Book Review Monday: eight short book reviews

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews here; this isn’t because I’ve stopped reading, but more because I’ve allowed myself to slip into indolence with my blogging. It’s much easier to read a book and move on to the next than to have to recall that book’s details and ruminate on its meaning. Ruminating can be so exhausting. But it seems a waste to read so many books and then not even share my opinions on them with anyone. So, as a sort of stopgap measure, here, in no particular order, are eight very brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past few months. Since I read some of these in January, which was eons ago, I’ve forgotten some of the details, hence my brevity. But hopefully these short reviews will get to the heart of the matter.

  1. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott: A slim little book in which Lamott documents her son’s first year of life, in sometimes excruciating and often funny detail. Lamott was a thirty-five year-old single woman when she gave birth to her son Sam and was by turns apprehensive, terrified, enraged, enthralled, exhausted, and overwhelmed by the experience. While the book chronicles some of the minutiae of raising an infant, Lamott also gets philosophical about life, late 1980s politics, gender, motherhood, religion, mortality, and family. While Lamott’s flights of fancy about God and angry tirades against George Bush (the first George Bush, at that) can border on the hackneyed and the dated, respectively, there’s a lot of universal stuff in here about the experience of being part of a family, and the difficulties involved with being a human grappling with unanswerable questions. operating instructions
  2. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst: After reading (and loving) The Line of Beauty, I just had to get me some more Hollinghurst. Unfortunately, The Stranger’s Child was a disappointment. Following several intertwined stories spanning several generations, and somewhat centered around the characters’ connections to a young poet named Cecil Valance who died in WWI, The Stranger’s Child is a meditation on the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of the past. Hollinghurst’s writing is, as always, spectacular. But fantastic writing is not enough to save this book, I’m sorry to say. The plot was complex and “layered,” yes, but needlessly so. The time-shifting, often done without explication or table-setting, was jarring and exhausting. The characters, many of whom had the same or similar voice and interests, became muddled together. By the middle of it, I began skimming, and I never skim. Well, almost never. I enjoyed the unreliable narrator Paul Bryant, and I think I get the point Hollinghurst was trying to make with all of this, which is that ALL narrators are unreliable, and memory is a tricky thing, and the past is not a monolith, and whatever, but could he not have done it with a more streamlined and plot-driven vehicle? I just kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.
  3. The UnAmericans: Stories, Molly Antopol: I read a glowing review of this book on NPR and since I love sinking my teeth into a good collection of short stories, I thought I’d give this one a whirl. Unfortunately, I came away a bit disappointed by The UnAmericans. My basic problem with the collection was not with the writing, which, sentence to sentence, was excellent. I found Antopol’s stories inconsistent in terms of character development and relatability, which meant that, while reading several of the stories, I found myself bored and disengaged, despite the marvelous descriptions of setting. There is a lot of good work in this collection. Some of the stories, like “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” about Eastern European Jewish refugees during World War II, are gripping and vivid. Others, though, like “Duck and Cover,” about communists in Southern California during the McCarthy area, left me cold. All of the stories feature Jewish protagonists, many of whom are struggling with questions of identity – religious, national, familial, or otherwise. These are broad questions and provide fertile ground for interesting storytelling, and sometimes, Antopol nails it. But the stories varied too widely for me to wholeheartedly recommend this book.
  4. Dear Life: Stories, Alice Munro: It’s hard to say much bad about Alice Munro. Part of her gift as a storyteller is her ability to take seemingly mundane situations in less-than-fascinating settings (often, rural, mid-20th century Ontario) and create compelling, emotionally rich stories. One of the most interesting things about this collection is Munro’s inclusion of four final works that “are not quite stories,” but are essays that are “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” These four semi-fictional works form a mini-memoir at the end of the collection of stories and give a window into Munro’s own upbringing and early family life. dear life
  5. Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews: Somehow, despite being born in the early 1980s, I totally missed reading the 1979 classic Flowers in the Attic. I was aware of it, of course, but by the time I fully grasped that it was a “young adult” book with sexy bits in it, I was too old and world-weary to bother reading it. Then, I read this piece by Tara Ariano, one of my editors at Previously.TV, about what the book meant to her as a kid, and I decided to read it, for the first time, as an adult. As everyone in the world who has read FITA will tell you, it’s terribly written, outrageously cheesy, laughably unrealistic, and completely weird on every level. But the weirdness is kind of what works about the book. It’s so creepily bizarre that you can kind of get past the terrible writing and just enjoy the craziness. This book certainly isn’t going to win any literary accolades, but it is going to last, because it’s just the kind of macabre, taboo love story that teens (and, okay, adults) eat up. If you want to give your brain a rest and be weirded out at the same time, give FITA a go.
  6. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: My husband’s youngest brother gave me this book for Christmas this year. I had never read any Gaiman before, but as soon as I got into the story, I understood why people enjoy his writing. This story is small, and quick, but it sticks with you. Told from the perspective of a man revisiting the English village where he grew up, it’s a reflection on magic, family, and the fluid interplay between childhood safety and danger. I loved Gaiman’s simple, evocative writing and the sense of magic and promise in this story. ocean at the end of the lane
  7. The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara: The People in the Trees is an interesting and disturbing read. It tells the story of (the fictional) Dr. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist who was arrested in 1995 for sexually abusing one of his 43 adopted children. Told from the perspective of Perina himself, as well as his trusted confidante and defender, Ronald Kubodera, the story traces Perina’s early life and career as a scientist before getting into the meat of the story, Perina’s journey in 1950 to the (fictional) Micronesian country of U’ivu, where he discovered, on one of its islands, people who had seemingly found the answer to eternal life. Perina’s subsequent handling of his discovery and his ensuing notoriety form a large part of the story, but it’s not until Perina begins to adopt children from U’ivu that things get decidedly twisted. The New York Times review can be found here.
  8. The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I’m a huge, lifelong Amy Tan fan. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses are among my absolute favorites, but I’ll read anything she writes. Her latest effort, The Valley of Amazement, while an impressive work of historical fiction, didn’t move me the way that some of her earlier books have. As always, Tan is an expert at capturing complicated mother-daughter relationships. But in The Valley of Amazement, the story wanders so much from the central relationships, and contains so many twists and turns (not all of which are particularly interesting) that I found myself bored and wishing it were more streamlined.

These eight aren’t the only books I’ve read over the last three months, but they’re the ones I felt like writing about, maybe because, in one way or another, they stuck with me (even the ones I didn’t care for). Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

Portugal, part three — Lisbon: babies and monks and birds

We spent the third and final leg of our Portugal trip in Lisbon. We rented a little apartment in Alfama, the oldest district in the city.

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Al and I were really into Alfama. In some ways, it felt quintessentially European, with its narrow, cobbled streets,  shrines sprouting out of public walls, and ancient churches. But in other ways, it felt decidedly developing world. There was trash in the alleyways, certain streets in the neighborhood reeked of fish, and the buildings were crumbling and peeling. Alfama reminded me of some parts of Brazil, and even of Mozambique.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

By the end of our time there, I had decided that Lisbon (and Alfama in particular) looked and felt how I imagine a Southern European city would have looked and felt forty years ago. Not backwards, of course, but not exactly cosmopolitan, either (and I mean that in the best way). Alfama was very neighborhood-y: people yelled at each other from windows, laundry hung out to dry over the streets, kids played in front of their parents’ shops. We saw the same people every day when we left the apartment (most of whom were old ladies in housecoats, doing their shopping), and no one seemed to be trying to sell us anything or otherwise adapting their behavior to accommodate tourists. We later realized that we were staying in the lower part of Alfama, which is decidedly un-touristy (except for a few fado bars), but on our last night, we ventured to upper Alfama, which, we discovered, is where all the tourists had been the entire time. I’m really glad we stayed where we did.

Upper Alfama

Upper Alfama

One of our favorite Alfama experiences happened one night after dinner, when we stopped in a tiny bar near the apartment. When we walked in, the bar was empty except for the bartender (a middle-aged lady) and a monk in full black robes. As soon as we bellied up to the bar to order our drinks, the monk started chit-chatting with us in Portuguese, telling us all about Portugal, port, his life as a monk (which appeared to entail getting up very early but also drinking fairly late at night), and the places he had traveled. When I hesitated over which type of port to order, he told me to get white port because it was “like a woman: sweet, soft, and full of soul,” or something to that effect. Oh, flirty Southern European monk! You sure have a way with the ladies!

At the monk/baby bar

At the monk/baby bar

Later, as Al and I sat there drinking port (and for Al, beirão, a sweet, surprisingly not disgusting herbal liqueur), a family consisting of three adults, a baby, and a toddler came in. Everyone seemed to be regulars (including the kids). I took a video (although it’s hard to tell what’s going on since the bar was dark and noisy, but you get the idea). From there on out, Al and I referred to that place as the “monk and baby bar.”

We did some sightseeing in Lisbon, too — we checked out the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Tropical Botanical Garden — but mostly we just enjoyed walking around, admiring the old buildings and the azujelos, and, of course, drinking copious amounts of port. (Oh, how I love port!) We also got to meet up with my cousin Allie and her boyfriend, Marlo, which was fun. They took us to some bars in Bairro Alto, one of which had a bossa nova band (from whom I requested “Chega de Saudade,” obviously).

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I also went for some good runs and saw some of the funky graffiti and sidewalk art along the river. In our wanderings, Al and I also encountered lots of caged birds, which was both sad and weird. I’d never before been to a place where people just hang bird cages (filled with birds) outside of their homes and places of business.

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Now, a word on food. Al and I concluded by the end of our time in Portugal that gastronomically speaking, the Portuguese do three things really well: 1) baked goods; 2) port; and 3) preserved fish. I also enjoyed the simple sheep’s milk cheeses and the marinated olives we got everywhere.

Queijo azeitao - scoopable, delicious sheep's cheese

Queijo azeitao – scoopable, delicious sheep’s cheese

Apart from those things, though, Portuguese cuisine struck us as being pretty nondescript. Unless you’re REALLY into salted codfish, you probably won’t come away from Portugal with a strong impression of their food. But if you have a thing for seafood in cans, hoo boy, you’re gonna love this place!

Into preserved fish? You've come to the right place.

Gorgeous packaging on preserved seafood

One thing the Portuguese do NOT excel at, we found out, is food photography. I started taking photos of all the horrendous food photography I saw, usually prominently displayed in the windows of restaurants, because so much of it was so revolting. Here are just two of my favorites, which were actually framed.

Congealing grease, anyone?

Congealing grease, anyone?

The fact that I can only positively identify 2 out of four of these foods is not a great sign.

I can only positively identify two out of four of these foods.

But you know what? Terrible food photography aside, we ate pretty well in Portugal. And we drank REALLY well. Overall, what I liked most about our time in Lisbon was wandering into cafes and restaurants in Alfama and not seeing any other tourists. We were never bombarded with gimmicks or up-sells or even particular attention, wherever we went, and it was really refreshing. To borrow a phrase from every Lonely Planet guide ever written, the city was very “atmospheric,” and we were sad to leave.

Obrigada, Portugal, por uma visita ótima!

Portugal, part two — Sintra: gardens, castles, and creepy toys

For the second leg of our Portugal trip, Al and I took the train from Santa Comba Dão back to Lisbon, and then another train from Lisbon to Sintra, a city about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, known for its beauty, quirkiness, and abundance of castles and monuments. We stayed at the utterly charming Cinco Bed and Breakfast, which had great views of the city and a friendly cat named Jack.

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The first day, we arrived fairly late in the afternoon, hot and tired from six hours of travel, so we decided to keep it low-key and hike up a giant hill to Sintra’s Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). [About that decision -- here's the thing about me and Al: we're constitutionally incapable of actually being low-key. We always say we're going to "chill" and we never actually do. Even when we're sitting on the couch, we're both always doing something. It's a sickness. But we are who we are, I suppose]. So, we hiked up to the Moorish Castle, which was originally constructed in the 8th-9th centuries, which is an astonishingly long time ago, if you stop and think about it. The castle has fabulous views of the city, which is lush and green and populated by all sorts of interesting looking mansions and castles.

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

We spent some time up there, looking around and taking obnoxious selfies, then we came back down to town and did a fortified wine tasting at a local wine shop. The Portuguese call fortified wines “vinhos generosos,” and the lady pouring them for us certainly was generous. We tried madeira, port, and moscatel. My favorite was the white port, which I’d never tried before. Boozy and delicious.

That's a lot of fortified wine. Not that I'm complaining.

That’s a lot of fortified wine. Not that I’m complaining.

After that, we returned to the B&B, where we had dinner (cheese, prosciuttio, bread, and wine — the usual) and watched British TV. We had both missed British crime dramas and since Sintra’s dinner scene seemed overpriced and touristy, it was much more appealing to sit on the couch, see the sunset, and watch Hercule Poirot solve some crimes than to venture out into the night. We’re old, what can I tell you?

The next day, I went for a run in the morning and took photos of some of the interesting things I saw around the city, including some weird animal sculptures in the local park.

Frog sculpture at the local park

Frog sculpture at the park

Then, Al and I went to the Quinta da Regaleira, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a sprawling estate packed with unique architecture and carvings. It was refurbished in 1892 when it was owned by the Barons of Regaleira, a rich family from Porto, who hired Italian architect Luigi Manini to design the estate. Manini was, apparently, into some weird stuff, as the Quinta da Regaleira is filled with references to the Knights Templar, Masonry, alchemy, and the Rosicrucians.

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Al’s favorite part of the Quinta da Regaleira was a deep well that you could walk down, which led to a series of caves and waterfalls.

Emerging from the underground cave

Emerging from the underground cave

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We also enjoyed the fantastical animal carvings.

Switched at birth?

Switched at birth?

Before packing it in for the day, we stopped by the Museo dos Brinquedos (Toy Museum), which was fascinating. All the nightmarish dolls one could ever want!

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Finally, before leaving Sintra, we had to eat lunch and do one more wine tasting at that little wine shop. Then, we bid the town tchauzinho and headed back to Lisbon for the final leg of our journey.

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Next stop: Portugal, part three: Lisbon.

 

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.

My virtual life

Something disturbing happened to me earlier today, and I didn’t know how to explain it to my husband without it sounding at best, frivolous, and at worst, narcissistic. Nonetheless, I called him at work and tried not to sound as upset as I was.

“Al,” I said, “I just accidentally deleted all of my Twitter activity from my Facebook wall.”

There was a silence while Al tried to figure out how to react to this bombshell. “Oh no,” he said. “Sorry?” (He’s pretty good at guessing the right responses to things).

I explained to him that I was so upset about it because I had linked my Twitter account to my Facebook account years ago, which meant that 99% of all content I had ever posted on Facebook had actually been posted via Twitter. Thus, when I accidentally deleted all of my Twitter activity from Facebook, I deleted a huge online record of my life. And this, it turned out, was upsetting. Al consoled me as best he could, telling me that maybe the posts were salvageable (turns out, they weren’t). After that, there was really nothing more he could say. The record of my online activity was gone, and I had to accept it. Man.

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After scouring through my Facebook wall, I realized that I had only deleted all of my posts since July 2013 — so, only the last seven months of my online life. But those last seven months had contained so much! My entire time in London: gone. All of the articles and essays that had spoken to me: gone. And, the real tragedy, all of the funny jokes I had made: gone. Gone with the virtual wind!

I felt strangely bereft about this, and then, right on cue, felt guilty for being so self-obsessed. On the surface, losing seven months of one’s searing witticisms (and, more importantly, one’s friends’ reactions to said searing witticisms) should not be a big deal, unless one is a huge, self-involved narcissist. Which I’m totally not, I SWEAR. But I am a writer, and my Twitter feed, which was broadcast to a more personal audience via my Facebook, was, in a way, a body of my written work, however fluffy and silly it was. And, more importantly, it was a conversation between me and people who know me (and who care enough to comment on the stuff I put on social media). Yes, the Twitter feed itself still exists (on Twitter, no less), but the mingling of my Twitter posts with my friends’ reactions on my Facebook wall is gone forever. There were some really good debates, funny back-and-forths, and challenging discussions on that Facebook wall, and now they’re lost. Which begs the question: if a social media exchange falls into the internet hole and no one’s there to re-read it, did it make a sound? Did it ever even happen?

[Side note: I realize that I'm not doing a great job at making the case that I'm not a giant narcissist, but you'll have to take my word for it. And plus, aren't we all a bit narcissistic online? Part of the fun of social media is having one's own wit and good cheer reflected back at one through the validation of one's social networks. Right? Or is that just me?]

In any case, I’m not sure why I find this experience so unsettling. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, to speak in terribly broad cliches for just a moment, a large chunk of my life really is lived online. I work at home, by myself, and I’m a writer. Throughout the day, I interact with the world by sharing my thoughts (and, if I dare, my feelings) with people online, some of whom I know personally, some of whom I know virtually, and some of whom I know not at all. Those interactions are then preserved in the amber of the internet, most prominently through my Facebook wall. Some people, especially people of my parents’ generation and older, find this concept horrifying, that one’s personal conversations, thoughts, and feelings could be captured on the Internet for all to see, potentially forever (or at least until the grid goes down), but I find it comforting. I can go back to my wall posts from four, five, seven, even ten years ago, and see what my friends and I were talking about, or what movie I had seen, or what book I had read. It’s all there, whether I remember it or not. It’s both a personal reminder of what I’ve gotten up to, and a specimen that’s been polished and presented for public consumption.

Whether all of this archival of my personal life is a good thing or a bad thing is, I suppose, up for debate, but I don’t find that debate to be particularly interesting, mostly because I tend to be, if not judicious, at least mindful about what I post online. If I share a tweet on my Facebook wall, generally, it’s because I think my friends will enjoy it, and I don’t tend to post particularly controversial or revealing things on social media. I’m old enough and (sort of) wise enough — or, at least, experienced enough with social media — at this point not to post anything that will later embarrass me or prevent me from holding public office (I think). And if the NSA wants to read my Facebook wall, I find it hard to get worked up about it. Yes, in theory, it’s scary to think about strangers having access to my social media offerings, but in another way, it’s kind of flattering. I mean, is it so wrong that I hope the NSA thinks I’m funny?

I guess it all boils down to the fact Facebook has been a deeply ingrained part of my life for the last decade (literally). I signed up for Facebook in March 2004, as a senior in college, and I’ve been using it consistently ever since. I’m an active and enthusiastic user, although I’ve adapted and polished the way I use it over the years (for example: I now post far fewer photos than I used to and look at far fewer people’s actual profiles). A large part of Facebook’s role in my life has been as a type of online repository for my memories: an interactive scrapbook filled with photos, videos, discussions, greetings, and jokes. It was always available for me to page back through whenever I was in need of a nostalgia boost. Losing seven months of that scrapbook is not the end of the world, of course, but it’s a little sad. I wish I were one of those aloof, “Oh, I never check Facebook; I’m too busy bicycling around North America” people, but I’m not. I’m someone who enjoys and appreciates social media in my own life and I rely on it to always be available to me. It’s disturbing to see how easily this record of my life online can vanish, and how utterly unable I am to piece it back together without the aid of the internet.

Maybe the solution is that I start writing in a diary, or composing old-fashioned pen-and-ink letters to my friends, or taking photos with a non-digital camera and developing them in a dark room. Or maybe the solution is just to accept that I can’t rely on an external service to preserve my memories for me. Or maybe I just need to take a step back and realize that my stupid tweets are not as interesting or important as I think they are. Or maybe it’s all of the above. For now, though, I’ll stick to shaking my fist at the sky and cursing Mark Zuckerberg, whose fault all of this is, anyway.

Happy tweeting and Facebooking to you all. Hug your tweets close tonight.

 

 

My ancestry

For Christmas a few years ago, Al got me a 23andMe genetic testing kit. I let it languish on the shelf until this past Christmas when I was back in San Francisco, when I finally got up the nerve to spit into a container and send it in to their lab. I had been avoiding it because I had convinced myself that the results would state clearly that I was a genetic ticking timebomb and then I’d never be able to unsee all the weird diseases I was no doubt carrying. (Some say that I have a bit of a tendency toward hypochondria, but let me go check WebMD). Several months later, I finally got the results of my genetic testing, which have been absolutely fascinating.

In case you’re not familiar, 23andMe is a company that does personal DNA mapping. For about $100, you can have all 23 of your chromosomes mapped and receive a wealth of information about your ancestry and your health (traits, risks, and so on). However, recently the FDA passed a totally BS ruling that prevents 23andMe from distributing health reports to its customers, so if you buy a kit now, you won’t receive detailed health reports, only ancestry information. The FDA decision didn’t apply to me since Al had gotten me the kit before the decision came down, so I got both detailed health reports and information about my ancestry.

While the health stuff was interesting for me (and a big relief, since I’m not a carrier for any of the horrifying genetic disorders they test for, despite my fatalistic attitude), the ancestry information was much more surprising. Here are some of the most jaw-dropping things I’ve learned about my genes.

ancestry

1. I’m 5.8% East Asian/Native American. Within that breakdown, 4.1% is Native American, and 1.7% is “nonspecific East Asian and Native American.” The Native American bit is actually Native Mexican, since my grandfather was Mexican-American. However, while I knew intellectually that Pop had Aztec blood, I didn’t realize how much; according to these numbers, a quarter of his genes must have been ethnically indigenous. Wow!

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

My great-aunt, Mary Rivero, 1915. This photo probably should have been my first clue that I had some Native American ancestry.

It’s funny; I feel like every American wants to be part Native American (there was a great Happy Endings episode about this where Dave discovers he’s 1/16 Navajo and starts wearing a fringed jacket out of respect). But personally, I think it’s pretty badass to be part Aztec. My people were ripping still-beating hearts out of chests before it was cool. Also, they built huge temples and invented face knives, so, you know, that’s pretty sweet.

2. I’m .3% Sub-Saharan African, .2% of which is specifically West-African. This is a real head-scratcher. My dad, my husband, and I all came up with theories about where this Sub-Saharan ancestry is coming from, but we actually have NO idea, given what we know about my family history. To my knowledge, there weren’t a lot of Sub-Saharan Africans hanging around in Ireland, Mexico, or Italy, the places where my genes most recently hail from. For a second, we thought maybe it had to do with the Moors conquering Spain and then the Spanish going on to Mexico, but the genetic report is pretty clear that I have no North African or Middle Eastern ancestry, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, obviously, I want both of my parents to map their genes so we can see whether the African blood is coming from my dad or my mom’s side. Given my parents’ respective melanin content, I’m gonna take a wild stab and guess it’s coming from my mom’s side, but one never knows.

My mom IS super tan.

My mom IS super tan.

3. I’m 87.6% European, 40.7% of which is Northern European, 12.1% is Southern European, and 34.9% of which is “nonspecific European.” The European piece of my ancestry isn’t that surprising (especially considering that I have two European-born grandparents) but the more specific breakdown of the ancestry is kind of interesting, because even though my dad’s mom is from Abruzzo, Italy, only 2.5% of my genes are Italian. I guess this means that my Italian grandmother wasn’t purely ethnically Italian, which makes sense given Italy’s history and demographics. Guess I can stop taking credit for all of those Roman aqueducts now.

4. I’m 2.9% Neanderthal. And yes, that’s on the high end (80th percentile, to be exact). My husband is gleeful about the fact that I am, as he puts it, “2.9% beast,” but I find it a bit unsettling. According to 23andMe, “traces of [Neanderthal] DNA — between 1 percent and 4 percent — are found in all modern humans outside of Africa.” At least I’m not 4% Neanderthal. I told my husband that, given my ethnic background and now this Neanderthal business, I could have fared MUCH worse in the body hair department. And I have no noticeable brow ridge!

So, this has all been very interesting for me. Have you done DNA testing or genetic mapping? Did you find out anything cool?

 

Soundtrack to my life, part 3: kicking ass and taking names

When I set out to imagine the soundtrack to the many moods and experiences of my life, initially I figured I’d better include a list of my favorite relaxing music (because there are certain songs and even albums that will put me into a medical-grade coma if I listen to them long enough — hi, Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing), but then I realized that sharing my chill-out playlist would be boring and self-indulgent and decided to just skip straight ahead to a list of songs that make me feel powerful (so — just self-indulgent). So here, in no particular order, are ten songs that make me want to stride forth into the world and take it by the lapels, or whatever.

1. “Telephone,” by Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Everything about this song screams lady empowerment. The lyrics are about how Lady Gaga and Beyoncé are sick of your insistent phone calls, everyone. They’re too busy out in da club sippin’ dat bub (I think?) to bother picking up their phones so just give it a rest, okay? This song allows me to imagine what it would be like if I were wildly popular and pursued by many admirers. I think I’d enjoy it. Also, it must be said that the beat is amazing, especially when you’re working out and your energy is starting to flag. This will perk you right up!

2. “Walk Away,” by Kelly Clarkson. I unabashedly love Kelly Clarkson. She is one of the few American Idols that have not been an embarrassment to our country (looking at you, Taylor Hicks). Her songs are consistently catchy and I particularly love the ones where she gets a little sassy. “Walk Away” is one of those.

3. “Burn It Down,” by AWOLNATION. I first heard this song, appropriately enough, on an episode of Sons of Anarchy, during one of that show’s many high stakes motorcycle chase scenes. And that pretty much sums up the tone of the song, which is sort of shout-y and involves clapping, enthusiastic drums, and inscrutable lyrics that I think might be referring to some weird sex thing (but I’m cool with it).

4. “Titanium” by David Guetta, feat. Sia. First of all, I’m a big Sia fan. In case you’re not familiar, she is weird as hell and all of her videos give me the creeps, but dang, lady’s got a pair of pipes on her. This particular song was really popular when I lived in South Africa, and I used to listen to it while working out at my shitty Joburg gym along with some scarily muscled Afrikaans dudes and a smattering of old ladies. With lyrics like “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall; I am titanium,” it’s kind of hard not to get pumped up while listening to it, am I right?

5. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” by U2. Even though “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” my all-time favorite U2 song, is about resisting violence and promoting peace in the face of the misery of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, something about it makes me want to strap on a gun and march into battle. Any battle! I know that’s not the point of the song — in fact, it’s the opposite of the point of the song — but that infectious, warlike drumbeat — who can resist it?

6. “The Distance,” by Cake. Here’s the thing about Cake: you either love ‘em, or you hate ‘em. Me? I love ‘em. Like I said in my last post, I’m a sucker for a good horns section“The Distance” not only has horns, but it has special meaning for me because it was my high school cross-country team’s pump-up song one year, and what a pump-up song it was! (Incidentally, my own personal pump-up song for the last two years of high school track — and please don’t judge me for this — was Sisqo’s “The Thong Song.” To this day, whenever I hear “The Thong Song,” I want to go run 3200 m. as fast as I can).

7. “Forgot About Dre,” by Dr. Dre and Eminem. I probably shouldn’t like this song, since it has zero relevance to my life and, now that I think of it, zero relevance to probably to 99.9% of humanity’s lives. It’s pretty much only relevant to Dr. Dre’s life. But what can I say? I have a soft spot for Eminem (Detroit, what), despite his many flaws. Plus, this song includes some of my favorite rap lyrics ever (despite the poor grammar involved): “So where’s all the mad rappers at? It’s like a jungle in this habitat. But all you savage cats knew that I was strapped with gats when you were cuddling a Cabbage Patch.” Bless Dr. Dre’s heart for finding a way to incorporate both Cabbage Patch dolls AND gats into one phrase!

8. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” by Dropkick Murphys. I lived in Boston (okay, Cambridge — lay off me!) for three years and while I lived there, I used to take this amazing spinning class at the law school rec center. The instructor, a real Boston girl, would always play this song during the hardest part of the workout and, needless to say, everyone loved it. It’s catchy AND motivational: imagining a sailor looking for his leg (which he lost climbing up the topsails, by the way) really puts the difficulty of a tough spinning class into perspective. “At least I have both my legs,” I’d always think to myself. “Things aren’t so bad.”

dropkick murphys

9. “Mala Gente,” by Juanes. I wasn’t kidding about being a big Juanes fan. “Mala Gente” is from that same life-changing album as “Luna,” Un Día Normal. “Mala Gente” (“Bad People”) is about Juanes telling a lying woman to take a hike, and also letting her know she sucks. It’s very satisfying.

10. “A Quien Le Importa?” by Thalía. The title of this song translates as “Who cares?” As the title suggests, it’s a ballad about not giving an eff about what people think, and it rocks. Thalía (Mexican pop goddess and wife of Tommy Mottola) has a bunch of great songs (one of which, “Seducción,” has been my ringtone for, like, seven years) but this one is the most kick-ass of them all. Lyrics include: “My destiny is what I choose,” and “I’m this way, I’ll continue to be this way, and I’ll never change.” Go girl!

Well, looking back on this list, I can say with some confidence that it’s totally random and arbitrary. However, every one of these songs, in its own way, pumps me up. What are your favorite blood-pumping ballads? And am I the only one who has that perverse reaction to “Sunday, Bloody Sunday?” Does anyone else like Cake? Let me know.

Soundtrack to my life, part 2: joy

My last post on the soundtrack to my life was all about the angst. And while I love Alanis Morrisette as much as the next thirty-one year-old, there is a time (turn, turn, turn) to every season (turn, turn, turn), and so forth, and so now it’s time for a little joy (and pain — sunshine — and rain). [Editor's note: I have recently diagnosed myself with a disease where I can't write a sentence without inappropriately inserting song lyrics. It comes and goes.] ANYWAY. In this installment of my life soundtrack blog, I want to focus on the opposite of angst: pure, unadulterated joy. There are certain songs, you see, that I can put on and know that my mood will be boosted. These songs are either great fun to sing along with, or they remind me of a specific, happy time in my life, or they just have infectious, happy-making tunes — or sometimes, all three of the above. Here, then, are ten songs, in no particular order, that never fail to make me smile.

1. “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive,” by Travis Tritt. This was my freshman year dorm’s theme song (what up, Otero 2001-2002?!) and it speaks for itself. If you’re not a country music fan, I ask you to listen to this song and make an exception. Also: name me one other song that involves not one, not two, but THREE full-throated howls (“oww-oooooo!”) followed by banjo interludes? Other reasons to love this song: it references microwave rice, homemade soup, Harleys, Fu Man Chu beards, and the word “goofy.” TRY NOT TO LOVE THIS SONG. I dare you.

2. “There’s Too Much Love,” by Belle & Sebastian. As I mentioned in my last post, this is my “jaunty walking song.” If this song comes on in my earphones while I am walking, you best believe things are getting jaunty. There’s just something about the melody and instrumentation of this song that is like catnip to me. I think it’s the strings. (By the way: if you’re listening to this song for the first time, by all means, make sure you wait until the strings kick in). God, I love a good strings section! But while we’re talking about Belle & Sebastian, they have a whole catalog of really cheery-sounding songs that just perk me right up. Try “Sukie in the Graveyard,” “Funny Little Frog,” or “The Blues Are Still Blue.”

3. “Já Sei Namorar,” by Tribalistas. You can’t spend any amount of time in Brazil and not come out of it with a profound appreciation for Tribalistas, a Brazilian super-group/collaboration of three already famous singers. They only produced one album but dang, it was a good one. “Já Sei Namorar” (which means “I already know how to love”) is one of the best on the album and it is catchy as heck. If you’ve ever been to any gathering at my house, you’ve probably heard this song on in the background, because it’s perfect for any occasion, and it’s nearly impossible to feel bummed out while listening to it.

Tribalistas

Tribalistas

4. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” by Whitney Houston. First of all, RIP, Whitney. Second of all, this song makes me want to dance — like, REALLY dance — every single time I hear it. Including now. And the video is awesome (Whitney’s neon make-up and crimped hair!! I miss her).

5. “Australia,” by The Shins. I listened to this song on repeat when I was taking a break from studying for the California Bar Exam. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, let me assure you that I needed a heavy duty dose of happy to pull me out of the self-pitying misery that defined my bar-studying experience. I used to put a CD with this song on in the car when I drove to and from my yoga class (the other thing that kept me sane that summer) and totally rock out.

6. “Luna,” by Juanes. Maybe I should start a separate list of my favorite peppy Latin songs, but that could take all day, so I’ll confine myself to just a few. Juanes, in case you’re not familiar, is a pop sensation (and all-around good person) from Colombia. I first discovered his music in 2003, when I was studying abroad in Chile and his album Un Día Normal was being played non-stop everywhere in Santiago. My friends and I all jumped on the Juanes bandwagon and never got off. I recall standing in one of my friends’ teeny-tiny bedrooms in her host family’s house and blasting this song, “Luna,” over and over, while shrieking the lyrics at each other. Good times. (Our host families loved us.)

7. “Would I Lie To You?” by Charles & Eddie. This song makes me smile every time I hear it because it reminds me of hanging out with my high school best friend, Rachel, driving around and singing along to this, one of the stupidest of songs ever produced. Yet, you have to admit, there’s something catchy about it — maybe it’s all the “woo!”s? Also, if you can get through the video without laughing, you are a stronger man than I.

8. “Mi Primer Millon,” by Bacilos. Okay, I know this list is Latin-heavy, but come on, there’s a reason for this. And that reason is HORNS. I love a good horn section almost as much as I love a good string section, and “Mi Primer Millon” (“My First Million”) has the horns covered. For those who speaka da Spanish, the lyrics are really fun (I always sing along to the line, “Tranquila, querida, Paulina solo es una amiga“), and for those who don’t speak Spanish, it doesn’t matter. This song is great and undeniably joyful.

9. “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise,” by The Avett Brothers. Oh, The Avett Brothers: marry me! (Kidding – sort of). This may not be the peppiest song on the list, but I find it uplifting, soothing, and, most importantly, sing-along-able.

10. “California Love,” by 2Pac and Dr. Dre. No explanation needed. Okay, fine: I love so many things about this song. I love that it involves rapping AND singing, and I rap and sing along with it, well aware that I sound like a jackass when I say things like “ever since honeys was wearin’ Sassoon,” especially since I don’t actually know what that means. But listen, I lived in California for a few years, and I feel justified in loving this song unreservedly and letting out my secret West Coast rapper whenever it comes on. RIP, 2Pac. (Also, just because: my favorite Chapelle show sketch of all time.)

Obviously, I have a lot more happy-making songs on my playlist, but these ten are near the top of the list. Stay tuned for my future installments, including songs to chill to, songs for romance, and songs for kicking ass and taking names.

Soundtrack to my life, part 1: angst

Like any narcissist, I often dream about the movie that will inevitably be made of my life. I don’t focus on which actor would play me (although, let’s be real, Jamie Lynn Sigler could use the work), but I do tend to fantasize heavily about the soundtrack. When I think about the soundtrack to my life, I don’t try to connect songs to particular scenes that I’ve lived (since most of the foundational moments of my life were not, as it turns out, set to music), but I match specific songs to moods that I’ve experienced or general feelings that I’ve had. So, for example, my happy, jaunty walking song will always and forever be Belle and Sebastian’s “There’s Too Much Love.” Listen to this song and try NOT to walk jauntily. It’s impossible.

Since there are so many songs that I love and that figure prominently into any dramatic rendering of my emotional life, it won’t do to try to sum them all up in one post. So let’s just start with the most fun: the angsty songs — you know, the songs you listen to when you just want a good wallow. Sometimes I listen to angsty songs when I’m in a good mood, just to feel superior (it’s like Schadenfreude). So, here, in no particular order, are ten (plus a couple of extras) essential, angsty, life soundtrack songs.

1. My go-to, moody, blissfully sad, self-indulgently angsty song: “Goodnight L.A.” by Counting Crows. Counting Crows is one of my all-time favorite bands. They’re up there with The Beatles. They’re geniuses, and I won’t hear anyone say a word against them. My cousin Catie and I actually joined the Counting Crows fan club as high schoolers and we used to blast August and Everything After and This Desert Life (and yes, Recovering The Satellites, although it’s not their best work, in my humble opinion) every time we were together. Adam Duritz’s beautiful, ragged voice is present throughout a large chunk of the soundtrack to my teenage years. “Goodnight L.A.,” however, is off of the album Hard Candy, which came out in 2002, and which I listened to heavily during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. Hard Candy, for me, in some ways signaled the beginning of the end for Counting Crows. It included their awful, plasticene cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” (ugh), and although a lot of the songs on the album were good, only a few moved me. “Goodnight L.A.,” though, is perfect. The melody is gorgeous and the lyrics are pure, old-school, poetic Adam Duritz (“So I put my head on the ground, and the sky is a wheel” kills me every time). Whenever I’m feeling like I want to wallow in loneliness or angst without going full Elliott Smith, I put on this song. It’s wonderful.

Counting Crows: angst kings

Counting Crows: angst kings

2. My other go-to angsty song: [Insert any Sarah McLachlan song here]. Oh, Sarah: I love you. So much. Here’s the thing: Sarah McLachlan has the voice of a Canadian angel, and her lyrics are so lovely and heartfelt. If I had to pick one song out of her catalog to be my go-to angst song, I’d probably have to go with “Elsewhere.” It’s slightly churchy in its arrangement and harmonization, the lyrics are great (yet inscrutable), and it’s angsty while still being soothing. You could totally take a nap to this song. A sad nap.

3. My angsty-with-banjos song: “Maybe,” by Allison Krauss. I seem to recall listening to a lot of sad country songs when I was a freshman in college, when EVERY moment in my life held what felt like great emotional import, and I was surrounded by people from Texas: so, a perfect storm of banjo angst. Allison Krauss and her sad, sad voice (lady always sounds like she’s about to burst into tears) was delicious during these moments.

4. My angsty-in-love-in-my-head song: This song hasn’t really applied to my life since I was in college, but I used to listen to Guster’s “Either Way” and just feel like it was speaking to me, about my actual life, even though I never had a real boyfriend until I was out of college and spent most of college pining after people who did not return the feeling. I was basically Noel from Felicity. Anyway, from its first notes, “Either Way” just captures the feeling of delicious misery of having one’s heart stomped upon as a young, impressionable person. It’s hard not to listen to this song, with its sad violins and sad piano, and not immediately picture my freshman year dorm room and its chili lights hanging over the bunk bed. I love it! (Runner up: “Only In Dreams,” by Weezer. Oof.)

5. My so-depressing-you-can’t-even-take-it-seriously song: “Talk Show Host,” by Radiohead. It’s Radiohead. Enough said. (Runner up: “Karma Police.”)

6. My slightly drunk, angsty song: “Wildflowers,” by Ryan Adams. I say “slightly drunk” to be generous to Mr. Adams, who once fell off a stage during a concert. I’ve seen Ryan Adams twice in concert, and he was visibly intoxicated both times, but do you think that stopped him from singing and playing the harmonica, the guitar, and the piano, sometimes all at once? Hell, no. The man’s a dynamo (and I think he’s been clean and sober for quite a while now — hat-tip to the sobering presence of Mandy Moore).

7. My late-nights-working-at-the-law-firm sad song: “The Sword and the Pen,” by Regina Spektor. Used to play this one a lot past midnight while sitting in front of a glowing computer screen.

8. My favorite angsty cover song: Bon Iver’s cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Holy crap. Shivers.

9. My saudade brasileira song: “É Isso Aí,” by Ana Carolina, with Seu Jorge. This is set to the same tune as Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter,” which is pretty angsty in its own right, but there’s something about the acoustic guitar and Ana Carolina’s husky voice that makes this version even better. Brazilians are known for being happy and upbeat, but they’re also experts at saudade, the feeling of longing or nostalgia for the past, or for a place or person far away. This song pretty much nails saudade.

10. My obligatory Ben Folds angst song: “We’re Still Fighting It.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a Ben Folds song on an angsty music list. The guy’s like a teenage girl trapped in an adult male body. I adore his music, and a lot of his songs capture specific life moments. “We’re Still Fighting It” is about growing up, and a relationship between a parent and child. It’s sad, but ultimately hopeful. And it still gives me chills when I listen to it.

So! Everyone feeling nice and angsty now? What are your favorite sad, wallowy songs? I’m sure I’m missing some gems here, but I wanted to keep the list relatively short so as not to overwhelm. Happy/angsty listening!

 

 

Unpacking

I’m writing from my new apartment in DC where, for the past 48 hours, I’ve been a virtual whirlwind of activity: unpacking and breaking down and throwing away boxes, putting away clothes and shoes and dishes and glasses and books, directing movers, getting groceries, doing laundry, driving, walking, scurrying — yes, there has been a lot of scurrying going on.

Putting away dishes is strangely satisfying.

Putting away dishes is strangely satisfying.

And now, 48 hours after repatriating, all of my furniture is in my apartment, I have an internet connection, and the majority of the stuff is put away. The apartment, which 48 hours earlier was an empty series of rooms, finally feels like the place where I live. Now all that’s missing is Al, who’s coming back from the UK next weekend, and the belongings we shipped from South Africa, which are going through customs at the moment. Whew!

My moving process involved wine and Felicity on DVD.

My moving process involved wine and Felicity on DVD.

Finally settling into an apartment that’s ours — not a corporate apartment, or a hotel, or some other form of short-term housing — has made me feel very happy. It’s also energized me practically to the point of mania (hence, the scurrying), which only began to peter out this afternoon, after I finished color-coding my bookshelves. Tomorrow, I think I’ll start to settle into my life outside the walls of my apartment: I’m trying out a new yoga studio, going to the Walmart a couple of blocks away, and having dinner and drinks with friends.

It feels good to be back.