loss

On Wednesday, I learned of the death of a dear friend from college. I hadn’t been in touch with him for many years but hearing about his passing has left me absolutely devastated. He was the type of person who exuded an aura of thoughtfulness, strength, and intelligence and made the world a better place just by being in it.

I met him when I was a baby college freshman at the University of Michigan. I came from a small, conservative, primarily white town, and had lived, by all accounts, a very sheltered life. Coming to Ann Arbor, living in East Quad, which was without doubt the most liberal, flamboyant, artistic place on campus, was absolutely mind-blowing and numbing. I went to college thinking that it would be crewneck sweaters, football games, beer drinking, frat parties, and late-night study sessions in cute pajamas with my hair in curlers. It instead turned out to be complete chaos, depression, and confusion, struggling to make friends with people of all ethnicities and social backgrounds, people who were frank about their sexuality and gender-bending and didn’t view it to be a shameful secret; people who didn’t think jokes about minorities or gays were funny (not that I did, either; I’d just come from a place in which they were part of the social language). The highly liberal and artistic environment of EQ attracted many talented and amazing people and also a fair amount of drug abuse, instability, and mental health issues. In addition, my roommate suffered from terrible depression and by the end of the year, had come to grips with sexual abuse in her past that left her, many days, sobbing on the floor of our dorm room.

I had never given any thought to issues like race, gender, our government, what was happening in the Persian Gulf at the time. I had never lived outside the bubble of the world that I knew. In short, I was shocked and numbed and completely unprepared for the social experience, which was a thousand times more important than the educational experience.

At first glance, C. was a somewhat intimidating young Black man with a lot of muscles and a cool, insolent stare under his ball caps. At first, it seemed odd that he was living in EQ, instead of in South or West, where a lot of the athletic sports-loving types lived. He listened to NWA and Public Enemy in his dorm room and came and went as he pleased; people said he was a townie, and we assumed that he went back home a lot. In truth, he was probably just wandering. Over the year, he gravitated to our dorm room a lot and began dating my roommate, and thus began a friendship that lasted for a long time. Then I understood why he lived with us instead of somewhere else – he had no tolerance for anything without deeper meaning, just for the sake of being around people who looked or acted more like him. He was one of the most educated and intellectual people I’d ever met – his mother was a university professor at a nearby school, he spoke fluent French and was a star student in the Residential College’s immersion language program, he spent summers in Manhattan with his older brother. He had survived Hodgkins lymphoma in junior high and high school, and that experience gave him a wisdom that not many people our age possessed. He seemed to live as an observer much of the time, in his own head behind his eyes, conducting an internal dialogue with himself about what he saw; sometimes he shared that dialogue but more often he didn’t, keeping it private. He was a private person.

He laughed at me a lot, at my style of dress and my turn of phrase, and I know there were a lot of times that he thought I was a bit of a cracker, but he was exceptionally kind and protective – his presence was very reassuring and always made me feel safe and contented. Through him I learned what it was like to have a dear friendship that looked past the external and focused only on the people that we were inside. I learned a lot from him and felt proud that he was my friend.

C. went on to obtain a PHD in philosophy and he became a university professor himself, teaching Black studies and doing ethnographic research in high school classes. He spent time in Haiti studying transnational racism, education, and justice. He married a woman from the Dominican Republic, and they had a son.

In July, he was diagnosed with cancer, and by November, it had spread to his lungs. He was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve and he died in the early hours of December 27. His son is five years old and there are no words for how tragic and unfair it is that he will never remember more than bits and pieces of his father, who was such an extraordinary person.

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christmas + obligatory cat pictures

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Happy Boxing Day! I hope everyone out in Readerland had a relaxing and peaceful holiday, whichever one you personally celebrate. For us, it’s Christmas. Lily and I drove home from the beautiful North on Christmas Eve. As I’ve alluded to in the past, I am blessed to have an amazing relationship with Lil’s dad and his partner Miss K. They are celebrating their Christmas later this week with his family, so they had no problems letting me take Lily on both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I won’t see her for over a week now, but I know she will be having an amazing time with her grandparents and with her dad and Miss K. I could not be luckier or more appreciative when it comes to all the loving and generous people in Lily’s life on both sides of her family. I don’t know how it all happened, how we forgave each other and moved into a new phase, but I know that Miss K has a huge heart and has been instrumental in it, too.

Jax and his family are traveling this week, so I am essentially on my own. I’ll work a few days – the office is extremely quiet during this time, so it’s a “wear jeans and come and go as you please” kind of atmosphere, with all of the Executive Shirts out. I plan on doing a lot of knitting this week and finishing up the Karl Pilkington oeuvre on Netflix, as well as the American Horror Story: Coven that I started. I plan on making a couple of warming dishes – white bean and ham soup, and a One-Pan Mexican Quinoa which I’ve made before, and I just love. I will hit up the gym and stock the fridge and freezer and get a jump start on my January detox with some smoothies and supplements. I have a special night out planned later this week, and then Jax and the kiddos and Izzy the Dog will be back for a cozy New Year’s Eve with pajamas, lasagna, and snacks. (Maybe some wine for me before aforementioned January detox…)

Enjoy your week! xoxo

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a few of my favorites

I am finally up north in my natural habitat and so glad that the holidays have officially begun for me.

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The last push to the holidays were difficult but I feel pleased with the way everything unfolded. There were work matters that, even if they didn’t totally resolve, were suspended satisfactorily. The class holiday party for Miss L that I stressed about ended up being fun and relaxed and we had several parents show up to help and donate treats. The kids limboed the morning away and they seemed to enjoy the craft I picked out for them so all went well.

There were lighthearted, nice moments with Miss L’s father & stepmom at an old-fashioned holiday singalong at her school. Miss L wore a very fancy red holiday dress with a sash and her stepmom did a beautiful job curling her hair and we got lots of compliments about how grown-up she looked.

There were good times with Jax and his family before they go their own way for their family holidays – we will reunite on New Year’s Eve. We ate at a Chinese restaurant that reminded me of the one that Ralphie’s family from “Christmas Story” visited after the Bumpas Hounds ate their turkey. We read our Chinese horoscopes off the menus and after some spirited family debate, finally had to compromise that we are ALL perhaps a bit selfish and eccentric.

Izzy loved her Christmas gift from me & Miss L.

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I painted my nails on Saturday night and here it is Thursday and they still look decent. Thank you Essie Gel – my new go-to fave. The bottle says it will last 14 days but that is patently ridiculous – nail polish never lasts for 14 days on my nails. Lasting for 5+ days is a huge feat and makes me a believer.

So these things are, right  now, some of my favorites.

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book review: The Likeness, Tana French

I’ve been a big Tana French fan for a few years now, and when I had some credits available on Audible, I spent one on an audiobook of “The Likeness”, which is #2 in her Dublin Murder Squad series. I’d enjoyed the first Dublin Murder Squad novel, “In the Woods”, and had jumped around to read #3 and #4, “Faithful Place” and “Broken Harbor” – both of which I also really liked. French is an engaging author, and writes complex, flawed characters in an easy to read, conversational tone. Her works are set in Ireland, as the series name would imply, and are as much glimpses into a country and a culture as they are tense, suspenseful thrillers. I can’t remember how many of her novels are written in first-person, but “The Likeness” is, for sure. Cassie Maddox, the main character, is a female detective whom we first met in “In the Woods”.  Currently somewhat dissatisfied with her work in domestic violence, she is recruited to return to her roots as an undercover officer – investigating the murder of a young woman who also happens to be her doppelganger. Physically identical, the victim has also adopted the name that Cassie herself used as an undercover officer – Lexie Madison – an identity that is long gone.

How is it possible someone could be her dead ringer and also adopt Cassie’s previous identity? At the coaxing of Frank Massey, a cop who is also a recurring character in the Dublin Murder Squad series, Cassie is quickly immersed in Lexie Madison, and leaves behind her lover, also a cop, to drop undercover into Lexie’s life and former home, a history-laden mansion occupied by a quartet of eccentric university students. However, the case soon proves very difficult for Cassie, who finds it almost impossible to detach herself emotionally from Lexie and her new roommates. Intrigued and enchanted by their quirks, their isolation and their bonds to one another, as well as by the history of the gothic mansion, Cassie’s grasp on her identity begins to waver, as does her commitment to her job.

French is skilled at creating characters that resonate and speak with a genuine voice – but she is equally capable of creating characters that are irritating and unlikeable because of their flaws. With the housemates, I felt as though she was trying for a group reminiscent of the Greek scholars of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” – intellectuals, old souls, perhaps supernaturally so, hearkening back to a deep, rich, meaningful history. Excluded and bonded tightly to each other for mysterious and fascinating reasons. But unfortunately they just didn’t interest me. Their eccentricity was forced. Embroidery and arch intellectual wit and adoration of antiques – but I couldn’t tell the difference between any of the male housemates, except that Daniel was written almost as a pale echo of Henry in “The Secret History”. They seemed pretentious and pedantic and one-dimensional.

French sketches out an explanation that Cassie’s attraction to the house and the housemates is balm to a soul that has been wary and detached, without family, finding pain in most interpersonal relationships. She wants us to recognize why and how Cassie falls for them. Readers see her hypnotism with them unfold slowly, almost agonizingly, and here is where the book fell far short for me. The story bogs down with this and the pace lags; I COULDN’T understand why she was so absorbed in them, because I simply didn’t find them interesting or unique. When Cassie begins to turn off her undercover microphone at crucial times, and to empathize, to feel that she is one of these odd and essentially unlikeable housemates, I just rolled my eyes. It became incredibly frustrating to witness her flaws and failures. It felt false, as though she is all too willing to turn her back on her boyfriend, her career, the life she has built for herself, for a flimsy fantasy.

I love that French makes me think – always wondering and never quite discounting the most unbelievable or unexpected explanation. I always get to a point in her books where I begin to think that the only possible solution is the unexplainable, the supernatural, the internal world. Or the most unexpected – you can’t ever rule out that the main character themselves are somehow to blame. They are tricky and unexpected and untrustworthy, which I generally like about French. I will read “The Trespasser”, her most recent. But my final recommendation on “The Likeness” – pick up another of her books if you want the full Tana French experience – and if you want the gothic assimilation experience, go for Donna Tartt’s “Secret History” instead.

mexico interlude

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sunset over mexico city

All my life, I’ve heard negative things about Mexico City, but both of my trips here have been really enjoyable. I’m sure it helps a lot that I visit a law firm in a very nice area of the city. I sit in the back of the taxi or the Uber and enjoy the sights, the narrow streets full of greenery and the architecture, the old and the shabby and the bright mixed with wrought-iron and warm brick. We saw dogwalkers leading huge packs of happy pooches of all sizes and shapes, and the traffic crawled in ill-tempered snarls.
Signs of Christmas were everywhere and we arrived on the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so the churches were ready with their fireworks. There are poinsettia everywhere, called “Nochebuena” flower, or roughly translated, Christmas Eve flower. Our hotel lobby played Christmas music and sported an enormous Christmas tree made of green glass wine bottles filled with twinkling lights.

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We work with two attorneys, a partner who is just beginning to make the transition into comfortable, secure middle-aged sprawl and his young apprentice, who reminds me of a sweet-tempered and more angelic Max Fischer from “Rushmore”. “Max Fischer” looks like a young boy dressing up to play the role of responsible attorney – he wears impeccably tailored suits, expensive shoes and watch, and lovely Hermes ties. However, his eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses are bright and full of wry humor, his hair is a little too long in the back, smooth as a birds’ wing, and he is the first to twinkle with amusement when I make a joke or a frank observation.
Max and the partner took us to lunch at a place I’d noticed from the taxi on the way over. A brick archway off the street gave a glimpse of a roundabout and a historic-looking mansion decorated with Christmas lights and baubles; a rounded tower with a cross atop it rose above and musicians in turquoise suits trailed up the sidewalk carrying their brass instruments and smoking their last cigarettes. It was, the partner told us when he guided us into the entry, a sixteenth-century hacienda. Haciendas, he explained,were an important part of the economy in Mexico, used for raising cattle or horses, or, as in the case of this particular Hacienda, growing mulberry trees to breed silkworms. He compared them to plantations in our deep South, and we advised him that this was not a particularly flattering comparison, but he knew, and advised that hacienda owners were not always kind to the indigenous labor that they utilized.

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The hacienda was now used for parties and weddings and events; there was a small chapel  filled to the brim with fresh flowers. We had lunch under smooth, worn red brick ceilings; everything was done table-side and the food was spectacular. I had homemade mole sauce, which is a go-to when I am in Mexico, and tres leches cake for afters. There was the requisite solemn talk about Donald Trump and what we can expect relative to NAFTA, and how it will impact our friends and our businesses. Then, Max turned to me and inquired solicitously if I’d enjoyed my lunch. I had, I told him, and laughed that I would have taken a picture of it if I hadn’t felt embarrassed. I told him that I am an avid Instagrammer and follow a lot of food blogs, and commented that it was very difficult to take appetizing pictures of food, even the best food.

Max brightened immediately and pulled out his phone. He shyly showed me a special app that he had loaded which was full of filters specifically for food photography! He shared that he is a food blogger and let me page through his Instagram account, full of beautiful photos of meals, drinks, ice creams, and treats. I marvel, always, at the people I find when I travel, and how so many of them are secret artists, dreamers, and followers of beauty.

The altitude was difficult for me (~7,000 feet above sea level as opposed to Detroit’s 600) and I had a terrible headache by the time we made our leisurely way back to the office. Mexico City business starts late and ends late, and I was ready for bed by the time our meeting finished. The partner said a dignified farewell to us, kissing me on both cheeks, and sent Max scurrying to acquire us a taxi (30 minute wait) or an Uber (15 minute wait). Max solicitously hovered until our driver appeared, and there were hugs all around; my last view of him was flashing the peace sign with an impish grin. We disappeared into the slow moving river of red taillights and traffic, horns and curses and music sounding around us.

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the one about the christmas tree

For many years, we had a fake Christmas tree that was well over 6-ft tall and pre-lit, purchased at Costco, I think. When I set up my own household, however, that tree became difficult to manage. It was heavy and unwieldy, and the last year I used it several sections of the lighting went out. I am not entirely handy when it comes to electrical things so I draped extra lights over the burnt-out sections and hoped for the best. When Em and Sarge were kits, they deeply enjoyed treating it as their own personal jungle gym, chewing and climbing, and the end result was a pretty ratty looking tree that always threatened to topple.

Last year, I decided to get a real tree. L and I went to the nearby Christmas tree lot (in the rain) and debated intensely under dripping hoods about the size. I wanted a SMALL tree. L wanted a HUGE tree. We settled on one that didn’t seem so large, neatly netted and mostly stuck in my old Camry. Between the lot and my driveway, though, some sort of holiday alchemy turned this neat little bundle into an enormous, prickly, heavy, wet, dirty thing that I could barely drag onto my porch. Being new to the live tree business, I made a lot of errors – for example, not letting the boughs drop and dry off a bit before I brought it into the house, and trying to put it into the stand inside my living room rather than outside. The stand itself was a joke -purchased at top dollar from our hometown hardware store (which I always try to patronize instead of a big box store but which admittedly comes with a lesser selection and an upcharge). It stated proudly that it was the easiest stand one could buy but I couldn’t help but think this was a remarkable example of false advertising as it was just a big plastic dish with four long bolts that you essentially just screwed into the tree base. The tree fell over on me several times, scraped me, lost half its needles, dirtied up my clothes, entryway, and carpet, kicked me in the crotch and then ate half of my snacks before I got it into a lopsided standing position which I deemed “fucking good enough”. A year later, I am STILL finding needles from that damn thing in strange places. I am pretty sure it slept in my bed and took selfies in my closet.

This year, determined not to repeat last year’s experience, I got a sad patchy little tree from Ikea (which I thought had Scandinavian charm) and Lily looked at me as though I was playing a bad joke on her. “MOM,” she said. “You know the smaller the tree, the fewer the presents, right?”

This article would indicate that real trees are a better choice but now that I have my Ikea tree, if I’m being environmentally responsible, I have to get a solid 10 years out of it. It’s kind of nice to have that choice taken out of my hands for awhile.

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Sarge “helping” me wrap presents with our lovely little Scandinavian tree in the background.

 

mostly about knitting

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I’ve been knitting a lot. I’ve been lulled by the soothing simplicity of mindless log cabin garter stitch, but also finished up a pair of somewhat ungainly-looking, but hopefully warm, wool mittens. I tend to get most of my knitting done at Lily’s gymnastics classes. The waiting rooms sport old pleather chairs, the type found in a Coney Island, and are overcrowded with waiting parents and squalling siblings. I pop in my earphones, turn on a podcast or an audio book, and knit away.

Unfortunately, the last class tended to be less productive than usual. I had two projects in my Moomin knitting bag that I’d hoped to make good progress on. One was an easy, slouchy garter hat in a simple pattern, and the other was a tea mug cozy. However, the pattern on the cozy was written in a confusing way and I am still not sure how you start something in the round, turn it inside out, and then stop knitting in the round and just switch to rows. I made a stab at it by switching over to straight needles but it got hopelessly muddled and had to be ripped back. Then I tried to finish the hat, but the decrease rounds neglected to add the helpful tip to switch from a circular needle to dpn’s. I knew this, from doing several baby hats back in the day, but ultimately I couldn’t decrease enough to keep a large hole from forming in the top of the hat and that had to be ripped back as well. Very frustrating. However, at least on the hat I know what I’ve done wrong. I don’t have real intentions for these projects, anyway – the tea cup cozy was going to be a gift, but it was just a supplement to the real gift, and the hat was just to fill up our hall closet’s hat and glove bins. Lily tends to play fast and loose with hats and mittens and it’s always good to have spares. So the next hat will be started soon, in a smaller size, and a nicer color, I think.

I’m overcommitted between now and Christmas and am not feeling good about it. I have one last work trip to hurdle, with three days in Mexico City next week. Last night I led a Girl Scout meeting to show the girls how to earn their Inventor badges – I have no idea how I got roped into this or why I am did it. I think I felt immense gratitude at our Scout leaders for always doing such cool things with the girls and I really wanted to Give Something Back. I honestly don’t know how teachers do it. I felt like I was yelling at the top of my voice during the whole meeting and had to jettison my “lesson plan” when the whole thing went belly-up. I handed out “Inventor Notebooks” and pencils and let the girls fly with their own invention ideas. There were several ideas for spy-cams – mostly to make sure siblings were not impeding on their personal space or private thoughts – but my favorite was a belt invented to keep boys away. The intrepid young Scout drew a round circle (the belt, probably) with several arms extending from it to “push” the offending boys away. The other girls regarded it solemnly and then one said, somewhat dreamily, “And then someday you’ll want to take the belt OFF” at which pointed I shrieked with somewhat hysterical nervous laughter and asked one of the other children to discuss their great idea to take off snowpants more easily!! Crisis narrowly averted but I can’t help but think some parents saw those Inventor Notebooks come home last night with cookie forms and wondered what the hell we were teaching their kids.
Similarly, I offered to “help out” at Lily’s class holiday party and ended up becoming one of the two party parents. The other parent works midnights. I envisioned being one of a party crew, baking a few treats, being present to help with an activity, but this is not how it’s turning out. So far, we have no other parent volunteers and no one has offered to bring any treats at all. This seems generally really lame to me but I’m also a little jealous of the nameless, faceless masses who don’t have to wake up at 4 AM fretting about such things and feeling the weight of a whole classroom’s holiday expectations on their shoulders.

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obligatory pic of my handsome boy sarge