Monday, February 24, 2014

Why Being Sick Is Actually the Worst

If you work with children, there's just no escaping the stomach virus. Thanks to the Podlings and their willingness to share, I spent most of this weekend flat on my back, lost in a sea of my own personal misery. After the fever had broken, most of the gastrointestinal surprises had passed, and I could finally sit up without feeling that my head might roll off, I began contemplating all of the ways in which being sick is actually the worst.

Plenty of sleep but no rest.

Despite having slept for nearly twenty-four hours over the weekend, I awoke on Sunday feeling completely exhausted and sporting eye pits the size of star destroyers. The reason for this is that a fevered sleep doesn't count as actual sleep. We shouldn't even call it sleep. It's more like anti-sleep.

Wasted downtime. 

Who among us hasn't wanted to stay home in bed once in a while? You would have plenty of time to relax, watch TV, or read a good book. Not if you're really sick, of course. If you're sick, you're busy trying stop the room from spinning, attempting to ensure that your vomit goes into the proper receptacle (into the bucket, not the drawer - into the bucket, not the drawer!), and managing the twin fires burning behind your eyelids. You have no time to worry about anything else. 

Everything is ridiculous.

When Meg Ryan is ill in You've Got Mail and Tom Hanks comes to take care of her, she answers the door looking like this, which is the Hollywood version of sick, whereas when I woke up yesterday, I looked like this:
All things considered, it's probably for the best that no men showed up on my doorstep yesterday with flowers, ice cream, or soup. There's no telling what might have happened. Although it would have made for an entertaining scene, I doubt that it would have led to the same sort of happy ending as in You've Got Mail.

That's because in books and movies, sickness is used as a plot device to create sympathy, heighten tension, or drive the story forward.

In real life, though, being sick is just the worst. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Books I've Loved and How They've Hurt Me

In much the same way that it's possible to have a love-hate relationship with a person, it's also possible to have a love-hate relationship with a book. The books listed below are books that I have loved for their power but also hated for their ability to slash my heart into oozing little bits.

I am not a person who cries often, but somehow or another, each of these books slipped past my guard. Some made me cry a little and some made me cry a lot. At least one of these books caused me to startle my sister one idyllic Sunday afternoon when I bolted from my bedroom, sobbing uncontrollably and searching for tissues. 

I've attempted to list the books from smallest to greatest impact, meaning that the first few just made me tear up and the last few made me audibly cry. 

I've also included the lines or scenes that sent me over the edge. (Non-spoilery, of course.)


Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
This fictionalized letter from an old preacher to his young son is actually a highly underrated novel that packs an emotional punch. Tipping Point: John Ames sitting quietly in the church, watching the light move across the floor. 

All Clear, Connie Willis
In her last installment of her Oxford Time Travel sequence, Willis really pulls out all the emotional stops. While her stranded historians are working hard to survive WWII, Willis works hard to ensure that her readers feel all the feels. Tipping Point: "I have ridden long, weary miles, she thought. I have searched long, hopeless years."

The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang
Iris Chang's account of the Japanese occupation of Nanking is a true heart-breaker in itself, but I made matters worse. A few years ago, someone I love was in the hospital. In my haste to get there, I panicked-packed an overnight bag and threw in the book I was reading at the time, which happened to be The Rape of Nanking. I have to tell you that it was the wrong sort of read for an extended hospital stay. While it's an important book, it's also a grim read. In this case, the situation in which I read the book made everything seem much grimmer. While I'll admit that my feels were already ballooning before this book sent me over the edge, the experience still packed a wallop. Tipping Point: How the rolls of film got out of Nanking. 

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein
Tale of a downed American ATA pilot attempting to survive Ravensbruck. Full of poetry and heartache. Tipping Point: The red bikini. 

Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
All the sustaining benefits of friendship are highlighted in this excellent account of two girls embroiled in WWII. Nobody puts the thumbscrews on your feels quite like Elizabeth Wein. Tipping Points: 1) "I desperately want to grow old." 2) "Kiss me, Hardy."

There's No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Rescue Her Country's Children, Melissa Fay Greene
This is the book that sent me sobbing into the living room, tears and snot blubbering down my face, while I wailed, "I CANT READ THIS! IT'S TOO AWFUL!" My poor sister tried to reason with me ("You don't have to read it, you know.") but it was already too late. This account of the African AIDS crisis left my heart desolate and influenced me to get involved in orphan care. Tipping Point: A tiny child leading a smaller toddler by the hand, wandering down out of the mountains and joining the children gathering at Haregewoin Teferra's door, crying to be adopted. 

Of course there have been more than five books that have upset me over the course of my reading life. For whatever reason, however, these five have been the most memorable. 

The next time you're in the mood to let a book punch you right in the feels, feel free to pick up any of these. You won't be disappointed. 

You'll be sad, yes.  But not disappointed.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

Honest Travel Photos

Let's face it. For as awesome as traveling is, there are moments in every trip during which we wonder if we probably should have just stayed home. Even the most seasoned travelers feel this way on even the most spectacular trips.

These moments rarely come across in post-vacation photos, however.

Oh, no.

To look at someone else's travel photos is to view a sun-drenched, adventure-filled getaway that makes us simply ache with jealousy.

It's good for us to remember, then, that most photo albums are self-editied, and that for every photo that looks like this:

...there are probably also a few that look something like this:

Know that if you choose to travel, you will not always look your best. 

You will not always be at your best, because even the best trips carry their own frustrations.

Sometimes it's too hot.

Sometimes it's too cold.

 Sometimes you travel with people who bicker constantly, like this:

Or make you feel like this: 

Sometimes there will be that one person who just won't stop talking:

Sometimes you'll have a seatmate who farts in his sleep.

Sometimes you'll be too jet lagged to figure out what day it is, and you will look like this:

 Sometimes only one person enjoys the day's activities.

Sometimes everything is hard.

Sometimes jump photos are almost more trouble than they're worth.

Sometimes you're such a bossy wreck that even the best backdrop can't ensure a good shot.

Some travel days just feel like this:

Sometimes you have to sleep wherever jet lag hits you.

Sometimes you make it back to the hotel, but you're too tired to bother with pajamas. Or covers. Or breathing.

Not every jump gets off the ground.

Not every moment is a winner.

Sometimes you'll wonder why you left home at all.

The truth about travel is that it's weird and wild and frustrating and beautiful. It's fun and not fun all rolled into one. You will have plans fall through. You will be jet lagged. You will get lost. Taxi drivers will rip you off. Locals will laugh at you. You will contract food poisoning and drop your sunglasses into the squat toilet. 

I'm not trying to talk you out of travel. I'm just saying. 

The next time you're scrolling through photos of your friend's perfect trip and wondering why your vacations never seem to measure up, remember this: travel photos only tell the story that we want them to tell. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Please Say Yes (a hypothetical Valentine's Day proposal)

Please Say Yes
a hypothetical Valentine's Day proposal

If I could take the evening skies
And stuff them deep into my eyes
Or suck the sea into my ears
Or cry spaghetti as my tears;
If I could drink the Serpentine, 
Then would you be my Valentine?

If I could burp a chest of drawers
Or use my toes as row-boat oars
Or climb a ladder with my skin
Or grow a giant dorsal fin;
If I could make a dead star shine,
Then would you be my Valentine?

If I could bake a brilliant moon
Or use a comma as a spoon
Or suck up sunbeams through a straw
Or waltz on rooftops (so bourgeois!);
If I could wrestle Frankenstein,
Then would you be my Valentine?

If I could swim into the past,
Or answer questions never asked,
Or captain small potato boats,
Or juggle cultured mountain goats;
If I brought peace to Palestine,
Then would you be my Valentine?

Please say yes. 

©Ruth Buchanan, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ten Reasons to Love Joshua Chamberlain

Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia Commons
One night while I was hanging out with my parents, the topic of celebrity crushes came up, and my dad made a quip about how I don't have celebrity crushes: I have historical boyfriends instead. 

I'm sure you don't think poorly of me for this quirk. In fact, perhaps the supreme benefits of historical boyfriends have already impressed themselves upon you. Historical boyfriends are perfect because not only can you learn absolutely everything about them, but you can also brag about doing so without seeming like a creepy stalker. Additionally, you can love your historical boyfriends from afar with absolutely no fear of rejection, and nobody will judge you for this. (Much.)

If you know me well, then you're already aware that I've had my share of historical boyfriends. My current favorite, however, leaves the rest of those has-beens in the dust. 

I think that Joshua Chamberlain is one of the most attractive men in United States history. 

Allow me to tell you why.

Ten Reasons to Love Joshua Chamberlain:

1. He's dreamy. Really, I think the photo speaks for itself. Even with that droopy walrus 'stache, he's a sight to behold. (He aged well, too.)

2. He's a man of God. Chamberlain wasn't just another seminary-educated product of the Victorian Age. He lived out his convictions in the classroom, at home, on the battlefield, and in the social arena. In his inaugural address as governor of Maine in 1870, he went on record that social programs (such as the Temperance Movement) could do little to enforce morality on people who remained unconvicted, because "only by the Gospel" can men be truly changed.   

3. He's brave and adventurous. Historian John Pullen describes Chamberlain as having "hungered for an epic life." This didn't seem a likely fate for a family man and college professor; however, for better of for worse, the advent of the Civil War and his rise to prominence in the Union Army gave this side of his character free reign. Since you might already be familiar with his actions at Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, I would encourage you to acquaint yourselves with his insanely brave behavior at the Battles of Quaker Road and White Oak, when he fought so creatively and indefatigably that even the Southern line cheered him as they saw him riding dashingly around covered in blood from the various horses that they had shot out from under him.  

4. He's funny. After various horses had been shot out from under him at the battle of Quaker Road, Chamberlain fell into a nest of Confederates. Under the camouflage of a mud-splattered face and uniform, he adopted what historian Willard Wallace refers to as a "fruity Southern accent" and called out for the boys to follow him if they wanted to catch some Yankees. He then led them straight into a Union line, where they were captured. A short time later during that same battle, someone from his staff helped him onto a pale white horse. The significance of this did not escape the Seminary-trained Chamberlain, who later commented that when straddling this mount, he must have appeared to the Southern line "more than ever like a figure from the Apocalypse."  

5. He's a bit of a nerd. Chamberlain was a life-long scholar with a love of books, travel, and languages. Although he's better known in popular culture as a soldier, he spent most of his years as a teacher. He once also claimed to have loved even the smell of books. (I'd love him for that comment alone.)

6. He's noble. His nobility is displayed again and again throughout his life, from the time that he won over the men of the rebellious 2nd Maine Infantry (whom he was saddled with on the eve of the Battle of Little Round Top and told to shoot, but instead largely won back to loyal service through his care and respectful treatment) to the day that he called upon the men under his command at Appomattox Courthouse to offer one last, respectful salute to Lee's Army of Northern Virginia as they lay down their arms in surrender. 

7. He's unpredictable. When angry political opponents plotted his assassination in 1880, Chamberlain marched out to the bloodthirsty mob saying, "Friends, you've come to kill me, I hear!" Then he tore open his coat, looked them in the eyes, and silently dared them.  LIKE A BOSS.

8. He's a Romantic. I mean this not in the common sense of the word (although he did love his wife very much) but in the artistic sense. He loved nature, music, literature, truth, beauty, and high ideals, proving himself a well-rounded man. 

9. He leads by doing. Accounts of battles always note Chamberlain going before his men, leading the line, shouting "Follow me!" Even the commands for which he's best known at Little Round Top--"FIX BAYONETS!" and "CHARGE!"--are lines which he admits he may or may not have actually uttered aloud. The charge was in all likelihood, says John Pullen, an "impulsive forward movement of the whole regiment," a regiment trained to keep an eye on their leader and follow him implicitly. 

10. He's totally out of my league. I've always loved unattainable men best. As a happily married man who died a century ago, Chamberlain rests solidly in the unattainable category. 

More's the pity. 

I'm sure I could have made him very happy. 

* * *

I'm indebted to the following works for fueling my research obsession:

Friday, February 7, 2014

How to Watch the Olympics

1. Completely clear your schedule. For the next few weeks, nothing else matters but work, food, sleep, and Olympics.

2. Stretch your jaw muscles well prior to watching the opening ceremonies. Who doesn't remember the shock of seeing the Industrial Revolution rise out of the ground during the London games? Who didn't nearly faint to realize mid-way through the Beijing ceremony that the movable-type blocks were being controlled manually by nearly nine hundred performers in perfect synchronization? Stretching your face muscles prior to viewing will prevent straining during those unexpected jaw drops.

3. Stock up on junk food. Nothing says Olympics quite like a crock pot full of quietly bubbling Velveeta and a lap full of tortilla crumbs.

4. Prepare to engage in supremely ironic criticism. While you sit on your couch eating chips and watching world-class athletes in peak conditions parade around in skin-tight uniforms like young gods, don't be surprised to find yourself feeling supremely critical. You will watch these amazing athletes performing feats of athleticism that you can't even understand, only to be unimpressed because "he wobbled a bit on the landing." Never mind the fact that if you attempted it yourself, you would do much more than wobble on the landing. You would probably die.  But it doesn't matter. Everything about these young Adonises comes up for summary judgment: everything from bushy eyebrows, close-set eyes, weird moles, and oddly-shaped ears will be subject to your critical evaluation.  Don't feel guilty about this. It's part of the Olympic spirit. 

5. Learn to forego sleep. Although you will tell yourself that tonight you won't stay up as late.... that tonight you will content yourself with just the first few rounds of competition.... that tonight it will be different!!!.... know that in the end, the clock will always betray you. The next thing you know, you'll wake up on the couch in the wee hours, chip crumbs stuck to your face, with Bob Costas still droning in the background making empty promises to reveal the final results after one more commercial break. 


If you're a fan of the Olympics, then you know that watching the Olympics can in itself feel like an Olympic sport. After all, it takes a lot of energy to prepare enough snacks, to ensure that you've gathered everything that you'll need before the events come on the air (pillow, throw blanket, food, drink, remote, cell phone, etc.), and to employ your skills as an armchair critic.

Whatever your 2014 Olympic experience may be, I think we call can agree that no matter how much we may love the thought of international travel, this year we're all happy to be watching from the comfort of our own homes rather than from Sochi itself.

Go world.


Monday, February 3, 2014

How to Work from Home

1. The night before, set your alarm for super early so that you will be able to get a jump start on the day.

2. When the alarm goes off, hit snooze.

3. Hit snooze a few more times.

4. Feel guilty about hitting snooze.

5. Hit snooze again.

6. Realize that the sun is up. Panic.

7. Get up, get dressed, shower, eat. Theoretically, you could work un-showered and in your pajamas, but you'll regret it in the long run. Seriously.

8. Peek outside to check the weather. If foul, feel smug that you work from home and don't have to go out in it. If fair, pity yourself because you work from home and don't get to go out in it.

9. Decide to work non-stop until lunch.

10. Immediately start wondering if it's lunchtime yet.

11. Check the clock. It's 9:48. Get back to work.

12. Check the clock. Decide that 10:30 is a perfectly respectable time for an early lunch.

13. Eat lunch.

14. Get back to work.

15. Wonder if 11:30 is too early for afternoon coffee.

16. Remind yourself that if you had gotten up early, as you had planned, you would already be done by now.

17. Write passive-aggressive notes to stick on your nightstand in reminder of the dire consequences of hitting snooze. On your phone, change the name of your morning alarm from "Wake up!" to "Don't Hit Snooze, You Moron!"

18. Make afternoon coffee to fortify yourself for phone calls and/or Skype sessions with clients/editors/students/etc.

19. Remember that you have not yet seen other humans today. Check mirror to ensure that you are presentable from at least the waist up.

20. Conduct Skype sessions and/or phone calls.

21. Feel that you've earned a nap, but struggle with the knowledge that if you lie down now, you'll have to work after dinner to finish the day's quota.

22. Brew more coffee.

23. Ignore the fact that from where you sit, you can see your bed. It looks inviting, cozy, and warm. Power through its gravitational pull.

24. Finally establish a productive groove, only to field phone calls from friends/family. Laugh at their jokes about how you work from home and therefore are probably just now starting your work day.

25. Decide to check social media for "just a second." Come out of haze and wonder what's happened to the last forty-five minutes. Contemplate throwing your phone onto the roof.

26. Re-establish productive groove. Fall into partially-hypnotic state. Blink, look at the clock, and realize that you've lost a significant swath of time.

27. Power through the rest of your daily quota, hoping to finish in time to eat dinner before dark.

28. Take a long walk around the neighborhood, partly for the exercise and partly to remind yourself that other humans exist.

29. Go home, watch a little TV, read a book, get ready for bed.

30. Set your alarm for super early so that you will be able to get a jump start on the next day.

* * *

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that the above list is not an entirely accurate account of my current work-from-home experience. For instance, there are only two days a week that I don't have to get up by 4:30 for a brutal early-morning training session at my gym. Those two off days, though, are days when I continually tell myself that I'm going to get up at 4:30 and jump-start my work day... only I never do. Instead I hit snooze until the sun comes up.

Because I can.

Toward the end of my thirteen years as a classroom teacher, I would generally spend the bulk of my non-travel summer days writing. During those summer work-from-home days, I would have added "Resist spontaneous road trips" and "Pretend the beach isn't five minutes away" to the above list. 

Over the weekend, I read The Way of the Fight by MMA champion Georges St. Pierre and was surprised to discover many points in common between his life and mine. For one thing, he claims that he trains for speed and agility rather than to form big muscles or to look good. Incidentally, that's also why I train. (A key difference being that he, unlike me, actually does have big muscles that look good and that he also trains in order to choke people out in an octagon. But let's not quibble over minor details.) Another point in common is our shared belief in consistent daily effort. In his book, he discusses the importance of giving 100% every day, especially on the days he doesn't feel like showing up for training.  He believes that those are the days that matter most in the long run.

Freelancing from home has taught me a similar lesson. In fact, I have this quote from writer John Dufresne pasted to my coffee maker: "Writing is a craft which favors the diligent over the inspired." The idea of artistic inspiration is much misunderstood, even by creatives themselves. The truth is that success in any given field requires that you show up every day and work, whether you happen to feel inspired or not. Of course there are days that inspiration comes, and those days are glorious. However, those days are the exceptions rather than the rule. 

Most days, work is just that.  

It's work. 

Work that requires discipline, diligence, and determination.

And yes, I include you in this, stay-at-home moms. You're the ultimate examples of what working from home should look like. Sun or sleet, sickness or health, day in and day out, you get up and get it done. You make the breakfasts, clean up the spilled drinks, pack the lunches, track everyone's various schedules, clean up vomit, run errands, balance budgets, administer first aid, and handle a million crises before lunch--all of this whether you feel "inspired" or not.

I look on you with awe and yearn for the day that I can emulate your work ethic.

Because then maybe I'll begin to understand what it really means to work from home.