Me Too, Bug

An open letter to my four-year-old daughter…

My darling:

Want to know a secret? It’s not just you.

You don’t want to get up in the morning? Me neither.

Nothing sounds good for breakfast and you’d rather get eggs at McDonalds? Juice for you, latte for me, okay?

You want to blow off the day and hang around in your PJs until bedtime? Read my mind.

You want to watch just one more episode on Netflix? There’s a reason “binge-watching” became a household term.

Helping unload the dishwasher sounds like the worst idea ever? Why do you think I asked you to help me in the first place?

No vegetables for you; you’d rather have more cheese followed by a cookie and maybe some ice cream? Welcome to my world.

You don’t want to clean your room and put away laundry – you want me to do it? I agree. You can clean my room.

Can’t you just have one more story? The struggle is real, missy, and it’s called loving both books AND sleep.

I’m not mean, kiddo, I promise. Here’s the cold truth: I don’t want to be good any more than you do. I don’t especially want to floss or leave the library or eat broccoli either. I want pretty much every cute thing at Target and every creative thing at Michaels and every bottle of nail polish at Walgreens. I want to say yes to everything fun and tasty and no to everything tedious and dull.

I can’t.

But know that sometimes I really, really want to.

Someday, you’ll understand. After all of the nos and not this times and tough lucks, you’ll know the importance of fiber and vitamin A and frugality and a full night’s sleep. When you look back, I hope you see your mama trying hard to be good with you.

I hope you’ll cave a little to your kid too, and say no to the cookie but yes to the story. (I’m here to tell you: you won’t be able to say no to the story either. You are my kid, after all.)

Labeled Classics

I opened the lid of the container labeled CLASSICS and breathed in books.  Like a treasure chest in a bad pirate story, the books seemed to gleam and glow with a light from within.  “We’re the good ones,” they whispered.

And surely they are.  Books I’ve read over and over.  Books I’ve never cracked open but I know they’re good.  Books I read once and decided needed to stick around.  Books I read for classes and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked them.  Books that underwhelmed me and didn’t live up to the hype.  Books I bought because I figured as a literary person I should have whatever it was in my library and I still have not yet read it.  Books from my Sinclair Lewis phase, from my Fitzgerald phase, from my Tragic but Strong Women phase, from my Regency phase, and Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Awakening and Catcher in the Rye and at least one book by Toni Morrison. 


I was on a quest for The Grapes of Wrath, a book I remember buying ten years ago or more in a second-hand shop in Fort Collins in an attempt to fill my sad and empty shelves when all my books were in storage.  I had never read it then and until a week or so ago I hadn’t even opened it.  But a few weeks ago NPR Books issued an “I will if you will challenge” to all of us who probably should have read it in high school but were in the American Lit class that read Black Elk Speaks instead.  I flashed to the tub of books in my basement labeled CLASSICS and knew that I was going to have to at least go digging.

And there it was, decorously slumbering next to the copy of The Bell Jar I read when I was in a really low place and could only read about five pages at a time because it was physically painful to me to take this journey with the protagonist.  And the copy of A Room of One’s Own I bought for myself upon being named editor of my college newspaper.  And the copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles I took off a free book cart in Laramie because it was the first book I’d been assigned to read since the fifth grade that I’d really loved.  (The book I loved in fifth grade was The Westing Game, and if you’ve never read it, go read it.  It’s short; it won’t take long.  And then be prepared to start over from the beginning the moment you finish.)  On and on.

As I pulled The Grapes of Wrath from the tub, I knew I would be back for more of those books.  It’s not just because I wanted to try to read along with a bunch of strangers online.  It’s because it feels good to read a book I know is good.  It feels whole.  My mind stretches and sighs and my fingers itch to type just to try to put down a string of words that sound half as good and clear and right.

I’m in a mood right now to read books that are work, that require attention span and deep interest.  I want to finish a book and feel satisfaction and slight remorse that it’s over and envy of the next person who gets to start that book for the first time.  I want to absorb books through my pores and into my bones, not just skim past and move on.  I want to drink up the words that are there because the writer labored over them and chose them, not just because they came out in splips and splops and ink blotches.

Lucky for me, I have a whole container of these books in my basement.

(And in case you were wondering, I’m very much enjoying The Grapes of Wrath.)

Tasty, I promise

I have no food allergies or intolerances that I know of, but I still cook a gluten-free, lactose-free, butter-and-margarine-free, egg-free, chocolate-free, nut-free Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  The people I share Thanksgiving with have a combination of food allergies and intolerances, and thus Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and any other holiday are a labor of love to make sure we can celebrate with traditional foods but without anyone getting sick.

When I mention this to people, usually I get one of two reactions: either “Wow, that’s a lot of trouble” or “…and taste-free too, right?”

It is a little bit of trouble, but isn’t Thanksgiving dinner in general?  And I promise you, there is nothing taste-free about the dinner I make.  I think the fat-free craze of the 90s left people with the lingering prejudice that anything that has -free as a suffix is automatically unpalatable.  This was the fifth Thanksgiving I’ve cooked like this, and I’ve worked hard to find recipes that work for everyone and still taste like holiday memories from growing up.

So mostly for my own organization but also for your benefit, here is the menu list and the recipes I use on Thanksgiving.  If you use any of these, note that your best friends in this process will be cornstarch, ground flaxseed, canola oil, all-vegetable shortening, and anything from Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free line. 


Find the process/recipe at SeriousEats.  This bad boy does not need to be basted in butter to be delicious, I promise.  Last year I heard a piece on NPR about spatchcocking your turkey, and if you ever cursed your bird for taking so long to roast, I recommend this process which involves cutting the spine out of your turkey and splaying the turkey out on a baking pan.  It’ll be done in an hour and a half, you’ll be happier because you don’t have to get up at 6 a.m. to start basting, AND you don’t have to have the argument about why there’s no stuffing from inside the bird because there is no inside to the bird.  I use the spine and neck to make broth as the recipe recommends (except I use Better than Bouillon vegetable base to make the extra broth to go in with my turkey extras, as it has no wheat in it), which brings me to…


Find the recipe at Argo cornstarch.  Gluten-free gravy is much easier than I initially thought, thanks to cornstarch.  I take my spine broth and follow the recipe on the Argo canister.  (If you saw the movie Argo, now is a good time to make the signature joke from the movie.  If you didn’t, you can just move on with the rest of us.)


Find the recipe at Real Simple.  Stuffing for a gluten-free audience is not as unattainable as it would seem.  I make up a loaf of Bob’s Red Mill Homemade Wonderful Bread on the Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, using flaxseed meal instead of the egg and lactose-free cow’s milk for the milk.  The stuffing itself comes together pretty easily, sauteing the veggies and apples in canola oil rather than butter, making Better than Bouillon vegetable base rather than chicken stock, and using flaxseed meal in place of an egg again.  And, of course, leaving out the nuts for those adverse to nuts.

Mashed potatoes:

Find the recipe from Betty Crocker, in case you’re like me and always forget how long potatoes need to simmer.  I grew up eating potatoes that had been mashed with cream and butter, so out of everything on this list, this was my biggest mental adjustment, if you’ll believe it.  Rather than using lactose-free milk, which I have in the past but always felt it came out thin, I mashed the potatoes with turkey stock reserved from the broth I made for the gravy.  (I have done this with vegetable base when I’m expecting vegetarians to dinner.  I don’t go so far as to make a tofurkey or anything but I try to be accomodating.)  It gets a rich taste, it’s lighter, and I can still add all the butter I want to my serving at the table.

Sweet potatoes:

Find the recipe at Crockpot365.  I’m not sure anyone in my crowd actually likes sweet potatoes, but I had some from our co-op basket this year and decided to make them, if only for some color.  The only substitution I made was to spray the crock with cooking spray rather than grease it with butter.  I also love that this recipe can be done in the crock-pot and not take up precious oven real estate.  (I left off the marshmallows — I know, sacrilege! — but that’s a personal choice.)

Green bean casserole:

This is a mashup of three recipes, one from Food.com, one from 100 Days of Real Food, and one from Crockpot 365.  I follow the vegan recipe for making the soup base, except with lactose-free milk instead of soy, then I pick up with the real food recipe (including using fresh green beans, which I prepped the night before so I wasn’t snapping green beans like a mad woman on Thursday), and then I follow the Crockpot 365 directions for cooking the whole thing in the crock-pot (your two-quart one you usually reserve for making Velveeta dips will do nicely).  I used gluten-free baking mix to coat and fry onions rather than using French’s (which, yes, have wheat in them) for the topping and popped the whole thing in the oven to crisp up and congeal a little before serving.


Find the recipe at BBC Good Food.  Again, I’m not sure how much anyone likes cooked carrots but I like them for color.  I liked that there was another vegetarian-friendly dish on the table.  Also, the Anglophile in me likes that this one comes from the BBC.


Find the recipe at Real Simple.  Seriously, who would eat cranberries wiggled out of a can when you could eat cranberry bourbon compote?  They’re beautiful, they’re easy, they smell amazing while they cook, they’re a piece of the meal that isn’t harmed by doing on Monday or Tuesday even, they only have four ingredients (all of which you can control the portions), and they make you look like a real fancy pants (in the best way possible).  You probably spend less time prepping these than you would wrestling the jellied cranberries out of the can.  I don’t even like cranberries and I love having this on my table.


Because I’m secretly five years old at heart, there is always raspberry Jell-O on the Thanksgiving table.  My mom and grandma always made Jell-O for me and my brother in a cranberry-ish color because neither of us liked actual cranberries.  I don’t put Cool Whip on the Jell-O like they did (there is dairy in Cool Whip now, which I don’t think used to be the case) but it still makes me happy.


I didn’t get as far as making bread for the table this year, but I had a package of of Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Cornbread Mix I was intending to make.  This stuff is really good.  I have also made gluten-free cornbread from scratch, but it never turns out as nicely as I want it to, probably because I don’t have a cast-iron skillet to bake it in.

Pumpkin Pie:

Find the base recipe from Very Best Baking.  I don’t like pumpkin pie as a general rule, but I know that makes me something of an oddity.  So of all of the labors of love listed above, this one is the one that comes the most from my heart because I really and truly am making it for everyone else.  In the regular pumpkin pie recipe (using canned pumpkin and not premade pumpkin pie filling), substitute 1 tablespoon of cornstarch for each egg, and 1.5 cups of lactose-free milk for the canned milk.  It won’t set up quite as nicely as the recipe on the Libby’s can, but it tastes the same.  The pie crust came off of the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Biscuit and Baking Mix, using shortening instead of butter.  I had problems getting the dough to roll out nicely, so I pressed it into a muffin tin and made everyone their own little pie-lettes.  You’ll have dough leftover to make cinnamon twists if you’re feeling inspired, but the filling will just fill the twelve little crusts.

And there you have it.  I don’t think it’s harder than any other Thanksgiving dinner you make at home.  I promise you: if I can do this, you can do this.  While I’m not going to pretend it’s healthy by any means, it’s better for you because with the exception of the Jell-O and the Bob’s Red Mill mixes, you know exactly what’s going into each step.  And I feel better knowing that the only way anyone at my table is going to get sick from dinner is if they overeat.

At the Movies

You know how you mean to write something, and you think, “Oh, I’ll wait until I’m feeling it more” and then you just don’t?

I’ve spent the last three months (or maybe ten years, I’ve lost count) meaning to write a letter to Roger Ebert to say thank you, and I kept saying I’d do it some other time. You’d think the multiple cancers, the surgeries, the amazing blog, the Twitter feed, the memoir, the announcement of the “leave of presence” earlier this week would have been enough to kick me in the pants to do it, and I never did.

Now, I have no choice. I’m writing my thank you letter to Roger Ebert.

Dear Roger Mr. Ebert Roger Ebert Roger,

Thank you.

Thank you for coming to Fargo, North Dakota, in 2003. I’m sure you speak at film festivals and master classes all the time, and by now they all probably blend into one another. Especially when you come to somewhere like Fargo — another smallish, out-of-the-way town, another snow-capped prairie, another historic movie house, another crowd of students at your talk for extra credit — I have to say thank you.

Thank you for speaking at my college. In my role as the editor of the campus paper that year, I was asked to introduce you at the master class, and I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sure where to start. I cobbled together something generic and blase, then went to my journalism professor and source of sanity, Cathy, embarrassed by what I’d written. She descended upon the Internet and found your words on film, on criticism, on life, and helped me weave them into a bit of biography. When I finished speaking and you said something to the effect of, “After that, I don’t think I need to say anything else,” I smiled but wanted to shout to everyone, “Cathy did it, she’s amazing, I just read it.” I remember that introduction and feeling like it was one of the first times I ever had an assignment that called on me to write like an adult, so thank you.

Thank you for not treating me like a kid. You probably don’t remember, but before your talk, you and I shot the breeze for a few minutes in a nameless room in the campus center. We traded stories of the perils of college journalism, you citing your time at the Daily Illini, and me in my weekly paper world probably overwhelmed by the idea of publishing every day. I probably told the story of the unchanged dummy cutline under a world leader’s photograph — I have a vague memory of you laughing in an “oh God, I’ve been there” way. When I tell people this story even to this day, I make sure I point out how greatly I appreciated (and still appreciate) how gracious you were and treated me as something of an equal, rather than the nieve wanna-be journalist I actually was.

Thank you for sharing your experiences. Even at the time, I knew that the talk you were giving was likely the talk you always gave to master classes, but we ate it up anyway. Years later, I still remember you admonishing the people who said they don’t like black and white films, reminding them that they miss more than half of the world’s best films with that attitude. I remember your picks for best film of all time (Citizen Kane) and worst (I Spit On Your Grave). I remember you said that people consulted your reviews to see why they weren’t going to go see the movie you thought they should see and why they were going to see the movie you hated. I remember the line about no good movie is long enough and no bad movie is short enough. I remember leaving with an overwhelming feeling that we should love what we love, write honestly, expand our horizons. It wasn’t anything new, per se (after all, Cathy and I had read a lot of your classic quotes when putting together the introduction), but it felt new. Your talk about the wisdom gleaned from of forty years of writing made writing seem new when I was completely and totally burned out, and that is a gift I needed I can never repay.

Thank you for humoring me later. Following your talk, I approached you with my friend Liz and begged a minute of your time. I introduced her to you as the best staff writer our paper had (a line she gave me trouble about then and even a few weeks ago reminded me of, because she was one of two staff writers on the paper at the time — but she really was one of the best writers on staff, regardless of job title) and asked if we could trouble you for a picture. I really meant of you and Liz, as you were one of her heroes, but you thought I meant me and you, and I didn’t have the guts to correct you (a moment Liz also gave me trouble about later). But you took a minute for both of us when you had other things to do, and that impressed me as well.

That hour in April 2003 has stayed in my memory — clearly not as freshly as I would have hoped, but it was one of the high points in an extremely memorable year. And it keeps coming back, as I read I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie for Cathy’s class that fall, as I felt pain at your surgeries and near-death moments, as I found you as a voice of clarity and sanity and reason on Twitter, and laughed and cried at your blog posts. I bought the edition of Casablanca with your commentary on it, just so I would know I had the voice you’d lost in my library. I read your memoir this winter and it pulled at my heart and my gut. It made me feel new about writing like your talk ten years prior had — your enthusiasm, your true love for movies and writing, your honesty, your way with words. From Steak ‘n Shake to Citizen Kane to Chaz, your unabashed love for what you loved moved me. It made me want to write. It made me think, “I really need to write him that letter and say thank you.”

And now I’ve missed you. But I needed to say thank you anyway.

Thank you.

Voracious reader, amateur critic, recovering journalist, appreciative fan


I listened to NPR pieces this morning about the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.  I sat down to write about it this afternoon, about where I was, about what it meant to be the editor of the newspaper at a small liberal arts college when news erupted, about how I feel about Iraq now.  I decided I didn’t need to write — five years ago, I wrote about it, and I want to share that piece today.  It’s rare that I still like what I write after years and distance, and though I’d write it differently today, I think it’s worth sharing:

“you write the words and make believe there is truth in the space between…” March 19, 2008

I stopped short this morning as I walked by the newspaper machines in the library. Yes, Obama’s doing something and yes, the Fed cut interest rates again, but what stopped me was a New York Times headline that said “Notes from the Field, Five Years Later.”

I did the mental math — not that I doubted the New York Times, but because it seemed unreal to me. Five years ago? Was it really five years ago tonight that I trooped upstairs with my newspaper staff to watch Bush tell the country and the world that he was going to invade Iraq? When we cried together and apart and then, as I said in this forum the next day, we kicked it into journalistic high gear?

I thought invading Iraq was a terrible idea. I hated it then; it still pains me today. However, as far as me myself, I needed something to happen. I needed there to be an event where we could feel like we as a newspaper had purpose. We were coming off a canceled issue, a grand debate over an incidental space-filling feature (top-ten lists, those of you who were there might recall…), the fact that we were stone-cold broke, and a few really silly mistakes, and we needed something to bring us together and make us feel like journalists again, even for a day. I needed purpose for myself, as I was in a rocky place with Mike and not sure our relationship would survive the month, and I was in a precarious place academically, where I was worrying so much about the newspaper and my personal affairs that doing things like writing a draft of my senior capstone paper seemed unthinkable. Internet on campus had been down for days, and in a time in my life when I needed to be connected to anyone and everyone I loved, I felt adrift. I needed something to be right. And I found something to be right in an action that I saw to be so wrong.

So that night we did indeed kick it into high gear, calling every person we could think of who would have an opinion worth printing to get comments. It doesn’t sound like much, but to me, it was amazing and real as I sat under a desk in the yearbook office trying to drown out the chatter of every other staff member talking to professors and administrators and students so I could take down every word that Badar (Sophie’s brother) was saying to me over the phone. He said the invasion was bullshit and I printed it. (This is the same issue that had the word cunt on the front page for an article about the Vagina Monologues. And as far as I recall, nobody said a word about either.) That night, even though we were writing about things we couldn’t control, I at least felt like we were reclaiming our newspaper and our roles on campus. After weeks of hating the newspaper and the job I loved, I finally could love it again.

I think in my 2003 retrospective, I listed that night as a night from 2003 that I would always remember. And even though it was crazy and emotional and we had no idea what was going to happen next and we still barely had Internet (thus not being able to fall back on the AP, which is probably the best thing that could have possibly happened to us), it was one of the best newspaper nights of my life. (It’s probably up there in best nights ever, to be honest with you.) It didn’t change me like it did the journalists who continued to cover the war. I don’t remember how long our war coverage lasted, but my term as editor was done at the end of April, at which point I went back to a world of historic homes and eventually copy editing and advertising and now back to history, where my potential as a war correspondent is wasted. I can’t imagine, even from reading the blogs of those who are there, what it must be like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m sure that the journalistic thrill of covering the realities of war escaped those writers long ago. They have my utmost respect. But I felt for a series of moments that I was one of them in some small way. And I felt like myself that night for the first time in weeks. And that is why I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the night Bush invaded Iraq.

Typecasting my Kindle

I held out for a long time. I thought, “I love my books. I love the smell of books. I love the tactile moment of holding a book in my hand and feeling its heft and flipping ahead to see how much of what’s left is book and what is footnotes.” I had seen pictures online of people proudly showing off how their favorite author had autographed their Kindle, and I thought, “It’s not for me.”

I caved in August and bought a Kindle. I still buy books to put on my shelves — the books I want to keep, the books I can get for a better price in the real world, the books I hope someday will be signed by the author — but for library reading, for classics I can get for free, I now have my Kindle.

But here is my confession of nerdiness: More than the idea of reading going digital, more than the lack of scribbled margin notes and post-it flags, more than being the bibliophile who shook her fist at the world and said “You took my newspapers and now you want my books too?” my hangup on getting a Kindle came down to typeface.

Yes. Typeface.

I love typefaces. Very little makes me happier upon completing a book than to turn to the back and find that the author and/or publisher has seen fit to include a little blurb on how the book was set and in what typeface. To me, typefaces are like handwriting, and I associate different authors and different types of books in my mind by what sort of typeface they use. If I read a book by a certain author in a different edition than I’m used to, it throws me off because I don’t recognize them. It takes chapters for me to get used to seeing a voice I recognize in a typeface I don’t. At least once I have stopped reading a book by an author I loved because it was an older printing in a typeface that felt incompatible with the story and the voice I knew.

So you can imagine my concern over the idea that I could read literally a million books with only three typeface options: Regular, Condensed, and Sans Serif. I could sit down and, in theory, read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and they would all look the same. I finally decided to order a Kindle (helped in large part by fire-sale pricing in August that gave a deep discount on the device to holders of the Amazon Visa card), and hoped that I would just see the default font as the Kindle font and not as a roadblock.

Thus far, I haven’t had any major problems regarding typeface. I have read only two full books on my Kindle (Mansfield Park, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as I hoped I would and unfortunately wins the title of my least favorite Austen novel, and Jane Eyre, which was pretty good for being written in first-person, another one of my literary hangups that we can discuss at a different time), but I’ve perused several others from varying genres and time periods. Flipping between two books bothers me, as there is nothing visually different about them on the Kindle, but all in all, I had nothing to worry about. I don’t like the default typeface — I think it’s rather ugly, actually — but Amazon developers did a great job in selecting a typeface that is generic enough to make even me, the typeface nerd, ignore the setting and just read the book.

(Note: I have seen hacks and apps for the Kindle that allow you to change the default typefaces, and someday, if my nerdiness wins out, I may look into that more fully.)

Breathing in color

I stood in the driveway in my pajamas, the asphalt leeching warmth from the soles of my bare feet. The light that had cast a strange orange glow against my living room blinds exploded across the sky. Airplane contrails criss-crossed each other, reflecting pinks and oranges in thin pen lines and wide brush strokes against the sky. A palatte of warm colors lit up the eastern sky and the clouds that drifted behind houses and bare trees.

Part of me wanted to dash inside for my phone, to try to capture the brilliance on camera. But I stood, silent, waiting, watching. Goosebumps rose on my bare arms as I tried, vainly, to imprint the colors in my mind.

The dog barked not long after, and I let her back into the house and went on with my morning. By the time Erin and I were ready to walk out the front door half an hour later, the sun was up, the contrails had faded, and the sky was its normal blue. The world was pretty, but there were no indications of the spectacular light show I had witnessed while I was out earlier.

I take a lot of pictures, but the more pictures I take the more I realize how imperfect photographs are. We try to capture movement, color, life, by freezing a moment. There is technical skill involved, to be sure, but so much of photography is hope — hope that what you see is actually what you get. I want a good picture — I want to remember the moment — I want to catch the light — I want the emotion to sparkle from the image — but I also want to remember more than taking pictures. I try to strike a balance particularly between taking pictures of Erin and just enjoying her. I know that I already appreciate my tendency towards shutterbugitis throughout her life to this point, but I also know that she is an active little girl who may not stop what she’s doing so Mama can take a picture. I might miss a moment. I might miss a moment photographically because I was busy enjoying it actually. And that’s all right.

It’s why I stopped on Friday morning and just breathed in color.

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