In Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Krouse Rosenthal has ingeniously adapted the centuries-old format of the encyclopedia to convey the accumulated knowledge of her lifetime in a poignant, wise, often funny, fully realized memoir. Using mostly short entries organized from A to Z, many of which are cross-referenced, Rosenthal captures in wonderful and episodic detail the moments, observations, and emotions that comprise a contemporary life. Start anywhere—preferably at the beginning—and see how one young woman’s alphabetized existence can open up and define the world in new and unexpected ways.
An ordinary life, perhaps, but an extraordinary book.
Cross-section of ordinary life at this exact moment
A security guard is loosening his belt.
A couple is at a sushi restaurant with some old friends. They are reminiscing. In the back of their minds, they are thinking of being home.
A woman is trying to suck on a cherry Lifesaver but will end up biting it in six seconds.
A little boy is riding the train home with his dad after spending the day together at his office.
A man is running back into a grocery store to look for a scarf he dropped. He will leave with the phone number of a woman who will become his wife.
Words the author meant to use
Flair, Luxurious, Panoply, Churlish, Dainty, Folly
Wines that go nicely with this book
reds: Marcel Lapierre Morgon (France), Alario Dolcetto d’Alba Costa Fiore (Italy)
whites: King Estate Pinot Gris (Oregon), Landmark Chardonnay Overlook (California)
Book, standing in the bookstore holding a
If I am standing there with the book in my hand, one of three things has already happened: Friend recommended it. Read a good review. Cover caught my eye.
I can appreciate a cool cover. But it’s like the extra credit part of a test—it only enhances an already solid grade. Getting it right won’t help if most everything else is wrong. And getting it wrong won’t hurt if most everything else is right. (There are countless books I cherish whose covers I don’t like too much, or cannot even now recall.) The interior of the book—the terrain of its pages, where all those words took me, the tiny but very real spot it ultimately occupies in my mind—that becomes the book.
Next I go to the flaps. The front flap needs to intrigue/not bore me, and the bio needs to tell me just enough about the author. I’ll do my best to extract the author’s entire existence from their 2-X-2 inch photo.
Off to the back cover. I’ll be momentarily impressed when I see a blurb by a hot writer like ____, but I know that it is just as likely that I’ll like the book as hate it regardless of these quotes. I look at them in a more voyeuristic way, like a literary gaper’s delay: Wow, the author knows So and So. Bet they send each other clever text messages. Really the only thing I can gauge from the blurbs is my own pathetic jealousy level.
To get a true sense of the book, I have to spend a minute inside. I’ll glance at the first couple pages, then flip to the middle, see if the language matches me somehow. It’s like dating, only with sentences. Some sentences, no matter how well-dressed or nice, just don’t do it for me. Others I click with instantly. It could be something as simple yet weirdly potent as a single word choice (tangerine). We’re meant to be, that sentence and me. And when it happens, you just know.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For a while I wished my name was spelled Aimee; it seemed so much more original, innovative, so chock-full of vowels. I like that my name can spell May and yam. When I was growing up, my parents would sing the old song “Once in Love with Amy.” I always liked when they did that. In my dating years, the song was “Amie,” by Pure Prairie League. Boy: (singing) “Amie / What you wanna do?” I always liked that little serenade as well. The Japanese word amai means the feeling of being cherished and expectation to be loved. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain. People close to me call me Aim, and that feels affectionate and validating; conversely, I am wary of people I’ve just met who are prematurely chummy and refer to me that way. I’ve been signing my name like this since the summer after seventh grade, when I invented it at overnight camp sitting on my top bunk. School assignment, first grade. 36 The amygdala acts as the storehouse of emotional memory. Without the amygdala, life is stripped of personal meaning; all passion depends on it.
My father-in-law informed me that my married name could produce these two anagrams: Hearty Salmon. Nasty Armhole. I cannot tell you how much I love that.
In most cases, it is more satisfying to get a friend’s answering machine and leave a cheery, tangible trace of your sincere commitment to the Friendship than it is to engage in actual conversation.
Anxious, Things That Make Me
TRAIN SCHEDULES I have to look real close at the columns and small type, and keep double-checking it, as I could be misreading a departure time; a centimeter to the left or right and you’re in the entirely wrong little box/column. Even after I’ve confirmed that there’s an 8:06 leaving Chicago’s Northwestern Station, I’ll pull the crinkly little schedule out of my bag and check one more time. And then, as the final coup de grâce, I’ll turn to some guy waiting on the platform and ask, “You’re waiting for the 8:06, right?”
VENDING MACHINES Again, I have to double-, triple-check. Okay, it’s A5 for the Bugles. Is that right? A5? I don’t want to read the codes wrong and end up with the Flaming Hot Cheetos. But then, what a relief when the Bugles tumble down. Yes! I knew it was A5!
BIBLIOGRAPHIES All those commas. Last name of author, comma. First name, comma. Then name of book, underlined. Name of publisher, not underlined. Page numbers, then period. Or is it comma? Writing the paper itself was difficult but manageable. But that bibliography always made my body clench up. To be in that hyperconcentrated mode was nerve-racking. The whole time I’m picturing my teacher reading it, looking for a misplaced comma, eager to tarnish my hard work with red pen marks.
RUNNING INTO SOMEONE It could be someone I know rather well—an old work colleague, a second cousin—but for some reason I panic and completely blank on their name, and then, at the last possible heart-racing second, the name will come to me.
ALLOTTING ENOUGH TIME TO MAKE FLIGHT I always work backward. Okay, the flight leaves at 11:15, so I should be at the airport at 9:15. That means I should leave the house at 8:30— no, play it safe, could be a lot of traffic, say 8:15. That means I need to get up at 7:30; that gives me 45 minutes to get ready and finish any last minute packing. As soon as I’ve come to this conclusion, I’ll immediately repeat the whole internal dialogue-calculations, see if I come up with the same time estimates. I’ll do this at least a couple more times the day before I leave, one of the times being that night when I set my alarm clock.
People are either approachers or avoiders. Approachers will dart across a crowded room and enthusiastically state the obvious: “Oh, my God. It’s you! We went to camp together! I haven’t seen you since we were ten!” An avoider, in the same situation, would make no effort whatsoever to reconnect. They reason: So we once knew each other. That in and of itself is not interesting. I have no desire to acknowledge that we once, long ago, roasted marshmallows together. It will only be awkward to make small talk, and our shared campfire history is of no consequence. I see you. And you see me. That is enough. And while the avoider chooses not to approach, the approacher really has no conscious choice in the matter; approaching is just what they do.
As self-conscious as rearranging what’s on your coffee table before guests arrive—putting Art Forum and Milan Kundera’s latest novel on top of People magazine and The Berenstain Bears Potty Book. As specific as a mosquito bite on a pinky toe knuckle. As startling as coming home from vacation and seeing yourself in your own bathroom mirror and only then realizing just how tan you really are. As out of place as a heap of snow that remains by a street lamp on a sunny April day long after all the other snow has melted.
Ayn Rand seems so mysterious, privy, snobby—in a cool way. I’m pretty sure it’s the y. See also: Letters
Upon hearing that a Friend of mine saw a bad movie, a movie I knew would be bad and never would have gone to see myself, I think, Of course that movie sucked. How could you have thought it wouldn’t? You are sheeplike to have gone to see it in the first place. This is definitely going to affect our Friendship. See also: Calling Someone’s Name; Smooth Jazz
They have hired bagpipers to play at the wedding. There are two of them, in full Scottish regalia, standing in the Weld playing. It is a most unusual image, these two men in kilts by a tree, performing for us. Even more startling is how, after only five minutes or so, we are used to them. There is nothing unusual about them anymore; they are now part of the scenery, nothing more, nothing less. I imagine if they started hurling eggplants at each other, we would, in no time, mentally readjust and be rather ho-hum about it.
I like my birthday, the actual date April 29—it seems right, like it matches me, the capital A of April, the way the number 29 feels, the whole spring flavor. I am very glad I was born and definitely appreciate the ongoing alive status that each birthday brings, but I do not typically get into the animated birthday hoopla spirit. I do recognize, however, that for me it is a fine line between not wanting to make a big deal about my birthday and also wanting family and certain Friends to dote enough to satisfy some nebulous quality/quantity acknowledged-my-birthday barometer. When I was a kid, my mom always made sure my brother and sisters and I woke up to birthday signs and her famous Krouse Klown drawing. I tried instating the Rosenthal Rabbit for my own kids, but it fizzled out because in my mind it never felt as special or as important as the Krouse Klown; it felt fraudulent and satirical. For as many April 29s as I can remember, my mom has presented me with a poem, a tender, rhyming summary of my life up to that point, and it is these gifts of verse written in her lovely Ann Krouse script that are the centerpiece of each birthday.
I have a birthmark on my left arm. As a child I thought it looked like a bear, or Africa, depending on the angle. I would often draw an eye and a mouth on it; sometimes I would allow a Friend to do so. To look at my birthmark was to remind myself that I was me.
I blush easily.
It would be difficult to convince me that leaning has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of my bowling.
My husband and I were out with another couple—two messy-haired, way-smarter-than-us professor types. It came up that one of their Friends had just won the Nobel Prize. You guys actually know someone who won the Nobel Prize?! That’s amazing, I said. In a matter-of-fact way, they added, Actually, we seem to know about twenty or so people who have won a Nobel Prize. Well, I said, I have never won the Nobel Prize, but when I was four, I was picked for the Grand Prize Game on Bozo Circus. They were incredulous. God! What was it like? I always wanted to be on that show. For them, the Nobel Prize, while a nice honor, no longer loomed as the powerful end-all. But my brush with Bozo—now, that was really something. I told them all about the magic arrows; how I made it to bucket number three; and that I had walked away with a year’s supply of pudding, an Archie board game, and panty hose for my mom.
I have just started Joseph Brodsky’s book On Grief and Reason. Let me say I have only read one essay in a collection of thirty, and I flipped through the book, sizing up the chapters, actually counting the pages, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—yes, this one’s good, it only has seven pages. This hardly counts as being familiar with Joseph Brodsky, reading seven pages and the jacket bio, yet I can tell you that his essay In Praise of Boredom is one of the best things I have ever read; that I think you would be stimulated and moved by it; that I’d be happy to direct you to a copy of it; and that I now know this of Brodsky: he really liked Robert Frost. He was particularly infatuated with the line The only way out is through. He quoted it in this one essay, and then when I flipped through the book looking for another essay I wasn’t intimidated by, I found the same quote again. That’s how it is. That’s how it always is. In a handful of pages we can see a writer’s defining twitch: One has a fondness for ellipses; one constantly references his jumpiness (Thurber); another fancies single-word sentences; another has a sloppy habit of overusing the word surprisingly; still another leans on a Robert Frost quote. Perhaps Brodsky never thought the two essays, which contained that reference, would end up in a bound volume. (One would have hoped the editor would have picked up on this, and at least separated the essays more substantially. It’s tragic really. When my work is left to be poked through, will it be painfully obvious that I gravitated toward semicolons, and frequently wrote about coincidences and doughnuts with sprinkles?) If Brodsky used that quote in those two essays, we can be sure he brought it up at dinner parties; at a literary conference in Turin; over coffee with an old chum from the University of Michigan. Right now I think his book will change my life. Brodsky makes me feel alive. He seems to know things. His knowing will allow me to know. He will beam me to a higher place—a place that’s vaguely different, sharper, where the dial’s been shifted just a notch to the right (that’s all it took!) and everything clicked into place. This happens to be my immediate reaction every time someone or something truly gets me. I think, Oh, this new book/new Friend/new sweater will alter the course of my life in a profound way. It was like that even when I was young, with a small box. I remember the power of receiving a certain small keepsake box. I excitedly put all my things in it, all the things that mattered to me, all the things that had meaning; nothing mattered anymore but what was in that box. But then after one, two, maybe four days tops, I grew tired of the box, or the hinge broke, or my disloyalty made itself evident when I chose not to take it to a sleepover at Rosalie Press’s house. Any number of scenarios may have occurred that ultimately led to the same feeling of disenchantment. Brodsky is my new box.
The CD player in our kitchen causes the first three songs to skip. The CD player in the baby’s room no longer functions at all, although up until recently, at least the radio worked. I’ve broken every computer I’ve ever owned. My current printer and fax programs are incompatible. I jam the Xerox machine nearly every time I touch it. I go through Walkmans like paper towels. The screen on our back porch is so badly ripped that the kids don’t even bother opening the actual door, they simply lift the big, detached flap and walk right through it. The children’s bathtub drain is partially clogged with small toys; actually, there is no real drain there—it was broken years ago and now we compensate by stuffing a washcloth in there, every single night. Their double stroller has snapped in half. There are long black wires hanging from the ceiling in my office because we still haven’t installed the lights and fans. The fan light in the master bedroom never once worked. The light switch in the baby’s room has never once worked. Our beautiful antique chair in the family room has had visibly broken springs for half a year now. I just noticed that one of the handlebars on my treadmill fell off. The boys broke my favorite barrette. I broke the glass serving dish with the decorative dolphin trim. We do not have a single glass left from our bridal registry.
It is weird and unsettling that a person who is hired to handle your money, make wise decisions about it, and, ostensibly, keep you from losing it is called a broker.
My brother, who grew up with three sisters, was I won’t say how many years old when he finally realized that he did not have to wrap the towel around his chest when he came out of the shower.
How you been?
How was your week?
You name the question, “Busy” is the answer. Yes, yes, I know we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, “Busy” is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response. Certainly there are more interesting, more original, and more accurate ways to answer the question how are you? How about: I’m hungry for a waffle; I’m envious of my best Friend; I’m annoyed by everything that’s broken in my house; I’m itchy. Yet busy stands as the easiest way of summarizing all that you do and all that you are. I am busy is the short way of saying— suggesting—my time is filled, my phone does not stop ringing, and you (therefore) should think well of me. Have people always been this busy? Did cavemen think they were busy, too? This week is crazy—I’ve got about ten caves to draw on. Can I meet you by the fire next week? I have a hunch that there is a direct correlation between the advent of coffee chains and the increase in busyness. Look at us. We’re all pros now at hailing a cab/pushing a grocery cart/operating a forklift with a to-go cup in hand. We’re skittering about like hyperactive gerbils, high not just on caffeine but on caffeine’s luscious by-product, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off. As kids, our stock answer to most every question was nothing. What did you do at school today? Nothing. What’s new? Nothing. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our nothing for busy. I’m starting to think that, like youth, the word nothing is wasted on the young. Maybe we should try reintroducing it into our grown-up vernacular. Nothing. I say it a few times and I can feel myself becoming more quiet, decaffeinated. Nothing. Now I’m picturing emptiness, a white blanket, a couple ducks gliding on a still pond. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. How did we get so far from it? See also: Coffee, Stopping for; Crossing Guard; Nothing
Once you learn how to draw a butterfly, you just want to keep doing it. There is something calming and satisfying about drawing them. Maybe it has to do with the symmetry, and the curves of the wings.
I love butterscotch but rarely think to seek it out.
Cab of Truck
Seeing just the short, truncated nubby front part of a semi-truck (the cab), one is always compelled to point and say look. It’s just an image you can’t get used to. It registers in the brain as funny, odd, on the loose.
Calling Someone’s Name
You’re calling someone’s name, trying to get their attention. Perhaps you’re in a crowd. Or they are across the street. Or they went to get popcorn and Raisinets and are now looking for you in the packed movie theater. You cup your hands around your mouth and repeatedly call their name, waving your arm—Here I am—but they don’t hear or see you. No matter who they are—a lawyer, a surgeon, a Latin scholar—they look like an idiot searching for you, craning their head like that, and you question their intelligence. See also: Bad Movie; Smooth Jazz
I kept a vocabulary journal for a while in my early twenties. I had just added the words capricious and precarious to the list, and while talking to Brian on the phone, I decided to try them out. I said something about life being both capricious and precarious. Knowing me as he did, he immediately picked up this finagled repertoire—my God, I myself could practically see the neon arrows flashing as each word slipped out into the air. Oooooh, fancy words, Amy, he said. I more or less ignored the comment, as a way of implying that I didn’t think one way or the other about these words, that they were just the kinds of bon mots I used all the time now, no biggie. I wished the words would have felt more worn in in my mouth, the way words do after you’ve said them hundreds of time. Table. Melt. Floundering. See, I can say any of those without thinking about them as I say them. But he, Brian, had spotted capricious’ and precarious’ stiffness; in fact, he caught me with the tags on. I think of this every time I use or hear either of those words. [Aside] I added the Capricious entry on the afternoon of April 15, 2003. Later that night, I received an e-mail from Brian. I had not spoken to him in eight years.
When I’m in my car and someone lets me in their lane and I not only mouth Thank you to the other driver, but I actually say it out loud—as if they could hear me—I am taken aback, it sounded so goofy, hearing my voice alone in my car.
. . . and when you get back in the car, the loudness of the radio startles you. It didn’t seem so loud before because you turned it up gradually throughout the ride.
SOUNDS THAT ARE LOUD THOUGH QUIET
A mosquito buzzing in your camping tent at three a.m.
A phone that should be ringing but is not.
Sitting in the waiting room waiting for a medical procedure and then hearing the nurse call your name.
The snipping of scissors cutting your long hair short.
The crunching of sitting on your sunglasses.
The first time he/she whispers “I love you.”
Your four-year-old saying something inappropriate in front of your mother, or someone you hoped would be especially taken with your child and parenting skills.
Someone who won’t stop drumming their fingers or tapping their pen on the table.
Your pee when you’re in the stall next to your boss.
The unwrapping of a small piece of candy in a place of worship.
Every time I go to my local car wash, the owner peers inside, throws his arms up, and says, Oh, Miss—very dirty. Very, very dirty. I’m sorry. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring it in clean.
David threw a crumpled-up piece of paper to me. I caught it, looked at it, then set it down. He then threw a paper clip. Again, I caught it, put it down. Come on, Amy. Don’t you get it?! Throw it back! he yelled. How was I supposed to know that was what he wanted? I am a girl. I do not have the catch gene. Guys have the catch gene. That is why the symbol for male is a circle with an arrow pointing away. It stands for throw the ball.
I love the moment when I get a new CD and it holds the promise of being the best CD ever—all that potential, so many good songs to fall in love with, the dense liner notes to inspect. But then I realize, This song’s not so great, neither’s the next one— ew, what’s with that harmonica solo?—and in the end I like maybe two songs, love one, and within a few days it disappears under a stack of other loose, orphaned CDs. And going back to those two or three favorite songs—I feel bad listening to them exclusively, that’s somehow cheating. I must listen to the CD in its entirety, to not play favorites so to speak, and when those killer tunes come on, well, I’ve earned the privilege fair and square. This is not unlike my policy of occasionally rotating my least favorite jeans into the mix—There. I wore them. Happy?—and feeling justified the next morning in resorting once again to my beloved worn-in pair.
I despise chain letters. They were amusing once, in third grade. But now I resent the intrusion, the assumption that I will play along, the CAPITAL-LETTER THREATS of what will happen to me if I don’t. When they used to arrive by regular mail, I had a kind of oh geesh reaction; I would feel disappointed in my friend, misunderstood: Doesn’t she know the first thing about me? Doesn’t she know I hate this and that I found it void of meaning, credibility, and beauty? But now when I get these forwarded chain letters in my e-mail, I don’t really feel agitated—I can and do simply delete them in a split second— I feel baffled. Does my friend really have time for this? Does she really believe this? I picture her at her computer, clicking on her address book, wasting minutes from her too-short- as-it-is life.
This money was left here intentionally and is specifically for your use. I know it’s not much—perhaps just enough to treat yourself to a cookie, coffee, a lottery ticket, donation to the homeless, a new pair of socks. . . . In any case, I hope it changes your day for the better. All I ask in return is that you let me know how you spend it. You don’t have to sign your name, and a prepaid postcard is included. Enjoy.
Every week, for close to a year, I left an envelope containing this note, some loose change, and a stamped postcard addressed to my P.O. box for a random stranger to discover. I’d like to say that I set out to do this for purely altruistic reasons. But, more accurately, I did it because I’m easily bored/easily amused, and experiments such as this inject a morsel of suspense into the week. That, and I really like getting mail. It was always fun to plan where to leave the envelopes. I sent a few with friends traveling out of town. I left them in phone booths, taxis, and newspaper boxes. I left them on sidewalks, airplanes, and restaurant tables. I left them at a bookstore, a doctor’s office, and a bar mitzvah. Once, at a jazz bar, I watched a bride go into the bathroom, so I casually slipped in behind her and strategically left the envelope for her by the sink. She ran out, waving the envelope and screaming Look at this! to her bridal party. That was a highlight. Though I never did hear from her. I got ten postcards back. I was always amazed when I got a response. And I was always amazed when I didn’t. Responding was nearly effortless, yet most people apparently couldn’t be bothered. I couldn’t help but obsess over this: Did the postcard just get lost in a pile somewhere? Do they vow daily, I’m definitely going to mail this today, but somehow never get around to it? Did they think it was creepy—that they were being followed, or that by mailing the postcard they could be traced? Did they—those slimes—peel the stamp off the postcard for their own use? I’d like to think that how the ten people who returned their cards chose to spend their change said something (profound?) about them, in the same way that whatever poster you hung over your bed in college offered visitors an assessment of Who You Really Are. The responses ranged from the American Dream—“Florida Lottery Ticket for $55 million”—to Zen simplicity— “Bought a piece of fresh fruit.”
Two spoke of serendipity:
I was walking down North Avenue on June 12 (my birthday), had a fight with my partner, and almost flat broke. I chose to walk down North Avenue because several years ago that street was somewhat inspirational for me and I was thinking, “I dig North Ave.” I met a sweet woman on the street who needed some money—gave it to her. She offered me a beer to celebrate my day—I declined. What an Oprah Winfrey move—you sure you’re not Oprah? Anyhow, thanks for the smile.
And this from Helen, the woman who works in the locker room at my health club:
Hello. I’m sorry; I forgot to write for you how I spend money. I found money in locker Sunday when I forgot my money for breakfast. I opened and say thanks God and thanks for you. Helen, Lake Shore Club (you see me in club please).
There was the philanthropist:
Donated to Amy Erickson Alternative Cancer Treatment Fund.
And the realist:
Thank you for the gift! I added it to my fabulous coin collection, which I keep in an apple cider bottle and which I’ll use to partially finance my upcoming move. Thanks again for your thoughtful offering. Every little bit does help out and it’s so fun to receive help from a stranger.
I gave away between fifty cents and $1.50 each week. In the end, that probably added up to about sixty bucks counting the postage—the amount Bill Gates leaves in those penny dishes by the register. But if a few people got a kick out of it, I’m hoping the mighty karma gods who saw me bite Bobby Bycraft in first grade will now call it a wash. Plus, as I say, I got mail.
I was flipping through the Sunday Magazine and came across an article about a fraudulent high-society woman. Let me see if I can retrace exactly what happened from there. 1. I glanced at the photo. 2. I then glanced over at the headline . . . Caused a Stir in New York Society This Year. 3. Ouch. Good juicy gossip, I thought. 4. Back to headline: Especially When Her Cheeks Started Bouncing. 5. What, her cheeks were bouncing? What’s up with that? 6. Look back at photo. Well, she certainly does have big cheeks. Maybe she had some freaky plastic surgery? And now her cheeks jiggle in a strange way, especially noticeable when she struts into high-society events? Perhaps her cheeks are full of silicone? She could be some kind of spy, in disguise? Or maybe she’s fake, like a robot person? 7. I reread the headline: checks, her checks were bouncing. Okay, that makes a lot more sense. 8. I proceeded to show the article to my husband and my friend John, and strangely enough, they both read it the same way. Cheeks started bouncing, they’d say, and kinda chuckle snort. It must be something about the smiling, cheeky photo that triggers the brain to read the second c in checks as an e (and they are very similar-looking letters to begin with, even more so in the New York Times’s typeface). I’m pretty certain that without the photo, there wouldn’t be any confusion with the cheek/check headline. See also: Farmer; Words That Look Similar
Surely they can design more flattering chef hats.
Justin (age six): We saw the Chicago Fire on our field trip.
Me: You did? You mean, you saw something about it downtown?
Justin: No, Mom. You don’t understand. The Chicago Fire is a statue.
Me: I see. You know, Justin, I think you missed the Chicago Fire part of your class when you were sick last week.
Justin: The Chicago Fire was last week?
Chronology of Events
Amy Krouse is born, April 29.
Amy’s sister Beth is born, October 16.
Beth is in crib. Amy asks if she is thirsty. Pours glass of water on Beth’s head.
When Amy is home sick, her mother rubs her back while taking her temperature and sings the song she always sings when Amy is not feeling well. She sings so nice and soft.
I’m a little doll that has just been broken,
Fallen from my mommy’s knees.
I’m a little doll that has just been broken,
Won’t you love me please?
Goes to Kiddie Kollege for preschool.
Amy’s brother, Joe, is born December 16, two and a half months prematurely.
Practices swimming in pool with father. She starts on stairs, he stands waiting a few feet away. Just as she approaches him, he takes a step back. He keeps doing this. He is encouraging about it, but she is nervous, out of breath. Doesn’t want to keep going, doesn’t want to be pushed to limit, feels misled—Don’t do that!—just wants to be swept up in his arms when she reaches him. The relief, the snugness, the glory, of finally being in Dad’s safe arms.
Gets to stir father’s coffee. Watches the cream change the color to light brown.
Father occasionally comes home from work with box of Jujubes as special treat.
Gets to pick out a Dum Dum lollipop from the bottom file-cabinet drawer afrer every visit to nice, bald pediatrician Dr. Nachman. Typically chooses butterscotch flavor; hates the root-beer one.
Amy falls asleep in car on way home from trip downtown or dinner at relatives’ house. Remarkable to her that she awakes just as they enter her subdivision, a minute from home. Seems to Amy that she has a talent for knowing precisely how long to sleep, exactly when to wake up. Not until she is older does she realize it was the motion of going fast on the highway that lulled her to sleep, that the car’s slowing down on small neighborhood streets was what stirred her awake.
Amy is served chicken pot pie when her parents go out on Saturday night. Steaming-hot cream sauce scorches roof of her mouth.
Amy invents a game with sister Beth: Ooga. Ooga It. Odd sort of running game with rules that are unspoken, nonsensical, and completely adhered to. They play it for hours, screaming, “Ooga! Ooga it!”
Amy watches parents slow-dance in kitchen. Covers face with hands. Feels embarrassed but happy.
First grade. In music class with Mrs. Swanson. Amy by mistake adds extra syllable to remember, says rememember. When their teacher Mrs. Stern comes to pick up the class, Mrs. Swanson asks Amy to say rememember again for Mrs. Stern. They both think it’s so cute. Amy feels that reenactment is strangely forced but likes the attention.
Overhears mother on phone saying, “I think this summer I am going to send Amy to c-a-m-p,” and figures out what it spells.
Takes turns showing privates with boy across street in his wooded backyard. Feels odd, devious, interesting. Recognizes that exposed genitals emit certain energy. In the end, feels she has been swayed. Glad when he later moves away.
Steve C., a boy in her grade, dies in a car accident. Seems unreal, spooky. Haunted by idea of him gone. Thinks about him, the absence of this once-alive boy, for rest of life.
Amy goes to Florida to see grandmother. Grandmother’s friend Gladys has them to dinner. Radishes on the salad—Amy tries for the first time and loves them. Flurry of comments about radishes, older women say how unusual it is for child to like radishes. Year later, Amy returns. Again they have dinner at Gladys’s. Again Gladys serves radishes, now in Amy’s honor. These radishes taste different—bitter, sharp, stinging. Amy confused; other radishes so sweet. But Gladys served them especially for her, remembered how much she loved them. Amy doesn’t have heart or courage to speak up; forces herself to eat radishes.
Amy rubs her stomach real lightly until she gets goose bumps. Puts her in a trance.
Amy realizes one night at dinner that ribs are ribs, as in ribs like people have ribs, ribs are the ribs of an animal.
WHAT MY CHILDHOOD TASTED LIKE
Fruit cocktail on top of cottage cheese
Liked the grapes and maraschino cherries
Marinated flank steak
Liked the dark, crispy stringy ends
Hot dog paprikosh
Especially good with very cold applesauce
Mesmerized by my mom gnawing on bones
What my mom made on Valentine’s Day
Always in the candy dish on Thanksgiving
Dipped in salt water at Passover seder
Homemade cheesecake w/ strawberry topping
Picking at leftovers in the fridge, chunks of the graham cracker crust, that aluminum tin
Slice of American cheese
The one thing we were allowed to eat before dinner; everything else would apparently “spoil our appetite”
Grand Marnier soufflé
What my parents were baking late one night; I woke up for some reason and was allowed to stay up with them and help. Very big deal, very special treat. Felt like I was really in on something cool, as my other three sibs slept upstairs. This soufflé thing seemed very exotic, grown-up. Seemed like midnight. Was probably 9 p.m.
The idea of “allowing six to eight weeks for delivery” on all Bazooka Joe prizes seemed like an unimaginable eternity.
Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake
Hated mint and was always disappointed when the mom walked out with it at birthday parties.
Swiss cheese appetizer
What my mom made at all holidays. Loved it. Recipe: Mix together ½ pound grated Swiss cheese, 1 small grated onion, 3–4 tablespoons mayonnaise (enough to moisten). Place Pinahs Original Crunchy Bread Chips on cookie sheet. Spread teaspoonful of mixture on each chip. Broil in oven for about 60 seconds or so, keeping an eye on them so they don’t burn.
Froot Loops and bubblegum
One of those stories that got told and retold over the years. What I “made” for my parents for their anniversary dinner when I was five years old.
Super sweet, left tinge of red on upper lips. Came in a big can. Poured it out of two triangle openings on top of can.
Conscious of using for the very first time, albeit only in her mind, a swear word when her mom made her mad.
Amy receives call at school; sister Katie is born, March 22. More excited about unusual occurrence of having principal deliver a message to her classroom than about having new sibling.
Family sings the family song together. Passed down from father’s side. Feeling of contentment singing it. Keg/beer reference goes over her head.
The Krouse family is the best family
The best family from old Hungary
Singing glorious, glorious
One keg of beer for the six of us
And it’s glory be to God that there are no more of us
Cause one of us could drink it all alone.
Playing at neighbor’s, Amy gets a stomachache. From the bathroom, Amy tells Mrs. Bycraft that it hurts bad, her stomach. Mrs. Bycraft tells Amy to cross her arms and hold her stomach tightly, that sometimes helps. Amy does not feel good but is strangely cozy in that little bathroom, with the little window overlooking the backyard.
Amy listens to Helen Reddy eight-track in station wagon. Watches her mother put lipstick on in the rearview mirror.
Jamie Kasova, older girl who lives across street, informs Amy that if you drop your gum on pavement, it is gross to put back in your mouth.
Amy is constantly filled with questions. Life seems extremely confusing, complex, layered. Is sure that adults attend a kind of convention where they are given all the answers, let in on subtle truths. She thinks she will never be able to utter a statement, to speak and not have it be a question. Idea of saying something in the affirmative seems unfathomable.
Amy thinks her friend Rosalie Press is lucky because all the seat belt buckles in their car say Press.
Amy loves running her hand under the hot water while her mom takes a bath. They talk.
Amy gets the skin between her thumb and forefinger caught in metal lever after flushing the toilet at school. Too embarrassed to tell teacher, so sits through rest of school with red, throbbing hand. Only thing that seems to relieve pain is putting pinched skin in her mouth and sucking on it. It is cold that day, but when she walks home, she keeps off one mitten so she can suck on injured skin. Arrives home with sore, freezing hand.
Amy and Beth watch The Brady Bunch in family room, lying on stomachs, heads propped up by elbows, chins resting in cupped hands. They always call who they are for each episode. Amy calls that she is Marcia. Beth must be Jan or Cindy.
Amy relays to her mother part of story she is reading. Mother corrects her with a smile: The girl’s name is pronounced with a soft g, Ginny. Amy realizes she has read nearly the entire book saying Ginny with a hard g in her mind. She is standing in corner of family room at the time, her mother sitting in red chair.
Each morning leading up to Nixon’s impeachment, Amy waits for her father to read newspaper headlines, then asks whether Nixon is impeached yet. Has only the vaguest sense of what impeach means. While she knows enough to know it has nothing to do with peaches, it is still the image that comes to mind.
Amy returns from being out sick and takes a make-up spelling test with Mrs. Gotchalk. Misspells coat even though she knows how to spell coat, of course she knows how to spell coat. Feels chagrin.
On hot summer days, pulls bottom of T-shirt up through neck and down, making a sort of midriff-baring halter top. Will have flirtatious undertones in later years, but for now, totally innocent gesture.
Mrs. Bycraft tells Amy that they are moving. Amy panics, asks Mrs. Bycraft if she’ll still be here for Amy’s birthday, as if that is all that matters.
Trades Wacky Packages cards with friends.
Amy writes a letter to PBS. Tells them she wants to have her own TV show. Outlines what it would be like. Hopes they don’t notice the obvious Zoom similarities.
Amy sits at the school lunch table and talks about what the class has just learned in science that morning, something about the effect warm water has on the body, how it makes some people have to go to the bathroom. She blurts out, “Oh, yeah—that’s why I always have to pee in the bathtub!” She waits for everyone else to say, “I do that, too,” but no one does. Mortified, but also knows she could not have not said it, understands that it is her nature to reveal this sort of thing.
Amy’s father drops a can of shaving cream on his toe. Rather severe injury for a toe. Big deal in their house.
Amy badly hurts leg at playground, on tornado slide. Game entails sitting horizontally midway down slide and with outstretched legs trying to block friends from getting past. Weight of kids sends Amy down slide but right leg remains stuck in mass of bodies. Leg twists and snaps. Then Amy passes out. This becomes a story she will now tell throughout her life. On crutches for long time. Gets special desk at school, in corner, against far left wall, so she can keep leg elevated on chair. Is allowed to decorate her space, tack something up on wall next to her. Very exciting. Imagines this must be what it’s like to have own apartment, one’s own space.
Amy gets a shirt for her birthday that says Amy on the front and 9 on the back. One of her favorite presents ever. Wears it all the time. Asks for a 10 shirt on next birthday. Gets it, but it is different, not same soft material, stiffer. Stays in her drawer. First (but not last) lesson about futility of trying to replicate good thing or good experience—never as good second time, only causes disappointment.
Amy is hanging out at her parents’ office—which is in her family’s basement at the time—talking to an employee, Cathy. Amy wants to show Cathy a game she learned at school. Amy sings “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” but with each word starting with F. She gets to joke point of the song—fuck a feather. Cathy not amused. Amy feels ashamed, remorseful. Tries to back-pedal. Unconvincingly says she did not know about bad part, thought joke was word phony . . . fiding on a phony.
Fourth grade. Can’t quite figure out what the word mandatory means. Teacher often uses it when talking about homework and in-class projects, but Amy is confused: Is that the one that means it’s optional, so you don’t have to do it, or the one that means you absolutely have to do it? Too far into school year to ask about it.
Amy gets a strange echo sensation in her head, a state that comes over her out of nowhere. She is sitting on floor on side of her bed, facing closet. Tries to concentrate on this pounding inner echo; seems to amplify her thoughts as if over loudspeaker with reverb. Tries to make sense of it. Maybe something wrong with her brain? Sits it out, waits for it to dissipate; it does after a few minutes. This happens several times throughout her childhood.
Amy and friends sing McDonald’s jingle as fast as they can: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.
Asked to sit down on parents’ bed, something to tell her. It’s early morning, before school. Parents say that her friend M. will need her more than ever today. Bad things about M.’s father on news and in newspaper. Had hired someone to kill his wife. Got caught. In jail. Thinks of lanky, longhaired M. down the street. Enormity of incident felt at this moment, but soon rumors migrate, school is still school, M. is still M., and succession of regular days wears down episode’s coarse edges.
Susie Rabyne’s dad is driving Amy and Susie home from somewhere. They are on highway. He points to road sign: INDIANA, NEXT EXIT. He says, What do you say, guys—should we go to Indiana? Amy gets excited, sits up on one knee, peeks her head in gap between driver and passenger seat. Wow! she thinks. He’s serious! Fantastic spontaneous adventure! We will bypass plain old Chicago and go to Indiana! Indiana—a whole new state! They come to turnoff; Mr. Rabyne keeps going straight. Amy realizes he was only kidding. Amy is deflated. Untucks her leg and sits back down regular on seat.
Krouse children are all told they can only watch educational TV, such as news. Learn to quickly switch to news channel when they hear parents walk in front door.
MOST MEMORABLE TV SHOWS AND MOVIES
The Carol Burnett Show
The Flip Wilson Show
The Brady Bunch
The Electric Company
Land of the Lost
James at 15
The Wonderful World of Disney, on Sunday nights
Family, with Kristy McNichol
Eight Is Enough
The Love Boat
The Wizard of Oz
Our Town, play on PBS
Escape to Witch Mountain
Forever, with Stephanie Zimbalist
The Other Side of the Mountain
One on One, with Robby Benson
A Little Romance, with Diane Lane
Fiddler on the Roof
Amy has two major revelations. The first: She discovers people don’t just go to work, they have specific jobs. Prior to 1975, Amy assumes everyone does same thing, more or less—aside from policemen, firemen, doctors; only concrete image conjured up for her by word work is one of grown-up departing from home. She learns that her neighbor Mr. Bycraft works for Dial soap. Job has something to do with producing or wrapping or selling of soap. Fascinating, that there are actually people who do this, though upon reflection it makes complete sense to her. Then learns her uncle is a steel businessman; this apparently involves getting chunks of steel and doing something to it and then selling it to someone. How many kinds of jobs there must be—she imagines dozens for sure. The second discovery has to do with filmmaking. Amy thinks that when they make a movie, they film it in sequence, set up each scene in exact order of story. Incredulous at hassle of undertaking: Finish one scene, go to different location (or country!) and shoot that scene, then six scenes and many locations later, back to same place, set it up exact same way again. She now learns about concept of editing, is very relieved.
THINGS THAT CONFUSED ME FOR MUCH LONGER THAN THEY SHOULD HAVE
How they could have pools on ships. Thought it was just a hole in middle of ship that let in ocean water. Then wouldn’t people be left in ocean if ship kept moving?
Horatio Alger—baseball player or famous writer?
Why terrorists would take credit for bombings—why would they admit that?
How coincidental it would be that, say, Sylvester Stallone was on Johnny Carson exactly when Rambo came out.
Which ones were the mittens and which ones were the gloves.
Thought they were saying “ten year,” like really good teachers would be granted a ten-year contract. Tenure. Oh. They’re saying tenure.
Thought they were saying “old-timers” when describing people who were really old and forgetful. I figured they were just speaking fast, slurring the d and the t, making the word oldtimers sound like Alzheimer’s.
What “under new management” meant.
WHAT MY FRIENDS WERE CONFUSED BY AS CHILDREN
I couldn’t understand the difference between a sound track in a movie, which the actors supposedly could not hear, and if there was a radio on in the movie, which the actors could hear. Music would be playing and I’d say to my mom, “Okay, can they hear that? Okay, now can they hear that?”
If it was raining out and a fire truck went racing by, I didn’t understand how there could be a fire. If it was raining, I figured the water would just put it out.
I remember seeing construction going on and wondering when everything would be finished—that one day all the construction everywhere would be totally done.
I used to think I could see atoms, but it was just dust.
I couldn’t understand how people could be so stupid to die in plane crashes. If they knew the plane was going down, why wouldn’t they just jump out on the wing and jump off?
My earliest memory of having a bath with my dad involved him covering up his private parts with a washcloth. When it came time for the discussion about sex with Mom, I thought that a penis looked like a washcloth.
I thought the basement of department stores would fill up with steps from the escalator pushing them down all day.
I thought that when my parents were little the world was in black and white because all the pictures of them were black and white.
We were driving past the hospital once, and my mom said, “That’s where you were born.” I thought she was pointing at the phone booth on the corner, so for the longest time, whenever I saw someone enter a phone booth, I thought they were going to come out with a baby.
I didn’t understand that grandparents were your parents’ parents. I just thought that every family got nice, old, unrelated couples assigned to them. They would then bring you presents and come to Sunday dinner. All the other kids had them, too, so I figured it was some kind of rule.
I always got the words pedestrian and Presbyterian confused. I didn’t understand why Presbyterians always had the right of way.
The term gay demonstration really threw me. I couldn’t picture what that would look like. Like do they really demonstrate it?
I used to think that all men’s trousers came with change in them.
Whenever I saw those tiny planes that leave streaks of white in the sky, I thought that it was someone’s job to do that. And that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up; I thought I would revolutionize the field by drawing more creative things in the sky than just straight lines.
I remember going to the symphony as a child and getting a glimpse of the music on the conductor’s stand. I thought the little marks on the page— the notes—were what showed him how he was supposed to move his arms around.
Amy likes Biff Pittman. Last day of fifth grade he gives her note saying he likes her, too. She can’t believe it. She is so happy. Amy + Biff = true love forever.
Sixth grade. Biff breaks up with Amy. Confused. Had never thought of the possibility of an ending, concept hadn’t occurred to her, had assumed their link was an unchanging, indefinite thing. Devastated.
Learns the word gregarious. Remembers the definition by associating it with her cousin Greg—Greg is Gregarious. From that point on, thinks of the word this way.
Goes to Fayva shoe store at corner strip mall and steals leather laces from shoes to make friendship bracelets with Rosalie Press and Anne Rogers. Trio also invents Sensational Club. Girls labor over club name and insignia. Very pleased with results.
Ellen comes to work for Krouses. Her hands are weathered and fingers long. Ankles and feet are small for rest of body. Says to Amy, “You’re just as cute as you wanna be.” Plays ball with Joey and Katie in basement. Makes pork chops and creamed corn, and the best popcorn.
Plays with friends in cemetery next to entrance to subdivision. Dark, quiet, forbidden, exciting. Feels gravestones, cold and smooth. Finds twenty-dollar bill on path. This is huge sum of money. Keeps it in room, on dresser, in small drawer of wooden decorative box. Keeps it there for years. Scared to even look at drawer—like piece of ghost-filled cemetery here in room—but equally hesitant to spend money.
Laverne and Shirley debuts. Amy is immediately troubled by L on Laverne’s clothes. She asks her parents about it; can’t fathom why this woman’s sweaters and dresses have an L. Is told that L stands for Laverne (which Amy knew), that the monogrammed L is her trademark. Amy feels there has to be more to it than that. Someone had decided that Laverne would always wear an L, and this is not a usual thing from what Amy knows about the world so far. Amy is unable to watch Laverne and Shirley show without cursive L getting in the way.
Amy wonders why the sign no standees at front of the bus doesn’t just say no standing.
Amy does an aerial cartwheel for first time on lawn on side of her house. She finally succeeds by pretending there is someone spotting her.
Amy rides her bike around subdivision with Anne and Rosalie, seems like hours. Talk about getting training bras. Feverish talk. Each girl relieved to hear other two have been thinking same thing.
Uses Nair for the first time.
Junior high. Amy goes back-to-school shopping with her mother. She tries on clothes, then hands each item to her mother, who hangs it back on hanger, or reverses its inside-out status. Amy believes the new wool sweater, or plaid winter skirt, or corduroys and rugby shirt ensemble will make her look like Phoebe Cates in Seventeen magazine. Amy not able to wait until it becomes cold out, and wears new fall outfits on third day of school. Is hot at recess. By afternoon, seventy-five degrees and sunny; she is very hot and itchy walking home.
Amy plays Billy Joel song “Movin’ Out” over and over, trying to decipher and write down exact words. (He works at Mr. Caccitore’s down on some other street . . . oh, wait, it’s Sullivan Street.) Wants to have one song that she will know all the words to, so when it comes on radio she will look cool nonchalantly singing along like Christy Buckin does.
Eighth-grade student council elections. Classmate Cliff Norris hangs a huge banner. SEX: NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, VOTE FOR ME. Amy thinks he is clever and sophisticated. However, message makes her feel unsettled; cements what she has been sensing—unfamiliar terrain ahead, a place with new words and colors. Is scared. Similarly, is confused and intimidated by band names like the Who, Dire Straits, Supertramp. Gets ones that are just names—James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Non-name bands seem menacing in their incomprehensibility; stand for cooler, more sophisticated world not ready for.
Amy begins dating Marc Richman at a bar mitzvah. Their anniversary is March 16. She loves Marc. Together off and on until freshman year of college.
Gets her period, on the morning of her fourteenth birthday. Is in bedroom.
Second semester freshman year, family moves to Lake Forest. Is livid. Does not talk to parents for a month. But gets good, private bedroom.
With onset of puberty, weight emerges as new issue. In Florida for younger cousin’s bar mitzvah, trying on skirt, hard to button, feels tight. Mother seems disapproving, frustrated. Amy feels hefty, especially compared to slim mother. Is instructed to wear panty hose with outfit—hates the way they cinch waist. Chubby more or less through teen years, with intermittent periods of grapefruit-induced weight loss. Jokes about wanting anorexia; thinks it would be nice in a way, but enjoys eating too much. Boy in high school calls her cute like Pillsbury Dough Boy; laughs it off but comment shakes her. Wonders if one day she will be thin enough that clavicle will jut out like mother’s.
Bread album really speaks to her.
Sophomore year of high school. Amy shows up at school wearing a gold, twisty forehead band inspired by Olivia Newton-John’s look from album Physical.
While mother recovering from surgery in hospital, Amy tells father she’s going to library to study; sneaks to boyfriend’s house. As she’s never been to library before, father suspicious, and drives to library to make sure car is there. Amy comes home to irate father. How could she be so deceitful, and selfish—for God’s sake, mother in hospital. Regrets actions, is punished, is forgiven, but will be years before she fully comprehends scope of transgression.
Gets violently sick on whiskey at friend’s party. Never able to drink or smell it again.
Amy loses her virginity.
—End of Childhood—
Are there actually people who are so totally comfortable with themselves, so completely unself-conscious, that when they’re at a concert and the band signals the audience to clap along, they can clap without thinking to themselves, I am clapping now, here I am clapping along, are most people clapping? Okay, fine, most people are clapping, but wait, the clap-along thing feels like it’s losing its momentum—should I stop clapping now? I’m feeling a bit heavy-handed in my clapping, but how/when do I stop? Three more claps and I’m out. Okay, last clap. Clap. Done. See also: Saturday Night Live
We were having a closet-organizing company redo a couple of our bedroom closets. On the morning they were supposed to do the work, we received a frantic call from the owner saying they had an unexpected closet emergency with another customer, and they’d have to reschedule. No problem, I said. For the life of me, though, I couldn’t fathom what could possibly constitute a closet emergency.
Coffee, Stopping for
Waiting while our parents quick grabbed a to-go cup of coffee was not something we had to endure as kids—it did not exist. Stopping for coffee came onto the scene full force—via Starbucks— in the early 1990s, around the same time that I became a mother, so stopping for coffee is something my kids have grown up (and put up) with. Them as they see I’m pulling over and putting on hazards: Oh, Mom. Me: Oh, Mom what. I’ll just be a sec. My guess is they, along with the rest of their generation, will ultimately connect stopping for coffee with their minivanesque childhoods. I remember perfectly the first time I saw two cops with designer to-go cups in hand. They looked really silly. But that was the tipping point, when the whole thing graduated from trendy fad to way of life. Then it became: My journey is enhanced if I have some coffee in the car cup holder, so how easy is it to incorporate a stop into my route, and do I have enough time to do so? Before getting on the highway: Yes, have to, no-brainer. On the way to a meeting: I’m already running late and parking sucks around there, hmmm . . . On the way to kids’ chilly October soccer games: Defnitely. One morning in July of ’99 I stopped for a cup on the way to visit my grandma Mimi in the hospital. She died minutes before I arrived. That cup cost me. The same way that movies set in the 1800s show gents casually tying up their horses to wooden posts—and doesn’t it immediately place you in that time, and make you think about horses versus cars?—future filmmakers doing an early-twenty-first-century period piece should definitely include stopping-for-coffee scenes. Props department: Make sure the cups have cardboard jackets and collapsed bowler hat sipping lids. Then there’s the cream-and-sugar-station tango, which we’re now all adept at. You get to the bar. You twirl the oversized Thermoses around, in search of the whole milk, perhaps. Guy comes up who needs 2 percent Thermos next to you; you sway your upper body and neck back as if to say, Go ahead, I don’t need it, all yours. You take an Equal packet, pinch the top and flick it a couple times, so the powder all settles or something— don’t know, it’s just habit—then tear it open, pour. And now, the last step, snag a stirrer. Lift your arm up . . . and over the fellow, higher than is necessary so as to respect his space, not step on toes. Exit and out.
My coffeehouse died. The one I went to every single Thursday for three years, minus a couple sore throats, vacations, and childbirths. The one where I wrote or tried to write or thought about trying to write. The one where I ate ham-and-cheese sandwiches, tofu asiago melts, and bagels with basil cream cheese. The one where I would sit for hours and sip and sip (never enough water). It was called Urbus Orbis, and I loved it. I fancied Chicago’s Urbus as the kind of coffeehouse/ salon you would have once found in Paris’s 4th Arrondissement. I’m totally making this up; I should know more about the history and role of European coffeehouses, but I’m rather attached to the smoky notions I’ve adopted as fact: Passion. Pretension. Unnecessary gesticulating. Cigarettes that didn’t cause cancer. And pencils that caused revolutions. Urbus’s decor was Late-Twentieth-Century Thrown Together, which I think for a coffeehouse is a good thing. Like your college English prof, Urbus was brimming with personality and papers that needed shuffling. There was that wonderful William Carlos Williams poem about the plums painted up the stairs. And graffiti was the legacy of every smart-ass who ever graced Urbus’s bathroom. We saw it coming. The once messy, artsy Wicker Park neighborhood where it held court is now the Midwest’s answer to Soho and South Beach—not that any of us ever asked the question. The rent at Urbus eventually became higher than the heavily caffeinated clientele. I’m still in a mourning period now, drinking my coffee black. I keep calling up the owner, Tom—who I guess is the Ponytailed Widow in this dramedy—staying connected to the past under the guise of checking up on him post-Urbus/pre– whatever’s next. I ran into another regular last week and our giddy enthusiasm had nothing to do with liking each other, and everything to do with liking Urbus. Growing up in a family of four children and a TV, I quickly learned not so much how to tune out chaos, as how to ride its energy as I memorized spelling words, practiced my multiplication tables, and skimmed The Hobbit. The point is, I liked writing at Urbus precisely because it was chaotic and garlicky and alive. I’ve been reading about different writers’ colonies lately, and apparently these cubicles in the woods seem to just breed Pulitzer Prize winners, but I suspect that for me, all the . . . nothing would do just that for my work. As Urbus became synonymous with Thursday, Thursday became synonymous with Charise. We met on a blind date of sorts—a mutual friend noticed we had similar interests and shoes. Charise and I would spend the afternoon basically just cheering each other on. Oh, Charise—that illustration is amazing! Thanks, Amy, and I love that sentence you just wrote! Intermittently, we would invent projects and experiments to collaborate on, as a way of justifying our sixth cup of coffee—the last venture being a lemonade stand where, for a quarter, the customer could buy a glass of lemonade, an illustration of lemonade, or a paragraph about lemonade. More often than not, though, we were just happy to share rejection letters, a table, and the cream. I want to say that I miss Urbus. I miss the slow service, and the way they never remembered the tomato that I ordered with my bagel. I miss the chalkboard menu that tended to be inaccurate. I miss the bathroom sink that only ran scalding-hot water. I miss the matchbooks under the table legs. I miss Tom’s house special: the tasty illusion of mattering. And I want to say, Excuse me, but I thought I ordered a bottomless cup.
Comfort in the Expected
Comfort in the expected manifests itself in less overt ways, too. Like let’s say you have a mixed tape (now we make compilation CDs; back in the day, it was mixed tapes), and you come to know not just the order of the songs but the exact pausing in between, and then when you happen to hear one of those songs on their original album, it really throws you. See also: Improvisation at Concerts Commencement Address Mark all your college photos now, with names and dates. You think you’ll never forget these people, but you will; the last name of one of my college beaus escaped me for three entire years. It is now time to give the milk crates to a freshman and get yourself some real bookshelves. From this point on, you will be required to correctly use it’s and its. This would be the year to backpack through Europe, date all the wrong people, and temp at a sushi bar. Now is the time to take up guitar and work on your cursive M’s. Your first job will most likely be in an office of some kind. When you jam the Xerox machine, lift the side door and follow the simple instructions. Or walk away and return an hour later—surely someone will have fixed it by then. Chances are, you will either hate your boss or fall in love with him/her. Both are normal, if not inevitable.
Regarding these phrases:
Let’s try to push the envelope.
Think outside the box.
I’ve got a lot on my plate.
I want to make sure we’re on the same page.
Things are really crazy this week.
Many people before you have said these things many times; they sounded foolish each time. There is no need for you to resort to this office-speak, ever. Take every single one of your vacation days. Have children, if you’re so inclined, but before you breed, sleep a lot. And when you order takeout, make sure to check the bag before you leave the restaurant.
I eat quickly, purposefully, and almost always finish everything on my plate. I finish the meal so I can get to dessert. I finish the dessert so I can get up from the table. When I’m out, I’m usually thinking about going home. When I’m home, I’m usually thinking about the next time I’m going out. I find deleting e-mails or messages on my answering machine quite gratifying. I have not experienced the full pleasure of an act or task until I’ve crossed it off my list. I’m thrilled when leftovers finally become stale so I can throw them out. Wednesdays are special—it’s when the garbagemen come. I like it when we finish one of our half-gallons of milk, so I can rinse it out and put the glass bottle out back for the milkman. I tend to see movies right when they come out because it bothers me to know it’s something I still have to do. I always hated Monopoly— the end was invariably nowhere in sight. Magazines full of too many good articles make me frantic. I fantasize about getting rid of everything in my closet except for an outfit or two. I love mailing letters—specifically, letting them drop out of my hand into the mailbox’s metal cavern. I find myself throwing away, say, a jar of peanut butter or bottle of shampoo when there’s still a small amount left because the satisfaction of disposing of it far outweighs the option of keeping it in my life for some future spoonful or drop. An emptied dishwasher is a pleasing sight. My favorite command on the computer is Empty Trash. When I’m driving, my mind is fixed on the destination. My all-time favorite play is Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which consists of thirty very short plays performed within sixty minutes, under the constraints of an egg timer placed onstage. I enjoy cooking because recipes offer a very manageable list of instructions to continuously complete, not to mention the joy I get from using up the ingredients. The concept of infinity makes me nuts. See also: Magazines
While getting my annual checkup at the doctor’s, the nurse says, as she’s preparing to draw blood from my arm, You’ve got great veins. Thanks, I say, as if it were a compliment, as if I had anything to do with the creation of my veins. If someone says, You’ve got a great backhand, that’s something you can actually take credit for; your backhand may have sucked before, but after many tennis lessons and months of practice, you were able to improve it. Fine. Your ego is then entitled to process you’ve got a great backhand as a compliment. But under no circumstances can you’ve got great veins be taken as a legitimate compliment.
Connected (Versus Removed)
When I read a magazine, I feel connected to the world, in on everything. When I read a book, I feel removed from the world, isolated, as if I’ve slipped off into a soundproof booth. It is the same with listening to the radio (connected) versus listening to a CD (removed). Both fill a certain need, balance the other out. There’s the getting away, and then there’s the coming back.
Standing in a doorway and chatting is safe; one has, literally and figuratively, an easy out. But the slightest gesture—taking a step in, glancing at a chair in the corner, unraveling a scarf— signals a commitment to a full-blown conversation. Similarly, if one is interrupted while reading a book, a thumb in the book signals an allegiance to the book, and the interrupter should expect only the most cursory reply. But if the book gets shut with a bookmark, or placed down open-faced, a full conversation will most likely follow.
I didn’t realize just how far away I was from being cool, successful, and taut until I read about a breed of attractive, young, hip multimillionaires in halter tops throwing all-night raves in Silicon Valley.
Cream rinse always gets stuck in the upper rim of my right ear. Not my left ear. And never shampoo. Just the right ear, cream rinse. I will be driving and glance at myself in the rearview mirror and spot white goo hanging out in there. I’m always like, Again! The cream rinse! What’s up with this?! as I wipe it off. You’d think I’d make a special mental note to do some focused right ear rinsing in the shower, but I never think about it until later, usually when I’m in a public place. Amazingly, no one has ever said anything to me about the white glob in my upper ear. Whether this is because it’s usually sufficiently hidden by my hair or because it’s too awkward for someone to bring up, I don’t know. So nice to meet you. I’m glad we’ll be working together. Uh . . . you have . . . uh . . .
I love any kind of cream sauce. My mother hates cream sauce but craved it when she was pregnant with me. See also: Meaning
I was walking down Lincoln Avenue when I overheard a crossing guard say to some older gentleman hanging out on the corner, Yeah, work’s been crazy around here—I’ve been really busy. I tried to picture the circumstances that would account for this statement. Perhaps when it’s a nice sunny day, crossing guards wake up and say, Dang! Everyone’s gonna be out walking today—work is going to be insane. See also: Busy
Unusual and delicious croutons can be made simply by using corn bread in place of French or sourdough. I simply get the pre-made corn bread (available in most bakery sections), cut it up into little chunks, toss with some olive oil, and bake in a 350-degree oven until golden brown, about twenty minutes or so.
Curly hair is more original.
Customary, Things That Are
Companies specializing in paying people to lose thirty pounds customarily advertise via crappy, hand-scrawled signs—we’ll pay you to lose weight!—tacked to street poles.
A hearty bread customarily has nine grains.
Couples customarily take a cruise on their ten-year anniversary.
It is customary to serve buffalo wings, but no other kind of chicken, with blue cheese dressing.
It is customary to de-blandize the walls of one’s office cubicle by tacking up Internet-circulated anecdotes and jokes, inspirational quotes, and personal photos of babies /pets/ski trips, all intended to subtly reveal one’s true, interesting self, but which only a handful of months later will seem embarrassing in their earnestness, simplicity, and triteness.
When people go up to a microphone, they customarily say, “Check—one, two, check.”
Fractures are customarily one millimeter away from something much more serious. “The doctor said that if the fracture had been one millimeter to the left, I’d be dead.” Growths, for their part, are customarily compared to the size of fruits: a grape, an orange, a grapefruit.
When the waiter comes to take your order, it is customary to open your menu and glance at it even though you already know what you’re having.
Airplane magazines customarily have ads for companies that will put your logo on a watch.