Trading school for freedom

There are things I miss about school.

How life was broken into 180-day cycles — and even smaller ones, tidier ones. First quarter. Second quarter. First semester. Second semester.

My high school locker, where friends would congregate or slip notes or slam for me when I’d forgotten to shut it.

Fall play season. Staying late with my friends to run lines, ordering Chinese take-out when our rehearsals stretched too long. The exhilaration of looking out into the audience and seeing my parents’ faces. That harsh glare of the spotlight, obliterating anything except what was directly in front of me.

A fresh pack of crayons. A blank “Barbie” coloring book.

Meeting new teachers — one that would push me, inspire me. Ones I would irritate me. Ones that would greatly help me.

Stacks of college-ruled paper. Carefully printing my name at the top of each page.

Seeing your buddies for the first time after summer vacation, taking stock of how tall or tanned they’d gotten. Trading vacation stories. Resuming your call-every-afternoon-to-rehash-the-school-day routines.

Now five years out of college and nine from public school (!), I guess I’m allowed to wax philosophical about the whole experience. School wasn’t always a breeze, that’s for sure — and it’s easy to slip on my rose-colored glasses and forget the tough moments. Like algebra and difficult teachers. Peer pressure. Feeling left out.

But for me? The good moments crowd out the bad ones. I look back on my school days with curly, pink-hued nostalgia, remembering the thrill of selecting first day of school outfits and organizing my school planner. It will come as a shock to absolutely no one to learn I once made lists upon lists of every assignment to complete, every phone call to return. And since my school days existed pre-Facebook, text messaging and Twitter, the only way to get in touch with friends over the summer was to call or write them a letter. I probably still have most of them.

As a working adult, the weeks stretch on without end. I live for vacations, planning the next one while still away on the first. My weekends are precious real estate, planned to maximize every free moment, and I cherish the time I’m up and away from my familiar, well-loved desk.

Summer ending means nothing more than switching my linen crop pants for slacks. Flats for boots. Tanks for cardigans. It means turning off the tiny fan by my desk and slipping a blanket over my lap. Seeing coworkers return from their summer vacations, all of us hunkered down together with our vacation time gone — eagerly waiting for Christmas. Needing a break.

Since I’m not in school anymore, kids returning to the classroom has little significance to me — but I still acknowledge it. When Target pushes out their school supplies, I flip through the stacks of folders and colorful pens. Hot August pushes into sunny September, and I remember my own days in countless classrooms and how it felt to spot your high school crush for the first time since June. A sense that this could be the year. A delirium, bright and irrepressible, that anything is possible.

My mom always laughs as she tells a story about her grandmother, my great-grandmother, who would often look in the mirror and joke, “Who is that old woman?”

“What you look like on the outside doesn’t match what you feel on the inside,” Mom says. “You feel the same as you always have. You just look different.”

So sometimes I’m 10 again, or 15, or 20. Sometimes I’m in a lecture hall at the University of Maryland or on my elementary school playground — a stone’s throw away from my grandparents’ house. Sometimes I’m hoofin’ it across my college campus or slamming my middle school locker, sliding into home economics class or writing a Spanish paper at my first love’s apartment.

These moments all live inside me, jostling against one another. They overlap. They war and twist and turn, pushing me in and out of the present, and it’s not a stretch to feel like my school backpack has landed heavy over my shoulders again.

But then I grab my car keys, my Diet Coke, a paperback for my lunch hour. I’m snorting with laughter at a text from my boyfriend, counting down the minutes until the work day is over — the time when I’ll meet my family for dinner or take a walk with Spencer. I write. I read tons of books. I earn money at a job, one I really like, and I’m paid to write for a living — a fact that would astonish 7-year-old me. And I can eat dessert for dinner.

My time is my own — no mention of essays or math problems. No assignments or worries. No homework.

I’m free.

And ice cream for dinner is sounding pretty good right about now.

Homecoming and the What Comes Next

Eleven years ago tomorrow, I went on my very first date.

Some people think it’s weird that I can recall dates with creepy precision. It’s not that I have a freakish memory that allows me to remember everything . . . just, you know, particular dates. Important ones. Ones that can mark a before and after in Megan History.

And October 14 is a memorable date. It was my very first “anniversary,” and a day I would recall for months — even years — afterward as the day I went from an awkward 15-year-old prone to acne and frizzy hair to a young woman someone had a crush on.

Do you remember that moment? The first time someone confessed to like liking you, and the rush that flooded your whole body? The first time you realized you could have feelings for someone who might actually have them back?

It was a heady, crazy time. Always prone to dramatics, I had an absolute freak-out when R. asked me to the dance just weeks before the big night. Long resigned to the fact that I would be going with friends, I never imagined someone would actually pop the question and ask me to accompany him. But R. came in out of nowhere, professing his interest and asking me to be his girl.

But that came later.

It’s funny to think about the early days of courtship. How simple everything was in 2000 — before smartphones, Twitter, Facebook. Before social media of any kind. Before text messaging and before most people had cell phones, for cryin’ out loud! I mean, if R. wanted to talk to me, he had to call the house phone. And if he didn’t want to incur the wrath of my very protective father, he better make sure he called before 9 p.m. And if I wasn’t off the phone at 9:30 on a school night?


Like most high school romances, R. and I didn’t last. After a few months, we agreed we’d be better off as friends and “broke up,” thus ending the three months we spent giggling on the phone at night, holding hands in a clandestine manner and shopping together on weekends (ooh, naughty!). The break-up talk took place over AOL Instant Messenger, and I printed a transcript of the entire chat to rehash with my friends at school the next day.

I was as heartbroken as a sheltered sophomore could be.

But before then? Before the mess and sadness? Well, we had homecoming, friends, and what a glittering and exciting night that was! An evening when everything felt possible. When I was invincible in my sparkly black pantyhouse and “princess jewelry,” a set loaned to me by my mother. A night when I had a handsome older man (16!) on my arm, and nothing could possibly go wrong.

And nothing did. We danced with friends and chatted all night, wiggling our way around the reshaped cafeteria. When a slow song finally came on, R. pulled me in close and swayed gently to the music. I remember being way too close to the speakers — so close that I could barely make out anything he was saying. But I do remember his lips close to my ear, listening to him form the words at precisely 10:30 p.m. (I checked the clock): “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”

A wave passed over me. A new title. Even now, in strange moments, I stop and think, “I’m someone’s girlfriend.” A girlfriend to an awesome someone, no doubt about it, but the shift in our identities is so strange. Exciting, but strange. Today I am someone’s girlfriend, sister, friend, daughter. Granddaughter to several someones, and niece to several others. Also a coworker, and an underling. Tomorrow I could be someone’s wife, then someone’s mother. An aunt. A sister-in-law.

I’ve been thinking about the many someones we are over a lifetime — and the many roles we fill for other people. We can be confidantes, bullies, shoulders to cry on. We can provide transporation, advice, hope. We’re many things to many people, and our faces change so constantly. Sometimes I don’t know which role I’ll be stepping into next. Sometimes I think I don’t want to know.

Like the wistful girl above, embarking on the wild and amazing journey of courtship. Of falling in love. Of getting her heart broken. Of falling in love again — and better this time. More completely.

I didn’t know where life would take me after that dance, which was what electrified me most. The Mystical Beyond. The What Comes Next.

Maybe it is better not to know.

Weddings and endings and beginnings

In high school, I was a serious theatre nerd. Trying out for my first play freshman year was a huge leap for young, socially-awkward me — and not just because it required me to memorize lines and not fall face-first on the school stage. Coming from the disjointed throes of middle school, I was looking for a way to become a new person — a more confident person — and theatre seemed like a natural way to try that.

Over the course of four years, I was in more than a dozen shows and met countless people. Theatre changed my life in profound ways — especially because I was so active in the department during those crucial teen years. The fun of playing a character on stage held major draw for me, sure, but that wasn’t even what I loved most about theatre.

It was the friendships.

Over the course of a few months, we would audition and be cast and then spend hours daily running lines, rehearsing scenes and getting to know one another. After school each day, our cast and crew would assemble and start to plan these huge shows that would take over our young lives. And when opening day would finally arrive, finding us all antsy and excited and scared, there was always a time before the curtain drew open that I would force myself to pause and savor the moment.

In that world, murmurs from the audience reached the actors and technicians buzzing around backstage as the stage manager would wrangle us with whispered instructions. As show time approached, my stomach would lurch as lines and directions ran through my nervous mind. But when the spotlight clicked on and my heels hit the stage, all that anxiety would ebb away.

Backstage is where I first met Erin, my steadfast friend and new bride. As a freshman, I envied sophomore Erin’s confidence, humor and poise. Both active in drama, it didn’t take long for us to share costume tips, laugh as ’50s teenyboppers in “Bye Bye Birdie” (pictured above) and form bonds that would carry us into adulthood.

With a wide circle of mutual friends, Erin never made me feel like I was another passing acquaintance. Our conversations have inspired me in difficult times, and my trust in her is absolute. A year ahead of me in school, Erin was the first of my friends to arrive at the college I would follow her to the next fall. We briefly lost touch at university, but nothing could have delighted me more than getting a Facebook note from her during my junior year: “I think we have a class together this spring!”

We were both English majors and poets, and it was a literature class on the works of William Shakespeare that brought us together again. I remember the afternoon she showed me a text message from a handsome guy she’d just met. Her eyes glittered like diamonds, and neither of us paid much attention to our droning professor. She was thinking about when she would see him next.

About twelve years after Erin and I shared a stage in high school and more than five years since that class, Erin and Matt were married at Ft. Belvoir on Sept. 10. As one of her bridesmaids, we spent Saturday getting ready and laughing about old times. Secluded before the ceremony, I listened to the murmur of guests arriving and felt my stomach flip. All these years later and we were in a show together again. I ran through my lines and directions, but my task now was simple: try not to cry as my dear friend married her love.

Just as we had more than a decade ago, I marched ahead of Erin into the spotlight — and held my breath as she appeared on her father’s arm. My chest ached as I took in the moment: this ending and this beginning; the pooling of tears in the groom’s eyes; this exquisitely beautiful bride, and the true gift that has been our years of friendship. When I think about all that Erin has meant to me, I feel overwhelmed. I wiped tears away the entire ceremony.

Vows were exchanged and promises made, and this performance went on as scheduled. Love lit up Erin and Matt’s faces all evening, and we enjoyed delicious food and even better times. Dancing and snapping shots in a photo booth were definite highlights, and it felt so good to have Spencer on my arm.

When I looked over at the newlyweds’ expressions and felt my own face mirroring that high, I was emotional all over again. I’ve had my heart broken. Erin has been there for me through everything — through that, and so much more — and I felt so elated to just be . . . happy. And in love. In love at her wedding, a moment we’ve anticipated for so long. And when Spencer pulled me in for a dance, I forgot about whether or not everyone was watching us. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.

I think about Erin and all the good things I wish for her. I think about Matt and how I hope and pray he will love and care for her always, as I hope she will for him. I think about all the exciting things that are ahead of them — and for me, and for all of us — and am filled with this sense of elation and wonderment and pride.

Weddings are beginnings — but they’re endings, too. But for once in my life, I didn’t focus on the sadness that can often tint my enjoyment of the good things in life. I thought about how honored I was to be a part of her day, and how thankful I am for the people in my world.

And like so many of our plays in high school — and all the good books I’ve read — I know this is just the beginning of their fairytale ending.

A slow musical death by iPod

It happened slowly. I found myself logging into iTunes less and less, my playlists becoming stagnant and dull. In the car, I shuffled between the same few CDs or idly scanned a random selection of radio stations, choosing one and letting the same boring Top 40 sounds fill my Toyota.

I haven’t purchased music in forever — months, even. The last album I bought was The Script’s “Science and Faith,” and that was only because I was so in love with their last record. I never find myself cranking up a new tune or Googling the lyrics of a song I heard and loved, but can’t identify. Nothing interests me.

I didn’t even bring my iPod to England. When I wasn’t reading on the plane, I sat in silence.


I’ve reached a point where I prefer silence over music.

There was a time when Music was my constant companion, a fellow and important traveler on the road of life. As a teen, Hanson, ‘NSYNC or Jimmy Eat World comprised the background noise of my days. Music was a way of bonding with friends and classmates; it was a simple way of launching a conversation with the cute guy from math class. As soon as I got a glimpse of a dude’s band T-shirt, I would scurry home and look up the object of his attention — then try to convince my parents I needed their album. I got into Dashboard Confessional that way. When I found out a crush liked a certain band and had a favorite song, I would find it and listen to it on repeat; it was like getting a glimpse into their soul.

Back when AOL Instant Messenger was still big (and Facebook didn’t exist), folks would use song lyrics in their profiles or “away” messages as a thinly-veiled way of conveying how they were feeling — and I still spot people doing that on Facebook, too. (Case in point, an acquaintance’s recent status update: “You find out who your friends are… somebody’s gonna drop everything, run out and crank up their car, hit the gas, get there fast and never stop to think, ‘What’s in it for me?'”)

It’s been a while since I was emotional enough to need to post song lyrics on a public profile rather than tell someone how I feel, but I can easily remember emotions that would stir up and provoke such an action. Music is a great way of confronting, expressing or dealing with our emotions. Songs appeal to us on a personal level because they resonate with us — for whatever reason. For personal reasons.

Not everyone listens to tunes because they want their perspectives altered or their minds blown. Maybe they’ve had a bad day, want to get a beer and just dance — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But me? Well, I’m all about the lyrics.

And nothing appeals to me anymore.

So much of the music I’ve loved in the past — like Death Cab For Cutie, say — was because it clicked with me at a specific point in my life. The Killers are that way, too; though I love them intensely, listening to their songs brings me back to a time when I was nursing a heartbreak, in a period of transition and desperately seeking direction and support.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

Listening to Death Cab now just makes my stomach flip uncomfortably, remembering the times I listened to “We Looked Like Giants” until I thought my ears would bleed. I still listen to The Fray, The Killers and John Mayer, my main man, but it just . . . isn’t the same. Putting my iPod on shuffle, I find myself constantly scrolling through songs without settling on a single one. Then I give up and toss the thing back in my purse, annoyed that I ever bothered to listen to anything at all.

I’m in a total music rut.

I don’t want to think that I’ve completely lost my mojo when it comes to tunes, because I’ll be honest: I think being completely out of touch with the music scene is a sure sign of aging, and I want to still be hip. I can’t accept that my best years are behind me and that, at 25, I’m doomed to live a life void of anything contemporary. I don’t want to be the woman so stuck in the ’00s that she can’t pronounce “Bieber” or recognize a new artist — however silly — on sight.

I don’t want to be old.

So hit me with your best shot, friends: what music are you listening to now or can’t live without? It doesn’t have to be something current — just something new to me. I’ve heard good things about Mumford & Sons but haven’t bothered to check them out. Who am I missing?

Save me from a slow death by iPod. Send me some musical inspiration — I’ll take anything.

Book review: ‘The DUFF’ by Kody Keplinger

Bianca Piper has always basked in her camaraderie with Casey and Jessica, her gorgeous (and blonde) friends at Hamilton High. Maybe she’s a little on the larger side than they are, sure, and her hair doesn’t have that same sleek, flowing quality. Perhaps she’s a little bitter, a little jaded — but it’s not like she doesn’t have a reason to be, okay? Her mom is, like, not around. And her dad has tons of issues of his own. And if she finds solace in folding and re-folding clothes at the foot of her bed and indulging in a little daydreaming about Toby Tucker, a cute classmate, who’s to judge her?

Well, Wesley Rush, for one. Wesley — all womanizing, skeezy charm and disarming good looks. Curly dark hair; awesome body. Wanted by half the female population in Hamilton and already enjoyed by the other. Wesley . . . who informs Bianca — unprovoked, unsolicited — that in her group of friends? She’s the DUFF.

The designated ugly fat friend.

If life was coasting along for our narrator up until that point, Bianca’s world suddenly comes crashing down. Issues with self-esteem bubble up and pop, forcing an unstoppable stream of venom in Wesley’s direction. Because she hates him, you guys. Like, really, really hates him. Despises him. Thinks he is the worst.

Except, you  know, not so much.

Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF is a novel about a high school student that was . . . well, written by a high school student. And you know what? It reads that way. This is both good — mostly realistic dialogue; somewhat believable teen characters — and bad. Because I felt like I was reading the diary of . . . well, a teenager. Of myself. And in the parts that were actually tender, there was truth there.

After all sorts of off-handed comments on Twitter, I’m going to try and keep my snark here to a minimum. I didn’t hate this book and I sincerely don’t want to be a hater, but I’m not sure I understand the hype surrounding this title. Though entertaining, The DUFF lacked a little something I like to call nuance. Something for readers to glean between the lines, if you know what I mean. Puzzles for me to figure out. Behavior for me to decipher. Clues as to the bigger picture — a picture I didn’t want to the author to spell out for me in pain-staking detail.

As Bianca and Wesley’s “relationship” heats up — and that’s not a spoiler, friends, promise — I would have loved to actually sit down and try to figure out why our narrator was sleeping with someone she claims to loathe. Not all sexual encounters are motivated by love — I can respect that. But the sound of his voice makes her sick, Bianca says. She can’t stand to look at him. He makes her crazy. He’s disgusting.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Continue reading

Book review: ‘A Match Made In High School’ by Kristin Walker

Fiona’s senior year of high school is off to an interesting start. After a brief (but thrilling) encounter with her massive crush Gabe, the senior class is shuffled together and given a year-long assignment: to participate in a marriage education program in which one girl will be partnered with one boy in their “relationship.” These marriages include the works: establishing an income, choosing a “home,” organizing budgets.

And trying not to kill each other.

Much to her dismay, Fiona’s partner is none other than Todd Harding, a goofball bully whose girlfriend Amanda has been torturing Fiona since grade school. Fiona’s best friend Marcie is buddied up with Johnny Mercer, a music-obsessed loner, in an arrangement that seems to be working out far better than Fiona’s match with Todd.

Because, you know, the guy’s a jerk. Fiona thinks being a male cheerleader would instill the guy with a little humility and sensitivity to others’ feelings, but not so much. Todd goes out of his way to make his faux relationship with Fiona, a sassy and honest teen, a nightmare. Once the constant pranks and barbs have gotten to be too much, Fiona must finally stand up to Todd and end the feud once and for all. For the sake of obtaining her high school diploma and keeping her sanity.

Kristin Walker’s A Match Made In High School is a funny, erudite look at high school and the drama and angst that accompanies teen relationships. When the novel could have derailed and become another campy young adult novel, Walker’s sharp writing kept it on track. Narrator Fiona is smart-mouthed and quick-witted and was, from start to finish, distinctly her own character. And a realistic one at that! Even when I wished Fiona would end her obsessing over Gabe, it was with a measure of chagrin that I realized I probably acted the exact same way about my crushes at seventeen. (OK, I know I did. It’s just a phase, I promise.)

The novel’s overall premise felt both unique and familiar to me at the same time — the classic trope of students paired up against their will, forced to work together on a project in which neither of them have much interest. I’ll cite Bella Swan matched as Edward Cullen’s lab partner, say. But it really didn’t bother me — mostly because the marriage education program? Pretty creative. The idea of kids having to examine what makes a “real,” healthy adult relationship function was pretty interesting, though we all know you can’t really teach someone about a partnership. And there is that whole pesky “love” angle to consider.

But Walker’s not making a case for the program; if anything, she might have been making a case against it. You can’t predict who or what will appeal to you, and love comes in very unique forms. A Match Made In High School didn’t take me in the classic, predictable route I expected, and I won’t ruin anything for you . . . but I was very surprised and pleased with the ultimate pair-ups. Because you know this has to have a happy ending, right? And I’m so glad it did. An entertaining, smart debut novel I’ll be happy to pass on to a friend!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1595142576 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author

Of Hemingway, coffee and fibs

booking_through_thursSo my brain is pretty much mush this week, rendering me unable to focus on much of anything! After crocheting a few scarves for the shop and settling down to watch “Glee” last night, I felt so tired I could barely make it through a few pages of Life As We Knew It before falling asleep.

That being said, I’ve done very little reading this week! So I’m jumping back into one of my old favorite memes, Booking Through Thursday — and here’s our question:

According to this article, two-thirds of Brits have lied about reading books they haven’t. Have you? Why? What book?

When I was a senior in high school, regional magazine Southern Maryland, This Is Living interviewed me for their “Who’s Creative?” column. My college admissions essay revolved entirely around the importance of numbers in my life — ironic, really, considering I’m probably the world’s worst math student! As an exercise in school, we’d had to turn our admissions essays in to our English teacher, who then passed them on to our peers for editing. Mine was a hit. After it made the circuit at the school, it wound up in the hands of the magazine’s editor — and then it was time for my interview!

Knowing me as you all do, you know I thought I’d hit the big time. Here I was, saucy at 17 — and discussing my writing. The inspiration for my work. Considering I penned my first full-length novel at the age of 10, in my mind, I’d already been writing for seven years. I was ready to hit the big time! I needed my big break! Author Shannon Hale had a very similar experience and had me majorly laughing at the National Book Festival — I could totally relate!

So my interview is all set up in the cafe of our local Borders, where I shake hands with my interviewer and settle nervously into my seat. We go through the preliminary questions: how was my high school experience? What was I studying in college? What sort of hobbies did I have?

And then we got to the “harder” stuff: Who’s your favorite author?

Being, you know, seventeen — and desperately wanting to be taken seriously — all of the “honest” answers that popped in my head (like Meg Cabot, though I adore her) immediately disappeared, the names just crumbling on my tongue. Those were young adult authors. They were for kids! And I was a writer — a creative writer! I needed . . . someone . . . serious! Pedantic, even.

So which name did I unceremoniously drop?

Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway's home in Key West, Fla.

Hemingway's home in Key West, Fla.

Oh, friends — yes. I did. Hemingway. I’d taken a trip with my family to Key West, Fla., just years before, and the experience of walking through the hot bungalow where Ernest himself camped out, drunk and rambling, had really made an impression on me. Hemingway did the majority of his writing there and, I knew, was widely admired. At least by my English teachers. So his seemed as good a name as any.

Nevermind that I’d never read a single book by him . . . or even a single passage. Not one that I could easily recall, anyway. His was a big, well-known name — and definitely not a sissy author. He’d practically been inducted in the literary hall of fame, am I right? Canonized or demonized, depending on your perspective? No one would accuse me of not being well-read, gosh darnit!

Of course, my interviewer could have easily called me on my bluff, flatlining me with a follow-up like, “Oh, yeah, little lady? And which book is the best? Do you even know any of their names — what any of them are about?”

To which I would have blushed crimson, crawled under the sticky cafe table and folded myself into the fetal position, not daring to peek back up at the glowering face of the reporter or my disappointed parents. Thankfully, that didn’t happen — I’m pretty sure sitting in a puddle of spilled coffee on that floor would have been the cherry on my sundae of utter humiliation.

I chose Hemingway because I knew he was famous for his stream-of-consciousness writing style, a tradition I (naively) believed I carried on. I chose him because I’d seen his house, for cryin’ out loud — because I’d seen the actual space where he wrote. Because I’d walked through it. Because I’d stood on the same steps, looking out over the same land.

Ernest and me, you know, we were close.

Would I ever fib to impress someone with my literary knowledge again? No. I wouldn’t. But nor would I have to pull a legend out of a hat any longer! Because sitting at that table with sweating palms seven years ago, I learned a valuable lesson: writers have to read. Not a little, or occasionally, or just the well-knowns — but everything. As much of it as possible. If we want to get better — if we want to have something real  to say, and know how to say  it — we have to get out and experience life. And then read lots of novels about it. So, as write meg! can attest, I’ve tried hard to do just that!

And I’ll get around to For Whom The Bell Tolls one of these days . . .