31 January 2011


I really do not know what is wrong with me. I cannot bring myself to do so much as a 25 minute pilates video on Sunday, but on Monday I think it's a good idea to do 75 minutes of kung fu immediately after 60 minutes of fighting class.

Now when I stand up, I stagger instead of walking. Kung fu is a whole new concept, and it requires moving your body in ways I did not know bodies could move.

Furthermore, I need to learn to count to ten in Mandarin.

27 January 2011

on up

We had a hardcore fighting class yesterday.

(Have I mentioned blackjack? It goes like this: 20 push-ups, 1 sit-up. Run across the floor. 19 push-ups, 2 sit-ups. Run across the floor. It goes on until you are doing 10 push-ups, 11 sit-ups, then finally to 1 push-up, 20 sit-ups. I was sore today.)

Then I went to the advanced class.


You know that saying about muscles you didn't know you had? Usually people are talking about, I don't know, their legs. We all know that we have muscles in our legs, even if we don't use all of them all the time.

I am sore in the muscle that runs down the side of my back. How does that happen? I would not know how to work that muscle if you asked me, but somehow I did it.

The boxing gloves I borrowed were 18 oz each, and dropping them from the sides of your face meant 50 push-ups. I literally could barely lift my arm to the steering wheel as I was driving home.

"I knew you would end up here," one of my classmates said. "You like to hit things. So do the rest of us." She turned to the other woman in the class. "Right after she started, she asked me about defending against automatic assault rifles."

"Oh," the other woman said, "we should get some practice rifles. That would be good to learn."

I fit right in. Or I will, when I can move again without groaning.

26 January 2011


When I went out to the car this morning, it was covered in a thin layer of ice, and so I got out my very large ice scraper and scraped it off. (Gone Westians mock me for this ice scraper, but I grew up in the Mitten State. I know the importance of a good ice scraper. And the one time a year that it snows, I'm the one laughing as I quickly clean off my car while they scrape the windshield with their frozen fingernails.)

Around the front of my car, I noticed that one of my headlights was out. It was early and foggy, and I really couldn't not have my headlights on, but I was embarrassed all the way to work. What kind of person has only one headlight?

Surely, I thought, I can replace some headlights.

On my lunch hour, I went to an auto parts store and bought two headlights. Not just headlights. Ecologically friendlier headlights. The guy behind the counter advised changing both headlights at once (because they are likely to burn out at similar times), which I did, but now I regret it, because the two lights that were in there already were not the same.

Then I went home and parked in my driveway and began trying to change my headlights.


First of all, who writes the instructions in the owner's manual? "Push on both sides of the connector to disengage it from the bulb and pull straight back to remove the connector." The situation is made worse by the fact that the "both sides" of which they speak are buried in the rubber piece that protects the bulb, so you can't actually reach them, and that the driver's side connector is further buried beneath some little power steering reservoir that you have to twist out of the way while hoping that you aren't severing some important cable.

About thirty minutes after I started, I had the passenger side changed but was still fighting with the driver's side light (no idea why! it wasn't even burned out! madness!). An older guy who was working on the water heater next door came by and said, "You swearing at that thing yet?"

"Yes, yes, I am," I said, and he tried to pull on the stupid connector but soon had to leave lest his boss yell at him. I just could not get a grip on the connector while reaching around the power steering fluid reservoir.

By the time I got done, my hands were ground in with grease. My fingers ached from pressing so hard on the little connector tabs. The backs of my hands were red and scraped from the power steering reservoir. I don't really mind that, though. The tomboy in me prefers grease in my fingernails over a perfect manicure. That, and my headlights are perfect.

25 January 2011

in which I make financial professionals despair

I lost my checkbook, sometime in the last month, and I couldn't pay my student loan. (All of my payments each month are paid automatically except the one from Citibank. I do not trust The Student Loan Corporation because they have, in the past, charged me late fees for months during which I paid on time, and they never have credited that money back to me, so handwritten checks it is.)

I finally went to the bank that holds my student loan money (thank you, dear over-priced law school of mine), and asked for some checks. I explained that I moved and then I traveled for the holidays and somewhere in all of that, I lost my checkbook. "I can't pay my student loans because I can't find the checkbook, and I keep looking, but I just don't know where it is, and I have to pay the loans."

"Do you think you'll be able to find it?" the bank person asked, in a tone that said, Do we need to worry about id theft? "Is it in a box somewhere, or is it really gone?"

"I think I have it somewhere," I said. "I just don't know where. I mean, I've had it since I moved. I just lost it again in the last few weeks."

To fill the silence while he printed the new checks, I babbled. "I would have made my student loan payment with my debit card, but I had some problems with id theft last year and I got the new card, but I don't think I activated it."

"Yeeesss," he said, looking at the screen. "You've had that card since November, but it hasn't been activated."

"Yeah," I said, cheerfully, standing up, "I can't find the new card, either. It's probably with the checkbook."

He literally sank his head in his hands in despair.

But I'm sure it was not just me. It was probably the culmination of all the financially hopelessly disorganized people he sees every day.

And I am not quite as incompetent as I look, because when I got home to make myself some lunch (I haven't gotten around to making a new set of beans-and-rice dishes for the week), I had a moment of brilliance and walked directly over to my checkbook.

The new debit card wasn't with it, though. I still don't know where that sucker is.

24 January 2011

running uphill

Yesterday I was feeling particularly energetic - by mid-afternoon I had gone to church and worked, as in work-worked for a while - so I decided to go for a run. I do a hard-core exercise class, I figured, so a nice little run on a sunny afternoon should be just the thing.

I forgot that I live on a hill.

I guess I didn't forget so much as I assumed I would be fine, fine, running up a hill for my first attempt at a run in months.

I pretty much spent the first ten minutes attempting to jog up what should have been a hike, and then the next twenty minutes recovering.

I discovered, while walking for twenty minutes to recover from my brief stint of running, that I live very very near the edge of town. Just over the hill, suddenly there is nothing but field and forest. I walked back from the edge of town on a lovely little meandering road with no curb, passing classically Universe City houses with odd shapes and funny staircases, stepping into the mud when a car came by.

Today I talked to the fighting instructor, and I'm starting the advanced fighting class this week. Perhaps the additional day of fighting class will either 1. free me from attempting to give myself a heart attack by running up mountains, or 2. get me in good enough shape to actually run up mountains. Something needs to give. The last try was a disaster.

20 January 2011


I had a Rwandese friend who moved to Canada. We were not particularly close in Rwanda, but we were part of the same group of friends, and when he was in New York for a few months on his way to getting permission to stay in Canada, he emailed me, and we met up to talk about Rwanda and our common friends.

He invited me up to the Bronx to eat Rwandese food, to the tiny back-alley apartment where he slept on the floor of his Burundian friend's room, the other rooms full of immigrant men from other Francophone African countries, also scraping by, also far from their families. I rode the 4 train north out of Manhattan, and S. met me at the subway stop. When it was time to leave, he and his friend not only walked me back to the subway, but rode the train all the way to my stop to make sure that I was safe.

"Our neighborhood is not very good," they told me. "Not very safe. And these black American guys are so strange. They stand in front of the stores and yell at us, 'Hay, you gah-da kwah-der?'" They exaggerated the Bronx accent through their African-French accents. "You gah-da kwaaah-der."

S. moved to Canada, and I saw his friend twice more: once to pick up a bunch of presents to take to his wife and kids in Rwanda when I spent the summer there, and once to bring him the gifts that they sent back with me to him. My head hurt from speaking French. In between, in Rwanda, I spent a lovely afternoon at a craft fair with his wife and kids, wandering the booths in a shaded park I'd never really noticed in downtown Kigali.

It's like that in East Africa. Friends or friendly acquaintances you met once will email you and say, "I'm going to be in your town. Can you show me around / help me buy all the requisite gifts to bring back / take these things I have to send back to my country?" and you do, because that's just how it is, and because if you were in Khartoum / Nairobi / Kinshasa, they would do the same for you, or would find friends to do it on their behalf.

The reason I thought of this story is that months later, after S. had settled in Canada, he called, or we exchanged emails, or something, and he said, "I used to think that people in America or Canada were just making excuses when they said that they couldn't call or email because they were too busy. But now I see. People really are that busy here. I am that busy now, and I don't have time to call or email my friends at home the way I want to do."

That is exactly how I feel right now, only busier. I don't even have the time to call or email my friends down the street right now. There have been evenings - entire days in a row - when the only thing I did on the computer was work and make sure no one was in crisis. Before these last weeks, I cannot remember the last time I got home and did not turn on the computer at least to play for a little while, except on nights when I'd gone out late with friends. But these days, I'm too tired, too often.

A few weeks ago, S. said hello to me on f@ceb00k. We hadn't spoken in five or more years. We were both immersed in our North American lives and just too busy to keep up acquaintanceship in the East African way. He told me that he had married a Rwandese girl he met in Canada, "and we didn't even know each other before we moved here!" He posted photos of their wedding, of a lovely, happy woman and his smiling, handsome face, and the photos made me smile because they were surrounded by the Rwandese community in Montreal. I love that kind of community in a place far from home.

18 January 2011

church music

In church, I opened the Psalter Hymnal (the gray one, the new edition, c. 1987) to number 475, and promptly put the book away. I didn't need it. I should have known just from the number that I wouldn't need it. I know all the words to that one, except that I can never remember in the second verse if it's "the same as ever" or "the same forever."

Sometimes I page through the hymnal in church in Gone West (there is no Home Dutch Denomination church in Universe City), and I estimate that I know about 1/3 of the 641 songs in there. Not all by heart, you understand, but enough to sing them without an instrument guiding the way. It's so much of my childhood, my past, in that book.

Singing Praise My Soul the King of Heaven on Sunday night, I wished that I knew how to play the piano. When I was little, in Liberia, my mom would play the piano on Sunday nights, and we would sing our way through the Psalter Hymnal. When it was my turn to pick, I always chose the militaristic songs, for some unknown reason, but now I'm grateful for the majestic ones, the beautiful ones. I wish I knew how to play them myself.

When I first moved to Rwanda, when J. and E. were there for a month showing me around, E. and I spent several days trying to remember all the words to By the Sea of Crystal. When I sing it now, I can see those mountains and valleys of northern Rwanda, between Gisenyi and Ruhengeri, passing in my mind.

17 January 2011


"I don't think I brought the right kind of clothes to change my oil," I said.

"That's fine," N. said. "My dad has plenty of overalls in the shop."

"You might have to help me," I said.

"Nope," N. said. "You are doing it by yourself. There are only three steps."

"Drain the oil," I said. "I have actually done this before, just not since 2002 and never on this particular kind of car."

"Right," he said, "and then change the filter, and then put the new oil in."

"I don't mean that you have to do it for me," I explained. "Just maybe you could at least come out to the shop and supervise?"

"Nope. I am very busy. I have to sleep, and rest, and relax, and read the paper."

But of course he did come and direct. He held the light while I crawled under the car.

Waiting for the oil to drain, I stood there next to the car and started laughing. I laughed and laughed.

"What's so funny?" N. asked, and I just kept laughing.

"What?" he asked again, now starting to laugh himself, helplessly, as one does when someone else is laughing.

"Just look at me!" I said, holding out my arms. I was wearing coveralls that zipped up the front, with the hood of a ratty old sweatshirt (also not mine) over my head to protect my hair, covered pretty much from head to toe with oil and goo. Taking the plug out of the oil tank did not go well.

But my car did not overheat on the drive back to Universe City, nor did the oil light come on, so I proclaimed operation oil change a success.

10 January 2011


Yesterday I saw a fire truck, the long kind with a hinge in the middle, pulling into a small corner fuel station. It barely fit under the canopy, and it didn't fit at all in my head.

09 January 2011

back there

People are voting in Southern Sudan today. Every one predicts that South Sudan will vote to secede from North Sudan, and everything I know of South Sudan, the few months I spent there, leads me to predict the same.

For once, South Sudan is in the news, and I look at the pictures, and I want to go back. I know, insane, right? I was so unhappy when I was in Southern Sudan. But you cannot blame a country, or even a semi-autonomous region, for where you are in your head.

If I didn't have to go alone, I would go back right now.

08 January 2011

round and round

I woke up late and still stupid with the exhaustion of the week that I couldn't shake off. By 4:30, I was beginning to worry that I might not leave my house today, and that would have been unacceptably slothful and boring, not because I think it is unacceptably slothful and boring not to leave your house all day, but because all I was doing was staring at my computer at a level of slothful and boring that was giving me a headache.

Someone had mentioned rollerskating in the last few days, and so I asked A. if she wanted to join me for open skate in Adjacent City. She did, and we went skating with all the little kids and flirting teenagers and overly-enthusiastic men and one determined young boy who fell and hurt himself repeatedly but still joined every race. "That is one brave little kid," we said several times, watching him fight back involuntary tears of pain as he got up and started forward again, arms out for balance.

A. and I are both constitutionally incapable of talking about un-intense things, and so we talked about faith and church and insecurities as we circled the floor, sometimes speaking louder over the music, trying to drown out like a G6 and watch me burn and in my skintight jeans with our discussions.

06 January 2011


I reached to open the drawer for a knife, but there was a little ladybug on the edge of the counter. I picked it up in my hand and washed it into the sink to get rid of it, imagining a house full of crawling little critters all winter long.

But I looked down and saw it struggling in the bottom of the rubbermaid container, deep under water, and I felt bad. I dumped the water out of the container, picked up the ladybug again, and blew it off my hand outside. It probably died that way, too, I realized later, but at least I didn't have to watch.

05 January 2011


I drove home on Sunday night on a windy little road through the hills. The cars behind me passed me the first chance they got because, frankly, I am annoying on a dark, windy, unfamiliar road. I drive much more slowly than the trucks of the people who live in those hills. I crept along, refusing to drive faster for their sakes, needing to feel in control of the car.

Orion hung low in the southeastern sky in front of me. I followed him all the way home.

I can tell my cardinal directions from Orion's orientation in the night sky. He was straight up above our house in Liberia, and all I have to do imagine him there, in the Liberian sky, to know which way is west.

One of my favorite things about living in Africa is the fact that Orion is visible all the time. I miss him, here in the Northern Hemisphere, where he only appears in winter, in the southern sky.

Whenever I can see Orion, I feel like I'm home.

03 January 2011


"We think it was J.," S. and N. said, of their cousin's new girlfriend, the person who they suspect brought the breast tape to their grandparents' white elephant gift exchange.

"It was her first Christmas with your family, wasn't it?" I said. "It took some ovaries to bring that to her boyfriend's grandparents' Christmas party."

"See?" S.'s boyfriend F. said. "This is why I want to call you Princess. You just totally flipped that gendered phrase on its head. That was awesome. That's something a princess would do."

"Fine," I said. "That is an ok reason."

(True confessions: I've read the ovaries thing on a feminist blog somewhere. Or something like it, anyway. I think.)

I bundled myself in more layers than one would think possible for the walk down to the beach, and F. said, "Always being cold is another princess trait."

"No," I said. "A princess would wear something cute, regardless of the cold. Or stay inside. Not an ok reason to call me Princess."

Near the perfect little square fire that N. built a dozen feet away from the highest surf, I laid on my back, head on the sand, to look at the stars.

"I bet you were one of those kids who was always filthy from head to toe," N. said from what looked, at that angle, like miles above me.

"I was," I said comfortably. "My brother and I once stripped to our underwear and covered ourselves in mud from head to toe. My mom didn't even get upset. She thought it was cute, and took a picture."

(Side note: always being filthy is not a princessy trait.)

I watched a star shoot across the sky. "Do you get one wish per shooting star?" I asked. "I mean, each time you see one, do you get a different wish?"

"I would assume so," S. said.

"There's another one," I said, and later, quietly, "Three."

I wish for the same thing on every star.

02 January 2011


It was ten minutes to midnight by the time we piled on our layers ("You actually do look like a puffalump," N. said, laughing at me as I put on my fourth and fifth and possibly sixth layers) and made it down to the beach. We huddled over the cell phones until they flipped from 11:59 to 12:00, and then we said, in normal voices, "Happy New Year!" and turned to watch the fireworks down the beach.

S. and I walked along the water in the dark, with the sound of the waves and the popping of the fireworks. I wrapped my headlamp around my wrist, and then I took my mittens off to loosen my scarf, and the headlamp must have fallen off. S. and I retraced our steps one way and then back, but there was no headlamp to be found in the dark, and by daylight the next day the tide had come and gone, and the headlamp was no more. This is why I should not be allowed to have nice things. See also, this.