home: the new co-working space

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from folding laundry and replying to students’ discussion board posts to make myself a cup of tea. I looked outside and saw a chickadee in our birdfeeder. Chickadees are harbingers of colder weather and new birds to look at, and besides, ever since a small stand of trees near our backyard was cut down a few months ago, we haven’t seen any birds at our feeder besides the occasional mourning dove that plants itself there for hours and doesn’t do anything but poop. (Sorry, mourning doves. At least you have a pretty voice!) So, the arrival of the chickadee was an exciting event, and I hollered to my husband, Jordan, who was working in his home office, to come out and look. As if they had been waiting for his arrival, a flurry of birds suddenly appeared, including more chickadees, some cute little brown guys (look, I never said I was a real birder), and even a couple of Eastern bluebirds—my favorite songbird but one that I rarely see. For about fifteen minutes, they flew around the backyard, alighting now and then on our feeder, the neighbors’ fence, and the scrubby bushes on our property line, even daring to get as close as our patio picnic table. Then, shortly after Jordan went back to his office, they were gone, and they haven’t been back (though I’ll be on the lookout around 2:30 this afternoon).

I shared this story because moments like this are among the blessings of working from home, especially with someone you love. This year, millions of people around the world started doing what fully-online professors (and those in an increasing number of job sectors) have been doing for years: working in the space where they also sleep, eat, do chores, and spend time with those they love. Working from home comes with its share of challenges (e.g., distractions, guilt over unfinished tasks, the difficulty of establishing a quitting time), and those challenges are compounded for those with children at home. I don’t want to minimize those challenges, but in this post I am focusing on the joys of working from home, as well as a few of the practical considerations.

Jordan, an engineer, started working from home in March, like many people did. He already had a home office with a pretty sweet computer set-up (powerful processor, big monitor, headset, etc.) because he’s an avid gamer. With a few adjustments (purchasing a second monitor, downloading the primary software he uses for work), he was able to set himself up to work basically the same way he did at the office, with one major difference: his co-workers aren’t here.

Sure, he can and does email, call, and ping them on Microsoft Teams. But if he wants to get up and stretch his legs and decompress after a stressful meeting, the only person in his physical space is me, and I’m not much use in a conversation about solenoids. (They’re little magnetic parts that open and close things. I’ve learned that much.) But then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe what Jordan needs in that moment is both a cup of tea from a real teakettle (which I know he can’t get at the office) and a conversation with someone who’s doing something totally different, like grading English papers.

I think we all know that siloing is a major problem with the way our culture treats work, especially in the higher education sector. We specialize in one thing, starting with our undergraduate majors and getting increasingly narrower as we move through the levels of education and professional development, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with getting really good at one thing (like making solenoids), I fear we are neglecting skills and character qualities that transfer from one situation, context, or career to another. Perhaps we are losing the ability to have meaningful intellectual conversations with those in other fields.

That just got really philosophical. But I went there because I’ve been thinking about the relatively recent phenomenon of co-working spaces. You’ve probably heard of them: they’re buildings (or floors) where anyone who needs a space to work—freelancers, private practitioners, telecommuters looking for a change of scene or some peace and quiet—can rent a room or cubicle alongside others who are doing the same thing. Though I’ve never worked in one of these spaces myself, I can imagine that one of the benefits—besides having someone to split a lunch order with—is that you get to have conversations with (and possibly eavesdrop on) people who are doing very different work than you are. Maybe you learn something from them, and maybe you even come up with ways you can partner with your cross-disciplinary co-workers. I wonder how many new businesses and community services have been hatched out of these almost accidental partnerships.

During this year’s pandemic, many couples, families, and roommates found themselves in a co-working situation with people they already knew and loved, but had never worked alongside. For Jordan and me, who just got married this year, this has been basically an unadulterated blessing. It has allowed us to spend almost all day, every day together during the formative early months of our marriage. It has allowed us to become familiar with each other’s work habits and given me a peek into Jordan’s relationships with his co-workers, who I know are very important to him. We have been taking an hour-long lunch break together, which gives us time to prepare and eat healthier meals. (And as a side benefit, we’ve gotten through all the seasons of Friends and most of Avatar: The Last Airbender during our lunches.) And sometimes, we get to share special moments like the bird-stravaganza of yesterday afternoon.

The only thing we’re still trying to figure out with regard to working from home is where my space will be. This was Jordan’s house before we got married, so I didn’t already have a workspace of my own as he did. I started out working on the dining room table, which had its benefits (good lighting, plenty of space, good view of birds), but I felt like I had to clean up my stuff at the end of every workday, and I wanted a more permanent area. So lately, I’ve been working in the bedroom. Next to one of the windows, I’ve set up a small, brown and green vintage metal table that I bought at an antique shop a few years ago. My laptop sits there all the time, along with my planner and a few other items. A chair doesn’t quite fit underneath the table, so when it’s time to work, I pull over a vintage wooden chair reupholstered in a bird print (another antiquing find) that usually sits in another part of the room. So far, this setup is working pretty well, but I’d also like to try setting up a little work corner in our living room. Jordan and I have talked about sharing the home office, but we don’t think this would work very well for meetings, and I’m happy to let that be his space since my work is more mobile than his.

I’m still figuring out my space, but trying out different spots is more fun than inconvenience. I’m thankful that I get to work from home, and even more thankful that I get to do it alongside my favorite co-worker.

What does your workspace look like? Who are your co-workers, in both senses of the word? What are some of the challenges and benefits of your work setup? I’d love to hear from you!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.

grain-free stereotypes

I meant for the title of this post to be a joke, not clickbait, but if you did click on this hoping for a discussion of grain-free diets, I sincerely apologize. (I can, however, recommend Garden of Eatin’ grain-free cassava tortilla chips, which I tried for the first time today.) My title refers to the commonplace that there’s “a grain of truth in every stereotype.” I’ve recently had several conversations about whether this is true. One such discussion was about the stereotype that people who identify with nerd cultures tend to have poor personal hygiene habits. Apparently, though I would never want to make it a generalization, this stereotype is at least anecdotally true, on average, in certain nerd cultures, as expressed to me by a person involved in these cultures (or “by a person close to the situation” as they say in news articles). But what I want to talk about right now is those baseless, irrational stereotypes that we nevertheless sometimes allow to shape how we live our lives. You might want to grab some tortilla chips–this could be intense.

I’ll start with a story. Today after getting my hair cut, I sent a selfie to my boyfriend with the accompanying text, “Just so you wouldn’t worry that I changed my hair too much.” Somewhere during the course of my life, I had heard and practically, if not intellectually, accepted the truth of two related stereotypes: 1. guys freak out if their partners change their physical appearance and 2. guys don’t like short hair. (I have rather short hair, and I know my boyfriend likes it or at least doesn’t have a problem with it, but the looming presence of this belief causes me to be more cautious about #1 and more meticulous about looking feminine than I perhaps would be otherwise.) I am a little bit disgusted with myself now that I’ve stated all this in such matter-of-fact terms. I like to think I’m liberated from what others, especially men, think of the way I look, but I’m not, and I could list countless more stories as evidence.

Here are some other stereotypes I’ve encountered or thought about recently:

  • Yesterday, I heard people talking about the “conventional wisdom” (more like conventional foolishness) that two firstborns shouldn’t marry each other. I mentioned this to my hairstylist today, and her response was a snappy rhetorical question: “Is that in the Bible?”
  • On Friends (by the way, I’m on Season Three now), frequent use is made of the trope that men are afraid of commitment in relationships. In my own experience, I’ve found that tend to be the one who balks at commitment (but only if it’s not a good relationship). I know this truism is based on faulty generalization, yet it makes me anxious.
  • After I started thinking about this post, I remembered another completely nonsensical stereotype that actually did briefly affect some decisions I made during a formative period of my life: Smart people shouldn’t become teachers. (I know! This would be a good time to throw those tortilla chips across the room.) It was a high school classmate who said this to me, and she framed it as a compliment (“Oh, you’re too smart to be a teacher”). Even though I’m pretty sure I identified it as hogwash even at the time, it was powerful enough to prevent me from declaring myself an education major, at least at first, even though I had enjoyed envisioning myself as a teacher since early childhood. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to overcome this false belief, but clearly, I haven’t forgotten it.

I know my examples are laughably mild compared to stories that some people could share of, for example, racial stereotypes that are far less rational and more damaging.

My overall point is this: Be careful what you say, because you never know who will hear it and take it to heart. And generalizing groups of people, whether there’s a grain of truth or not, is lazy. Instead, get to know people as individuals, and when you speak about them, speak of them as individuals. Does this sound like something you’ve already learned in a teen afterschool special or even on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? The thing is that I’m afraid a lot of people have heard all this hundreds of times but haven’t actually learned it. I’m saying this to myself as well. Everyone is different, and everyone is worth getting to know. Don’t mess up somebody’s life with your careless words.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, take two

In a post this past November, I argued that the John Hughes classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is about radical hospitality. I would now like to add that it is also about learning to be calm during travel mishaps. I mean, duh–but I’ve really come to need that lesson over the past few days. I’ll explain momentarily, but first, can I take a John Candy detour?

Okay. I watched The Great Outdoors for the first time recently. It’s no Planes, Trains; in fact, it’s basically just a loosely plotted series of sight gags related to the outdoors–waterskiing, racoons getting into the trash, comedic bear attacks, you get the picture. But what makes it a delight is the actors. Dan Ackroyd plays a horrible person, but he’s very good at it, and he comes around in the end. John Candy plays that character he’s so good at playing–an affable, long-suffering, optimistic on others’ behalf, Really Good Guy. I have no idea what he was like as an actual human being, but I have a hard time believing he wasn’t at least a little bit like this character type he made famous. I think we need more guys like him, in movies and in life.

Now back to the topic at hand. I was supposed to fly to Manchester, UK, last Friday for a week with my dad, who is working over there. When I got to the airport and tried to check in, I learned, to my horror (not an overstatement), that my passport was expired. It was devastating on a number of levels, perhaps the deepest being that it was a shameful mistake on my part. I take pride in being on top of the details of my life or at least appearing to be, but over the past few years, I’ve found myself increasingly absent-minded, whether because I’m getting older or because I have too much to keep track of (probably both). Often, I can get away with making a joke of my forgetfulness, but there was no humor to be found in this passport screw-up. I have no doubt that many of the well-traveled people I’ve told this story to over the past few days (including some of you reading this post) have been puzzled and silently judgmental over my failure to check on something so obvious. Thank you for keeping it to yourselves.

There followed a series of emotional phone calls to my dad, the US State Department expedited passport automatic scheduling service, American Airlines, Walgreens (to find out if they take passport photos all day), my mom (basically just to cry), the guy I’d met on eHarmony and had talked to for the first time that very afternoon (who was kind enough to call again and make sure I was okay after I texted him the story), and a friend I’d been meaning to visit. I came up with a plan: apply in person for an expedited passport in Detroit Monday morning (the closest and earliest I could get an appointment), reschedule my flight for June 26 (today), and try to distract myself over the weekend. I ended up traveling two hours south to the Michigan-Indiana border to spend Saturday and Sunday with my friend. She was a gracious last-minute hostess and even took me on a kayaking trip down the St. Joseph River that was as relaxing as anything I’ve experienced in a long time. (I mean the part where we were being carried downstream. Upriver was harder.) And, as it turned out, my friend lives less than half an hour away from my eHarmony guy, so I got to meet him Sunday afternoon, more than a week earlier than we had thought we’d be able to meet, and that was lovely too.

I got the passport on Monday, a story in itself that I won’t take the time to share here. Today, I was understandably anxious about checking in, so I showed up at the airport excessively early. (I won’t tell you how early because I’m embarrassed.) There were no mishaps.

Somewhere in the midst of my rushing around and hardcore crying on Friday evening, I came up with a Planes, Trains, and Automobiles mantra for the weekend: Be more like Del and less like Neal. Neal Page (Steve Martin) has many good qualities, but I simply meant that I should enjoy the adventure, mishaps and all. As I’ve written before on this blog, mishaps make good stories.

my best Friend

I promise I’m not turning this into a Friends blog, but I also promised that I would write an occasional Friends post while working my way through all ten seasons for the first time, so now that I’m finished with Season One and a few episodes into Two, I thought I’d share some of my observations thus far.

I’ve been surprised by how smart the humor is and by my unexpected liking for all the main characters. I’ve been frustrated by the failures the show gets itself into because it’s trying to be two things: both a snappy, hilarious, almost sketch-based comedy and a realistic dramedy with relatable characters. Sometimes the combination just doesn’t work. For example, the running joke about how critical Monica’s mother is toward her (and how gamely Monica, though annoyed, puts up with this) is really off-putting to me. I think it would be a funny SNL sketch, but there’s no way this relationship would look this way in real life. In general, I dislike all the parents I’ve met so far; though I appreciate that the show portrays young adults having relationships with their parents, I feel like the parent characters are mostly guest-star vehicles who come across as less mature than their kids, who aren’t terribly mature themselves. An extreme eye-rolling example: the one where Joey’s mom is not only okay with his dad having an affair but actually tells him to go back to his mistress because he’s supposedly (or “supposably,” as Joey would say) easier to live with when he’s got a woman on the side. Please. But on a more positive note regarding guest stars and secondary characters, I really liked Phoebe’s sweet physicist boyfriend David (played by Hank Azaria), and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him when he gets back from Minsk.

The funniest gag I’ve seen on Friends so far? While I laugh out loud almost every episode, for this, I have to go with the scene in which Chandler convinces Joey to use “Joseph Stalin” as his stage name. (Joey, later: “Apparently there’s already a Josef Stalin. You’d think you’d have known that.”)

And this brings me to the main topic of my post today: Chandler. I really like him, and I think I’m a lot like him. I started to realize this last night when I watched The One Where Heckles Dies, early in Season Two. Mr. Heckles, the cranky downstairs neighbor, dies and leaves all his possessions–basically a pile of hoarder junk–to “the loud girls upstairs” (Monica and Rachel). While the gang is going through his stuff, Chandler starts to realize he resembles Heckles not only in harmless ways, such as the geeky clubs he belonged to in high school, but also in more serious ones, like the petty criticisms he comes up with as excuses to break up with women. He starts to worry that he will die alone like Heckles and resolves to change his ways. Although this awakening is played for laughs like nearly everything on Friends (as it should be–the show gets clunky when it tries to be serious), while watching it, I felt a strong sadness and empathy for Chandler.

Because, you see, I’ve broken up with guys for stupid reasons. I worry about driving people away with my critical spirit–not just potential romantic partners, but potential friends and other potentially important people. I have a fear of commitment (which, on Friends, is portrayed as a male trait but I think is more related to personality than gender). And do I use humor as a coping mechanism? Have you read this blog? (See, I even emphasize words like Chandler.) If the blog isn’t enough to convince you, my students and colleagues think I’m hilarious because I go straight to humor when I’m feeling uncomfortable or don’t know how to present myself to new people. It’s also a great way to keep people at arm’s length (back to that fear of commitment).

The show typically offers pretty realistic, if overly simplified, psychological reasons for why the characters do the things they do (kind of like that jerk psychiatrist Phoebe dated for one episode), and the reason given for why Chandler does all the things in the above paragraph is that his parents got divorced when he was a kid. That didn’t happen to me, so there must be some other reason why I have trouble getting close to people, and this blog is not the place to explore it. In fact, I’m going to stop here before this gets too personal. Did I make you laugh? Good. That’s what I do.

 

watching Friends

I have some good friends who are constantly quoting Friends in my presence, and I hate the sense of alienation, however small, that my lack of Friends knowledge creates, so I borrowed all the seasons on DVD from my mom, and I’m embarking on this considerable project this summer. I’m now five episodes into Season 1. I’ve seen a few episodes over the years, so the basic storyline and characters aren’t completely unfamiliar to me, but there have been some revelations–for example, I didn’t know that Rachel was the newcomer, in the pilot, into an already established group of f(F)riends, and I also was surprised by her hair, which, in the beginning, is thick and unpretentious and a little frizzy. (I like that.) There are also some sitcom conventions that I’m having to get used to again after many years of watching mockumentaries like The Office and Parks and Recreation and realist dramas like The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. For example, I have to suspend my disbelief when the main characters start having personal conversations at really loud volumes in the middle of Central Perk and acting like they’re the only people in the coffee shop. Basically, they are. The people in the background are set decorations.

It’s also weird watching Friends at my age. The show was on during my pre-adolescent and teenage years, so to the extent that I was aware of these characters (and everyone was; Friends was part of the fabric of our culture), I thought of them as old. Now, they seem startlingly young, but a lot of the issues they discuss regularly–career, relationships, wondering when you’ll ever begin feeling like an adult–are still relevant to me. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve missed the adult boat, because people of my generation are dealing with these issues for longer periods of time now, or because (and I think this is most likely) most people don’t ever stop dealing with these issues. So although there are things about Friends I find wildly far-fetched and hard to relate to, I understand why this show resonated with so many people, because, ultimately, it resonates with me too.

Expect more Friends posts–it’s going to be a long summer.

“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

If my Lord of the Rings books were not in a moving box somewhere, I would check on this, but I’m pretty sure the line I quoted in my title is not in the novels. I think it’s part of the body of dialogue (also including much of the “when the sun comes out, it’ll shine out the clearer” speech at the end of The Two Towers) that was written especially for Samwise Gamgee in the Peter Jackson film adaptations because nobody but Sean “Rudy” Astin was convincingly sincere enough to deliver such sweet yet potentially saccharine lines. Even if it isn’t in Tolkien’s text (which isn’t the Bible, nerds), the line Sam speaks before he literally carries the weakened Frodo up the final yards of Mount Doom has become part of the LOTR canon for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Here’s why.

My life has been pretty stable, almost to the point of being boring. I’ve had some adventures and some challenges, but no major catastrophes. I don’t presume to bank on this state of equilibrium lasting forever, but for now, I thank God for having protected me from the extremes of grief and difficulty. Yet I’ve sometimes felt less thankful than guilty. Why have I been spared the physical pain, financial hardship, and emotional trauma (among other things) that I see knocking down people–including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and relatives–like breakers in a hurricane? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I have a theory: Perhaps my role is to be a stable, solid, even boring rock of support and normalcy that people can cling onto and take a breather in the middle of their storm.

Notice that I didn’t compare myself to the rescue worker who’s pulling people out of danger. That’s ultimately God’s role, though I suppose some people–like counselors, clergy, and actual rescue workers–can also fit the analogy. No, I’m the friend–the sidekick, if you will–who is predictably available to give the sufferer a ride, a place to stay, a meal, or an opportunity to pretend that things are normal for a couple of hours. I admit that I don’t always have a gracious attitude toward providing these things, and sometimes I’m terribly obtuse about noticing that people need them. But I can look back over my adult life–actually, maybe even my childhood too–and identify a number of times when God used me as a strong and stable friend for people in need. And there are probably even more times that I don’t remember because I didn’t realize I was doing anything important–because I was clueless about the extent of the trouble or pain the person was in.

Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom is pretty dramatic, I’ll give you that. But Sam trudging hundreds of miles at Frodo’s side, carrying all their stuff because Frodo was too weak for anything but the burden of the ring, making meals and pleading for Frodo to eat them, and making decisions when Frodo was in too much of a mental fog–those things are mundane, yet they’re what enabled Frodo to make it to the moment when dramatic heroism finally was necessary. Maybe I’ll get to have a Mount Doom moment someday, but for now, I’m content to be the sidekick.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

two good guys and a real woman

There’s apparently something about April that makes me want to write short stories.  (Check out last April’s creations, another brother story and a cousin story.)  This one is a best friend story, but it also has male protagonists.  For some reason I find it easier to write about men, but sometimes I need actual men to let me know if my characters are acting like men.  So feel free to critique.  I’m also aware that the non-male of my three main characters, Ramona, isn’t as compelling as the other two.  Since they clearly think she’s something special, I need to do a better job of showing why.  And I do know that the legal stuff the characters discuss about copyright and fan fiction is a bit murky.  I need to do more research on that, although this ultimately isn’t a very important part of the story. 

Please enjoy this as-yet untitled piece.  Warning: It is fairly long.

Back in college, they used to get pizza wasted.  This doesn’t mean that they ordered pizza while wasted.  This means that they ate so much pizza, they got stupid.  There was one three-week period when they watched Psycho every night, at least that’s how they remembered it later.  Every night they quoted the same lines.  “You’re going to put me in the fruit cellar.  Think I’m fruity, do you?”  After destroying three large stuffed crust Pizza Hut pizzas, they could barely breathe, far less think.  Adrian was skinny in college, even more than now.  Sam was, as now, bless-his-heart fat.  This made little difference.  They both demolished about a pizza and a half each.

Adrian was not exactly wishing, just now, that he was pizza wasted.  But he was thinking, with a twinge of nostalgia, about what a different setting he and Sam were in on this particular evening.  Instead of a B.O.-funky dorm room, they were in a vast hall with crystal chandeliers, which hurt Adrian’s eyes, and thick, somnolent carpets.  Sam was sitting at the front table, wearing a suit and looking flushed and sweaty but radiantly happy.  Adrian was sitting at one of the indistinguishable round tables with Ramona, who was falling asleep.  He saw that she had her phone in her lap and knew it was set to vibrate, so he texted her, “Wake up!”  Her eyes flew open, and she looked at Adrian sheepishly.  He texted again, “My little flower.  You wilt when there’s no natural light. :)”  She texted back, “Shut up and pay attention!,” but she was smiling.

Adrian looked up at the podium and tried to pay attention.  A middle-aged woman, who clearly didn’t read Sigyn: Intra-Yggdrasil Negotiator, was talking about Sam.  Sam wrote and illustrated comic books for a living.  He routinely referred to this as “the ultimate loser job,” but Adrian called it what it really was: living the dream.  Sam had pulled Sigyn out of a footnote in Norse mythology and turned her into the heroine of his hugely cult-popular series.  A national feminist organization had noticed that Sigyn was a “real” woman and now was honoring Sam for his work to advance realistic and positive portrayals of women in the comic book genre.  As far as Adrian, Sam, and Ramona had been able to tell, “real” meant that Sigyn didn’t take crap from people, and it also had something to do with the size of her hips.

Sam had been floored by this honor.  “I wasn’t trying to say anything,” he’d said last night while freaking out over his acceptance speech.  “I mean, she’s just a great character, and I think she’s hot.”  “I don’t think you should mention that last part,” Adrian had warned him.  “No, I don’t think the feminists would like that,” Ramona had agreed.  “Even if it is true.”  The laugh in her voice when she said this had made Adrian stare at her for a few moments, trying to see if he could find some hidden message.  Adrian had long suspected that Sam was modeling Sigyn’s appearance, and some of her mannerisms, after Ramona’s.  It was just little things, like her hair color and her fondness for wearing green.  Since Sam was clearly infatuated with his fictional creation, the possible connection between Sigyn and Ramona was one that Adrian was afraid to pursue.  He hoped he was just being paranoid.

Adrian snapped out of his reverie and realized that he was staring at Ramona, who was looking at Sam, who was now at the podium speaking.  Sam pushed a damp clump of hair off his forehead and took a sip of water.  “I’m so grateful for the love you’ve all shown Sigyn.  I was just trying to create a character who was smart and strong and happy and . . . you know . . . healthy, mentally and emotionally and . . . physically.”

Adrian and Ramona exchanged a glance.  So far Sam hadn’t said anything to get the feminists indignant.  Sam continued, “I think Sigyn’s greatest quality is that she brings peace with her wherever she goes.  She’s able to get these crazy, selfish, combative kings and demigods to stop fighting, and she can do that because she’s . . . like I said, smart, and emp–empathetic.”  He took a bigger swallow of water.  “So, I’m glad you love her too, and thanks for this . . . honor.”  Sam gave a tentative little wave and started to go back to his chair but stopped at a signal from the middle-aged woman who didn’t read Sigyn.  “Oh!” he exclaimed, sounding out of breath.  “Um, questions?”

A younger woman sitting in the press section raised her hand.  “There’s a lot of speculation on the message boards that Sigyn is having an affair with Balder.  What would you say in response?”

“STUPID QUESTION,” Ramona texted Adrian.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous,” Sam said, the hesitation gone from his voice.  “Balder’s not that kind of guy; he’s just a good guy, you know?”

Adrian texted back, “Seriously, what does she think this is, Inside Edition?”

“And besides,” Sam continued, “as weird as it sounds, the whole series is based on the premise that Sigyn actually loves Loki.  And in his limited, narcissistic way, he loves her too.”

The fact that Sigyn, true to the original mythology, was married to Loki was one of the reasons Adrian suspected that she was modeled from Ramona.  Unlike most normal women, Ramona wasn’t particularly attracted to Thor; it was the pale, dark troublemaker who caught her fancy, and for some reason this made Adrian extra jealous.  “Do you have to have a picture of Tom Hiddleston on your desktop?” he’d asked the other day, knowing he sounded petulant and ridiculous.  “Do you have to drool every time a preview with Jessica Chastain comes on TV?” she had rejoined, with a smile that said she didn’t take this nearly as seriously as he did.

Adrian wondered if he was becoming unreasonable, or worse, pathetic.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Ramona.  It was just that he sometimes, increasingly often, had the self-esteem of a 14-year-old girl.  There was no other reason for him to feel threatened by mythical gods and unattainable British actors, and by–well, by Sam, who now, it seemed, was finished answering questions.  The middle-aged woman was now making closing-type remarks while Sam stood at a deferential distance from the podium, his cheeks bright pink and his blonde hair turning dark at the ends from perspiration.

“Sam looks miserable,” Ramona texted.

“He’s fine,” Adrian typed at first, but backspaced this and wrote instead, “Those lights up there look really bright.”  What he wanted to write was, “Hey, I’m feeling kind of miserable myself over here, you notice?”  But that would really be pathetic.


Later, in the cab, Sam was happy again now that he’d taken off his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his collar.  “Man, I haven’t worn a suit since you two got married.”

“Yeah, but that time it was a tuxedo.  So this isn’t that bad,” Adrian pointed out.  Sam had been a groomsman in their wedding–not the best man, a distinction that had belonged to Adrian’s brother.  Sam didn’t have any siblings, nor did he have any other close friends, and his parents didn’t like to travel, which was why Adrian and Ramona had been his guests for the banquet.  (Of course, there was also the distinct possibility that Ramona was the inspiration for the character whom all the fuss was about, but nobody talked about that.)  After a brief, awkward spat, Adrian and Ramona had agreed to let Sam pay for their plane tickets and hotel room.  “I’m still shocked that I’ve made any money from writing comics,” Sam had said.  “And what better way to spend my money than to spend it on my best friends?”  Sam had a way of saying embarrassingly sincere things like that.

Now, in the cab back to the hotel, Sam punched Adrian in the arm.  Adrian cringed, which he knew was stupid, because it didn’t hurt and he normally didn’t mind being punched in the arm.  “Hey,” said Sam.  “Have you thought about it?  Are you gonna be Percy?”  Sam wanted to start a new series called Percy Weasley and the Ministry Aides, and he’d asked for Adrian’s permission to let him model the title character’s appearance after his own, which corresponded superficially to J. K. Rowling’s description of Percy.  Adrian found this annoying.  There was nothing particularly special about having red hair and horn-rimmed glasses.  Besides, all this was clearly just a formality, since Sam hadn’t asked for permission to model his other title character after Ramona.  Unless he had, and nobody had ever told Adrian.  But this was too enormous to be considered.

“Can’t you rest on your laurels for a while before starting your next project?” Adrian asked.

“But this one is going to be awesome!” Sam said.  “I’ve got it all planned out.  I think Percy is going to be kind of a hipster.”

“Why?” Adrian asked with an edge to his voice.  He certainly wasn’t hip enough to be a hipster.

“I don’t know; that’s just how I picture him.  I think it’s the glasses.  I’m thinking Cornelius Fudge can send Percy down to the local pub to get him a beer, and Percy comes back with this obscure craft brew called, like, Goblin Hoard.”

Ramona laughed.  She was the biggest Harry Potter fan of them all.  “Is Percy going to get reconnected with Penelope Clearwater?”

“Of course!” Sam exclaimed.  “I haven’t quite figured out how, though.  I think she’s working for the Daily Prophet.  Oh!  And I’ve already got the Christmas issue planned out.  Percy is going to get a card from his mom that just says, ‘Come home.’  And he isn’t going to come home, because this is before all the Battle of Hogwarts stuff, but he’s going to have this whole Christmas meltdown thing.  Great stuff.  I can’t wait.”

“Percy has always broken my heart,” Ramona said.

“J. K. Rowling is probably going to sue you,” Adrian said, even though Ramona had sounded like she was going to say more.  He was looking straight out the windshield; Sam and Ramona were leaning across him to talk to each other.  He felt a little sick.

“No, she isn’t,” Sam said.  “Has Marvel ever tried to sue me for using Loki and Thor and Odin?  I’m not famous enough to be a threat.”

“Yeah, but you might have to be more careful now that you’re a noted feminist artist,” Ramona said in a wink-wink voice.

Sam chuckled, always a fan of Ramona’s humor.  “Naah, this is the 21st century.  The whole concept of copyright is changing.  And I’m basically just writing fan fiction.  I’ve done my research; I won’t get in trouble for the stuff I do.”

“Please don’t go to jail, Sam!” said Ramona in an exaggeratedly worried tone and a proper British accent.  Ramona enjoyed doing British accents, especially when the context didn’t call for it.

“We’re at the hotel,” Adrian said, before the cab had even reached the breezeway.  He was angry at everyone in the backseat, especially himself, and he wanted to go to bed.

After Sam paid the driver, he hustled to catch up with Adrian and Ramona, who were already in the lobby.  “Hey,” he said.  “It’s probably just me, but–are you guys still hungry?”

“Actually, yeah,” said Ramona.  “I thought it was just me.”

“Kind of,” Adrian conceded.  “The food at that banquet was . . .”

“Not great,” Sam said apologetically, as if he felt bad for taking his friends to a lousy banquet.  “And there wasn’t much of it.  And I was so nervous, I couldn’t eat.”  He paused for a beat.  “Just kidding!”

Adrian never knew how to respond when Sam made fat jokes about himself, which this seemed to be.  “Earlier I saw a pizza place at the end of this block,” Adrian said.  “I’ll go get some pizzas.”

“We could just get delivery,” Ramona suggested.

“No, I want to walk,” said Adrian.

“I’ll go with you.  You’ll have a lot to carry.  And I want to pay,” said Sam.

“But you have your jacket and tie . . .”

“I’ll take them upstairs,” said Ramona.  “I have some grading to do, so I’ll wait up there for you guys.”

Adrian sighed.  He wanted to be alone, but at least this way Sam and Ramona wouldn’t be alone in adjoining hotel rooms.  “Okay, come on, Sam.”

It was a balmy night.  In spite of himself, Adrian was starting to feel calmer.  Sam seemed a little high from the evening’s events.  “Adrian,” he said.  “I want to tell you something.  I think you already know, but I want to say it out loud.”

“Don’t say anything you’ll regret,” Adrian said dryly, looking down at a pebble he was kicking along the sidewalk.

“Well, like I said, I think you know, but . . . I really . . . I mean I’ve always . . . I love your wife.”

Adrian nearly tripped mid-kick.  “What?”  He stopped and turned to look at Sam, whose face was redder than it had been all evening.  “Why would you tell me that?”

Most people would’ve had the decency to look away, Adrian thought, but Sam just looked at him with those big blue eyes that made him seem desperate even at the best of times.  “Come on, Adrian, I’ve loved Ramona pretty much ever since you two started dating–”

“Stop saying love!” Adrian shouted.  He was shouting, on a street that wasn’t entirely deserted, but he didn’t care.  “You don’t even know what that is!”

Now Sam turned away.  Adrian immediately realized what he’d said.  “I’m sorry, that was . . .” It was cruel, but that word sounded overly dramatic.  “Does she know?  Have you said anything to Ramona?”

Sam shook his head emphatically, still not looking at Adrian.  “Of course not.  You know me.  I would never act on this.”

“Because you’re a good guy,” said Adrian, in a dull voice now.  “And you know that as weird as it sounds, Ramona loves me, and I love her, in my limited, narcissistic way.”

Sam looked at Adrian now.  “What?  Did you think I was saying that about you?  That was just some literary crap that sounded good when I was on the spot.  It was about Loki, and you’re definitely not him.”

“Believe me, I know that!” Adrian turned and started walking briskly toward the pizza parlor.  Sam was shorter and practically had to jog to keep up with Adrian’s stride.  Adrian turned to speak again, as if Sam had kept the conversation going.  “Listen, I know this makes me sound like a douche bag, but it’s true.  You don’t know what it’s like to be married to a woman who’s whole leagues better than you, and to always be baffled about what she sees in you, and to constantly be paranoid about pretty much all the other men in the world, even if they’re fictional characters or . . . or really good guys.”

Sam stopped walking, forcing Adrian to stop too, and indicated his whole person in a sweeping gesture.  “Have you seen me, Adrian?  I’m a fat nerd.”

Adrian flung his arms out too, which he normally only did when he was teaching and making a very important point.  “Sam, did you sleepwalk through that banquet tonight?  Did you hear what those people were saying about you?  You’re like the Stan Lee of our generation.”  Sam snorted.  “Okay, maybe not yet, but you will be!  You spend all day, every day writing incredible stories that people all over the world love.  So don’t tell me–”

“I’m lonely, Adrian,” Sam cut in, not loudly.  It took Adrian a moment to realize what he’d said.  “I’m so lonely.  It’s worse than ever.  If I’d had to go to this thing by myself, I don’t think I could’ve gone.”  He paused to take a breath.  “Do you forget what that’s like?”

Adrian ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his jacket and his glasses, as if he’d been physically hit.  “Geez, Sam.”

They were at the pizza place.  Sam held the door open.  “How much pizza do you think we should get?”

Adrian shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Whatever.  All of it.”  He felt sick again.  “You decide.  I need to sit down.”  He went over to a far corner booth, sat down, took off his Percy glasses, and sat there with his face in his hands, while Sam placed what sounded like a very long pizza order.

Sam came over and slid into the opposite seat.  He let out a long sigh.  “It’s supposed to be ready in 15 minutes.”

Adrian put his glasses back on.  “You know what I was thinking about tonight?  Remember in college, how we used to get pizza wasted?”

Sam briefly chuckled.  “Oh, man.  Remember when we watched Psycho like 21 nights in a row?”

Adrian nodded.  “That’s exactly what I was thinking about.”  He paused, a moment of silence for their former selves.  “How did we pay for all that pizza?”

Sam shrugged.  “Student loans, I guess.”

“But . . . why did we do it?”

“I don’t know.” Sam shook his head.  “Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I know why did it.  I was especially miserable that year, and I was trying to numb it, I guess.  Kind of the story of my life.”

Adrian cringed again.  “Geez, Sam.”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry.”  There was a long, comfortable silence, the kind men can generally pull of much better than women.

Finally, Adrian said, “Look.  I know I suck as a friend.”

“No, you don’t,” Sam insisted, with an are-you-crazy face.

“Yes, I do.  I’ve said some awful things to you tonight.  And just so you know, I was totally zoned out during at least half of the speaking part of the banquet.”

“So was I,” Sam laughed.

“Dude, the whole banquet was for you.”  Now Adrian had the are-you-crazy face.

Sam shrugged.  “I know.”

“Well, then we both suck as human beings.  But listen.  I’ll be Percy if you answer me one question.”

“What’s that?” Sam asked slowly, probably thinking that he’d spilled enough guts for one evening.

Adrian took a deep breath.  He thought he already knew the answer, but he was scared to hear it aloud.  “Is Ramona–when you draw Sigyn, are you really drawing Ramona?”

“Yes.”

Adrian let out the breath.  “I knew it.”

“But not on purpose, at least not from the beginning.” Sam closed his eyes for a second, the way people do when they’re trying to look into the past.  “I was just drawing a woman who was all those things I said in the speech earlier, strong, and–you know . . .”

“Smart, and happy, and healthy, and all that.”

“Yeah.  And then one day I was like, ‘Sigyn looks really familiar,’ and it wasn’t just because I’d gotten to know my character, although that was true; it was because I was drawing Ramona.”

Adrian look at Sam and realized he didn’t feel angry.  He then looked down at the table and realized he’d been tearing a straw wrapper to bits.  He brushed the pieces into a little pile.  “Well.  I think you should tell Ramona that she’s Sigyn.”

“What, really?”  Sam had been looking out the window, but he snapped back to look at Adrian when he heard this.  “But if I tell her, won’t she know–”

“Ramona is smarter than the two of us put together,” Adrian interrupted.  “She’s probably known about all this stuff–I mean all of it–for, like, ever.  And besides,” he added, “people like to hear nice things about themselves.”  For once in his life, Adrian wasn’t fishing for a compliment when he said this.  Which was good, because Sam didn’t give him one.

Instead, Sam just said, “Wow, okay.”  And then, after a pause, “Oh, hey.  Do you still like pizza without any tomato sauce?  Because I got you a whole one like that.”

“Sam,” said Adrian.  “I should start calling you Samwise, because you are, without a doubt, the world’s greatest friend.”  After a second of introspection, Adrian was pleased to find that he was perfectly sincere.