How to be an ornithologist

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What you’ll need: binoculars, checklist

Songlist: Freebird, Fly

Further reading: Audubon guides, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Last week, at my aunt’s house in Wyoming, we ate dinner with two avid birders. As they were talking about trips to scout out species, I found myself thinking that I was not particularly interested in birds. My parents, however, were excited to hear about the types of birds found in Wyoming, especially the fact that this couple had seen three distinct variations of blue birds in their own backyard.

At this dinner, my dad told a story about a pilgrimage we made when I was young to see swan migration. Suddenly, the scene came back to me: the air cold, the sky gray, and in front of me an entire Minnesotan lake covered with white trumpeter swans. It was an awe-inspiring sight. But surely this was different. Swans are so incredibly majestic, both in flight and in water. I could love swans without considering myself a birder.

The next day as we drove to a trailhead for our day hike, we passed a barren tree with a huge nest at the very top. Perched above was an osprey, gorgeous and menacing. Tiny osprey beaks peaked up over the nest. We swung over to the side of the road and hopped out to take pictures. Birds of prey, after all, are pretty cool.

You can see where this is going. My aunt was heading to a cruise around the Arctic circle and I eagerly pored over the pictures of animals she might see–including puffins. Super cool.

Western Tanager

A huge raven surprised us in another trailhead parking lot, and I remembered my newfound affinity for those birds after portraying one in a flamenco show last February. As we hiked into the Tetons my dad spotted a gorgeous little bird with a bright yellow body and a peach head. So much for my theory that I wasn’t interested in small birds.

My brother and his girlfriend were the main reason we went out to Wyoming, and they had made the trip out west partly because of my brother’s girlfriend’s sister, who is working an ornithological internship in Montana. This internship involves waking up before sunrise and checking on nesting behavior. Okay, so I might be more interested in birds than I thought, but that still sounds a little too intense for me.

On our last day as we drove away from the Tetons we saw a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road–a sure sign of some large mammal sighting. Having already seen a huge herd of bison on the trip as well as several other large ungulates, we were hoping for a bear. When we saw the large velvety antlers of an elk we sighed and kept driving. But just ahead in the meadow a shot of bright blue burst from the grass. A blue bird. Both my mom and I squealed. And suddenly I realized that I had just mentally checked off bluebird from my life list. I might be hooked.

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How to be an illustrator

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What you’ll need: art skillz, unique style

Songlist: Adele’s Painting Pictures, For the Kids by Waylon Jennings

Further reading: Anything illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg or Graeme Base

A scene from Graeme Base’s “11th Hour”

3 things: I overestimated the amount of time and interest I would have in writing while in Europe and way overestimated the amount of wifi that would be available in small Bavarian towns. Thus, I was not able to update this blog as a travelogue as often as I wanted over the last few weeks. The second thing is that when I got back from Germany last Tuesday night I was unexpectedly exhausted for the next several days. It felt like something more than jet lag–motivation lag, let’s call it. And so last week became the first week in a year and a half that I didn’t update this blog.

The last thing is that it’s my birthday this coming Sunday. Thus, it seems even more important than usual that I come up with a topic that’s really me (and, after my first week of absenteeism, I need to come back with a bang!). Everything that I truly love in my current life–flamenco dancing, novel writing, dogs–was already covered. But birthdays are a celebration not just of who we are but how we’ve become ourselves. And I can think of no larger influence on my childhood imagination than my favorite illustrated books.

It’s a relatively short time in our lives that illustrated books have their greatest appeal–say, ages 5-8 or so–when we seek a wonderful story accompanied by beautiful and interesting images. And yet these books live with us forever.

Another German lion

I worked as a literacy tutor two years ago for kindergartners through third graders, and the best part of the job was reading my favorite childhood books with my students and rediscovering them through my students’ eyes. One of the kids–a second-language learner from El Salvador–got really into Graeme Base’s mystery book The 11th Hour and together we found the clues and decrypted the codes on each page (I LOVE codes).

The lion dream I had two weeks ago stayed with me all through my trip. As I was falling asleep during my last night in Germany I suddenly had an epiphany: there’s a children’s story lurking somewhere in my brain. The main character is a Bavarian lion named Maximilian, and he at some point travels through the Black Forest and medieval castles (while driving through the Black Forest, my friend and I agreed we understood Hansel and Gretel’s predicament more clearly–that landscape is brimming with creepy fairy tales). That’s as far as I’ve gotten, though. All I know is that it will be beautiful and a little dark–just the kind of thing that will stay in one’s imagination for a lifetime.

How to road trip around Europe

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What you’ll need: Euros

Songlist: The Muppets singing Movin’ Right Along, From Paris to Berlin by Infernal

Further reading: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I don’t know a lot about this topic yet, but I will soon since I’m flying to Paris in a few hours. After a few days in France, I’ll take off for a road trip in southern Germany to see mountains, medieval towns, and a metric ton of castles.

Thus I’m going to temporarily highjack this blog while in Europe and make it a travelogue. Hopefully I’ll be able to write brief updates (on my iPhone, so they’ll be very brief) and post a few pictures along the way.

Dilettante will resume as normal on May 8th when I return to the USA. Frankly, stories and pictures from Europe will probably be more exciting. Á tout à l’heure!

How to be a novelist

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What you’ll need: a plot, patience

Songlist: Paperback Writer by the Beatles, Open Book by Cake

Further reading: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

If he can do it, so can I. Right? He's nothing special. Right?

It was a gray, uninspired Monday in October, the first day of the 43rd week of the year. She had run out of topics.

Yeah, that’s today, and yeah, that’s me. It’s not completely true, but fiction never is. The sky is more blue than gray, and I have at least a few weekly themes still up my sleeve. But as I was thinking through these remaining topics, none felt quite right today. So I’ve decided to venture into risky territory: the truth about me.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you can probably guess that I like writing. I always have. I wrote my first story when I was four, which was before I knew what the letters I was drawing signified. In second grade I got special permission from my teacher to sit outside in the hall every day for a half hour and work on a novella called “Mary and the Deer.” I had a dream to become the youngest novelist ever published (my goal was to be published at 12, and I remember being someone sad on that birthday, knowing I’d let the deadline slip past me).

Knowing I wanted to write novels for a living is like knowing one’s own sexual orientation: it was an early and immutable fact about myself, something I could not change even if I wanted to (and I don’t). Still, it feels risky to admit. All the other jobs I’ve highlighted over the past 10 months in this blog have been wonderful dreams, but also ones I’m all right with letting go of. Not writing a novel is the one thing that I would regret more than any other on my deathbed.

The stairs up to the Loft Literary Center--built to look like pages of a book

For that reason, I signed up for a course at the wonderful Loft Literary Center this autumn called “Working on Your Novel.” I thought of an idea for a novel about a year and a half ago, and started writing about a year ago. After writing every single day for two months I got burnt out and stopped completely. I was hoping this class, which started in September, would help me get back on track. I was hoping especially that my teacher or a classmate would give me some invaluable insight about how I might proceed.

Two weeks ago it was time for my manuscript–all 60 pages I have so far–to be critiqued. When my teacher came around she had a few questions about characters and plot. But she had just one piece of advice: keep writing. Her main objective for me? Finish the novel by the end of the course. I must admit, this was a little disappointing and very terrifying to hear. I already knew I had to do that; I needed to know how.

But, alas, that’s the truth about writing: there are no shortcuts. I can read all the how-to books and interviews with writers I want (and I do so love reading them!) but in the end there’s only one way to finish a novel: keep writing. On that note, I’ve gotta go; I’ve got some writing to do.

How to be a yogi

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What you’ll need: yoga mat, bendy limbs

Songlist: Faith Hill’s BreatheTwist and Shout by the Beatles

Further reading: The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, or, ya know, Eat, Pray, Love

I was always “different” as a kid. My parents stopped eating meat while living in Morocco for the Peace Corps and raised my brother and me as vegetarians. My friends would give up meat for Lent to see what it was like, and complain after a few days, wondering how I didn’t have constant cravings for burgers (hint: it’s easy if you’ve never had one). Furthermore, one of my hobbies was doing yoga, a strange-sounding practice that no one had heard of in 1993 in my elementary school (“But I thought you were Christian?” they’d say in confusion).

My uncle spent several years living at Kripalu, a yoga center in Massachusetts, learning and then teaching yoga. We visited him often, and sometimes took classes there as well. In a photo album from 1990, my uncle is in a picture-perfect downward dog, while I, all of four years old, am doing my best to imitate the pose next to him.

By the time I got to college, yoga was no longer a foreign concept, but I had become a stranger to it: I hadn’t practiced in a decade. Luckily, my college had a PE requirement, which could be fulfilled in numerous exciting ways: white-water kayaking, snowboarding, and yoga. I chose all of the above.

I became so enamored of it that the summer after I graduated I got an unlimited pass to a nearby chain-yoga-studio, CorePower. True to its mass-produced nature, every class I took had the exact same sequence of poses. From June to August I appreciated this fact, always knowing what was coming next, and realizing when I could go deeper in a pose than I’d been able to before. By September I was bored. And then I moved to Spain.

The author, at far right, doing yoga in the mountains

Somehow I got lucky enough not only to be placed in a town with a yoga instructor, but also to move in to an apartment directly across the street from where that yoga instructor taught her classes. Every Wednesday afternoon my roommate and I would stroll across to the centuries-old monastery and do an hour or so of yoga, led both in English and Spanish (I learned the words for body parts in Spanish really quickly). In the springtime our teacher–who had become one of our closest friends–drove us out to the Spanish countryside and we would do yoga in the mountains or facing up at our gorgeous white town.

Now back in the United States, I haven’t yet found an analogous class. In Spain there were rarely more than about five or six students, so our teacher shaped the class to our capabilities. She knew what we struggled with, and what we were getting better at. I certainly never got bored.

I’ve gone to CorePower a few times since returning, but sometimes I notice myself getting competitive, glancing around to assure myself that my leg is higher or my back straighter than my neighbors’. But, of course, yoga is not about competition, and it’s not only about the body. The original intent of yogic practices was to attain spiritual insight and inner balance. And while balance is difficult to find in the midst of a packed schedule and an even more crowded yoga studio, it is certainly attainable in the mountains of Spain. Yoga retreat, anyone?

Cupcake wars, or How to Eat a Cupcake

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Yes, Cupcake Wars is another show about baked goods on cable TV, but I’ve never seen it so I’m not going to talk about it. Instead, I’m going to talk about Cake Boss (I swear, I swear this is the last time). Of all the wonderful things Cake Boss has taught me–and really, there aren’t many–my most cherished lesson is how to eat a cupcake.

“There’s a correct way?” you’re saying out there at home, while trying to eat a cupcake delicately and ending up with frosting up your left nostril.

Now doesn't that look easy to eat?

Yes. There’s a correct way. Or, at least, a better way. Instead of just launching your mouth at a mound of frosting and later picking away at the cake left stuck to the wrapper, try this: remove the wrapper. Pull off the bottom of the cupcake. Place on top of the frosting. Voila: cupcake sandwich. All the deliciousness without the mess (and without sad, leftover cake that you don’t really feel like eating once the frosting is gone anyway).

Now, this is important information because, if you hadn’t heard, cupcakes are all the rage. So much the rage that every trendy bride out there is forgoing a bland ‘ol elegant tiered cake and serving an array of cupcakes instead. Cuts out that sloppy cutting-the-cake tradition.

I’m not trying to suggest that cupcakes can’t be elegant. In fact, my friend Florence recently started a cupcake business in Minnesota, Flor de Lis Cupcakes, and creates incredible wedding spreads. I’m happy to say that if I ever show up to a wedding with all cupcakes, I won’t have to turn one down in false modesty (but really so as not to get icing on my eyelashes). Thank you, Cake Boss.

Flor de Lis wedding spread...incredible, no?

A tray of flowers from Flor de Lis

A Vikings-Packers cupcake war by Flor de Lis

How to be an artisan

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What you’ll need: any and all of these: glass, wood, clay, yarn, metal, beads, paint, canvas

Songlist: Broken Strings by James Morrison, Basket Case by Green Day

Further reading: The Big-Ass Book of Crafts by Mark Montano

Yesterday, I went to an art fair in Uptown, Minneapolis (one of Wikipedia’s top “hipster” areas in the USA). Strolling past booths of art, hordes of people, and mini-donut stands (you can’t have a fair in Minnesota without mini-donuts) I began to wonder how much it would cost to show my art at such a fair.

The only problem for me would be what art to focus on. As a kid I went to pottery camps, took sewing classes, made jewelry regularly for birthday presents. I often got craft kits for my own birthday, which would result in the next round of gifts for my family members. Somewhere buried in my childhood closet are: Russian nesting dolls, dreamcatchers, scented candles, hand-bound journals, woven baskets, hemp bracelets, a stone-polishing machine, a quilt for my dolls, my knit mittens, papier-mâché masks, bumpy clay mugs, and boxfuls of orphaned beads and unused yarn.

Which isn’t to say that most of these items are all that nice. I never got good, for instance, at throwing clay on a pottery wheel–I could never get it centered. My painting skills only impress on a paint-by-number canvas. And my stitches–even on a sewing machine–never seem to stay in a straight line.

But my urge to create lingers on. And it’s not just me, either. My brother made a backgammon board out of wood, leather, and polished stones this past Christmas (and I used the extra leather to make him a cover for his Kindle, which was a 3-day ordeal mostly made up of me swearing). Speaking of Christmas, every year we hang stockings sewn and cross-stitched by my two grandmothers, as well as detailed ornaments that my dad sculpted out of modeling clay. Other presents under the tree have included painted cigar boxes and photographs from my cousins, dresses made by my mom, and jewelry made by my aunt. We could probably open an entire art fair with crafts from our family.

Now those are some good-looking charcoal lines

If I had to pick one thing from my closet to sell to the public, though, I’d probably choose my charcoal drawings from college. I took Drawing I during the spring term of my senior year thinking I had no talent whatsoever for drawing. If I’d taken the class with another professor, I’d probably have been proven right. But during the first class as I was swirling my stick of charcoal around absently on a piece of paper my professor came over and peered intently at the abstract lines.

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Now just do it…bigger.” So I took a larger sheet of paper and swirled the charcoal with more gusto. He came by a few minutes later and grabbed the sheet out from under me.

“Perfect! Incredible! That’s exactly what I was looking for!” And thus began one of the best classes I ever took at Dartmouth. I still have the hundreds of drawings I created that term up in my room, ready to be framed. Uptown Art Fair 2012, here I come.

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