A wannabe writer looking for something meaningful to say

Musings from the road, or why I’ll stop saying “the middle of nowhere”

I spent the past weekend traveling to and from the places of my husband’s youth. First, we drove to his hometown in western South Dakota, via Northern Colorado and Eastern Wyoming. From there, we went to his college town, on the southeastern tip of South Dakota, crossing the southern half of the state to get there. Finally, after a couple of nights laughing and drinking beer with old friends, we made it home to Denver through Nebraska and Eastern Colorado. 

During our time on the road—about 22 hours total—we saw little but one long loop of green out the window, interrupted by a farmhouse here and there, and the occasional two-stop light town, population something in the low four digits. 

The places that I lived in, growing up in the United States, were not so far away from all this, figuratively speaking. In elementary, then middle and high school, I lived in towns with residents that numbered in the tens of thousands, but they were places where your parents were taught by the teachers that now taught you (well, not mine, specifically, but you get what I’m saying) and where Applebee’s was a good night out. 

I left these places as soon as I could, which in my mind was as soon as I could afford to live somewhere else that was bigger, more crowded, with wide sidewalks full of people trying to dodge tourists. 

Now, almost 15 years since I lived somewhere I would have considered the middle of nowhere, I get how judgmental that phrase is: “the middle of nowhere.”

People live there and choose to do so, even if I would never (ever) go back. There is—at least for some—enough to connect you to the rest of the world so that if you really want to leave, maybe you can. If those places felt disconnected in my youth, it’s only because I was disconnected. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I needed to go to do it or how to get there. I just knew that I wanted to get out. And I didn’t really go all that far, in the grand scheme of things. (Where I am, my kids can dream about cities that are bigger still.) At least, I didn’t go so far that I can’t look back now and appreciate that the smallness I left behind was formative in a good way. 


On the drive home, during the legs I was not behind the wheel, I started reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which takes place in rural Mississippi in poverty so profound that you might think it takes place a hundred years ago—until a character walks around trying to look for a cell phone signal.

That world, like the world of endless farm and ranch land through which my husband was driving as I read, is real. It’s not a cliche or a postcard. We—and by “we” I mean “I”—can’t ever think of it as the middle of nowhere, because if we do, the people become nobodies. And, to them, so do we. 

I don’t want to live in a country of nobodies. 

40 things that I am, in no particular order:

  1. a mother
  2. a wife
  3. a Latina
  4. a Colombian
  5. a cat person
  6. a writer
  7. an editor
  8. a public relations professional
  9. a person who isn’t crazy about the title “public relations professional”
  10. a talker
  11. a listener 
  12. a person who reminds herself she needs to listen more
  13. a reader
  14. a book collector
  15. a TV watcher
  16. a movie watcher
  17. a Mac person
  18. a successful person
  19. a person who has failed at a lot of things I wish I hadn’t failed at
  20. a hard worker
  21. a person who sometimes phones it in
  22. a runner
  23. a person who is surprised that, looking back, high school cross-country meant a lot more than high school soccer 
  24. a former flute and clarinet player
  25. a person who wishes she hadn’t given up playing an instrument as a freshman in high school
  26. a college graduate
  27. a Davidson wildcat
  28. an English major
  29. a person with an ethnic studies concentration
  30. a holder of a master’s degree
  31. a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate
  32. a Tar Heel
  33. a Tom Wicker scholar
  34. a former journalist 
  35. a former Senate (deputy) press secretary
  36. an activist
  37. a (proud) bleeding heart liberal
  38. a person who once saw Barack Obama in the halls of the Chicago Tribune
  39. an introvert
  40. a 40-year-old 

Things I think I think regarding Oprah for president

First, let’s get one thing out of the way: I will always want a president who is above all experienced in and knowledgeable of governing (both at a high level and the everyday minutiae), but also familiar with international history and politics, and empathetic of the challenges facing the poorest and least advantaged Americans. (For a sample resume of an ideal candidate, see Hillary Clinton.)

That said, I had a lot of thoughts in response both to the suggestion that Oprah may run for president and to the reaction other people had to the suggestion that Oprah may run for president. Here are the most prominent of these thoughts:

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My favorite things about 2017 and the lesson I’m taking into 2018

This year often felt like one long politics-induced panic attack. But if we learned anything from Harry Potter is that to give in to that panic, to let anxiety take over and to shrink into a hardened nihilist shell would be to let the death eaters win. So with that in mind, I give you the most important lesson this year taught me and the things that made me hopeful and happy.

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Reading for salvation, or the books I loved in 2017

For much of my life I’ve had a funny relationship with the phrase “reading for pleasure.” I love books. Reading is pleasure, by definition. But the place reading has in my life has changed considerably over time. The space it occupies now is not what I would have expected when I was a kid just discovering what books were.

Humor me for a minute and I’ll explain what I mean.

I’ll get to the books I read this year eventually. I promise.

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To my daughter, on the occasion of her first day of kindergarten

Listen, kid, if you’re anything like me (NEWSFLASH: You’re a lot like me. Sorry.), the next 12 years of years of your life will be long, challenging, boring and painful sometimes, embarrassing and emotional sometimes, and a probably more than a little bit awkward. But there will be laughter in there (some of it at my expense—I forgive you) and also lots of love and fun.

You’ll be older and wiser at the end of this. Smarter, too, if you continue to love to learn and continue to be so good at it. And if your dad and I hold up our end, making you do your homework, traveling with you to cool places, taking you to nerdy museums, and quizzing you on your addition and multiplication tables just like your abuelo did with me.

And if you have good teachers.

That’s the good news. On this long journey to your high school diploma and what comes after, we will have help. I don’t know what your teachers will be like, but here’s what I wish for you:

I wish for you a teacher who recognizes when you’re not good at something, but doesn’t treat you differently or make you feel stupid because of it. Like Mrs. Williams, my first teacher after I moved to the United States, who never let on to me or anyone that she thought I spoke poor English even though I did.

I wish for you a teacher who goes above and beyond, so you can participate in something you love. Like Mr. McGregor, my elementary school art teacher, who taught an evening sculpting class I took and shared his dinner with me on the nights that mom had to work late and couldn’t pick me up between the time after-school care ended and the class began. (It was always a tuna sandwich. I friggin’ love tuna.)

I wish for you a teacher who trusts you and gives you extra responsibilities because he knows you can handle them. Like Mr. Ackerman, who signed me up to be on the popcorn staff in 6th grade even though this meant missing one period of social studies every week. He said he picked me because he knew I could do the job and keep up with the class. I managed it, if only because I wanted to prove him right.

I wish for you a teacher who teaches you that life is hard and sometimes you can’t have everything you want all at the same time. Like Mr. Thornton, who was teaching while he put himself through law school. He was also diabetic, and the stress of everything was affecting his health, so he gave up the thing he loved the most, his students, because it was what had to be done. When he told us he’d be quitting, half-way through the year, I put my head down so others wouldn’t see that I was crying. Until I heard a sob, and then another, and then another. All of us cried. But we also learned something: life is hard and sometimes you can’t have everything you want all at the same time.

And I wish for you a teacher who points you in the direction of the rest of your life. Like Mr. Powell, who was my English teacher in 10th and 12th grades. My high school years were an embarrassment of riches in the good teachers department, but in his class, what I learned the most about was myself.

Sofi, I don’t know what you will remember of the coming year or the ones that will follow. (Well, you’ll remember your first day, if nothing else, because I’ll be taking a million photos.)

You’re not going to recognize the teachers who are going to change your life when you meet them. You’re probably not going to realize that’s what they’re doing when you’re sitting in their classrooms. Maybe, you’ll understand that’s what they’ve done for you as you leave them behind. It’s possible that you’ll read this when you’re 18 and think, “Jesus, mom, were you really this fucking sappy?”

On this night, though, before it all begins for you, all I only know is what my teachers did for me. And, damn it, kid, I really, really hope you are this lucky.

Love, your mother

That time Growing Pains taught me about racism

I watched a lot of TV when I was a kid. Also, my memory works in weird ways. So it is that I remember, surprisingly clearly, an episode of Growing Pains in which Mike gets a job at a convenient store. It was one of those that came to be known as a Very Special Episode.

I’m not sure if I recall all the details exactly, but it goes something like this: Mike’s coworkers are two young men who are black and about his age. The owner of the store is an old white guy who seems nice but says all these platitudes about “taking care of our own” that set off alarms even in the somewhat dim Mike.

The convenient store is open 24 hours, but despite being the new guy, Mike notices how he’s never asked to do the “graveyard” shift. He also notices how accommodating his boss is to him, but not his black coworkers. When he tells his parents, they seem to get right away that the dude is a racist. Then, a funny thing happens. (Not funny, “haha,” alas.) Turns out, that Jason and Maggie Seaver don’t want Mike to have to do the graveyard shift because they’re afraid it’s unsafe. They’re genuinely torn about how to confront obvious racism that is resulting in something they want and that benefits their son. (I may not remember everything about this episode exactly right, but I remember their moral dilemma. Through the decades, their unease about the situation stuck with me.)

Ultimately, through conversations with one of his black coworkers, Mike’s eyes are opened to the unfairness of the situation. Meanwhile, the store owner insists he’s just giving the new kid a break. Mike eventually takes matters into his own hands and deliberately messes up at work. When the boss finds the mess Mike made, while Mike is standing right there watching him, he immediately suspects one of the black employees and proclaims that the kid is fired. Mike confesses after this proclamation, and the boss shrugs it off and says, “um, OK, in that case, no biggie.” Mike immediately calls out the guy’s racism and quits.

The moral of the episode—because there was always a moral to Very Special Episodes—was that even when something that was racist, unfair or immoral helped you, it was still racist, unfair or immoral and had to be treated as such.

Growing Pains was the kind of show that is easy to laugh at now and to enjoy only if you do so with a sense of irony, one that acknowledges that it was actually terrible television.

Was it really terrible, though?

In this era of “Peak TV” wherein our stories are all subtlety and nuance and our heroes are dark and complicated and often make morally questionable choices, where would we put a half-hour of sitcom television in which two white, otherwise thoughtful and decent parents are forced to confront their privilege and resulting moral apathy? In which it’s the teenage ne’er-do-well, not the well-educated grownups (Maggie was a journalist and Jason was a psychologist), who realizes that racism is wrong and needs to be pointed out, even and especially when it’s giving you a leg up?

Nuance in art is a thing that I appreciate. And the reason we don’t like Very Special Episodes is that they rarely offered any. The lessons hit you over the head, and the bad guys were unmistakably so. There wasn’t a whole lot of nuance to Growing Pains, or this particular episode. We knew what the right thing to do was right away, and once Mike figured it out, he did it immediately and with admirable resolve.

In today’s cultural context, there would be nuance. The racist boss would be a hard-working blue-collar guy who had been left behind by the political ruling class and wasn’t a monster out to get black people. He’d hired black kids, hadn’t he? Maggie and Jason would be parents just trying to do right by their kids—their inner conflict about doing the right thing would be more complicated, more drawn out.

But their inaction would still be wrong. No matter how much more layered and subtle the story, ultimately, that would remain true. I know that thanks to, among other things, this Very Special Episode of Growing Pains that I watched when I was a kid. Yeah, After School Specials and Very Special Episodes and the ham-handed story-telling of the 1980s were all  terrible television. But would I have remembered any of this, otherwise? Would I have learned anything? These stories hit us over the head with their lessons, but sometimes, dare I say, I needed it.

Certainly, it feels like we all need it right now.

Mini Book Review: Swing Time

Swing TimeSwing Time by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve heard wonderful things about Zadie Smith, so when this one showed up at my doorstep thanks to my book subscription service, I figured it was time to finally introduce myself to her. I’d also heard that White Teeth or On Beauty would have been better entryways into her work, but something about the story of two friends who loved dance intrigued me. And indeed, even now that I finished, the interplay between these friends, over a lifetime, is compelling in its complications and contradictions. Smith *knew* these girls. She was these girls. And so did/was I.

Still, I didn’t love this book—it might even be fair to say I didn’t like it all that much—but I love Zadie Smith. In Swing Time, Smith writes that in Astaire and Kelly’s movies, the story didn’t matter so much as the dancing. The story was the price you paid for the rhythm. So it is with this book. The story is the price we pay for the prose.

Despite how meandering this particular narrative is (her first with a first person narrator, apparently, and a frustrating, unlikeable one at that), her style comes through easily. Her writing is rich and dense, but also easy and recognizable. Throughout my reading of this book, I’d find myself rereading pages and paragraphs for anything I might have missed. The story is too long and spends too much time away from the relationship that is supposed to be driving it and with which Smith truly works her magic. But all that said, the reading of it was enjoyable. To use the parlance of the book: it’s enjoyable like a Michael Jackson song you don’t know the words or choreography to is enjoyable because it’s still Michael Jackson.

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Mini Book Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Although this books has been on my shelf for a long time, I didn’t really know anything about it when I picked it up, prompted to do so by the fact I’ll be seeing the stage adaptation in a few months. The narration from the perspective of someone on the autism spectrum interested me immediately, but it sometimes felt like a bit of a gimmick wrapped in stereotypes of autistic man-children who scream or cover their ears when they’re upset the way Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man. I liked Christopher and the complicated relationship he has with his obviously overwhelmed parents, but the lack of specificity about his diagnosis allows Haddon to gloss over difficult moments. It feels like this book wants to be a thoughtful and sincere representation of a cognitively different character, but by the rushed ending, it doesn’t succeed as well as I was hoping it would after a promising start.

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Mini Book Review: American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert OppenheimerAmerican Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Whether judging this work as a personal biography, as a historical text or as a political thriller, it resonates on every level. The facts have been thoroughly researched and documented, and the prose is worthy of the man for whom poetry was as important as physics. It’s a long, slow read, but engagingly strung together by a mix touching, incisive, hilarious and enraging anecdotes. The portraits that emerge are that of a flawed and ambitious man who loved his country almost to a fault and of a country that loved and resented his genius in equal measure. The book and Oppenheimer’s story remain relevant as a window into the tortured relationship between science and America’s government.

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