Night Sweats on March 8 at New Bo Books

Laura poses with a copy of her book Night Sweats and the Library of Congress Subject HeadingsI took this series of selfies with my book and the Library of Congress Subject Headings by way of self-indulgence (and to show off my white hair) and to promote my reading tomorrow at the fabulous New Bo Books in Cedar Rapids.

That’s Saturday, March 8 at 2 pm! Be there to hear me read from Night Sweats, to buy some books, and to check out the artsy-fartsy section of Cedar Rapids, Iowa (really, there is one).

They’re doing a whole March is for Memoirs series with a lot of great events, so you should check those out, too.

An Announcement

Dear Internet,

I interrupt the irregularly scheduled programming around here to let you know that I am expecting a baby boy in 2012, due in theory on January 20.

Thank you in advance for your congratulations and good wishes. I am not sure I can recommend moving 1200 miles, starting a new job, getting pregnant, and buying a house all in the course of nine months, but I never like to do anything by halves.

I’ll doubtless write more about all of this, but in the meantime, I just wanted you to know.


Things I Learned Listening to Commercial Radio in Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois

My trusty car Viktor is equipped with a radio/tape deck and one of those doohickeys that you plug into your cigarette lighter so you can play your iPod through your radio.

Well. That’s the theory anyway. Last week I pulled the entire cigarette lighter out while trying to unplug my phone charger, and I haven’t been able to fix it. And many weeks before that the eject button on the tape deck fell off, and so the tape that was in there got stuck. This left me with two options to listen to on my trip this weekend:

  1. U2’s Rattle and Hum
  2. the radio

Now, I love revisiting 1988 as much as the next girl with a crush on the long-haired Bono of that era, but I have discovered that it is, in fact, possible to tire of “Pride (In the Name of Love).” That left the radio. There are about three public radio stations I can pick up between here and my grandmother’s house. They were all playing Fresh Air. In succession.

That left commercial radio, about which I have the following observations.

  • The song “Band on the Run” is far, far more popular than it should be, even if Paul McCartney is playing in Chicago this weekend.
  • There are many more songs than I thought that have only one lyric.
  • Astoundingly, I have not yet tired of listening to “American Pie.”
  • While good country music exists, none of it is played on the radio.
  • Everyone seems to like the minute length of their music blocks to match their radio frequency. I wonder if the higher frequencies get less money from advertisers, or if they just make their advertising blocks longer.
  • Soundgarden is now classic rock. And not like early Soundgarden. Like “Black Hole Sun” Soundgarden.
  • Rush is the most popular progressive rock band according to some poll or other. Jethro Tull comes in third. I heard “Thick as a Brick” twice, and that was okay.
  • Someday Billy Joel will die and we will all be subject to more renditions of “Piano Man” than anyone has ever heard in a bar. Or should have to.

Note to self, upon preview: fix your damn theme so the bullet points look nicer!

In Which I Offer Excuses

Greg and I have been discussing themes for Thursdays and Fridays, and we still welcome your suggestions. I don’t actually have themes for my days at the moment, but I thought they might be worth pursuing at least a day or two per week.

When I was in fifth grade, I was subjected, among other things, to a sex ed film in which the narrator informed us that if we just ate right and exercised, we wouldn’t have cramps! In class the next day, one girl noted that her mother said that was not true. I don’t remember who it was, but I would like to give her mother a placard that says No Fucking Shit. Today, despite my three days in a row of vigorous exercise and my diet of whole grains and vegetables and all that other stuff they say you should eat, was spent largely cursing God (when not cursing the county and the state legislature, but that’s another topic best saved, as JD Salinger once wrote, for when we’re both blind and drunk) and counting the minutes till I could go home and nap with a cat for a heating pad.

And this, as you may guess, is all by way of saying that, in addition to failing to exercise today, I have not much to say in general. The school here is on what I guess amounts to a basketball break — our high school girls team is at the state championship in Casper — so things are very quiet at the library. I am getting rid of some more old and decripit books. If you’d like a copy of a book about the history of manned space flight from 1981, just let me know. (People are often horrified by the idea that libraries get rid of books, but really, if you saw what I’m getting rid of, I think you’d be okay with it. Also, this is a small public library, not a major research institution. We are interested in having a) books people want to read and b) books that tell them how to do things. I am fairly sure that the Encyclopedia of Associations from 1996 and a dictionary of abbreviations from the 1980s do neither of these things.)

Pet your animals, if you have any, and they are the sort that take to petting, and stay tuned for more tomorrow.


wall of music
wall of music
Today was all about subways and art and zines and moving to Brooklyn.

I’ve reverted to what I think is probably my natural state and become a night person here on my vacation. My grandmother says you should always go to bed and get up on the same day so that you don’t lose a day in between, and I have been abiding by that idea while I’ve been in New York City. So today I arose at a leisurely hour and ate up the rest of my yogurt and strawberries and most of the rest of my granola (my first host is a) vegan and b) only stays at her place part of the time, so I was trying to use up the non-vegan and spoilable food), and drank a couple stovetop espresso potfuls of Cafe Bustela and checked up on the internet and daydreamed and thought about my day, and, after a couple of hours, I got up and set out on it. I had to stop just a few yards away, though, to take a picture of a a dog in a window.

My first real stop was one subway stop down and a few blocks walk down to Grand Street and Doughnut Plant. I love doughnuts, so when I hear from multiple sources that there are good doughnuts to be had, I have to check them out. And oh my were they good. Well. I only had one. But it was good. It was a creme brulee doughnut — a small, deliciously flakey glazed pastry with a creamy center. So good. I would have bought every other flavor they had, except a) they are expensive and b) I try not to eat a lot of doughnuts. But this one was definitely worth it. No picture — it was much too yummy to stop and photograph.

After that, I headed back up town to the Museum of Modern Art. I managed to graduate from Vassar without ever taking art history, but I love art in general, and I love modern art in particular, and I have not been to MoMA since it was renovated. I was last there for a Jackson Pollack retrospective, and though I didn’t see any Pollack this time around, my response was the same. I walked from gallery to gallery with my jaw dropped, and it dropped a little farther each time I saw something that made me look twice, and then look again and again and again. I don’t really know how to explain the sensation, except that it is so wonderful and so overwhelming that I frequently can’t bear the thought of taking in any more, and yet I don’t want to stop. I had to, though, after about an hour. I stopped in one of their cafes and got some coffee and drank it and stared at the wall until I thought I could look at more things, and then I did, and it happened all over again.

MoMA is expensive — it always has been, so that’s not really a surprise — and I wish I could stay there more than a couple of hours, but I truly can’t take in more than that. Nowadays, in addition to their regular audio tour thingies that you can get on a rented device, you can also listen to all of them via their wifi network on your own wireless device, and so I tried listening to some on my iPod Touch. Only some pieces have commentaries, and they are marked with a little symbol on their sign to let you know. While I appreciate the idea of being able to pick and choose which bits you hear, with the iPod it was kind of inconvenient — I had to keep getting it out, waking it up, and typing in the number of the piece in question. And if you make a mistake typing in the number, there is no delete button — you have to reload the page and start over. After awhile, I gave up on the audio. The pieces are valuable and worthwhile, but my raw reactions were so compelling that after awhile I couldn’t be bothered to go through the rigamarole of dialing up the right clip and playing it.

My next stop was at the Barnard Library to see the zine collection that is run by my friend and first New York City host Jenna. I’ll probably write up more about that and about the other libraries I visited on my librariany blog, so here I’ll just say that it was great to see a collection I’ve heard so much about.

My day concluded with many, many subway rides back to Jenna’s place (1 to S to 6 to V), packing up and cleaning up, and a longer ride on the F out to my friend Meg’s place in Brooklyn, where I’ll be staying for the remainder of my trip. More on that, and more, will follow.


Teen: You’re walking?
Me: Yes.
Teen: Where are you going?
Me: Home. It’s four blocks from here.
Teen: Wow, four blocks is a long way to walk in the rain.
Me: [jaw hits ground]

People in my town, upon learning that I walk from place to place, tend to regard me, kindly, as mentally ill. Of course, I am mentally ill, but I the cause, I think, has more to do with genetics than with my chosen form of transportation. If anything, I probably don’t walk enough: most days I walk the four blocks to and from the post office and back, and while I suppose this is more walking than some Americans do — quite a lot more, at least in the rain, to judge by the conversation I had this afternoon — it pales in comparison to the amount of time I spend sitting in front of a computer. I thought about that as I was walking home, and so when I got home I thought it might be a good time to go for an actual walk, one whose purpose was simply to walk, not to get from place to place. It was drizzling slightly, or trying to, and turning cold, which meant the golf course would likely be empty, and so I changed into boots and layered on my rain gear and off I went.

(Yes, we have a golf course in my town. 351 people, 9 holes of golf. The course is laid out over a ridge and its surrounding lowlands just south of town, and in addition to the nine holes, it has a great many home sites, most of which remain unsold and none of which have been built on yet. I will rue the day someone does build out there, as I tend to regard the place as my own private nature preserve, but I’ve been informed that, due to bureaucratic tangles of which I remain happily ignorant, it will be a long, long time before anyone builds there.)

I walked for over an hour, mostly up on the ridge, keeping away from the roads, which are all named for surrounding mountains and formations: Phelps Way, Irish Rock, Pinnacle Rock, etc. I am reminded of what Billy Collins says about the naming of subdivisions: that Pheasant Run and Deer Creek are not descriptive but elegiac, honoring the creatures that were displaced so that development could occur. The mountains have not yet been displaced, of course, but some of them have been mined and drilled, and others will surely follow.

When I got home, I pulled a tome off the shelf and sat down to reread Thoreau’s “Walking,” which seemed to me to be the thing to do. I thought about copying out a few paragraphs and leaving them in conspicuous places around town, but doing so would undoubtedly be a further indication of my mental illness, so I did not. The funny thing to me is that for as odd as my walking is considered here, I am, according to Thoreau, no kind of walker at all. Happily, Thoreau wasn’t completely convinced that he was much of a walker himself:

It is true, we are but faint hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, neverending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

I have read a number of the currently popular genre of book, the “I went and did this thing for a year” book. There are a great many of these about — years without shopping, without buying anything made in China, living as if it were 1900, living according to the Bible, getting all your food locally, making everything in Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and one is tempted to think of something so trendy as a new idea. But of course Walden was the original “I went and did this thing for a year” book. Thoreau even foreshadowed our current concerns about the accuracy of nonfiction narratives — he actually lived at Walden Pond for two years, but he condensed his experiences into a year for the sake of the narrative. And, as Thoreau detractors are wont to point out, he cheated — he ate half his meals at his mom’s house, or Emerson’s house. Thoreau doesn’t include that, but I doubt he would apologize for it: the point was to live deliberately, and he felt he accomplished that. If you want to get hung up on exactly how he did it, go read the chapters on Economy and bean planting again. Edward Abbey also neglects to include the wife and two children who were living with him during most of the period recounted in Desert Solitaire, which seems egregious in some ways. But including the things they left out would make Thoreau’s narrative, and Abbey’s, more like the current crop of books, which are forever agonizing over the rules and whether they are sticking to them.

It’s hard to imagine anything like Walden getting taken seriously today. Try to imagine a chapter excerpted in Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly. It’s too sincere, and, as Lionel Trilling pointed out, sincerity got trumped by authenticity a long time ago.

It has always been my desire to live closer to the roots of things, to learn by going where I have to go, to get there by my own means, and while I do not deny the genetic and biological underpinnings of mental illness, I’ve always felt as well that the things I want — to live closely, to take my waking slow, to walk upon the earth and not the pavement — are not an expression of my illness by a desire for health.

What We Think About When We Think About Mental Illness

There was a piece in The Nation a little while back that began, “Like most people, I know too much about celebrities. Take Paris Hilton, for example.” [Geeky librarian note: searching “paris hilton” gets a surprisingly large number of hits.] Indeed. So do I. While there were a few years in Iowa City where, by dint of shopping mostly at the Coop, I managed to avoid knowing very much about anyone in the tabloids, those days are gone.

My library, like many libraries, receives People magazine every week. I get the mail and set out the magazines, so every week I get whatever celebrity news is on the cover. Usually I can leave it at that–oh, someone’s getting married, someone else is getting divorced, and someone, somewhere, is always pregnant or thought to be. This week’s cover said “BRITNEY’S MENTAL ILLNESS.”

The article has various doctors positing that Britney Spears may have manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. As an armchair psychiatrist (my friend and I once diagnosed all the characters in Winnie the Pooh), I’d say that’s not a surprising conclusion and not at all unlikely. The article even did a reasonably good job of describing the illness — not everyone’s manic periods are so stereotypically full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll — but then not everyone has access to quite the same scene as Spears, and People is trying to sell magazines, not serve as a psychiatric primer. And then there’s my favorite statement in the article: “Troubles have plagued the paternal side of her family tree as well: Her grandmother Emma Spears shot herself to death at 31; Jamie has battled alcohol problems. Still, says Britney’s former dance teacher and family friend Renee Donewar, ‘I’ve never heard anyone talk about there being a history of mental illness in her family or making a big deal about it at all.'”

Ms. Donewar has apparently not picked up on the inherited nature of mental illness. Family history of suicide? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Feeling like life is meaningless and/or going out of control? Yes, Houston, I think we have a problem. You’ll all be glad to know, though, I’m sure, that Dr. Phil has met with the family.

I didn’t start writing about this intending it to turn either snarky or sentimental: my intention was neither to make fun of Spears nor to elicit sympathy for her case, though I can well imagine both reactions occurring, perhaps even simultaneously.

What I was thinking about instead is bipolar disorder and how little we understand it or any of its cohorts in the DSM-IV, and how ill-prepared our society is to deal with its ravages. Kay Redfield Jamison discusses her spending sprees in her memoir An Unquiet Mind, noting that “money spent while manic doesn’t fit into the Internal Revenue Service concept of medical expense or business loss.” How do you handle that sort of thing? How do you get out of the debt that mania has put you into? What do you tell a child with a parent in such a situation? Jamison is lucky enough to have a family who could afford to pay off her debts and a profession lucrative enough that she was, in turn, able to pay them back, and one presumes that financial problems will not be a part of the picture for Britney Spears.

What I’m asking, really, I suppose, is how one perceives the mentally ill people who are not famous or rich or glamorous or even pretty? I’d like to think that somehow the examples of the famous would create more sympathy in the world, but I suspect that they merely create more headlines.

This hasn’t been much of a “what I’ve been up to” sort of a post — what I’ve been up to is work and cross-country skiing and exercise class and making terrible pumpkin muffins — but it is sort of a “things I’ve been thinking about” post, which I guess will have to do.

New Year’s Projects

I do not make New Year’s resolutions as a general rule, but I do often have sort of new year projects. Some of those start in September, since, as everyone know the year actually starts in September (or at any rate, it does if you went to school for 27 years), and some start in January.

My projects last year were “stay busy so as not to get depressed” and “get some kind of hold on your finances”. The former led me to learn cross-country skiing, join a funky women’s exercise class, and start studying karate. As it turned out, working full time is enough of a time suck that those things kept me very, very busy, and keeping track of all my expenses took care of any spare moments. (Of course, I didn’t let any of this cut in on my sleeping, reading, or cooking habits, not to mention my talking on the phone habit.)

This year’s rather peculiar project is “try to look better.” This all started because I realized that (especially after gaining ten pounds over the summer) I had only about six outfits I could wear to work. That’s enough to get me through the week, and usually that’s enough for me, but some of them were pretty sketchy as work clothes. For instance, I’m not sure how cool it is to wear jeans with paint on them to work, even if it’s sort of inconspicuous paint. In any case, my whole presentation was starting to make me feel a little self-conscious, the way I felt in junior high when I had nothing but white socks (sensible enough, since those were the socks I wore at camp in the summers) and people asked me about it all the time. Nobody was asking, “Why are you wearing jeans with paint on them and a hoody to work all the time?” but I felt like they were.

Thus my winter break (translate: holidays off, five days of vacation time, and a day of unpaid leave) got dedicated in part to the whole “look better” project.

I braved the stores at Oakbrook after Christmas and came out with three articles of clothing that cost about $20 each, which still seems like kind of a lot to me. (We used to say that Goodwill was ruining us for Ragstock: “Yeah, but is this dress really worth five bucks?”). I’ve accepted that I may not always be able to find everything I need used, and so I was okay with that, mostly, but when I got to Iowa City, I hit up The Second Act, which is a pretty nice consignment store. There I got a pair of pants, a dress, a sweater, and several shirts all for about $40. I’ve been wearing my new clothes to work every day this week, and so far I’m pretty happy with them.

The other part of project “look better” was getting a haircut. My friend talked me into going to her fancy hair person, and I’m not even going to tell you how much I paid for a haircut, save that I was semi-able to justify it because of all the years I cut my own hair. Tragically, I didn’t manage to take a picture on the day I left the salon, or even on the day after. By days three and four it was looking not quite as good, but still okay. But by the time I got back to Wyoming and washed it with the fancy shampoo and dried it in the directed manner (I had explained that I don’t use hair dryers, so I was told to twirl it in sections and let it dry that way), it looked exactly the way it had before I got it cut. I’ve since been able to improve things a little, but it has been one of the more disappointing experiences of my life.

I know all these people who have fabulous, long-lasting relationships with their hair stylists–my mother has been getting her hair cut by the same person for over twenty years!–but I’ve never seemed to manage it. (I know, I know–cutting your own hair for the better part of a decade is not the way to make friends with your hairdresser.)

On the whole, though, I’m more pleased by this “look better” project than I thought I might be. I have a lot of weird hang ups about consumerism. I generally regard it as a bad thing, but it’s sort of like I have this relationship with consumer items that anorexics have with food. You need food to eat, and, unless you are either in the Garden of Eden or a really excellent dumpster diver, you do need to buy some things. I think that my figuring out that it’s okay to buy things is maybe a little bit like the struggle of someone with an eating disorder to see that eating some food is healthful and natural, but I may be wrong about that.

So that’s that for now. Incidentally, one of my other projects is “write more about what’s happening in your life,” and since I have this under-used blog space, it seemed like the place to do it. I apologize for the probable lack of political content in these posts, but if you’re interested in the goings on out here, there will, I hope, be more to follow.

In Which I Am Lured In

Yesterday I bought a pair of exercise pants. They were $31.45, including tax, from the discount store. Those of you who know me will know that I rarely pay so much for any article of clothing, particularly one that I can’t wear to work.

I bought them for several reasons. Partly I bought them because I could — having at long last paid off the last of my credit card debt (to which I have been contributing several hundred dollars a month for several years), I suddenly have a little bit more money, and so buying things that seem frivolous is a possibility. (I bought two CDs the other day, too–used, of course, but new to me.) Partly I bought them because I am, on occasion, a victim of fashion. But mostly I bought them because, although it is possible for me to wear my too-small sweatpants or my too-streched-out biker shorts to go run on the elliptical machine at the Rec, it’s not particularly comfortable. It doesn’t make me think, “Oh, how I long to wear clothing that doesn’t fit me well so I can go burn calories!” (The too-small sweatpants might, I suppose, be a motivation, but they’re also hot and a little too short even when they’re not too tight.) The new exercise pants do make me feel that way.

Of course, they also make me feel silly. I’ve always believed that exercise was something one shouldn’t set out to do — it was simply something one should acquire in the course of the day. In the days when I walked dogs for three or four hours a day, or when I taught one or two college classes a semester and had many hours to walk everywhere, that wasn’t difficult. But now that I work eight hours a day in a library, the only real exercise I get during the course of the day is a little bit of lift that barge, tote that bail when we move books and AV materials from one library to another.

I’d love to be one of those people who gets up and goes out for a morning jog, but (aside from my total lack of desire to do anything so strenuous in the morning), I can’t run — it’s too hard on my back. And walking enough to get real exercise takes hours. Enter the elliptical machine. Enter the dark Satanic mills. Enter the excercise pants. Enter my seduction by capitalism. Oh well.

Saturday Night Thought

From last night, posted tonight. I thought I might expand upon it, but no, this is all there is:

Every now and then, it dawns on me that Garrison Keillor is going to die, and that I will then have to live the rest of my life without Prairie Home Companion. (I have similar feelings about Gary Trudeau and Doonesbury, but they’re not quite as intense, probably because my acquaintance with them is a decade shorter–I started reading Doonesbury in grade school; PHC I probably heard in utero.)

That Trudeau’s show is not as good as it once was–that it could never be as good as “Snow Home” was when I perhaps four (if, in fact, I heard it live–I could swear that I did, on the old radio that I moved to my office at my first job, on which, for reasons that seem baffling even now, I listened while at said job to all of the Clinton impeachment hearings)–is of little matter. It may, I suppose, make it easier to say goodbye in the end, but I doubt it.