Happy Hunger Games!

English: A map of the fictional nation of Pane...

English: A map of the fictional nation of Panem from Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And may the odds be ever in your favor!

I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to Suzanne Collins for creating a trilogy that actually kept me as enthused as the Harry Potter books did. And that’s saying something considering the seven long years it took between the day a boy in my fifth grade class, Michael, beseeched us all to read Sorcerer’s Stone and the near-transcendental moment when Deathly Hallows entered my grasp at a Barnes and Noble midnight book party.

I did not think such a Herculean feat would ever be possible, but she managed to pull it off. Sure, I was at first highly skeptical of this futuristic world called Panem in which children fought to the death on live television while most of the North American population teetered on the edge of starvation.

It sounded charming. Who wouldn’t want to read it? Apparently everyone else was eagerly flipping pages and thinking that dystopian governments were the cat’s pajamas. In fact, I was probably the only college English major for miles and miles who had not cracked the glossy front cover of The Hunger Games.

But thanks to the incredible enthusiasm of my dear friend Caroline who insisted I read the series, so I could chat with her at-length about its philosophical ramifications–we’re liberal artsy like that–and my amazing friend Jacqui who patiently explained the premise of the first book when I went to the movie premiere with her, I became curious enough to start reading. Then just like everyone else, I got hooked. So hooked that after finishing book one at the beach, I jay-walked across an eight-lane road just as the sun was slipping from view to see if either the Food Lion or the Rite Aid across the street from my hotel had a copy of Catching Fire.

Before I watch part 1 of the final movie in the series, I’d like to reflect on the final novel.

It might come as a surprise that I dragged out Mockingjay for as long as possible. I didn’t want it to end, and I was convinced about halfway through the war-against-the-Capitol bloodbath that either Katniss or Peeta would probably die. This was too depressing to me after Katniss had already lost her father, numerous fellow tribute-friends, chunks of flesh the size of playing cards and quite possibly, Peeta, whose mental health was certainly suspect. I think I wanted to freeze the book when Peeta begins to return to his senses in the tunnels underneath the Capital right before Finnick dies, tell myself they all somehow lived as happily ever after as it’s possible to in Panem, and close the book for good.

But alas, I persevered. And to my surprise—since I am usually a sucker for happy endings—I was not saddened by the conclusion of Mockingjay. Prim’s death didn’t move me the way it probably should have and while I wanted Katniss’ mother as well as Gale to be emotionally stronger, more resilient, and maybe even better people. Their swift and abrupt exits left me with a personal sense of relief even though the exits were executed like a narrative nightmare.

Sure, I was thrilled that Katniss and Peeta got married, had children, and settled into a quiet and seemingly secluded life in District 12 (even though a small and delusional part of me thought they might become King and Queen of Panem despite their lack of political ambition), but to me the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Endings always flow from what comes before them, and while it was a stroke of sheer brilliance for Collins to have Katniss kill Coin rather than Snow, I disliked the apparent trust and covert agreement spontaneously forged between Katniss and the man she wanted dearly to assassinate throughout the entire tale. The scene in Catching Fire where Snow states that it would be easier if the two didn’t lie to each other after the 74th annual Hunger Games seemed to me like a sneering remark from Snow to press through Katniss’ deception. This was also the man who orchestrated hundreds of children’s deaths, forced Katniss into a bridal gown—not to mention another round of games—and threatened Gale’s life. I never thought she would take his words to heart at the end of the trilogy and make life-and-death decisions based upon them.

Nevertheless, even I doubted Katniss’ true motivations and loyalties when Coin suggested one final Hunger Games to punish the Capitol’s favored children and their parents. When she agrees to the Games “for Prim” and states that now is the moment when she will see how much Haymitch really understands her and how alike they are, I originally thought she wanted still more bloodshed and was repulsed. After sorting through the ending though, I believe she and Haymitch agree because they are quite crafty at this point and seek to lure Coin into a false sense of security to make her believe they are on her side and will support her new regime. But could Coin’s assassination really have been premeditated by Katniss? It’s hard to say.

Perhaps it was a stylistic choice on Collins’ part to represent Katniss’ increasingly fragile mental health throughout the war by giving the reader less and less access to her thoughts and desires. Katniss was more confused than ever with her home in smoldering ruins and her loved ones in constant danger, and that’s understandable. But as her hair was singed off and her body broken by explosions and gunshots, I couldn’t help but think that I was losing a sense of her identity. In a way, Collins is smart here because one of Katniss’ chief complaints is that she is always a pawn in someone’s games—as a tribute, a star-crossed lover, and a mocking jay.

At least for the first half of Mockingjay, I really believed that all the drugs she was taking for shock from the Quarter Quells were altering her narration. What if all the confusing, broken narration and mentions of reality-altering drugs were also a way to keep readers removed from any hint of the surprise ending? We see Katniss hazily, as if through a veil, a confused and broken girl losing her savvy determination – not to mention things worth fighting for.

While that might have been the author’s intention, I think the Katniss we see in Mockingjay, the girl who carries off a master assassination plan with Haymitch at the novel’s conclusion, is very much the same girl who managed to beat the Capitol at its own game with the berries she finds via her hunting instincts in the first arena. After all, she’s still willing to be front and center in the battle of District 8. But Snow’s death shows how you don’t always need a hero to save the day and kill the villain. Sometimes, man’s thoughtless inhumanity to man is enough to get the job done by mere trampling. I felt like this death was a metaphor explaining how darkness lurks in humanity and, in a moment of manifestation, overcame Snow in a single, crushing wave.

Most importantly, Katniss softens fully over the course of this last leg of her journey. She’s willing to claw at Haymitch’s face when he fails to deliver Peeta safely to District 13. She is even willing to defend the Capitol stylists’ character to Gale when he mocks and sneers at them. Like Peeta, she is having trouble understanding what is real and what is not real – but somehow, the boy with the bread becomes her family, gets under her skin, and softens her. Gale tells Peeta that Katniss will choose whichever man she needs most. In a world of brutal warfare, starvation, death and pain, she needed the first dandelion in spring.

 

 

Good Karma

photo.PNG-2“Promise yourself to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind. Look at the sunny side of everything and make your optimism come true. Think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the best. Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. Give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others. Live in the faith that the whole world is on your side so long as you are true to the best that is in you!” – Christian D. Larson 

It’s easy to get bogged down in stress and worry, in our jobs, school assignments, and friend and familial obligations. A day will always come around when something’s off with your car, you can’t figure out your homework, or people just aren’t as nice or forgiving as you’d like for them to be.

It’s harder to remember your repetitive thoughts about situations become your beliefs and that your beliefs become real.

Today, for a class assignment on ethnography, I visited a local farmer’s market with two sweet girls in my year. It was utterly relaxing and normal to be surrounded by peaceful customers who wanted nothing more than to find a great fresh vegetable for dinner or to discover some yellow pansies to plant in their yards. Everyone seemed relaxed and in no hurry at all. I might have seen four cellphones flash by although I passed dozens and dozens of people. Shoppers called out friendly greetings to the vendors, whom they clearly had interacted with before. Young children played with toy cars and bright blocks in a gazebo centered right in the middle of the market.

I felt a bit like a reporter again, carefully observing the scene and writing down what seemed interesting or unique.

The sun was out, the air was crisp, and the whole atmosphere was one of community and welcome. Although I was busy scribbling in a notebook noting everything from people’s conversations to their shoe style, even I was pulled into a conversation by a farmer named Patrick who noticed my alma mater name on my coat. It turned out his wife’s aunt worked as an economics professor at my college, and we had a nice chat about that for a few minutes.

I was trying to be inconspicuous and stand on the edges of the crowd but was pulled into the action. That’s the way life is, too. Sometimes we just have to let go and move with the current that’s flowing strongly around us.

I can’t be perfect. You can’t be perfect. The squash crop isn’t perfect either. But it’s still beautiful. Not everything is going to get done exactly when we want it to, exactly the way we want it to. The assignments are always going to be there, or your kids are always going to be there needing your help. Or those bills are always going to come along and need to be paid.

But life isn’t at its core about any of our stressors. It’s about the simple sense of community and well-being that can be found at a local farmer’s market.

We too have to foster harmony in our relationships, look for commonalities, try to be as warm and hospitable as we can, and ask for forgiveness when we haven’t been stellar humans. We are like the vendors waiting at our stands, trying to make a good impression and build a bridge of connection to customers as they stroll by.

I recently interviewed my aunt for a multimedia project, and she gave me a great quote to use in the film I’m creating. “I honestly believe in karma, it’s what you throw out in the world you get back. If you give good, you get good. If you give evil, evil comes back to you.”

It’s so simple yet so true.

Do I miss being able to write frequently? Yes, yes I do. Do I know at the core of my being that being a writer is who I am and was as a little girl and always will be most likely? Yes, yes I do. When I heard those two girls talking about writing classes that they hope to take next semester, was I a little nostalgic and sad? Yes, yes I was.

But I’m going to trust that everything’s working out the way it’s supposed to and that switching into the public relations track from the news & reporting one was a good life decision. I can’t see myself running around for the rest of my life, wired on coffee and in hot pursuit of the Next Big Story. I love to listen, but not quite that much. I like to travel, but not like that.

So I hope these two worlds of mine – the journalistic creative writing side and the problem-solving world of strategic communication and public relations – will blend together beautifully like the colors of the earthenware mugs I saw at the farmer’s market this morning.

Because I want to breathe deeply and fully all the days of my life. I want the sense of peace that allows me to lie down in the sunny spot on the couch and drift off into a crystallized world of daydreams and meditation just because. I want to spend three hours lost in a fascinating conversation about the meaning of life or curled up with a good piece of fiction. I want to build relationships with people worth knowing and keeping in my life.

I want to send out enough good will vibrationally so that the energy rises up like a sparkling purple net to catch and overtake any negativity that lingers around myself and the people who surround me.

Here’s to trying to be a good person today and to believing in the unfolding process of life.

 

Fall into Yesterday

20140910-222303.jpgSticky, summer heat slowly slips away. The sun fades toward the horizon line faster than it did at the summer equinox. She walks into the market to find wooden bins in the shape of pyramids overflowing with bright candy corn packages. It’s still warm. You can still wear shorts and flip flops. But the season is definitely changing.

Those eyes are making her change, too.

Tailgating for football begins. Hordes of people stroll down the streets of the college town, proud in their school colors. They walk in search of a place to set up tents and let their spirit show, let their spirits flow, until the last of the light dies away.

It’s hard to find those eyes in the evening. It’s hard to discern their color.

The time for poring over books and journals in the library approaches. Glinting MacBooks with their perfectly square keys that allow them all to type in what they please will soon fill their vision. Until then few decisions must be made.

The eyes lean a little bit closer, are wider, still can’t be seen.

Paved pathways sprout from the ground and flow in every conceivable direction. We walk en masse. We groupthink. We look for similarities. We celebrate differences. We are kind and sympathetic. We are becoming . . . friends? (He pushes me toward the front of the strolling group. I cannot go near those eyes in public).

Those eyes that fixate on my face when I speak. They tell me things it took months to learn about other people. Just like before only different.

Always a crowd is pushing you forward, someone’s footfalls sound right behind you. The full refrigerator and rickety chairs full of bags and beings are not enough to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

The sound of that voice is what centers me. For now.

 

 

 

Life: Just a spin of the rainbow dial?

photoI recently downloaded a version of the board game “LIFE” from the app store. It’s fun and vibrant with jazzy little cars that speed along a winding road past lakes (with moving boats!), apple trees, and lit houses. At certain points along the path, you must stop and pick a career, salary, and house. Hitting the “Congratulations, twins!” square always seems to mean they’re identical. And by the middle of the game, I often find myself upgrading to a mega-mansion before retiring to Millionaire Estates.

Then, if I’m lucky enough to win, a scrapbook of my life flashes across the screen. It shows me my college years, my job, husband, children, house, and a few of my most noteworthy activities. In under 30 minutes I’ve lived 85 successful years and even snuck in a trip to the Great Wall of China.

But life’s rarely that neat and concise. There are an overwhelming amount of choices to be made, and unfortunately, no neat stack of cards to choose from.

Two weeks ago, I found myself standing in the middle of the daunting display floor know as Ashley’s Furniture HomeStore. I was unsure which was the best couch or bed to pick for my new apartment. The place was vast and overflowing with vases and mirrors and dining room sets. Small children scrambled from one gray ottoman to the next, lost in a safari of wooden legs and desk drawers. Tired from a 2.5 hour drive up to my new university home, I flopped on one couch after another, determining that they were either too hard or too squishy or lacking tall enough backs. I felt like Goldilocks.

Yet even after the furniture’s all picked out, sometimes you wait for hours for the furniture delivery man only to find out a salesman sold the coffee table you’d already bought to someone else. Sometimes the full-length mirror breaks apart when you try to screw nails into its back. Sometimes you come to the realization that your legs will never touch the floor at the dining table unless you go out and buy a shorter chair.

But beside the glitches, there have been fun trips to pick out paintings of Paris and pleasant afternoons lining kitchen drawers with decorative paper. I’m organizing my space and looking forward to welcoming guests into it – yes, the futon is already bought.

These days, I am more well acquainted with the Home section of Target and TJ Maxx than I ever planned to be. I’ve watched pushy old ladies practically ram into my shopping cart if I’m in the way of their pursuit of a half-off “Grandma loves me” picture frame. I’ve spent days fussing over shower curtains and dish towels, strainers, and lamps.

It was up in my parent’s attic that a certain realization hit me though. I was looking into the dusty eyes of old stuffed animals and pawing at frilly dresses that haven’t seen sunlight since I was seven. It turned out that the abstract paintings up there weren’t what I had in mind for a blank wall in my apartment. But looking at the bags and boxes full of years of memories, I realized all the “stuff” does have some purpose. It’s a connection to the past. Proof that we were once different people with different priorities living in an alternate reality. No, the doll house with its pink roof and happy Milton Bradley family is no longer my most prized possession. But it once was.

Those old objects freeze time for me and for all of us. It’s like the first time you read about a favorite character’s death in a beloved children’s book. I recall being devastated when Sirius Black slips beyond the veil in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while his cousin-murderer, Bellatrix, cackles in victory. Reading the book again, however, brought him back to life, at least for a little while. Once I knew how the story ended, I could return to it and the Potter books that preceded it and relive the parts I most enjoyed without fear of the unknown future. Harry may be in his mid-thirties with three kids, starting to go gray, and weary from his Auror work – at least according to Rita Skeeter’s latest article. But when I open the pages of those books now, I’m 11 again and so is he. And we’re waiting to board the scarlet steam engine that will take us to Hogwarts and a world of fantastic adventure.

It’s the same with your old clothes, toys and trinkets. When they’re in your hands, you too remember all the versions of yourself you have been.

I know the Potter books will grace my apartment’s book shelves. Just as I’m sure that laughter from reruns of “The Golden Girls” will reverberate off my walls, too. In that cozy Miami kitchen where Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia came together in the 1980s to share secrets and cheesecake, there is comfort. I know and love all the show’s wacky plot lines, from a trip to the sperm bank with Blanche’s daughter to Rose taking in a “show chicken” who plays the piano. I grin when Stan shows up broke again at the front door or Sophia begins a story with her trademark, “Picture it: Sicily.” I love the women’s silk floral dressing gowns and interdependence on each other. I love how they still have vibrant social lives, an obsession with men and a fearless attitude that allows them to tackle hobbies like tap dancing and pursue careers as teachers, art directors, consumer reporters and counselors. Yet at the end of it all, their world is contained and, though incredibly fun, predictable. Sometimes, all you really need is 30 minutes of comedy and closeness when your own life seems uncertain.

I’m moving down a winding road, strapped into my little LIFE car, and I don’t know where the bumps or best parts of the journey will be yet. It can be daunting – like staring at a blank page when you know that to be a writer you just need to start writing. But in these types of situations, you’ve just got to rev the engine and find out what lies ahead for you.

 

Duggar Daze

imageThe Duggars. Love them or pity them, one thing is certain. You have to respect their ability to raise that many children in the spotlight without any major catastrophes. The mega-family from Arkansas with 19 children has also never used any public assistance.

I’ve been a fan of the Duggar family since their first documentary on the Discovery Health channel in 2004 titled “14 Kids and Pregnant Again!” Looking back at YouTube clips of that special, I’m left with one major thought: Thank goodness the women of the family abandoned those floor-length, Pilgrim-style, plaid dresses with the pointed white collars.

Catch an episode of “19 Kids and Counting” on TLC a decade later, and the four eldest Duggar daughters: Jana, 24; Jill, 23; Jessa, 21; and Jinger, 20 are the epitome of grace, style, beauty, kindness and helpfulness.

These days, when you catch a 30-second preview of an upcoming episode, TLC playfully switches around the title to “19 Kids and Courting,” since it appears that for patriarch Jim Bob, 48, and wife Michelle, 47, the days of labor, delivery and dirty diapers are at last at an end. Instead, the focus has switched to the eldest Duggar children and whom they will court, and eventually, marry. Joshua, the couple’s oldest son, is a happily married man who works for the Family Research Council. He lives with his wife, Anna, and their three children, Mackynzie, 4; Michael, 3; and Marcus, 1, in Washington, D.C. And he’s just 26.

But as I watched the relationships of Jessa and Ben Seewald as well as Jill and Derick Dillard unfold this season, I was left with a series of questions that the episodes never satisfied. I’m not sure if the producers of the show don’t want to offend the Duggars by asking the “wrong” sort of question. But it’s hard for an audience to jump on board and empathize fully with the family unless key questions are addressed to help color-in the details of their daily lives. Of course, they’ve had their privacy invaded a great deal at this point and shouldn’t have to address anything they don’t want to talk about, but still, inquiring minds want to know.

As Independent Baptists, the Duggars have publicly stated that they are not part of the Quiverfull movement, yet they are evangelical, and very conservative, Christians. Early on in their marriage after Joshua was born, Michelle became pregnant while on the birth control pill. After miscarrying, the Duggars re-examined their convictions on birth control and decided to abstain from all forms of it, allowing God to decide their family size. They homeschooled each and every one of the children that followed, and eventually, built their own home in rural, northwestern Arkansas to fit everyone comfortably. They heavily monitor the kids’ Internet access and refrain from most secular entertainment such as TV shows, popular music and the magazines an average person skims through in the grocery store checkout line.

Although Michelle and Jim Bob went on normal dates and had physical contact while falling in love as teenagers, their children are expected to court a significant other only once parental permission has been obtained. Courting means no physical contact expect a side hug during greetings – holding hands is allowed upon engagement, while kissing is reserved for the altar. Both Jim Bob and Michelle have stated that aside from their children pledging to devote their lives to Jesus – I assume that means some version of being born again, the most important decision they will ever make is deciding whom they will marry – and presumably raise a family with. The lucky man or woman who wins the chance to woo a Duggar must have a Godly focus and a ministry mindset, although what that entails is never fully explained. Do you have to want to feed the poor in Africa and convert them to Christianity? What if you just organize clothing drives at your church or drop off canned foods at the nearby soup kitchen?

This season intrigue set in when Ben Seewald, a young man a few years younger than Jessa, formally asked to court her after meeting her at church and getting to know her over a period of weeks. Viewers watched as the couple was allowed to text each other, as long as one of Jessa’s parents was looped in on the conversation. Is that something Jessa requested? Do they still adhere to that rule months into the relationship?

When Derick Dillard, a young man doing missionary work in Nepal, expressed interest in Jill after spending ample time as Jim Bob’s prayer partner, the two began speaking. Via Skype. With Jim Bob and Michelle listening to the whole conversation from an adjoining couch in the family living room. But I was never sure what inappropriate exchange they were trying to guard against. Both Seewald and Dillard are from Arkansas, both are devout Christians, and both have agreed to play ball according to Jim Bob and Michelle’s rules.  If that’s not love, I’m not sure what is. I feel like both are upstanding young men.

Seewald even runs his own windshield repair business and works at a country club while going to community college. And upon returning from Nepal, Dillard secured a job – at least that’s what he told Jim Bob before asking for Jill’s hand in marriage. The incredibly cute couple plans to marry later this month.

Yet I’m curious what these couples spent so many hours texting and skyping and emailing about exactly. How exciting can talking about Bible verses nonstop really be when you’re in love? I understand that debating theological issues when you’re passionate about them can be fun and fulfilling. Yet imagine never being able to discuss the music playing on the radio because you don’t listen to it? You couldn’t talk about movies or your mutual high school or college courses or friends, either. And what do they listen to when they drive around, anyway? Is NPR allowed?

At one point, I read that the daughters’ favorite series to read growing up was the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But then in an interview more recently, Jessa is quoted as saying her siblings barely watch any TV except perhaps a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. As long as it didn’t have a heavy romantic plotline or show immoral behavior like lying or stealing. So, can the Duggars read books? Real books? Christian fiction at least? If you can’t watch television or movies, and you must play an instrument to the tune of Christian Gospel music – all the Duggar kids are musical, – can you at least crack open a book? Nobody ever asks! It drives me crazy. I assume that Classical music is allowed on the violin or piano, but nobody ever asks that either.

Earlier I touched on the Duggar girls’ fashion sense. They’re all clearly gorgeous, and they dress very modestly but in modern fashions. But it’s a personal conviction of the girls – and one Michelle shared was hers before it was theirs – that girls don’t wear pants. Ever. So you’ll see them in a lot of dresses and skirts, all longer than knee length. Shirt sleeve length has crept closer to the shoulder now that the ladies are older, but only high neck lines pass the wearability test. The smaller girls are often seen wearing leggings under their outfits though. I guess that’s the closest they are allowed to get to pants?

So here comes the question: how do you exercise? All the older girls are slim and healthy, so do they just go on long walks across the family’s expansive property or what? Michelle has shared that when her older children were little, she did word searches with them to teach them key words like “modesty” and “covering,” and then they set their own clothing standards later. Of course they’d set strict ones! Could there be another option? Could they really say, “You know what, Mom? I’m feeling like shorts today?” What would happen if they did?

While one’s style of dress is totally up to them, it did sadden me a little to see Jill try on wedding gowns in a recent episode before she was formally engaged. No dress in that shop would fit her standards, so she immediately threw on a short sweater and discussed how the neckline would have to be raised. But it’s her wedding dress. The one moment in her life when, as an Evangelical Christian woman expected to be a loving wife and mother, she can truly shine. Can’t her dress be a little bit more bold than the day-to-day-wear? Sigh. I suppose not. I know she’ll pick something pretty and whimsical, but I wish it would also be a little bit modern.

Which leads me to the girls’ marriages in general. Who wouldn’t want to get married as soon as possible, so they could finally share physical contact with their chosen partner once they’ve met and gotten to know one another? These girls never got to mingle like regular kids at school. They didn’t make friends with many different world views or religious beliefs I’d imagine. It doesn’t seem like they’re allowed to attend college in a traditional way – are they? I know some use CollegePlus! courses online.

Isn’t it a tiny bit sad that they’ll never be able to just up and move to Boston for a job opportunity or hang out for a weekend in Manhattan with friends? I’m under the impression they’re on a pretty tight leash, with marriage being the main acceptable way out. Not that they don’t love their families. Not that their lives aren’t interesting or fulfilling – they have finished high school and some take online college courses. They are accomplished musicians and wrote a book together, “Growing Up Duggar.” They’ve traveled to China, England, Israel and other exotic places as part of the show. And the older kids have gone on mission trips to South America with Jim Bob. It seems like some know how to converse in Spanish, sew clothing, bake great desserts and an assortment of other useful skills.

But where’s their physical and intellectual freedom? I know Jill works as a midwife and Jana a doula, but could the girls really say they wanted to pursue a career and put off marriage? I’m sure they could never so much as go to lunch with a man then, with no promise of a ring and it being just for fun and all, so perhaps that’s why none of them will ever tread down that path. Michelle has stated there’s no need to get close to someone of the opposite sex unless marriage is a likely inevitability. So who would want to close the door on the only viable pathway leading to love?

I’d like to say the younger generations will be less strict and rigid with moral regulations than Jim Bob and Michelle have been. There are glimmers of home as when Ben is seen helping Jessa bake a pie while they spend some time together. But then she goes and visits his sisters, learns to create his favorite chicken alfredo dish and tells the camera she’ll probably be responsible for all the cooking – even though it’s far from her favorite task – because he’ll be at work all day. Why can’t she work too? Can she? Will she? Will he help her in the kitchen? There’s no way to know right now.

And what if one of the girls secretly didn’t want an unlimited amount of kids? Would she use birth control with her husband secretly and remain tight-lipped when questioned about her suspicious number of kids – “Just three???” There’s no way to know that either.

Anna Duggar, Josh’s wife, is a stay-at-home mom, and the pair seem to have a very loving and fulfilled marriage. They’re the only barometer right now for the route the Duggar girls may pick very soon. I support all choices as long as they’re freely made. And I know I’ll be watching to see exactly which ones the girls make in the future.

 

 

Summer dreams ripped at the seams

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Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sing about the carefree days of the summer leading up to their senior year in “Grease.”

And as every school-age kid knows, summer is a golden idol to be worshiped, a magical span of days where time stands still, tans are perfected, and that small stack of pop fiction finally gets thumbed through. Having worked through the past three summers since graduation, this is my first summer off like a student again. It’s a little odd to have the freedom to wake up when I’d like, spend an afternoon at the pool, or go on a vacation without having to check in with HR for scheduling.

Over the last semester, I’ve worked as a tutor to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade elementary kids, helping them with their math and reading skills. During one of my last days in the classroom, I asked a girl named Avery what she was most looking forward to about summer. Her answer stunned me and sent me through a time warp.

It resembled exactly the summers I’d whiled away about 10 years ago at my grandmother’s apartment complex. Young Avery was looking forward to taking one of her best friends to her grandma’s house for a week (she just wasn’t sure which one yet) and watching whatever she wanted on TV, swimming in the community pool, and walking to the nearby grocery store to buy ice pops. So simple. So summer.

My own youthful summers were varied, but a portion of them were spent at my grandma’s apartment complex, Strawberry Hill. The name sounded like poetry to me. The quaint brick columns at the entrances even had little tiles with strawberries wrapped in ivy embedded in them. I’d hang out with my oldest friend Dayna (since both our grandmothers lived there). We would hit a tennis ball back and forth on the courts and memorize the Sorting Hat’s songs in the Harry Potter series. “A thousand years or more ago when I was newly sewn / There lived four wizards of renown whose names are still well known.” Absolutely low-key and deliciously dorky. Our grandmothers smiled politely and looked confused when we sang out J.K. Rowling’s words to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” as they sat on the couch.

And I can still remember shouting out the answers to trivia questions we made up as I jumped off the fanciest pool’s ledge and into the white-blue water as Dayna called back, “Yup, you got it!” just as I splashed down.

Once, I bought a needlepoint kit from Michael’s craft store, and, a diligent follower of instructions, my grandma pulled out a pink basin and soaked all the thread in water before we got started. I’m not if that helped the stitch work or not, but my aunt found it hilarious. Other times grandma would drop balls of dough into boiling water to make European-style doughnuts. I’d name them after boys in my classes, and whichever dough ball rose to the top first represented the boy I’d eventually marry.

A nearby Fresh Market was a beautifully cold and darkened world for two girls to escape into. It was full of classical music, fragrant blooms near the automatic doors, and a mouth-watering display case of baked goods. It takes so little to make kids happy. Cannolis and fudge brownies are an easy place to start.

Last year, Dayna and I happened to be back in the area and drove through to say hello to her grandmother. Afterward, we walked past the tennis courts and along a sloping sidewalk through groves of thick oak trees toward the small playground that still sat nestled against a hill side. The steep, silver slide that hurdled us down to slam into the grass remained. So did the gymnastic bars and little cars and airplanes resting on thickly coiled springs for toddlers to bounce on.

But we weren’t little anymore. When did we get so big? I didn’t know, and I don’t think she did either. It happened slowly, most likely when we weren’t looking. Pieces of that childhood carefree innocence, curiosity and sheer delight over the simple things still live on. But the magic of life has lost a little luster, to be sure.

Sometimes I long for the impossibly hot summer days spent watching Nickelodeon shows like “Salute Your Shorts” and “Guts” with my toes dangling off my bed. It beats figuring out student health insurance and fellowship agreements, not to mention planning out how to buy furniture for and setting up an apartment. I’m not sure how exactly to set up a router either, and I’m not too keen on learning at the moment. I’ll just pray all my meals turn out edible, my car runs smoothly at all times, and I never shrink an article of clothing. See? No fun at all.

So for the next few weeks, I’m going to read and write and swim and see a few movies. I’m going to forget all about being an independent adult. And maybe Dayna and I will have to plan a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter next summer.

 

 

 

Next Stop: Graduate School

CheersBarA college friend recently shared a concept with me: Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s actually the name of an old Broadway musical. But I think it’s a clever proclamation for my life lately.

It’s not that it’s bad. As a young woman about to embark on the adventure that is graduate school, I know I’m lucky.

Yet it’s hard to watch the small signposts pointing me forward when sometimes I just want to curl beneath my blankets and hide. It’s hard to watch my high school friend’s family Chinese restaurant – the one where I’ve shared jokes, gossip and Sesame Chicken for more than a decade – change ownership overnight.

One day my friend is behind the counter ready to take my order. The next a woman who barely speaks English is smiling at me entreatingly. And although the newspapers dotting the shelves are familiar, and the Crab Rangoon tastes nearly the same – there’s a distinct flavor of goat cheese that wasn’t there before – I feel a little more empty inside.

Change is inevitable, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I could go to the Windy City and encounter the break-neck pace of journalism studies at Northwestern’s Medill, or I could give one of the cradles of American history – Boston – a chance and try my hand at long-form writing. Would life in upstate New York be dull or peaceful? Where can you study creative nonfiction, magazine layout, website coding and press ethics all at once? Do I need to return to a large college town with southern charm to feel back at home? It’s a little overwhelming to have my inbox crammed with new educational suitors every few hours. I feel like I’ve got a lot of offers to go the prom but can’t decide who I want to date.

For many Millennials these days, graduate school is a way to advance their educations and marketability. It can also be a place to duck out from real-world responsibility. I have many friends who’ve never worked a day in their chosen careers – unless you count practicums.

But where else do you go but forward when the past life you once had has all but disappeared?

It’s sad to think about how many friends from middle and high school have vanished into the crush of life, never to be seen or heard from again. They move to new cities and forge new worlds for themselves. Some have the nerve to get in touch when they need something, of course. Others delete their Facebook accounts or drop you as a friend without so much as an argument to justify it. I guess they’re just cleaning house and deleting the people they don’t talk with as frequently anymore. I can’t say I feel that close to them either – unless we were in the same room or something. Then I’m certain feelings of connection and shared experience would come rushing back. If not, that’s what alcohol’s for, right?

Visiting friends around the country since college graduation has taught me one thing: the happiest ones were those whose school programs build for them a sense of community. It’ll probably be obliterated as soon as they earn their diplomas, but still, it offers someone to study with, have brunch with, and go out with on the weekends.

A sense of place and community seems fragmented in today’s world where people move on to the next best job opportunity swiftly, even if it sends them halfway around the world. One day you’ve got a buddy in the next cubicle to swap OMG emails with. The next your side of the office has been all but cleared out, leaving you amid dusty monitors, an assortment of pens that don’t write well, and the almost audible sound of “The Way We Were” playing softly in the background.

Sometimes, I want to return to the carefree days of summers spent in New York City where the concrete sucked up all the heat. I remember fun afternoons splashing around in a tiny pool with my cousin, snacking on hot dogs before driving upstate to see relatives.

It’s important to enjoy every moment. Every moment ends. The ridiculous time where the guy a few seats down from you at the concert was swaying wordlessly with his eyes closed, and you and your buddy cackled like hyenas? That’s a moment. Because one day she’ll be living 1,000 miles away from you. That imprint in time where you feasted on chocolates sitting on white mattresses in the bedding department of Macy’s catching up with former besties is a moment, too.

It’s comforting to be in a place where everybody knows your name sometimes.

Then and Now and Further On

1152.jpgAs a reporter, you can be asked to cover both the mundane and the truly magical. Often, you don’t get to choose what becomes news. Going with the flow becomes the norm.

So when an elected official in my town sent me an email requesting that I cover a “town-hall style” meeting about drug use at my former public high school, I was a little intrigued. Even when I was a student during the school’s earliest beginnings, it was nicknamed “Heroine High.”

It’s the type of place where some kids drive BMWs, sport iPhone 5’s as a token accessory, and jet off to St. Lucia for a relaxing spring break. Meanwhile, others proudly wear John Deere baseball caps, take vocational classes centered around agricultural practices, and grew up on sweet tea, dirt biking through the woods, and NASCAR. In short, my alma mater is a mixing ground for the Old South and New South. The one with all the transplants from Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that is.

Sure, there’s a huge push to take AP classes, become digitally savvy and get into the state’s leading public  universities. There’s also an award-winning soccer team, an amazing drama department that’s traveled to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival to perform, and astounding murals swirling along the white walls.

But these are teenagers.

Naturally, there’s a clique for jocks, band kids, preppies and goths. Students huddle in their groups before the first morning bell sounds, and it’s unthinkable to wander far outside your bubble. Fitting in somewhere is crucial and so is experimentation. God forbid your friends and classmates think you’re not up to speed on the latest sexual practice, social media phenomenon, or way to smuggle alcohol into parties.

The funny thing about listening to this town hall meeting was that my perspective was radically different as a working young adult than it had been as a high school kid. At 16 or 17, I probably would have been nodding along fervently with the adults who said using any drug or drinking was akin to a moral failure and surprisingly – since we were in a public venue – a sin. Most people on the panel were religious and spoke about involving teens in church youth groups to keep them on the straight and narrow. To my ears, it all sounded a little extreme and ridiculous. I felt very caught between two worlds. On one side was the shiny-shoed police man with the crew cut and firm voice speaking fact, sense, reason. On the other lingered every whispered rumor in the hallways, every late night gathering with friends, every party I’d been to and every less-than-pristine choice I’d seen myself and others make.

It wasn’t so easy to be black-and-white now knowing life was filled with gray.

It’s not that I’m advocating for drug use. On the contrary, I’ve never smoked anything, including cigarettes. And, it’s likely that the moment I become a mother, I’ll be all about my child hanging out with the church-going, over-achievers from the involved, loving families. But, as I see it now, there’s something alluring about the entering your teenage and young adult years. There’s a feeling that with every passing birthday, new possibilities are opening up for you to experience, try on, and see if they fit. From driving to voting to drinking, growing up is a step-by-step process. Trying to stamp out every guy with shaggy hair and killer eyes who heads to the sports field after class with his buddies to smoke pot is about as likely as eliminating hazing at college frat houses.

Life’s going to happen to these kids, and they need to be prepared to deal with it. It’s absolutely ok to choose to say no to every single substance. For your health, it’s certainly preferable as every doctor will tell you. From afar, the flannel-wearing, indie-music listening, secret house-party attending kids seem pretty cutting edge. Some of them are fabulous people with blazing futures ahead. Others are masking up a lot of childhood pain, personal suffering or feelings of inadequacy.

But you won’t know until you get up close and find out.

Say the words

Friends 2008 1 bw

The first time I heard of Dr. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages was in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. The dark ocean stretched toward a starry sky as I walked around the deck of a cruise ship with my Israeli dinner companion. Raised in the Middle East, his mother was American. He looked more like a center for a Midwestern college basketball team than anything else as he explained Chapman’s research to me.

He told me about five love languages which symbolize how people give and receive love in social relationships. Time, physical touch, gifts, acts of service and words of affirmation represent the primary tools we use to show one another we care.

When my friend cleared his throat and asked me which one I identified with most, I barely hesitated. “Quality time,” was my immediate reply.

But now I’m not so sure.

As an only child, capturing someone’s undivided attention is very appealing, no doubt. But after spending the last 15 months working at a place where I’m rarely verbally affirmed in any way, I’m starting to think I really need to hear “I appreciate you” a little more often.

Your primary love language is supposed to be the one it would hurt you the most to go the longest without. Knowing that solidifies for me that spending quality time with those I love is my highest priority. But when you feel like you’re giving so much and not receiving much back, life can seem a little less magical. I believe we should support our friends and neighbors in whichever way comes most naturally. Everyone needs a boost sometimes. You never know who just lost a loved one, who’s been diagnosed with a disorder, whose car wouldn’t start that morning or whose dear friend just betrayed them.

To that end, I stumbled across a website the other day, http://www.moreloveletters.com, that is striving to create a little more light and love in our world. It’s a worldwide initiative started by a 20-something woman when she was depressed and living alone in New York City. Strangers hand-write letters to someone in need – stories and addresses are posted on the site – which are delivered in ribbon-wrapped bundles to the unsuspecting recipient. In a world of 140 characters or less, constant pinging, and more virtual than face-to-face communication, a little cursive and a few sparkly stickers and neon markers couldn’t hurt.

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

I’ve completed the GRE. (Pause for wild cheers of jubilation). And while I’m very relieved it’s over and while I’ll eventually be leaving my first, full-time, “big-girl job” behind, I’m still at a bit of a loss.


Will there be a good journalism graduate school program out there that wants to accept me as a student? Will it be harder than I think to leave what’s become a comfortable position that’s actually given me a lot of purpose (although I do have to pay for my own gasoline, and I use my own camera)?  


I’ve learned more from simply being a reporter for the last year and a half than I probably ever would have learned in a couple of semesters in the classroom. But I still long for an intellectual experience.  


I’ve been doing some research on millennials in the workplace, and authors of the articles I’ve read have a lot of our traits down. We don’t see why we can’t chat directly with the CEO if we have something relevant to say. We want technical training that’s going to serve us well for years to come, flexible schedules (if possible), and opportunities for advancement.  


I understand completely why employees have to prove themselves over and over and “move up the ladder” slowly. But honestly, I sometimes feel like there’s a vast lack of common sense and social graces in the wider world.  


For example, one thing that’s amused me to no end in the workplace is watching people email rather than chat face-to-face when the situation involves an uncomfortable topic. Email – even when your correspondent is right next to you – seems to give this magical element of power to the sender. Like they really think emailing you something is going to make you more inclined to follow-through with their orders. Are they afraid of the recipient disagreeing with their viewpoint or providing an alternative opinion? Is that why there’s a dearth of actual communication in cubicle land?  


ladder

ladder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personally, I’d love to know more about all facets of the media business–from advertising to layout design. Yet at an entry-level job, it’s easy to get pigeon-holed into a silo of your responsibilities. I am a bit disappointed that I haven’t been provided with all the mentoring I was promised when I took this job in the first place. When a company is small, I thought mentoring just came with the territory. And while those I write stories about constantly email me about what an excellent job I’ve done, I’d like more positive feedback from my colleagues.  


It’s been a steep learning curve, but I stuck it out. And when listening to my editor give instructions to our college interns, I can honestly reflect on how far I’ve come. I know how to craft news briefs and sort through government records. I can hold my own with one of the most powerful millionaires in the country–and isn’t it cool that I can say I’ve met him? I can call, and call, and call one more time until I finally get that energy company to give me a statement. I can juggle–writing three to four stories at once about anything from customs of the Medieval period to space travel. I’ve learned to take a better photograph and to more effectively respond to criticism. I’ve learned more about the world and about people.  


I’m hoping school will provide more technical training and a greater focus on my love of all things social science-related. I know I’m ready and capable. I know I’ll be fine. I hope and pray some school accepts me even though I don’t know exactly what I want. I’m still young, after all. And there will be time before school starts again to polish up a few “life skills” and grapple with new responsibilities. Of course, I’ll live, and eventually, thrive.  


But every now and then, I miss those college parties when nothing seemed to matter, and everyone around you was grinning and felt invincible. Sometimes, when I scroll through Facebook photos, I think that maybe people’s young marriages are just a way of coping with The Real World with a partner perpetually plastered to their side to make the journey a bit less bumpy. I was barely done pulling my finally valid 21-year-old ID out of my pocket before my peers began walking down the aisle. But I’m not quite ready to part ways with Avicii, Lady Gaga and strobe lights yet. I still deeply enjoy getting to hang out with girlfriends and just relaxing and being carefree. And if that means I’m a little immature, well, it beats being old.  


Who knows? Maybe that initial English degree I earned will prove very useful one day. After I get married and have children and decide I can’t run around and keep humanity informed about the issues of the day anymore, perhaps I’ll be sitting contentedly in the classroom of a private school (since I have no masters degree in education), listening to kids read passages from “The Giver” and tell me what they think this crazy world is all about.

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