expert on her. I don’t believe I’m an expert on anything, because even though I read a lot, I have a terrible memory. I get my facts pretty crooked, unless they’re related to Star Wars.

But I learned how to do research in the third grade. And I needed this little confidence boost of feeling like I’d contributed something concrete to the world, however small. Strange that digital things can feel concrete, isn’t it? And the #1 reason that I decided to write an article for Wikipedia is:

90% of Wikipedia contributors are men.

I wanted to become a Wikipedia contributor to help tip that balance a little. It took me an embarrassingly long time to put this one article together, but I want to push myself to keep contributing occasionally to Wikipedia, both writing articles and editing existing articles. Wikipedia is largely written by and about men, so there’s a big need for articles to be written by and about women.

Wikipedia lists the following as reasons that fewer women contribute than men (source: Gender Bias on Wikipedia):

  1. A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface
  2. Not having enough free time
  3. A lack of self-confidence
  4. Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars
  5. Belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted
  6. Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic
  7. Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting
  8. Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender
  9. Fewer opportunities than other sites for social relationships and a welcoming tone

Another reason cited in the article is Wikipedia’s failure to attract female editors.

So far, I haven’t really interacted with the Wikipedia community, so I can’t speak to what it’s like. My plan right now is to keep to myself, but maybe some day I’ll be confident and involved enough to want to join the fray. The threat of online harassment is definitely off-putting, but I think it’s an issue no matter what forum you enter online — even among family and friends on Facebook! It’s more damaging in some forums than on others though, and it’s weird to join an established community with nothing but your words to represent you.

As far as the interface, I didn’t find it too difficult since I have a background in web design & development. In fact, I thought learning and using the markup was pretty fun. But I can see how it would be uninviting to many. I had to use Google to find the resources I needed, on Wikipedia, about editing Wikipedia—things like style, markup, formatting, citation. It was like there was too much information and no good way to navigate it.

But it’s a rewarding little challenge to step up and create something that could be useful to people. I would encourage all of my friends to give contributing a shot, especially the women. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be able to learn and follow the rules. I did 100% of my research online, so I was able to do it on my own time, from the comfort of home. I’m sure not all articles can or should be researched this way, but as long as the sources meet the criteria, it’s still better than if the Wikipedia article continued to not exist at all. If the powers that be decide that your sources or your writing suck, they can point it out and it can be fixed.

If you’re interested, here’s the list of redlinks where I found my subject. Poke around, maybe you’ll find someone who interests you. Join us! Everyone’s favorite encyclopedia could use your skills.

2015: Year In Review

Dear 2015,

You surprised me. And not exactly in a good way. I didn’t expect you to be such a difficult year for me. I love multiples of five! 1995 was a great year; I was a happy ten-year-old. And I think 2000 and 2005 were both good, as years go. 2010 was a little rougher; I was planning my wedding and that was stressful as hell. Still, you started off with a bang, literally. I was in my basement bar with my husband and a few good friends who are still able to stay up until midnight, and we set off crackers and listened to Red Eyes probably too many times for everyone else’s taste. I felt really hopeful. You were going to be a good year. But you were difficult.

Your winter was beautiful. I was happy. I like winter these days, all glitter and snow and cookies and cocoa. We went to fabulous Chicago to shop for my sister-in-law’s wedding dress. I threw a swap party and we had champagne and cream puffs and everyone went home with something new and free. We attended a wedding in the snow, and a concert in a living room. But I started to feel sad, despite the cheap Harry Potter screenings at our new favorite theater/brewery, Flix. Both of my grandparents’ health had taken a sudden turn for the worse early in the year, and I worried for them and for my dad, who was all but solely responsible for looking after them from a very long state’s length away. Spring came despite my mood and it was beautiful too, with plenty of blooms and nice weather. My brother and my sister and her boys visited us, and for a couple of nights we had a wonderfully full house. We braved the sudden heat to go with Mom to the butterfly garden in Ames. And my sister and I went to see The Smashing Pumpkins* here at Hoyt Sherman. So I can die happy now.

Both of my grandparents fluctuated and then one of them improved and the other took a fall, and in a coincidence that was both fortunate and unfortunate I got to see my grandfather one last time when we traveled out west in June. I was climbing up through the majestic wooded heart of California during his final hours. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral, and that was a strange thing.

But sometimes death brings a sad sort of relief, and the truth is that I started to feel much better shortly after Grandpa died. Nathan accompanied me to Iowa City for a long weekend in July, and I was briefly a Hawkeye (sort of), learning about writing literary fiction in a whirlwind but inspiring Iowa Summer Writing Festival class. In August I turned 30 and managed to be remarkably happy about it. I celebrated by going to a nice dinner and a roller rink with my most playful friends. I sparkled as much as I could get away with.

Fall is usually my happiest season, but yours was tough for me. It was lovely, don’t get me wrong; the leaves took their time changing and it was unseasonably warm, and I took a wonderful seven-week online writing course (again through the University of Iowa). But stressors came up at work when the company I work for was acquired, and I was struggling to try to find a new home for my poor unlovable dog, and to figure out some health issues (which I have discovered are not actual issues, again. Hi, I’m Stephanie and I’m a hypochondriac). We attended all kinds of dinners and parties and movies and shindigs, the wedding of my sister-in-law and a concert in Minnesota—all of which was fun, but fun gets stressful after a point for an introvert like me. And beyond my own personal sphere, a lot of bad crap in the world was demanding everyone’s attention and energy: shootings. Terrorism. A refugee crisis. Politicians.

You were not a waste, or anything like that. I have no hard feelings toward you. You taught me about Effective Altruism and the KonMari method, and you made me believe that there’s nothing I have to get, do, or be in order to be happy. You told me that I am enough. You convinced me to work harder for Big Magic. You gave the world a respectable new Star Wars movie! And most importantly, you gave me Motivational Shia LaBeouf. I am deeply grateful for all of those things. I think you’re sending me into 2016 with a tiny bit more skill and a lot more dedication. I’m ready to work hard, and to see new corners and crannies of the world, and to believe in my own health and happiness, for real. Let’s do this.

Motivational Shia LaBeouf

On Turning Thirty

I am standing at an arbitrary, imaginary threshold that i will cross in a matter of hours. Beginning tomorrow, i will be over thirty years old, and i will no longer think of myself as young. That is strange and scary, because all of my life thus far i have thought of myself as young. And i never will again.

It’s not that i think i’m old. To think of myself as old would be an insult to everyone on earth who is older than i am, and i also think of that as including my future self. She is not old. I don’t really think of any human on this planet as old, because our lives are so very short. Maybe the ones who live for longer than a century are old, but the rest of us don’t even have memories of the first World War. Human history is short, and we who are walking the earth today can remember only a tiny fraction of it. As a species we are extremely young.

But, age is relative. And i’m starting to feel a little awkward in young women’s clothing. The models in makeup ads are starting to look like mere girls to me. Yes, i admit that a large portion of the pain of becoming no-longer-young is due to the increasingly upward comparison that is beauty. But i care about that less than you might think. I placed a lot of value on attractiveness and aesthetics in general when i was a young woman. I was a designer and a photographer, and i allowed myself to love the hell out of being able to see. And yet, i have always preferred the sense of hearing over the sense of sight, as though i had some understanding that there were more important things than aesthetics; more beautiful things than beauty. And lately the more i think about it, the more i realize that sight is just our interpretation of particles of light bouncing off of things. It’s amazing and undeniable how the sight of something beautiful or provocative can affect us, and yet when you think about it, the way things look is not even what they really are. My eyes, for example, aren’t just brown. They’re also myopic and the left one has a slightly enlarged optic nerve, putting me at somewhat of a risk for glaucoma later in life. But you can’t see that and you don’t care about that when you look me in the eye. We know and value what we can see, and oftentimes we value that above what we feel and hear and know. I don’t know quite how to express it, but i’m realizing lately that while what i look like is important because it’s how i interface with the world, it’s not as important as what i know and how i feel, despite society’s natural bias to the contrary. And i’m learning more all the time, and i feel pretty darn good. And, to be honest, i think i still look pretty darn good, too, and will for years to come—even if i don’t look eighteen anymore.

Steph!

One comforting fact about aging is that nobody is alone in the process. Everyone ages, and everyone does so at the same rate in terms of actual time elapsed. Those pretty young things in today’s ads will be my age in time. If they’re lucky! And i was their age once. I kind of think of aging not so much as passing from one age to another as collecting ages. Because i know what it is to be ten years old, what it is to be eighteen years old, what it is to be twenty-nine. I will (hopefully) always have that knowledge, so in a way i will always be all of the ages i have ever been. Except my baby years, of course. I can’t remember those.

I saw a quote somewhere that said something along the lines of: “never be sorry to grow older; it is a privilege denied to many.” And that’s the main thing. A birthday is a celebration of life, and a milestone birthday is extra special. Look how far i’ve come! I haven’t accomplished as much as i always thought i would by this age, and i think that’s the thing that i see pain people the most about turning thirty. We all set these “thirty by thirty” goals for ourselves, or maybe just a few big things we feel we must accomplish: get married, have kids, get a terminal degree, get our dream job. We set ourselves up for disappointment on this particular birthday for no real reason. Just because humans happen to have ten fingers and probably for that reason settled on a decimal numbering system, which naturally places emphasis on multiples of ten. So thirty is where we stop and look around and ask ourselves if we’ve landed where we wanted to be as adults. I think when i was twentyish, i wanted to have published a beautifully designed book of poetry and recorded a couple of life-altering albums by now. But i never set a hard-and-fast deadline—and that is probably part of the reason that i haven’t created anything of note yet—but it has also kept me from feeling like a failure. I still have some time. I am probably not going to record music, but i still have plenty of time to publish something (probably). And i have made a lot of really good decisions and achieved a pretty great life for myself, so i have nothing to feel sorry about.

I am by no means content, mind you. I once told a friend that i didn’t think i’d ever achieve contentment. I think artists just have restless souls, so to speak, and i think i have an artist’s soul after all. I must create something, because i want to honor and help and contribute to this world in a way that goes deeper than just giving money to my chosen cause. I have a voice and a unique perspective, and i might just have something to say that the world needs to hear. I just need to do a lot of exploring to figure out what exactly that might be and how to say it.

I feel deeply grateful for all of the people who have shown me love on this very special birthday. I am so supported and loved, and it’s touching in a way that makes the tears just spring from me. So you might catch me sobbing if you see me in the next couple of days, but i promise i’m not feeling purely sorry for myself. I am so happy to be turning thirty, because it means that i survived the dark days and the scary car rides and the unknowable risks that come with being alive. I’m still here, and i will never stop being grateful for that. Life is easy and it’s hard and it’s ugly and it’s gorgeous, and i am so thankful for all thirty of my years and for this moment, and for however many future moments i’ll be lucky enough to grasp. I want it all. I love everything.

On Turning Thirty – V.1

Milestones are constructed to provide reference points along the road. This can be used to reassure travellers that the proper path is being followed, and to indicate either distance travelled or the remaining distance to a destination.

I’ve come to a milestone, which means now i can take a gander backward at how far i’ve come, and also forward at how far i have yet to travel. Except that’s the tricky thing about life; you never know how much farther you have to go.

I think what i’ve done so far is pretty darn alright. I’ve made a lot of sensible choices, and i’m in a good comfortable place. In fact, i may be a little too sensible for my own good. I’ve never taken any big risks, and because of that i’ve never done anything terribly notable. There are just two things i regret so far, though: everything i’ve ever done and everything i’ve ever said. Just kidding. The two things are: not talking to people more, and not creating more. It’s true, you regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did.

I’m trying to find balance in my life right now. I have plenty of free time, and yet i feel like i never have enough. I can never get enough time to travel and read and create. I devote pathetically little time to creating, which is why i never write on this blog anymore. I’ve got to change that somehow. I keep deleting things from my life in an attempt to create more time: less facebook, less twitter, less sleeping (ha), less shopping, less going out. I’m even making a meager effort to cut back on my possessions, since more space and things just means more time organizing and cleaning. Yet my house is always dirty. And i never have time to create.

The number one reason for this problem is that i tend to fill whatever time i do manage to carve out with reading instead of creating. I set reading goals for myself on Goodreads and i earn my annual badge faithfully, and i absolutely can’t stand to read fewer books each year rather than more. So i’m up to 30 per year now, and i can’t bring myself to back off from that. If only i could read faster! I am trying, kind of, to learn.

I say “create” because it isn’t just writing that i’d like to do more of. There are all kinds of things that i wish i had time to create: stories and drawings and sewing and food and books. Making things with my hands is like a meditation for me, and i know that that’s an important thing that i should make time to do.

But aside from that dilemma, i’m in a good place. I’m healthy, happily married, financially comfortable, and i have good relationships with my family and friends. I’m happy right now. I was unhappy mere months ago – weeks, if we’re being honest – but i think i have a sort of backwards Seasonal Affective Disorder, where i feel the least happy when things are warming and sunnying up, and then i start to feel so much happier this time of year when things are starting to head in the direction of fall. It’s strange. But, it’s just my truth. I’m glad that i’ve gotten to a place where i can see that what i’m feeling on a given day has very little to do with the external world, and almost everything to do with the particular chemical cocktail going on in my brain. There are small things i can do to affect it, but not big ones. And it’s not quite so severe that i need the help of drugs to get by.

Thirty. What is it about thirty that makes people so uncomfortable? This is the age where people kiss youth goodbye, i think. We’re undoubtedly adults now. We’re on our own two feet. We’ve reached a point for which we set certain goals for ourselves, for whatever reason, and we’re forced to take note now of whether those goals have been met. I’ve watched slightly older friends of mine hang their heads upon turning 30 because they aren’t where they expected to be: they’re unmarried, they don’t have their dream job, they still haven’t gotten that terminal degree. Their names will never appear on a “Thirty Under Thirty” list now. And i told them that thirty is just a number, and that if you think about it, it’s only significant because humans have ten fingers and therefore chose a decimal system of numbering. If we had twelve, i mused, we might not assess these things until the age of thirty-six.

There are things i’m disappointed about, too. I haven’t created any of the things i wanted to create when i was younger: a book of poetry, an album, a piece of art worthy of a hipster’s dormitory wall. And i wish i were an easier person to have a relationship with, but that stuff runs so deep in my personality that regretting it is simply an act of self-loathing. I’m never going to throw my hands up and stop trying to be a better person, but being hard on myself about my shortcomings is only going to be counterproductive. God knows there are a hundred phone calls i should’ve made in my lifetime and didn’t, but all i can do now is let them go and try to make the next call.

As far as wanting to create something, i am going to. I can feel it. It might not ever reach the hands of more than a dozen people, but no matter. I will create for the sake of creating, just as soon as i figure out the right way to balance my time. Maybe i could cut back to 25 books per year, much as it pains me to do so. Or eight hours of sleep per night, even on the weekends. 🙂 I am a firm believer in unique biology, though, so i’m not making any promises on that one. I need more sleep than the average person, i swear. The internet says that is a thing, and i believe it.

My twenties were a lot of fun, and also really sad at times. I fell in love and got married, and that’s pretty hard to beat. I was laid off three times in as many years. I lost three of my four grandparents, and for a moment i felt the absolute terror of potentially losing my brother. I went to Europe twice, I honeymooned in Cancun, i made some friends that i know i’ll have for the rest of my life. But i think my thirties will actually be better. I may soon get to be an auntie to a little person who will live very nearby. And i think i’m going to get this balance thing figured out and start creating again. I’m probably going to travel to more amazing places, and deepen the relationships that already exist in my life. There will be rough times. I think a couple of the people i love will stumble, and i hope to be a source of strength for them. It’s statistically likely that i will live beyond the next decade. It’ll be interesting to see how the world changes. Things are warming up, and i fear for the planet but i think the political climate is actually improving very gradually, despite what all the clamoring on facebook might lead one to believe. I don’t care about it as much as my eighteen-year-old self would’ve wanted me to. But that’s true of a lot of things.

2014 In Review: Life

Normally the Year In Review is the one Life blog post that i make sure to write before the end of each year. I like reflecting on the year and wrapping everything up in a neat little month-by-month post with pictures as visual aids. But this year i haven’t really felt the urge to write it yet. I did a horrible job of taking pictures outside of our Europe trip, for one thing, and for another i just haven’t felt terribly reflective this time around the block. For once, i spent December working to bring light to the darkest days of the year, and i spent New Year’s Eve sparkling and laughing with a heaping handful of some of my favorite people in the world rather than swallowing back tears, and i spent New Year’s Day starting work on a new story and a new read. I didn’t really pause to think a lot about 2014.

It was a really good year. It absolutely FLEW by, especially the first half. Nothing terribly bad happened—knock on wood. There was a moment when i had to step back and take a hard look at myself and decide to make an effort to be more empathetic, and that was actually really hard for me. But i think i’m improving, and it’s worth it. The year was mostly just a series of good things, which is all that a person can really ask for. There was a lot of Cards Against Humanity playing. That game… I don’t know.

JANUARY

NYE 2013 started off good but then it sucked and i cried and it’s not worth talking about. I’m over it. One of the goals that i set for 2014 was to try a local dance class, so in January, i did. I went to an adult hip-hop dance class, and i was one of two students in it. And thank goodness there weren’t more of us, because the studio was about the size of a shoebox. I didn’t go back, and i’m still keeping a wistful eye out for a dance class in Des Moines that i can join. I might have to break down and try Zumba instead.

FEBRUARY

In February we went to Baconfest, which involved 1. a very expensive ticket (which i shouldn’t complain about because they were gifted to us), 2. standing in line outside at the fairgrounds in frigid February for what felt like an hour, 3. standing in more, shorter lines inside to get very small but complimentary strips of bacon from different companies, and 4. paying more money for crazy bacon-infused foods of all sorts from the myriad restaurants in town. There was live music and a bacon queen and stuff. I was cranky, but it was pretty cool i guess. I wouldn’t pay to go back.

Our buddy Mike turned thirty so we went to Up-Down (the arcade bar) and El Bait Shop (the beer bar) with him and a bunch of friends. I think they continued on to other adventures, but we pooped out early because it’s getting hard to close the bars down these days. Mike seemed pretty happy, unlike some people who are also turning thirty right about now.

MARCH

I think it was in March that i had my gastroscopy and learned that my heartburn is sort of imaginary. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with my upper GI, so that was wonderful news. It was also in March that i made a road trip to the twin cities with Calee to see the Arcade Fire. We stayed with her fiancé’s family and they fed me stuff and let me use a bedroom in their lovely house for free, both of which are always hugely appreciated. Cards (Against Humanity) were played. Calee and i made a good team at IKEA, and i scored a couple of bookcases for $20 off. There may have been a little bit of a meltdown at one point, but eventually we managed to eat dinner and get our butts to the show and we weren’t even late. Dan Deacon sort of sucked, but the Arcade Fire was amazing. I ended up really glad i went.

APRIL

In April i joined Calee again for the Har Mar Superstar show at the new Social Club here in DSM. I really didn’t know what i was in for when i agreed to that show. Har Mar has been described as looking like Ron Jeremy, but i think he looks even a little skeezier. And he likes to take his top off and act all sexy while he sings. Excellent voice, but not so pleasing on the eyes. (Yes, i get that that’s supposed to be amusing and/or empowering, but for me it was just weird.) And Gloom Balloon was not my kind of show, either. Thank goodness for MAIDS. I enjoyed them quite a lot, and in fact that reminds me that i need to buy their album…

MAY

In May i took my mama to Ewing Park as a Mother’s Day date. The lilacs were in bloom and the place just smelled like heaven. It’s one of the best things about Des Moines. Later in the month, Nathan and i drove down to St. Louis for my brother’s birthday celebration. We did an epic vertical of The Abyss, a big imperial stout. It was interesting how a couple of the bottles somehow stood out; I think about three years old was the sweet spot, if i remember correctly. We played Cards Against Humanity. For the first time, but not the last, i didn’t win.

JUNE

In June Nathan and i went to see Electric Six at the Vaudeville Mews for the second time. It was worth staying up for. Later in the month we flew to Oregon for my sister’s wedding. Hanging out with my family at Eugene’s excellent beer spots was good fun. The coast was beautiful, as always. We even managed to catch a perfect sunset! I got to see my Dad’s new house, and got a huge surprise when he gave me an old popcorn tin full of my long-lost My Little Ponies. The wedding was really beautiful, and i wish i’d camped out at the Tipi village there like my sister had wanted me to.

Ponies!

Me and my sister
Me and Nathan
Wedding photos courtesy of Amanda Basteen

JULY

In July i went to 80/35 with my friend Emily again. The lineup this year was pretty disappointing, but we did get to see Best Coast and Surfer Blood, both of which were a lot of fun. The men joined us at the festival later in the evening, since i assumed there would be a fireworks show on the 4th like there was a few years back. Not the case. So, we got kind of screwed out of fireworks this year. I may end up sitting 80/35 out in 2015 unless they book someone i really want to see.

Later in the month our buddy Justin got married, and Nathan was a groomsman in the wedding. It was the kind of reception you could dance at—as long as you didn’t mind pretty bad music and a somewhat sweltering barn—and so of course i did just that. I wore a very shimmery dress and it was a lot of fun. We managed to take a six-person selfie with Nathan’s family (that doesn’t show my dress at all, sorry).

selfie

AUGUST

In August i suddenly decided that it was time for us to add a third car to our fleet, and so we found and brought home the 2009 Honda Fit (in Blackberry Pearl). It’s pretty cute and fuel-efficient, and it’s supposed to be very safe and reliable. I’m happy with it.

I had a low-key birthday party at which we played not Cards Against Humanity but Munchkin, and discovered that we liked the game a lot. On my actual birthday Nathan and i went to the Iowa State Fair again. We had somehow never had a peppermint ice cream sandwich from the Bauder’s Pharmacy cart, and when that was rectified it was a real epiphany. I also got a henna tattoo on my arm, and we watched a goat showing that was nearly as silly as we had hoped it would be.

Toward the end of the month we took a trip to Decorah on some rather confusing information about a beloved beer that turned out not to actually be there just yet. We made the most of it by going to see the eagles and venturing a very short way into a very interesting cave. I also bought a beautiful journal in the bookstore there that was used to document our Europe trip, so all was not in vain.

I went to see Future Islands by myself here in DSM, and i’m kind of glad i didn’t bring anyone because it was a strange show. There was a lot of pantomiming of eating things, and i don’t think i’ve ever seen anyone sweat so profusely. Good music, weird show.

SEPTEMBER

In September we went to Zombie Burger with some friends and family to celebrate Nathan’s 30th birthday! And then we hopped on a plane for Europe. I’ve told the first part of that story, and i might even tell the second half some day. For the record, Vienna was my favorite part. It’s an amazing city. Oktoberfest in Munich was good inebriated fun. I was proud of the amount i drank, and i didn’t even get sick! It’s like an enormous carnival, though, and there was no way i was getting on a carnival ride after all that. Still, it was fun to walk around and look at everything. And there was plenty of fun stuff to eat and shop for and take pictures of. It was a good time even for a lightweight like me.

OCTOBER

In October my alcohol tolerance was put to the test once again at Nathan’s exclusive birthday beer tasting party. What i had learned at Oktoberfest was to stuff myself with plenty of bready foods before drinking, and that method coupled with lots and lots of tap and bottled water was effective in getting me through all of the twentyish strong beers (which were each split many ways and spread out over many hours, but it was still a fair amount of alcohol for a single day). I tried them all! And once again did not get sick. Good job, me.

Jimmy Eat World just happened to play Des Moines on Calee’s 30th birthday, so obviously that’s how we celebrated it. They played the entire Futures album because it was ten years old, which is just weird. I remember when that album was brand new, when i was in college. Was that really a decade ago?

Unfortunately my employer had to lay off twenty percent of the payroll in October, but my job was spared. I’m really not confident that the company will last more than a couple more years, but the Powers That Be are, for whatever reason. So we’ll just have to see what happens. I’m not leaving yet, and if you’re curious as to why i’d be happy to tell you (it’s not interesting), but it’s not a very relevant thing to talk about here.

I ran outside not once but TWICE this fall! I usually like to take one run in the cemetery on the most perfectest day of the year, but there were a couple of days that were irresistibly pretty this October, so i doubled my usual achievement. (I run indoors a couple times a week, i just don’t much like running outside the way normal human beings do.)

I carved pumpkins at Emily’s house and i think went to a book club meeting at a member’s gorgeous backyard patio in Norwalk in October, and just generally walked around loving everything. I love October so much. Love love love.

Oh, and we went to a Halloween party dressed as Wayne & Garth from Wayne’s World. I was Wayne, wearing a hat that i puff-painted the WW logo onto very nicely, freehand, and Nathan was Garth. I fluffed up his long hair as best i could, but it’s so thick and heavy! It’s not fair.

NOVEMBER

In November i participated in NaNoWriMo again. And won! But i’m still hugely unsatisfied with the quality of my fiction writing. So in 2015 i’m going to try to write every single day, even if only a paragraph, and focus on quality instead. I just want to write a few good short stories, i don’t care about writing a novel right now. I don’t think i’ll be doing WriMo again unless i develop some mad new skills before then.

Thanksgiving was really nice, and then we went Bourbon County pillaging shopping on Black Friday. I’m not a big fan of getting up at like 5 a.m., but my husband does a lot for me, so i do this for him once or twice a year. Plus, it’s really excellent beer.

A friend of ours had a surprise 30th birthday party at Skate North, so we went rollerblading at an actual roller rink for the first time since about 8th grade. It was so much fun! If only it hadn’t been 100° in the place, and if only my feet hadn’t started blistering after an hour or so. I kind of want to go back really bad. I might have to copy the idea for my 30th, but who knows how hot it will be in there in August if it was that hot in November?

Skating party

DECEMBER

In December(ish?) my brother passed his licensure exam for psychology!! So he came up here to visit and let us help him celebrate. A couple of my cousins were also visiting, so we got together with a bunch of the in-towners and played—you guessed it!—Cards Against Humanity. Which is an extremely awkward game for family to play together, but it was fun anyway. We’re all pretty weird. My aunt Vicki cleaned the floor with all of us though, which sucked.

I finally got to host a book club discussion about The Night Circus! I went overboard, serving caramel corn and chocolate mice and mulled cider and cinnamon twists and red wine, and gifting each guest with a red rêveur scarf. I hung extra white Christmas lights up around the windows and played Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus playlist. I only ended up with four guests, but it was totally worth it. I love that book so much, and to be able to inspire a little bit of that love in each of them was awesome.

I got to see a couple of other dear, dear out-of-town friends this December. You know, i might be starting to love December, even if i still hate Christmas music…

Christmas (Eve/Christmas Day) was lovely. Christmas is always lovely, isn’t it? I really enjoy picking out gifts for people—even more than i like getting gifts, i think, although i got a lot of very thoughtfully-chosen gifts this year and i’m very thankful. My family and friends know me really well, and that makes me feel all kinds of loved. Christmas to me is all about family and light and showing a little bit of love, so that’s what i tried to do this year. It’s a joy to make the effort when it comes to Christmas.

Nathan finished up his beautiful bar in our basement just in time for our New Year’s Eve party. I love it, and i’m super proud of him. He put a lot of work into our bar, and i hope we get to use it for many years to come. The party was wonderful and there were so many people and so many conversations and tasty things to eat and drink, and all six or seven hours of it flew by in the blink of an eye just like our wedding did, even though there was a lot less dancing involved. Those of us who made it until midnight toasted with sparkling wine and popped those confetti cracker things and blew on noisemakers, and it was wonderful and a great mess to clean up the next morning, but totally worth it. A couple friends who crashed at our house even got us breakfast and helped clean up. We’re very lucky. There are a few of our friends who will sadly be leaving Iowa in the next couple of years, but for now i just feel connected and happy and very fortunate to have them so near.

NYE Me!

If 2015 is anything like 2014, it’ll be a wonderful year. I’ll turn thirty this year. Bring it on! It’s going to be great fun, and i anticipate that my thirties are going to probably be better than my twenties were. So, thank you to everyone who made 2014 great. I’m going to try to pay it back this year. Let’s make it another great one!

My 2014 Song of the Year award goes to Red Eyes by The War on Drugs. We were listening to it when midnight struck. I can’t get enough of it.

2014 Europe Trip, Part I

We recently took a trip to Europe, and we did so much in two mere weeks that the task of writing about it has been daunting. We visited three countries and seven cities, heard four or five different languages, tried dozens of different beers and foods and saw a million beautiful things. It was exhausting, but it was also really cool.

It was Nathan’s 30th birthday and his mom’s 50th this September, so what better way to celebrate a couple of milestone September birthdays than to travel to Oktoberfest? That was my idea, and i’m still surprised we went for it.

So first the four of us flew to Brussels together, where we stayed in an apartment for two nights. It had a great view of the Montgomery fountain and the Cinquantenaire. In Brussels we visited the Cantillon brewery and had several of their fabulous lambic beers, ate wonderful foods including pastries, waffles, mussels (of course), beef stew, Croatian food, coconut ice cream and other delectables, and saw the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis. Brussels is a bigger city than i’d realized, and there appeared to be much more to do there than we were even able to scratch the surface of in two days.

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Next Lillian and Tom headed to Germany while Nathan and I continued to explore Belgium. We drove to Ghent where we had what was probably the most frustrating day of our lives trying unsuccessfully to drive around to elusive eateries, but we made the best of it in the evening by exploring the astounding Gothic cathedrals there and having some good beer and food.

Bruges was our next stop. We found it to be relatively quiet and relaxed, and we had fun there touring the shops and the brewery and walking along the canals. We paid a few Euros to take a gander at a Michelangelo sculpture in a church there, and we had a good dinner of tapas at a place that we had to get to by sidling down an alleyway that was barely wider than ourselves.

We also visited some distant cousins of mine who live in Bruges. My Grandmother’s cousin and his kids & grandkids are a close-knit and very welcoming bunch, and it was fascinating to chat with them for a few hours about some of the differences in our cultures. Everyone we encountered in Europe spoke at least a little English, by the way, and many seemed to be quite fluent.

Poperinge was our next stop. We had originally planned to go there in order to visit the Westvleteren monastery (brewery), but it happened to be closed while we were there. Fortunately, however, there was a hops festival going on that only happens every three years. So that was odd luck on both counts. The whole town was decorated with hop vines, and the festival offered a lot of cheap beers and foods to try, including the famous Westvleteren 12 (which we found to be rather overrated). We also went to the De Struisse brewery, but it wasn’t much to see.

That was the first half of our trip, and i think i’ll stop there for now. Parte Deux will be about Austria and Germany, and i’m promising myself right now that i will write about it as soon as i can.

Tot de volgende keer…