Between Prepare and Remember

Me (to my son) holding up a hanger and caressing a soft light blue blouse and skirt hanging on it: Look at this. I wore this at your baptism, and I can’t decide if I should keep it.

My son to me: Do you still wear it?

Me: That’s not the point.

My son: Does it still fit?

Me: That’s also not the point. It’d be a memento from that occasion. It’s hard for me to get rid of mementos like that.

My son: But I’m also a memento from that occasion. What if that was enough?

This weekend I spent some time sorting and placing a heap of old clothes into a tidy singular portable closet that I bought at Ikea for less than it cost to get a couple big jugs of laundry detergent. I got rid of a lot of clothes, which was hard. Sometimes it was hard because I longed to fit back into them. Or because they were beautiful because of design or fabric. Or because I made them. Or because someone else made them for me. Or because they reminded me of a fun (or at least noteworthy) life stage. After a few hard rounds of editing, I ended up with what I am now affectionately referring to as “My Life in Clothes.”

Indicated in this sartorial catalog are the following events, from left to right and in chronological order:

When I had my one and only tap dance recital.

When I had my first slumber party.

When I lived in Germany and needed a thick wool coat to wear to kindergarten.

When I had my two and only state-level piano honors concerts.

When I went to prom. And the other time I went to prom.

When I got to wear cheerleading pants custom made for all the popular cheerleaders even though I was the mascot and merely hung out near them in a giant bird costume.

When I graduated from college.

When I went to Vegas and those memories have stayed in Vegas.

When I met friends and family at a picnic during the weekend of my wedding.

When I held my son at his baptism.

When I turned 40 and my husband took my picture and I looked happier in that picture than I had ever been.

And so on. From left to right. From then to now.

In addition to the present condition where my storage area is a little less cluttered, there are several actions that I am assigning to the future use of this collection. First, I have told my husband that if I ever suffer from dementia he is to take this closet and show me the clothing items to remind me of various life events. Since they are hung in chronological order from 1970s baby fashion to my 40th birthday party dress, this should be a manageable chore for him. Second, in an effort to not burden my only child with future sorting and thrashing of stuff and gnashing of teeth I want to make sure my stuff is not more overwhelming than it needs to be. So it is more manageably and arguably more interestingly situated. Third, I give lots of talks on the stuff of family life, and have lots of conversations with people about ways to honor our own goals with the preservation of our story alongside honoring the need to not burden others around us. I will keep my teacup set, but only a few. I will keep my clothes, but they’ll be in one tidy and tiny spot so you can read my life in clothes if you want or toss it in a manageable swoop. So there you have it: future memory care, love for my offspring, and a dose of professional development.

In my research on the curatorial practices of love letters (you know, whether you save, share, or shred them), I noted that sometimes we keep things not just because we enjoy looking through them now, but because we also imagine ourselves in the future looking back at at them. We organize, sort, and store as part of what I call imagined future nostalgia.

We reminisce with objects now. As we do this, we organize them as we imagine our future selves looking back nostalgically and rifling through these organized objects. Head spinning yet?

I’m not the only one who has gone through this kind of exercise. I always know this is the case if I find a whole marketplace of ideas (and accompanying goods and services and probably at least 7 Etsy shops) devoted to whatever it is I think may just be something I’m going through. And lo and behold, I found lots of evidence of people buying services and goods to assist them in their imagined future nostalgia projects — from quilt makers who put all those t-shirts in a grid for you to snuggle with in your basement hangout, to photo and video tape digitizers.

Memory, memento, remember. To this I add plan to remember. Prememory, prememento, premember. As in: premember to click on that web link for that person who will make that quilt of all of your old t-shirts so that in 10 years you can use the quilt as you watch the old VHS footage of your glory days that you also need to premember to have digitized so that you can use them on whatever tech device you will be using 10 years from now. Until you have to do it again because that tech device will also become obsolete. So, then, premember to premember the future obsolescence of your nostalgia projects.

Now my head is spinning.

Anyway, yes, of course my son is the best memento from his baptism. But I’m keeping the outfit I wore. Because in 35 years when I can’t remember all the things I want to remember I will look for ways to touch and feel the time that has gone by. I do (and will) remember by looking and touching. And fabric has been there at every turn.

I look forward to looking back. I’m evidently spending time premembering in order to remember later on. Maybe you’re doing this, too.

Between With and Against

You are accompanying me on a path back to the rural Midwest, sometime around July 1979. Here is what you hear while joining me on this path:

“Hey Kristin, I’m riding my bike. Wanna come with?”

“Sure! I definitely wanna come with!”

My friends and I grew up using the phrase “wanna come with?” much to the dismay of any grumpy grammarians who couldn’t stand ending a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes the path was clear. Usually it included banana seat bikes, the pool, and a stop at the Dari King to get grape slushies.  And, predictably, we always had to be home at 5:30 because there was always someone in the group whose mom said they had to be home at 5:30.

But sometimes the invitation to “come with” left the options open – with which people? Where? To what activity? For us rural midwestern kids, being asked “wanna come with?”  infused mystery into our unmysterious lives. Despite, or perhaps because of, the mystery, this kind of invitation also helped us to be prepared for anything, because a ride on the bike in the afternoon in July meant you needed to bring $2, a towel, a comb, an umbrella, a case for your stunning 1970s prescription eyeglasses so they wouldn’t break when you finally got up enough nerve to jump off the high dive even though you couldn’t see the bottom of the pool, and probably a magazine to give you something to discuss at a pool, a friend’s house, a park, or at a picnic table outside the Dari King.

Let’s say I am on a path in the woods, and that I want others to come with (me) on this particular path at this particular time. I would say to those near me, “wanna come with?” And then, some of the people invited may say, “nope, I don’t ‘wanna come with,’ and not just because that phrase has a dangling preposition.” For some the mystery may just be too great for them to say “sure.” For others, they’re pretty sure they don’t like the possible activities involved. For still others, they may not feel prepared because they don’t have a case for their stunning 1970s prescription eyeglasses.

So how do I respond to this refusal? If I think the only right path right now is the one I’m on, regardless of whether you have a glasses case, my response could be to say, “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.” Maybe this is a good response because the path I’m on is the only and best path here and now. Also, we know that neutral stances can yield horrible problems. Just look at the Bible. Or quotes from Desmond Tutu. Or Star Wars. Further, maybe I have confidence that there is good reason to claim this. I demonstrate this confidence by invoking personal stories or data, or by invoking stories about data or data about stories. Slushies are only 79 cents today at the Dari King, and I heard they are allowing us to mix flavors! You should come with!

There is often a right path. I certainly have paths I’d put in the right and wrong direction categories. I do this every day with easy and difficult subjects, often when talking with my son as he wrestles with messages that meme-ify “If you’re not (visibly) with me, then you’re against me.” This week I also did this when teaching him how to use a jigsaw. Definitely right and wrong directions when using power tools.

At the same time, maybe it could be useful to imagine that there are a lot of different ways to finish the sentence “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me.”

If you’re not with me, then…

…you can afford to ignore me.

…you think I’m not like you in ways that matter to you.

…you’re still thinking but worry that that may not make good things happen fast enough.

…you are confused about what would help the most.

…you are not at the same place as I am in terms of seeing things as “either/or.”

…you need time to process even while you recognize having time is a privilege.

…you have wandered off to explore the woods because you want to avoid the hard path and you have decent shoes to do the exploring.

…you have wandered off to explore the woods because SQUIRREL!

…you are the type of person who needs to see a map before heading down a path, and you perceive the map to be elusive, tentative, or inaccurate, which I find insulting.

…well, you ARE with me but sometimes it’s hard to see because you’re not showing this in the loud places where I am looking.

…you think you’re above me.

…you are afraid that something will be taken away from you on this path but the other path will let you keep it.

…you know and love people who’ve taken different paths and that is enough to make you unsure about this path.

…you think this path is only popular now, and you want to find a path that seems more timelessly good.

…you are being drawn toward someone else you care about on another path, which I understand.

…you are being drawn toward someone else you care about on another path, and this someone else seems dangerous to me so I don’t understand you.

…you are living in a hidey hole and don’t show anyone which paths you take.

…you are living near and with others who decorate their hidey holes exactly the same way you do and your décor nauseates me.

…you had a bad experience with this path in the past.

…you can’t walk as fast and you’re not ashamed of this.

…you can’t walk as fast and you’re afraid you’ll slow down the rest of the people taking the path because you’re new to hiking.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you’re still figuring out how unstable the path is.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you are afraid of the consequences that may come about because you don’t have very much power to deal with those consequences.

…you refuse to walk as fast because you are afraid of the consequences but these consequences come across to me as small relative to what would happen if you don’t follow my path.

…you refuse to walk the path because you think it has a misleading or unfortunate name that you do not want associated with your name, which I think is cowardly.

…you refuse to walk the path because you think it has a misleading or unfortunate name that you do not want associated with your name, which I understand because that has happened to me.

…you are the one who built the other path that I am trying to replace with my path.

…you are afraid of this path for your own health.

…you’re annoyingly diluting the path issue by thinking or writing or puzzling over what “with” means in a blog post.

…you hate me and you are, in fact, against me.

My most recent memorable path experience was in the woods in the rainforest part of the Olympic peninsula here in Washington state. Importantly, in my top ten list of things I don’t like, I include hiking on uneven ground, humidity, and bug bites. The hike started great, and my husband and son will tell you even I was optimistic. It started in the cool, dry shade. And then we hit the sunny part of the path and my skin radiated the message “come here and eat me, bugs.” The biting flies came in droves. Just to me. Not to my husband or son. My response, of course, was to run fast and get sweatier, thus attracting even more flies. At least I didn’t twist my ankle on the uneven ground over which I was sprinting, but I ended the hike in tears and covered in bites. I look back at this with a combination of horror and laughter, but mostly horror. In the end, I still don’t know what to make of this experience. I am bombarded with messages in the Pacific Northwest that people are supposed to like hiking, and I always feel sheepish in my circle of friends and colleagues when I say that I don’t really like the outdoors unless there’s a pool and grape slushies. And of course there are ways I can nurture the outdoors without hiking. I don’t think it was the wrong path, but I’m sure the outcome made me not want to go on another path like that anytime soon, even if I rationalize it by remembering that I did not twist my ankle. I’m not sure I learned anything huge like “adversity builds character” or “hiking is good for the world.” Or maybe I’m just being lazy. Or maybe I was always going to dislike the hike because I started with that opinion and, sure enough, stuff happened to support my opinion. In any case, if you invite me to go hiking on uneven ground on a sunny day where there are bugs, I’m probably going to say nope, and now you know the complex reason for my nope.

To bring us back to the grammar portion of this post, the word “with” is a preposition, and so is the word “against.” I’m pretty sure my sweaty fly bite hike happened because my son asked “wanna come with (us), Mom?” If he would have phrased it as “wanna go against (those biting flies), Mom?” I’m not so sure I’d have gone. To this day, I am left with questions.

Wanna come with?

Wanna go against?

Listen to how different these questions sound when you say them out loud. Would they yield different outcomes? Yes, very likely in terms of who joins the path. Does the outcome depend on what happens on the path, not just on the named path itself? Yep, we humans are really good at this. And do the people who choose a path tend towards viewing that path as good because they chose it? Big hint: sociologists say yes, indeed.

Come with us, Mom.

Go against the flies and sweaty panic run, Mom.

Three cheers for the dangling preposition when it makes us think about how we do and don’t invite others along our paths.

Or, I should say, invite others along.

Between Raw and Numbers

I offer this post with apologies to mathematicians, gardeners, people who are picky about metaphors and logic, and M&M fans.

And spoiler alert, this is really about Black Lives Matter.

One of my favorite concepts in any kind of social science research project, or even in home dilemmas, is “raw numbers v. proportions within categories.” In the survey platform I often use it’s referred to as “counts v. percents.” Numbers are helpful when comparing groups, but we get to choose which numbers to use. For example, I could investigate how the plants in my garden are doing. Let’s say I buy 30 plants. I plant 10 ferns and 20 lilies. I then notice, 2 weeks later, that 8 ferns are thriving and 10 lilies are thriving. I could say “hey those lilies are doing better (because 10 is more than 8)!” Or I could say “hey those ferns are doing better (because 80% thriving is better than 50%)!” In any case I got 18 out of 30 thriving plants but I’d like more.

Where should I focus my energy? I think I’ll move those lilies to notch up that proportion.

Using raw numbers to compare groups may work for small sample sizes (e.g., I had 4 doughnuts yesterday and my husband had 2), or tasks where you don’t need to find the cause of a problem or make meaningful comparisons (no comment about the doughnut example…yet). 

But using raw numbers to make my plant comparison can’t really account for disproportionate thriving, which is related to not being able to account for context that shapes outcomes. We can get to whether there is a difference between groups, but we can’t easily get to why there is a difference, how it came about, or what to do to change anything (oh, I get it now…my husband thought we should both have an equal proportion of the 6 doughnuts but I operated with the first come first served principle. Huh). 

Anyway, back to the plants: in addition to missing context, comparisons of raw numbers can paint an inaccurate picture of my garden because the proportions of success within categories changed from planting to assessing two weeks later. The numbers emerge over time. If I want more plants to thrive I should take care of the category with the low proportion of thriving or my entire total probably won’t go up. I should use proportions within categories, not just raw numbers. The ferns mostly are fine, but the lilies mostly are not. I should figure out why. I can lament the loss of the ferns, too, by the way. Nobody wants loss. And I can certainly move them to change their context. But that won’t take as much space or effort. The overall idea is that the care for the lilies matters more as I decide what the next steps are to improve the category of “thriving” in my whole garden in the future. I should look at what happens over time and not just the present numbers with no context in order to make more plants thrive in the future. 

More examples that I’m pondering: 

Isn’t it hilarious that the first question I ask my son when he says “I got a 17 on my test and my friend got a 19” is something like “out of 20 or 100?” (Yes, yes, this is what I do every single time). Boom, grade context.

If you bought a Ford and your wife bought a Toyota locally, and before you decided whose was safer to drive, wouldn’t you want to know how many total Toyotas and Fords each were sold if you learned that 6 locally-sold Toyotas and 3 locally-sold Fords had deadly defects? Boom, safety context.

Will I ever get rid of my morbid curiosity to find out whether there were only 3 paper submissions total submitted the year I was one of 3 people who won a graduate student paper award at a national conference? (No, no I will not get rid of this curiosity, but I will never ask). Boom, measures of success context.

Wouldn’t it provide some helpful backstory to know the average incomes of rich people in your town to see if your asshole boss and your best friend’s asshole boss seem similar or different from each other in terms of how accurate it would be to say “no, my boss is a richer asshole than yours?” Boom, cost of living context.

Wouldn’t you want to know how many of each color of M&Ms are in a bag in order to figure out how much to celebrate when you blindly grab a green one and think it’s a super rare color? (which it’s not, nerds). Boom, candy context.

Wouldn’t you want to know how worried to be about the coronovirus in the county you’re planning to visit for a weekend camping trip by knowing more about how many people who show no symptoms actually have the virus, since comparing just the raw numbers of cases tested from county to county cannot tell the whole story and makes us doubt the value of numbers a little bit? Boom, COVID context.

And how about this: If you learned that 12 protesters were arrested in your city and 12 protesters were arrested in your cousin’s city, wouldn’t you want to know how many protesters were present at each protest to get a more accurate image of what that arrest scene may have looked like? Imagine the headline difference: “Town shaken: All but one arrested in the ‘bakers dozen doughnut protest’ in Smallville!” v. “Something finally went okay for once: Peaceful doughnut protest leads to a mere dozen arrests among thousands of sugar-fueled protesters desperately in need of milk.” Boom, (doughnut) protest context.

Aren’t proportions and denominators wonderful? And this is without even dabbling into the exciting world of statistical significance tests that get at legit group differences. And yes, we can still get it wrong if we use proportions if we choose the wrong denominator.

But generally speaking, I’d say it’s helpful to use proportions within categories to compare the thriving (and, okay, also the doughnuts).

Denominators, Denominators, We’re on the bottom!

Oh, and there is one more place where using proportions really can be a matter of life and death. 

The authors of the linked article that includes this graphic use proportions well, and they present some progress alongside the grim: “In sum, the number of unarmed people killed by police declined after 2015. Arguably, with a well-trained police force, this number should be zero. While whites constitute both the highest number and percentage of those killed by police and those unarmed when killed by police, they also make up a majority of the population in the US (~60% non-Hispanic white in 2019). Blacks are disproportionately impacted by the use of lethal force by the police relative to the general population. Blacks continue to make up a disproportionate number of all those killed by police and the number of those that were unarmed when killed by police. If we look at the victims of police lethal force by race in 2019, a similar proportion of the whites, blacks, and Hispanics killed by police were unarmed when killed.”

Boom, race is THE context.

Between Game of Thrones Season 1 and Season 8, Watched Between May 1 and May 16, 2019

I am a Game of Thrones novice. By shirking some responsibilities and staying up late, I found 75 hours over the last sixteen days to watch the entire series. On Sunday, May 19, I am heading out of the country for a few weeks for work (to Denmark, where I hope to run into Jaime Lannister [Pretty Dennis Leary]), with the distinct possibility I won’t be able to stream the last episode. So the clock has been ticking.

Why did I do this? Mostly because I’m ridiculous. But as a sociologist, I’m a trained observer and predictor of human social behavior, so I thought I’d make an observation/prediction project out of this ridiculous adventure. Also, I thought I’d follow up on my original writing about Game of Thrones, based on viewing a sum total of 10 minutes of the first episode. You can read that here. It’s also about Murder, She Wrote. You may recall rumors about whether Angela Lansbury may appear in Game of Thrones around this time. I’m not saying that I started the rumor. I’m just saying the dates line up.

This show is a big deal to my husband and some of our friends – friends I’d find huddled in the corner at social occasions over the last several years whispering about what they think may happen in the next episode. If you read this and don’t believe that I wrote these in the timeframe I did, or if you suspect that I knew more than I say I knew, you can ask my husband or our friends. He doesn’t lie, and they all know I was clueless the entire time.

You may wonder how I avoided knowing about the show for these years. Easy – I have superhuman powers when it comes to tuning out. I can figure out diminishing returns so fast that I can exit a conversation or scroll past a spoiler within one second of hearing or reading “winter is coming.” If it doesn’t interest me, I don’t pay attention. Plus I never typed the words “Game of Thrones” into any social media posts, so I didn’t see much in my feed that would have shown up from the algorithmic figuring of my interests.

Despite my superhuman tuning out powers, I did (drink and) know some things. Here are the 7 things I knew before starting this binge:

  1. The first 10 minutes of episode 1 were gross enough for me to discontinue watching immediately and to vow I’d never watch it in the future (see earlier blog post reference).
  2. There are a sum total of 7 minutes that I watched over the years from various episodes because I had to be in the room where the show was airing to ask my husband something; one scene was in some kind of wooden fortress with snow; one scene was a very pale naked woman trying to seduce a man in a big black furry coat; and one scene was by a castle with some sort of naked shame march.
  3. I knew that Jon Snow survives into the last season because he hosted SNL a couple weeks ago.
  4. I knew that there was a bloody wedding where people who seem like central characters died and it freaked a lot of people out.
  5. I knew that a teenage girl has probably done something amazing.
  6. I knew that there’s something called a Night King, and that there were dragons and snow monsters. I wasn’t sure if any of these were the same thing.
  7. I knew that I should watch season 8 episode 3 in the basement with the lights off because it’s very hard to see since all the scenes are super dark (and full of terrors, whatever that meant).

And that is all I knew. I swear this by the old gods and the new.

Below are my observations and predictions as I watched Game of Thrones over the course of sixteen days. I posted them one by one on social media. The time stamps are real. I did not edit them once I posted them unless I found a typo. I read no commentary on the show. Sometimes I was bored while watching so I missed things. Spoilers, if they’re there, are fairly obtuse. This was on purpose, because I’d feel guilty if I spoiled it for others. This may mean that some comments seem oddly placed or vague, and not quite astute observations, especially to those who have not watched it. The pop culture references are what popped into my head as I watched. I also have trouble remembering character names. This will become quite evident as you read below. You may wish to use this as a review or a step-by-step guide, depending on whether you’ve watched it or not.

I can’t wait for Sunday, or for when I get back into this country when I can stream the episode using my HBO Go App. I’m pretty sure I will no longer be able to scroll quickly past mention of the last episode, so I’m fully prepared for spoilers. If I run into Jaime Lannister in Denmark I will give him permission to spoil everything while I stare at his jawline and shake his left hand.


May 1, 7:17 a.m. GoT S1, ep. 1-5: that boy’s not right, as if he was born out of incest; Aquaman has kind eyes; cats are harder to catch than puppies; if you don’t know who your mother is you just get named after whatever precipitation is falling where you live; something’s up with Pretty Dennis Leary.

May 1, 10:22 p.m. GoT S1, ep. 6-8: blond people are the worst; Uncle Fester might be worse; kings are slower than pigs; Ned has nice calligraphy penmanship; the ranger steward sorting hat seems to be broken; flat earth Kardashians are gonna take boats which seems like a big breakthrough for their worldview; many agree that boy’s not right so gathering troops seems about right.

May 2, 6:43 p.m. GoT S1, ep. 9-10: opening credits, upon reflection, lead me to believe there ought to be more steampunk in the episodes; the ugliness of daughters is currency in war bargains but so far there have only been supermodel naked women on the show so I’m not sure about their metrics; I look at birds differently now; that Arya boy is gonna do a lot of things; beach bonfires are fun mostly for the lizard lady.

May 2, 9:32 p.m. GoT S2, ep. 1-3: I didn’t need all those interchangeable old white baldish men with beards to prepare for the strong women showing up. I cannot keep them straight — the old white men, that is. Thank gods for Peter Dinklage and his whistling. Also is this all just one big Brexit leadup?

May 4, 9:16 p.m. GoT S2, ep. 4-6: the king has shown his 50 shades of Joffrey side; just when I was getting to know the Antler Brothers, a death eater flew from under the red dress; night is dark and full of terrors but so is daytime; rangers’ swords are colder on Hoth but spooning is warmer; all those fire jars in the basement seem dangerous; I think Baelish can teleport; haven’t seen Pretty Dennis Leary in awhile; dragon babies!

May 5, 9:59 a.m. GoT S2, ep. 7-10: battles; boats; tall Viking woman kicks butt; continual weaving of stories from gray places to yellow places; Peter Dinklage remains best character; more creative use of fire, herbs, and chemicals; I’m excited for when the baby dragons grow up so I can distinguish their screeches from those of the zombie people.

May 5, 9:36 p.m.: GoT S3, ep. 1-4: despite all the sloppiness of haircuts and limb removals these people are all really good at carefully removing all hair from women’s bodies; that bride to be is smart, perhaps inheriting it from her grandma; I sense an increase in mother-in-law issues; so many group forest journeys, like Goonies and Into the Woods had a fantasy baby movie starring that kid from Love Actually and singing horsemen; big wedding plans alongside the King’s obsession with past royals’ deaths bodes well for the fancy wedding room and its heptagon decor; but is Littlefinger really up to no good?

May 7, 8:49 p.m. GoT S3, ep. 5-8: Jamie has a back story, so give that man a hand; Yak trax up the wall and hot baths along the way; three cheers (coins?) for the nipple guards; I have a feeling that was a teaser wedding; so much pretty fabric; sons are unclesbrothersfathersinlaw so that makes for unwieldy genograms; aha dragon glass!

May 8, 9:38 p.m. GoT S3, ep. 9-10: another teaser wedding you may now cloak the bride oh wait that’s not a teaser; near sibling reunion; Willie Nelson sure is mean, just because he has a bridge; over the wall and through the woods to find the three eyed raven; Arya has grown; leeches are the new voodoo dolls; I’m thinking I’d like to write all my lecture notes on little horizontal rolled up pieces of parchment.

May 10, 4:53 p.m. GoT S4, ep. 1-5: 2 swords from one makes flimsy swords?; chickens; beware the cup bearer; finally a happy wedding; never underestimate a fool; Gilly is Smurfette; this season is pro-literacy; aha I finally heard a Danish accent in Jaime; oh baby.

May 11, 12:59 p.m. GoT S4, ep. 6-10: of course people look up when their ship passes through a bridge that is a giant knight with legs akimbo on the way to the funny bank people; helpful to have Arya list people she wants to kill so I can keep track of character names, which I still screw up; whispers from the east include deliberations about what it means to be free; hey the pie guy is back to connect some dots; oh so those were Littlefinger’s plans; wait how will they get that woolly mammoth over the wall; how not to train your dragon; glimpses of more alliances except not with those snow skeletons; head east.

May 11, 8:39 p.m. GoT S5, ep. 1-5: who will vote Jon Snow off the island; black and white doors to a new karate kid movie; no don’t throw the needle in the, oh good; high sparrow people get black robes and now I’m worried; nervous we haven’t seen the snow zombies in a while and not many people are mentioning that winter is coming anymore; those harpys and the soundtrack are bringing an eyes wide shut vibe, but with knives; Winterfell looks like it’s been sprinkled with powdered sugar; uh oh grayscale.

May 12, 5:50 p.m. GoT S5, ep. 6-8: facepillars oddly not unsettling, probably because they’re not heads on stakes; when the many stop fearing the few; secrets will out; oh hey another Danish actor who I bet comes back as a zombie…yep she does; I wonder if the snow zombies can swim; I feel like there are a lot of scenes introducing us to the long narrow walking street outside the castle; ooh the sword works but oh no, zombie waterfall; head snow guy will make this personal I can tell.

May 12, 7:52 p.m. GoT S5, ep. 9-10: I wonder if dragons eat zombies; I think grayscale face girl would make a fine queen eventually, oh dang; stop drop and roll and fly; I feel like I should be paying better attention to the color of flags (like Podrick does) so when they join together to beat the snow monsters I can keep track; Brienne finally gets to follow through on an oath; it has become clear to me that I offer the same gifts to any expedition as Tyrion — talking and drinking; atonement is gross; wait I thought Jon Snow survives because he just hosted SNL this month.

May 13, 3:06 p.m. GoT S6, ep. 1-5: despicable Ramsay; sad boat; back to Jon; Arya keeps forgetting her name so talking in the third person comes in handy; Tree Root Obi Wan is the ghost of Christmas past; I wonder if the other 2 dragons will rescue Khaleesi from her new yurt; why does Littlefinger’s accent keep changing; I’m enjoying the maps and little figurines; do you really need that many zombies to climb a tree; hold the door!

May 13, 10:39 p.m. GoT S6, ep. 6-10: I’m enjoying the two-tine forks; good job Sam; how do all the crowds hear without microphones; jokes in the pyramid are a nice touch; lovely bear embroidery; the Hound looks good in brown but will his softer side impact a big battle; Arya needs to draw the map west of west; Theon intrigues me; I’d like to try to use the word usurper more in conversation; oh I just got it — upside down X men; notching up the battle scene horse slo-mo, with reminders of the Star Wars trash compactor; these violent battles are a nice reprieve from trying to remember anyone’s name during a lengthy conversation; puppies; Mrs. Brady in black leather has a sensible haircut for the trial; children’s whispers keep mattering; I’d like to see dragon glass covered in green goo; what was high goes low; weird to see Willie Nelson and Pretty Dennis Leary chatting; finally winter though the South has scorpions still; the pyramid’s midcentury bombastic decor is growing on me; gonna rename the birdbath in my yard the Bay of Dragons; mmm pie; so many scenes; my prediction — beating the snow monsters will require fire of dragons, wit of Tyrion, bewildered looks from Jon Snow, stabby children, Bran’s new trick of time travel via a raven’s third eye, Arya’s needle with the Hound at her side, a dash of incest and another surprising parent reveal as a lead-in, and Brienne and Pod for the win; looks like the queens are all winning.

May 15, 1:06 p.m. GoT S7, ep. 1-3: end of last season was better than a 23andMe kit but now does Jon Snow have dragon cousins?; Branch Davidian Willie Nelson; ooh new towns in the opening credits but the floor map review with the incest sibs and the giant rock Risk board seem heavy-handed; barricaded books and bowels for Sam; Brienne and Pod as the new Cagney and Lacey; is that Ed Sheeran and his merry band of harmonizing bros?; how did Uncle Fester get to the dragon island from the scorpion place so fast?; I think every leader is a queen now, likely eventually heading towards the Night King from many diagonal places…child queen, Mrs. Brady queen, dragon queen, tough queen, scorpion queen…check mate; the prince or princess who was promised…getting Luke and Leia vibe; Sam consults YouTube for the surgery; geez okay all the maps means the audience needs to know more geography for season 8 I guess; creepy uncle motif, including one stabby smarmy Dane and Batman with a toupee; puppies; so long some of the scorpion triplets; deciding who the enemy is; Jaime has a soft spot for Grandma for five minutes.

May 15, 4:26 p.m. GoT S7, ep. 4-6; Bronn really needs a castle, or a big dragon arrow; sister and brother pairs with too many stories to share; dragon glass mine in the 7 kingdoms makes me want to connect the 7 dwarfs somehow; cave paintings are useful visual aids; all the conversation about Bran makes me miss the reason why they’re moving all the gold; I feel like travel times have shrunk or maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to the map distance legend, which by the way notes nothing about sea depth; your sword, no your sword; the Hound and the other mountain; Tyrion would make a decent life insurance salesperson; doesn’t Jon Snow know you lose 90% of your body heat off the top of your hatless head?; windchill of minus ice bear; light saber whitewalker dominoes; nobody’s talking about climate change as the cause of winter coming; with all the fancy outfits that seem to come from nowhere you’d think they could make a decent dragon saddle; finally a not creepy uncle; duh blue eyed dragon.

May 15, 8:53 p.m. GoT S7, ep.7: stabby smarmy uncle put in his place; show and tell that’s better than cave paintings; a brother knows; bend the knee; Jon Snow telling Theon he can hyphenate his name is cool; sisters giving the finger to Littlefinger; the cousin heir name truth is revealed alongside much skin on the boat so the Night King needs to be defeated by these 2; Rapunzel let down your red beard; Mr. Deaddragon tear down that wall.

May 15, 11:28 p.m. GoT S8, ep. 1-2: a new opening; Jon Snow really needs help every time he tries to make a speech to convince people of things; finally a realistic question about food; I just remembered the stabby smarmy Dane was in Borgen…good show; Bronn is gonna take the deal but turn it against the queen; a whole new world; now when Jon Snow needs to smoothly ride a dragon later it’ll be more believable; dragons suspicious of their stepdadcousin; how about co-royals?; yeesh screaming crab boy; Cersei really does need to be taken apart; I don’t think they’re all going to die; campfire stories build bridges and ask “okay if this was your last night in earth…”; crushing on the toolman on the last night; Dany’s all, “my life’s work unraveled because of stupid male heir rules.”

May 16, 12:36 a.m. GoT S8, ep. 3: the night is dark and full of I can’t see what’s going on; oh good the music got louder so now I can see better.

May 16, 12:45 p.m. GoT S8, ep. 4: nice funeral where finally Jon Snow didn’t need help with a speech but how did they figure out which of the dead to pile up; Jon Snow is getting more credit for riding a dragon than Dany is; you can’t propose to Arya, nobody can ever find her anyway; Bronn makes some good points; spinoff show proposal — Arya and the Hound; are we sure we got all the snow monsters?; lots of references to how small Jon Snow is; bye puppy; asking sibs to keep secret but Tyrion and Uncle Fester know so I’m not confident in the secret keeping; hard to choose; but who does Jaime hate?; didn’t think Dany could get any paler.

May 16, 2:07 p.m. GoT S8, ep. 5: ah, oops, Sansa told him so I got that time order wrong; seeing more fire Jon Snow is getting conflicted about it all; bell ringing plans can go wrong, since all it takes is one knucklehead to grab the rope to ring at the wrong time; does Tyrion want the bell to be smuggled?; Adventures of Arya and Hound Installment 1– “We Don’t Need an Army”; oh wait a different bell plan; ding dong which witch; the inevitability of vengeance; better start the castle reconstruction fundraising; so much grunting and clanging; a cryptic death; Arya is a phoenix; one more battle I guess?

Between 1994 and 2019 Public Sociology

For a plan-ahead fairly-linear-path person, my path surrounding public sociology has been a lovely winding way, evidenced by the dozens of steps outlined below. And it appears as if the steps have been more akin to the mathematical enigma Penrose Stairs. You know – the steps represented in the M.C. Escher lithograph “Ascending and Descending.” What is at the beginning gets reformulated to have been present all along. The first steps go up and then end up going downward back to the beginning again. And all the while the step-climber keeps circling around a middle that is always in sight.

I offer this set of steps at the risk of being taken as self-indulgent, glib, inaccurate in my ability to reflect how a Penrose Staircase actually operates, or gleefully ignorant of the challenges of finding, landing, and staying in a tenure track job (talk about a winding staircase…). These are things I do not take lightly. My path has been anything but precarious, for a whole host of reasons. But I still think sharing this is worthwhile. If anything, I hope to uncover just how complex a career path can be even in the midst of job security and predictability.

Here are my 58 steps toward, within, and surrounding public sociology.

  1. Apply to grad school in sociology with an application essay noting a strong desire to do applied community-based research, and not necessarily teaching.
  2. Turn down the offer from a graduate program with a teaching assistantship; accept one with a research assistantship instead because “I have no desire to teach.”
  3. Have a pretty decent time doing research, mostly because of generous and drama-free advisors.
  4. Give one guest lecture in one advisor’s class.
  5. Be asked to teach because, well, they needed someone.
  6. Realize within one week of teaching at age 23 that teaching is exactly what I’m supposed to do. Always has been.
  7. Teach and research. But mostly teach. Do research to build a CV good enough to land a good teaching job.
  8. Work towards changing the way teaching is viewed in graduate program. Develop a teaching resources file, take a pedagogy class, and become the graduate student representative in the university’s teaching center planning committee.
  9. Continue to be nervous about whether I’m a good researcher.
  10. Realize both teaching and research require translation, but teaching is especially helpful with this.
  11. Recognize and then highly value the legitimacy of using an academic voice to offer new ideas publicly, but start to become disillusioned with the hubris of academia to shape ideas using language that others cannot discern.
  12. Frame job applications honestly (there can be another 58 sub-steps to this one).
  13. Get a teaching-focused job. Recognize how fortunate I was to have gotten the job, especially one that supports research. Recognize also the good fortune of a spouse landing a job, albeit one for which he was overqualified and that took about 14 (yes, 14) years to be defined appropriately and for him to be paid adequately.
  14. Buy a house. Get a dog. Have a kid. Get to know neighbors. Go to the neighborhood block party and write down names of neighbors.
  15. Join community groups locally. Get to know people way beyond an academic work world across many generations. Have a life. Subscribe to and read the local paper.
  16. Assist local organizations using sociology skills. Learn how to be strategic about which local projects are most benefited by my assistance. Learn how to ask organizations the right questions so that they can help themselves. In other words, build my own obsolescence into projects with local groups.
  17. Land consulting gigs, mostly unpaid, to help organizations with strategic planning and useful data collection, analysis, and reporting.
  18. Be sure to prioritize publishing peer-reviewed stuff because local community-based research does not count towards professional activity in the important categories for tenure.
  19. Get tenure and have job security so risk-taking feels more doable (again, 58 more sub-steps here, all with stress, and sometimes while experiencing a lot of difficult life moments including a parent death and a miscarriage).
  20. Increase self-awareness that I will always want more and I will always wonder what’s next. Start to strategize how this could work in a long-term teaching career at a place that actually supports innovation but that otherwise can steer me towards stagnation.
  21. Join and become intrigued and involved with a professional research organization dedicated to getting good research to journalists.
  22. Demonstrate capacity to be productive in meetings and get administrative tasks done, and slowly become part of organization’s leadership.
  23. Receive many gifts of connections to journalists through organization’s social network. Be eternally grateful to this organization. For connections. For friendships.
  24. Increase involvement locally, using national-level involvement in larger data projects and board meeting logistics to enhance local tasks. Pay attention to how actual groups use academic information. Help them do this better. Continue to read the local paper.
  25. Do administrative work at the college and gain further skills in translation and prioritization and perspective. Decide administration is not the path I want. Learn a ton about how to navigate asking for things and knowing who to ask.
  26. Choose number of professional commitments wisely. Don’t get unnecessarily enamored with famous people in my field. Talk to people at conferences as if they’re real people. Or don’t go to those conferences. Keep trying to find “my people.”
  27. Pay attention to diminishing returns when asked to do more, in all parts of life.
  28. Learn where my voice is most and least useful.
  29. Figure out teaching and research as translating is not far from answering questions journalists have.
  30. Pay attention to tone and content of media and social media and yearn for a different kind of voice.
  31. Post way too much in social media outlets but keep doing it as a way to provide an alternative to the regular. Feed off of support from this process.
  32. Infuse humor, in all parts of life.
  33. Become increasingly disillusioned with social media and news media. Keep trying to change the tone.
  34. Research timely topics and don’t be afraid to frame them that way.
  35. Learn how to respond to emails without having to go into detail about why I can’t do things, unless they’re from my husband.
  36. Talk to one or two journalists who happen to pay attention to timely research.
  37. Become more relaxed with how nuanced and detailed answers need to be to get people to think about what they haven’t thought about before.
  38. Have success and trauma and pain. And then have it again, usually at the same time. Be hospitalized for some of this, and travel a lot.
  39. Write 75,000 words in blog posts over many months.
  40. Gain more confidence and voice.
  41. Make website way better. Spend money on it.
  42. Hire a life coach to help figure out how to reach a wider audience. Write 4 books and a bunch of articles in 3 years. Figure out that reframing others’ ideas is as legitimate a form of writing as new data analysis may be.
  43. Use a stipend gained from a work project to fund a publicist for one of the books. Realize it was a waste of money but enjoy the radio conversations with bizarre journalists and talk show hosts. Talk to a lot of journalists. Be quoted in more places. Get on TV. Get name spread into journalism programs.
  44. Become noticed and asked to take a very amazing job elsewhere, including tasks that require public dissemination of academics’ good work. Decide to stay and make that happen even more here (again, 58 sub-steps).
  45. Give dozens of talks. Turn some of them into written pieces.
  46. Gain more confidence.
  47. Appreciate all the gray hair. Appreciate how good my family life is. Take some credit for that. Use handy connections to parenting scholars to legitimate that credit.
  48. Become a little less afraid of critics. But never lose the fear just a little bit, because it makes for a more careful and compassionate approach to whatever is spoken or written or presented.
  49. Hear from more journalists.
  50. When asked if you can comment by journalists (and especially journalism students), ALWAYS SAY YES AND ALWAYS TAKE THE CALL. Except when it’s about professional golfers and corporate crime, which leads to: know the limitations of my expertise.
  51. Be okay with a healthy dose of flub or flop or failure or rejection, recognizing that my day job offers a privileged cushion as backdrop to experimentation.
  52. Design more community-based and applied classes and writing assignments for students. Be brave, be experimental, figure out quickly who needs to be a voice to support the projects and figure out diminishing returns for all constituencies quickly, too.
  53. Incorporate epistemological questions about sociology, applied sociology, and journalism into course curriculum. Incorporate communication plans into all research agendas. Cross-pollinate everything.
  54. Teach research ethics including how they apply to applied and journalistic work.
  55. Always wonder what’s next and how a new-to-that-audience way of looking at it can be helpful.
  56. Recognize this is all fairly fleeting but still worthwhile.
  57. Err towards compassion, in all parts of life.
  58. Realize that my grad school application essay from 1994 may have been spot on this whole time.

Between Journalism and Sociology

I spend more time than the average bear pondering the relationship between stories and data. Between the reporting of timely events and the time-taking required to report research findings that capture large patterns and trends. Between protecting the integrity of a news story by sharing identities of those involved and protecting the confidentiality of those who offer their voices to sociological research with no names attached. I’m so enthralled with this issue that I’ve edited a book (coming out this winter) on what news stories about parenting seem to captivate audiences and what new research we ought to be reading to make sure we know how parenting is actually happening in our society.

I am teaching a course this fall that I haven’t taught in awhile — Gender and Society. It’s a course that examines how men’s and women’s experiences may differ in society, along with explanations why these differences come about and how these differences may translate to inequality. This semester my 33 students and I are also investigating how there are a lot of differences within gender categories based on race, class, bodily ability, sexuality, age, and geography. And, as is fitting, we actually succeed at accurately throwing around the term “intersectionality.”

As I prepared this summer for the course by finding readings to share with students, I kept a running list of news stories about anything related to gender and society, with a particular eye toward global stories. The list grew to dozens and dozens of stories. I was overwhelmed with the prospect of choosing news stories to include in my syllabus because the news was always changing, because there were too many stories, and, well, because I wasn’t sure the stories offered enough sociological sophistication to ensure student understanding of the larger patterns that scaffold the individual stories.

To remedy the feeling of being overwhelmed, I determined that a curated and representative list of news stories along with a writing assignment for students to digest them and connect them to course readings that were squarely situated in academic sociological research and theory would be the best path. But I wasn’t satisfied with just that. I also decided to include the essay by sociologist Herbert Gans on the comparisons between sociology and journalism as part of the assignment. The students, then, chose an article, summarized it, researched the background of the article’s writer, noted whether any academic research was cited or applied in the article, connected the stories to course concepts, and summarized key points by Gans about how journalism and sociology differ (different urgency, different use of stories, different amount of time taken, different likelihood to point out individual stories versus patterns, different funding, different networks of social actors, and different audiences). But the best part was that the students were asked to analyze how the journalistic story may already be doing good sociology (and how they knew this), and/or how sociology may be more useful in terms of adding to stories introduced by journalists. In order to do this, the students had to understand how both disciplines operate, which by itself is an important sociological undertaking.

I’ve taught a lot of students and a lot of classes with a myriad of different writing assignments. While I’ve incorporated plenty of assignments that include news stories in past courses, I’ve never assigned this particular paper assignment before. As I read these student papers, I found myself wanting to keep reading them and digesting how they see the utility of better collaboration between journalists and sociologists. I can identify (the very few) places where students still have trouble figuring out that difference, and figuring out that evidence for claims may look different in different types of writing. And that different types of writing stem from different networks, funding sources, values, and goals of different occupational sectors. This is, in no uncertain terms, the most intriguing set of student papers I’ve read.

As I continue to think about the role that journalists and sociologists play in the communication of information in our world (including information communicated by them collaboratively), I recognize that this is not a new topic of inquiry. A recent conversation with my father-in-law, who was getting his PhD in sociology in the mid-1970s, revealed that sociologists were talking about connections between academics and journalists then, too, especially as these connections pertained to the notion of truth-telling in a highly volatile political climate. Sounds familiar.

I think there’s something new going on with the blurring of lines between what counts as “news” and what counts as “research” (and what counts as both, evidenced by social media posts that contain the phrase “According to science…”). It seems especially wise to help students learn where these lines come from, what impact the lines have, and how seemingly disparate groups may be well served to work together to cross the important line of reality versus fiction. The relationship between sociology and journalism is not a new relationship to think about; the pedagogical goal of ensuring students understand why this relationship matters is more important than ever.

Between Home and History

My husband and I bought the house of a former Whitman professor eighteen years ago. The professor’s name was Robert Whitner, and I am grateful that I had the chance to get to know his widow Lola Whitner before she moved to the west side of Washington state in 2000. Lola had been a long-time English teacher at the local high school which my son will begin attending this fall, and she told us countless stories of all the local lives she had touched as she taught Shakespeare and proper grammar. Our first plumber was a former student of hers, and I somehow felt more confident in his plumbing abilities knowing that he could write. Or, more accurately, knowing that Lola recommended him.

Robert Whitner was a professor of history at Whitman College from 1951 until his unexpected death eighteen years before we bought the house. Two things are important to note as I tell this story: first, that Robert Whitner was a historian who studied, taught, wrote, and spoke about the history of the College where I have worked for eighteen years; and second, that I have come across his ghost in my house — a ghost whose voice is particularly helpful as I ponder what’s happening in my home and at the College.

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The ghost first appeared when I tore apart walls and studs and carpets and furniture that wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairwell leading from the basement to our side door. Robert, Lola had noted, was a do-it-yourself home remodeling hobbyist, evidenced by the infrastructural creativity present in light switches just slightly in the wrong place in the wood paneling, paneling only partially nailed into studs, and studs not quite the right distance apart. I fondly recall dozens of conversations with contractors in the early years we remodeled the house that usually included comments such as “Huh, that’s interesting,” and “I’ve never seen it done like that before,” and “I think the person who remodeled this part of the house was probably better at being a college professor.”

Note to self: leave notes in my own do-it-yourself remodeling project crevices for future baffled contractors to find. Robert and I have things in common when it comes to our home.

The ghost appeared later during one of my pre-remodel destruction episodes as I removed some built-in bookshelves in a part of the basement that must have been his office. Tucked behind a shelf was a thin 14-page booklet entitled “Two Essays on the History of Whitman College by Robert L. Whitner.” With a precise and warm foreword written by former Whitman president Robert Skotheim and a nod to the importance of making research available to wide audiences in an introduction written by former Whitman history professor G. Thomas Edwards, this little book packed a punch that’d be especially relevant for Walla Wallans and Whitman folks. Before even getting to Whitner’s words, the book communicated just how important those words had been. It was too bad he had died before it was published, they wrote.

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As I perused the little book and heard what I imagined Whitner’s voice to sound like while lecturing in the same Maxey Hall rooms I lecture in, I took to heart how he kindly and smartly framed how the College had changed, especially salient on the 100th anniversary of its founding. To this day, now more than three decades after its publication, I still peruse passages that might as well be about the College now. For example, upon reflecting how the myth of Marcus Whitman “saving Oregon” was used to garner funds to keep the College alive, Whitner writes “It is not always what is true that makes a difference, but what people believe to be true.” Or this one — the early 1900s “Greater Whitman” project that proposed the college would become “an institute of technology, an engineering school or high quality…Whitman might have become the MIT of the West — WIT…A promotional pamphlet published in 1906 reported that the business, industrial, and professional leaders of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were united in wanting to establish a private institution to train young people to develop and conserve the resources of the region.” But then, in my favorite historical tidbit, Whitner notes that opponents to the “Greater Whitman” plan included local saloon-keepers who worried about the College taking over valuable real estate, evidenced by one of them who said “that a single saloon here was worth more to the town than Whitman College.” The students, meanwhile, campaigned to have an election to vote Walla Walla dry. (Okay, that is definitely not how things are now…I digress).

Anyway, beyond the topics of the College’s folklore, or its desire to be something different than it is, or town-college relations and economic stability, there are some fantastic quotes that stick with me the most that still capture why I call Whitman College my professional home. Recall that these quotes are from Whitner’s writing in 1982, and they refer to the College’s history in the early 1900s:

“The deliberate choice was made to remain small, confident that being small made some desirable things more easily possible — close student-faculty relations, easy student access to administration, frequent association among members of different departments, interdisciplinary approaches to curriculum development, and faculty participation in the governance of the College.”

And, from President Penrose in 1911: “To have a faculty of men and women whose influence shall be potent for quick intelligence and high moral ideals, to have a student body who shall learn here to work to their highest capacity while gaining breadth of vision and of social sympathy, seems to be the right aim for the College to pursue.”

And, poignantly relevant now: “[I]n a period when academic freedom was more hope than reality in American higher education, Whitman’s Faculty was free to probe, to question, to challenge…No orthodoxy was prescribed in any field.”

And to dispel some myths, perhaps: “It has been said that Whitman’s good teachers of those years [early 1900s] were devoted exclusively to the classroom, that they had no interest in research and writing. The record has little to support this claim.”

I’m grateful I found this 14-page book written by Robert Whitner tucked in the bookshelves that Robert Whitner probably built. Historians are good at uncovering and revealing and building stories from disparate pieces. Home remodelers try to do this too, and they leave their stories and pieces behind.

Note to self: leave notes in hiding places in Maxey Hall for future baffled faculty members to find as they try to figure out whether the College has changed too much, not enough, or circled back to 1906. Robert and I have things in common when it comes to our work.

Between Furniture and Stored


I have a love-love relationship with furniture stores and how they showcase imagined and real family experiences.

I wrote a book that includes more than your average number of references to furniture, and for good reason, given my devotion to writing about how home objects tell stories about family life that we often don’t notice. That book is another story, but for now, suffice it to say that in it I reference a slogan from a furniture store in my childhood hometown in rural southwest Minnesota that still resonates. Larson’s Furniture’s slogan “Feather your Nest with a Little Down” is forever etched in my brain and still resides, in its perfect giant sort-of cursive, above the display windows showcasing the latest trends in couches, chairs, TV cabinets, and couches and chairs that hold TV remotes. You should buy furniture there. I mean it. And while you’re at it, you should visit the local park, swim in the local pool, and put a quarter in the slot machine at the nearby casino where my wedding reception was held. If you need a cup of coffee perfectly preserved in a thermos at an optimal temperature even a day later, you can visit my mom. She can show you the pictures of her grandchildren in her lovely living room.

The furniture store slogan (“Feather your Nest with a Little Down”), as you may have glossed over, is, in my estimation, one of the most clever plays on words in our midst. “Nest” is a word we family scholars use to talk about home lives — as in, leave the nest, empty nest, and even feathered nest (to refer to the fancy people who can afford 600-thread count sheets). But it wasn’t until I was a grown-up who had to offer a DOWN payment on a first house, a car, and a kitchen bistro set that I figured out the whole meaning of the phrase “a little down.” FEATHERS! And also, a small amount of money to hold the stuff in furniture not-yet-paid-for-purgatory.

As my friends will tell you, I sometimes figure out joke punchlines a decade after I hear them.

Anyway, that small town furniture store meant a lot to my family. It was the place where we roamed and sought possible future couches (which is funny, because there was never going to be a future couch, except for the one we bought after I threw up while lying down on the old one; both were olive green chenille, btw; throw up defies gravity if the canvas upon which it lands is olive green chenille, btw).

As a teenager, Larson’s was a place I drove by hundreds of times late at night when it was closed as I cruised the town in cars with friends — evenings dimly lit by the window displays of aspirational grown-up living room ensembles that we didn’t know we wanted. It was the place where my dad and I picked out living room coffee and end tables to surprise my mom in a moment of unplanned “Let’s surprise Mom with furniture” spree, which in hindsight was a really bad idea. But maybe, in hindsight, this moment represented a surprisingly astute sense of timeless design for a fifty-something weird dad (whose design aesthetic was somewhere in the midst of black lacquer meets fake opulent German farmhouse) and a teenage weird kid (whose design aesthetic was somewhere in the midst of Lisa Frank meets 1970s TV trays) assessing wood and glass quality. That those pieces are still in my mom’s living room is a testament to her graciousness and generosity, and perhaps a tiny testament to my dad’s and my taste. Either that or she has figured out that they were good enough to display the oodles of grandchild pictures that are the living (room) objects that really matter to her. The tables are not as important as what’s on them. You’d know that if you sat down and had a cup of day-old steaming hot coffee with her.

It’s been decades since I’ve cruised the street adjacent to the Larson’s furniture displays. Fast forward to my own meandering among furniture store fronts in the town I live in now, also lit at night in an amber light with aspirational living room ensembles that have made their way into my adult décor brain. An adult décor brain that is hard-pressed to stay up late enough to window shop after it’s dark, and more likely to dismiss the rural furniture aesthetic than to consider it aspirational. But that, too, is another story.

Fifteen years ago, I recall seeing a rocking chair in a window in my current hometown downtown in a store that no longer exists (save for the store’s current iteration in a different location and its concomitant and seemingly incessant radio ads on the station I listen to most often). I special ordered that chair with a special order fabric when I was pregnant. Did I mention that it was a special order?

The fabric was stylish and soft and olive greenish. Chenille, actually. But here’s an important part: I was unnecessarily rude to the store owner when I, pregnant with what felt like seventeen bowling balls that was really just my giant baby son, expressed concern about the fact that special order fabric meant this chair could not be returned if it didn’t work out (but what if it didn’t work? what if I couldn’t rock? what if I didn’t get the right accessory to showcase my ability to be a good parent? These questions remind me that I still owe that furniture store owner an apology for my unnecessarily anxious views of future chair woes — I should buy a couch from him despite his incessant radio ads).

Anyway, the chair arrived and landed itself in my son’s baby room. It was where the two of us plopped to sit and relax and drink (usually both of us) and be Mommy and Baby. It was where we read books together. It was where he plopped his little body when he was learning to read. Now that he has a different chair and prefers plopping in his bed to read, the special order olive greenish chenille soft rocking chair sits at the foot of my bed, sometimes as a spot to plop to read, but mostly as a spot to plop my clothes that don’t fit nearly as well as they did before I had a kid.

This year I’ve spent dozens of hours sorting and sifting through boxes and furniture pieces that have been stored in the nether-regions of our surprisingly ample storage spots. I considered getting rid of that rocking chair. But no. Of course I’m keeping it. Too much to plop on it.

That chair really was a special order. That chair, of course, is not as important as what has sat on it. That’s why it’s staying in my nest. I think I’ll sit on it and have a drink. Maybe some day-old steaming hot coffee.

Between Middle and Schooled

Middle school is a time of life when littler kids look up to you and bigger adults look down on you, until you grow taller, in which case the looking down is not related to height anymore. We are in the midst of sometimes public events involving the young people in our lives that make us wonder, at least a little bit, what seems like the right way to approach a world where Middle Schoolers are Not Sure They Should Speak Out Against What’s Happening Because They’re Still Sort of Kids but (Very Powerful and Very Public) Adults Can’t Seem to Get Their Act Together.

To assist our understanding of “Kids These Days,” here I offer some contradictions found in the “State of Middle School,” as seen in classrooms across the land and also as seen in my living room, kitchen, basement, and what feels like 4,000 times a week in the passenger seat in my car. You may notice that, at least to some extent, the contradictions can easily be reversed, as if the middle school experience was the most “vice versa” time we could point to. Of course, as a sociologist, I’d like to point out that it is in the between times when we are sometimes most able to understand things.

And vice versa.

And so, here are some interesting contradictions (and their vice versas, sorta) that I’ve observed about middle school:

Deep-voiced Shallowness
Crackly-voiced Depth

Cheetah-like Movement into Slothdom
Slow Approach to Quick Getaways

Pragmatic Buffoonery
Silly Realism

Mispronounced Judgment
Empathetic Malopropism

Awkward Confidence
Confident Awkwardness

Handsome Cuteness
Adorable Beauty

Unaware Smarts
Smart Ignorance

Childish Adulthood
Adult-like Childhood

Detail-oriented Overgeneralization
Overgeneralized Claims about Very Specific Details of I have no idea what he’s talking about with that video game-slash-meme-slash-YouTube channel showing people playing video games or making fun of memes or is it about the thing he was totally and ironically into last week?

Guilty Innocence
Innocent Guilt

Fearful Hope
Hopeful Fear

Oh, and one more contradiction, presently evidenced by my middle schooler’s simultaneous constant eating and constant bewilderment about our current political state of affairs:

Fed-Up Hunger. 

Watch out world. The ones between worlds that can notice all of the worlds are captivating us.

Let’s pay attention. 4,000 times a week.


Between Me and My Dog

My dog Maggie has died. She was 18, a best guess from the shelter people who said “she’s probably 2 and probably a cow dog mixed breed with maybe some rottweiler because of those brown eyebrows on her black fur” when we got her 16 years ago. A farm dog, evidenced by a good 8 years of her being tempted to chase any pickup truck driving by. We had to keep an eye on her at first. Lately our eye was on her precarious sluggish stride and coming home to see if she could hear us enter the house (nope) and was still alive (yep).

That subsided. The chasing, that is. And the life.

Part of my home has crumbled away. It’s time for days and days of tears and memories of me between ages 29 and 45, Neal between ages 28 and 44, and Aaron between ages 0 and just shy of 14.

And I think, “Oh and is it okay to think about which day we were to schedule the vet’s help to make the goodbye come because Our Lives are so busy and all ‘needs’ need to be scheduled?” And then I realize that our everyday busy needs are part of Her World.

And I think, “Oh and isn’t it too much to make a big deal about the death of a pet when death of humans both near and far, both singled out and collectively taken in tragedy, is everywhere in the ether?” And then I believe it’s okay to be sad about all of it.

And I think, “Oh and who are we to decide?” And then I remember my childhood dog being put to sleep on my 12th birthday and it really wasn’t a deciding as much as a relieving.

So much thinking about an animal.

Hers was the heart that beat alongside my whole adulthood. She had my last name.

This dog made me care about a creature who needed me. This dog made me feel safe. This dog made me see that life is beautifully messy, something any partnership needs to witness from time to time. This dog made me understand what being a good neighbor means. This dog made me see conviction and preference and grace, sometimes all at the same time. This dog made me write. This dog greeted nearly two thousand students over the years who came over for class or a party or a review session or because they missed their own dogs at home or in the beyond, as it happens for college-age people. This dog made me look for when people should be gathered rather than separated, as herding dogs do. This dog made me watch my son learn to care and caress. This dog made me love without question. This dog made me agree to commission a dog oil portrait that at the time seemed too big and now seems too small.

This dog Maggie Janning. She’s mine. She was. My love.

And the eyebrows. My God I will miss her eyebrows.