Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Doing Our Part

In 2008 our household loaned the federal government a fair amount of money for 0% interest. Yay, us!

It went so well that we decided to do the same again in 2009. Super yay for our accountant!

In other words, we're hoping for a nice tax refund this year. If, theoretically, we dropped off our files and signed documents at our accountant's office in early March, when are we likely to hear back from him?

I don't want to be a nagging jerk during the busiest season of the year. But I am working on this year's vacation plans, so I'm . . . curious.

Is it rude to follow up before April 15th?

Edited to add: our accountant emailed last night with good news. Woo hoo! So glad we put in that energy efficient window.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Keeping a Mary Heart in a Martha World

Last weekend I attended a women's retreat called "Keeping a Mary Heart in a Martha world." The retreat was held at a Catholic retreat center and the other women were all Catholic. (I'm not Catholic, and this provided an interesting learning opportunity for me, though no significant problems.) The retreat was also a silent one - except for the "sessions" (small group discussions), a couple of the meals, and Saturday evening mass.

And the retreat was exactly what I needed; I feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

I was thrilled to learn that the retreat center is rarely used for organized retreats; it's actually a place where adults of any faith can go for peace and reflection. Meaning that (for a suggested donation of $35/night) I can go back, any time, on my own, to recharge. It's only thirty minutes south of St. Louis.

Vision of Peace Hermitages: "Vision of Peace Ministries exists to offer hospitality in a place where people of any faith, seeking solitude in their lives, can find a quiet peacefulness and an atmosphere conducive to private prayer and reflection."

A modest home sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Standing on the back deck, you don't realize that the gentle, grass-covered lumps just before the cliff's edge are the roofs of hermitages, each with a stunning view of the river. Inside each hobbit hole is a single bed, a single desk, a single rocking chair, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. The accommodations are simple, rustic, and adequate. Walking along the railroad tracks, down by the river, through the woods, or along the half-mile gravel path to the main road, there's no pressure to "meet and greet." There's no concern over what to say to a stranger or a friend. In a place of silence, a small smile of acknowledgment is all that's needed.

(People keep asking me if the silence drove me crazy. I loved it! But I figure I must talk waaaaay too much if everyone I know thinks solitude must bug me. Bugs bug me. I dig solitude.)

Inside the main house lives a year-round caretaker. (He's a former monk, very friendly.) There's also a library and chapel open to guests staying in one of the nine single-occupancy hermitages.

My cabin, Holy Wisdom, was the furthest from the river. But my view was still lovely and as I was a little bit off by myself, the accommodations were perfect for me.

I'm afraid I abused the retreat a little. I loved it, participated in all the activities, and followed all the rules. But in my free time I didn't do as much meditating and praying as I was supposed to. Instead, I did a lot of the writerly work I rarely find time to do at home: rereading, editing, and rewriting. And that was just as glorious as the rest of the weekend, though I suspect that everything I wrote before 2009 might suck.

Have you ever been to a place like this? Do you have one near where you live? 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hooray for Crunches

This is a blurry, awkwardly cropped, unflattering picture of me taken by my elder daughter last week. (Relevance to follow, but in the meantime I'll note that I was very proud of Ellie for looking at the camera display to frame the shot.) 

"Your daughter is adorable," an elderly man turned to me at dinner, after chatting with Ada.  I stood to clear our plates as he continued talking. "And she's going to have a little brother or sister."

"Thank you, and, no, that's just me."

Seriously. I get this all the time.  I used to think it was because of my affection for over-size clothes, but on this particular occasion, I was wearing a stretchy twin-set, cut relatively close to the body.  So it must just be . . . me.  The fact that all my pants are a size or two too big and give me extra pouchiness where I don't need it doesn't help.  But I'm hardly headed for the delivery room, regardless. The picture above was taken after dinner that same evening. What do you think? Am I accidentally in maternity wear?

Next week is Ada's last mommy and me dance class, which means only one more session of me allowing the instructor to think that I'm pregnant.  She never asked outright so that I can deny it, she just makes little comments, like, "This exercise is important for you mommies, especially you down there in that pink shirt looking absolutely adorable today."

It took me a couple lessons to realize that she thinks I'm expecting. And by that time there was no way to fix the problem without embarrassing everyone.

I'm thinking maybe I should just drag out my maternity clothes and pretend to be pregnant all the time. Heck, I'll be comfy and avoid some awkward conversations. Where's the downside?

There Might Be Something To That Latte-Sipping Liberal Thing

Years ago, Paul and I headed north to rural Iowa to meet up with some of his extended family for Christmas.  Shortly thereafter we realized we'd become acclimatized to city living.  Did you know there are still large swaths of this country where there's no place to purchase gasoline in the middle of the night?  (And even gas stations that don't accept credit cards?)  It's true.

(Of course it's true. I felt like an idiot for not considering - and planning for - this possibility. I lived in the middle of Kansas for eleven years so rural living shouldn't surprise me. But this was the same Iowa trip when I forgot to take my winter coat to Christmas since it was so nice and warm here. There were feet of snow on the ground in northern Iowa. I'm sure I made a great impression.)

I managed to forget all my lessons again on a roadtrip I took with Ada this week.  Partially I take for granted the conveniences of city living.  Partly I just figure that the rest of the country is adopting those conveniences at an impressive rate so why worry?

Why?  Because Ada and I ended up stopping somewhere in southern Indiana at a gas station that didn't even have a name posted.  The bathroom was disgusting.  And there was no fast food of any kind in town. But my GPS assured me there was nowhere else to stop for at least 35 miles.

There are a few places to replenish and rejuvenate between St. Louis and Louisville, but outside of the two metropolitan areas, it's helpful to schedule stops in Evansville or Mount Vernon.  Otherwise, the pickings are slim.

For the return trip, I prepared.  I mapped my route then asked Google to show me all the Starbucks along the way.  Pop poppoppopop pop.  Little dots popped up everywhere . . . in St. Louis and Louisville.  The only Starbucks en route were in Evansville, a 30-mile round trip from the interstate.  I do love my lattes, but not that much!

Fortunately, my unsophisticated palate can handle gas station coffee.  And we had a lovely dinner at a chain restaurant in Mount Vernon.  And I stocked up with a Venti off Bardstown before crossing the Ohio.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's not "radical reform" but it's major

  • If you are "high risk" or have a "preexisting condition," you will soon be able to buy health insurance.
  • If you develop cancer or another health problem, your health insurance will no longer be able to drop your coverage because they don't want to pay for your treatment. (How was that allowed before?!)
  • If you have develop an expensive problem, your insurance will no longer be able to stop paying for your medical care after you hit your annual or lifetime "cap."
  • Kids can be covered under their parents' health insurance plans up to age 26 if they so choose.
  • 32 million American who are not currently covered will be covered.
  • Insurance companies will be held accountable so they can't come between patients and their doctors.

This is not government-run healthcare. It is regulation like we have in many other industries. Medical insurance companies must now follow certain ethical business practices. We ask the same of our food production companies, our car makers, our producers of high chairs and cribs. Why not of those who control our access to health: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Thank you.

The President says:
"For the first time in our nation's history, Congress has passed comprehensive health care reform. America waited a hundred years and fought for decades to reach this moment. Tonight, thanks to you, we are finally here.

Consider the staggering scope of what you have just accomplished:

Because of you, every American will finally be guaranteed high quality, affordable health care coverage.

Every American will be covered under the toughest patient protections in history. Arbitrary premium hikes, insurance cancellations, and discrimination against pre-existing conditions will now be gone forever.

And we'll finally start reducing the cost of care -- creating millions of jobs, preventing families and businesses from plunging into bankruptcy, and removing over a trillion dollars of debt from the backs of our children.

But the victory that matters most tonight goes beyond the laws and far past the numbers.

It is the peace of mind enjoyed by every American, no longer one injury or illness away from catastrophe.

It is the workers and entrepreneurs who are now freed to pursue their slice of the American dream without fear of losing coverage or facing a crippling bill.

And it is the immeasurable joy of families in every part of this great nation, living happier, healthier lives together because they can finally receive the vital care they need.

This is what change looks like.

My gratitude tonight is profound. I am thankful for those in past generations whose heroic efforts brought this great goal within reach for our times. I am thankful for the members of Congress whose months of effort and brave votes made it possible to take this final step. But most of all, I am thankful for you.

This day is not the end of this journey. Much hard work remains, and we have a solemn responsibility to do it right. But we can face that work together with the confidence of those who have moved mountains.

Our journey began three years ago, driven by a shared belief that fundamental change is indeed still possible. We have worked hard together every day since to deliver on that belief.

We have shared moments of tremendous hope, and we've faced setbacks and doubt. We have all been forced to ask if our politics had simply become too polarized and too short-sighted to meet the pressing challenges of our time. This struggle became a test of whether the American people could still rally together when the cause was right -- and actually create the change we believe in.

Tonight, thanks to your mighty efforts, the answer is indisputable: Yes we can.

Thank you,

President Barack Obama

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Busy Weekend Ahead

I made a trip to Kinko's in preparation for a serious editing phase.

Hey, Mom, look what I did!

(My mom doesn't read my blog. Usually. I just mean that I think it looks cool to see four rough draft novels printed and bound for editing work. Of course I'd kill fewer trees if I could do all my editing on-screen. Alas. But at least I can read tiny type: two sheets per page, double-sided.)

My workspace:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Letter To My Trainer

Dear Wii Fit,

Please stop asking, "Too busy to work out yesterday, Sarahlynn?" when I step onto the machine.

Maybe I was too busy. Maybe my body doesn't like to work out seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year with no breaks. Or maybe I just went outside for a walk and didn't log on to input that data.

Right after your passive aggressive question, please quit admonishing me to "at least do a quick body test" when I'm "too busy" to work out. It's actually not healthy or constructive to weigh oneself every single day and I'm just not going to do that.

So if you could lay off the the nagging, that would be great.

And while we're at it, I'd like to request that you stop asking me if I want to "try again" or "quit" right after I finish a thirty minute run. It's not quitting to stop running after thirty minutes! It's "finishing." And quitting at thirty minutes leaves me plenty of energy to do other activities, like arm weights and ab-busting hula hoop.

Just so you know, your suggested weight for me is about 15 pounds below my target weight.  So I hope you don't get too insistent on having your way once we get there.

Still love you otherwise; thanks for all the great motivation, support, and especially those fabulous graphs.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's Not Black and White

As much as we might like it to be.

Monday, March 15, 2010


"I've got a bone to pick with you!" my mom said on the phone this afternoon.  "Do you remember a long time ago you gave me a bag of toys to donate? I left it in the back of my car and forgot about it for months and months.  Today I took it into the principal's office and dropped the whole thing into the treasure chest."

The treasure chest is for kids who get to choose special prizes.

"Later an email went out to the whole staff asking who dropped off the bag of booty.  There was something off in the tone of the email, but I replied letting her know that I'd left the toys.  She asked me to come down to the office so she could show me something."

Oh, no, I thought.  What on earth did I leave in that bag?!

Rewind two and a half years to our vacation in Scotland with my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, and niece.  We spent our last full day in Edinburgh and I did some souvenir shopping along the Royal Mile like every other tourist in town.  At one shop, as I was buying a soccer (foot)ball covered with Scottish flags for Ellie, I noticed a hilarious little impulse item on the counter.  "What a fabulous gag gift," I thought.  "Maybe for the couple who are watching our dog."

After we got home it occurred to me that it was not an appropriate gift for anybody.  At some point I must have dropped it into a bag of things to take with me on a visit to my parents' house, thinking we could all get a laugh out of it.  And then forgotten it, because . . .

"What was in the bag of toys?" I asked my mom.

"A whisky flavored condom!"

Oh, no.

"Can you even imagine if some child had taken that home as his prize?  From elementary school?"

Fortunately, my mom's principal has a great sense of humor.  And checked the toys one-by-one before emptying my mom's bag into the treasure chest.

"She checked it out and warned me that it is indeed expired so is no good unless I want more grandchildren."

Sunday, March 14, 2010


I've gained about two pounds over the past seven days and am really looking forward to kicking myself back into gear with diet and exercise this week.

Last week we had a wonderful visit from my in-laws. I love my mother- and father-in-law. And I can't blame them for my weight gain; sure there was extra food around but I didn't have to eat it!

We went out to eat four times in less than a week. So generous! So caloric. My MIL also brought a cooler of food (steaks, chicken), a huge bag of homemade scramble, two loaves of pumpkin bread, two types of scones, a few dozen muffins, a large tray of peanut butter chocolate bars, and a delicious coffee cake.

What can I say? She says "I love you" with food; so do I.

And tonight we attended a dessert auction fundraiser.

All in all, I think gaining only two pounds can be considered a success!

Besides, my "skinny jeans" from a couple of months ago are slipping on and off without me touching the zipper or button. This is a nice, if expensive, problem to have.

Unfortunately, I can't really brag about it because now I really wear the size I've been telling people I wear. Similarly I can't brag too much about my weight loss because I weigh what my driver's license says I weigh. Time for updated lies, I guess!

(Photo from PleaseEnjoy.com)

Friday, March 12, 2010


Monday, March 08, 2010

Writing Process

A few years ago, I attended the Summer Writer's Institute in Creative Nonfiction at Washington University.  It was a fabulous experience: motivational, encouraging, friendship-forming, and very educational.  In addition to being a writer of beautiful prose, Kathleen Finneran is one of the best teachers - and editors - I've ever had.

Every night, she gave the class a short writing assignment.  They were a lot of fun, but best of all was receiving feedback on my writing every single day!  "You are a natural essayist," she wrote on one of my pieces toward the end of the program.  Until she said that, I had no idea that what I was writing were personal essays.  This opened up a whole new world for me.

Recently I saw a call for submissions posted on a blog I follow.

It sparked an idea in me that I developed in the shower one morning.

Still dripping, I ran to the computer and typed up a quick draft.

Over the next few days I read the samples linked from the website and I realized that I'd gone in a different direction.

So I sat down with my essay and - over the next two drafts - cleaned up the prose, pared it back, and tweaked it to fit more with what the editor was looking for.

Then, shortly after midnight on the deadline, I submitted my essay.

I woke at 6:00 the next morning to find my rejection letter waiting for me - quickest rejection ever!

But it was a nice one, which I certainly appreciate.

It reads, in part:

Thank you for your submission for [redacted].

I enjoyed reading it, but in the end, decided not to choose it for publication.

It was one of the best submissions I received, though, and I encourage you to submit it elsewhere.
I'll take that.  And one of the most important characteristics of a writer, I'm told, is the ability to be motivated by rejection.

The Thought That Counts?

Recently I spent time with a cute little girl, a classmate of my daughter's. She told me how she prefers spending time with one grandmother over the other because one does whatever she says and gives her whatever she wants. She also told me all about her brand-name stuff, the movies she gets to see in the theater, and the restaurants she enjoys. She then attempted to boss me around. "Whew, that child is spoiled!" I thought.

The next day, Ada started pleading with us to take her to Walt Disney World. (And she always calls it "Walt Disney World," no cutesy nicknames for her.) When I explained that it would be a while before we take another trip to Cinderella's castle, she said, "Sometimes Ellie and Mommy and Daddy go to Walt Disney World. Not Ada."

In other words, you never take me! I never get to go!

"Ellie, Mommy, Daddy, and Ada all went to Disney World together when you were one and Ellie was five," I remind Ada, who's now three. "A little more than a year ago."

"You take me again," she replies, confident.

"When you're four." Daddy's almost visibly doing math in his head as he promises.

"Five, I amend."

Well, hello, kettle! Nice to meet you. I'm pot.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Ice Skates

I'm working on an essay right now.  It's not complete and it's already 200 words too long, but I'm really excited about how it's coming together.  I think I will be proud of this one when it's done.  And that will be soon, because the call for submissions closes on Sunday!

Moving right along to Friday Photoblogging.

After making the girls suffer through two weeks of the Olympics on television, we decided to let them try one of the sports.  Last weekend we took our daughters ice skating for the first time. 

They loved it.

And we loved that they loved it.  But Paul and I were sore for days after the outing.  His back hurt worse than mine because he took more trips around the ice hunched over to hold each daughter.  I "lucked out" that my feet cramped up so badly I had to rip off my hockey skates and press my soles flat to the icy ground.  Stupid plantar faciitis.  I missed a few days of workouts waiting for the pain to subside.  All better now, but not getting near blades any time soon.

Back to thinking about Olympic sports: why isn't sled dragging one? I mean, there's two-man luge and four-man bobsled, neither of which I get. I think having an event where a parent-type person drags a sleigh full of small athletes around some snowy ground makes much more sense.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

 This week for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Satrapi is only five years older than me. The Complete Persepolis is her memoir, a coming of age story. When she writes about her childhood it's the time of my own childhood and she mentions some of the political events and important people I remember seeing on the news during those days. But with one big difference.

Marjane Satrapi is Iranian and she's writing about her life in Iran (and, later, Vienna).

One day she was a secular ten-year-old student in a co-educational French school in Tehran. The next day she was attending an all girls school, wearing a veil, and spending part of each school day beating herself in solidarity with the martyrs.

The story follows young Marjane from the early days of the Islamic Revolution to her decision to leave home as a twenty-five year-old woman.

The author is an artist, and has written her story in comic book style: a graphic memoir. I don't tend to pick up graphic novels or memoirs as I have this idea that I don't like them. But I'm always appreciative when a book club encourages me to stretch outside of my comfort zone and I really enjoyed this book (as I did Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, another book club read).

Satrapi's combination of a few well-chosen words alongside "deceptively simple" pictures (for so I've seen them described everywhere this book is reviewed) somehow manages to say more than many hundreds of pages of dense text might have conveyed.

The Complete Persepolis is really two books published in one volume: Persepolis and Persepolis 2, both originally written in French. I'm glad to have read both volumes - indeed I was unsure where one stopped and the next started so I read the book through in one late-night gulp - but I enjoyed the first one more.

Persepolis is about the fascinating events of the Islamic Revolution and what it was like to be a child in a particular sort of family in that environment, experiencing things far beyond my own childhood experiences and eventually normalizing them.

Persepolis 2 is the story of Satrapi's years away from Iran, in high school in Europe, followed by her early adult years back in Iran. In Persepolis 2 I was less caught up by the historic events sweeping up the main character and far more frustrated by her self-destructive choices.

The two pieces together form a cohesive whole, transitioning the main character from a child drawn along by her circumstances to an adolescent struggling to control her own life and finally to an adult managing her world with confidence.

I learned a lot from this book, but not in such a way that I felt like I was learning; it was always the story that drew me onward. And in today's world - with Iran part of the "axis of evil" and a presumptive 2012 presidential candidate calling for the U.S. to declare war on Iran - I feel just a little bit more informed about this ancient country and her complex people.

Highly recommended.

From an interview with the author:
"When you are also very young, it’s so difficult all the time justifying yourself because of your nationality. A simple question that for everyone is a one-word answer to “Where do you come from?” -- “I am French.” For an Iranian, it’s a one-hour explanation: “I am Iranian but, I am Iranian but…”

How do you answer that question now, as opposed to when you were young?

When you are young you hate to answer that question. Well, today I just say “I am Iranian,” and they say “You are Iranian?” and I say “Yes, it is a fact, I am Iranian. I was born there, I have black hair. Yes, I am an Iranian person, what can I do?” Since writing the book, nobody can tell me “Give me some explanation.” I think now my explanation is just “Read the book and you’ll see.” This book has permitted me not to talk so much anymore. People have read the book so they see what my situation is.

So you’ve been in France for a long time now. Do you feel you can call it home in any way?

I can live fifty years in France and my affection will always be with Iran. I always say that if I were a man I might say that Iran is my mother and France is my wife. My mother, whether she’s crazy or not, I would die for her, no matter what she is my mother. She is me and I am her. My wife I can cheat on with another woman, I can leave her, I can also love her and make her children, I can do all of that but it’s not like with my mother. But nowhere is my home any more. I will never have any home any more. Having lived what I have lived, I can never see the future. It’s a big difference when someone has to leave their country."

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Laptop roasting by an open fire

Don't you love that first-cold-day smell? You crank up the heat for the first time all season and - sniff sniff - what *is* it, exactly? Burning dust? Blowing mold? Better not to analyze, just enjoy.

I woke with a smile this morning, thinking of pumpkin spiced lattes and colorful leaves fluttering to the ground.

Then I remembered that it's March first and the furnace has been running for at least three months. I only drink "skinny" lattes now and our yard is still so choked with dry, ugly, dead, soggy, brown oak leaves that it's a wonder we haven't been cited by the county.

I should *not* be smelling that first-cold-day-of-fall smell.

So I spent the day cleaning, thinking I might find something spilled into, onto, or over a vent. I found nothing but dust and clutter, both of which I dispatched. By mid-afternoon the house just smelled lemony clean.

Then Paul came home from work. "It's cold in here," he said, checked the thermostat, and headed downstairs to change the furnace filter.

I was cold all day, but thought little of it. I'm often cold, especially when I'm not fat or pregnant. Ada kept taking off all her clothes and running around in just underpants and an "underwear shirt" so I figured the house couldn't be too cold. (She was playing "swimming pool" in her ball pit and had to improvise a swimsuit.)

But, naturally, the furnace is out. And we didn't notice until after 6:00 pm. And it's supposed to get down into the 20's tonight.

Tomorrow I think I'll wake up with that jack frost nipping at my nose feeling accompanied by that I'm about to spend a lot of money I'd rather spend on something else feeling.

C'mon over, we're playing badminton

I admit that I only follow most sports for two weeks every four years. I save up all my spectator enthusiasm for intense biannual bursts. This means that I really keep up with my Olympics but miss out on what's going on in the sports in "off years."

So I've heard that Lindsey Vonn is good. And I noticed that she won a gold medal in Vancouver. But I really don't get the hype.

Four years ago, in Torino, it was very popular for Americans to hate Bode Miller. Apparently, he was a let-down and a failure for not winning a gold medal. Much was made of his "washing out" over and over on the slopes.

From what I saw in Vancouver, Vonn isn't so different. She did win a gold medal, it's true. And a bronze. But she wiped out in more events than she finished in this competition. Worse were her comments to interviewers. Vonn was scheduled to compete in five events in Vancouver. But when asked about the remaining events immediately after winning her first, Vonn replied, "I don’t care. I got what I came here to do, I got a gold medal."

I just kept thinking of other, less famous U.S. skiers, maybe alternates who didn't quite make the team but who really really would care to compete. I also like to think about athletes who think about team and country in addition to personal glory in the Olympics.

Interestingly, it's Bode Miller who helped put Vonn's performance - if not her comments - into perspective. To get the dramatic wins, you have to ski right on the edge of control, he suggests. You have spectacular successes . . . or spectacular failures.

But somehow Vonn is a media darling while Miller was a joke until his "surprise" comeback as a "more mature athlete" this year.

Of course, Vonn is hot. She's an extremely attractive young woman who races with make-up and styled hair, and has taken off nearly all her clothes to pose for a glossy men's magazine. But I'm sure that has nothing to do with the price of tea in, oh, nevermind.

P.S. Thank you, NBC for the wonderful Mary Carillo fix. She's still fabulous!

(Watch the video. Seriously. You won't regret it. Carillo's producer must be just off camera saying, "stretch it! stretch it!" What starts out as a boring description of badminton becomes a hilarious treatise on garage cleaning.)