Wednesday, May 26, 2010

children are impressionable

Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers by Kaki King
Appropos of absolutely nothing except the fact that I really dig this song

When I was home in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, my mom pulled me into the extra bedroom and gestured to a giant stack of white banker's boxes. "They're your books from growing up," she explained. "Do you think you could bear to part with some of them?"

When I was a child, my book collection was so vast that I created my own cataloging system (including my own non-Dewey, non-LOC system of alphanumeric codes) to organize them and keep track of the ones I lent out. When I pulled the lid off the first box of books in the extra bedroom, the first thing I noticed were the little white labels peeling off the spines, numerical codes scrawled in pencil in a child's handwriting. The bibliophilia I spoke of in this post was born in my childhood.

My parents must have prided themselves on some of my early literary choices. I read To Kill a Mockingbird from cover to cover when I was 6, Uncle Tom's Cabin when I was 8, and the Illiad when I was 10. From the time I was big enough to hoist the heavy tomes down off the shelf, I was reading my mother's books of transcendental German poetry in translation and her dog-eared volumes of Colette. I devoured my father's Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking hardbacks and wax-stained volumes of Robert Frost.

But for every volume of Major Literary Significance that I curled up with as a child, I read at least ten or twenty ridiculous YA novels. My bookshelves were a sherbet-colored smear of tattered pastel paperbacks. Sacred above all others were my Baby-Sitter's Club books--I had over 100 of the regular series books, plus all the Super Specials, Mysteries, and Little Sister books I could talk my mom into buying me. They were arranged in numerical order on the top shelves in my room. I deemed my collection so vast as to necessitate their own coding system--dozens of books lined up in neat rows, spines labeled with code numbers starting in with BSC.

I don't remember getting a lot out of To Kill a Mockingbird at age 6 besides being frightened of Boo Radley, whom I thought was definitely a ghost. But my, oh my, did I ever get an education from those trashy paperbacks. I learned how to apply a tourniquet and the definition of the word 'cacophony' from Jessi Ramsey, Pet-Sitter (#22). On a trip to NYC when I was 11, having just reread the New York, New York! Super Special (#6), I impressed a room full of New York natives by identifying the word 'SoHo' as a portmanteau of 'south of Houston Street' (complete with correct pronunciation of 'Houston'). Perhaps that's why Harper Lee's magnum opus ended up in the donation pile (I can always grab another copy when I want to reread it), but I was not able to part with even a single one of my Baby-Sitter's Club books.

In honor of everyone's favorite multicultural septet of overly responsible prepubescent Connecticutians, it is my pleasure to present



Anyone who has ever touched a Baby-Sitter's Club book knows The Truth About Stacey--she has juvenile diabetes. She can't have even a single one of the glorious sweets depicted on the cover, but look at that plucky smile! Stacey is from New York City, dammit, and she isn't going to let something minor like the autoimmune destruction of her insulin-producing pancreatic cells stop her from enriching Charlotte Johansson's miserable life with her Abundant Teenage Awesomeness.

In The Truth About Stacey, our protagonist spends much of the book puzzling over an assortment of odd symptoms--being constantly thirsty, feeling tired, etc. In what is easily the most unforgettable scene of the book, Stacey is invited to a slumber party at the home of ultra-bitch Laine, at which Stacey guzzles several dozen liters of Pepsi and proceeds to piss Laine's bed in her sleep.

During one red-wine-soaked evening with my best girls in Texas--Mary Jane, Sammy Jean, and Sam Hoekstra--it was determined that all four of us had come to genuinely believe that we had diabetes after reading this book. After all, what child has never felt sleepy or thirsty? I spent YEARS of my life inwardly convinced that my doctors had egregiously looked over my Type 1 diabetes and that I would have to take matters into my own hands and make the diagnosis myself, possibly after soiling myself in front of numerous Popular Girls.


The Face on the Milk Carton tells the gripping tale of Janie Johnson, who is busy leading the normal life of a fifteen-year-old girl when she DUN DUN DUN recognizes her own face on her milk carton at lunch one day.

Since I'm guessing anyone who finds this premise even remotely intriguing has already read this book or at least seen the 1995 made-for-TV movie...

Look it's the girl from Life Goes On! And Kyle from My So-Called Life! Anyone? Anyone?

I'll go ahead and tell you what happens. It turns out that Janie's parents aren't really her parents--they're her grandparents. Or rather, they are the parents of the woman who kidnapped Janie from a shopping mall when she was a little girl. OH NO THEY DIDN'T. The Face on the Milk Carton ends with Janie making a tentative phone call to her birth parents, and Whatever Happened to Janie? picks up with Janie leaving the home she knows to go back to her birth family, and all the drama that ensues.*

After Janie sees herself on the milk carton, she conducts a little investigation of her own. She breaks into her father's office and rummages around in the drawers. There are no photographs of Janie from when she was a baby. She has no birth certificate. She doesn't look like either of her parents. Things start to add up for Janie. Initially she comes to believe that she was adopted.

As soon as I read these novels, it became clear to me that, like Janie, I was living with two people who were not my parents. I decided to do a little investigating. I found photographs of myself in early infancy, even of the day I was born. My birth parents had probably given those to the people who claimed to be my parents. I found my birth certificate too, but that could easily be faked. Even I had to admit that I looked like both of my parents, but they could still be my grandparents or maybe just my cousins.

I decided to confront my parents about my origins, nervous but steeled to learn the truth. I have no idea how they managed to keep a straight face as they informed me that I was definitely their biological child, no doubt about it. I think I pouted about it for a few days.

*By the way, Wikipedia informed me that two more books have been added to this series since I was a kid--The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found. brb buying these immediately


Judy Blume's classic Deenie tells the story of a young woman and her struggles with scoliosis. Deenie isn't very smart or funny or athletic, but she is very beautiful. But her dreams of being a Fashion Model are threatened when she's diagnosed with scoliosis and condemned to wear a back brace every day to correct it. How will Deenie ever be cool when she's encased in a big dorky brace?

This is actually one of the most-banned books in America, for the sole reason that Judy Blume (GASP!) actually acknowledges in this book that young women masturbate. But it was not the passages about Deenie and her washcloth and her special spot that made the biggest impression on me. It was the scoliosis.

I was kind of morbidly obsessed with the idea of being fitted for a giant back brace that I would rarely be able to take off. I imagined a permanent excuse from gym class and the sympathetic, encouraging looks I'd get from my teachers. I decided that I definitely had scoliosis too.

The joke was on me with this one--turns out I do have slight scoliosis, as determined by my pediatrician. It is entirely possible that I requested the test personally. Sadly, my pediatrician did not prescribe me a back brace or even attention-garnering back surgery. He said it was minor enough to ignore. Charlatan.


Even though mysteries have never really been my thing, I read my fair share of ghost stories when I was a kid. California Casual Dawn lived in a Really Haunted Old House that was once part of the Underground Railroad, as we learned in The Ghost at Dawn's House (#9). I also really enjoyed all of those goofy Betty Ren Wright ghost books, none of which were even remotely scary. My favorite was The Dollhouse Murders, wherein the dolls in a forgotten attic dollhouse start moving by themselves and acting out a bunch of creepy stuff.

Inspired by Dawn's fearlessness, I decided that it was high time someone did a little investigation into the paranormal activity that was happening at my house. Despite my parents' protestations that we were the first and only family to have ever lived in our house, I was pretty sure the house was probably haunted. One night, my bff Katie June and I set a number of ghost traps in the house--a blanket spread out perfectly flat in the hallway, a sink full of bubble-bath bubbles, a glass of water on the nightstand. The ghosts, we reasoned, would disturb these objects and give us evidence of their existence. We went to sleep.

We were right. The next morning, the flat blanket had indentations like it had been trod upon. The sink, once filled with bubbles, held only a few inches of cloudy water. The glass of water on the nightstand had vanished entirely. Katie and I were not prepared for our findings and were significantly rattled. My parents' house was definitely haunted--haunted by my parents, who stepped on blankets and cleared dishes, and by the laws of physics, which reduced the bubbles in my sink to a soapy film in the water.


Even in elementary school, I considered Lurlene McDaniel novels to be a guilty pleasure. Darling Lurlene has written over 60 young adult books about disease and dying, and I have read a substantial percentage of them. They all have names like Letting Go Of Lisa and Telling Christina Goodbye, and most of them feature a budding friendship or romantic relationship that is threatened by the terminal illness of one or both parties. I could not get enough of these books growing up.

The book I remember as being my favorite McDaniel tear-jerker isn't by Lurlene at all--it's by Cherie Bennett, a Nashville native. I must have read Good-bye, Best Friend fifty times when I was a kid. This egregiously sad book tells the story of Star and Christina, who make friends at a hospice, Hope House. Christina gets better and moves out, and Star has to deal with the loss of her friend and her declining health due to cystic fibrosis.

I had never heard of cystic fibrosis, even in my extensive reading of my parents' Home Medical Guide, until I read this book. Good-bye, Best Friend taught me about the excruciating treatments for cf that involve basically being beaten on the back to loosen the mucus in your lungs. I also learned that you get to live in a big house with other sick kids, and it's basically like summer camp.

I used to lie face down on my bed and imagine blows raining down on my back, my handsome boyfriend Tad wincing at the sound from the other side of the drawn curtain. A milkshake or a backrub any time I whispered a feeble request for it. An asthmatic child, every time I had a coughing fit, I eagerly checked my palms for blood. I'm pretty sure I drew up a will for myself, specifying which of my schoolmates were to inherit each of my most beloved books. But not Good-bye, Best Friend--if I died of cystic fibrosis, I was definitely going to be buried with it.

But, as Mick Jagger reminds us, you can't always get what you want. I lived straight through prom night and beyond--no diabetes or scoliosis or cystic fibrosis or ghosts of escaped slaves or long-lost birth parents for this drama queen.

Now, hilariously, I work for a children's book publisher, and my lifelong penchant for reading silly YA novels has become part of my job description. I'm afraid my editorial opinion isn't always the most developed when it comes to YA--I will invariably prefer a fluffy, predictable novel with a likable female protagonist over anything educational. But you've got to go easy on me--my diabetes is making my scoliosis act up again.

Discussion Question:
Which YA novels had the biggest impact on you as a kid?

Monday, May 24, 2010

on synesthesia

I can smell the colors outside on my lawn
The moist green organic that my feet tread upon
And the black oleander surrounded by blue
I get so overwhelmed by olfactory hues

Synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes stimulus in one sensory pathway to trigger involuntary responses in other sensory pathways (ie hearing colors, tasting pain, touching flavors), kind of sounds like it's made up. It kind of sounds like the thing that happens to people that take hallucinogens and maybe insane people.

But doctors estimate that anywhere between 1 in 100000 to as many as 1 in 200 people are legitimate synesthetes. The most common type of synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein letters and numbers (called collectively 'graphemes') are perceived to have a distinct color--about 65% of people with synesthesia experience this. And I am one of them! offers a full grapheme-color synesthesia test. In the test, the letters of the alphabet and numerals 0-9 are flashed randomly and the user must pick a color associated with each one. Each grapheme is posted three times. After the user has selected a color for each grapheme three times, the results are analyzed. Here are my results, which as you can see very conclusively determined that I have grapheme-color synesthesia:

Nabokov, whom we've established is one of my favorite authors, was a grapheme-color synesthete too. He described his experience gorgeously:

In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull, green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e's and i's, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u. In the brown group there are rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h.

I have a similar idea of my letters, bordering on and perhaps fully qualifying as grapheme personification, wherein letters and numbers have genders and personalities. Soft, feminine bilabial plosives B and P are a soft, maternal pink. Masculine, nasal M and N are a macho dark green and blue. Simple I and O are white--something that many grapheme-color synesthetes experience in common.

It is difficult to explain but I do not see these colors when I see letters and numbers in front of me. I see that the text I am typing is black on white. But somehow I perceive the letters and numbers to have the color. Whatever part of your brain lights up when you see a blue ball--that's the part of my brain that lights up when I see an E or an S. I am fully aware that it is not actually blue, but my brain recognizes it as being blue. Am I making any sense?

Over the last few years, I've realized that my grapheme-color synesthesia isn't just a random experience that I have. I've come to understand how much it affects my day-to-day life--basically always for the better.


Which seems like it would be easier to remember? You can ask me a year from now what number I used in this example and I'll still remember--that streak of yellow-pink-green is impossible to forget.


Times tables are boring, right? No. They are gorgeous.

Most people can recognize the elegance of the x9 times tables--how the digits in the products all add up to 9, how the first and second digits in the products run exactly from 0 to 9 backwards and forwards, respectively. With the benefit of color, these fineries are amplified and put on display.

Moreover, I have realized recently that I work arithmetic in my head using color. When I see a simple sum, I think not 2 + 3 = ? but rather something more like pink plus yellow equals what? I think when I'm moving really fast it's more like just pink yellow blue. This makes me pretty handy with mental math and adding long columns of numbers and stuff.


Grey is not the preferred spelling in the US for the shade between black and white. But in my mind, it is the only way to spell it. Just look at this.

Does it make sense for there to be a big splash of RED in the middle of the word gray? Ew. No. Grey it is.

Or how about:

Even though Vergil is *technically* better, since his full name was Publius Vergilius Maro, Vergil just looks so NERDY. Everything was fine until that blue E came to town.


You can't crack a book about synesthesia without seeing this chart:

It demonstrates how synesthesia makes inconsistencies jump off the page. A non-synesthete has to hunt around for the 2s mixed in with the 5s. For me, the pink 2s leap out among the blue 5s.

This skill comes in handy, since I make a living as an editor. My grapheme-color synesthesia makes typos and other errors pop out.

My brain immediately identifies that gold-red-pink-yellow ("wakl") is an odd combination before I even consciously realize that there is a typo.


Perhaps my loyal readers who remember my academic background are wondering whether I have a synesthetic reaction to Greek letters as well. The answer is yes. I had never really thought about it very hard until this moment, but I do. I was lost so far in thought as I made this chart that I forgot the omega! Shameful.

I think my synesthetic reaction to the Greek alphabet is very telling. The colors are by and large the same as the letters they closely correspond to in English, whether the letters look the same (as in alpha [Α/α] and A) or not (as in gamma [Γ/γ] and G). But what about the letters that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Like the long E sound eta (Η/η)? Eta takes on not the royal blue of E but rather the green hue of the H and N the capital and lowercase letters resemble. Theta (Θ/θ) makes a "th" sound, and the blue T and green H combine to create a lovely blue-green theta.

Perhaps most odd is psi (Ψ/ψ) and phi (Φ/φ), which make a "ps" and "ph" sound respectfully. My brain is so broken by these characters that they are the only graphemes I see in gradient--psis fading pink to blue to white and phis pink to green to white, mimicking the way the words "phi" and "psi" look spelled out in English. I don't begin to understand what all this implies about my synesthesia but I think it's pretty interesting.


While grapheme-color is definitely the strongest and most persistent and consistent synesthesia that I experience, I have a number of other synesthetic reactions. I often experience taste-color, but it so often corresponds to the color of the food itself that it is usually unremarkable. I mentioned a recipe not tasting "red" enough in this post. I also have music-spatial, touch-color, and a whole passel of other synesthesia-esque experiences.

I know that my synesthesia and my interest in writing have to have something to do with one another, but I haven't quite touched on how yet. Maybe my unique sensory perspective makes it into my writing? Perhaps it will make me Nabokavian. A girl can only type rainbow-colored letters and dream.

Discussion Question:
What is unusual about the way you perceive the world?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Blame it all on my roots / I showed up in boots

Ismene: What are you hazarding? What do you have in mind?
Antigone: Will you join your hand to mine in order to lift his body?

Ἰσμήνη: ποῖόν τι κινδύνευμα; ποῦ γνώμης ποτ᾽ εἰ;
Ἀντιγόνη: εἰ τὸν νεκρὸν ξὺν τῇδε κουφιεῖς χερί.

Sophocles wrote his masterpiece Antigone around 442BC. For those of you who were not paying attention in 9th grade English class, Antigone tells the story of a young woman determined to honor her brother's body with a proper burial, despite an edict from the ruler Creon stipulating that the body remain "unwept, unburied, a nice tidbit for foraging birds" (ἄκλαυτον, ἄταφον, οἰωνοῖς γλυκὺν θησαυρὸν εἰσορῶσι πρὸς χάριν βορᾶς). Antigone is willing to risk it all to honor her brother's body and and put his spirit to rest.

I thought of Antigone a lot this weekend as we looked for Danny.

I went to Nashville this past weekend to do what I could to help with flood relief. As I mentioned in my post about the Nashville floods, Bellevue and Franklin, the neighborhoods I grew up in, were among the hardest hit parts of town. Before we drove up on Friday, I had spent the better part of two weeks feeling like I was stranded in Atlanta, hundreds of miles from where I knew I needed to be--home. I channeled all of my nervous energy into updating the Twitter and Facebook pages I'm helping my dear friend Ryan with.

In the hours I spent glued to flood coverage, I kept seeing one name over and over again. Danny Tomlinson. Age 39. Missing. Swept into the flood waters May 1st in Bellevue.

All the articles and facebook pages seemed to run the same handsome picture of Danny:

and every post said the same thing: His friends and family are searching tirelessly for his body.

Then, on Tuesday, an old friend of mine posted this beautiful (and also horrible) Facebook note about her experience searching for Danny's body with his family. The mud, the flies, the necklace tangled in the tree branches--Angela's vivid writing made the whole situation come alive for me in a way I could not ignore. When I saw that the search party needed someone to bring sack lunches on Saturday, I knew I had found a way to help. I contacted the organizer right away.

I sounded the call at Peachtree Publishers that I was going to need some help assembling some sack lunches for flood relief workers. The response I got was overwhelming--cash donations, food donations, and numerous colleagues happy to give their time to smear peanut butter and bag up cookies. The donations paid for 30+ lunches, and with my colleagues' help the lunches were packed and ready to go in no time. I am so proud of my colleagues and grateful for their support.

The lunches and I rolled into Pegram mid-morning on Saturday. The search party has set up a rather impressive camp in the parking lot of the Woof Waggin on Hwy 70--a tour bus and several small tents serve as the central gathering place for the dozens of volunteers who have gathered every day since Danny disappeared. The search party includes a K9 unit, a team of horses, and human volunteers on foot, in canoes, in airboats, in Jeeps, in ATVs--you name it. Friends and family have organized the search. Every day, Danny's mother waits for news.

I got to the Woof Waggin just as the search crews were coming back from the morning searches. People clamebered up solemnly in groups of 5 or 6, wet and streaked with mud. Most people were wearing boots but a few were in jeans and sneakers--they were soaked halfway up their calves. Trucks pulled up towing mud-caked Jeeps and ATVs. The horses were tied up to the trailer to rest. Everyone gathered round the food.

The spread was impressive--in addition to the delicious peanut butter sandwich sack lunches we fixed at Peachtree, they had a giant grill going with hot dogs and hamburgers, boxes and boxes of chips and cookies, tubs with iced bottles of water and Cokes. A friend of Danny's came with a giant crockpot homemade spaghetti (fixed with homegrown tomatoes and herbs, I was assured once or twice) and myriad hot buttered rolls (each one individually wrapped in foil) AND dozens of styrofoam to-go boxes of homemade chicken barbeque--enough to feed an army.

People straggled up and tucked into the food. I chatted with some folks and learned that many of the searchers had been coming out day after day to look for Danny. Some of the volunteers were friends and family, some dedicated customers at the bar Danny's mom has been tending at for two decades, some were law enforcement or otherwise trained searchers, and the rest were just random folks like me who had showed up to see if they could help.

Everyone there knows that looking for Danny is--for lack of a better simile--like looking for a needle in a haystack. Water just moves and moves. It can carry an object hundreds of miles or dash it to pieces in an instant. The search teams are combing Harpeth, where foot after foot of flood waters felled trees and left a silty wash of destruction for miles and miles and miles. This photograph gives some idea of how thickly overgrown the area is and how high the water was.

photo from WKRN

It's simply overwhelming.

What is it about human beings that we need so much to bury or otherwise ritually part with the bodies of our loved ones? When we learn about Antigone in class we learn that Antigone must chose between the law that Creon has handed down and a Higher Law, the one that dictates that she must honor her brother at all costs.

There's a reason we're still reading Antigone 2500 years later, and it's not just because we all want to make it to our sophomore year. We still find ourselves moved by this ineffable Higher Law, moved by some force beyond reason to honor the bodies of our loved ones when they die. For more than two weeks, this instinct has brought a community together to bring a man's body home to his mother.

I was assigned to a search group and I was off, clad in floral wellies and garden gloves, feeling a little silly next to everyone in black rubbers and camo. Of my group of 5 volunteers, two were old enough to be my parents and the other two were old enough to be my grandparents--Richard and (I think) Virginia. They had all been out searching for days. We piled into Richard's big van and headed off for the area we'd been assigned to.

As we wound through the rural roads, I sat back and felt the warm wind blowing my hair back. The abundant rain that caused the flood has also caused an explosion of greenery in middle Tennessee. Between the humid air and the winding roads and the lush, thick forest heaving with new growth, I could hardly distinguish the landscape from the rainforest in Belize. We chatted a little and even cracked some jokes as we cruised, never mentioning the huge storm clouds starting to gather in the sky. That, I thought, is hope. I had a strange feeling like there was no where else in the world I would rather be.

We got a little turned around, and by the time we found the spot we were supposed to start searching, rain drops were starting to splash here and there on the windshield. We pulled up beside a man in a white Cadillac dressed head to toe in hunting camo with a rifle across his front seat. Virginia cranked her window down and dangled a rumpled flier with a photo of Danny out the window at the man. We told him we were searching for a missing man, that we had lots of folks out in the area, that he needed to be careful because we didn't need anyone getting hurt. He grunted something in reply, unimpressed. I don't think he even looked over at the photo. Southerners often refer to people earning a special place in heaven for this or that saintly deed, but I think this fellow has earned himself a special place elsewhere. By then the rain was pounding so we decided to head back to camp.

The next couple of hours brought rain and more rain and my husband. The volunteers who'd come back to camp huddled together under the tents, grazing on what was left of the food and chatting. It was frustrating to feel the minutes ticking by when I had so little time in Nashville to help. But when I saw Danny's mother Sherry surrounded by smiling people, I understood the value of what we were doing. It reminded me of the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva after the death of a loved one. Friends and family come to visit the grieving, bringing food, and if the bereaved initiates, conversation. If nothing else, in those moments under the tent waiting out the storm, we were helping shoulder a tiny shred of Danny's family's grief, just by being there.

The rain cleared eventually and the search teams headed back out. Nick and I had gotten some wires crossed and he had arrived in flip-flops, and after hearing the word cottonmouth Nick opted to stay back and help however he could. I piled back in Richard's van and headed to the banks of the Harpeth where it runs along the vet's cemetery.

We climbed along the banks on top of felled trees and the silt and debris that settled on top. I picked my way gingerly, trying to avoid the thorny vines and barbed wire twisted in the branches and the constant threat that the unstable ground below me could shift at any moment. A tackle box half-buried in grit. Scraps of cloth dangling from the trees. The river running quietly five feet below us, and the water line from the flood reaching five feet or more above our heads. Trying not to think about our instructions to search with our noses as much as our eyes.

We were only there a little while before the dogs arrived and we had to clear out of the area so we wouldn't distract them with our smells. The sun was starting to droop in the sky, and my parents were expecting me back, so I caught a ride back to the Woof Waggin and Nick and I headed back towards Franklin.

My experience searching for Danny Tomlinson was just a glimpse of what his friends and family have been living for days and days and days now. At work today, everyone asked me how it was. I didn't know what to say. What's the right adjective to describe looking for something you want so much to find and at once want so much not to find? What do you call the place where community meets grief?

I settled on I'm glad I got to be there.

The search for Danny continues. You can join the search party every day around 8am at the Woof Waggin (568 Hwy 70) in Pegram. If you can't search, you can bring lunches or fruit or Gatorade or water or ice for the volunteers. Danny's family plans to continue the search as long as necessary. As the days go on, they will need more support than ever, so I really encourage my Nashville readers to consider helping with the search.

Discussion Question:
Did you read Antigone in 9th grade? Did you ever pronounce it Anteegawn?

Monday, May 10, 2010

res coctae or Things Cooked

Some callin me a sinner / some callin me a winner
I'm callin you to dinner / And you know exactly what I mean

some stuff I've been cookin'

Magnolia Bakery Banana Pudding
Better than Magnolia Bakery Banana Pudding

photo from Crepes of Wrath

My girl Sydney over at Crepes of Wrath recently posted this incredible dupe recipe for Magnolia Bakery's banana pudding, which I knew would be a big hit with my banana-lovin husband. This recipe has banana, vanilla pudding, nilla wafers, and homemade whipped cream. What could be better?


I don't think I have to tell you that this turned out to be the best dessert I have ever prepared. Ever. Also I toasted some pine nuts and sprinkled them with crushed nilla wafers on top.

Sydney says in her blog entry that this dish reaches its peak around 30 hours after you fix it and she's right. I actually fixed this on a Sunday and Nick and I worked on it all week long. If you decide to fix this Katie-style and add the Nutella, I'd recommend letting it sit out on the counter just a little before you serve it--the Nutella can chill a bit too hard.

Bacon and Egg Risotto

I mean...right? Can you even read the words 'bacon and egg risotto' without immediately wanting to bust out the arborio? This recipe also comes from Crepes of Wrath, and it is incredible. It's a classic risotto, created by simmering uncooked arborio (or carnaroli) rice, meat, and/or veggies in chicken stock, which is added in painstakingly small amounts as you stir and stir and stir. Risotto is all about the timing, so I had to stage everything before I started cooking. Lanier and Phineas approve:

Risotto is always a test of patience and this one is no exception. But it's worth it! The raw egg yolk on top makes for a very impressive presentation. Pro tip: do yourself a favor and actually use the low-sodium chicken broth, because 5+ cups of regular chicken broth has soooooo much salt. I had to learn this the hard and salty way. But other than the salt extravaganza, this turned out really amazing. I'd love to bring it to a brunch sometime but it totally worked as a dinner entree too.


I didn't get a picture, so here's the one from Smitten Kitchen.

Lanier recently taught me to make eggy cups--some tomato sauce, some cheese, an an egg baked in a little ramekin. When I saw this recipe for an Israeli dish called shakshuka on Smitten Kitchen, I thought I'll be damned if that's not just a big Israeli eggy cup. And I was right. It's basically just tomato sauce (with cumin! That's what gives it that ~spicy and exotic~ flavor) and cheese and eggs. This recipe is everything a good staple recipe should be--easy, cheap, and readily made with items most people keep in stock. I'll definitely be making this again.


I hate being a slave to recipes, but I hate it even more when I stray with confidence only to ruin what I'm fixing. This panzanella looks pretty good, right? Homemade bread cubed and sauteed, mixed with diced veggies and fresh mozzarella cheese? I used Ina Garten's recipe as a guide but basically did my own thing, which worked out fine until the part where I made the dressing, right after I took this photo. Who has champagne vinegar sitting around their house, anyway? Sounds expensive. I used balsalmic vinegar instead. WHOOPS. My gorgeous bread salad turned into a blackened mess. It was delicious but it was so ugly. This reminds me of the time Big Jeffie came over for dinner in grad school and I purpled up the tilapia with a devil-may-care glug of red wine. He graciously ate it anyway.

Yogurt Pie

Doesn't it look like I spent more than twelve seconds making this? I didn't.

This isn't a recipe so much as it is a broad and helpful Southern dessert-preparation concept handed down from the lovely Ashley at A Boyce Blog: you can mix stuff with Cool Whip and dump it in a graham cracker pie crust and it will basically always be delicious. Just dump a container of Cool Whip and some yogurt of any flavor (between two and four cups) in a bowl, mix it up, and dump it in a graham-cracker pie crust. I used strawberry, peach, and lemon yogurt, but really the possibilities are endless.

Stick it in the fridge for an hour so it can set--or stick it in the freezer for a more ice-creamy consistency. If you're feeling fancy, you can slice some strawberries on top. I've heard this pie works beautifully with frozen lemonade concentrate instead of yogurt. Since you don't have to bake anything or really have to do anything other than operate a spoon and a bowl, this would be a great recipe to fix with kids.

Discussion Question:
So what have y'all been fixin recently?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

on drowning

"Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman

The New Orleanians who are reading this probably will not click "play" on that YouTube video. Hell, I only made it to the first time Randy croons Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline just now before I had to turn it off.

Randy Newman recorded "Louisiana 1927" in 1974 as an homage to the victims of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the worst river flood in U.S. history. It's a heartbreaking lament for the people--and the place--that drowned.

But after August 28, 2005, this became Katrina's song too.

I've never really written about my experience with Katrina, except for this short poem that was published in the spring/summer 2007 volume of Zone 3. I have never found any other words for the experience.

by Katherine Morrow Jones

I envy the cats
and their perpetual sleep.

my mother is descended of Charlemagne
and several King Edwards and
her own mom, with her scattered mind.
mama put me to bed each night
intoxicating blonde hair and lotioned skin
but I would not go down -
awake, under blankets
imagining myself a kitten
in its mother's womb.

I slept deeply for years
in New Orleans
crescent mama
now the city sleeps
without me
the day she drowned
was thick and red
and all the way in Texas
I couldn't breathe

if god came back
he'd have to tell us
he's sorry.

* * *

I have imagined Nashville drowning before. In the unbearable days following Katrina, my reeling mind grasped at what disaster could possibly be worse than this? Only one thing I could conjure--my home, my parents' house of 25 years, washing away in a flood. Drowned like my New Orleans drowned. Absolutely nowhere safe left.

This weekend I glimpsed that worst nightmare when my hometown endured well over a foot of torrential rains over the course of 48 hours. The innumerable winding creeks and small rivers in Nashville swelled feet above their banks and flowed with a vengeance toward the Cumberland, which then crested Monday night at an astonishing 12 feet above flood stage.

What does that even mean? Here's what it means. My city was swallowed without warning by foot after foot--over 12 feet in some places--of chocolate-milk-colored flood water.

Dover Anthony plays a sad song. Knights Motel, East Nashville 5/2/10.
Photo by John Partipilo.

It is with bone-deep gratitude that I report to you that my parents' house was spared, but it was a close one--neighbors as close as two doors down sustained flood damage.

Although my house was spared, my home was not. My homeland, the neighborhoods and parks and restaurants that were the backdrop of my childhood and my husband's childhood, were damaged beyond comprehension. Bellevue and Franklin, the most beloved areas of my old stompin' grounds, sustained some of the worst damage.

And all the way in Georgia, I couldn't breathe.

Everyone's seen pictures like these before. We've watched New Orleans drown and Port-au-Prince collapse and Phuket just get washed away. So let me tell you what these pictures mean to me. Maybe it will help you understand.

View of downtown Nashville from pedestrian bridge 5/3/10.
Photo by John Partipilo.

Before I moved away to Big Cities like Atlanta, this was The City to me. The Ryman, the Mother Church of Country Music. The Riverfront. The Batman building. I was born in downtown Nashville. I got married last May in downtown Nashville to a man who was born in downtown Nashville just a few months before me. I spent lazy summer nights in high school at the Riverfront seeing free concerts at Dancin' in the District. In the summer of 2001 I saw a then-nameless John Mayer opening for They Might Be Giants.

Pinkerton Park in Franklin floods 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

In 1863, Union forces built Fort Granger as an artillery position for the Franklin-Nashville campaign of the Civil War. Now Fort Granger is surrounded by a lovely, sprawling park that crawls with Franklinites on sunny days. My high school friends and I spent absolutely every warm day after school in this park trying to avoid underage smoking citations. We had a secret hideout hidden in the trees on the slopes of Fort Granger, and we used to find each other by screaming out like a bird of prey caw-CAWWWWWWW! until someone else replied in kind. I still like to while away lazy afternoons here with my best friend Emily when I'm home.

The Cascades in Opryland Hotel took on between 10 and 19 feet of water.
Photo by John Partipilo.

The Opryland Hotel,the world's largest non-casino hotel, is a Nashville institution and an incredible tourism draw. I had my junior and senior proms at the Opryland Hotel. I still remember teetering in my high heels across the endless parking lot. In more recent years, it's become a DePalma family tradition to have a sumptuous Easter Brunch in the Cascades, all roast beef and chocolate sundaes and nephews and laughter.

Residents evacuated from Fieldstone Farms 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

In 9th grade geography, crazy Mrs. Redman once memorably asked the class which country was next poised for global domination. One of my classmates called out "Fieldstone Farms!" Fieldstone is a massive, massive neighborhood development in Franklin that was built in the 1990s. It is noted for having a wide range of income levels, from the affectionately-termed Village of the Damned, with its endless rows of cookie-cutter condos and identical mailboxes spaced perfectly along the street, to the very chi-chi Gated Parts where most homes boast a pool or a movie theater or sometimes both. I could spend all afternoon making a list of the families I know that live here. My beloved Bradford's mother vacuums her entire Fieldstone Farms house once a day. Jessica's parents Fieldstone Farms house, bedecked in Harley swag, was the site of many amateur haircuts and gossipy nights. Jim and Teri and Ben used to live in a teeny little house tucked into the corner of Fieldstone that was filled with nothing but love and their omnipresent dalmatian Hyper. Emily and Nikki and Mrs. Sawyer and basically practically everyone lived there. A lot of their families still do.

Metro Fire Department Special Operation rescues a Belle Meade police officer off Harding Road in Belle Meade 5/2/10. Police officer Norm Shelton was clinging to a tree for an hour before being rescued.
Photo by Shelley Mays.

This intersection may very well be the epicenter of my life in Nashville. This is the road that leads from Nashville out to my folks' house near Bellevue. Just past the boat lies St. George's, the preschool I attended with my best friends Rebecca and Bradley. The Ingram building, the office building my father worked in for twenty years (that Bradley and I would work in for 5 or 10 ourselves) is just behind where the photographer was standing. One of my earliest memories is of my father and his colleagues having a swimming race through the two-foot-deep fountain out front. Many years later, the back-breaking weekend my friends and I helped move my father's company to an office building across the street, Bradley and Kristin and I jumped in the fountain ourselves in the middle of the night and splashed around joyously. Belle Meade is pronounced like bell mead but my family likes to call it Bellay Mee-ah-day.

Homes and cars flooded in River Plantation 5/2/10.
Photo by George Walker IV

The unfortunately-named River Plantation neighborhood is just a mile or two from my parents' house. This neighborhood has been the home of dozens of my friends through the years. Jamie over at Gimmeyummy, whom both my husband and I were friends with over the years (me at TYWW and Nick in middle school) grew up here. Her folks still live there. She posted a video on Facebook of her brother and her wading through the neighborhood to see their house on Monday. Rose, the lovely and incredible mother of my dear friend of two zillion years Denise (over at ohpiegoodness) lives in River Plantation and the losses she's sustained are staggering. I'm thankful that our friends the Faireys moved out of River Plantation a couple of years ago and headed to Memphis. That's one less sad story.

Man kayaking down Hillsboro Road in Franklin 5/2/10.
Photo by Mandy Lunn.

This intrepid fellow is kayaking down the road that runs in front of mine and Nick's high school. If I have driven down this road once, I have driven down it five thousand times. Just across from this dealership sits the Franklin Sonic, home of half-price Happy Hour every day from 2-4--just in time for school to let out. If I've had one lemon-berry slush in a hot car at this Sonic, I've had five thousand lemon-berry slushes in hot cars at this Sonic. I come back virtually every single time I come home. Because there's something comforting about it, I guess.

* * *

I'll leave you with this. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes three words are worth a thousand pictures.

Sonic on Hillsboro Road in Franklin 5/3/10.
Photo submitted to CNN iReport by davbar4

We are sad.

Please donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting 'REDCROSS' to 90999 Also check out the Nashville Flood Relief Twitter and Facebook pages my old friend Ryan set up that we've been running with the help of two perfect strangers, Logan and Jeremy, who rule.

Discussion Question:
What have you lost to natural disasters?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

the harrowing tale of nick's adventures in sleep apnea

It's the beginning of May, as you might have noticed. The first of May finds me thinking not of maypoles and distress signals but instead of what Nick and I were up to two years ago at this time: recovering from Nick having a giant chunk of his head scooped out.

This is the story of Nick getting chopped and screwed. And being in T-Pain. Okay I'll stop

(Seriously though, if you're wondering, chopped and screwed actually refers to a method for remixing hip-hop songs. It's associated with Houston. And purple drank. So what could be more appropriate blog-readin' music for this story than hip-hop made by Texans on narcotics?

When Nick and I started dating in late 2005, we lived a maddening 1000 miles away from one another. Unable to bear the distance and the time apart, Nick used to fly to Austin or fly me to Atlanta every other weekend. Very early into these blissful weekends together, I started to notice something. Nick was an incredible snorer.

He had that classic log-sawin' open-mouthed snore that makes it impossible to sleep next to someone. Worse than that, he regularly stopped breathing and then vociferously woke himself up gasping for air. I used to lay awake at night and watch the man I was falling so deeply in love with just...stop breathing. The seconds that passed until his next breath lingered on and on like minutes or hours. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to stand it and I'd shake him awake until he sucked in a breath.

I told Nick I thought he had sleep apnea, which is basically when you stop breathing during the night. Grad school Katie was delighted to inform him that 'apnea' comes from the Greek ἄπνοια, like πνέειν (to breathe) plus an alpha privative. Nick was...somewhat less delighted.

When Nick unexpectedly moved to Austin in late 2006 and into my tiny apartment with me, the situation became a little more serious. Since my little apartment was basically just one room, there was nowhere to go to escape Nick's nightly snoring extravaganza. I bought the best earplugs I could find, which gave me some relief, but I still went to sleep every night worried that maybe Nick was going to stop breathing and never start again.

To Nick's everlasting credit, he did not wait very long before he did a sleep study. The results were sobering. Nick had sleep apnea--and how. He was basically not able to reach REM sleep at all because he stopped breathing and woke himself up approximately every six minutes. The longest period of time he went without breathing? 90 seconds. Hearing that made my stomach turn.

We had two options. Either Nick could wear a CPAP machine, which looks like this:

and sounds like this:


every night for the rest of his life or he could have surgery to take care of it.

Who likes getting cut into? Nick decided to give the CPAP a try.

The CPAP machine was a bust from the start. CPAP stands for 'continuous positive airway pressure' and basically it is supposed to keep your airways open by changing the pressure inside your blah blah basically it just blows air up your nose and down your throat all night. Nick was MISERABLE. Perhaps it wasn't calibrated right. He just never got comfortable with it on. It felt weird to have all that dry air circulating through his airways all night. Add to that the fact that the machine was kind of loud AND that I woke up every morning next to something that looked approximately like this:

and you can see why we were both pretty miserable about the CPAP from the get go. It wasn't long before Nick started making arrangements to have his sleep apnea taken care of surgically.

Nick scheduled his surgery for the end of April 2008. His wonderful mother Susie made plans to come down for a week to help me take care of her ailing son, and I made arrangements with the good folks at UT Press to work from home for a week so I could look after my ailing now-fiancé.

The docket for Nick's surgery was impressive. It started out sounding pretty minor--fix the deviated septum, remove the giant tonsils. But the second two items on the list sounded a lot worse. They were going to remove his uvula and part of his soft palate?

For those of you who were not paying close attention in anatomy class, here's a diagram of the back of the mouth:

everything in green? GONE.

I knew then that Nick and I would never have the his-and-hers uvula piercings I had always imagined...

I'm kidding, Mom! Photo via headovmetal's Flickr

When the day of the surgery came, I think I was more nervous than Nick and Susie put together. I cried when they wheeled him down to surgery. I couldn't concentrate on the manuscript I brought with me to copyedit in the waiting room. The whole day is a blur of daytime TV and vending machines.

Nick came through surgery beautifully. He was awake when they wheeled him back to his room, and he was able to write us little notes to tell us how he was and what he needed and mostly that he loved us a lot. The surgeon told Susie, "Ma'am, your son really knows how to grow some huge tonsils." We brought Nick presents and doted over him and spent all the time we could in the hospital with him over the next couple of days until he came home. One evening Susie caught me on my knees in the hospital's chapel with tears running down my face saying a quick thank you to The Powers That Be. She said it was the sweetest thing but maybe I was being a teeny bit dramatic.

And perhaps I was. But it was a pretty big deal, as far as I could tell! They really hollowed that boy out. The back of Nick's throat looked like nothing I had ever seen before. It's the shape of the inside of a cathedral or a marquise-cut diamond.

It's kind of beautiful.

Nick spent basically the next 8 days or so hopped up on the legal equivalent of purple drank, sleeping constantly and healing up beautifully, so Susie and I took advantage of that time to drink Coors Light and gossip and plant a beautiful little garden and have all kinds of soon-to-be mother-and-daughter-in-law adventures. My favorite moment was probably our catastrophic attempt at making homemade mashed potatoes in this tiny, useless device:

Soooo Nick healed up and Susie went home and we all lived happily ever after, right? Well, yes. Mostly.

Two weeks after the surgery, Nick seemed to have made a complete recovery. He was back at work and life was back to normal. It was a Thursday night and I was tutoring my beloved Gregory Mohan in Latin at a little Italian restaurant a few miles away from my apartment. We had just ordered our slices of pizza and were settling in for an afternoon of conjugating when my phone rang. It was Nick. I answered.

My fiancé screamed into the phone back at me. I'M BLEEDING! YOU HAVE TO COME HOME NOW! The urgency in his voice broke into a sob. THERE'S SO MUCH BLOOD.

As he's saying these words, I'm floating out of the door of the restaurant, my feet not touching the ground. I'm calling over my shoulder GREG CALL YOUR MOM TO COME GET YOU THERE'S AN EMERGENCY and I'm in my car driving home on two wheels. I'm calling an ambulance and then a few moments later I'm hearing the ambulance in the distance already on its way to him. It's funny how slow and clear everything seems in those moments of absolute and complete panic.

When I was just a few blocks from home I got caught at a red light. A huge pack of motorcyclists were taking up almost a block of space, loosely scattered across two lanes, blocking my way into a gas station parking lot where I could circumvent the light. I skidded to a stop behind them and layed on my horn. GET OUT OF THE F$%&ING WAY I screamed crazily out my open window, a bespectacled young woman with a car full of Latin books picking a fight with a motorcycle gang. Several of the bikers literally flicked their kickstands down and got off their bikes and started making towards me with venomous eyes. I did not know these things actually happened outside of S.E. Hinton novels and Michael Jackson videos but I did not have time to stick around and see if there was going to be any coordinated dancing. I leaned my body halfway out of my car and screamed with all of my might, my voice breaking, I AM HAVING A MEDICAL EMERGENCY PLEASE F$#*$ING MOVE SO I CAN PULL THROUGH THAT PARKING LOT The bikers wasted no time getting out of my crazed way. I honked and waved gratefully as I peeled through the parking lot towards home.

I got to our townhouse right as the ambulance was getting there to find Nick in the front yard with blood trickling out of his mouth and soaking his shirt, an impressive trail of blood leading back to our apartment. He was panicked but it was clear that the bleeding was slowing and the worst was over. I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

It turned out Nick had coughed and blown a suture in the back of his mouth, and a blood vessel had ruptured. When Nick called me, the blood was shooting out of his mouth in a spray. Later on I found that Nick had tried to clean up a lot of the blood in the bathroom so I wouldn't be frightened when I saw it, but it still looked like someone had taken a water balloon filled with blood and dropped it into the bathroom sink. It was like a crime scene. I'd find blood spatters in the house for months to come.

They had to do emergency cauterization on Nick's wounds that night to guarantee that the vessel wouldn't rupture again. More anesthesia, another night spent in the hospital. My dear friend Sam Hoekstra (now Hoffpaiur) came to the hospital in the middle of the night (on a work night!) to come and keep me company and distract me. I will never forget how kind she was and how much I appreciated it.

And THEN Nick healed up and everything was fine and we lived happily ever after. And Nick doesn't really snore anymore, and he definitely doesn't stop breathing during the night. So we're extra happy. The end.

Discussion Question:
What's the scariest phone call you've ever gotten?