One Fine Day in Kansas

During spring break this year, I took a trip to the Midwest – I’d never been there before and I was looking for some adventure. I planned my trip around the three presidential libraries in that part of the country (Truman’s in Independence MO, Eisenhower’s in Abilene KS, and Hoover’s in West Branch IA), and a visit to Russell KS, Bob Dole’s hometown (why Bob Dole?).
On March 27th I woke up in Wilson, Kansas. Home of the World’s Largest Czech Egg.
From there I took the backroads to Russell. As I was taking pictures of myself in front of Bob Dole’s house in the middle of town, an old-timer in a beat-up truck slowed way down to make sure that there wasn’t any tomfoolery going on.
There was a little coffee shop in downtown Russell, and after much back and forth I decided to stop there for a fancy coffee. It was just me and the young barista. She asked me where I was from and then asked what I was doing in Kansas. I said, Well, I have this tattoo…”
Shelby, the barista, wanted to see it. When she peeked at it she gasped. Here’s why:Shelby also has a “She flies with her own wings” tattoo. Hers is for her grandma, and she didn’t know that it’s Oregon’s state motto.
That was when Jim, the local Farmers Insurance agent, strolled in for some coffee. Shelby introduced me like we had known each other forever, and told Jim a bit about why I was there, at which point Jim started regaling me with Bob Dole stories. He is much beloved in Russell – he’s done a lot for his hometown over the years. I heard about his kid brother, Kenny (the Billy Carter of the Dole family). There was a story about Bob Dole’s mom chastising Jim for not voting for her son in an early election. Jim is a Democrat (so they really do exist in Kansas!). I could have stood there chatting with Shelby and Jim for hours (Shelby even invited me to stay for lunch with her), but then talk moved to how I should spend the rest of my day. They both insisted that I visit the toilet in Lucas, so I thanked them both and got in my rental car and headed out.
An hour later I pulled into Lucas. I headed to the Grassroots Art Center. Turned out that they were closed on Mondays, but I ran into some volunteers who were there for a meeting with Rosslyn, the woman who runs the place. Rosslyn said that she’d love to chat with me and take me on a tour of Lucas, so I said I’d be back in an hour. I walked down the road to the toilet. And y’all, it was amazing. The community turned their public bathroom into a toilet-y work of art.
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See the toilet paper roll? The whole building is an enormous toilet. Seriously. You should see the toilet in Lucas, Kansas.
Another angle. In the middle of the bowl there are things that people have dropped in a toilet.
Back at the Grassroots Art Center, Rosslyn gave me a tour of the museum, where they have collected art created by ordinary folks in the region.

This is about 3/4 the size of a real car and is made out of beer can pull-tabs.

After the museum, Rosslyn took me to a house that was being used to host/display the works of another Lucas artist.
After a lovely day in Lucas, I drove north to Lebanon – the geographic center of the contiguous United States. The exact spot is in a farmer’s field nearby, but the marker is in a little park west of town. It’s a place of importance in Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods. Which isn’t why I went there but was a cool thing to find out when I finished the book after I got back to Oregon.

I have a cooler picture, but it’ll probably be my Thanksgiving card.

Before I bought that fancy coffee drink, I had planned to visit the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, just on the other side of the Kansas-Nebraska border. As it was, I arrived at the museum about 5 minutes before they closed. I found a motel and a pizza place, and as I waited for my deep-fried pickles I realized that my day in Kansas was one of the best days of my entire life. March 27, 2017 was the kind of day that makes me grateful for all of the people and experiences in my first 39 years of life that made me have the idea to get a tattoo that would inspire me to leave my home in Oregon and venture out into other parts of the country.

it’s complicated

once a week i pick lillee up, take her to our favorite coffee shop for hot chocolate, hang out and chitchat with her for an hour, and then drop her off at her morning preschool.

lillee always wants “candy on top” of her hot chocolate lid. truthfully, her cup could be full of dirt and she’d never notice, as long as there was candy on top. she starts ordering it before we’ve even gotten out of my car.


lillee in action

about a month ago, a new barista took our order. when lillee asked for candy on top, the barista looked at me sweetly and told lillee that she should “ask your mom if that’s OK.”

lillee scrunched up her face at the barista and said, “that’s not my mom.” then she turned to me and thought for a few seconds. she finally said, “who are you?”

good question. lillee was trying to do the math on how we ended up there together, which makes sense because she’s four. she’s just figuring out that her grandma penny is the same person as my mom – she’s only beginning to put those kinds of things things together.

i could have given lillee and the barista the long answer. lillee’s mom, karla, was my foster daughter – she was eight when she moved in with me, eleven when i adopted her, sixteen when i had major medical drama and she left home. we had a difficult relationship for many reasons: we’re very different people, kids generally end up in foster care because their biological parents aren’t meeting their needs very well and she had six years of that, and her teen years were especially rough (imagine that).

karla and harvey

karla and harvey

it was a pretty terrible time to be either one of us, but looking back at it i know that sixteen year-old karla made a good decision to leave corvallis and go back to humboldt county. she finished high school and started figuring out the kind of adult she was going to be, while i focused on my recovery. we grew apart during those years, and even though she’s now back living in corvallis (with her fiance and their new baby), we don’t spend time together. but my mom has a close relationship with karla, and she spends time with lillee. a year ago i started meeting up with them when my mom would have lillee for the day, and i always had a good time. when my mom found a summer preschool program for lillee, i volunteered to do the morning driving. lillee and i got to know each other better, and i really loved helping her transition into school. plus she’s just a cool kid. when karla signed her up for head start, i asked if i could still drive her to school once a week.


cosmo, devin, karla, gwen, and lillee

so that’s why lillee and i were standing at the counter ordering from the new barista, with that “who are you?” hanging in the air. instead of saying all of that, i looked at lillee and said, “i’m kriste.” lillee turned back to the barista and said, “that’s kriste.” obviously.

a few weeks back when i took lillee to class we ended up walking with her teacher to meet the bus. i introduced myself to her teacher as lillee’s aunt, because that feels like shorthand for our relationship. lillee looked at me like i was nuts and said, “you’re not my aunt. you’re my kriste.” and that’s how she introduced me this morning when one of the kids in the bus line asked who i was. “that’s my kriste.”

grandma penny, lillee, and me

grandma penny, lillee, and me

delicious ambulando

how many tattoos do you have?

i kind of have 9, but 5 of them really go together to make 1. so 5 total? as of a few weeks ago, i have 11. or 10. or 6. or 7.

for a while i’ve been putting together plans for new tattoos – 2 that make up 1. on april 3rd, i brought it all to denise, my friend and tattoo artist, and she made them happen.

i’ll explain.

in middle school, my buddy robyn and i got pretty obsessed with the early days of saturday night live. we loved dan aykroyd, jane curtin, steve martin, buck henry, candice bergen, bill murray, andy kaufman.

and gilda radner. come one. i wanted to be gilda radner. she was funny and bold and adorable all at the same time.


soon after we discovered gilda, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. i watched her continue to live her life as funny and bold and adorable. she died on may 20th, 1989. i carried her obituary in my wallet for years.

robynlee and kristelee. on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

robynlee and kristelee. women on the verge of some delicious ambiguity.

after my own medical drama i came upon a quote from her autobiography. “now i’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. delicious ambiguity.” with that, gilda explained to me how to continue to live my life after it was radically changed by my brain tumor. my recovery wouldn’t have been the same without her.

so for years I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo of that phrase, “delicious ambiguity.” my tattoos are all symmetrical along my midline – balance is a big problem for me in my body, so i guess i’m trying to not make it worse. i thought about where was left for a “delicious ambiguity” tattoo. below my clavicle was a spot that appealed to me. so while i googled clavicle tattoo images, i thought about what could go on the other side.

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a clavicle tattoo i liked (ignore the birds)

a few years back, i came upon the term “solvitur ambulando.” it’s latin for “it is solved by walking.” which made me think about the shift in how i think about walking. before my medical drama, i didn’t really walk. i grew up in southern california, so my instinct was to drive everywhere. i spent a lot of time in my car. then in 2009 i lost my ability to walk (and also drive). relearning how to walk took several years, a few great teachers, and a lot of practice.

dennis was my physical therapist during my stay in a phoenix nursing home. he spent a lot of time holding me up by a gait belt, making me look at myself in a mirror to convince my brain that, even though i felt like i was leaning way over to the right, i was in fact standing straight up.

the therapy folks at capri (that's dennis on the right) - they had never seen me stand up on my own

the therapy folks at capri (that’s dennis in the middle) – this was the first time they’d seen me stand up with a walker

anne was my home health physical therapist when i got back to corvallis. she taught me how to get in and out of my wheelchair, crawl around on the floor, and walk around my parents’ pool table as i held on for dear life. she got me back on my feet with a walker, but walking was hard and scary (i envisioned falling through the windows of shops as i walked by).

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

anne is remembering teaching me how to crawl

next was brian, the second brian to appear in my life at the exact moment when i desperately needed him.

the first brian

the first brian

brian wilson became my physical therapist after anne. i liked him right away – we laughed a lot (mainly at me) and i had a good time during my appointments. he started me walking with a cane right away – fyi, it’s terrifying to go from two-handed walking to one-handed. after i stopped seeing him in the clinic, we got together a few times for “therapy in the wild.” once we met up on a playground – he had always wanted to put me on a tire swing and turn me the opposite way from my vertigo to see if it would unwind my dizziness. it didn’t – but i was able to get on and off the swing without wiping out, so that was big progress. we played a little wallball with brian’s wife, brittany, and then he put me on a bike and ran around the playground pushing me like he was my dad.

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

good practice for when his new daughter, shelby, is ready to ride

to practice walking with a cane, every day i’d try to go for a walk that was a little longer than the day before – the “feeling stronger every day” plan. i remember exactly where i was when i realized that walking had gone from something that scared me to something i enjoyed. at the time, there wasn’t a lot that i enjoyed – generally, the things i did during the day were difficult and required a lot of concentration. but thanks to dennis and anne and brian, i had an outlet. walking became something that i did for fun, and when i had something on my mind. it was free, it didn’t require help, and i could do it wherever i was. i started exploring, and that was a huge part of my psychological return to the world.

b & b at t

brian and brittany at tumorfest

brian and brittany decided to move to montana, and i had dinner with them the night before they left. i was still carrying a cane but not using it – it was a marker that let people know that they needed to be careful around me, and brian really wanted me to stop. it was raining that evening, and since my left arm is too wonky to hold an umbrella, i had a choice to make – cane or umbrella. when i walked through the restaurant door, brian noticed right away that i didn’t have my cane, and he made a big deal about it. he realized that i had done a scary thing – his faith in me was the reason that i kept trying new things, kept trying to get rid of things that restricted me. he was the first friend i made who hadn’t known me before my medical drama, which made his faith in me matter even more – he was basing that faith in who i was after, which made me have more faith in myself. i really can’t describe how important he has been in my life.

so instead of trying to describe it, i asked him to write “solvitur ambulando” for my tattoo. it was an opportunity to take my unending gratitude and make it visible.

brian and robyn's drafts for my tattoo

brian and robyn’s drafts for my tattoo

when my buddy emily and i went to the bay area a few years back, i bought lovely california poppies letter-pressed notecards. i love my home state’s flower, and when i thought about these clavicle tattoos, i envisioned the poppies on one side. robyn’s side, since we grew up in california.

letterheadfor the other side, i wanted sweet peas (my favorite flower) in a similar craftsman style. i decided to put brian & the sweet peas under my left clavicle because my left side is the wonky one from my stroke.

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i sent denise this drawing as inspiration

i gave some thought to the color of the flowers, and since i love the orange of the poppies, i wanted the sweet peas to also be bright and vivid. i found this picture and knew that it was what i wanted the sweet peas to look like.


i brought all of these ingredients to denise and she combined them and improved them. getting the tattoos took a few hours, but mainly because we were chatting a lot. denise has been and continues to be a big player in my recovery. my tattoos are lovely – exactly what i wanted but so much more beautiful than that. they’re easily concealed, but they also reveal themselves differently depending on the neckline of the shirt i’m wearing. the way denise worked the words in is exquisite (robyn’s response).

morning after

this evening denise is going to touch up some leaves and darken the poppies.

my new tattoos are funny and bold and adorable. and i’m grateful for the people who are all woven together in them.






My North Carolinian Exchange Student

(I’m using capitals because I’m writing this for the students of Water’s Edge Village School – don’t be alarmed.)

I met Meghan when we were in Greece as AFS exchange students 25 (?!?) years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. Meghan is the mother of two cool school-age boys and a big dog. She’s also lighthouse keeper in the Outer Banks village of Corolla, North Carolina. Recently she rallied her community to reopen Corolla’s elementary school so that Corolla’s kids could go to school in their own community instead of spending hours on a school bus to go to school in another town. When my Durham friend Jamie invited me to visit her in North Carolina, we planned a weekend in Corolla – I hadn’t seen Meghan since I was 17.

Meghan and Kriste in Greece circa 1990

Meghan and Kriste in Greece circa 1990

Jamie, Kriste, and Meghan inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Jamie, Kriste, and Meghan inside the Currituck Beach Lighthouse circa 2012

Which explains how I ended up being serenaded on my 39th birthday by Meghan’s two sons in their comfy home in Corolla, which I highly recommend.

A very Corolla birthday

A very Corolla birthday

Recently Meghan asked me if I would host an exchange student from WEVS. My response was almost, “Duh.” But I have better manners than that, so I said, “Absolutely!”

A few weeks later, an envelope from Meghan’s son Paolo arrived. Inside it was Stanley. Flat Stanley is the title of a great kids’ book about a boy who is flattened in the night by a bulletin board. WEVS students made Stanleys (Stanlies?) and mailed them off to folks around the country. Our job as hosts was to write back to Paolo’s class about our states and what Stanley did while he was with us. Here goes.


When people think about Oregon, they usually think rain. But check out that blue sky – and in January!

I live in Corvallis, Oregon. Corvallis has a population of about 55,000 people when Oregon State University is in session. We’re about a 90 minute drive fron Portland, Oregon’s largest city, and about 45 minutes from Salem, Oregon’s capital. My apartment is in downtown Corvallis, so there are great restaurants and shops nearby. Farmers’ market, the library, and the bus station are a few blocks away.

Strolling along the Willamette River

Strolling along the Willamette River – this is less than a block from my apartment.

There is a great park along the Willamette River as it passes by Corvallis. The park has wide sidewalks for walking dogs, riding bikes, and strolling (my favorite). There’s a fountain that kids like to play in during the summer. Farmers’ market is there twice a week from April-October. There are benches and picnic tables and a skatepark.

The Willamette (wil-LAM-it) River runs from south to north, which is pretty rare for Pacific Northwest rivers. Its headwaters are south of Eugene, and it runs about 200 miles from Eugene, past Corvallis and Salem, to Portland, where it joins the Columbia River (which forms most of the border between Oregon and Washington) and flows out to the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia is the river that Lewis and Clark followed to get to the Pacific, and along the Columbia there are a lot of historical sites from the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Oregon Trail.

The part of Oregon along the Willamette River is called the Willamette Valley. The valley was was carved out by the Missoula Floods at the end of the most recent ice age. If you don’t know about the Missoula Floods, check them out. They’re pretty fascinating. Basically, an ice dam broke in Montana and the water behind it raced down along what’s now the Columbia Gorge and flooded down into the Willamette Valley. Our fertile soil is actually from Montana – it was deposited here during those floods. The valley is wide and flat and stretches between the Coast Range (pretty small mountains between the valley and the coast) and the Cascades (large volcanic mountains between the valley and Eastern Oregon, which is mostly high desert). Because of the fertile soil and our rain, agriculture is a big deal in the Willamette Valley. Farms grow blueberries, hazelnuts (also called filberts), grass seed, wine grapes, even Christmas trees.

Stanley was very interested in the speech about  how to field-dress a deer.

Stanley was very interested in the speech about how to field-dress a deer.

I used to be an elementary school teacher, and now I teach at the local community college. Stanley came along to work with me. He listened to speeches in my public speaking class, and watched digital stories created by my writing students. He liked that we could walk to LBCC’s campus in about 10 minutes, through a neighborhood of old houses and mature trees.

The digital stories were about where we're from - this is Cerrie's DS about being from the universe.

The digital stories were about where we’re from – this is Cerrie’s DS about being from the universe.

We're almost to OSU! That's it up ahead.

We’re almost to OSU! That’s it up ahead.

On another beautiful day, Stanley and I walked from my apartment to Oregon State University. In June I graduated from OSU with a master’s degree, so it’s a walk I’ve done many times. For my degree I studied the connections between writing and community and resilience (how people are able to recover from hard times in their lives), but most students at OSU are studying science and business and engineering.

There are over 25,000 students enrolled at OSU, but we didn't see very many of them because we were on campus on a Saturday.

There are over 25,000 students enrolled at OSU, but we didn’t see very many of them because we were on campus on a Saturday.

This is the library - I spent a lot of time in there while I was an OSU student.

This is the library – I spent a lot of time in there while I was an OSU student.

I took Stanley on a walking tour of downtown Corvallis.

Central Park

Central Park

My P.O. Box

My P.O. Box

Benton County Courthouse

Benton County Courthouse

Here are a few facts about Oregon. Our state animal is the beaver. We do all of our voting by mail (this ballot drop box is where I return mine). There’s no sales tax in Oregon, so when you buy something that costs $4.99 it really costs $4.99. You can’t pump your own gas in Oregon. Our state motto is, “She flies with her own wings.” Isn’t that lovely? I think so, which is why I have a tattoo of it.

Speaking of tattoos, Stanley came with me to talk to my tattoo artist, Denise, about another tattoo I want to get. Denise offered to give him a tattoo.

Checking out the equipment in Denise's studio

You sit in this chair and put your head in that ring if you’re getting a tattoo on your back – it’s pretty comfy.

This is Denise - she was glad that she got to meet Stanley.

This is Denise – she was glad that she got to meet Stanley.

I’m glad that Paolo sent Stanley to me – I had fun thinking of things to show him. I would have taken him out to the coast (about an hour drive west from Corvallis), but I couldn’t make that work. I wonder where the other Stanleys went – I’m sure that the WEVS students have been enjoying this project.

Meghan sent me this picture of WEVS students with the little toys my grandma Betty made for them. He said that he recognized a lot of them.

The year that WEVS opened, Meghan sent me this picture of WEVS students with the little toys my grandma Betty made for them. Stanley said that he recognized a lot of them.

return to maycomb

this morning my friend jamie emailed me this article. soon after, my co-worker jason passed along another article and asked me how i feel about this development. and i’ve been thinking about that all day.


“one does not love breathing.” ~ harper lee


in favor

i love the finches, etc.

i miss scout. what kind of man did jem become? what’s going on with the radleys? what is atticus like as an old man – possibly a grandpa? and what about calpurnia? i can already feel the nourishment of spending time with those folks again.

jem, cal, and scout

jem, cal, and scout

the timeline

i am less afraid about this book because to kill a mockingbird is a prequel rather than go set a watchman being a sequel. the story arc started with these characters in GSAW included the events in TKAM. in education that’s called backwards design, start at the end and design from there. and i’m a big fan of backwards design, which makes me less worried about the quality than i would be if harper lee came at this from the other direction.

TKAM back in the spotlight

as part of a project i did with my 4th grade students a decade ago, i wrote harper lee a letter. i knew that she wouldn’t answer, but on the chance that she might read my letter, i wrote it anyway. i said thanks for putting into the world something that made it a better place. that i’m a better person for what i’ve learned about kindness and morality and empathy and courage from her book. so maybe this new book will inspire a few people to pick up TKAM for the first time.

or to watch the movie, which is one of the only times you’ll hear me say that. harper lee was very involved in the movie – the courthouse is an exact replica of the one in monroeville, alabama (her hometown). when gregory peck won an oscar for playing atticus, a character based on harper lee’s dad, he had her father’s pocket watch in his pocket, a gift from lee.

what would atticus do?



pulling a nicolas cage

nicolas cage was so damn good in raising arizona, and i wish he’d gone out on top and never made another movie. he’d just hang out, naming his kids after superman characters and being cool. but what about leaving las vegas? speaking of cool, how about tom hanks as ben sanderson? and i love moonstruck and con air as much as the next guy, but they just aren’t worth it. will go set a watchman be harper lee’s 8MM?


lee lore

i’ll admit that i’ve always loved the lee legend – young woman (34 when TKAM was published) writes the great american novel, lives to a ripe old age and never publishes another book. the literary equivalent of the “i am outta here” table flip. but now there’s another book, and the reclusive lee is back in the spotlight.



more truman capote intrigue

dill in TKAM is based on truman capote, harper lee’s childhood neighbor. how involved was lee in writing capote’s in cold blood? was capote the real author of to kill a mockingbird? get ready for more speculation diminishing lee as an author. a young woman can’t write the great american novel and then slide back out of the spotlight and enjoy her life in rural alabama? table flip.

why now?

i mean no disrespect, but harper lee is 88. she isn’t going to be around much longer. so why publish the novel now? in 2011 a friend quoted her reasons for not writing another book: “one, i wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity i went through with to kill a mockingbird for any amount of money. second, i have said what i wanted to say and i will not say it again.” say what? it would be more keeping with the lee lore if this “long lost” companion to TKAM was discovered after her death and published posthumously. is she broke? being blackmailed? is there some kind of elder abuse going on? she had a stoke in 2007 and lives in an assisted living facility. how involved is she?


my 2 favorite books are to kill a mockingbird and lafcadio: the lion who shot back by shel silverstein. these books made lifelong impacts on me and my development as a person. one thing i love about lafcadio is the end – you don’t know what happens to him. there isn’t lafcadio part two: return to the jungle. i would hate it if silverstein had ever written that book. gilda radner called it “delicious ambiguity.” The new york times article quotes harpercollins president michael morrison – “i, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that harper lee had written another book.” i’m not one of those millions. i don’t need to know what kind of adult scout became. i miss her like i miss an old friend who moved away and fell out of touch – i wish her well and am grateful to have known her. meeting her was a transformational thing in my life. as was meeting lafcadio.


lafcadio – my first tattoo


arrested development

when it was announced that there would be a 4th season of arrested development, i couched my fears by saying things like, “they wouldn’t risk making another season if it wasn’t going to be awesome.” and when i watched it, eh. it wasn’t awful and it was good to see those folks again, but i won’t ever choose to watch an episode from that season over the first 3 seasons. i didn’t hate it. it didn’t damage the credibility of the people involved, but it would have been ok, possibly better, if it didn’t exist.

i hope not to be saying that after i read go set a watchman.


those are my thoughts. i’m curious to hear yours if you’re thinking about this.


so how about it, seanbaker?

so how about it, seanbaker?


the name game

last week i had a house guest – my friend jennifer left her chihuahua, waffle, with me while she headed south because of a family emergency.

waffle really is this cute.

yep, waffle really is this cute.

on thursday night, i left waffle in charge of things at my apartment and met up with friends for our weekly cards against humanity game. i was telling andrea, the executive director of heartland (our local humane society), about some of my experiences out walking with waffle. lots of folks can’t pass up petting her, which usually meant that they chatted with me for a bit. when i was asked where her name came from, i improvised this story, and stuck with it – she was left outside the humane society in a cardboard box, and there was a frozen waffle (for food?) inside the box with her. i told andrea that i was jealous of the heartland staff and volunteers who get to name the animals that pass through the shelter.

i was only half-joking when i said that i wanted to make a donation to the shelter in exchange for the right to name the next X animals that came into the shelter. i’d probably do battlestar galactica characters or ELO songs.

later that night i was telling my friend james about my idea, and we got into a conversation about naming things. it seems to me that we don’t get to name things very often, so i’ve tried to be clever about my pets’ names so that i’m not wasting those opportunities. james hadn’t thought about that before, but he could see my point.

me. james.

me. james.

here’s some background:

when i was a kid, we brought home two chickens, and my parents let me name them. the first one out of the bag i named lucy, after lucille ball. i was still pretty upset that my parents wouldn’t hire her as my babysitter, so having her in chicken form was the next best thing. the other chicken in the bag was making a ton of noise, so i named her cluck. cluck and lucy.


i can’t find a picture of cluck & lucy, so here’s louie

moving out of the humboldt state university dorms and into a rental house with friends afforded lots of opportunities for naming pets. hethir brought home a kitten we named vegas-bagheera. our next cat, a grumpy manx we got from the humboldt county humane society, we named king louie, in keeping with the jungle book theme and because i love louis prima (the voice of king louie in the movie). then my friend ashley brought us two tiny abandoned kittens who we bottle-fed and named paris munchkin (middle names double your naming opportunities) and disco inferno. the ladies at our vet were always glad when disco needed shots.

me with paris and disco

me with paris and disco

our four cats, armed with the confidence that comes from well-selected names, ruled our neighborhood and cruised around about a 4-block area. our neighbor’s cat, with a forgettable name, used to follow our cats around, usually about ten feet behind the cat gang. they barely tolerated her.

when that forgotten cat had kittens a year or two later, i took one. he was arguably my best-named pet. paul shaffer. known as shaffer to we who loved him, he was a fantastic cat. my dad, who knows a good cat when he sees one, once tried to win him from me in a game of tripoley. shaffer stuck around for 6 or 7 years, as i made the transition from college student to elementary school teacher. when he never came back from one of his frequent multi-night adventures, i was crushed. i still miss that cat.



during the last term of my BA, i took an intro to astronomy class. the only problem was that it was taught by a professor who kept forgetting that we were undergraduates taking a required lower-division class, not astronomy grad students. I just barely passed the class, which meant that i could graduate. to celebrate, i got myself a puppy and named her rigel after the brightest star in the constellation orion.

i started teaching 4th grade in loleta, and i passed the humboldt county humane society on my drive to and from from work. i stopped in every once in a while, hoping to find a young dog to be rigel’s sidekick. once there was an awesome dog i was really drawn to. he had been turned in as a stray and had been living by wandering through neighborhoods eating out of garbage cans. he was a sweet guy. the problem was that i couldn’t think of a good name for him. i got in my car and headed towards home. a few minutes later the perfect name for him came to me – elvis costello. i turned around and went back to the humane society and brought elvis home with me. he turned out to be a fantastic dog.

rigel and elvis

rigel and elvis


one of my 4th grade students, blake, gave me an orange tabby kitten that i named harvey, and here’s why: my parents have always called me pooka, which means a large imaginary animal, like harvey in the jimmy stewart movie. stewart died just before i got the kitten, so it seemed like a good time for an homage.



my fourth grade class got a pet rat. we’d read roald dahl’s “the BFG” (which stands for big friendly giant). the class decided to name the rat LFR (little friendly rat). one of my students kept telling his military mom about LFR. after many weeks, his mom saw the name written on paper. all that time she thought that he was saying the arabic word for rat, which is something very similar. we thought that it was a good sign.

my foster daughter, karla, wanted a pet rat for her birthday. over the years i had told her about how all of my pets had been named, and shared with her my belief that because naming opportunities don’t come around very often you should use them well. but she still wanted to name her brown rat “brownie.” come on. she was a voracious reader and i tried talking her into using a name from a book she loved – so many clever names out there. but she stuck with brownie.

when my grandma betty moved to corvallis from las vegas, she really wanted a black pug. karla and i took her to see some senior dogs who were available for adoption. we walked through the door and sitting there was an adorable black pug, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. now betty’s a crier, and she burst into hysterical sobbing when she saw this dog waiting there for her. karla wisely took off to go look at something in the store, leaving me to try to convince the shelter volunteers that betty wasn’t crazy. we were able to calm her down enough to start the adoption process. on the drive back to betty’s place, she said that she was going to name him “blackie.” ack. for karla’s sake i did some modeling of how to choose a good name. i suggested that betty pick a name that would be an homage to her beloved las vegas. her favorite entertainer, as she calls them, was a guy named earl turner. so i said, “how about turner?” she went for it. crisis averted.

betty's dog, turner

betty’s dog, turner

turner passed away a few months ago. he was an old dog and he went quickly while my grandma was out of town. it was all for the best. the woman who ran the place where he was boarded had an adult siamese cat who needed a home, and she offered her to betty. what betty missed about turner was that he spent hours sitting on her lap while she knitted and watched tv. what she didn’t miss was having to take him out on walks (she doesn’t have a fenced yard). so a cat was a perfect pet for her. she decided to name the cat “sweetie” (some people never learn). sweetie is pretty shy, and when she got to betty’s house she went right for the space behind the couch, and even months later she still spends most of her time there. i would too if my name was sweetie.

when we were chatting about names, james told me that his friend nell has done graduate-level research into cultural naming practices. nell is fun to have at parties because she always has interesting things to talk about. what with people having names and all.

i have never gotten to name a child, and i never will. my only regret about that is that i have a great baby name – declan. that’s elvis costello’s real first name. i think it works for a boy or a girl. “dex” would be a cool nickname. if any of you come upon a baby needing a name, feel free to use that.

at the moment, i am happily pet-less. should i ever own another pet, i have a few cool potential pet names. i love big cats, and i’d name mine fezzik after andre the giant’s character in “the princess bride.” i would like to have a pet cow – i would call her henrietta, the name of the street i grew up on. i’d name two corgis woodrow call and augustus mccrae from “lonesome dove.”

augustus and woodrow

augustus and woodrow

the only problem i have with this shelter animals naming rights idea is that it needs of a good name. if you come up with one, you can have the spot in line behind me. i have dibs on the first guest namer gig.


listen ~ my 2014 soundtrack

over winter break i did a major revision to my yearly soundtrack. it was time – they’ve stayed pretty much the same in the decade i’ve been making them. i can see now how much this revision was influenced by the fact that i drive again after about 4 years as a passenger – i almost never have music on in my apartment, but i love to listen to music in my car. and this soundtrack is just what i need for 2014. it’s getting the job done.

and what is the job of a personal soundtrack, you might ask? good question. i think it depends. i tend to make soundtracks to set the tone for my year. it’s the music i hear when i’m cruising around in my life. heavily influenced by wes anderson movies: and this scene from i’m gonna git you sucka:

when i listen to friends’ soundtracks, i wonder about the reasons a particular song made the cut. it has to fit on one CD, so time is valuable. one friend’s soundtrack has more than one cher song on it – why? another friend’s is so much more tender and sweet that i would have imagined – it makes me look at her differently, in a good way. zari, co-founder of the soundtrack project, was a teen when she made her first first soundtrack, and now it seems so earnest and adorable. supposedly she’s working on a new one; it’ll be interesting to compare the two.

i named my soundtrack “listen” because that’s my theme word for the year.

here are the cliffsnotes for my 2014 soundtrack:

track 1 ~ “alive” by the beastie boys

“i have never been more ready in my entire life to do this right now. never.” it’s no accident that these are the first words spoken on my soundtrack. “alive” is from the beastie boys’ anthology, “the sounds of science.” it came out in 1999 and in my mind is when they started to make growing up cool. it replaced “so what’cha want,” which had been in the opening tracks since my original soundtrack. i think a lot about adam yauch, and i wanted to a song that represents the cool world citizens that those men became as they matured. and you know what? i have to agree with them. it is nice to be alive. and it helps to have mike d to remind me that i’m ready.


track 2 ~ “the greatest thing” by elvis costello

“i hope you’re happy now” has been my lead-off song since my original soundtrack. but for 2014 i wanted something a little more sincere and less snarky, to go with the mature beasties. so “the greatest thing” works for me in this spot. it’s zippy, but not sappy. here it is in case you want to practice your EC karaoke.


ok. for these a few of these next ones you should keep this in mind:

me and my civic


track 3 ~ “me myself and i” by de la soul

i listened to my tape of “three feet high and rising” while i drove that ’85 honda civic all over southern california, so this song is part of my return to the driver’s seat. it sounds just as good in a subaru.


track 4 ~ “jelly man kelly” by james taylor

one thing that was missing from my previous soundtracks was room 5 – the classroom of first, second, and third graders where i spent some of the finest days of my life. i had a student whose parents were always late to pick her up. while we waited for them, we’d draw with sidewalk chalk and sometimes she’d lay down in my lap and i’d sing her this song. it was the most important thing i could have been doing after school.


track 5 ~ “livin’ thing” by elo

man, i love jeff lynne. i got pretty obsessed with elo in the first year or two of my recovery. this is the song that emerged as my second “rally song” – i’d listen to it to motivate myself to get up off the security of my couch and go practice one-hand walking with my quad cane. my fabulous physical therapist brian told me that walking to music would help me even out my wonky gait – to this day i have a pavlovian reaction to this song. please don’t use that against me.

it also became the music for a digital story i made around that time.


track 6 ~ “feelin’ stronger every day” by chicago

legend has it that when i was in the hospital, my nurse brian told my mom that i was feelin’ stronger every day. my mom used that as the subject line of one of her email updates to our friends and family. my friend michelle read it and posted this video on my facebook page, and it became my first rally song. after i was transferred from the hospital to a nursing home, i’d watch the video over and over to motivate myself to get into my wheelchair and head downstairs to physical therapy. a few little things that made an enormous difference.


track 7 ~ “papa gene’s blues” by the monkees

quick – who’s your favorite monkee? mike nesmith? mine too. and this is my favorite mike nesmith song.


track 8 ~ “paradise city” by guns n’ roses

when i listen to this song it might look like i’m 41 and driving a subaru forester on highway 34, but i’m actually 16 and driving a honda civic on the 210.


track 9 ~ “be my angel” by mazzy star

my senior year of high school i was IN LOVE with my boyfriend, in that way that seventeen year-olds are. joel wilson. he was an older man – he’d graduated from my high school two years earlier and was a sophomore at northwestern. when he broke my heart, i spent my first year of college listening to the tape he had made me of this mazzy star album, “she hangs brightly.” when i hear this song i can still feel it in that spot between my collar bones.


track 10 ~ “bagheera” by blues traveler

joel was the one who introduced me to blues traveler. i went to five or six of their shows when i was in college. my blues traveler obsession died down around the time i graduated from humboldt state – good thing i never got that tattoo of a cat wearing shades and smokin’ a joint. fast forward to 2010 – my long-lost buddy from elementary school, kristin, makes a soundtrack with blues traveler on it, specifically this song:

leading me to realize that i really should have some BT on my soundtrack.


track 11 ~ “lost without each other” by hanson

this song was on zari’s original soundtrack, and it eventually made its way onto mine. i know, hanson is the macauley culkin of sibling rock bands. but give it a chance – those brothers know a lot about life. and if you watch the video until the end you’ll be rewarded with a piano going up in flames.


track 12 ~ “so lonely” by the police

so i think that this is how it goes. back in the early days of music uploading, i borrowed “outlandos d’amour” from the humboldt country library and this song went into heavy rotation. it’s the happiest little song (and video) about being lonely. and it’s a good reminder that sting has been cool for a long, long time.


track 13 ~ “my little blue window” by elvis costello

take a moment and listen to the loveliness of this song.

yeah, i love this song. when i moved to oregon, the farmhouse i rented had a closet that i turned into a reading nook, complete with my little blue window.

my little blue window

in the last few years i’ve realized that my ideal man is a combination of the fonz, han solo, and elvis costello. my lovely hooligan. even though i don’t live in that house anymore, i still have a little blue window.


track 14 ~ “say hey (i love you)” by michael franti & spearhead

i have nothing against michael franti, but this song is on my soundtrack entirely because of craig ferguson.

that guy uses his powers for good. makes his own fun.

my last year teaching elementary school was a tough one. i’d listen to this song over and over on my drive to work, thinking about how damn happy craig ferguson is in this video. it helped me start my work day on a positive note.


track 15 ~ “see you” by foo fighters

“the colour and the shape” is one of my desert island albums – it’s one of those that i listened to over and over, all the way through. and i just think that this is a lovely song.


track 16 ~ “bron-y-aur stomp” by led zeppelin

in room 5 i always read out loud after lunch recess. i started playing a song to measure the time the kids had to get settled in with drawing paper and crayons and all that jazz. i had fun putting together a mix of songs for that specific purpose. this ended up on it, and became one of our favorites. a lovely song about a man and his dog.


track 17 ~ “solace of you” by living colour

“time’s up” came out in 1990 and it’s another one of those tapes in frequent rotation in the honda civic. and “solace of you” is just one of the loveliest love songs i know.


track 18 ~ “walt whitman’s niece” by billy bragg and wilco

for christmas one year, my ex-boyfriend tom and i decided that we would makeover my foster daughter karla’s bathroom while she was at school, like those “while you were out” design shows. we got the paint and towels and i made curtains, and when karla left for school on the friday before christmas break, we launched into action.


tom is a big wilco fan, and that day we listened to “walt whitman’s niece” many times. it was a pretty cool day.

the bathroom looked great, and karla was really surprised.



track 19 ~ “brass monkey” by the beastie boys

I think that my friend jamie put it best. she’d had my soundtrack for a while, and one day she texted me: “brass monkey making my day.” it always makes my day, too. the beasties needed to make another appearance, and this song at track 19 turned out to be just right.


track 20 ~ “cotton fields” by creedence clearwater revival

in my early twenties i went deep into a CCR phase. around that time i was working at an infant/toddler daycare center, which meant that i frequently had to put small children down for their naps. cotton fields was my go-to lullaby. it’s a good one – try it.


track 21 ~ “gone” by ben folds

zari got me into rufus wainwright, who gave up his spot on my 2014 soundtrack to make room for guns n’roses and de la soul and some of those other folks. soon after i moved to oregon, rufus was playing in portland and i got a few tickets in the hopes that z could come up from northern california to go with me. but she couldn’t. so i took jaqui and rachel from the school where i taught. rufus was on tour with ben folds, who i knew nothing about. after rufus’ dreamy set, the crew rolled his enormous piano off stage and rolled another one on. we thought that was strange, until ben folds started his set. the guy plays the piano like it’s a flying v electric guitar. he kicks the shit out of it – i wouldn’t share a piano with him either. ben folds is a total nerd and a rock star all at once. and he does great covers, too. on that tour he and rufus ended up covering careless whisper, and it’s pretty damn great.

after the show i really got into ben fold’s album “rockin’ the suburbs,” and “gone” just kills me. i like what it’s doing here as the penultimate track.


track 22 ~ “end of the line” by traveling wilburys

speaking of ultimate tracks, this is the best possible song for mine. jeff lynne! and good ol’ george harrison! and tom petty says it best: “i’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive.”