getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

the journey north, part 2

I decided to go ahead and narrate the second half of my M22 road trip while it’s fresh in my mind. When we left off, I was standing atop Old Baldy Dune in the Arcadia Bluffs Natural Area, having a bit of a spiritual experience. That was my only outdoor adventure of the day, the rest of which was spent mostly eating. In fact, I spent a good portion of this trip eating. But I think I balanced this activity out pretty well with walking. Every day of the trip, I took a long walk if not a full-blown hike.

On the way to my next planned stop, I went into Frankfort, my new favorite town, and stopped at the Crescent Bakery, which I had seen the day before. It’s a popular spot; there was a line out the door when I stopped (granted, it’s a small building). I had a dirty chai (chai tea latte with a shot of espresso–I always feel like I need to explain that) and a cinnamon sugar cake doughnut that was good but not quite up to the standard of Mama’s Crockett’s, which is one of the things I miss most about the Lynchburg area.

Next, I made my first of two stops that day in Glen Arbor. M22 goes right through the center of town, and some of the most popular shopping destinations on the route are here, creating a perfect storm of foot and car traffic. Fortunately, my destination, the M22 Store, has its own parking lot. You can rent kayaks and other outdoorsy equipment here, but I was there to shop the merchandise branded after the famous route. I bought an M22 sticker for my car, which has previously played host to stickers for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Route 12, the road that spans the length of the Outer Banks. I also bought a raglan shirt that I think is supposed to be for men, but I chose it because the M22 logo is small and subtle, meaning that I can probably wear the shirt to work.

The other thing I wanted to do in Glen Arbor was get a piece of cherry pie at Cherry Republic, but I decided to come back for that after lunch, which I planned to eat at the Village Cheese Shanty in Leland. When I arrive in Leland around noon, it was crowded as well; I had to park several blocks away from Fishtown, the Lake Michigan-side historic district that is primarily made up of small, weathered board shanties, such as the aforementioned cheese one. The VCS is small, hot, and crowded, but it’s really good at sandwiches. I ordered the Leelanau (name of the county where Leland is located, as well as Leland’s other lake), which is a roast beef sandwich with veggies and local fromage blanc–a soft, spreadable white cheese with herbs. I enjoyed my sandwich on a bench away from the crowds, from which I could see the lake.

Then I headed back to Glen Arbor, which by this time was so teeming with pedestrians and cars that it was starting to stress me out. I parked along a residential street and then walked to Cherry Republic, which consists of a restaurant, a store, and a “tasting room.” I didn’t want to wait for a slice of pie in the restaurant, which looked busy, so I bought an entire freshly made (still warm) pie in the store. Why not? I carried my cherry pie to the Cottonseed, an upscale (read: expensive) women’s clothing boutique whose front-porch end-of-season clearance section intrigued me. I found a light ivory-and-tan striped dress (with pockets!), basically the perfect summer dress, which I wore to work yesterday in defiance of the rule about wearing white after Labor Day. Next, I went to Leelanau Coffee Roasters and got a chai freeze and carried it down to a little strip of beach where I took yet a few more views of the lake (some lake–I lost track of what I was looking at) for my Instagram followers.

By then, it was mid-afternoon, so I decided to head toward my lodgings for the night. I followed M22 North to the point where it turns around and becomes M22 South. I didn’t stop in Northport, the town on the point, but continued to Sutton’s Bay, where my hotel was. Sutton’s Bay marked the farthest point of my trip; I didn’t follow M22 to its terminus in Traverse City (I decided to save that for another trip). In Sutton’s Bay, I stayed at the cute M22 Inn (another old-style motor lodge) and ordered a pizza from Roman Wheel, which makes the good, greasy pie you expect from a small-town pizzeria. I ate that and a slice of my cherry pie while watching Fear the Walking Dead in my hotel room.

On the last day of my trip, instead of taking Siri’s recommended fastest route back to Grand Rapids, I decided to retrace my route along M22, stopping in places that I had enjoyed to get in one last visit (like Frankfort; this time I walked out on the pier to Frankfort Light, which is a rather forbidding, prison-esque lighthouse) and in places that I didn’t love the first time, to give them another chance (like Glen Arbor, which was much more peaceful when I stopped for a coffee early in the morning on Labor Day). I also stopped in Northport this time just to say I’d been at the tip of the peninsula; their waterfront area is beautiful, and Barb’s Bakery has good cream cheese danishes but doesn’t take credit cards on orders under $10 (but checks are accepted).

I enjoyed this trip immensely, and I can’t wait to go back “up north,” as the phrase goes around here, in the fall to enjoy the beautiful foliage for which the area is famed.

 

I’m in love with a sand dune.

This past holiday weekend, I went on a road trip inspired by an article about Michigan’s scenic highway M22 in this month’s issue of Midwest Living. I want to give you a quick travelogue in case you’d like to follow this same route yourself.

On Friday after work, I made the approximately two-hour drive (with traffic) from Grand Rapids to Manistee, where M22 begins. I immediately went to Manistee’s working Coast Guard lighthouse, where I got some pictures and stuck my feet in the sand for the first of many times over the weekend. Then I crossed the Manistee River (like many of the towns I visited, this one has two bodies of water–in this case, the river and Lake Michigan) to the small but vibrant downtown area. By 7:30, a lot of places had closed already, but I picked up some delicious shrimp tacos at The Fillmore and took them back to my hotel. I stayed in Manistee’s recently remodeled Super 8, which was much nicer than I had expected. (By the way, expect lodging prices along M22 to be jacked up over holiday weekends, as is generally the case in vacation areas.)

I got up early the next morning and went for a short run along the well-lit Riverwalk. After grabbing some free breakfast at the Super 8, checking out, and visiting the lighthouse one more time, I hit the scenic road. My first stop (other than at the very nice EZ Mart in Onekama) was in Frankfort, which turned out to be my favorite town along M22. First, I visited the picturesque Point Betsie lighthouse north of town. I didn’t stay there long because I got drenched by a sudden rain shower that was probably worse on the point, with its wild waves and fog, than it would have been in town. Soaked, I headed into Frankfort to do a little shopping. I bought a sandpiper hoodie at Michigan Rag Co., which specializes in casual wear screen-printed with cute animals, and a pair of fleece-lined leggings at a women’s clothing shop a few doors down. (I wish I could remember the name.) Because I was still wet, I ended up changing into my new clothes at one of Frankfort’s public restrooms. I was highly impressed by the fact that most of the towns along the highway provide free public restrooms near their waterfront areas.

I got back on the road and next stopped in Empire, where I got a sandwich from the Shipwreck Cafe. (All the sandwiches are named after ships that went down in Lake Michigan–I had the Three Brothers, an Italian sub.) Then I hit the Empire Bluffs Trail. Although the views along this hike were breathtaking, I was frustrated and a bit frightened when the trail, which the Midwest Living article had led me to believe was a 1.5-mile loop, did not seem to be looping back around. When my footing got harder to maintain (I was hiking along the side of a dune) and I was no longer seeing other people on the trail, I decided to turn around. I think I still got the full experience, though I’d be interested to go back and see if there’s another trailhead. I next went into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park (it costs $20 per car for a pass that lasts for a week–kind of high if you’re only planning to be there for a short time, like me) and drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which includes a covered bridge, some beautiful woods, and the Sleeping Bear Dune itself. I didn’t enjoy the dune as much as I might have on another weekend; it was crawling with people, many of whom were ignoring the sign cautioning them against going down the steep slope lest it take them two hours to climb back up. It’s still an amazing sight, though. By the way, if when I say “dune” you’re picturing gentle, rolling hills like at Kitty Hawk, NC, think instead of a massive sand bluff overlooking the lake.

My hotel that night was in Bear Lake, so I had to retrace my steps to get there. Fortunately, nothing along M22 is that far apart. I probably could have stayed in Manistee that night as well, but it was fun to experience the Alpine, a Budget Host Inn that retains the charm of an old-school motor lodge. After checking in and hanging out in my room for a while (the rooms need some updates but are clean and comfortable), I went back into Manistee to do some more clothing shopping at a store I’d seen the night before. Then I went to Onekama for the second time that day (though at first I didn’t realize it was the same town) and had a chicken finger basket and a peanut butter milkshake at Papa J’s, where you can also play putt-putt if you’re not traveling alone. (I enjoyed traveling alone for the most part, but there were a few times, like this, when I would have liked to have a buddy!)

The next morning, I went back to the EZ Mart in Onekama for a breakfast sandwich, and then I went to hike another trail. I am so thankful to the manager of the Alpine for recommending the Arcadia Bluffs trail area; this was not originally on my list of things to do, but it ended up being possibly my favorite experience of the trip. The highlight of this trail system is another dune, Old Baldy. You can either take a short, half-mile walk directly to the dune, or you can take a mile-long scenic hike through the woods, which I did on the way out. (I took the short way back.) Although Old Baldy looked a lot like Sleeping Bear to my untrained eye, I enjoyed the experience so much more because I was the only person standing on the dune–partly because it’s less popular and partly, I’m sure, because it was still relatively early in the morning. I got tears in my eyes from the magnificent curve of the dune, the stunningly clear blue water, and the stillness of everything but the breeze and the gentle lake waves.

Okay, I said this was going to be a “quick travelogue.” I should have known. I’ll pick up with the second half of my journey next week.

reasons to move to Lynchburg, VA

Tomorrow I am moving away from Lynchburg, VA (well, technically Forest, but let’s not split hairs), where I have been living for 15 years. I am writing this list partly to convince someone (perhaps you?) to move to the area and buy my lovely three-bedroom, open-floor-plan, single-story house in a quiet, convenient neighborhood (see realtor.com for further details), but mainly as an elegy to my life in this small city, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, that has been so good to me for so many years.

  1. It’s nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’m really bad at geography and topography, but I’m pretty sure Lynchburg is in a valley, which means that it’s sheltered from the harsh cold and snowfall that can occur in the mountains themselves. It also means that just about wherever you look (especially out in Forest, where I know about a nice house for sale!), you can see the blue silhouette of the mountains, especially on a clear morning.
  2. There’s a cliff in the middle of downtown. Officially, it’s called a bluff. I’m sure there are other cities that have this odd geographical feature, but I’ve never been to them. At the top of the bluff is most of downtown; at the bottom is Jefferson Street, some recreational spaces, a railroad track, and the James River. You can enjoy the view by sitting on the deck at Bootleggers eating a delicious burger or by walking a skinny trail along the bluff at Riverside Park.
  3. It has historical sites you haven’t already been to. Lynchburg and the surrounding towns have a number of historical locations that aren’t overrun with tourism. (Appomattox, about a 20-minute drive away, is pretty overrun, but even there you can find some newer attractions, like the Museum of the Confederacy, which is not a glorification of the Lost Cause but a thoughtful, objective presentation of history.) Forest is home to Thomas Jefferson’s second house, Poplar Forest (just down the road from a cute house I know!), and downtown Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery is full of Civil War and railroad history, plus some beautiful old graves and trees.
  4. Most people seem to enjoy serving their community. I think this is because Christian culture and hipster culture intersect in Lynchburg in a way that you don’t really see elsewhere, except in a few other cities (such as the one I’m about to move to–Grand Rapids, Michigan). Your Facebook news feed will give you lots of suggestions for ways to meet people, have fun, and do good all at once: from food truck fundraisers to racing in the CASA Superhero Run (or actually becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate–they’ll be looking for a new volunteer to replace me!).
  5. Speaking of races, Lynchburg has the most enjoyable one I’ve ever run. The Virginia 10-Miler, which occurs the last weekend of September every year, garners a massive turnout from locals as well as people who love it so much they travel in order to participate. The course is scenic and challenging (you don’t have to run up the bluff, but Lynchburg is hilly in general), and hundreds of volunteers turn out to hand out water and Gatorade and to cheer, making you feel like a celebrity even if you’re the slowest runner on the course. If a 10-mile race sounds like punishment to you, there’s also a four-miler as well as a four-mile walk.

I’ll stop here, though I could go on: Lynchburg has a cool old baseball stadium where the minor-league Hillcats still play, some good coffee and ice cream shops, and a full schedule of various festivals throughout the year (even more if you venture out into the surrounding hills–if you love apple-picking and hoedowns, you’re going to love fall in this area). Whether or not you decide to move here (and buy my house!), Lynchburg is a lovely place to visit. I’ll be visiting as often as I can.

activities that are surprisingly fulfilling to do alone

You won’t believe #3! (just kidding–that was me making fun of clickbait)

  1. Hiking. I have recently become fond of solo hiking. This past Saturday morning, I hiked Sharp Top, a popular local peak, as my quarterly three-hour “solitude retreat.” I enjoyed the experience very much, partly because it was early in the morning (I got to the summit at 8:00 and stayed up there for about half an hour), which meant that there was still mist hovering below the nearby ridges and a cool breeze blowing. But a large part of my enjoyment consisted in being alone, except for the few people I saw along the way. When I hike alone, I can set my own pace, and I’m more aware of my surroundings, which is good not only for practical reasons (I can pay attention to where I’m setting my feet) but also for more esoteric ones (I can hear the different bird calls in the woods). I can also stay at the summit for as long or short a time as I want, without having to take the obligatory group photos. Don’t get me wrong; I love hiking in pairs and groups, but if you’ve never thought of hiking as a solo activity, perhaps it’s time to consider it. Two words of caution: 1. Choose a hike where you won’t get lost (Sharp Top is pretty foolproof, though I did accidentally take the bus shelter path instead of the main hiking trail the first time I hiked it alone–duh), and 2. MAKE SURE SOMEBODY KNOWS WHERE YOU ARE GOING. If you don’t think that second piece of advice is important, watch 127 Hours.
  2. And that’s a great segue into my second item: Going to the movies. Think about it: You’re not going to be chatting during the movie anyway, at least I certainly hope not. So why not go alone? That way, you don’t have to feel obligated to share your Sno-Caps or Cherry Coke. And it’s dark, so nobody is going to be looking at you thinking, “Look at that sad person who couldn’t find anybody to go to the movies with.” And even if it weren’t dark, nobody would be thinking that anyway. The only bummer about going to the movies alone is that you don’t have anyone to rehash the film with afterward, but if it’s something you’re pretty sure only you will enjoy, it’s better to go by yourself than to go with someone negative. And if it’s a movie you know others in your circle will be watching eventually, seeing it alone gives you some time to contemplate it before discussing it– a bonus for introverts.
  3. Eating out. Okay, this is one I’m still dipping my feet into. I have not yet eaten at a full-service restaurant (i.e. with a waiter) by myself. If you have, I’d love to hear about your experience. Also, I haven’t gotten to the point of being able to just sit there and enjoy the food without reading a book or looking busy on my phone. But I’m sure there’s value in giving my full attention to what I’m eating, just as there’s value in giving my full attention to my surroundings while hiking. Normally I’m a big advocate for sharing food with other people, and I know that solo eating often has negative causes (e.g. loneliness) and negative effects (e.g. overeating), but I think it can be a good thing if done mindfully. Even in public!

Let me know if you’ve had experience with any of these solo experiences and/or if there are other activities you enjoy doing alone!

things I dig right at this moment

Every so often (okay, pretty often) my brain is too scattered to produce a unified blog post, but I can still manage to make a list of disunified things I’m thinking about.  Here is one such list: Things I Dig Right at This Moment.

  1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs I showed this to my children’s lit students this morning, and I was reminded once again of how much sense this makes.  (Maslow’s basic argument is that the bottom levels of the hierarchy are necessary in order to achieve the higher levels.)  It applies to so many situations: the difficulty abused and neglected kids have in school, the poor work output of people who aren’t getting enough sleep, the writer’s block I get when I’m worried about other things (hey, didn’t I just mention that?).  It even explains the phenomenon of being hangry.  Sure, there are amazing stories about people who aren’t getting their foundational needs fulfilled (such as concentration camp victims) who nevertheless achieve the highest level of the pyramid by creating beautiful works of art or performing heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but what makes those stories so amazing is their rarity.  They are the exception that proves the rule.
  2. The emoji with no mouth. You’ve seen it: It’s a smiley face, minus the smile.  And yet it’s so eloquent.  I use it to mean “There are no words”–a phrase which, like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, applies to so many situations.
  3. To Kill a MockingbirdI finished rereading this classic yesterday, and I was confirmed in my opinion that Scout Finch is one of the greatest narrators, and Atticus one of the greatest dads, of all time.  Very few books juxtapose humor and danger (recall that Scout is wearing a ham costume throughout the climactic scene), wisdom and innocence (Atticus’s words interpreted through the child Scout’s limited understanding and recalled from the adult Scout’s perspective) in such an effective way.  And the evocative descriptions—the humid warmth of a summer evening, the cracks in a sidewalk that has a tree root pushing through it—take me back to my own childhood, even though mine wasn’t spent in Alabama.
  4. The Grey Havens. My friend told me about this band Saturday morning, I impulse-bought their album Ghost of a King for $10 on iTunes without sampling it first, and I ended up listening to it over and over while driving that day.  Although their style is a little inconsistent (fluctuating from the folksy and dramatic sound of Mumford and Sons to a poppier but still substantial sound that reminds me of Imagine Dragons), I don’t mind that because I like both kinds of music, and their themes are consistent.  This is Christian music that doesn’t advertise itself as such.  On Ghost of a King, without using the names “God” or “Jesus,” they pretty much outline the whole history of the Bible, hitting the major points of creation, fall, and redemption.  My favorite song on that album is “Diamonds and Gold,” definitely on the pop/electronic end and very fun to dance to in the car (and probably out of the car, too).
  5. using flavored cream cheese as a dip for pretzels. Last night I used the Philadelphia brand roasted vegetable cream cheese as a comparatively “healthy” Super Bowl “dip.”  (Oh, my gosh.  Philadelphia.  I just made the connection.  I am the reason they won.)  Today, I polished off the rest of a tub of honey pecan cream cheese (also Philadelphia) as a lunch snack at work.  Seriously, this is good.  You should try it.

What are you digging right now?  Let me know in the comments.

Silobration: more than just a lot of shiplap

This past weekend, I traveled with my mother and sister to Waco, Texas for Silobration 2017, a festival marking the third anniversary of Magnolia Market at the Silos, the anchor location of the home decor and lifestyle empire of HGTV it couple Chip and Joanna Gaines.  Waco is a small city that seems to be in the middle of economic revitalization, surely due in large part to the jobs created and tourism attracted by the Silos and other businesses that would not exist if not for Fixer Upper–such as Harp Design Co., a boutique in a residential part of town that probably has never been fashionable.  Waco is in what used to be (and maybe still is, though I didn’t see much evidence of it other than a ton of hamburger joints) cattle country, in the middle of the rural space between Dallas and Austin.  The city is home to Baylor University, museums about Texas Rangers, prehistoric mammoths, and Dr. Pepper (which was invented in Waco), and what used to be, a long time ago, the tallest building west of the Mississippi (the Alico building familiar to those who watch Fixer Upper).  Yet none of those attractions–even at the now-past height of the Baylor football program–could bring in a crowd the size of what we saw this past weekend.

Why did all these people stand in the blazing heat to wait in line for cupcakes at the bakery, push through crowds in the Magnolia Market itself to buy #shiplap t-shirts, and stand on tiptoe during Friday and Saturday nights’ concerts to see Chip and Joanna on stage?  Something about this couple–their laid-back yet charming aesthetic, their work ethic, their countercultural emphasis on family and hospitality–has struck a chord with Americans of a surprisingly wide range of ages, ethnicities, and styles.  (And there were a lot of men there too.)  I’m not going to wear a t-shirt that says, “Love me like Chip loves Jo” (I saw several of those on people, though it wasn’t sold in the store), but I am on the Magnolia bandwagon.  And if nothing else, I’d like to go back to get another grilled cheese sandwich from the Cheddarbox food truck permanently stationed behind the Market.  I think grilled cheese is a bandwagon we can all get on.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I am writing this post from a fog of hunger.  I did just eat a little container of hummus (150 calories) and five naan dippers (another 150), but I don’t think the energy has kicked in yet.  So bear with me.

Last week I started participating in an eight-week weight loss program sponsored by my employer.  When I first signed up, in April, I referred to it as a “wellness” or “fitness” program because I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded WL phrase.  And even now, as I’m writing this, a whole host of qualifiers comes clamoring to my mind because I feel like I need to justify my participation to you (and to me): “I don’t want or need to lose a lot of weight, just ten pounds.” Or “I’m doing this because I’m planning to run a half-marathon at the end of the summer” (thereby letting you know that I’m already an active person).  I.e., I don’t really need to lose weight, at least not as badly as that other employee that I just saw walking down the hall, who should have been the one to sign up.  Etc.  In fact, when I showed up for the first session last Tuesday, I kind of hoped they would send me away–“Oh, you’re too skinny for this program!”  But they didn’t.  So I finally had to admit that maybe I actually needed to be there.

That was the first hurdle to be leaped (not that I’m quite up to jumping hurdles yet.  Next obstacle: Committing to a daily calorie goal.  I really, really hate counting calories.  In fact, I have serious philosophical problems with the whole idea of treating food as nothing but fuel.  I’m pretty sure chefs think of themselves as artists, not bioengineers.  And we all recognize that a gift of food–especially homemade–is a lot more meaningful than a free tank of gas, monetary value aside.  (See my post called “food speaks.”)  In addition to my theoretical objections, I hate the inconvenience of having to know or guess the caloric content of everything I eat.  What about the chicken jalapeno popper soup that was already in my refrigerator when the program started, which I made from a recipe that didn’t include nutrition facts?  It has a lot of fresh vegetables in it, and one of the main ingredients of the “creamy” broth is cauliflower, so it’s actually pretty healthy.  But I don’t know how many calories are in it, so I end up making a guess that’s probably wildly inaccurate.  And I know it’s cheating to lowball the estimate, so I guess high–and probably cheat myself out of 100 calories I could have eaten.  (Maybe that’s why I’m so hungry this afternoon, come to think of it.)  Ironically, this calorie-counting thing has me cooking less and eating more packaged foods: at least this way I know what to record in MyFitnessPal.

The exercise part is the easiest for me; as I mentioned (and I’ll say it again, in case you missed it the first time), I’m already a pretty active person.  This works to my advantage because, logically, I get to add calories onto my daily intake whenever I exercise.  So I’ve been doing this thing that I’m pretty sure is antithetical to the spirit of this program: If I’m getting toward the end of the day and I realize I’m not going to have enough calories left to eat a snack while watching Fear the Walking Dead, or whatever, I’ll get in a quick extra workout to buy myself some more calories.  I actually worked out three times on Sunday, and I had three snacks during Fear (hey, it was the two-hour season premiere).

I’m fully aware of how pathetic this is.  I also know that when I go back and read through this post, I’m going to hate how whiny I sound.  And I already want to apologize to Bruce Springsteen for appropriating his song title because it was the first clever saying with the word “hungry” in it that I could think of.  But I’m going to go ahead and post this before I change my mind because I think some of you can relate.  And we all like reading about stuff we can relate to.  Now to find out how many calories are in a fun-size 3 Musketeers, because I’m still hungry.

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

food speaks

In Fear the Walking Dead, my current Sunday night TV show, a major character named Nick recently wanted to comfort a little girl whose father had been fed as a sacrifice to the infected dead.  But the little girl speaks only Spanish, and Nick speaks only English, so he ended up communicating his care by giving her a Gansito–a little individually-wrapped snack cake he obtained at some peril to his life.

In The Tale of Despereaux, a book I’m getting ready to discuss with my children’s lit students, soup is a pivotal symbol.  The cook makes a surreptitious batch of soup (which has been outlawed) as an act of courage and defiance.  The hero–a mouse–draws strength for his climactic act from a few spoonfuls of the cook’s secret soup.  And at the end of the story, the major characters, some of whom were formerly enemies, celebrate by eating soup (now legal) around a lavish dinner table.

I spent this past weekend at Virginia Beach with three of my dearest friends, and as we discussed on the last night, some of our favorite memories from the trip had to do with meals: the conversations around the table, the atmosphere in the restaurants (or outside on the patio next to the boardwalk), and, of course, the food.  At lunch on Saturday, I traded my last fried shrimp taco for the rest of one friend’s macaroni and cheese, and we both got enough joy out of this simple swap that we were still talking about it hours later.  It was an act that involved giving, receiving, and trying new things: some of life’s greatest joys.

I’ve told these stories because it’s hard to say what I want to say any other way, without resorting to platitudes.  If you’ve ever been moved to tears by a gift of food (even a vending machine snack cake), felt disproportionately happy watching people eat something you cooked, or looked forward for days to a dinner party (or a pizza and movie night), you know what I mean.

This topic isn’t as simple as I wish I could pretend it is.  Not everybody gets a warm glowy feeling from eating with other people.  Some people have dietary restrictions due to allergies, illnesses, or convictions, and other people say insensitive things to them because they can’t understand (I have said these kinds of things more often than I care to think about).  Others have eating disorders that make this a painfully thorny issue.  And we can’t ignore the fact that millions of people don’t have enough food for basic subsistence.

So I’m not going to make sweeping generalizations like “Food is a universal language.”  It’s not.  But just like anything that functions as a vehicle of communication between people (only more so, because food literally becomes part of us), food allows us to make small steps toward understanding.  Small steps like refraining from judging someone because of what they eat or don’t eat, or how they eat.  Like accepting a meal without feeling obligated to give something in return.  Like taking the time to know what a person really likes, wants, and needs.  This is how we connect with people.  This is how food speaks.