Good Things #28: Flannel and Coffee


There are things you think about when you’re sick in your bed. You think about being weak and whiney. You think about how wonderful flannel sheets are and that maybe you’ll buy yourself a new set with a pretty floral pattern. (I once had someone disdainfully describe a man: “Well, he wears flannel.” My first thought was, Yes.) You wonder how long is too long for Christmas lights to be up and you want more coffee but you keep putting it off because you’re too lazy to go downstairs.

This past month and a half has been crammed full with strange. I meet up with friends, and I realize I have story after story of bizarre occurrences, moments of I can’t believe this is happening and So I walked into this strange guy’s apartment because what do you do at night when your car breaks down and your cell phone is broken? (More on that one later, maybe).

You can’t go too long without a good talk. You can’t expect to not see someone for months and have everything line up perfectly in conversation. We sat in our favorite local pub and our stories criss-crossed and overlapped and we found we had way too much to tell each other.

What is it about the holiday season that brings the oddest things out of the woodwork?

Is it up-close familiness?

The realization that you are the same and different as you’ve ever been?

Things always come rolling rapidly at me in the months of November and December.

Now, on January 15th, the good thing is not that I am sick, really, but that I am allowed to be sick. I can light a candle and think about good conversations and wonder what 2014 holds. I can worry and plan my next steps in education, or I can watch Sherlock (IT IS COMING ON JANUARY 19TH). I can read a book of poetry or Percy Jackson or nothing at all.

When I’m allowed to pause, I am grateful. Whirlwinds are fun, but they really only get their punch when they’re interspersed with calm.

Here’s a song that sings to my wintry soul because without sunshine, winter songs are the best.

The Teaching Student? Or the Learning Teacher?

I was a terrible student. I say this with endearment to my younger self and all her strivings, but really, it’s true. I wasn’t bad in some of the traditional ways – I never complained about workload and I was (almost) always interested in material. As I write this, I’m wondering what my past teachers thought of me at the time. Wondering. I don’t exactly want to know.

What’s brought this to mind is this:

Teaching has shown me what a bad student is.

I’m taking a grad school course on teaching strategies. We meet one weekend a month and talk classroom management, attention, relationship, and how-tos, and these three and six-hour classes have taught me something about myself. I am not a natural student. I hate sitting in those awful chairs and not talking for so long (shocked?!). I try my darnedest to read the textbooks because really, they’re pretty interesting, and I love that I can walk into my classroom the next day and implement what I’ve learned, but it’s not so easy to put down Percy Jackson or Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.

In high school and college, I doodled. I sang songs in my head (yes, I admit it). I talked a lot and in my defense, it was often on topic, but I was more concerned with getting people to laugh because I was dying inside. And my behind was numb. I wrote out my week’s schedule because even THAT was better than listening sometimes, which is so strange to me now. I had absolutely wonderful teachers for the most part. They were engaging, passionate about their subjects, and always encouraging. (Of course, I am omitting those few teachers who stood out like sore thumbs and made me raging mad. Those are in a different category.)

So what is it about being a student that makes me so utterly different from who I want to be?

I had a music professor in college who used to laugh and say, “Students are the only consumers who are glad not to get what they pay for.”

And we would smile with embarrassment and recognition because it was true.

I have just spent the last two days writing a poetry unit for eighth grade. I wrote an integrative paper and a unit introduction (which doesn’t exist in the real world, but it does in grad school). I have had roughly three months to complete these assignments, and while I have been subconsciously thinking about them all along and I did write a lesson or two last month, I couldn’t wrap my mind around such gargantuan work before it was crunch time.

Friday night I will be sitting in my last weekend of this class, wondering what my family is eating for dinner, what my cool friends are doing while I lamely discuss the ethics of teaching and the future of education. I say lamely because I’m embarrassed by how interesting I find these topics. It’s the Friday night discussing of them that makes them a little less cool…

I will be tempted to lean over and whisper a joke to my friend because we have the same sense of humor and we are hi-larious.

I will be tempted to do this while the teacher is talking.

But then I will remember: Standing in front of a classroom of 9th and 10th graders, frustrated at their lack of attention, their inability to engage with me or the material, and their OBSESSION WITH JUSTIN BIEBER.

I will remember these things, and I will refrain from whispering. I hope my professor acknowledges my amazing self-restraint and gives me a gold star.

Because, really? I do want what I paid for. I want to be good at what I do and (even) to be good at learning it. Being a student again gives me both compassion for my current Latiners and for my current teachers – a very strange place to be, indeed.

[Photo: UGL_UIUC]

Don’t Touch My Stuff!

I hate sharing.

I hate it like I hate getting up at the crack of dawn.

I hate it like I hate cleaning.

The other day, my brother looked at me and said, “You’re really bad at sharing.”

And I said, “Huh, yeah I am.”

It’s totally true. When I was little, I used to sell sticks of gum to my siblings. “That’ll be 25 cents,” I’d say, and the little naive things would do it because they trusted me. The beginnings of my entrepreneurship stirred even as my parents swiftly ended my first venture.

When whoever I’m with orders something, I get excited because I expect to get a taste. When they assume the same, however, reaching over for my glass/mug/plate, I feel a bristling: Excuse me? Can you ask?, and I wonder where I get off.

~     ~     ~

I started making excuses for myself: It’s because my siblings broke everything when I was little! All my dolls were ruined! We had to fight for the yummiest of everything! I blame my childhood for my current state!

My mom even agreed with me, saying that’s probably where my penurious ways stem from. And I placate myself by saying that I give to my church, I even sponsor a child in India, for goodness sake!

But I have a hard time with the little things, like paying for someone’s coffee or ice cream or movie ticket. I never even THINK to offer these things, and I’m shocked when someone says to me, “Oh, I got this.” I wonder when they’ll expect me to pay them back, and I keep a tally in my head of how much I owe.

Generosity goes beyond money. Am I generous with my time? Yes, far more so than with my things. I am much more likely to make time in my week to see a friend than I am to buy someone a gift. You need help with something? I love helping. You want me to buy you gas? That one’s a little tougher.

I must be afraid of something. Afraid of being taken advantage of. Afraid of getting less than my share.

Maybe it’s about trust.

I want a generous spirit. I want to hold my hands open to those I love, as well as to my church and others in need. I’m sitting at a coffee shop right now, and I’m wondering why I didn’t offer to buy my friend’s coffee. Maybe that’s where it starts? Unsolicited moments of generosity.

Maybe you can train yourself to being generous?

Has someone ever taught you something about yourself? If it was a flaw, how are you working to grow?

Good Time Saturday Night

I am sitting in a darkened home. Three children are asleep upstairs and the refrigerator hums as I type.

[I felt my body being jostled and there she was, all seven-years of her, shaking me. I’d fallen asleep watching Master Chef Jr. at 8:30. That does not fly when you haven’t seen each other in months and there is still so much to talk about.]

What did we talk about?

She told me about school and how “first grade is so boring.” (“Boring” seems to be the new word.) I asked her why.

“All we do is sit at desks and do math.”

“That sounds pretty boring,” I said.

“I miss kindergarten.”

Don’t we all.

“I wish I were your teacher. Then we could have fun and learn at the same time.”

But I shouldn’t have said it because I saw her eyes dart for a moment with the thought of it.

We watched the oldest brother play flag football, losing terribly. They played tag because let’s face it, I wasn’t feeling it. We sang Lorde’s “Royals” and Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” and a thousand other songs. Catherine, everyone is looking at us ’cause you’re singing.


They got over it pretty quickly and joined in. Don’t worry. We weren’t too obnoxious.

He threw his body and contorted himself in all different shapes until finally I said,

“You watch it. No hospital runs until after I eat my dinner.”

They thought that was the funniest thing. Oh, Catherine said she won’t take us to the hospital until after she eats. Better be careful! 

We laughed in the pizza place waiting for our order. The middle boy shook my soda till all the bubbles filled the bottle. We almost took the wrong food. I forgot to order the mozzarella sticks. We licked our fingers.

They told me about their new babysitter, who sounded nice.

But she, as though concerned for my feelings, leaned over and whispered in my ear,

“You’re funner.”

I read Angelina Ballerina, did not give in to the half-hearted request for more, smoothed hair, turned out lights.

The 10, 9, and 5-year-old are now 11, 10, and 7. They still guess that I’m in my thirties, wonder where my children are, and ask if I can have sleepovers.

Not bad for a Saturday night.

{Notes from Salzburg}

Barnes and Noble is my hangout. My jam. My Place To Be. While enjoying a dirty chai {yes, I enjoy placing that order}, I remembered an old blog post I wrote when I was studying in Austria. Only my family and maybe two of my friends ever read it – my mom was just glad I wasn’t dead, I think. Anyway, here’s one of my favorites. Susie, this one’s for you.

{Big Bugs}

One of the most interesting parts of this cross-cultural experience has been the realization that, while things are very different, they are also very much the same. People are people. Deep. But seriously, there are families here who live like we do at home.

There are young adults who are full of life and excited about the future. There are lonely old men who sit at Cafe Tomaselli and drink coffee, watching the young people who are full of life.

Things are are a lot like they are at home. Including the fact that huge hornets fly into bedrooms and scare silly girls into screaming.

Last night, Susanna and I stayed up late talking and laughing. It was after midnight, and there’s such a thing as “quiet hours” in Salzburg (that’s right, college students, they exist in the real world apart from finals time…), so we closed all our doors but forgot to close the windows. We were talking about girly things and making each other giggle, when suddenly the largest bug I’ve ever seen buzzed into our room, hitting the ceiling and making Susie jump down from the bunk bed and huddle next to me on the floor. I try not to swear, but I’m telling you, this thing could sting the life right out of me, and we both couldn’t contain ourselves. I’m not even scared of bugs, usually, but what can you do?

Austrian bugs are flippin’ huge.

So I climbed up on to the top bunk and tried to swat it with one of our towels. I hit it, but what’s a swat to a mutant stinging insect? It buzzed right at my face, and I screamed. I was pretty embarrassed that a bug made me scream, but Susie said with determination: “Alright, it’s time to wake the boys.”

Now I am not one for running to a male in a time like this – what can a boy do that I can’t? If it’s gonna sting me, it’s gonna sting him – but I didn’t know what else to do. We weighed our options: Tom wouldn’t wake up, he’s like a log. Jon would wake up, but probably be pretty angry at us and never let us forget it. We decided on Andrew, the outdoorsman, the boy who likes to save people.

Susie knocked on his door, but he wasn’t in there (immediately after our frantic knock, his roommate replied, “Andrew’s not in here. Don’t come in.”). I went back to our room while Susanna went to find Andrew, and I’d had enough. Liz, our friend from the Finland, said, “No one has ever seen a bug that big! I want to make a picture!” And instead of helping me, proceeded to take pictures of the huge deadly bug.

I grabbed the towel again and stealthily tested the hornet’s reaction to my approach. It was preoccupied with preening, so I set in, a fast and furious attack with the towel. I pounded the towel against the wall, trying to squeeze the life out of it, but when I checked the clump, I saw it still moving! So I smooshed the towel into a ball and punched and punched it. By this time, Susie was back with Andrew, David, and Liz, and I looked like a fool punching a towel. I opened it again and IT STILL WASN’T DEAD. This thing was resilient. Andrew took the towel and threw the hornet outside, where it lives on to attack us in our sleep.

So somethings are the same, and somethings are different.

Bugs fly inside and scare girls, but they are a heck of a lot bigger.


Karaoke and Curry

Last night I did something for the first time.

I sang at a karaoke bar.

Okay, it wasn’t a karaoke bar. We were at an Indian restaurant that has karaoke on Saturday nights (weird, I know). With the smell of curry wafting through the room, the long-haired dj sang his heart out, waiting for people to get the courage to come on up and sing.

While the few people in the room were trying to convince all the other people to sing, my friend nodded his head across the way.

“What about that guy over there? Why don’t you go hit on him?”

I looked over at the only man at the bar – a guy around my age. He had his nose buried in his iPod, and I don’t think he looked up for ten minutes.

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I don’t think so.”

“Okay, how about him?” he said, gesturing toward a portly gray-haired man who was barely taller than I am.

“What the heck?! Cut it out.”

So after an hour or so of witty banter and teasing, he finally coerced me and B, my roommate from college, to sing. I should’ve known better. I kept saying, “No, no thanks. Not really interested in embarrassing myself.” And they just couldn’t understand why two women with degrees in music would pass up an opportunity to sing in front of people.

Maybe because I don’t know how to sing with a microphone?

Maybe because I’m used to practicing for hours before getting up there?

Maybe because I’m classically trained and don’t know a thing about belting or how to perform a pop song and make it sound good?

Maybe all three of those reasons?


[This is a little more up my alley. Or at least this is how I’m more used to performing. Here I’m singing a setting of some of my favorite Psalms composed by a friend of mine from college. I can’t wait til I can say I knew him when!]

But I got up there and did it. My friend and I sang together, but our song choice was horrible. That’s also part of the problem: all the songs that sound good in my voice and that I can perform well are so sad. Give me a melancholy song any day, and I’ll rock it. “Cry Me a River” is a powerful, knock-your-socks-off number. But that’s not the kind of song that makes for good karaoke.

Nobody booed or threw their garlic naan at us, but there was a general sense of BUMMER. When I sat down, I thought: I am never doing this again.

I’d changed my mind by the time I woke up this morning. I have to redeem myself. Next time, I’m singing something a little more sassy, a little more upbeat. Something that says “I’m fun and I sing at karaoke nights.”

Let’s Give ’em Something to Talk About.

Restaurant Crush

[Unfortunately, there is no photo from this event. I, unlike most of my 20-something friends, do not own an iPhone. Besides, pretty sure you wouldn’t want a picture of what I’m about to describe.]

Over Christmas break, we all met up for brunch at one of our new-old haunts. Our favorite breakfast place relocated, so now we get the same delicious food in a bigger, noisier location. Oh well.

I was late because I double-booked and had a hair appointment. The girls graciously waited in the lobby til I arrived. There were hugs, and I’m pretty sure everyone around us was laughing because it’s nearly impossible not to revert back to high school when you’re with all your high school friends.

We squeezed into a round booth; M was fast to decide what she wanted (we applauded her growth in this department), we guzzled the delicious coffee, and we updated each other on our lives. Even though in some respects, we cling to our old roles, there are many changes. B and N are married now, so her pretty ring flashed as she animatedly told us her stories. S is moving for a new job. C is getting her Master’s, L is entering a certificate program and the world is moving forward.

It was great to hear all about their lives, but I have to admit one thing: I got distracted.

In walks a tall, rugged man in Timberlands and a plaid flannel shirt. He looks about our age, and he sits at a table directly across from me. It is really unfortunate (or fortunate?!) because throughout the entire meal, we keep making awkward (or not awkward?!) eye contact. I keep talking, trying to pretend that I don’t care if he’s watching, trying to pretend that I don’t feel 17 and fluttery over some woodsman at a restaurant.

The girls don’t even notice him. I think perhaps we have different taste.

[I DID pay attention to what the girls were telling me. I DID contribute my own stories. And I TRIED not to keep making eye contact with this stranger.]

As we’re paying the bill, I glance up one more time. I expect to see the side of his face as he  talks with the guy next to him. Instead, I see something that destroys my restaurant crush entirely: his fingers are clearly in his nose, and he proceeds to dispose of whatever they come up with IN HIS MOUTH.

This was not a five-year-old.

This was not in the privacy of a bathroom or even his own home.

I was so disappointed. Is this what I’m destined to get? A rough, outdoorsman who can’t help but pick his nose and eat the remains? Isn’t there someone out there who’s interesting, smart, rugged and makes me laugh, and doesn’t act like he’s entering preschool?

The girls just kept chattering on, not noticing my sinking heart at the fate of our seemingly-mutual glances.

Needless to say, my restaurant crush was not for me. Do I have to get all doom-and-gloom and project this experience on all men?


Will I?

I hope not.


[Insert hunk not picking his nose.]

Turkey What?

After work yesterday – after a day of 5th and 6th grade Latiners, being interviewed for the 6th grade newspaper (Yes! Finally, celebrity status!), and a couple hours at the desk sorting out parent-teacher conference schedules – I headed straight to an indoor farmer’s market.

My mother was waiting eagerly for me. When she found out she had to run the “honey table” alone for the first hour, she wasn’t too thrilled. (“Wait. I have to answer their questions?”) And when I walked into the community building, it felt like entering a small church: everyone stared at me because, clearly, I was not yet part of their group.

“So,” Mom said, looking at her small pad of paper, “I’ve sold a turkey candle, a large muth jar, and a regular jar.”

Now, you’re probably wondering what a “turkey candle” is.

I was too, when my Dad came joyously into the living room a few weeks ago, a small yellowish thing cupped in his hands.

“Look, Catherine! A turkey candle!”

Dad had gone online and purchased a candle mould – shaped like a turkey.

I looked at it skeptically. Who in the world would buy such a tacky thing?

And I said as much.

Dad was slightly offended, turning on his heel and saying over his shoulder, “You’ll see!”

Yesterday, I did see.

We sold a total of FIVE turkey-shaped candles.

I was shocked. They were flying. Like hotcakes. What I couldn’t believe was that right next to these tacky little gobblers were beautiful wax skeps: classy, smooth, beautiful. Skeps are the rounded hives you’ve probably seen in cartoons.

I just didn’t understand it.

We’re going back next week, and I’m sure Dad’s planning to replenish his flock, because as he said, “After Thanksgiving, all these turkeys are going back into the melting pot.”

It’s their last shot.

That just goes to show you I don’t yet understand the candle and honey market.

Go, Dad.

Pride and Prejudice May Be the Answer

I’ve been teaching an ESL class on Tuesday nights. (It’s just one student – is that a class?!) We meet at the library, where no food or drink is allowed, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever tried to learn without a cup of tea or coffee in my hand.

When I first met my Hungarian student, I was scared. I had been told (via email and in the slightly unclear email-way of a harried 60+ year-old), that the student was Low Intermediate.

I had expectations.

My TEFL course did inform us that the categories were not so good. That everyone has a different idea of what it means to be a “Low Intermediate.”

My student (I’ll call her Aniko) could barely tell me why she was taking the class.

She told me her name. She told me she had come from Hungary two months earlier (although she said ‘in two months’ and it took me a while to figure it out). She told me she was in America.

And I was horrified because I thought our lessons were one hour but they were two and this Hungarian woman was staring at me with big brown eyes.

~     ~     ~

Now, seven weeks later, we have only one class left.

We’ve worked on:

  • superlatives
  • past, present, and future time expressions (This one is TOUGH. How do you explain ‘awhile ago,’ or the fact that we use ‘this morning’ to describe something in the past?)
  • letter-writing (because I love it so much…no, because it’s necessary)
  • emailing
  • coffee-ordering
  • adjectives
  • movie-watching

This last one may seem silly, but let me tell you, it is hard.

I have her watch clips from movies and then fill in the blanks to see if she can hear what they say, if she can tell what should be there.

[If actors are any clue to how we Americans usually speak, we speak way too fast, way too jumbly, and way too idiomatically.]

Last night, I had her watch clips from ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I think I was a little ambitious; the British accents and vocabulary were extremely difficult to follow. We had to watch each one at least three times, and in the end, even after she got every question right, she put her head on the table and said,

“English is hard for me.”

I almost patted her short hair in sympathy.

Yes, English is hard.

I’m sorry.

Let’s watch a little more ‘Pride and Prejudice.’

Perhaps that is my response to too many of life’s problems.

A First

All week, I think about the weekend. Even on days that go well, during lessons that rock, I think in the back of my mind, I can’t wait til the weekend. I can’t wait to hang out with friends. I can’t wait to do my thing. 

I think this every week, and then, on Friday night, all I can think about is sleep. And movies. And reading. and not seeing anyone.

What is wrong with me? It’s been over two months, now, and each weekend that comes up, I find myself at home again, doing quiet, contemplative things.

But every Monday morning, I think, shoot, I didn’t go out again. I stayed home AGAIN.

This weekend was different.

I went out with my sister and her friend, met them late after watching Argo with a boy I grew up with (it was so fun, chatting, nearly getting lost driving streets I’ve driven since I was sixteen, having him lean over and say, “We didn’t get nearly as much talking time as usual, watching this movie. We need to go out again soon.” Old friends are great.)

Later, when I met up with my sister, the place was crowded, the music was way too loud (as soon as I thought this, I cringed at my oldness), and the girls had already finished their drinks when I got there. I was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, since I hadn’t planned to go out at all. I was not looking my best, but I was feeling particularly happy.

The woman working at the bar came over, slid three cinnamon whiskeys towards us, and said, “These are from the three guys over there,” with a nod.

It was totally flattering, and after we drank the delicious cinnamony-delight, we let them sidle up to us and chat for about half an hour. It was fun, learning their names, talking about where we went to college (“Isn’t that super Christian?” they asked. “Yeah, it’s a Christian college.”). I was a little separate from the other girls, so most of the time I watched them interact, watched them laugh and flirt. It was almost more fun than doing it myself – no pressure, no assumptions.

Then my sister and her friend got up to go to the bathroom, leaving me alone. The boys were further away, but the dark haired one came up, smiling, saying, “Don’t want to leave you all alone.”

He told me he was going to college – for the first time at age twenty-four – to study Mechanical Engineering. He saw my VW key and made fun of me for having a “chick car.” I pointed out that I was, in fact, a chick.

The girls were only gone a moment, but it was long enough to feel good chatting with a stranger.

And then, as he was about to leave, he said something that normally would’ve shocked me.

“You’re really pretty,” he said. But then he went on: “I hope you get laid tonight.”

I couldn’t even react. It was like I didn’t really hear the words.

He wasn’t even being crass. He wasn’t trying to be insulting or embarrass me. His voice was low and kind, and his eyes were soft. He could’ve been my mother, saying “Honey, you look so beautiful!” Or my friend K telling me, “You deserve an amazing man, Cath.”

I couldn’t slap him or chastise him or say anything that would’ve told him I was a prude.

He was merely giving me a 21st-century compliment.

It’s not his fault, I guess. That’s what our culture tells us is the highest prize: laid-worthiness.

When I came home and told my mother, she looked at me, shocked. And then she laughed. She kept laughing all day, whispering the phrase under her breath.

He didn’t know who he was talking to. But still, I think there’s a soft spot in my heart for him. His dark hair, his Greekness, his easy way of talking. The compliment that flattered me and shocked me at the same time.

We are looking for such different things.