…a kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the queen…

Evangeline has decided to be Queen Elsa from the movie “Frozen” for Halloween. This came about after several weeks of planning to be a pirate, and then switching, suddenly and upsettingly, to Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” for a bit before settling once and for all on Elsa, although she did agree I made a very compelling case for Wendy from “Peter Pan.” It took a bit of discussion to understand why she came to Elsa so late in the game, but it sounds like she found out most of the girls in her class were planning on being princesses of one kind or another. She and I were having a chat about it her choice when she changed her mind from being a pirate.

“Well, I really want to be Elsa but Myra (a friend of hers at daycare) told me she is being Elsa so I had to choose another princess, so I chose Belle,” Evangeline told me. I can get almost any information I need to out of her when we have popsicles on the front porch swing together.

“Okay, but who or what do you want to be for Halloween?” I asked her. “Nobody else gets to make that decision for you – not even mommy.”

Evangeline considered. “Well, I really want to be Elsa,” she concluded. “She has magic powers. Pirates don’t have magic powers.”

“Then, you can be Elsa,” I said definitively, managing to keep my less charitable Myra-related thoughts to myself.

I’m actually relieved she chose Elsa as her costume, not only because it was easily purchasable but I was nervous she’d be really upset when she realized just how many little girls were dressing up as Elsa this year. I never felt comfortable offering it up as a choice for her but at the same time knew she could end up crushed, seeing all the other Elsas out in the world on the evening of Halloween. I’m glad she came to the decision by herself and that, while being just one of a million other Elsa’s, she’s standing up for herself in a way.

I read somewhere that Disney made a major miscalculation by believing girls would prefer Anna’s character over Elsa, assuming since Anna had the love interest AND performed an act of true love she would garner the favor of little girls everywhere. Instead, it was Elsa, with her magical powers, independent nature and easily identifiable theme song that drew children in and kept their attention rapt, and having listened to “Let it Go” belted out more times than I could possibly estimate, I think I understand why.

I have watched my three and a half year old daughter, clad in dress up shoes, various blankets and well-placed scarves, running from room to room in our house, belting the lyrics to this song. Her commitment is unquestionable, her passion all-consuming. And, after listening to the lyrics for the hundredth thousandth time, I get it. I really do.

“Let it go” is the perfect anthem for all the little girls who are told to be nice, be good, act like little ladies, smile, be sweet, be kind. It’s the kind of messaging girls start receiving incredibly early on, and even as a woman who tries not to instill gendered expectations on my daughter , I find myself communicating those messages on occasion, snapping at E to “act like a lady” when she’s lifting her skirt over her head to show everyone her underwear or to calm down and be kind when a friend is upsetting her. I like to believe that I’ll pass the same messages on to Duncan – that we don’t walk around showing off our underwear, no matter how cool they are, or to always take a deep breath when someone is invading our personal space, but I know that one of the reasons I communicate with E the way I do is because she’s a girl.

I do cut myself slack for this as often as possible – I’ve seen so many of my friends tie themselves in knots over every parenting moment and that’s not how I want to live, but I am trying to be mindful of how I communicate with E and what expectations she might infer from me. And, no matter how tired I might be of the soundtrack, I am thankful to “Frozen,” for giving her lyrics that help her feel like she can break out of the “nice girl” narrative, run and stomp through the house with abandon and cry at the top of her lungs to let it go, let it go, let it go.

the view from my front door

Sunday morning, after a luxurious (for us) wake up from the kids at 6:45 a.m., with no plans to attend church because of road closures, Duncan down for his morning nap and Evangeline ensconced in her puzzles, I filled up a bucket with window cleaner and hot water and headed for the front of the house, determined to finally wash our windows. It was a bit cooler than I had anticipated but I didn’t mind. I was finding so much satisfaction in dipping the squeegy window thing (it’s real name) in the steaming hot, bubbly water, splashing the water all over our large front window and then meticulously squeegying the excess water off the window that very little could have dampened my mood. Our street is a relatively busy one and a lot of people were out and about already, walking dogs, chasing toddlers or going for a morning jog.

“Early start,” I heard a male voice call. When I turned around I saw a middle-aged man with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby strapped securely in his Ergo carrier, trying to contain an excited beagle on a leash.

“Oh, no – we’ve been up, had first breakfast and are now just down for morning nap,” I replied, jutting my chin in his child’s direction. “We have a baby too.”

“Oh, yeah – we are heading for morning nap too, right after we finish our walk,” he said. “I’m Adam, by the way.”

“I’m Courtney, it’s nice to meet you.”

The rest of the conversation finished in the average way you would expect it to, so it would be difficult to immediately discern what was remarkable about it unless you lived on our street with us for the last five years. What I found astounding was that the conversation happened at all.

Five and a half years ago when we chose our house, we did so with the understanding that it wasn’t in a great school district, and that it did, in fact, exist mere blocks from one of the worst neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to have children, and even if we were able to, they existed merely as figments of our imagination, so we weren’t concerned with school districts.

It’s one thing not to be terribly concerned about school districts, and entirely another to realize what it means to live on the border of a “bad” neighborhood. Within weeks a drug deal went bad in our back alley, resulting in one of the kids breaking into our neighbors’ house while they were home to hide out from his dealer. A few weeks later, a woman was raped in a nearby park. For the first two and a half years we lived in our house, it wasn’t unusual to witness a rotating group of prostitutes circle in and out of one of the nearby apartment buildings, or to watch for used condoms and syringes when walking our dog. Occasionally we despaired about our choice of location
but, typical first-born children that we are, we mostly owned our decision and went about the business of restoring the house we bought and appreciating the fact it was within walking distance of work and our favorite restaurants. We did adopt a pretty big dog.

After I became pregnant with Evangeline we talked much more deeply about what we should do.

“We may have to lose money on the house,” Sam would say. “But we can recover from that if need be.”

“Kids need more green space,” I would say. “And fewer drug deals going on behind their house.”

“Preferably NO drug deals.”

“Well, yes, preferably. But even the suburbs have meth and heroine and teenagers.”

But while I was busy making and nursing babies, an amazing thing began to happen. It happened so slowly as to practically be imperceptible, until one day Sam and I were drinking coffee on our porch and noticed a brand new BMW parked in between the identical Mazdas my neighbor and I own.

“Well, that person obviously doesn’t live here,” I said.

“No, he does – down the street in one of the condos,” Sam said. “And someone nearby owns a Range Rover, too.”

I know gentrification has its downside but that’s not exactly what we are experiencing yet – I think, we are experiencing pre-gentrification, maybe? We’ve always had a solid set of neighbors, the majority of them child-free by choice, for whom school districts have never been important part of choosing a neighborhood. Now, between the frequent sightings of various couples in their late thirties, generally dressed either for the gym or a night on the town or the more transient, dislocated people who circulate in and out of the apartment buildings four blocks away from us, we are meeting young families. So many young families, in fact, that my neighbor Carmen has declared a baby boom in our neighborhood. And students! College and graduate school students, moving in with their Ikea furniture and beat up cars, asking with heartbreaking sincerity at the bus stop “if the bus is usually on time?” as we wait for one to arrive.

For several years I always found Sunday afternoons the creepiest time in my neighborhood. I usually found myself all alone in the park when I took my dog for a walk, save for one or two men sitting on the benches, a restlessness about them that screamed drug addiction. Even though Skylar is fiercely protective of me and sort of scary due to his size, I rushed through our Sunday afternoon constitutionals, never feeling completely comfortable or safe.

Now, though. Now. Sunday afternoons! A nearby yoga studio conducts classes in the middle of the park while parents bring their kids in wagons, on bikes and in strollers, laden down with t-ball equipment, beach balls and toys. The park is poetry in motion, all kids on bikes and babies on strollers and parents, coffee in hand, chasing chasing chasing. It is now one of my favorite places to spend time on the weekend.

Over the years we’ve talked about moving to the suburbs, to a house in better shape than ours – one perhaps with a better bathroom and yard big enough for a trampoline and more green space for the kids, but something continually keeps us in the city. Sometimes it’s a reminder during our minister’s Sunday sermon that as Christians we are supposed to travel lightly and not become bogged down with the more more more our society encourages, other times it’s realizing that adding an actual commute to our daily lives could be our undoing. Whatever the shifting reasons happen to be, they’ve given us an opportunity to witness real change, and the way a neighborhood can evolve over time, and endless opportunities for gratefulness.

it all began with boys we loved

A long, long time ago, back when I was entering the ninth grade, one of the things I most looked forward to about entering high school was finally being allowed to attend Friday night football games with my friends, without my parents lurking somewhere in the stadium, keeping an eye on me. In Alpena, Michigan in the 1990’s it was a big deal to be able to join your friends in the student section of the bleachers on Friday nights, and the first game carried a particular importance – it was the day you picked spot – the place you would watch games the rest of your time in high school. Very few of my friends at the time were interested in football and those that were also happened to be in the marching band, so I couldn’t sit with them. I was a little nervous,that first Friday, to arrive alone – but my parents encouraged me to go ahead – they said I’d find people to sit with, and of course they were right. Before even purchasing my ticket, I ran into my friend Jessica and together she and I braved the crowds of juniors and seniors to find our spots. We ended up almost exactly in the middle of the student section, near several friends from our French and biology classes, and for four years we watched the boys we grew up with play against other small-town northern Michigan teams. As far as I know, none of the boys that I watched play football throughout those years grew into a violent man – in fact, many of them were and remain today some of the gentlest souls I know.

Yes, I hung out with the football players in high school, and while this association conjures up all sorts of cliches thanks to movies and television, it wasn’t because I was absurdly popular or a cheerleader or anything like that – in a small town roles are more malleable than that. I fell into friendships with football players in the usual way – my best friend began dating one of them, and then Jessica began dating another, and while throughout my tenure at Alpena High School I only (and briefly) dated one football player, they became my friends, part of my gang, so to speak.

I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating: these boys were some of the most gentle I have ever met, off the field. Most of them were raised to be good Catholic kids who took their religion and their families seriously. A number of them are still active in the church, a smaller number of them heavily so. They weren’t rule breakers and they rarely challenged authority – when I spent time at their houses there parents were always home, just like mine were when they came over.

When I attended our high school football games, I wasn’t cheering on strangers – I was rooting for my friends – for the quarterback who completed a shared read-aloud Macbeth assignment with me, for the linebacker in my church confirmation class.

For many of us, a love of football all began with the boys we loved.

Football, perhaps more than most other sports, is about so much more than the game itself. When I was in high school it was also about the hot buttery popcorn and frothy hot chocolate served at the concession stand, and the ebb and flow of hundreds of teenage bodies absorbed sometimes in the game but mostly in each other, and it was about frosted nights beneath the stars and lights and the majority of the town’s activity centered in this one particular corner for a couple of particular hours. Football games were generally parent-approved and teacher-regulated, yet a certain amount of freedom could be found in taking a walk with someone around the field or congregating in the parking lot prior to and after the game. Most of the time the high school sponsored a casual post-game dance where whatever energy we didn’t expend in the bleachers or on the field could be danced off before going home.

My interest in football has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on where I lived and what I was doing. In college I spent a number of Saturdays tailgating and attending Michigan State University football games with my friends, but I was just as likely to have play rehearsal or a test to study for – even a rare trip to the mall for dinner and a movie could lure me away from a football game. I’ve never been a huge follower of the NFL or, for that matter, any professional sports team except for the Detroit Tigers, but when I moved to Pittsburgh it was nearly impossible to avoid paying attention to the Steelers, and even if I didn’t watch every game, I had a husband and a brother who did and over the years I grew accustomed to football Sundays (and Mondays and sometimes even Thursdays). Again, football is more than the sum of its parts and it in Pittsburgh it is a regular part of our daily conversation – not just the game but what we ate who we were with the games we played the fun we had together.

There is an ocean of difference between the game I grew up with and the culture promoted by the NFL now. The concussion issues over the last few years muddied the waters for me considerably when it came to considering whether or not I want my children exposed regularly to professional football in our home, but watching the video of Ray Rice beat his fiance complicated matters even further. While I don’t hold the NFL directly responsible for Rice’s actions, I do think, as an organization, it has shown over and over again how little it values the health of its players and their families, coupled with the glorification of a violent and egocentric subculture. If I don’t allow reality television shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and The Real Housewives of whatever in our home because of the self-centered, damaging values they promote, then why would I allow NFL football?

Sam and I have talked back and forth about it (for the record, he is as conflicted as I am) and for now we’ve settled on keeping our relationship with NFL football pretty casual. We aren’t adverse to turning a game and watching part of it, but football will not become the center of our Sundays.

Every year, a bunch of the guys I went to high school with meet up the Friday after Thanksgiving to play football. Even though we are all heading toward forty, they wouldn’t miss this annual rematch anymore than they would miss Thanksgiving dinner itself. For several years in my late twenties and early thirties, I would meet up with several of them and their various girlfriends and wives at a restaurant in Alpena the Saturday evening after their great rematch, where they would replay the game for us, often sporting bruised ribs, black eyes and sometimes worse. Over garlic bread pooled in butter, steaming platters of chicken nachos, chilled martinis and drafts of beer, our reunion conversations always started first with that Saturday’s game, and then circled back a decade to games of the past until eventually moving to current topics at hand – family, friends, how much has and hasn’t changed in our hometown. I almost always spend my Thanksgivings in Pittsburgh now, but when I think about football, this is what I recall: Friday nights in my hometown, taking the first steps toward the woman I’ve been lucky enough to become, huddling in the stands,cheering on the boys we loved.

Throw back thursday: A bullet post!

*Well, I started writing this on a Thursday, at any rate…
Sometimes, on my old blog, which I really need to do something about sometime soon, when I couldn’t choose a blog topic to write about in a timely fashion, I went the way of the bullet post, a form I always enjoyed when other bloggers used it. This morning, as I sipped my coffee and pondered what to write I realized my indecision made for a perfect Thursday bullet post! It’s been a while but I am just going to write bullets until I run out of things to say today!

* On Reading – I’m still reading Peter Straub’s Mr. Xwhich I like just enough to keep reading but not enough to read quickly, and yet I urgently want to finish it so I can start Gone Girl before the movie comes out because I have actual plans – in the evening, on a weekend, no less – to go see this movie with my girlfriends, and they have all read the book. I want to be on the same page so we can discuss all the things with them. The difference between one child and two? The year Evangeline was born I still managed to read nearly 30 books. This year I’ve read six and will maybe hit ten. Maybe. If Gone Girl is fast and I get my hands on the new Tana French novel. I’m hopeful the pace will pick up a bit in 2015.

* Watching – I am in love with Outlander. I was really unsure how I would like the televised version of one of my favorite books but from the opening song until the end of each episode I am completely hooked, so much so I don’t get up from the couch to complete chores off and on, as I usually like to do with the 1/2 hour to an hour of television I watch at night. I’m quite late to the party but I am also watching Silicone Valley and even if it’s sort of a dude-centric show, it makes me laugh more than once every single episode so I keep watching. I unabashedly love television and often think the perfect career for me would have been as a script writer who turns books into television series…maybe it’s not too late? In the meantime I’ll just concentrate on continuing to write…I’m really looking forward to the return of The Mindy Project.

* My in-laws keep insisting Evangeline needs music lessons and the earlier the better, but I am unsure. They push this because they are HUGE classical music buffs and raised two daughters who now actually make livings with their music. Sam, as he will openly tell you, was not blessed with similar talent and I am decidedly unmusical as well. Evangeline has expressed an intense interest in ballet and I feel much more inclined to honor that desire at the moment because (a.) it’s something she wants to do and (b.) her pre-school curriculum is a little-heavy on the sitting down and not so much on the playing, and I am eager to provide her outlets for her toddler physicality – there is a reason I’m currently pricing junior trampolines. I wish my reasoning was not accompanied by some inner bristling whenever they pointedly suggest music lessons, though – I don’t like this quality in myself.

* Writing – I am setting aside a dedicated writing spot for myself in our house, and it feels practically revolutionary. I haven’t had a dedicated writing space since I was in graduate school. Our condo in Novi was much too small so I wrote at a desk in our living room, and while I now have a house that borders on too-big, I could never figure out intuitively where my writing space should be. Before we had our children it didn’t matter all that much – I generally lugged my laptop to the kitchen island early in the morning to write – all the better to access the coffee pot. Since the kitchen has turned into the hub of our family activity it’s no longer a peaceful place to write, so I am in the process of setting up our ages-old desk in the guest room on the third floor. Our guest room’s electric leaves something to be desired so I have to put the desk against a wall near an outlet instead of by the window, like I had hoped, but hey! A real writing spot – it’s thrilling.

* Sam asked me this week if we should stop watching the Steelers because of the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s assault against his fiance and I surprised myself by saying no. I already worked through a lot of complicated emotions with the league after the concussion cover-up came to light, and while I am absolutely disgusted by the video of Ray Rice beating his fiance, I feel this was a failure of law enforcement as well as the NFL. In addition, domestic violence isn’t solely the domain of the NFL. It occurs in homes of all income levels across the country and around the world, and I have no doubt in my mind that organizations as well-established as the NFL cover up for their more violent members. I am outraged by this video but I am generally outraged by what women have to suffer the world over – I mean, entire governments and religions sometimes sanction violence against women. The Steelers do a ton of good in our community – I have seen first hand year after year the positive work they do in our hospitals, so I am not quitting on them because of this horrifying incident on another team.

*Hillary for President!

* Diet update – I only have three more days on phase I of the South Beach and I’ve stuck to it faithfully. The first week I lost 2.5 lbs – the book claims you can lose between 8 and 13 but I imagine that is for people with a slightly higher BMI? I am feeling very strong and confident about my choice of diets, and with the exception of one day where I really felt wonky, I feel great. I always feel better eating a lower carb diet and now that I won’t be getting pregnant again hopefully I can adopt this into a long-term lifestyle. When I was pregnant with Evangeline grilled cheese and eggs on toast were the food of the Gods – with Duncan I felt sick almost constantly but once I started nursing him I fell into waffles and cake with a vengeance (in my defense, he was born during a polar vortex and we weren’t allowed to leave the house!). We’ll see how I do as I enter the next phase!

Happy Throw Back Friday – I promise a more substantial post next week!

But I will not carry around a water bottle

My freshman year of college, my roommate and I lived down the hall from a group of girls relatively indistinguishable from one another, all sharing a common goal that A and I did not: the determination to pledge a sorority. To a t, these girls all had shiny, light brown hair and skin that seemed perpetually freckled and tan, and when they weren’t engaging in sorority-pledging activities they lived in athletic clothes and flip flops. They ate enormous bowls of of cereal, plate after plate of salad and endless servings of frozen yogurt and not much else. And they carried oversized water bottles everywhere they went. The water bottles were so ubiquitous, in fact, that in an unattractive fit of mean-girlness, I nicknamed them (very uncreatively) the water girls. This was before I knew some people choose to drink massive amounts to help control hunger and I just didn’t understand why a quarter gallon of water needed to accompany them wherever they went. Granted, they spent quite a bit of time at the gym, but still.

Are they really concerned about becoming dehydrated?” I asked A. “I mean, is that an actual, valid concern on their part?”

This is my roundabout way of telling you I’ve started a lifestyle changeoh hell let’s call it what it is, a diet. Definitely a lifestyle change but really, a diet. In this day and age we aren’t supposed to diet anymore – no – we are supposed to be accepting of all body types, or if not that, then we are supposed to at least make moderatechanges we can live with for the long-term, but really even then we should be all about body acceptance and liking ourselves the way we are, even as we watch obesity rates soar across our country, with all the attendant health problems that accompany being overweight.

The truth is, I’ve been a little overweight for a decade now. I’m not obese but I carry extra weight in my middle that has only grown worse since carrying Duncan. Oh, I fluctuate back and forth seven pounds or so, and I’ve hopped on and off weight watchers for years…sometimes I lose some weight but then I gain it back. Truly, I am fortunate I don’t gain back more,. I’ve remained in the same 7 pound range for a really long time now with the exception of my pregnancies, and I actually didn’t gain much with those – 24 pounds with Evangeline and 19 with Duncan. I am pretty decent at maintaining at this weight but I’m not happy with myself here and so I’ve made the commitment to follow through with the South Beach Diet.

I am tempted, here, to start telling a traditional fat narrative…to share with you how I started out, how I gained weight, and why I am seeking to change, but that wouldn’t be fair, or ultimately honest. I have a solid extra layer of chubbiness that I dislike, but I don’t wear plus size clothing – I wouldn’t be a contender for the Biggest Loser reality television show. I am motivated partially out of concern for my long-term health (my mantra right now is “better a voluntary diet now than a mandatory one later”), and more than partially out of setting a great example for my daughter (I don’t want to endlessly be dieting in front of her), but more than anything else I am motivated by vanity.

Yep, vanity. I am grateful – so terribly grateful – for my body and how well it treats me. I am extremely active with my kids, pretty flexible, and with the exception of some disturbing loss of core strength post-Duncan, I feel great. I’ve carried two babies to full-term, avoided c-sections, and nourished those children with breast milk. Working in a hospital setting, I value and say thanks for my great good health, every day. Truthfully, I feel as though my outside self doesn’t match my inside self – inside I feel no older than 27 most of the time. But I can see how quickly, in one’s late thirties, a little extra weight that wasn’t prohibitive before quickly spread, and I am going to at least try to halt it. I could say I’m doing it for my kids, or for my future grandchildren, or something like that, but that’s not really how I think. Honestly, I’m doing if for all the clothes I’ve pinned on my Pinterest board. I am doing it to participate in fashion, and I am doing it so my outside me matches my inside me.

I chose the South Beach Diet because it targets the area where I carry my weight – my middle – and because I believe growing up in a stringent, low-fat house is part of what put me over my target weight to begin with, but that’s another story for a different time. Admittedly, I’m only on my third day but I’ve noticed two things: first of all, between breakfast and lunch, I don’t grow hungry. At all. Overall I’m actually not hungry, but the hours between breakfast and lunch have always been particularly tricky for me. Secondly, I realize just how shoddy some of my eating habits have become. The other day I automatically went to eat a spoonful of Evangeline’s macaroni and cheese and then realized what I was doing – I did the same with her applesauce. Sometimes I pour myself a slug of her juice in the morning – can’t do that either. It’s only been three days but it has certainly been eye-opening!

Anyway, in the interest of this blog is really about anything and everything with absolutely no theme whatsoever, I thought I’d share this part of my life as well. I might try to update every couple of months or so on my progress, if the mood strikes.

Two things I promise you I won’t be doing? Carrying around half gallon bottles of water – I still don’t understand that habit unless you are pregnant or ill. The other thing: Two words: green smoothies. Nope. Just
– no.

Making Room for the Mountains

When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.

I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.

And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.

For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.

We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.

For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.

Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.

Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.

A List of Things That Are Good

Well, hell. We are now living in a world without Robin Williams, and if you would have told me that news would cause me to break down crying on a Monday evening I would have told you no waybut so it goes, I guess. “Dead Poets Society” is the second movie in my life that made me cry (the first being, of course, “E.T.”) and Robin Williams has been a mainstay actor in my life. It’s possible I am the only person in America who loathed “Mrs. Doubtfire,” (I hated what he was doing to his kids! Anyone could see it would turn out badly!) but even though I read the book first, for me, Robin Williams WAS Garp in “The World According to Garp” despite it’s first life as a novel. I am hopeful our On Demand stations will have some sort of movie offerings over the weekend to honor Robin Williams – I would like to fall into “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Fisher King,” “Dead Poets Society.”

So many people are expressing shock at Robin William’s suicide and yes, the manner was shocking, but I feel as though it was relatively common knowledge that he battled addiction and depression, or maybe I just assumed it, because so many comedians do? I’m not sure. I do know that many of our most beloved artists are constantly fending off demons. Too many of my friends and family, when it comes right down to it, struggle in similar ways, whether its with addiction or depression or some shattering cocktail of the two. And it’s hard – hard for those of us who don’t have these problems, to truly understand, I think. Right now a conversation is happening – an importantconversation – about demystifying and destigmatizing mental illness, and I desperately hope it’s a conversation that continues.

All of this leaves me wondering, though, what can I do? What can those of us who for some bizarre, chemical reason are able to see through the horrors occurring between Palestine and Israel, who are able to hear the latest from Iraq and somehow compartimentalize it, what can we do? Well, I know I can love, unconditionally, unabashedly and without judgment those I know struggling with similar issues. Also, I can pepper the internet with a list of good things. Oh, I’m not sure this is particularly helpful in any way, but maybe it will be to someone – at the very least, it is good for me.

A List of Things That Are Good
God.God is good.
The peaches this summer.
My baby boy’s sweet sweet cheeks.
My daughter’s word for worm: squirm.
Reading a horror novel during the dog-days of August.
The deep deep blue the sky becomes as autumn draws near.
Texting with my friends because none of us want to call each other and risk waking our babes.
The first sip of coffee in the morning (and all the other coffee that follows).
Breaking a sweat.
Pickled vegetables.
For that matter, the bounty of vegetables available in mid-August.
My marriage, at it lengthens and deepens.
Turning up a song by Billy Joel when one comes on the radio and teaching your daughter the lyrics.
Sleeping well.
Finger painting on the front porch.
The words “cream butter and sugar.”
Nature walks.
Comfortable clothes.
Wine.
And gin and tonics.
The promise of Friday evenings – the possibility of Sunday evenings.

You know what? I am tempted to force this list, but I am not going to. This is everything today that I can think of as good. And it is enough.