Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot lately, with the impending celebration of Mother’s Day and my upcoming surgery.
Since she died 5 years ago, any time big personal changes loomed on the horizon I have felt that familiar swell of emotion that seems to be located somewhere between my stomach and my lungs, overwhelming me physically and mentally. This sensation can last for mere minutes or even long hours.
As I would imagine is normal, I imagine how she would react to these changes and achievements. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine her reactions.
When I defended my dissertation, she would have been proud and so pleased to see the culmination of years and years of work at last at its joyful end.
She’d have celebrated as I taught my first (and probably only) study abroad course (something I always wanted to do!) in Italy in May 2019.
She’d have hurrah’ed when I landed my first post-PhD job (with benefits!) at the Institute.
She would have been proud, excited, and disappointed when I got a job at Vanderbilt and moved to Nashville. Disappointed, because I wasn’t moving back to Virginia, choosing my Nashville family “over her” (that’s how she’d see it), but still she’d have been proud and excited for my accomplishments. She loved me.
But…as my surgery date approaches, I am having a hard time picturing how she’d react to this choice and new frontier.
Mom could—at times—let her own emotional hang-ups color her response to things going on in my and my siblings’ lives. Would her own struggles with her weight have influenced her reaction to my weight-loss goals? Would she have been less supportive than she’d have liked, whether intentionally or not? Would she, as she was sometimes wont to do with others who had gone through similar procedures, make snide comments about my potential to fail or relapse? Would her encouragement be a little too cloying, her smile a little too bright, suggesting that she didn’t actually believe what she was saying? Or worse, and definitely possible, would she barely attempt to contain her unique blend of judgment and jealousy?
On the other hand, she may have reacted excitedly, full of support and pride. She did often tell me to try to lose weight before I got too old, because the older you get the harder it is and the more physically painful it is to try to take it off. My mother lived with daily pain in her joints and back, moving, sitting, and existing was a struggle. I know that this physical pain manifested itself emotionally too. I know she’d want me to avoid that. So perhaps knowing that I will avoid some of that pain in my life would make her happy for me.
But at the same time…would she have even realized that her reality was the very future I am trying to avoid? Even worse, would the idea that I was trying to avoid becoming like her— to not share this daily pain and struggle—give her (more) emotional pain?
In some ways, her death has made this easier. The risk of not taking steps is clear. I need to go on this journey for my own mental and physical well-being. Because I will never know how she would actually react, I can choose to imagine her response as loving and supportive as I would like it to be at any given moment.
However, this too is a hard emotional line to walk, because in reacting this way, her death becomes akin to a gift. One that has allowed me both the freedom to act without causing her hurt and provided me the motivation to change….
How could her death ever be a gift?
Right now, I like to think that my choice to pursue a WLS and strive for a healthy life honors both her life and her death. My mother wasn’t perfect. (I mean, whose mother is?) In many ways, I am on this obesity-related journey because she was. Since, in the long run, my mother would want the best for me, I’d like to think that she’s pleased by my choice to move forward with a gastric bypass, hopeful that it will work, but fearful that it will not.
Finally, I have a date for my surgery, and it will take place in late May.
I’ve decided to answer some questions here that I have been asked often since deciding to go through surgery, and a few I think people probably have even if they haven’t asked directly. I plan to update this at a few points after surgery to compare.
Q: What made you decide to get bariatric surgery? This seems drastic.
It was a decision that was simultaneously gradual and all at once. I didn’t realize until recently how long it had been in my head. Ultimately though, there were several factors that led me to this decision and kicked my butt into gear.
I’ve seen very clearly what can happen if I don’t get certain habits under control through my mom’s example. This is a thing I’ve known for a long time, but have not been very successful altering on my own or with many of the “commercial” options out there (noom, weight watchers, etc). I am an emotional overeater. I can literally draw lines between certain life changes and stressors to moments when I gained weight, exactly 20 lbs each time in most cases. This incremental growth is not unlike what I saw happen to my mom. I wanted to break the cycle.
As for the timing, several things all became really clear to me when I turned 35 a few months into the pandemic. There are things I want in my life and I was tired of feeling stalled. I had gained a pandemic 30 (more than my usual 20). I want a kid. I want to be more active and I didn’t want to tire quite so easily. I know that you can do and be all of these things while being fat.
It is hard to be in my body physically as it presently exists. Of course, lots of the external things that make it hard could be (and should be) shifted to easily make room for bigger bodies—seats on planes, societal expectations, etc. However, there were lots of internal things. I was beginning to feel constraints—things that were harder than they used to be because of my size. Some recurring issues that were directly caused by being overweight. I didn’t always feel as stable on my feet. It was becoming harder to get up and get down and get comfortable.
I have always been fairly physically active–and I’ve definitely kicked that up since 2019. This past week, I danced my ass off for 2 hours with no breaks with 3 super high-energy dance instructors. Every jump, every skip, every move, while carrying double the weight of the people around me. It’s, I can only imagine, doubly exhausting.
I knew all of these problems wouldn’t get better with age, and I want to get myself in the best shape possible for (hopefully) pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood, and just simply for the rest of my life. I want to have more endurance. I’d like to be able to walk farther, go longer, and dance harder. I’d like to trust my body to be capable of things it hasn’t and hadn’t been able to do in the past.
Q: What procedure are you having? What were your choices?
There are two types of surgeries that were on the table: a roux-en-y gastric bypass and a sleeve gastrectomy.
Both surgeries, in essence, make the stomach smaller reducing the amount of food you can consume in a sitting. Neither surgery is a magic pill and neither will work without hard work on the part of the patient to change various behaviors.
A sleeve gastrectomy involves removing the lower part of the stomach so that it resembles a sleeve and is vaguely the shape of a banana. The pros to this surgery is that it is less invasive; it’s a shorter surgery and a simpler procedure. The cons are that it tends to not work as well—folks frequently regain the weight and or need surgical revision to a bypass; it can make worse or cause new acid reflux problems; and the weight loss tends to not be as profound.
The RNY Gastric Bypass is more involved. It makes a small pouch out of the stomach and connects the small pouch to the small intestines thus bypassing most of the stomach, the pyloric sphincter, and the intestinal duodenum. The pros are that the weight loss is more profound and sustained over time and it can often cure GERD/acid reflux. The cons are that it is a more complicated procedure, and thus more dangerous.
Both surgeries tend to see obesity-related illnesses and side-effects reversed or see them under control, like Type II diabetes and high-blood pressure. (On the other side of the coin, 15% of people who go through weight loss surgery become alcoholics. They replace food with booze.)
I am having a RNY gastric bypass. I have had issues with reflux caused by postnasal drip/allergies, so the sleeve wasn’t a great choice. Additionally, at the beginning of my weight loss surgery journey, if I lost 200 lbs, I would still be considered overweight (according to BMI calculators, which is of course, a questionable indicator of health).
Q: What is your goal weight?
I don’t have a goal weight and contrary to what a lot of people think, my doctors have not given me one. Generally, you can expect to lose 70-80% of your excess weight. For me, that would be around a loss of 100 lbs post surgery, and I’ve already lost 56 lbs in the prep stage.
I think my goal would be around 120 lbs post surgery. This, as absurd as it may seem, would still put me in the overweight part of the BMI chart.
Q: You lost weight before surgery, why not just do it naturally/why are you taking the easy way out?
Dude, this is hard. I lost 56 lbs, but since moving, I have maintained but not lost much. I’m okay with this, and I see this as success in and of itself. The more weight you have to lose, the more stalls you have and the easier it is to backslide. I’ve seen the reality of this in the months since moving to Nashville. Surgery is a tool to help me both lose weight, but most importantly, to assist me in getting some unhealthy habits under control. The program I went through helped me to, for the first time in my life, NOT gain 20 lbs during a major life change. I eat relatively healthily, I work out three times a week and I’ve seen no movement (in inches or lbs).
Q: What did you have to do before surgery to qualify?
The first time around: I had to do 6 months of supervised weight loss, a psychological evaluation, an appointment with a nutritionist/dietician, and several meetings with my surgeon.
The second time around: 12 independent meetings that could consist of meetings with my surgeon, dietician, a psych evaluation, screening for sleep apnea, etc. The meetings from my previous office counted toward the 12. I had to do the psych evaluation over again and that definitely was frustrating, and took a very long time to get straight.
Q: What is recovery like?
This seems to vary widely. I will stay in the hospital at least one night, and then will be off work for at least a week. My work is an office job and I work primarily from home, so I’ll play the weeks after that first week by ear.
The surgery will be done by robotic laparoscopy so it won’t be full open/large incisions, but several smaller incisions. Some people bounce back quickly, others take longer.
It’s hard to know where I will fall! I’ve only had one minor surgery on my hand, not much pain, but sleepiness. This is entirely different.
Q: How have you been preparing mentally and physically for the surgery?
Oh boy, the prepping mentally is really what it is all about. I’ve been working toward getting this surgery since October of 2020. The surgery is not a magic pill. It will not make my bad food habits disappear. I see both surgery and therapy as co-tools to becoming a healthier version of myself.
Physically, I have just tried to stay active and hydrated, both things that will help me recover faster.
Q: What will you be able to eat post surgery?
This is a process.
Before surgery, I have to go on a liquid diet for a week, drinking 4 to 5 protein shakes a day, plus at least 64 oz of other liquid such as water, broth, etc. This liquid diet helps shrink the liver before surgery and prepare the stomach for surgery (which the surgeon has to move aside to perform the procedure).
After surgery I will be on a liquid diet for 2 weeks, followed by 2 weeks of soft foods, and then I’ll move on to ‘normal’ foods, which will be dictated by what I can tolerate. Soft foods will be things like yogurt, refried beans, ricotta bake, etc. Once I’m back on “normal foods” I may have issues with fattier meats and “stringy” vegetables. People tend to have a hard time processing things that are ‘tough,” fatty, rich, or sugary—a good thing.
Q: What other potential side effects are there?
It’s a surgery so there are plenty of risks that come with going through a procedure and under anesthesia. To mitigate these risks I get to go through a bunch of pre-surgical screening.
After surgery, there’s the risk of ulcers and hernia as well as nausea for a while as I adapt. I will also be susceptible to what is called Dumping Syndrome (it sounds awful) and is a good motivator for sticking to the plan. I will likely lose some hair temporarily 2-3 months after surgery (I might be more nervous about this than all the other things).
Q: What other lifestyle changes are there?
There are some things post-surgery that I will have to do forever.
I will need to keep meals to around 1 cup of food at a time for the rest of my life.
I will take a vitamin regimen for the rest of my life in order to avoid becoming deficient.
I will need to not drink 30 minutes before or 30 minutes after eating–as the stomach’s lower sphincter will no longer be there, drinking that close to eating will cause me to become hungrier sooner. (You can take tiny sips.)
One of the hardest is that I will no longer be able to use ibuprofen (my chosen pain reliever) or other NSAIDs post surgery because the risk of ulcers will be too high.
Carbonation will forever be a no no–it can stretch my stomach and lead toward overeating and slipping back into bad habits.
Q: Is there anything you think you will miss about your pre-surgery self?
Sure. I definitely have thought about how right now my identity is as a fat person. I like me. I like who I am and it will be weird to lose that part of my identity, and to look different than I have my entire life.
I will also miss eating cake. (After I am pretty far out from surgery, I may be able to have some cake again, but sparingly, and only a few bites.)
Q: What do you look forward to post surgery?
Honestly, at this point, I am looking forward to it being done and being past this limbo moment. Having to go through the approval process twice under two different programs and insurances has been frustrating.
I am looking forward to seeing how I look after weight loss, but in a very analytical rather than vain kind of way. I’m astounded at how different people look in their before and afters. I’m curious to see–will I look more like my mom when she was younger? More like my sister? Just myself with less fluff? Or will I look mostly the same?
Q: What are some weird things that have come up that you did not expect as part of surgery?
Do you have other questions? If so, let me know!
This post is not intended to be medical advice. Any and all discussions about your own post-op bariatric care or the choice to have bariatric surgery should be had with your own doctor.WLS is a choice that every individual should make for themselves. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. Big is beautiful, wonderful, and strong. I am lucky to have had really excellent medical care that hasn’t been–as far as I can tell–negatively impacted by fatphobia. I know this is not everyone’s situation. This was a choice I made and one that I brought up to my PCP, not the other way around. She helped me talk through some of the pros and cons, as well as some other medical weight loss options (such as drugs that encourage weight loss), and made it clear she supported whatever decision I made–even if it was to be none of the above.
It had been a rough year in grad school: qualifying exams, first major research trip, first fellowship cycle, and dissertation proposal all just spiraled together to create a total existential storm in my brain.
After putting a lot of work into my mental health, I entered 2016 in a much better place, but I knew I needed to do something. Something that wasn’t related to graduate school. Something that was both productive and satisfying and that didn’t bear the weight of my personal hopes and expectations.
I needed a hobby.
I fretted about what to do for a while. Reading, which had always been my go-to escape, was no longer filling that void, since so much of my time was otherwise occupied with words, both consuming and producing. Sitting down to read fiction, even the really craptastic kind, just didn’t inspire the desired and expected effect. Reading was at once too active and too passive an activity to fill this need. TV and podcasts were too passive. Too. Passive. I needed to move my hands, do something productive. Maybe I needed to make something.
In college, I very much enjoyed crafting. One of my favorite things to do was to make crafts and goodies for people in my sorority. My favorite of these craftivities was making letter shirts. This process involved finding cute fabrics, tracing the letters, cutting them out, ironing the letters onto t-shirts, and then puffy-painting or sewing the letters on the t-shirt.
But in grad school, my need for sorority puffy letter shirts, or handmade t-shirts of any kind, was at an all-time low.
So I stalled.
I tried adult coloring books. For a time that filled that need, to a point. Coloring was really good for shutting the brain down, when I needed quiet. But it didn’t satisfy my need to create.
I tried knitting. It seemed to have a pretty steep learning curve–so many different stitches and it takes a while to see a result–and the results at first are, sorry to say, rather boring. And limited to a rather circumscribed group of crafts. Yarn also just didn’t do it for me. It didn’t fill me with joy.
Then, I remembered that fabric acquisition was by far one of my favorite steps of crafting in college. What could I do with a whole mess of fabric? What could I do that would permit me to acquire MORE fabric?
It hit me suddenly and all at once: I would make a quilt.
Did I have a sewing machine or any previous sewing experience?
Did that deter me?
Choose my own adventure quilting
I remember looking up a wikiHow on “how to put together a quilt,” just to get the basic gist. I needed to make a quilt top, a quilt bottom, and get a layer of batting (the fluffy stuff that goes in between the quilting cotton to make the quilt warm), sandwich them together, and then bind the edges. In classic me fashion, I immediately decided to go to Joann’s and get some fabric and to make a quilt that I would hand sew in its entirety.
I had no idea what I needed. I was probably like a contestant from Supermarket Sweep in the Joanns. I came home with a ridiculous amount of fabric, some thread, batting, fabric scissors, some needles, a self-healing mat, and a rotary cutter.
Since I was doing it by hand, I wasn’t super invested in making a fancily pieced quilt, a simple patchwork would do. I didn’t want to follow a pattern, because I typically don’t like, and am not always good at, following directions (this says something about me, I think, and I can’t tell if it’s good or bad).
Ultimately though, my choice to not use a pattern was because I wanted to test my creative juices, and not just follow someone’s instructions, and risk it becoming a frustrating exercise when it did not turn out exactly as imagined or if I found the instructions wanting. That would be the exact opposite effect of what I was going for. Hobbies should be fun and enjoyable and rewarding.
So I cut all of my fabric into 4 in. by 4 in. squares. All of it, every fabric that I bought, regardless if I thought it was going to go in the quilt. (This was a mistake, I still have a bunch of fabric that is essentially useless unless it needs to be a 4×4 square or smaller.) I loved figuring out how to balance the colors and patterns worked with one another. It felt like a puzzle and I was hooked.
I slowly sewed the rows together, by hand, learning as I go, my stitches becoming progressively neater as I pieced the quilt. I shared on Instagram that I was making a quilt and learned I needed to press my seams from a friend, something I wouldn’t have thought of doing on my own. As I sewed, I learned.
Every time I make a quilt now, I feel like I spend more and more time pressing my seams and I always think about young-quilter me who didn’t even know it was a thing I should do.
It was exactly what I needed as a craft at that time. It let me make something, my brain resetting as I sewed, watching the rows come together, the rows becoming the quilt top. I was thrilled with the result of the quilt top–I thought it was so pretty and I was afraid that I would ruin it in the next steps.
I basted the three layers together, the backing, the batting, and then the top. It was time to quilt. Now, this is a controversial opinion, but I don’t think you can say you quilt unless you actually do the quilting, the sewing of the layers together. These days a lot of people sew their quilt tops, then send it to a longarmer to finish. Those are piecers, not quilters. (I kid, I kid.)
I didn’t fully appreciate the quilting process until several quilts later. For my first quilt, I used the same thread that I used for the piecing to do the quilting. For my second quilt, I decided to use colored bold hand-quilting thread. Eventually, the quilting became my favorite part. It wasn’t until my fifth and sixth quilts that I realized how I liked to do hand quilting…with embroidery floss. I like a nice bold line, and there’s so much fun to be had adding this detail.
After finishing the quilting, it’s time to do the binding. Now, the binding is definitely the area where my hesitancy to look up how to do things and follow instructions worked to my disadvantage. I did my best to figure it out, but the way my brain “solved” the problem was not the best way to bind the quilt. I don’t think I properly learned how to do the binding until like the last 3 or 4 quilts or projects. I made it a lot harder for myself. I don’t mind how my early quilts’ binding turned out from a stylistic pov, but damn–it’s a lot easier now that I know how to do it for real.
The Result: A Quilter for Life
My first quilt really does represent a lot about my personal style, even if it’s not how I would do it today.
It’s primarily pink, white, and grey, one of my favorite color combos. (It reminds me of my cat, Livia, too.) It is floral and doesn’t shy away from patterns. Some of the prints are watercolor, another typical favorite of mine. It has a textured white-on-white fabric, another Charlotte-standard. Lastly, one of the prints has what I like to call the bougie-Paris aesthetic; watercolor, flowers, and antique postal text, that says Paris.
I’m a sucker for anything French, Paris, or evocative of things that make me think of France in springtime. Were I to do it over again, the binding would not be this old school Charlotte style of binding, but the correct way. I also would totally have a crap-ton of colored embroidery all up in that bitch.
It, like all my quilts, is imperfect. Regardless if a quilt has misaligned seams or uneven stitches, or even in some cases a messed up pattern, it is still beautiful and whole. I had a grad school mantra “perfection is the enemy of the good” and I never really believed it until I began quilting. I love and cherish (most) mistakes on my final quilts. Quilting helped me focus my energies–both positive and negative–into a productive and enjoyable pursuit.
I didn’t know it when I finished this quilt, but this hobby would save me and my mental health time and time again. A few months after I completed it, my mom died. I had started a quilt for my sister before mom died, and it is with that quilt, and the quilt for my other sibling, that I focused my grief for my mom and the family that we had been before. These quilts were a work of love for my siblings, and for my mom. Into each quilt I am able to put into concrete form the love I have for the person it is meant for.* However, it also reminds me of the love and confidence I should have for myself. The quilts that I have made, imperfect though they are, remind me of what I am capable of doing while making something beautiful for those that mean the most to me.
*(FYI: if I’ve made you or your kid a quilt or a craft, there’s a good chance you’re in my top tier of important and loved people. If I haven’t made you a quilt/craft yet and you think you’re in my top tier, calm down, these bitches take time.)
To date, I’ve made 9 quilts with several more in progress. For my own fun, I’ve put together a catalog of sorts of my quilting projects with pix and eventually commentary.
It’s America’s city. I think most Americans have strong feelings about it, details about this place are baked into our cultural consciousness without our even trying. You either love it or you hate it.
The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The city so nice they named it twice.
Until 2022, I had only been to New York City once, in 2006 for a choir trip. It was a good trip and I had a blast, but it very much was not a self-directed trip. I was with a large group most of the time and a small group of folks for the rest. I was a broke college kid so I definitely could only do so much exploring and experiencing.
As a part of my research travels, I have been to most of Europe’s biggest cities, checking off collection after quintessential collection of Roman art. If you had told young me that I would have managed to go to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen before making it to The Met, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Alas…
So in 2022 when I was finally heading to New York City to see one of my dearest friends and to see my first Broadway shows, I knew that I would finally have a chance to do New York City more the way I wanted to do it.
GOALS FOR TRIP
Most of these adventures were had with my friend, Katie, who lives in NYC, so by that very fact it was a great trip. You can read all about my first Broadway shows, which were totally amazing and perfect. It was a life-changing weekend, where I existed in the presence of some of my favorite performing humans.
That NYC Experience
I love being in a city. The hustle and bustle. The architecture, the sites, the smells, even the bad ones. There is something about a city that when you figure out how to navigate it, you just feel like you’re so in control and independent. Some cities work with you to make it happen (others work against you and are hard to navigate–these are frustrating cities).
New York is probably the most easily navigated city I’ve been to yet. It’s the griddy-est of grid cities. It’s relatively straightforward to mark the cross-section of your destination and move in the correct direction (To be fair: I’m not sure how this plays out in boroughs other than Manhattan). The buses and subway are all relatively straightforward, especially with google maps. They’ve also introduced a new ticketing system called OMNY that lets you just tap your card to pay your fare rather than needing to purchase a separate card (really a relief for the visitor). After a couple of days, I felt confident that I could navigate anywhere I needed to go without much stress.
I had done some Midtown exploration back on my first visit in 2006, but I had no real idea of where I was going (someone else was almost always navigating during that trip because they knew the city better). In 2006, I also had only really explored one major city by myself (Paris, and well, I guess D.C., which was near home). Since then, I have navigated London, Berlin, Munich, Copenhagen, Paris (again and again and again), Rome, Naples, Florence, Venice, Athens, and many other cities, all by myself. Being able to guide myself around New York and definitely seeing it with “grown-up” eyes was great, and it let me see its many strengths that 20-year-old me was not able to see (and to be fair, its weaknesses).
Without even trying, I imagine most Americans have general cultural knowledge of New York City’s sites and offerings, more than they possibly realize. I am no different, and it was great to wander the streets of NYC, even if it was painfully cold for half of my trip. The worst was definitely the Saturday of my visit, when the high for the day was 16*. Way too cold for comfortable walking around. Way too cold. I can’t wait to go back and explore in more comfortable temperatures. I’ll be able to give Central Park more than a passing glance. I’ll feel more comfortable just walking around to explore, since it won’t literally hurt to be outside. I’ll get to notice all of those city details that make a city unique. I can’t wait to explore more of in NYC.
That NYC Food
My food goals were random. I just wanted to eat well. I wanted to go to a French restaurant. I wanted to eat a bagel. I wanted to get cupcakes from Magnolia bakery (lolz), and I wanted to eat a corned beef sandwich from a Jewish deli.
I managed to have that delicious corned-beef sandwich, get cupcakes from Magnolia bakery, and a nice dinner at a French restaurant. In addition to the things I wanted to do, I also had some delicious Mexican and Greek food, an honest to dieu croissant, and a happy-hour cocktail that cost $19.
Those NYC Museums
I honestly barely scratched the surface of NYC museums: I visited the Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Met Cloisters. Of these museums, I only feel as if I fully did the Cloisters (and I would happily go back). I am sure I will revisit all of them again in turn in subsequent visits to NYC, plus hit many of the museums I missed.
I have wanted to go to The Met since reading The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg as a child. (I’m pretty sure the only way you could convince me to go camping would be if it was in a world-renowned museum.)
Obviously, I started with the Greek and Roman Wing. Duh. Highlights of The Met’s G&R collection include, among many others, the New York Kouros, the frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, frescoes from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, oodles and oodles of ceramics, oodles and oodles of statuary, Greek and Roman, portrait and idealized. Twas a little-ole recovering art historian’s paradise.
I did have a few moments of profound sadness, though. This was my first visit to a major collection since deciding to not pursue a straightforward academic trajectory of a tenure-track job. As I perused the Met’s antiquities, in some ways it felt like a physical pain akin to grief. Well, no, I suppose it is legit grief; grief for the path that is no longer mine. I no longer know what my role in the art historical world is. For that matter, I don’t know what I want it to be, either.
I meandered through the Egyptian collection, taking a nice little footrest in front of the Temples from Dendur (standing on stone floors is hard, literally!), before making my way to the American Wing, which I only had time to do partially. I basically sprinted through some parts of the European painting collection and then to visit oh-so-briefly the medieval section. I didn’t linger in the medieval wing since I knew I’d be going to The Cloisters later that weekend.
I am so glad to have checked the Met off of my list. It was about damn time and I’m sure I will be back.
American Museum of Natural History
“The” Museum that is a quintessential stop for many visitors to NYC was without a doubt the most hopping place I visited this trip. The rest of NYC, honestly, seemed a little empty thanks to the pandemic.
I could have spent almost the entirety of the visit looking at the murals in the entry hallway, if it weren’t so crowded. In fact, this post took so long to write because I got lost in a research-esque wormhole looking up these batshit insane murals, which celebrate the (dubious) accomplishments of Theodore Roosevelt. (I think I’ll do a separate exploration of them later, because they are wild, and truly quite awful.)
I mainly wanted to see the dinosaurs and gemstones. I cared less about the anthropological bits and non-dinosaur life-forms. I just wanted to see some dinos and shinies. It was so busy compared to all of the other places in NYC, that it was a little overwhelming to my post-pandemic self. The whole time I was just thinking about those murals. But I love seeing dinos.
The Met Cloisters
The Met Cloisters is an extension campus of the Met focused solely on medieval art from western Europe. Built in the early 20th century to house cloisters that were brought from Europe to NYC, the museum displays Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and early Ren art in various media: manuscripts, sculpture, frescoes, windows, tombs, architecture, ivories, textiles, and on and on and on.
It is a literal HOOF to get The Cloisters–you definitely don’t feel like you’re still in Manhattan–you are, but only just, it’s on the northern edge of the island. We had to climb a fairly significant hill to get to the museum, which just felt right. I feel like every monastery I’ve visited required a “nice” climb to get to it (I blame Italy).
It was an evocative space, it definitely felt like I was transplanted to Europe. There were even lots of other visitors speaking not-English, which definitely contributed to that sensation. It’s a great museum, the quietest that I visited this trip. it’s totally worth a visit and the hoof. I definitely want to visit it again, in the spring or summer when all of the gardens are more active.
Until we meet again….
It is now weeks later and I am still just so pumped from my extended weekend to New York. I feel like I packed a lot into a relatively short amount of time and I can’t wait to go back. Fortunately, I might not have to wait too long as I am currently scheduled to go to a work conference in NYC! This time I get to do NYC as a professional and it will not be nearly as cold.
In January of 2022, I journeyed to NYC to see my first shows on Broadway. After a lifetime of dreaming, it was becoming a reality. I was schedule to see The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster and Company starring Katrina Lenk, Patti LuPone, and many others. I was full of apprehension…would I see these stars of screen and stage? Would the shows even happen because of the ever-evolving omicron wave of the pandemic? And…how would I react to finally seeing a show on Broadway?
Meredith Willson’s The Music Man: January 13, 2022
The Music Man was my first show, scheduled for the day I arrived in New York.
I have never been a huge fan of the musical The Music Man, maybe because I’ve only seen film versions of it. Robert Preston, who originated Harold Hill on Broadway and in the film version, didn’t do it for me. He was charming, but I think he was more cemented in my brain as Toddy from Victor/Victoria, and just felt too old, especially set up against Shirley Jones, who was too virginal and missish for me–not really surprising for 1962. (Fun fact: Apparently Robert Preston was 44 when filming The Music Man–almost 10 years younger than Hugh Jackman. The process of aging is SO DIFFERENT now.) In the 2003 film version, Kristin Chenoweth was a fine Marian Paroo, but Matthew Broderick… honestly, I found his Harold Hill to be creepy and charmless.
So going into this show I was excited for some fun dance numbers and the two stars and not much else.
All day I had been relatively calm; I was thrilled to be back in a bustling city, I felt alive and somehow myself again. It was a good day. Even if, for some reason, Hugh Jackman or Sutton Foster called out that night, I would still get to see my very first Broadway show.
After walking around Midtown and having a very nice dinner with my friend who lives in NYC, we walked over to the Winter Garden Theatre. My friend was not joining me for the musical, but she very kindly took some pictures of me before heading back to her apartment.
It was time for me to enter the theatre!
I showed my vaccine card and ID to the usher, then my tickets, and was seated almost immediately. None of this slow line nonsense I’ve experienced at local theatres where it takes for-freaking-ever to filter into your seats.
Everyone was masked and ushers walked up and down the aisles with signs to mask and they definitely made sure that everyone was wearing their mask properly. (My COVID travel anxieties were practically non-existent in NYC since people consistently wore their masks correctly and you had to show your vaccine card everywhere.)
Next to me, a woman was telling her daughter that she wasn’t getting a Christmas present or birthday present this year. “My credit card is done after this trip.”
When she mentioned having seen Company the night before, I totally butted my way in: “Oh my god was Patti there?” She was! I tried chatting more with her, but I wasn’t in Nashville anymore and she did not engage. But that was okay because the show started PROMPTLY at 8:00 PM.
It’s hard to describe the rest of the evening. It was surely one of the best experiences of my life.
It was magical.
And yes, BOTH Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster were there!
Their pure, unadulterated talent blew the roof off the house. Hugh’s Harold Hill was charming and debonair but also vulnerable. His charm was legit and never felt creepy or old. Sutton’s Marian Paroo was smart, sharp, and sassy. They just worked. Together, they are a powerful pair. I felt like I was riding high the entire time from start to finish, and I loved every moment of it.
For the final dance number, I had tears in my eyes because they literally danced for 10 minutes. I had seen Sutton sing in person before, but I hadn’t seen her dance. I didn’t want it to end.
But then it did.
It was over.
Making my way back to my friend’s apartment I was just totally overwhelmed. After 36 years of waiting, I had finally seen a Broadway show. And it was fantastic.
I felt like my life would never be the same or as perfect and wonderful as it was in that moment. I pretty much cried with joy the whole way back to my friend’s apartment, arriving on her doorstep with raccoon eyes (thanks, mascara).
I remembered how much my mom had loved The Music Man. How perfect was it then that this was my first show. A show that my mom would have loved. My mom, who without a doubt, started this whole obsession.
It felt like a perfect full-circle moment: I had been waiting my whole life to see this show.
Stephen Sondheim’s, Company: January 15, 2022
While writing this weeks later, I am still riding high from seeing The Music Man. So two days after seeing The Music Man, it was strange to head into my second Broadway show. This time, Stephen Sondheim’s Company, starring the grande dame of my heart, Patti LuPone.
After a very cold day in New York, my friend once again walked with me to the theater and snapped my pic in front of The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. I was nervous. After seeing BOTH Hugh and Sutton, would I actually get to see Patti too? It seemed impossible. I couldn’t be that lucky.
Bernard B. Jacobs is a smaller theatre than the Winter Garden and my seats were a lot closer to the stage (though cheaper than my MM tickets, haha) and the whole tone of the set and audience was different. It felt older and more mature. (Which makes sense given the the two shows I was seeing!)
My friend texted me that she had heard someone asking an usher outside if Patti LuPone would be on and the person said she was.
I didn’t want to hope but as the lights went down, an announcement was made: “There is no photography and please make sure your cell phones were off….or else.” I knew. I knew that voice.
That voice belonged to none other than La LuPone. In that moment, I was glad to be wearing a mask because my face was doing some real stupid shit.
I was about to see Patti LuPone perform live.
For once in my life, I was squeezed in between two people that were bigger than I am, so it was a physically uncomfortable viewing experience, but it didn’t matter. The moment Patti came onto the stage, the entire theater drew in a breath. There was a group of gays (<3) behind me who literally audibly gasped. She commanded the whole goddamn stage, filling the whole room with her charisma.
Besides being in awe of experiencing a long-and much-loved voice, IN PERSON, it was a remarkable show. First of all, I owe Sondheim an apology for all of my previous ambivalence about his shows. I recognized his genius and we can not overstate his contribution to American theatre, but I just didn’t like his work. To be fair, I think the Sondheim shows we see the most often are not his best, especially the ones geared to younger audiences; like how many bad productions of Into the Woods can you deal with?
Company, often regarded as one of Sondheim’s master works, however, is one of his that I actually knew most of the words to. I was familiar with the general gist of the plot, but had never paid much attention to the show. In short, it tells the non-linear story of a single 30-something who is questioning their life choices as a single person in a group of marrieds.
First, it was hilarious, something I didn’t fully appreciate from simply hearing the songs. Second, I do not know what gave Sondheim the right to personally attack me with this musical. This staging, departing from every previous incarnation of the show, is gender swapped. The lead, formerly Robert, is now Bobbie (played by Katrina Lenk). As a woman in her mid-30s, like Bobbie, also single and not sure how she feels about it, the musical felt so real: tagging along as the ever-present third, fifth, or seventh wheel, not wanting to be alone, but also not really wanting to deal with lame bumble dates, or any dating apps for that matter, feeling like you’re racing to GET IT DONE whatever the hell IT is, how even though from the outside looking in couples have tons of problems of their own and coupledom seems like a hot mess, yet it’s something that is just regarded as normal and desired, but is it something I desire, I don’t even know, how am I supposed to know!?
…Wait, am I talking about me or Bobbie? What a gut punch.
I am fascinated with gender swapping narratives. So much can change based on such a simple choice to change the gender of the main character. This show originally from 1970, it would 100% not hit the same if Bobbie were still Robert in the 2020s. In addition to changing Robert to Bobbie, the engaged Amy becomes a gay male named Jamie–also a perfect choice that made the musical feel way more authentic to the current era. This show would not have hit the right notes (heh) if it had been a straight male lead surrounded by all hetero couples. The success of the gender swap has made me ponder what other musicals would do well with a similar treatment. There are a few that, like Company, I think need it. I’ll save that for another post.
Obviously, I fell in love with this show. This staging was one of the last things he worked on before he died, and he saw this cast perform not long before his death. One of his greatest legacies is that he continued to support and mentor aspiring artists and playwrights, and how he gracefully let his work live through the kinds of changes made in later interpretations–like the swap from Robert to Bobbie and Amy to Jamie.
After seeing a staging of Company, I finally understand his genius. And I also think Sondheim is not for the young–Company would have hit me completely differently had I seen it in its entirety at 22 or 23; honestly I doubt I’d have been into it at all. Seeing this at 36 was, at times, a little too on the nose. I am sorry I didn’t see it and appreciate it sooner, but each season in its moment, eh?
The only thing that would have made this musical better for me is the casting of the lead. Katrina Lenk’s voice was passable, and her acting serviceable, but the whole musical builds up to this one song, where Bobbie just has a MOMENT. It’s THE song. If you know any songs from Company, it’s likely this one. “Being Alive”has long been a favorite of mine. It has frequently been sung by Sondheim-ites such as Mandy Patinkin, Raul Esparza, Bernadette Peters, and, you guessed it, Patti Ann LuPone (of course, my fav version). It is one of THE songs of the Sondheim repertoire. Lenk’s rendition was… fine. Technically, nothing was incorrect with her performance…she hit the notes and sang the song, but compared to the rest of the stellar cast, it was weak sauce, lacking in emotion, a disappointing culmination where there should have been a powerful punch of a finale. It was a bummer end of what was otherwise a fantastic show.
The rest of the cast was amazing–I especially look forward to seeing what Matt Doyle, who played Jaime, will do. Patti LuPone is a goddamn goddess and national treasure, and it was literally a dream come true.
I managed to hold it together after this show. It wasn’t the same surge of adrenaline that I had post-Music Man. Rather, it was a reflective kind of post-show joy, more of a diffuse warm glow that kept me warm on the very cold journey to my lodgings.
I can’t wait to do it all over again
I still can’t quite believe that I had this AMAZING experience, where I FINALLY SAW SOME SHOWS ON BROADWAY. I am still pinching myself that I got to see all three of the stars I wanted to see. Unsurprisingly, I am addicted and I can’t wait to go back for more. Beyond the shows, I also had a brilliant time exploring the city, eating delicious food, and seeing some world-class museums. More on my general New York-y experience in my next post.
**You’re Going to See a Broadway Show.
This line is from one of my favorite musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone, in the opening monologue by the Man In Chair. If you got it, congratulations, you get 10 points. Do with them what you will.
*10 points if you can tell me what show that’s from!
I have always loved musicals.
My mom started me down this path with some oldies-but-goodies at a very young age: Meet Me in St. Louis and The Sound of Music were constant repeats. She introduced me to others that became favorites like Singing In the Rain, White Christmas, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, as well as some of her favorites that I didn’t like, The Music Man (heh), Paint Your Wagon and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Disney classics, such as Beauty and the Beast, still my personal favorite from childhood, contributed to my love of expressing your feelings through song. Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, and Judy Garland were my DIVAS. In high school, I fell in love with Les Misérables, which initiated my love of STAGE musicals. College ushered in the age of Wicked, which only increased my love of a powerful diva belt. In 2005, my friend Ashley introduced me to the Broadway version of Thoroughly Modern Millie starring a young triple-threat actor, the incomparable Sutton Foster.
In this same period, I feel like YouTube really took off (crazy to think about life, pre-YouTube, eh?) and I clicked around the internet falling more in love with diva belters like Sutton Foster, Audra MacDonald, Bernadette Peters, Sherie Rene Scott, and (my love of all loves) Patti LuPone. It was around this time when she was Mrs. Lovett in the 2005 revival of Sweeny Todd, only to shortly thereafter go on to her iconic run in the 2008 revival of Gypsy, and win her second Tony.
Obviously, given my penchant for the genre, I have always wanted to see a show on the Great White Way, but the opportunity never really presented itself. Growing up, our family vacations were more battlefields and journeys to historical sites. We’d go to baseball games (go, sports, go?), and visit with family. But never New York.
I saw a few touring casts, though–the first of which was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS! in the late 1990s. Then grad school happened and money, time, and logistics just…it wasn’t possible for expensive tickets and an expensive stay in an expensive city, just for the pleasure of seeing something on Broadway.
Fast forward to 2021.
I’ve finished grad school. I have a grown up job. Ashley, my friend who introduced me to Sutton Foster, is planning a trip to NYC to see To Kill A Mockingbird and The Music Man starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. I am, understandably, instantly jealous…. but in that way where you’re still excited for your friend.
Until, I get a text from her. “Charlotte, I have to tell you something. It’s okay if you get mad at me.”
What would make me be mad at Ashley? I already knew that she was planning on seeing Sutton Foster, her OG fav, but I couldn’t hate her for that. Unless… Oh. She must be going to see someone else big, someone else famous…. Someone that I adored.
“You’re going to see Patti LuPone, aren’t you?”
PATTI LUPONE in Company.
SUTTON FOSTER and HUGH JACKMAN in The Music Man.
Two of my favorites (and obviously, hers; she would at least appreciate the genius she was witnessing so, like, it’s fine, but still). I pouted grumpily for a solid five minutes like a petulant toddler.
But then, like a high kick straight in the face, it hit me. I have a friend in NYC who I was going to visit. I could just…go and see the shows, too.
Could it really be that simple? I could decide to go? And then do it?
In classic Charlotte fashion, I decided immediately: I WOULD GO TO NEW YORK, TOO. Within days, I booked flights, and got myself tickets to see BOTH Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster, for my first ever Broadway shows at the tender age of 36.
At the point of booking, things seemed to be looking up pandemic wise. Delta was on the downward spiral, I had been boosted, things seemed to be straightening out. Then, as it came time for our trips to happen (mine just a few weeks after Ashley’s), omicron started to rear its ugly head.
Would we both get to see these amazing leading ladies?
In late December, Sutton Foster got COVID. A few days later, Hugh Jackman also tested positive. With Harold Hill out of commission, The Music Man announced it was shutting down until a week or so before my show. Ashley’s show was canceled.
We both knew performance cancellations were possible; we are still living through a pandemic. But that was the whole reason for her trip! To see this show! Then, the night she went to see Company, it seemed like she would at least get to see Patti LuPone; they even included a sheet in the playbills listing the evening’s cast members with La LuPone on the roster. However, right before the performance began, it was announced that her understudy would be playing the role of Joanne that evening. (She still loved the show.)
This has always been one of my fears: finally getting tickets to that Broadway show, starring one of my favorites, only to show up and have them call out. Enter COVID and that possibility became much more likely. With Music Man shutting down and Ashley not seeing Sutton or Patti, I had to confront the fact that I might not see either of them, too.
Combating all of my nerves, both about flying for the first time since the pandemic started and the possibility of my shows getting canceled, I ventured on my own to the greatest city in the world: New York.
Would it be all that I dreamt of? Would I actually even see the shows? Would I see Sutton? Would I see Hugh? Would I see Patti LuPone? The nerves were real.
Spoiler alert: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yeeeeees (you need those extra LuPone vowels). Check back next week to hear all about it.
I love to travel so much that it is part of my identity. There is no Charlotte without travel. I love the planning, the execution, and, most especially, the return home.
Over the past two years of pandemic life, I’ve reflected a lot on travel–what I miss about it, what I don’t miss about it, and what I can’t wait to do when it becomes a regular part of my life again.
During that same stretch of two years, I also made some pretty big life decisions that will impact how I travel going forward. The first is to proceed with weight loss surgery (WLS). The second is the revisioning of my career and my life: no longer am I on the quest for a tenure-track life, but rather a much less circumscribed path.
Both of these decisions have changed how I think about travel. The WLS angle is complicated: I’m really excited to go places feeling more fit and hopefully having more energy, but WLS also means that I won’t be able to eat certain things anymore, and food definitely factors into what I enjoy about travel.
As much as the WLS disrupts things, the life change that impacts my travel habits the most is actually the career flip. Nearly all of my travel so far has been in service to my education and research. The places I have gone and the things that I have seen have all been dictated by my professional goals. Granted, my professional goals were closely tied to my personal interests and desires, BUT…I had to have a legitimate academically-motivated reason to go where I did, because I had to intellectually justify that reason to people who judged that rationale (and helped fund these trips).
It hit me.
My future travel will no longer be dictated by professional reasons.
I can go where I want because I want to go. I don’t have to apply for funds or offer supporting rationales for why I need to go there.
I can go where I want because I want to go there. I don’t have to schedule time for research or site visits. I don’t have to meet with other professionals in my field.
Within reason. And within budget. (Ugh.)
Because…wanting *is* a reason.
This realization felt at once freeing and terrifying. I am one that likes to have purpose and intention in all that I do. I like there to be an end goal. I’m not great at “for the sake of” adventures. But now I wonder: how much of that is from habit? What if I am able to just go for the sake of going, and I just don’t know it yet?
With all of this swirling around in my head, I started thinking about what I love about travel and the different types of travel that exist. Because I am, and forever will be, a recovering art historian, I love putting things into categories (and perpetually revising and expanding those categories), I present the first iteration of my categories of travel.
Categories of Travel
The Visit There is no other reason for you to visit this place besides seeing someone who lives there. Your primary goal is to see that person or group of persons, and anything else is secondary. You stay in their home and “spend time” with one another.
The Event Rather than simply going to visit someone, you go somewhere for a specific event, be it a holiday, baby shower, graduation, concert, wedding, or themed party. Generally speaking, the Event requires your participation. You buy a gift, you prepare, you must engage with the event, as well as the people you see at the event. The locale is irrelevant.
The Destination You are going to see a place that cannot be replicated elsewhere, such as architecture, art, food, shopping (I guess? for some people?), and other cultural experiences. This requires engagement instead of simple passive existence in the space. You will get out of it what you put into it (which, your goals may be different depending on how you travel). You can do this by plane, train, or automobile.
The Wandering There are some who can just wander. See where the day takes them, motivated by god knows what, by their own two feet or by car and public transit. I think camping, backpacking, and some road trips fall into this category. I am not a wanderer.
The Vacation Ahh, the elusive vacation. Some might call the above 4 categories vacations, but I would argue that they are not at all the same category. A vacation can happen anywhere, but the goal is to vacate….your responsibilities, your agendas, your obligations. Travel is not necessary to vacate, but is oftentimes more enjoyable when you do. You can have a staycation or a destination vacation, subcategories which I think are self-explanatory.
The Trip This category can comprise facets of each of the above. Elements of relaxation, visiting specific destinations and people, but there is an agenda. You have things to do, places to go, maybe even people to see. Some trips are more akin to vacations, while others more akin to a visit. It depends.
The Extended Stay For some, this will take the form of a study abroad, for others perhaps a home exchange (my friend and fellow blogger can talk your ear off about this). I categorize an Extended Stay as remaining in one place longer than 3 weeks in order to really understand the place that you’re visiting. You’re there long enough to develop some kind of routine, an understanding of the local grocery store, and pick out a favorite something in your “neighborhood,” be it a gelato shop, fruit stand, pizza place, bakery, etc.
Modes of Travel
Group Travel “Group” can be loosely defined. I would say that this is not family travel, though families can participate in group travel. The dynamics of the group can be ever variable. You can have smaller groups of non-related individuals or large groups of non-related individuals such as a tour group or class, or somewhere in between. Your travel will be impacted by the way that you interact with the group creating an additional layer to the experience.
Family Travel Family travel can have lots of the same features as group travel, but the dynamic can shift and change more rapidly, and is infinitely more mercurial. Anyone who has been trapped in a car with their siblings knows how rapidly that dynamic can shift.
Solo Travel You fly solo. You arrive solo. You may meet up with people for an activity or share a hotel for a few days, but for the most part, you drive the itinerary and the pace, pick all of the restaurants, and dictate the agenda. There are definite advantages to solo travel: not having to fight with people about what’s for dinner or doing activities you do not like. There are also disadvantages: being alone; sometimes not feeling safe; people seeing your being alone as an invitation to talk (it isn’t, ever, in my case); and being the only one to make decisions can be exhausting…but rewarding.
Business Travel This is a type of travel that I have only had some experience with, though you could make an argument that lots of my research travel was business, none of my trips were driven by commercial reasons. Most were not collaborative in any way. I see business travel as traveling to a location for a meeting, be it with collaborators or investors; travel for participation in a conference as a representative of an organization or institution; and travel for which someone else foots the bill.
Most of my travel so far has been some combination of solo/business, extended-stay, destination trips. There’s so much more I want to do and see! It’s liberating to know that I can do what I want rather than having to provide justifications for why. The only person I have to justify anything to is ME.
Here are some immediate goals that come to my mind:
An all-inclusive vacation type vacation. I want to go somewhere pretty and scenic, where I can experience a view, eat tasty food, and read books all day long. This could be a colder climate vacation. I’ve always wanted to go somewhere like Aspen or Vail, not for the skiing (because clearly I would kill myself) but for the cozy. Snuggle by the fire with a good book and make some trips to the hot tub (to read there too). It could also be a warmer climate vacation at a beachy type resort. Same activities, just different bodies of water, and different drink choices. Choice of location can be based exclusively on how pretty the view is and how comfortable I am able to be while enjoying that view.
A non-research related destination trip, international. The place that immediately comes to mind is Ireland. I have always wanted to go. Like many Americans, I’m vaguely of Irish descent (Forstall is an Irish last name, though there are many spellings). I could…just go? I need to start thinking outside of my research-driven travel box and think about other places I want to go…just because.
A non-research related destination trip, domestic. I’ve been to a bunch of places in the US, but my list could expand greatly. A lot of my travel in the US has also been in the category of The Visit (again, not a bad thing) but there’s a lot to do and see in this big dumb country. Similarly, I need to start thinking outside of the box.
What do you think? Are there categories and modes I’ve neglected? Where should I go? What type of travel should I try? What should I add to my list when literally anything is on the table? (Besides camping, I don’t camp.)
In 2021, I turned over a new leaf. I think some of it is finally being free from that initial pandemic anxiety and also settling into post-grad school routines. I still only read one fiction book at a time, but I’m learning how to mix and match non-fiction (usually the popular kind, not the academic variety) in a way that works for me.
Goals in 2022 are to continue to expand my horizons in terms of reading. It will still be a heavy diet of romance; that’s never going to change. I particularly want to reincorporate direct academic reading into my routine. It’s a different kind of reading for me, one that is infinitely more active, but I miss it. I miss the active output of reading too (writing), and part of my goal in this blog space is for this to be a remedy to that.
1. These Truths, Jill Lepore
This book was a magisterial feat. Essentially a history of political thought and ideals, Jill Lepore traces the central tenets of American government from European colonization to the Trump presidency. Equally engrossing and enraging, this book highlights the manner in which discrimination based on race, gender, sex, and religion has always played a role in American public life and discourse; the role of Christianity in American government; and how absolutely nothing ever really changes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I found the earlier portions of the book to be more interesting and enlightening than the later bits. The later part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century just made me too angry and discouraged. It also was interesting to read this volume during the pandemic—thinking about how a theoretical next version of this history would have to include the pandemic.
To borrow John Green’s style of rating, I give These Truths 4.5 stars.
2. The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, John Green
If I had to pick a favorite book I read this year, it might be John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. In this series of essays, Green rates and reviews things that belong to the Anthropocene, from Diet Dr. Pepper, velociraptors, to Halley’s Comet. At once memoir, history, and contemporary cultural commentary, John Green ties together his life experience with that of great thinkers, writers, artists, and events. Truly his masterwork.
I give the Anthropocene Reviewed 5 stars.
3. The Trials of Apollo, series, Rick Riordan
This summer, I did a massive reread of Rick Riordan. I reread the Percy Jackson series, as well as the Heroes of Olympus, each containing 5 books. I was a little unsure about The Trials of Apollo, because it didn’t seem like quite the same thing from the outset, but I really ended up loving it. It was classic Rick Riordan, an engaging and fun epic that emphasizes being who you are, even when you’re different or it’s hard, and working together with people who might not look like they bring a lot to the table. In this book, Apollo loses his immortality after messing up one too many times for Zeus. Apollo, not unlike a certain demigod of yore, has to complete some tasks before regaining his immortality. Trapped in the body of an acne-ridden 16-year old, it’s hard to imagine a being more helpless. Apollo struggles with this past and the repercussions of his actions while learning how to grow up.
I give The Trials of Apollo 4.5 stars.
4. A League of Extraordinary Women, Evie Dunmore
I am a sucker for a good historical romance and tend to prefer those that take place in 19th-century England. This series, currently comprising 3 books, is about a group of like-minded women that find love against the backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage and rights. In keeping with this theme, Dunmore manages to take classic romance tropes and turn them on their head, providing a more satisfying AND romantic feminist ending. There are three books in the series so far and a 4th on the way.
I give A League of Extraordinary Women four stars.
5. Written in the Stars, Alexandria Bellefleur
I picked up this book at my favorite local bookstore on their romance shelf. I picked it up not realizing it was an LGBTQ+/sapphic romance. When I started reading (and took at look at the front cover, you’d think my visual analysis skills were more on point as an art historian…) I realized that the two romantic leads were both female. I was frankly thrilled. How cool was it that I, a straight woman in 2020, unknowingly picked up a romance between a lesbian and a bi character? I kept reading and it was a delightful romance. Gave me all the right heart feels that I look for when reading a romance. Even better, this is the first in a series—the second book was just as good (the second couple was a straight/cis couple). The third books comes out in early 2022.
I give Written in the Stars four stars.
6. Kiss Quotient series, Helen Hoang
Continuing the section of romances with an inclusive twist is Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient Series. The other two books in the series are The BrideTest and The Heart Principle. Diagnosed with high-functioning autism (what once would have been called Asperger’s) in her 30s, Hoang writes romances with characters that have autism. The tie that binds the series together are male members of a Vietnamese American family in the Bay Area: Michael (Stella), Khai (Esme), and Quan (Anna). The best part: autism isn’t presented as a barrier to romance, but just simply a part of who they are. Fair warning, book 3, the Heart Principle, what Hoang called the most autobiographic of the series packs a real bunch. I cried for almost the whole second half of the book.
I give The Kiss Quotient series four stars.
7. Get a Life, Chloe Brown, series, Talia Hibbert
The Brown sisters series is a total treat. Again continuing the inclusive romance, Talia Hibbert writes characters with disabilities and who have multiracial relationships. These books generally makes visible things that have been ignored in traditional romance (though sometimes left to the imagination). I loved each book, though I want to say that Take a Hint, Dani Brown was probably my favorite.
The new romances I read this year really demonstrated why I love this genre and its ability to adapt and be inclusive and amazing. I only hope this trend continues. (I’m sure it will—its my opinion its inherent to the best of the genre.)
I give the Brown Sisters series four stars.
8. Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, Amanda Montell
This book was quite a read. Amanda Montell, who has a degree in linguistics, examines how the English language reflects our cultural attitudes, for better or worse, about women. Exploring how we talk about women, sex, and everything in between, Montell shows how we can work to make our language more inclusive and less inherently patriarchal. I can’t wait until I get Montell’s second book, Cultish!
I give Wordslut 4.5 stars.
9. The Viscount Who Loved Me, Julia Quinn (reread)
I read this book every year. It probably will appear on this list every year. Starting last Christmas with the release of season 1 of Bridgerton on Netflix, my favorite romance series became part of everyone’s cultural knowledge. I loved the season when I first watched it. Though I still have generally positive feelings about it, there is one big quibble I have with the tv show, but that’s a post for another day.
Season 2 will be the dramatization of my favorite in the series, The Viscount Who Loved Me. Kate and Anthony are my favorite. I like inherently understand their personalities (both the eldest with the weight of responsibility upon them) and Anthony’s fears (his big bugaboo to overcome) is one that I oddly share. (Though I have loved this book longer than I’ve shared his fear. No spoilers!) I read it when I need to be grounded or a fast pick me up, so some years, like in 2020, I read it more than once. This was a one read kind of year.
I give The Viscount Who Loved Me five stars.
10. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery (reread)
I have been wanting to do a big Anne of Green Gables reread for a few years now. I decided to begin it this year. I love this story—with small exceptions, this story holds up over 100 years after it was first published. I love the story to love what has been unloveable and to see beauty in simplicity. This book definitely settles in my top 10 favorite book of all time, so it definitely has to fall in my top 10 for 2021. I will be doing a bigger reread of the rest of the series probably starting in 2022.
My friend Erin issued me this challenge: You are in Paris for a 24 hour layover. What do you do?
I am not sure a more difficult challenge could be issued to me, and I only mean that a little bombastically. Paris is one of my favorite places on earth. I know it well–it’s definitely the place outside of the USA where I’ve spent the most time. On the other hand, it never ceases to surprise me, it is never the same, but is always familiar. I know it’s cliche to be that bougie American bitch who loves Paris, but I like to think that my relationship with the city is not a superficial one.
There are so many different ways that I could pass a day in Paris. It could be a nostalgia walk—in areas that remind me of people and times that I love and cherish. It could be a museum day, where I visit some of my favorite museums, the ones that led me to my love of art and history. It could be an architecture walk, visiting some of the best Paris has to offer. It could be a food tour—hitting up some of my best and favorite places to grab some French treats. Honestly, it really has to be all of the above.
Let’s set the stage. I am off on a trip and I have a layover at CDG, where I have enough time to go into the city for the day. I’m going to pretend that customs and security lines don’t last forever. I’ll arrive in the city proper at 9 AM and my flight leaves at midnight, so I’ll need to RER to the airport at like…9 PM. TWELVE hours in Paris. I am able to leave my stuff in the airport so no chucking around luggage (phew). I am imagining that this day is in the springtime, still chilly, but comfortable.
Mission 1: Prend un café crème et un chausson aux pommes.
I will probably, owing to habit, take the RER to the Luxembourg station, disembarking there and finding a place near the Luxembourg gardens to eat my breakfast. For that breakfast, I will consume a cafe creme and a pastry, probably one of my favorites, the chausson aux pommes. Yes, I will be hungry in less than an hour, but this is my French petit-dejeuner of champions. A cafe crème is similar to a cappuccino or a cafe au lait, but with a little bit less milk. I might go back and forth between a cafe crème and a noisette (a macchiato)—or heck, go for both.
But the real treat will be the pastry. If you google “chausson aux pommes” you will see english results that call it a “French apple turnover” with pictures of triangular pastries. I feel like this is a description that loses something in translation. There is no triangular shape, but a semi-circular pastry with scalloped edges that show off the intensely laminated layers to perfection. On chaussons, there is no crunchy sugar topping, or even worse, some kind of icing drizzle. Filled with an apple compote, the texture of the chausson aux pommes is ridiculously delicious in its simplicity.
I will eat my petit dej, while enjoying the sounds of a city coming alive. I love Paris to such a degree that even just existing within its arrondissements makes me a happy girl. It has its own smell (there’s one stretch of metro that you could take me to blindfolded and I could tell you where we are immediately) and its own feeling and I love it so, even when it’s mildly (or egregiously) disgusting.
At that cafe, preferably in outdoor seating, I’d spend about 45 minutes to an hour sipping my cafe creme and eating my chausson and reading some kind of trashy novel–likely ordering une noisette after I finished my cafe creme. At the 45 minute mark, I know I’d be hesitant to get going, but simultaneously anxious to do so. Getting up, I’d do a little stretch and leave the little bit of comfort that the table and this spot provided. It was mine for breakfast, and I’ll leave it to someone else to enjoy.
Mission 2: Morning Walk through the center of touristy Paris
Given my choice to breakfast near Luxembourg Gardens, I’ve set myself up for an exemplary walkabout in some of my favorite areas of Paris. This walkabout is NOT for the weary. I’d walk my way up the Rue Sufflot and say hello to the Pantheon and St. Etienne. I’d maybe walk toward Rue Mouffetard and Place de la Contrescarpe, reveling in memories of my misspent youth. That sounds poetic doesn’t it? It really wasn’t that misspent, but I did traipse about with a backpack full of cheap wine, beer, and liege waffles for nights of youthful exuberant fun with mes amis de Paris.
Then, I’d wind my way back to the Rue Saint Michel and the Seine. I have oddly affectionate memories of Place St. Michel. At this intersection, there are several French bookstores that I might wind my way through for a hot second maybe picking up some postcards and bric a brac. I’d turn my sights toward the Seine and move toward Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame de Paris. I haven’t seen the cathedral since it caught on fire in 2019, so I’m sure I’d spent some time inspecting the structure to the degree that I am able. After finishing up with NDdP, I would think about going to see Ste. Chapelle, but then remember that it costs something absurd like 10 euro to go in and tell myself I’d go the next time I’m in town. I’d hie over to the Rive Doite and take in the Hotel de Ville. From there I would likely decide do I head east toward the Marais? Or west toward the Louvre?
I think heading west would win out. I’d walk along the Seine until I get to the westernmost bit of the Louvre. I’d go and check on my Napoleonic arches. La Grande Arche only from a distance; it’s too far out to really pay attention to today, but I can at least see it down that fine Hausmannian road. Nevertheless I’d pay attention to the Arc du Carrousel for many minutes and enjoying one of my favorite prospects, les Jardin des Tuileries. I’d cut back over the Seine, and keep walking. This walk would allow me to glimpse sights of some of my favorite Parisian buildings, most of them stereotypical touristy items like the Tour Eiffel, the Musee D’Orsay, the Academie Francaise. I’d conclude at the Tuileries. I’d hop on the Metro, ligne 1, en direction de Porte de Vincennes. I’d disembark in the Marais at the station St. Paul.
Mission 3: Lunch at L’As du Falafel OU un sandwich jambon beurre
Unsurprisingly, my chausson aux pommes would have long since left my memory during this jaunt around Paris. After getting off the metro at St. Paul, I’d head toward L’As du Falafel to get some of my favorite food to eat in Paris, the sandwich grecque, done, or falafel, whatever you want to call it. There are so many of these little shops and restaurants in Paris that sell the delicious doner kebab and its variants that to me, it’s one of the most dependable foods that I can always rely on to be cheap, fast, and filling when I’m traveling in Europe. It’s never led me astray and always satisfied me. This place, however, is *good*. It’s in the Marais, a neighborhood that is traditionally Jewish and still has a very strong Jewish presence (this is where you would go in Paris to find a bagel!). Given this fact, it is one of the only restaurants open on Saturdays in the area and is often overwhelmed with customers. Still, I’ve never seen it without a line. This day, since it’s my perfect day, is not going to be a Saturday. I will order a sandwich with frites, and literally shove it in my face with glee.
As tempting as this food will be, there is a good chance that hunger might drive me to seek sustenance elsewhere if faced with a substantial line at L’As du Falafel. In that case, I’d seek out the simplest and best of the French repasts, the sandwich jambon beurre. The smooth, rich saltiness of the French butter on that crunch, bien cuite, fresh baguette with the not-as-salty-as-in-the-US ham is just one of my favorite, favorite sandwiches that I cannot replicate aux Etats Unis, as much as I might (and I have) tried. My disappointment at not finding a smaller line at L’As du Falafel will not last long.
Whatever my lunch choice, I am also confident I would acquire a Fanta au citron and guzzle it down. I would be in a state of complete and utter happiness and exhaustion, but fortified to move on to the next mission.
Mission 4: Macarons from Pierre Hermé
Ah, the macaron. The crisp meringue cookies sandwich delightfully flavored buttercream. Rich and indulgent, these are among some of my favorite French sweets. Not too far from L’As du Falafel is one of the best establishments to get macarons, Pierre Hermé. No, not Hermès. Ladurée is great in a pinch (and available in the US, though only in NYC, DC, Florida, and California).* I’d hustle over there and pick up a box of these confections and eat them throughout the rest of the day.
Per usual, I’d choose my favorite parfums: vanille, café, pistache, and framboise (raspberry), and perhaps I’d try some more adventurous flavors. After getting my loot, I’d choose one to eat, and pocket the rest in my bag to be enjoyed later.
* There is also a Pierre Hermé in the US, but only one in Saks 5th Ave in NYC.
Mission 5: Une musée!
This is a hard decision to make. I must go to a museum while I was in Paris. As much as I would long to go visit the oodles and oodles of Roman statuary at the Louvre or the architectural awesomeness of the Musee D’Orsay, that’s just too much. For this single day of awesome, these museums take up too much time and energy. So I’d likely choose between a few of my favorites, which are all smaller, but stellar, museums.
Musee Marmottan Monet: Massive collection of Monet including one of the most famous Impression, soleil levant, as well as other works that date from the medieval to the modern eras.
Musee Gustave Moreau: Not going to lie, this is one of my favs but not for the collections, which are exceptional. The former home of Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, this museum preserves his home and workshops which he left to the state at his death. It also happens to contain one of the most magnificent staircases of all time. The entire edifice just screams Belle Époque to me and I love every bit of it.
Musee Rodin: Housed in the Chateau Biron, a building in which Auguste Rodin, one of the best sculptors since Bernini, used several rooms as his studio space, this museum is a treat. The museum’s collection is composed of lots of his works, in addition to works that he collected, including a room dedicated to sculptures by Camille Claudel. Best of all, this museum is both indoors and out with sculptures in the well-manicured gardens, including a cast of his remarkable La Porte d’Enfer and iconic Le Penseur.
Musee Carnavalet: This is the museum dedicated to the history of the city of Paris. Not going to lie, this is the one that will probably win out amongst the others. For one, it isn’t too far from Pierre Herme. However, it’s also just an awesome museum that occupies two hotels particuliers. The Musee Carnavalet just opened after a large renovation in May of 2021, so of course I’d have to check out the changes, if my poor memory can fully recall what it was before. This museum’s collection goes well beyond painting and objets d’art, though it certainly contains oodles and oodles.
Mission 6: Confit de canard
After hours of museum going, I know my appetite would be demanding for some noms. I’d walk around a little bit more, probably in a direction that would let me accomplish goal number 8 (see below). The goal for dinner will be to find a classic French bistro that’s not toooooo touristy to eat my favorite French dinner. Confit de canard, crispy potatoes, and a salad with a lemony vinaigrette that I have not yet figured out how to make. I would probably glance at the dessert menu, but forcefully say no—there are better treats to be had elsewhere.
Mission 7: Trouvez des carambars fruits et des gaufres
The timing of this particular mission is inconsequential and should be based entirely upon opportunity. Carambar fruits are manna from heaven. They are what Starburts should aim to be. There are several varieties of carambar. The original flavor is a kind of a caramel chocolate tootsie roll that is *very* chewy—could pull your tooth straight out of your head if you were not careful. The fruit versions come in four parfums: orange, citron, fraise, and framboise. Unlike starbursts which are so sweet they hurt your teeth, these aren’t as sweet and they’re much softer in texture and less waxy. They’re my absolute favorite candy of all time.
Mission 8: See the Tour Eiffel sparkle
My last and final mission is a silly and sentimental one. Every night, on the hour, the Tour Eiffel sparkles for five minutes. It’s a sight that never fails to bring a smile, however small, to my face. I can’t deny that part of my love of Paris is its tendency to hit all of my favorite whimsical and romantic notes. I fell in love with Paris before I ever visited. My grandparents traveled a bunch and my grandpa would put together scrapbooks of their trips, with matchbooks, pictures, tickets, napkins, menus, all of the random things you collect while traveling. In addition they had all of these guidebooks. Whenever I visited, I would pore over them. The pictures, the history, the food, the cafes! Paris just seemed to have this aura that I wanted to revel in. It would have been hard for me to pick a favorite of their scrapbooks (one which I very much wish I had), I know I probably spent most of my time in their Paris albums and their Ireland albums. Taking French in high school and in college only pushed my love of Paris further. I finally got to meet Paris in 2004, for a 3-week trip for January term.
I was 18, and it was my first trip outside of the United States. I was lonely (definitely the only dork on the trip more interested in France than drinking), experiencing some unexpected travel shock, and my camera had broken on our first outing. I had been approaching Notre Dame for the first time—its size shocked me and it seemed unreal. I tried to snap a pic on my point and shoot (ugh, I’m ancient) and it just wouldn’t forward the film. I nearly cried. So later that day, when I saw the Eiffel Tower sparkle (which I’m not even sure I knew it could do until that moment), I just remember that feeling of contentment and disbelief that I was actually there, in Paris, in France across the ocean from my home overwhelming me. The bright sparkling lights brought joy and excitement for that trip and that experience back to my mind. Ever since, it’s moments like those that I try and chase that deep-seated contentment with the view in front of you and the experience at hand. A sparkly tour Eiffel now has the benefit of memory accrual—it brings to mind all of the wonderful memories I have when the tour was sparkling.
After winding my way through the city and my memories, my belly full of duck and potatoes, I’d probably try to find a crepe au sucre just to round out the culinary delights of the day. I’d head to the Pont des Arts before needing to catch the RER back to the airport. On the Pont des Arts, I’d feel that same feeling I felt in 2004, that deep-seated feeling of rightness. I can’t believe I am here in this city that I love, how lucky am I to be here. How lucky am I to return. And then the tour will sparkle.
This blog has no thesis. It started as a travelogue, to keep interested parties updated with my travels during my PhD work. My travels were many, but the blogging was hard–I have a backlog of some 15+ entries to work through, but some of the motivation has faded as time has passed. At its inception, I thought this website could also serve as a professional portfolio as I went on the academic job market and (hopefully) became a professor. That ship has sailed, and thus the professional portfolio became irrelevant. Then, I decided to have bariatric surgery and this seemed a useful vehicle to keep interested folks updated easily. I have absolutely no interest, however, in making my surgery or my body the primary topic of discussion on this blog.
I still have the impulse to write. I no longer think that an academic setting is the path that I want to take. It doesn’t mean that I think my previous work was unimportant or has no teeth, I am just not sure that I want my work to exist and develop in and around a system that doesn’t have room to employ the scholars it turns out; can’t compensate me (and others) for my research; and for which I have to use my own precious free time and resources to accomplish. It’s a scenario in which I am doomed to be playing catch up. However, I will never say never.
Thus, the idea of branching out in my writing is also attractive. I love a good memoir and I love fiction. Am I capable of writing either? Who knows! Could I be an author of popular non-fiction? I don’t know! I haven’t tried. I’m not ignorant of the fact that all genres of writing require time and effort to get right. (Also, some academics have written some truly terrible fictional works…not all of us are Umberto Eco who can do both. I really, really don’t want to be THAT academic.) However, I don’t know that a public blog is the place to practice fiction writing and I’m not sure I would subject anyone to those attempts. (You’re welcome.)
In John Green’s latest book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, he quotes a writer friend of his, Amy Krause Rosenthal, who said, “For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life, pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s pretty much all the info you need.”
This sentence stuck with me and I ruminate on it often still. The things that come to mind when I think of this approach are abstractions and not things for which you can be compensated nor or they ones on which you can (easily?) make a living. That’s okay for me though. I choose to interpret these words to mean what to do with your life not what to do for your work. They are not the same thing.
For now, I think this blog will take as its focus the things to which I pay attention. Crafting? Yep, probably. Random thoughts? Oh most definitely. Semi-academic explorations of mundane things? You can place your bets. Gushing and nostalgic book reviews? The odds are in your favor. Other here-to-unforeseen forays into randomness? Indubitably. Travel blogs? Yep, can’t stray too far from my origins and I can’t wait to travel once more.
Whatever this space winds up being, I hope you’ll join me for the ride.