Why Blogging Matters

Nearly 6 months ago, I wrote about my beloved dog Jessie, about how she chose to be part of my family and how eventually we had to choose to let her leave this life. Last night, a man named Greg found that now long-ago post. “I’m scanning and commenting on posts made by fellow dog lovers because it must be therapeutic in some way,” he wrote.  He recently lost his 6-year old Irish Terrier and was “reaching out to others who understand.”

Greg’s comment got me thinking. Isn’t that what blogging is really all about — reaching out to others who understand? I went back and looked in my leather-bound journal. I never wrote about Jessie there. I guess when she passed, I needed to share my loss with something less solitary than a diary.

Why do we blog? Because sometimes we need to share something personal with something less solitary than a journal.

A year ago, a young man I knew died by suicide. As a way to both cope with her grief and to provide a support network for others touched by suicide, his mother launched a blog called “Forever Invictus.” One day, she posted a proposal to hold a suicide prevention/wellness  fair in New York City’s Washington Square Park. Readers from around the country rallied together to help her realize this vision. On September 17, 2010, the first “Get Your Wellness On!” event welcomed over 1,000 participants and saved a life. The event was organized and executed by a group of people who met for the first time the morning of the fair, but had already known each other only through Esmeralda’s blog.

Tim is an Olympic Silver Medalist in fencing. He has a blog too. So does Maria, a literature teacher in Italy. They don’t talk about death. Tim talks about fencing, about traveling around the world as he prepares for London 2012, about chilling with Apolo Anton Ohno. Tim’s blog has become an online venue where the American fencing community, a diverse and dispersed group of people who share a sport, can congregate and get caught up on the latest news or pick up some training tips. Maria’s blog “Fly High” is an online book & movie club for Jane Austen and Richard Armitage fans around the world. We hang out on Fly High and gush about our love for 19th century British literature and its 21st century screen adaptations.

When I started blogging, I was really only in it for myself. I wanted to write about me. I wanted people to read my writing. I wanted someone to love my writing enough to offer me a book deal. My alter-ego blog, “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband,” has been more successful in this endeavor. It’s where I write about the way we love and are expected to love now. Thousands of WordPress readers responded to my post “You Borrowed My Dylan CD and Stole My Heart, I’d Like them Back Now Please” — a little piece about reclaiming the intangibles when a relationship ends. It seems every past relationship leaves a trail of damaged songs in its wake.

Reading Greg’s comment put Esmeralda’s and Tim’s blogs and the outpouring of response to “They Told Me to Find a Rich Husband” in perspective. Turns out, when I write about myself, I’m writing about you, and him, and her too. While blogs may be the vanguard of political analysis or the source for the latest entertainment news, at the end of the day, blogging is about community — at the end of the day, we want to read about things we can relate to. Bloggers and their posts remind us all that, no matter how unique each of our lives are, living is a common experience. In this digital community of words and comments, there’s always someone we can reach out to who understands.

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Ben Franklin Lied to Me

What IS the big idea Ben Franklin?

This has nothing to do with the early worm.

Ben Franklin lied to me when he told me “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” He conveniently failed to mention “writing job application cover letters” and “health insurance screw-ups.”

Taxes are somewhat avoidable if I’m incomeless (thank you, refunds!).  But since I do want to have some Ben Franklins to pay taxes on (read: to buy shoes with) then I need a job, which means I need to write catchy yet professional cover letters. I have a natural aptitude for self-deprecation, but apparently, when you apply for a job, self-promotion is a more useful skill.

“To Whom It May Concern:

There isn’t a photocopier I can’t conquer, a triple-half-caf-soy-latte I can’t perfect, or a database I can’t manage… I also know lots about John Singer Sargent…etc.”

With each completed cover letter and packaged resume comes a mini-celebration and the glint of hope. I do a little shimmy, walk away from my computer with a self-satisfied smirk, and imagine the possibilities. Maybe this week I’ll get to put on my “interview outfit.’ Maybe next week there will be a contract and the promise of a paycheck. Maybe before the month is out, there will be a new kayak and an apartment upgrade… Yes, with each application the possibility of a new future…and the promise of free health insurance.

Death is more certain than taxes, but since I want to stave off this certainty for as long as possible, I need health insurance. It may not be a catch-22, but it’s a catch-of-some-number.

In 24 hours, I will be officially uninsured again. My university extension plan ends and there will be a month gap before my new coverage kicks in. As an accident-prone athlete with a predisposition for sinus infections, health insurance is a necessity. In theory, under the new health care laws, as a 25 year old in flux, I’m eligible to become a dependent on my parents’ insurance plan. But for a number of ridiculous reasons, that can’t happen for me until April — my 26th birthday is in July, leaving me with 4 months of coverage. Atena Fail. So in an attempt to find an affordable alternative, I’ve put upwards of 20 hours into health insurance related inquiries. Now, I have applications to complete and processing time to wait out.

In the meantime, I’m going to move into a bubble. I’ll have my cellphone with me, you know, just in case Sotheby’s wants to talk to me about that CEO position I applied for…

Blogger Buddies

Maria — writer of the blog FLY HIGH!, Richard Armitage fan, English literature connoisseur — recently interviewed me for her blogger buddy series.

For those that want to know more about the girl in the drawing room, check out my interview here.

Thanks, Maria!

Saying Good-Bye to Man’s Best Friend

I was in the 6th grade when my mother thought it might be fun to browse the local pet shop. Even though we were really on a rather mundane quest to acquire a new harness for our escape-artist of an Irish Terrier, and even though I had really wanted a pony, as an 11 year-old-girl, I was easily satisfied with the more realistic prospect of a new puppy. I was game for the adventure.

Jessie always knew she was short. The dining room table offered a better view

I can’t say we picked Jessie.  As soon as she saw us enter the puppy-pen area, she climbed up her cage, hovering dangerously over the edge of the crate, and woofed at us. She was a muddy-looking, scrawny Carin Terrier that suffered from the ugly duckling syndrome and a general refusal to stay caged up. I was originally eying the fluffy lasso-apso, but when my mother said “what about that one,” my attention was immediately diverted. We took her into the “puppy play room.” She pounced on the rope and brought it to me for a tugging game. She chased the ball, brought it back, and dropped it in my hand. She understood games were better with playmates. We already had a dog, a female who was a territorial Irish fighter, and we were afraid how she’d handle a puppy. So the little Carin went grudgingly back in the cage. But that wouldn’t do. She climbed right back out and ran to us. We had no choice. My father’s firm refusal to get another pet had to be ignored — Jessie wasn’t going to let us leave without her.

It’s not fair. We make the decision to add a pet to the family, and from the day we name them become the dictators of their fate. They become a part of the family and then one day, they have to go, and we have to play God.

Jessie playing her favorite ring game, being chased by a puppy-version of Korrie, her winggirl

Jessie was a consummate playmate — she’d play Frisbee with you until she collapsed. She was the ring-leader of our three terriers, dragging the other two into trouble or putting them firmly in their place. She was our morning alarm clock and weather forecaster (whenever a thunderstorm was approaching she hid under the couch). She greeted us when we came home and followed us to bed in the evening. For the last 13 years, the scruffy, bright-eyed, emotive eared, joyful Carin has been the Recklings’ best friend. For 13 years, the majority of my life, Jessie was the most loyal little fighter. But on Thursday, we took her to the vet — she hadn’t been herself the last few weeks — and by Sunday, we let her go. Her immune system had gone haywire and there was no getting it under control.

I made the decision to stay with Jessie as they euthanized her. “Euthanize” — they make it sound so peaceful, so innocuous, so humane. My father held her, and I scratched her favorite spot. She had refused to let us leave the pet store without her, and I refused to let her leave this world with out us beside her. As her breath stopped, the room fell silent. It was as if cotton had been stuffed in my ears — for the first time in 3 hours, I couldn’t hear the cars whizzing by outside. And then her heart stopped, and with it mine. A numbness set is that I just haven’t been able to shake. When it was absolutely all over, my father left the room. I wouldn’t leave  until they came to take her. I stood there, holding her, apologizing, weeping into her matted fur. Her eyes were still so bright. I felt I’d betrayed her. As Maugham’s character Larry Darnell said, “the dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.”

When it’s not their pet, people are always willing to tell you that when they’re this sick you have to put the animal down, that it’s cruel to let her suffer, that it’s the right thing to do.  Jessie never got to tell us that she was ready to die, she never got to say whether or not she wanted another transfusion, or that she was willing, if it worked, to go on with a life on meds. We had to decide that for her.

“You don’t want her to suffer do you?” Good God, I hate the people the say that.

You’ll never make me wholeheartedly believe that I, or we, because really it was a we, made the right decision. I’m not even sure you’ll make me even halfheartedly believe it. To put her down may have been the most reasonable decision, but I can’t ever say it was the right decision.

After they whisked her away, I thanked the staff at the emergency vet clinic for being so kind — they had donated their own dogs’ blood for the transfusions that had kept Jessie alive over the last two days. I wiped my tears, rinsed my face and put on my “strong” demeanor before joining my mother in the parking lot. I wrapped my arms around her and reassured her that we had done all that we could. The vet agreed that “helping Jessie along” was the best thing to do.

The sky had been gray and threatening all day, but only then did the raindrops start to fall. They mingled with tears as they hit the pavement. Such salty puddles.

Chasing the Expressionists, or, how I learned German, Part II: Traveling

“For one screaming minute my heart and the engines correspond as we attempt to prove again that the laws of aerodynamics are not the flimsy superstitions which, in my heart of hearts, I know they are… I happen to be convinced that only my own concentration (and that of my mother — who always seems to expect her children to die in a plan crash) keeps this bird aloft. I congratulate myself on every successful takeoff, but not too enthusiastically because it’s also part of my personal religion that the minute you grow overconfident and really relax about the flight, the plane crashes instantly. Constant vigilance, that’s my motto.” — Erica Jong, Fear of Flying

Salzburg at dusk... cold and snowy but elegantly picturesque

I’m very good at fooling myself into believing that I like to fly. When the sky is blue and the clouds are white puffs that slip by my portal at sporadic intervals, when check-in runs smoothly, and when i can see the Manhattan skyline shrink below me as the plane rises up, up, up, I start to think that this whole flying thing is actually enjoyable. Then the plane banks and wibbles, we hit a spot of turbulence, the seat belt signs comes back on, the flight attendants scurry to their seats, and I am quickly reminded why I hate flying. I don’t care if I’m more likely to die in a car accident than a plane crash. Give me a car any day.

I glared at the man in the seat next to me on my Frankfurt-bound flight. As soon as his dinner was cleared, he promptly dropped off in a deep slumber. He dreamed through an hour of North Atlantic turbulence while I sat with eyes blazing wide and back pitched forward ready to enter a protective fetal position. Any attempts at soothing, meditative thoughts were thwarted by a fear of falling 38,000 feet in a flaming ball of scrap metal. I wish I could be one of those people who falls asleep as soon as the plane reaches cruising altitude, and stays asleep until seat-backs and tray-tables have to be returned to their upright and locked position for landing. I’m lucky if I can eek out a 30 minute doze on a 7 hour overnight flight. I have to stay awake to help the pilot navigate the air.  Constant vigilance — Erica, that’s my motto too.

We left New York a day later than our projected itinerary predicted. A snowstorm on the East Cost shut down the city airports. This had been my third flight cancellation in as many weeks, and little did I know another awaited me at the end of this trip. So we arrived in Frankfurt at 6:30AM, a day late, hurried, and shattered. My mother had left her glasses on the airplane. I was sent back to retrieve them. 3 technicians and 3 air line attendants helped me rip apart our seats (and when i say “rip” i mean actually disassemble the seat like it was a lego set), but all we found were 3 pens and two old napkins. I was sent off the plane empty-handed.

the snowy, fairytale landscape sweeps past the car window

Now blind as well as tired, we went to the Hertz counter to retrieve our car before checking into the airport’s Sheraton. We intended to catch up on our shut-eye before driving the 540 kilometers to Salzburg, Austria, but again, our best laid plans went awry. We picked up our automatic volvo with the never lost and drove out of the parking lot and right past the hotel. As our heavy eyelids watched our beds slip past the car windows we agreed that, even though we hadn’t slept in 18 hours, we’d power through to Salzburg, stopping at every coffee house on the way if necessary.

The drive was a troubling combination of tedious and wondrous. Snow was everywhere around us — fields and forests covered in a thick powdered-sugar coat, flurries hung in the air, slush sat outside our car doors when we pulled into the parking lot of every rasthoff for our caffeine pick-me-up.  I was waiting for the conductor to cue the orchestra and for the Nutcracker Snowflakes to come dancing out from behind the tree line at any moment. In a dreamy fit, I turned to my pilot — “If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in Ohio. But these trees tell you you’re in Germany — the trees are so German. They’re so upright and precise.”

The cars in front of us kicked salt onto our windshield and the sky was a bright gray —

some German trees

visibility was minimal. My mother was at the wheel. I had loaned her my glasses, a weak prescription I’ve had for the last 6 years and have been meaning to update. She squinted behind the frames and cursed the whippers that seemed to only move the salt streaks around the windshield, rather than clear them away.  Despite 4 espressos, I had turned into a narcoleptic navigator. Most stretches along the autobahn don’t have speed limits and the average german driver travels at about 130kmph. How we made it to Salzburg in one piece, I still wonder.

After a few days in Salzburg, we ventured back to Germany and  into Munich. We spent the first week meandering our way around Bavaria. From Munich we went north to Wurzburg, via Rothenberg ob der Tauber. Next stop was Tauberbischofsheim then further north into Saxony. A few days in Leipzig then onto Dresden, which was supposed to be our last stop before a return to Frankfurt and its airport.

Our flight back to New York was scheduled to depart on Wednesday, Feb. 24. It was Lufthansa flight 400. On Monday, February 22, the Lufthansa pilots went on strike. Flight LH400 for Wednesday was canceled and we were instantly handed 3 more days in Europe.

We toyed with the idea of driving all the way to Amsterdam, but some how we both ended up on antibiotics — me with a nasty sinus infection, my mother with a nastier upper-respiratory thing — and an 8 hour roadtrip seemed out of the question. Instead of a city of canals, we opted for a city with a Cathedral and eau du toilette. Koln (Cologne) became our final stop before wandering back to Frankfurt via the towns and castles along the Rhine.

In 14 days we racked up 2,000+ miles on our rented volvo. We visited 13 cities/towns, spent the nighst in 8 hotels (9 rooms), toured 11 museums and 4 palaces, and lit 8 candles in 7 churches (we’re really only Catholic when we’re travelers). All in all, I lost 3 pounds while my suitcase gained 8 pounds… all in museum catalogs. (stay tuned, Part III will justify the purchase of 10 museum catalogs and highlight the treasures found among the many galleries visited)

the general course of our journey through Germany

The Personal Archive

There are only 6 pages left in my journal. There used to be about 300 smooth, creamy, unlined pages in that leather-bound notebook given to me by good friend and classmate on the day of our college graduation. As I’m nearing the end of this collection of stories, I’ve begun to read over my thoughts on the events, travels, worries, stunted romances, people, achievements and losses that mark my life since September 2007. But in recollecting all that has happened since my senior year of college, I realized the process of piecing together my life is less simple than reading one journal. There’s another leather-bound notebook to be perused, a few word documents that acted as a diary while I was in the library working on papers, a series of digital photo albums, and blogs.

For most of the academic projects I undertake, personal and family papers are the core of my research. Thinking back on my work on Ellen Day Hale (1855-1940), I spent hours rummaging through her tremendous archive of hand written notebooks and letters – correspondences scribbled on small bits of paper, filled to the corners with words so as not to be wasteful, years and years of personal finances diligently kept in ledgers, photographs and sketchbooks. Her published writings and her manuscripts — all there for me to handle and read. But the personal archive is changing. Should my personal papers one day end up in MoMA’s library, handwritten notebooks and printed photographs will be in the minority.

Today, while there are still journals to be filled with ink (and fill them I will), there are word documents, facebook albums, blogs and flickr. The personal archive is no longer purely a paper trail.

I wonder — does this means our archives have become more personal (think of how much more we can record thanks to technology)? There’s something about a handwritten page and a carefully selected photo that speaks more about an individual than a typed or airbrushed digital document. But then again, thanks to digital, we get to archive more of our life…

I pity the poor grad student who writes her dissertation about me.

And soonest our best men with thee doe goe

“DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so”

Senator Ted Kennedy lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday, August 25. On this rainy, gray day, a nation gathers to mourn the end of an era and to celebrate a life of strength and selflessness.

Michelle Singer lost her battle with cancer on Tuesday, August 25. There will be no wake, no funeral to celebrate this life of strength and selflessness. She asked that her four children not be put through that process, that the memories they maintained of her be ones of life before she was sick, not ones of caskets and black umbrellas.

How do you summarize a life? How do you capture in words the vast influence a single person has on the people and places she touched? It’s not my right to eulogize my cousin Michelle — there are far many in the family that knew her better and were more directly affected by her life. Yet I have much to thank Michelle for and I feel the need to express that gratitude in some form.

I grew up an only child with no immediate family in my country, let alone my town, and only a few vague memories of my grandparents. I knew of cousins and an aunt to the north in Canada, but other than a few weddings and a funeral, I had no real relationship to any of them. Michelle changed that. She brought me to my family. She introduced to my cousins, her siblings, and their children. She threw reunions and family gatherings that demanded my parents and my presences.

The family bbqs, the weekend cottage excursions, the cruises and the like were not only her way of bringing together the scattered descendants of the Gentle-Carmichael-Tobin clan. They were a way of building a network of love and support for her children, her nieces and nephews. None of those children have ever known a holiday or a long weekend without the shared joy of their aunts and uncles and cousins. A birthday or accomplishment will never go unnoticed. No family is perfect, this one included (the only reason you think your family is crazy is because you’ve never met mine). But thanks largely to Michelle’s efforts, this group of strong-minded individuals is one loyal family unit that will always be there to pick you up when you fall or find you a bed when you’re tired.

So thank you, Michelle, for introducing me to the family I never knew I had and would now feel empty without.

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