30 Before 30: Compete in a Crossword Competition

27 Apr

In my 30th year of life, I’m attempting to do 30 new things. Full List Here. All Bucket List Adventures Here.

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At the finals of the 2016 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the three best cruciverbalists were readying themselves on the stage in front of their giant crossword boards, their ears covered with sound-canceling headphones. The two announcers (one a puzzle constructor, the other a Connecticut sports radio personality) discussed crosswords.

“So what does it take to become good at crosswords? What makes someone enjoy them enough to come here and compete?” The sports radio personality asked.
“Two things. It takes a desire to acquire and retain a great deal of knowledge. And it takes a passionate love for language and words.”

I sat in the crowd (SPOILER! I wasn’t a finalist) and nodded in agreement. I think those are two of the biggest things that define me. An unending need to learn more and an obsession with the beauty of language and how we communicate with one another. As I told friends, co-workers, and family that I was competing in the competition, they all responded with a resounding “NERD.” So be it. Perhaps I am. But it was a special experience to spend the weekend with others who are as wordy nerdy as me.

I took the Metro North train from Grand Central up to Connecticut, and as I walked to the hotel where the competition was held, I started to see people wearing crossword shoes, scarves, dresses. In the lobby of the hotel were stacks of xeroxed copies of the crosswords that had come out that morning in various publications. Everyone was scattered around, chatting about the puzzles, discussing different themes and puns.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I headed into the ballroom and settled at my seat. As other contestants filtered in, I made friends with two of the ladies sitting near me. A retired science teacher from Long Island and a retired Internist from Michigan. They talked to me about past years’ competitions, their favorite crossword blogs (that’s a thing!), and pointed out to me some of the crossword “celebrities.”

“Oh, I just feel so star struck when I come here,” my friendly neighbor said as she pointed out her favorite blogger.

The competition consisted of 7 different puzzles. 6 on Saturday, and the final, large puzzle on Sunday morning. Top scorers then got to compete on an eighth puzzle, Sunday afternoon. My friends (despite relentlessly teasing me for being a nerd) had also encouraged me and almost convinced me that I could win the whole thing. But as soon as time was up on the first puzzle, I realized it wouldn’t be the case. Points are rewarded based on correct answers, finishing the puzzle early, and a bonus for a completely correct puzzle. I decided to take my time and make sure my answers were right. This led to me only being able to finish one puzzle. And it hurt my pride to see so many of the people around me raising their hands and finishing when I hadn’t even gotten around to all of the clues. I’m also used to doing the puzzles on my computer and had to adjust to doing it on paper. I kept losing my place, looking at downs when I was trying to fill in acrosses. Classic rookie mistake.

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The one puzzle I finished: #6.

I didn’t get to stay for the Saturday night festivities, since I had to cat sit in Manhattan, and it was my friend’s 50th birthday party in Chelsea. And I was sad to run out when the “party” was just getting started.

Sunday morning, I dragged myself back to Connecticut, feeling a bit down that my ranking was 542 out of 576. I didn’t think I’d do THAT bad. Puzzle 7 was Sunday-style, meaning it was much larger, and I learned from the previous day’s mistakes and worked through it a lot faster. At the end of the day, I bumped my rank to 536 out of 576 which made me feel a little bit better about myself. After the puzzles were done, there was a talent show dubbed “Crossworders Got Talent,” and it featured song covers about crosswords, spoken word, comedy. It was incredible and weird.

THEN, the finals. If you think that watching other people finish crossword puzzles isn’t fun, you’re wrong. You’re dead wrong. There were three final rounds, with the top three finalists in three different division. What I thought was interesting is that all three divisions had the same answers, just different levels of clues. For instance, a division C clue was “Dots on i’s and j’s,” the answer is Tittle. Difficult, and a term I’ve never heard before. The clue for division A? “A trio in Beijing.” Get it? Because there are three tittles in Beijing?! That’s one I would never have gotten…in either division, honestly.

So the finals were Division C, then Division B, then Division A (the big guns). Everyone in the crowd had the clues in front of them, and by the time Division A got up, we all knew the answers. In the center of the Division A was a man who has gotten first place in the tournament for the last 6 years. If he won this year, he would have the longest winning streak in ACPT history! And he had a 8 second head-start, since he had scored higher on the puzzles. Everyone was sure he was going to win. Then, the second place contestant started to pull ahead. A gasp stirred through the crowd as everyone realized, he was almost done, that he might just dethrone the champ. Then he filled in the final answer, turned around yelling, “Done!” The crowd exploded! He had won!

Okay, maybe it was a “you had to be there” moment, but I had a blast. Not just watching the finals, but the whole competition. I met smart, kind, interesting people. And despite my poor showing, I learned so much about crosswords and improved a lot. I now find myself actually finishing Fridays and Saturdays, which I had never been able to do before. I learned some lessons in solving, and I’ll be back. I have to go back. I have to somehow make my way to that Division A stage.

I took the train home, exhausted from my hectic weekend. I changed into my pajamas and crawled into bed. I took a long deep breath and sat there for a moment before I reached into the backpack sitting at the side of my bed, pulled out some of the xeroxed puzzles I had collected and started working on them until my eyelids were so heavy, I feel asleep pen in hand, puzzles spread out on my comforter.

Book Roundup #7

25 Apr

As I sat down to write this post, I came to the sobering realization that I haven’t written in a month. What on Earth have I been doing with myself? I’m not even entirely sure. Some fun things have happened which I’d like to write about in the coming days, but I guess the answer is that it’s Spring in New York, and everyone wants to hang out and do fun things. Who am I to say no? But lots of train travel has led to a lot of reading.

The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Ed. by Scott Dodson

 

RBG is legit. She’s amazing and incredible, and all American women owe her a great deal of their freedoms and opportunities to the work she has spent her life doing. I delved into RBG scholarship by reading this book of essays about her work. I read the first third (the portion about the gender equality cases she championed) with gusto, but I’ll be honest I didn’t finish the rest of the book. The last two sections were about her much less sexy work, mainly her obsession with Swedish civil procedure. This book was more geared for law professionals which I am not. And this book made me realize how happy I am that I’m not.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

After how much sleep I lost while reading “The Shining,” I decided I needed even more Stephen King twistedness in my life. In type A fashion, I googled a variety of rankings of his novels and decided “‘Salem’s Lot” was a good next step for me. It’s about vampires taking over a small town in Maine. I wasn’t too wild about it. Maybe because in the last decade, the vampire thing has been beaten to death and forever tarnished by the abysmal Twilight series. But I also think my adolescent adoration for everything “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has skewed my perception of anything vampire.

In any vampire story, rules are created. How to kill vampires, how to make them, what their abilities are. I subscribe to the Buffy rules, and I don’t stomach other worlds’ rules well. Secret fact about me: Sometimes when I’m at kickboxing class, I pretend I’m Buffy.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

My sister is a librarian and got an advanced copy of this book at a library conference that she attended. The cover was dramatic, while the title seemed benign. I was skeptical when she said she liked it, but I ended up loving it. The plot is odd. A Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian after a dream she has. It throws her whole life upside down and creates turmoil with her family. Sounds like a stupid plot, but the book was beautiful. The imagery, the hint of insanity. It was poetic, and I couldn’t put it down.

What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan

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Another book that my sister picked up at the library conference and worked its way through the readers in my family. It follows the investigation of a missing child through the eyes of the mother and the eyes of one of the detectives on the case. Another title that I found to be melodramatic. But the unraveling mystery was fun. Macmillan does a good job introducing suspects and revealing clues. A great, easy read.

 

 

 

The Shining by Stephen King

24 Mar

Other than Goosebumps books from my childhood, this was my first horror book. It was also my first Stephen King book. I try not to be a book snob, but I sometimes become one, and for that I suffer. I’ve always considered Stephen King to be a “grocery-store novelist.” The kind of author that churns out a couple of books a year that are big type, poorly written and can often be found in the check-out lane at the grocery store. Not good books. Trashy in some sense. But that’s not fair. I’m turning my nose up at something I’ve never taken the time to try. Surely some of those books must have some merit.

So I read “The Shining,” and from the first couple of chapters, I couldn’t put it down. No, it wasn’t beautiful and elevated literature, but it was interesting, it had levels of humanity and supernatural interwoven. And I didn’t want to stop reading it. I’d spend my days at work, thinking about the book, counting down the hours until I could get home and return myself to the Overlook Hotel. I fell asleep with the book clutched in my hands and haunted with some twisted nightmares.

I had seen the movie years ago, but it was almost nothing like the book, which I wasn’t expecting. And here, the golden rule for books rings true. The book was better than the movie. And, more to the point of Stephen King adaptations, the book was far scarier than the movie. (Stephen King agrees.) What I remembered about the movie was the haunting cinematography and the psychotic nature of Jack Nicholson playing Jack Torrence. The book doesn’t focus on Jack that way. It’s more about the little boy Danny and about the hotel itself coming alive. I left the movie afraid of Jack Torrence. I put down the book terrified of hotels. Some of my favorite parts of the book weren’t even in the movie. The hedge animals?! Wendy being a badass and not a whimpering mess?! The fire extinguisher hose?! Tony?! There’s hardly any Tony in it.

I’m officially a big Stephen King fan now. I’m officially a horror book/grocery store book fan now. I might have a lot of sleepless nights ahead of me, but my favorite part about reading is getting absorbed in a book to the point where I don’t want to put it down. On that count, Stephen King delivers.

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”

Hi, is (Voter Name) there?

22 Mar

I’m not going to get political other than to say that I support Bernie Sanders. (And yet push come to shove, I’d vote for almost anyone over Donald Trump. I’d vote for Elmo over Donald Trump.) That being said, I signed up for the Bernie Sanders campaign months ago and have received between 3-6 emails a day about strategy, about his beliefs, and of course asking for money. “C’mon, Christine!” These emails seem to say to me. “Isn’t $3 worth it to show the billionaire class that they can’t control our government!” It totally is. But I don’t contribute, and I use the excuse that I’m saving up to go back to school, and it’s going to be expensive. And I’m stressed about the tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt I’m about to take on. Bernie would understand! This approaching storm cloud of debt didn’t stop me from spending $15 on a carrot, cucumber, and Pimms cocktail this weekend, and I understand the hypocrisy there. But it was delicious, and it made me feel healthy and buzzed at the same time, so that’s that.

But I do believe in the Bern, and I’d love to see him elected, so I decided to give my time instead of my precious dollars. I signed up for a Phonebanking “Party.” Last night, as I headed to the stranger’s apartment in Long Island City, I felt waves of anxiety. I hate the phone. I hate talking to strangers. I hate when strangers call me asking for things. I don’t want to annoy people while they are trying to eat dinner. I told myself a million times, on the train, on the walk, that I should turn around and go home, but I felt committed.

It was a small group. The host and one of her friends were middle aged tech-hippies who have been phone banking for weeks. A young guy named Lee who looked like he had just come from a mock UN trial, clear braces on his teeth and everything. A millennial girl like me, same MacBook Air and everything. Later, an odd guy showed up who had a Bernie puppet. Instead of making calls, he practiced the arm movements of Bernie and asked for feedback. Brie and crackers, Modelo beer, and some wine. Temporary tattoos of Bernie dressed like Robin Hood. Everybody settled around their laptops with their phones.

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Bernie Sanders puppet. 

I picked Washington State since those are my people. I read through the pre-written script a hundred times, terrified of turning my caller setting to ready and initiating the first call. “If I get one person yelling at me, I’m going home.” I told myself. I guess I’m still traumatized from my Upper East Side receptionist days. But I took a deep breath and did what everyone else was doing and felt the sway of mob mentality. I hung up on the first few people I called, because I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t hear the telephone ring. It was just a beep, and then I was supposed to start talking. Oh shit, I’m doing exactly what I feared. I’m annoying people.

But it wasn’t so bad once I got going. Most of the people I called were wrong numbers or they hung up on me right away. I always wondered what that must feel like. It’s relief. As long as I wasn’t being berated I was happy. The script in front of me was ridiculous. A big lead up about Sanders and why he’s great and how I’m voting for him. And then finally the question, “Are you planning on caucusing for him on March 26?” I couldn’t do it. To me that felt like the most annoying part of these automated calls. Instead I just said, “My name is Chrissy, and I’m calling on behalf of Senator Bernie Sanders. Do you have a minute to talk?”

Totally off script, no question like that exists in the script. I was just supposed to launch into my speech. Lee looked over his laptop at me, mouth agape. I’m a rebel, Lee; I refuse to annoy people. I get it though, the reason we aren’t supposed to ask that question is because people say, “No, I don’t have time to talk.” But that’s their prerogative in my opinion. Overall I got a lot of kind responses (I knew Washingtonians would be polite) saying they were busy, but “Go Bernie!” I reminded people of the caucus date and directed them to Bernie’s website for more info. I didn’t see how much good I could possibly be doing. Until I got a hold of Karyn.

The website told me she was 26 and in a suburb outside of Seattle. She did have a minute to talk!

“Can Bernie count on your support on March 26?” I asked.
“You know, I love Bernie, but I’m really on the fence, and I wonder if Hillary is a better option.”

I saw on the script what I was supposed to say. “I understand! Check out Bernie’s website.” But the script is bullshit, and I was talking to a human being, a fellow countrywoman who was on the fence about an important political decision. We spent about 10 minutes talking. She told me about her concerns about Sanders campaigns, some that I’ve thought a lot about too. Doesn’t Hillary have better foreign policy experience? Doesn’t she have a better chance of beating Trump than a self-described Socialist does? I told her how her concerns were valid, and why I came down on the side of Sanders in regards to these issues. I don’t know if I persuaded her, but I gave her somethings to think about. Lee was glaring at me. I had gone SO off-script. I color outside the lines, Lee. Deal with it.

“I’ll definitely do some more research, I guess,” Karyn told me. “I really appreciate you calling. I think what you’re doing is good.” I DIDN’T EXPECT THAT.
“Thanks for agreeing to talk to me, and seriously, check out his website, there is a lot of good information there, and you can volunteer like this in your area if you are interested?”

I can’t believe that I might have persuaded someone. It made the whole anxiety-filled two hours feel worth it. I hung up smiling. And after a couple more calls, I packed it in.

Will I do it again? Maybe. Not against it. Was it worth it? Maybe. If I got out a couple of extra votes. Will I approach campaign callers differently in the future? Absolutely. I had forgotten that on the other end is just another person who believes in something and wants to share it. It really is just a quick conversation. A yes or no. Is it easier to just donate the $3 Bernie keeps asking for? FOR SURE.

The Greatest Drinking Scam

15 Mar

Sometime last Spring, I decided I wanted to drink much, much less than I have through my teens and twenties. It was a culmination of things. As I get older the hangovers are getting crippling, I hated how it affected my kickboxing, I realized how much money I was dropping at bars, etc.

This had rather bad timing with the arrival of my best friend Zach in New York City. Friends since the first week of freshman year, we once got so drunk together that we took turns vomiting in the same toilet. Talk about bonding. He’s a bartender by trade and decided to move to New York after going through a rough breakup. He arrived wanting to hit the town hard. A precarious situation for me, trying to stay away from the sauce. How could I say no? Two of his cousins who I’m also close with (Brian and Jeff) live here as well, and they love to order and take shots. The worst! Even when I was going out a lot, I hated taking shots. It felt like the express train to illness and hangover. But weekend after weekend, we all go out, and they insist on shots. I protest and say no, but eventually give in.

Late in January, on the eve of the biggest snow storm of the winter, we went out to Brooklyn to celebrate Zach’s 30th birthday. I sipped on my beers and was enjoying a happy buzz. As I made my way back to the table from the bathroom, I spot Brian at the bar. I sidle up next to him, weighing whether I want another beer or not. I can see the bartender with three shot-sized glasses.

“No, Brian, no. I can’t do shots. I can’t.”
“Don’t worry about it. I got Zach whiskey, and I got us shot glasses of water.

It takes my mind a moment to wrap my head around this level of genius. While I’m catching up, Brian tells the bartender to add limes to the side of the glasses, for added panache.

“Why has no one thought of this before?!?!” He exclaims before we head back to the table. I’m known for my ick face when taking a shot. So I pulled out my best acting chops after throwing back the cool, refreshing water. I contorted my face and yelled “Poison!” Zach laughed and pointed at me, as he likes to do. Happy birthday, buddy.

We left the bar well after midnight, the blizzard starting its rage. We trudged through the empty streets, facing an onslaught of flurries. Despite the water scheme, I felt nicely buzzed, and we all laughed as we shoved handfuls of snow in each other’s faces. A pretty epic snow fight ensued. Finally in the train station, dripping from the snow melting on our coats, we all embrace in a group hug.

Genius. Genius! Water masquerading as tequila. But of course, as any true crime aficionado knows, criminals love to brag about their victories, and I got this text message when I was in Savannah.

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Brian gave us away and bragged to Zach about the ploy! Alas, the Great Water Con of 2016 will have to be retired. But for one night, as are most ideas during a night out drinking, it was the best idea ever.

My Elite, Top 5 Favorite Patients

9 Mar

I love the majority of patients that come into the clinic. Of course, mean cats and misbehaved dogs are par for the course, but in general, I love animals, and I love working with them. However, there are a few that are special. Some of my patients and I have a special bond, and I end up thinking of them as my own. It happens to all my co-workers. No rhyme or reason, the heart wants what it wants. I started referring to my beloved patients as an elite top 5.

ELLIE MAE

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My darling Princess. One of the owners of the clinic, Dr. S, has a special affinity to pugs. We work with a pug rescue organization and have become known as the premier pug veterinary hospital in New York. Therefore pugs have a special place in my heart. Ellie Mae is one of the greatest pugs, and for us, it was love at first sight. Those tiny black ears, her feminine cankles, the grey fur on her chest. She has back issues and walks with an odd little strut that drags her back legs. I think she is perfection. I’ve become friendly with her owner and take care of her when she’s out of town. And despite the fact that she pooped on me once when I was putting booties on her feet before we walked in a blizzard, she’s still a special, special dog to me.

RAJA

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I took this picture of Raja, because it is the happiest I’ve ever seen her. I often refer to her as “My Cranky Darling.” She has horrible allergies which cause her to have scabby pustules on her body and horrible, goopy discharge from her eyes. She is also VERY protective of her owner. Whenever I go into the room, she growls and snarls at me. Her owner and I laugh a little as she hands me the leash. Raja trots along behind me, willing to walk, but growling with displeasure. Once we are in the treatment area and away from the owner, she is a sweet, loving dog. This was after Dr. N changed up her treatments and recommended special grooming. I think it’s her sass and chubby waddle that stole my heart.

MR PHELPS

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Blurry picture, because he’s so squirmy! At heart, I’m a dog person, but cats play a huge role in my work life, so I had to squeeze one in. Mr. Phelps was born with a genetic abnormality. He’s about half the size of a normal domestic shorthair, he’s missing an eye, and he has a deformed front leg. But all his flaws add up to perfection in my eyes. He comes in every couple of weeks for nail trims, and I love going to the front area, throwing my arms up and joyously announcing, “It’s Mr. Phelps!” His owner does it right back at me as we have a duet of announcing Mr. Phelps.

RAFFEE

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Raffee is a classic rags to riches tale. His owner was summering in Florida when she saw Raffee alone and running around on a tennis court. Once she was back in New York with him, he seemed off to her, so she brought him in. During the routine exam, I noticed he felt cold. We took his temperature, and it was something in the 93, 94 range. A dog’s normal temperature is 101.5, so something was very wrong. We ran bloods, and Dr. L racked her brain trying to figure out what was going on. I did all a technician could do. I heated up some water bottles and plugged in an electric blanket. I bundled him up with the warming aids and held him close to me. With that temperature, he was only a couple of hours away from dying. He kept staring into my eyes, and it was the first time as a technician where I could sense the gratitude of a patient. Dr L figured out that he has Addison’s Disease which is a manageable adrenal disease. Within a couple of days, he was fixed. He’s so very special to me, because I’m convinced that he remembers me from that time. When he comes in for his steroid shot (that’s why he’s so fat), he runs straight to me , tail wagging. He’s a perfect example of why I love my job and why it feels good to do what I do.

MELVIN

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An underbite is the quickest way to my heart. And I have encountered no finer underbite, than that of Melvin. An amazing puggle that boards with us occasionally. He’s such a great dog and always down for a belly rub. He can shake hands, dance, roll over. Swoon! His owner is one of our more difficult clients, but she is tickled by my adoration of her dog. She started calling him my boyfriend and making a big deal of bringing him in to see me…his girlfriend. I mean, I’m at a point in my life where a relationship doesn’t really fit, and I’m enjoying being single and focusing on moving myself forward. BUT, Melvin is a real catch, and I could definitely could see myself settling down with him. Total boyfriend material.

 

Book Roundup #6

7 Mar

Big things happening here. Big changes in the works and due to stress and an insane to-do list, I haven’t been able to write. But I have found time to read, because I will always find time to read in the same way that I’ll always find an excuse to buy Oreos, it’s a part of who I am. And despite my former post going against reading challenges, my librarian sister convinced me to sign up for the Book Riot Read Harder challenge. So instead of aiming to read a certain amount of books, the challenge offers different types of books to be read. A biography, a book by a transgender person, a book about religion, etc. It’s been a great way to search out books that I might not normally read.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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A beautiful book written as a letter from Coates to his son about being black in America. It’s eloquent and heart-breaking. It pairs well with the Black Lives Matter movement and how frustrating it is to be a person of color in the 2010’s. As a white person, I don’t know how to talk about these issues. I support what black people are doing, but I also know that it is not my movement. It is not for me to claim it or to comment on it, because I can’t sympathize with the racism and discrimination they experience on a daily basis. But this book helped me understand it better, and for that I’m grateful.

“It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgement of invisible gods.”

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw

This was for the play requirement of my Read Harder challenge. I’ve seen “My Fair Lady” dozens of times, but this is the first time I’ve ever read the play. And I think it’s the first play I’ve read outside of school. It’s a strange thing to read a play, to have access to dialogue and some descriptions, but having to plug in everything else. It’s the story of a poor flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) in turn of the century London who is taken in by a couple of linguists who wage a bet on whether or not they can turn her into a lady and pass her off at a royal ball. The play, more so than the movie, focuses on Eliza’s humanity. The linguists that teach her begin to see her as an object, since she is both poor and a woman. It’s an interesting study of society and how something as simple as how we speak can isolate us.

“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

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This translated book is by a journalist who lived with a family in Kabul after the invasion and the expulsion of the Taliban. It follows the patriarch, Sultan Kahn, who owns one of the few bookstores in Afghanistan’s capital, and the lives of his family members. The book goes into detail about living in a post-Taliban Afghanistan, accessing education, the lives of his sons. But it is the lives of his wives and sisters that shines through. As much as I can sit and complain about the United States and my current place in the world, I’m quite blessed to be a woman who has had access to education and has been able to make my own decisions. The women of Afghanistan (at least the ones described in the book) live their lives almost as slaves. They have little choice about where their lives will go. The family decides who they marry and for what price, then their husband decides how she will lead her life. Some benevolent husbands allow their wives to pursue education and jobs, others force them to stay at home cooking and cleaning. I’m not sure how much has changed in the past decade since the book was written, but it made me grateful for what I have. For being able to make my own choices about relationships, about what I wear, the jobs I’ve worked, my access to books and school. It made me feel blessed.

Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America by Kati Marton

Dr G lent me this book, although I’m not entirely sure why. It’s written by a Hungarian immigrant whose parents were journalists in communist Hungary in the 1950’s. As an adult, Marton goes back to Hungary and reads through the state surveillance papers about her parents. She discovers unsavory things about her parents’ extramarital affairs, but also reads about their time in prison and how much they missed their children. Overall, the book was a little dry, often times reading like a book report. But it also felt like a story that has been told before, maybe because I studied in Prague and read about so many stories like this. I didn’t find anything remarkable about it. It made me want to rewatch “The Lives of Others” which is an incredible film about communist surveillance in Berlin. This book wasn’t bad, but I’ve seen it told better.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The premise of this book sounded so interesting. In Mississippi, a young boy is found hanged from a tree in his back yard in the middle of the day. His baby sister decides to investigate his murder 12-years-later as a young girl in a small town. I’ve also read “The Secret History” by Tartt, and I think both books are similar in their failings. An interesting plot, great characters, beautifully described setting, but so much superfluous information. Pages about inconsequential moments. This book took forever to finish, and there wasn’t any great payoff in finishing it either. I felt like I worked really hard to get through the book only to be disappointed with the ending. Tartt is famous for her book “Goldfinch” which I’ve wanted to read. But how many hours of my reading life can I possibly dedicate to this woman?

Ghost Hunting in Savannah, Georgia

4 Feb
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Bonaventure Cemetery

My first full day in Savannah, I got myself coffee at a cute shop South of Forsyth Park. I walked through the squares that are about every two or three blocks. I browsed in book stores, smiled and waved at tourists and locals alike. Off of one of the squares was a beautiful, old home, painted a burnt orange and flanked by palmettos. I saw a couple of tour buses stop by and a woman dressed in 19th century garb board the bus and give a Southern drawl speech. I walked up to the house and read a placard outside that marked it as the “Sorrel-Weed House.” A woman came outside and offered to give me and an older couple who were also reading the plaque a tour of the house for $10 a person. The whole point of my Southern adventure was to do whatever I wanted and to let the vacation unfold as it may.

So I went on a rather boring hour-long tour. The guide pointed out chandeliers and antique furniture, explained why so many of the windows were floor to ceiling, gave details about the renovations. The couple on the tour were fascinated with the different types of wood, the craftsmanship of the decorating. I was politely smiling and nodding. She led us into the drafty, brick-lined basement where servants prepared the food, stored meat, and did laundry. She casually mentioned that bodies were buried under the brick, bodies most likely from the Revolutionary War. She led us into a back room in the basement, and as soon as I walked in, I felt something. Something dark, something unhappy.

“Not this room,” I heard myself say. “This room was used for something else.”

She looked at me, a little annoyed.

“Well, yes. This room was used by Mr. Sorrel’s son in the the late 1800’s. He was a doctor, and he experimented with medical procedures in this room.” She leaned against the wall and popped a couple of mints into her mouth. “I’m not as sensitive as other people. But, yes, I’ve had people refuse to come into this room. We have 24-hour video surveillance on the house, and I’ve seen enough from those cameras to know that we are indeed not alone in this house. Other guides talk about it, but it’s not what my tour is about.”

That’s the tour I want to be on, I thought to myself. Medical experimentation and ghosts are more interesting that crown molding any day in my book. So I signed myself up for a ghost tour that night and another one the following night.

My first tour began in Wright Square at 11pm. The four other people on the tour were skeptical and looked like they got lost on their way to a Miami nightclub. It was hosted by a middle-aged Georgia native who had a walking stick with a silver skull-head on top of it. He was a seasoned tour-guide who had plenty of haunting experiences to share about tours he has done and tours his friends have done. It was clear to me that people in the town of Savannah look at ghosts and the dead differently. Many of the stories were about people living in haunted houses and occasionally seeing apparitions, even interacting with them, and then just going on about their lives.

Savannah is the most haunted town in America, and I loved that this first tour guide referred to the ghosts as Savannah’s “permanent residents.” It seems that the ghosts are more friendly than anything. Little children would play in the cemetery with a ghost they called “Joanie.” One harpist had a doctor ghost live in his house and when he would throw parties, he’d set an extra place at the table for the ghost. Guests claim that sometimes the chair would move in and out by itself. The host and the guests would welcome the doctor and tell him they were pleased to have him join them.

I was skeptical like my too-cool-for-school tourmates, but the writer/reader in me loves hearing stories, indulging in what can’t be proven to be true, but what can’t be proven to be untrue either. Our second to last stop was outside of 432 Abercorn. The most haunted town in Savannah. Despite being worth $1.1 million and located in the heart of the historic district, it’s abandoned, and no one has lived in it for longer that 18 weeks. According to the guides, the current owner inherited the house, and she lived in it with her family for that 18 weeks in the 1970’s. Despite enormous offers to buy the property, she refuses to sell, because she doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she suffered living in that house. Black foggy masses smothering her and her sister. They’d wake up with scratches down their arms and backs, hear disembodied voices. The tour guide the first night wouldn’t even take us up to the house, because he claimed the last time he did, something shoved him three feet. I tried to take a picture of it with my phone, but every picture came out like this.

IMG_3190At first, I thought I was just getting my finger in the way, but I took a couple more, and they came out the same. The flash on my phone kept going haywire, and it was like something was moving across the front of my phone. From left to right, something would move in front of the flash and block the house. My camera has never done that before, and when I tried to use it the next morning, it was back to normal. It completely and utterly freaked me out. Ghost stories have been made up about the place, but they have all been proven to be untrue. 432 Abercorn was built on Calhoun Square, though, which used to be a site for mass burials of slaves, bodies discarded and thrown into a pile and paved over when the town expanded. If there was ever a reason for a spirit to be restless and pissed off, that seems like a good cause.

The next day, I wandered around Savannah and drove past 432 Abercorn a couple of times, wanting to get a good look at it in the daytime. Abandoned and creepy, yes. Haunted? In the daylight it seemed silly and impossible. I had spent hours the night before searching on the Internet for anything about the history of the house. All I could find were articles written by ghost tour companies. Unreliable sources to say the least. But I was most likely visiting that house again that night with a different tour company. I hopped in my car and drove out to Bonaventure Cemetery to spend a warm and sunny afternoon walking among the graves. It felt like a weird thing to do on a vacation. But it was beautiful and peaceful and all of Savannah feels like a graveyard anyways. Savannah is often called a city built on its dead. In the 18th and 19th century, a number of graveyards were constructed for the thousands of dead due to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and three outbreaks of yellow fever. As the city grew, they moved the grave stones but not the bodies.

My second ghost tour was with Blue Orb Tours. I met the group at Chippewa Square at 10pm. Our tour guide was younger and less hokey. Again there were four other people on the tour (and a Shih Tzu named Cranberry.) The tour I had signed up for was called the “Uncensored Zombie Tour,” so I assumed it would be more about the history of voodoo in the area, but it was actually another ghost tour, covering some of the same areas that I had seen the night before. I liked this tour, because the tour guide Adam weaved creepy stories and carried along an iPad with articles/photos/videos to corroborate haunting stories. We once again returned to the 432 Abercorn house, and Adam proceeded to tell us more creepy stories of people getting ill on the tour, dogs growling at the house, thermal photos of cold figures floating behind him. His theory, or perhaps his tour company’s theory, is that the house has a “boohag” or a manifested force of anger due to the mass grave that lies below.

Sitting there for a second night in front of that house, despite the tinkering of my flash on my phone, I still wasn’t sure. Something felt off about that place, of course. A dilapidated, abandoned house, visited at night, surrounded by that melancholy Spanish moss blowing softly in the breeze. How could it not feel creepy? But was it really haunted? I had heard tour-guide Adam mention that he was a writer. Maybe he was just a gifted story teller, versed in the ways to rile up an audience. Maybe all the “evidence” was manufactured by people desperate to believe or desperate to sell a belief.

But that second tour was so much more fun than the first one, and I think it was because I was with a group of tourists who weren’t hip skeptics. They wanted to believe; they wanted to be scared. And that’s the crux of the thing, my time in Savannah was special, because I did feel like I was in the presence of something extraordinary, something scary and inexplicable. Me and those tourists shared our own personal ghost stories and squirmed at the right parts of Adam’s stories. Even Cranberry the dog let out a whimper or two on certain haunted corners.

I returned to New York still researching 432 Abercorn. Listening to EVP recordings on youtube, looking up ghost hunting tours in New York, or within traveling distance. I went out for my friend Andrea’s birthday and met one of her co-workers Carrie who happens to ghost hunt in her spare time. She had also been to 432 Abercorn, and her camera also broke! We chatted about ghost hunting equipment, about haunted places to visit. It’s a whole community, a whole set of experiences and methods. And I’ve chosen to believe in it, because it’s so much more fun that way.

Book Roundup #5

1 Feb

I had a week of vacation time about to expire, so I used it up for a week of traveling, writing, and of course, tons of reading. One of my favorite things about going on vacation is having the excuse to sit and read for hours. Whether it be on a plane, in an airport, at a restaurant, on an island sanctuary, I look forward to how much reading I can get done on extended days off.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by JOHN BEHRENDT

When I decided to take a vacation to Savannah, pretty much everyone I told asked me if I had read this book/seen this movie. I had heard marvelous things about it. With my plane tickets bought, I had to read it. It didn’t disappoint. Another book that is proof that nonfiction is often stranger and more fascinating that fiction. This book is a classic that describes one New York journalist’s life in Savannah society. Odd characters, muddled history, transvestites, voodoo priestesses, and a murder that shook the upper society of Savannah. It absolutely lived up to the hype.

THE PUSHCART PRIZE XXXVI

This is one of the series I had mentioned in my post about short stories. What I like about pushcart is that unlike other series, Pushcart doesn’t limit the writing form. They have a balance of nonfiction essays, fiction, and poetry. It’s nice to have a poetry palate cleanser after reading something longer and weightier. My favorite essay in this collection was “The MFA/Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing” by Anis Shivani. It put into words exactly why I’ve been so skeptical about applying to an MFA program and confirmed my decision not to. This entire collection, though, was dense, and I don’t have the space here to fully describe all the pieces I loved.

SAVANNAH FOLKLORE by Nicole Carlson Easley

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According to legend, this statue of Little Gracie can be heard crying at night.

While I was in Savannah (more detailed post to come), I became interested in the ghost stories. So upon my wandering one day, I found an adorable book store E. Shaver, Bookseller and spent an hour or so wandering the aisles and petting their cats that live in the stacks. I wanted to know more about the local history, but there wasn’t much to choose from, besides the big display of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I settled with this short, glossy book that gave a quick overview of a lot of the history and legends of Savannah. Not great writing, and I read it in an afternoon while relaxing in a square. I hated revealing myself as a tourist to the cute ladies that managed the cash register at the book store, but I had to know more about the weird things I had seen and heard.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr

Dr. G and I always discuss what books we are reading, and he gave me this murder-mystery paperback to read on my vacation. It’s pretty run-of-the-mill serial killer stuff. The Alienist refers to one of the main characters who is a psychologist. The book is set in the late 1800’s when psychology was a new and misunderstood science. It had a fun aspect of historical fiction to it, talking about the grimy Lower East Side of New York, the hatred many people felt toward immigrants (not much has changed). Teddy Roosevelt is a main character since he was police commissioner during that time. The group of sleuths try to find a serial killer by examining his motives, his mind, what his upbringing was most likely like. It was a fun vacation book to read.

JOHNS, MARKS, TRICKS, AND CHICKENHAWKS: PROFESSIONALS AND THEIR CLIENTS WRITING ABOUT EACH OTHER

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A book of essays written by a variety of people who work in the sex industry and who are patrons of the sex industry. I find this subject interesting, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The essays vary in what they cover, and some are a lot more graphic than others. Some people are into some weird things. And while I believe that the whole beauty and point of reading is to get a glimpse into other worlds, there are some worlds that I’d rather leave alone, some images I’d rather not have in my head. I made it about 60% through this book before I had to put it away. Just not my thing.

 

What kind of writing do you want to do?

20 Jan

Turning 29 did something strange to me. I’m not lamenting getting older, and if anything, I’m looking forward to what the rest of my life will bring. So many adventures, loves, opportunities. But there is something about approaching 30 that shakes my core whether I want to admit it or not. If only because it is the end of an era, simply a numerical one, but an era nonetheless. This is the last year of my twenties, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that means to me and how I want to move forward

I have more or less finished with vet tech school, and I have been looking into what my next step is. While I love my job, it’s not enough for me. I want bigger things. I want more education. I want to move up in a field. I want to always feel good about the things I put out into the world, and I had to figure out what that means.

I circled back, as I always do, to this notion of being a writer. I decided I was going to fully invest myself in it moving forward. So I revamped my linkedin, started applying to every writing job I came across, read an endless sea of articles on how to be a published writer. I networked until I found some real life writers in New York.

Through a friend of a friend, I met Katie. She was so kind and helpful and agreed to meet me for drinks so I could pick her brain about the writing industry in New York. We met at a bar in Midtown, and I asked her about her writing path. She told me about journalism school, about endless internships while waitressing, about small gigs, and about eventually landing an assistant editor position for Yahoo News. She was smart, interesting, impressive. I was excited to be talking to her, thinking, “I could do that!” Then, she asked me, “What kind of writing do you want to do?”

Just about the most obvious question to ask anyone pursuing writing. But my mind was blank. I muttered about my blog, about books, about short stories, poetry, essays. All the things I’ve written over the years and written well. I’ve had numerous writing projects. But what kind of writer did I want to be? I simply didn’t have an answer.

Over the next couple of weeks, I thought about this question that I don’t think writers ask themselves enough. What kind of writer am I? I managed to get a couple of freelance, part-time offers. The first writing blog posts for business websites, the second writing click-bait articles about love and relationships. Real writing jobs! Things that would give me a byline. That foot in the door. On the subway train to the Love and Relationship job, I brainstormed article ideas. I could write about break-ups (I’m a reluctant expert), I could write about the types of guys I’ve dated. I could write about epic fights and moments of love and following one’s heart.

And then I had the answer to that question. “What kind of writing do you want to do?” Not this, I thought. My personal relationships and life are worth more to me than $12 an hour. I didn’t want to give away articles about my sexual history, about the men I’ve loved, about the men I failed to love to some start-up website. Yes, it was a foot in the door. It was a way to get published. And, yes, a part of me does want to write about all of that, but on my own terms. That website is not the kind of writing I want to do.

In December, I wanted 2016 to be the year I became a real writer. That I got published and paid to write. That I could earn some sort of badge I could show everyone that I am a writer. But in January, I realized I don’t need that. Writing, reading, words are fundamental to who I am, and they always will be. I’m 29 and unpublished, but I haven’t formulated anything I want to put into the world. I haven’t yet figured out what piece of my soul I want to share and how. Maybe it will be poetry. Maybe I’ll finally pull together a novel about my crazy Upper East Side vet tech life. But I’m learning to be more gentle with myself. There’s no deadline to be a writer. I am a writer, as much as I’m a girl with freckles. It’s a part of me. I can’t sit at a desk all day writing like some writers do. I write best after a long day or a stretch of days on my feet, absorbing the people around me, the world. As much as I’ve read and researched other people’s writing processes, that’s mine. Slumping in near-exhaustion at my desk and writing for a couple of hours before I pass out. And maybe I just haven’t found that one subject, that one book that will tell the story I was born to tell. And that’s okay. I’m only 29 after all.