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Archive for October, 2010

Finally Young Adult

I was a voracious reader as a child. And I am a voracious reader now. But I wasn’t much of a reader during the years in between, my high school and college years. At the time, I felt like I got my fill doing my assigned school reading, and when I did read just for the fun of it, I was most likely to read something I had already read.

During my high school years in particular, I spent the vast majority of my free time online. I was reading, but I was mostly reading the X-Filesaholics message board and fanfiction and other similar fandom-related media. At one point, when the internet got taken away from me for a few months, I dissolved into a direction-less mess, with no outlet for my obsession, and with nothing to do. I remember my writer-aunt saying to me, “Melody, didn’t you used to read?”

In particular, even though I actually worked at a library, one thing I never read was young adult fiction. It never even occurred to me to read YA fiction. I would guess that the YA renaissance hadn’t quite blossomed like it now has, but to be honest, I think I probably thought the YA books were beneath me. I judged the books by their frilly pink covers and I scoffed, because I had much better things to do. In fact, as I recall at my library, hardly anyone read the YA books. I think I would have felt embarrassed to check one out.

Only now–now that I have a mortgage and a job and I have given up on foolish ideas of LOVE–have I finally given in and begun to enjoy the all-you-can-eat buffet that is young adult fiction. I feel like now I have the jaded maturity to truly enjoy the escapism that it offers. I’m not sure that it would have provided the same enjoyment had I read the books during high school. At that point, depending on the book, it would have been a bit more like reading about reality–both the painful realities I was experiencing (acne! heartbreak! social exclusion! awkwardness!) and the exciting realities that I was too boring to enjoy for myself (parties! alcohol! actual interaction with boys!).

I recently realized that I’ve been at my current job for four full years, which is longer than I was in high school. It was kind of scary to realize, because my memories of high school are so distinct and meaningful, while these past four years of my life have sort of run together into an indefinite blob. I think it’s exactly that which makes YA books so fun to read. Reading them allows me to remember the time in my life when life was so new and exciting, and when every day seemed consequential.

So far this year, of the 94 books I’ve read, 62 have been young adult novels. And last year, of the 39 books I read, 23 were young adult novels. Now I’m taking it to the next level. During National Novel Writing Month (starting tomorrow, November 1), I will attempt to write my own 50,000+ word young adult novel. I’m making it “easy” on myself, in that the central issue in the book is adoption, and adoption is something I’ve thought about basically every day anyway for the past two years.

For the next 30 days, I won’t update my blog much, if at all! But you can see how I’m doing using the word count widget over in the sidebar doobly-doo. I’m really not sure whether or not I can write a novel, even a really bad one. But… here goes nothing!

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Despite my the impending dermatology study windfall, I’ve recently been a little fixated on the idea of saving more money.

I am flat-out neurotic about money. Even when watching TV or reading a book in which a fictional character wastes money, I feel anxious. For example: in the episode of “Friends” where Ross buys a ticket for a flight he won’t be taking, so he can follow Rachel to her gate and try to win her back, I feel ten thousand times more upset about the money that Ross wasted on that airline ticket than the fact that Rachel rejected him. In a fifth season episode of The X-Files, a bad guy goes to a movie theater to commit horrific acts on innocent people. To get in the door of the theater, he buys a ticket to a movie that’s already half-way through. When I watched that episode, I felt much more flustered by the money he wasted on the movie ticket than the innocent people that he murdered.

Given this deeply-held fixation, it should come as no surprise that the ability to save money represents a lot of things to me. Like good grades, it is one thing that I have actually done well my entire life. It represents security and safety and my ability to be independent. It means good judgement and possibilities for the future.

My problem is that of anyone who fluctuates between extremes. When I’m in money-saving mode, I go into ascetic lock-down. It becomes a challenge. HOW MUCH MONEY CAN I SAVE?! HOW MANY CORNERS CAN I CUT?! When I allow myself a little more spending freedom (think: the holiday season), I make all sorts of purchases that I wouldn’t ordinarily buy. DVDs that I never watch, and shirts and shoes that I never wear. (Although, my spending free-for-all is what some people might think of as “normal.”)

I had put myself into an extreme money-saving mode prior to the dermatology study coming along, and now I can’t seem to snap out of it. Every wasteful dollar that I spend is a dollar that doesn’t go toward my adoption fund or a down payment on a house in my ideal neighborhood or a car that doesn’t need $1000 of work every single damn year or the complete series of LOST on DVD.

One of the easiest ways for me to cut costs is on food. That means that for the past couple of weeks, I have been eating a LOT of beans and rice, cereal, kale, and green beans. I have forgone trying new recipes in favor of a low grocery bill. Treats like my favorite coconut milk ice cream sandwiches have had no place in my money-saving mission. The food, while somewhat uninteresting, is SUSTAINING and that’s all I need to know.

On Friday night, I celebrated a friend’s birthday. That meant french fries and a panini and chocolate peanut butter cupcakes. As with money saving, with food, when I slip, I go from one extreme to another. As a result, all day on Saturday, I somehow wound up eating an insane amount of junk food. More cupcakes. Cheesecake. Popcorn. Candy. And then I got a stomach ache.

Moderation. Damn. Has anyone figured out that son of a bitch?

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Getting Old Fast

When I was at the Kentucky State Fair in August, I saw a booth that asked, “When was the last time you felt your best?”

I could identify that time pretty easily. Late May, 2009. It was my first dance recital after coming back to dance class, and I felt strong and healthy and confident.

Immediately after that, I started experiencing joint pain when I exercised. First my hips, and then my knees. Joint pain led to weight gain. I began to feel so exhausted, all of the time, that I went to my doctor and demanded to be tested for anemia. It was negative. Ever since then, I have started to feel old and creaky and tired. It was made even worse this past summer, when a pulled muscle in my right leg bothered and inhibited me for 10 weeks.

When I first went back to dance two years ago, the idea I had was that I would be kind of bad at first, but that I would get better and better as I got back into shape and into practice. Instead, I am starting to feel like I am only getting worse. The turns are getting harder, not easier, and tap dancing, oh, it is so hard on my knees.

I am wondering how long I’ll really be able to dance. Can really keep up with the whippersnappers anymore? Maybe instead, I need to start eating dinner at 4:00 and going to bed at 7:30. At some point, I am really going to bring the class down as a whole, and it’s going to be foolish for me to be up on stage in a costume, limping pathetically while everyone around me moves like a young gazelle.

Growing up is the pits.

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I am particularly excited for my next two 12-hour sessions at the dermatologist’s office, because it will give me a pretty much perfect opportunity to work on my main project for November.

This year, I am participating in NaNoWriMo, and this year, for the first time, I am COMMITTED to finishing my novel. BY GOD, IT WILL HAPPEN.

I’ve made two attempts at novel-writing recently, and both times it didn’t work out. A few years ago, I attempted to do Nano and I didn’t get past a couple thousand words. My heart wasn’t really in it, and I became quickly overwhelmed by the story I was trying to tell.

This past winter and spring, I started working on another novel. The idea for that novel came from a dream I had, and the concept seemed just crazy enough to be entertaining and whimsical, without being totally stupid. I wrote around 14,000 words setting up the story, and then I realized that I was spending all my time setting it up because I had no idea where it was going to go. I gave up sometime in April.

I have a good feeling about this November, though. Third time’s a charm! This time, I have a fairly clear vision about where the story will go from beginning to end. For me, I think this may be key. Unlike my past attempts at novel-writing, several of the characters have come to me without much difficulty. More than the other two novels I have tried to write, I feel like this story already exists, it’s just my job to get it down on paper.

Admittedly, I have hopes that when I am finished with this novel (because I WILL finish it!) on November 30, it might wind up being something that’s worth editing quite a bit and trying to turn into something legitimate. The first thing, though, is to finish it. And then I can go from there.

Sometimes I feel like if I were to be successful as a writer, I might experience and find the fulfillment I’ve been looking for, but I really don’t know if I can do that. Never mind sprawling epics like a recent favorite of mine, The Historian. I can just consider the YA category, which my upcoming novel will be. I just finished reading Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty and I was blown away by how real her depiction was of the college experience and its constant transitions. It evoked so many of the feelings I had while I was in college. Reading it was intense. I couldn’t put it down. I don’t feel like I could ever create that myself.

I do know that when I was working on the previous novel in the spring, I felt more hopeful than I had in a long while. So I’m hopeful, again, that this November I can bring some of that optimism back.

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My first day of the dermatology study was mostly what I was expecting.

There were six people participating on this particular day. The lounge area we had to stay in was about the size of a small conference room, with ten very comfortable armchairs and ottomans. Despite the comfiness of the chairs, the room, for six people, over the course of 12 hours, did start to feel kind of claustrophobic.

Every three hours, we were called downstairs and evaluated by a doctor. Then we’d go back upstairs and continue on with our sitting. The demarcation of having to get up every three hours helped to break up the day. Really, it passed very quickly. They provided us with lunch and an assortment of snacks, and in fact, there was such an array of snacks that I felt spoiled, like I was back at my grandma’s house.

I would have been perfectly fine sitting in a room by myself for 12 hours. I would have had no problem finding a multitude of things to do. But of course, I forgot to take into account the human element. The thing that truly bewildered me was that two people of the six in the study brought absolutely nothing to occupy themselves for the 12 hours that we were. They brought their winning personalities. That meant they spent a large amount of time chatting. About what, you might ask? Oh, their motorcycle-riding habits (with a helmet versus without), how often “blacks beat each other up,” cruises they have been on, kids these days (“the language they use!”), food (“What is… hum-mus?”), Lifetime movies (“I love Lifetime.”), and etc. This put something of a damper on my plans to spend the entire day peacefully reading and writing. My ear plugs did not successfully block out the noise of their conversation. It was annoying for a little while, but all I had to do was remind myself how much I was being paid to be there, and it became instantly less annoying.

I did manage to finish one book, completely read a second one, and begin a third one. That was nice.

As far as the study itself, I felt self-conscious about my level of rosacea–like I wasn’t badly enough affected to be there. Everyone else in the study had much more obvious issues than I had. In fact, they actually questioned why I was there. And then, I felt even more awkward when I caught a glimpse of the doctor’s assessment of my face. Every three hours, I had to fill out a questionnaire about how I felt about the levels of my facial redness. On a scale of 0-5, I usually gave myself a 2 or a 3. When there was no one in the examination room, I took a look at what the doctor had put down for his assessment, and he had consistently given me a 1. It made me feel like a self-conscious, pale-faced whiner. I consoled myself that the pharmaceutical company probably wants this information of how red people feel their faces are, as opposed to how red a doctor determines them to be.

Some days, like today, I remember how different I feel from all the people who are around me. Today, I was the weirdo with pale skin. I was the weirdo who brought all of her many (many) belongings for the day in a rolling suitcase. I was the weirdo who brought homemade fruit leather for a snack (“Is that beef jerky?”). I was the weirdo who, when I was asked what snack I was gonna get from the ones provided for us, responded, “Oh, I’m just marveling at the diversity of my choices!” (and then I realized that I sounded like a tool). I was the weirdo with the bright orange ear plugs in my ears, when everyone else was happily talking to one another about the texting and the Facebook.

If this truly was a secret psychological experiment, I hope I have given whoever is running it some good material to work with.

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The past two months have been expensive for me. I had a fence put in my backyard, so that the new puppy would have a place to run around. I had been wanting a fence for a while, but I hadn’t been planning on doing it quite so soon. My car also had to be in the shop twice. TWICE!

The result of this was that I was considerably lower on funds than I like to be at any given time. But, I resolved, it would be okay. I made a new budget, and tightened things up where I could. I started planning out my menus weeks in advance, so that I would minimize grocery expenses. I told myself that I would go without all luxuries for as long as it took to restore the appropriate balance to my bank account.

It felt good to have a plan, but I knew it would be well into 2011 before I would be able to relax my budget. It made me anxious, and angry, to think of doing without simple things until March or April or however long it took.

And then a miracle fell out of the sky.

I got a call from my dermatologist’s office. They told me that they were conducting a rosacea study. And that participants in the study would make exactly the amount of money that it cost me to have my car repaired twice and to put a fence up in my backyard.

There were a number of variables that would determine whether I could participate. I had to be approved to take three days off work, to start. And then I had to go be screened to determine whether or not I actually had rosacea. I had never been diagnosed as such, although I have always felt like I had a very red face.

My boss thought it sounded great. And then I went to be screened by the dermatologist, and he told me that I had just a moderate enough case of rosacea to qualify. I have never in my life been so happy to have something wrong with my skin.

So, tomorrow, I will arrive at a dermatologist’s office at 6:00 a.m. and stay there for 12 hours while they conduct the first part of the study. They need to see how the topical prescription works after application in a controlled environment, which is why I can’t leave for 12 hours. But I get to bring books and my laptop and pretty much anything else I want to entertain myself. 12 hours of sitting in a room enjoying leisure activities and getting paid A LOT OF MONEY FOR IT?

I will confess that I am so excited about the prospect of 12 hours of leisure time, and it just seems too good to be true, that I’m worried that it is actually a secret psychological experiment. I’m concerned that they’re going to make me spend 12 hours in a room with a crazy person or something, and that will be the TRUE study.

However, I am remaining optimistic. So far, I have compiled the following list of things to bring with me:

  • Pillow
  • Blanket
  • Laptop
  • Earplugs
  • Ipod
  • Snacks
  • 3-4 YA novels
  • Girl With Curious Hair (if not finished by then)
  • You’ve Got Mail

When I say that this feels heaven-sent, I mean that literally. As in, thank you, sweet baby Jesus, for this.

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In Bulk

I’m trying to get better about the mindset that I can save money by buying more. Take for instance, the pomegranate juice I like to drink. Normally priced, it is $8 a bottle, which is a lot of money for a beverage. Every 6 months or so, my grocery store will have the juice on sale for buy one get one free for a month. Which means that each bottle of juice then costs $4, which is a completely reasonable amount. This most recent time that it was on sale, I bought a lot of juice. I bought 6-8 bottles every time I went to the grocery store for a month.

In the moment, it hurt to spend that much money. But I reassured myself that I was saving money in the long run.

On the positive side, the bottles from the juice also make superb storage containers for the dry goods that I have started buying in bulk. I have been trying to get away from buying things like canned beans and focus more on using dried goods. It does take more planning and effort to use dried goods, but there is less packaging (better for the environment), the food often does genuinely taste better, and–most importantly–it’s less expensive.

For a while, I had a problem, though. I so loved how nice my juice jars looked all filled up with dried goods that I didn’t actually want to eat my dried beans. But currently, I am in a bit of a budget lock-down situation, thanks to some unexpected recent expenses, so I have resolved to do better about eating what I’ve already got at home. And not buying extra at the grocery store just so I can have a pretty jar.


From left to right, white beans, green lentils, red lentils, black beans, steel cut oats, brown rice, brown rice, chickpeas, and more white beans.

This week, to use up both beans and rice, I made one of my more favorite recipes. It comes from The New York Times, and is a soup that consists basically of beans, rice, and leafy greens. In other words, it’s perfect for me. I already had everything on hand, except for the swiss chard, so it made this a particularly cheap recipe, as well.

White Beans with Swiss Chard and Rice
3/4 pound Swiss chard (I used two bunches)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped (I use onion powder)
2 to 4 garlic cloves, minced (I use 6 to 8 cloves)
1/2 pound (1 1/8 cups) white beans, washed and picked over
1 bay leaf
1 Parmesan rind (Or, just a chunk from a wedge of parmesan cheese)
Salt
1 cup rice
Freshly ground pepper
A few drops of fresh lemon juice

1. Stem the Swiss chard, and wash both the stems and the leaves in at least two changes of water until thoroughly clean. Dice the stems if they’re wide, and set aside. Stack the leaves and cut in wide ribbons or chop coarsely. Set aside separately from the stems.

2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and add the onion and diced chard stems. Cook, stirring often, until the onion softens, about five minutes. Add half the garlic, and stir together for 30 seconds to a minute until fragrant. Add the beans, bay leaf, Parmesan rind (tie the bay leaf and rind together with a kitchen string to make retrieval easier) and 2 quarts water. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat and simmer one hour. Add the remaining garlic and salt to taste, and simmer for another 30 minutes to an hour until the beans are tender.

3. Add the rice and pepper, and simmer 15 minutes until the rice is tender. Stir in the chard leaves, and simmer another five to 10 minutes until the chard is tender but still bright. The mixture should be soupy but thick. Season to taste with salt and fresh black pepper. (Make sure you remove the bay leaf.) Squeeze on some fresh lemon juice — 2 to 3 teaspoons — if desired, and serve. (Or divide it up into bowls with for your week’s lunches!)

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