Remembering some (warmer) times

Outer Banks


This is never-ending winter is enough to make anyone stir-crazy. Just when I thought we were out of the doldrums and heading into cherry blossom season, one of my most favorite times of year, I got wind that we were looking at more snow on Monday. It’s currently 18 degrees.

Whut?

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I’ve been flipping through some of my favorite vacation photos in recent years. Though we tend to favor mountainous areas over beachy scenes, we have spent our fair share of time in the sand at my family’s annual Outer Banks vacations. We baked outside Westminster Abbey during our April 2011 trip to England, and also soaked up the sunshine at a mission in San Juan Bautista in California.

Let’s daydream on a chilly Friday, shall we?

And perhaps brighter days will be here soon.


Sunset

Battery Park

Redwoods

Grasmere

San Francisco

English countryside

San Juan Bautista


P.S. Though our plans aren’t completely finalized yet, we will be returning to several of these places this summer. Can you guess which ones?


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One of the most exciting gifts of all time

Puppy Surprise


Thinking about gifts this week, I remembered one of my favorite Christmas presents of all time: Puppy Surprise, a stuffed animal that kept her “babies” in a belly pouch. Kind of like a kangaroo but, you know, a dog.

My little sister and I were absolutely nuts over these things — and I remember begging for one for months. I probably saw it in a catalog or something. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I was desperate in my pleas for the dog family — and probably none too quiet about it. My grandparents always let us open one gift apiece on Christmas Eve, and when we ripped into that colorful paper? There she was: my white dog and her multi-colored pups. Surprise!

As you can see from Kate’s photo above, we. lost. our. minds. And this photo was taken after we actually opened the toys at Gram’s, guys — not even a live-action shot. My sister has always been a cat person, so her kitty variation was a huge hit. I remember being so excited over Puppy Surprise that I woke up multiple times in the night, peeking into the darkness to make sure she was still by my bed.

And then, eh, Santa brought some more stuff — and a merry Christmas was had by all.

But nothing could top that fluffy dog.

I found the photo above when flipping through some old family albums; that gem came from 1992. Though I often pitched a fit as a kid, I’m so glad my mom had us pose for countless photos at all the right moments.

—–

What’s the most exciting gift you remember from childhood — something akin to “A Christmas Story’s” Red Ryder BB gun? Or one of your most memorable holidays?


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.


A changed, once-sacred space


{Working at Borders, 2006}


My local bookstore just reopened. After losing our Borders last summer, we were without a local hang-out until Books-A-Million took over the former space. We rejoiced! I vowed to actually put my money where my typing is and shop there. (Despite the fact that I buy basically everything online, I’ve tried hard to purchase books only in “real” stores. Corporate or no.)

And then something weird happened.

Despite working for a newspaper, I can be surprisingly slow to learn local news — but the store closed again. Temporarily, I heard. It was something with the roof? A leak? I don’t know. Anyway, it closed for weeks. Seeing the chaos through the plate-glass windows and the dark exterior sign was pretty depressing, honestly. It was PTSD — Borders-style.

But the light shone again. We popped in Tuesday for the first time since BAM! re-opened. I bought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because you crazies have been talking about it everywhere, and I can’t stand being out of the In Club. Also, I read 14 pages in what felt like one breath, so.

While waiting for my mother and boyfriend to finish making their rounds of all the usual genres, I found myself . . . lingering. By the displays. Having worked at Borders for years in college, I’m drawn to the familiar fixtures. When BAM! purchased Borders’ old space, the shelves and signage seemed to come with it. Though Spence bought many of Borders’ bookcases for his place, I guess they replaced them? Because the store looks exactly the same.

Entering is always a time-warp. One minute I’m Megan, intrepid 27-year-old columnist, and the next I’m Megan, 21-year-old English major shamelessly draining her bank account on paperbacks with her employee discount. I used to love coming to work — seriously. As much as anyone can love working retail and dealing with the general public, I adored that place. I made so many friends there — people I still think about, people I still miss. The regular customers morphed from strangers to acquaintances, and then to chatty pals. I knew their spouses, their children. Their favorite authors. The way they liked their coffee. By the time I left in 2008, I knew most of their names — and they knew mine.

There was a warmth, a camaraderie. A sense that you were somewhere people met and mingled. Where ideas happened.

It was a really happy place. And time.

Part of my attachment to that job is undoubtedly due to it coinciding with a particular era of my life. I will never again be a freshly-christened college graduate. I will never be 21, or 22, or 23. It will never again be 2006, John Mayer’s just-released “Continuum” on repeat through our faulty speaker system. I will never again feel that untarnished, undecided — and free.

Most days, that’s okay. Good, even. But other times, it stings. Like peroxide. Like salt. Sometimes I want to cry, thinking about that former life — a time when that bookstore was just about my world.

On Tuesday night, the store was deserted. Booksellers milled about with piles of bargain books in their arms, rearranging displays and looking vacantly at their watches. The café was empty save one family in a corner, most of them thumbing away at iPhones. Spencer and I grabbed seats at a rickety table and read for a bit, but it was strange to be in a silent place that was once so teeming with life — one that now sits quiet, neglected. When I worked at Borders, we couldn’t get people out of the café. During holiday hours? We’d have fools camped out until midnight, nursing a single stale cup of coffee from hours before, walled in by stacks of unclaimed books.

Is this how it feels to desperately love something everyone else has abandoned?

The bookseller in me couldn’t help but neaten the displays, aligning edges and straightening stacks. Grabbing books that were tossed aside, patiently walking them back to their proper sections. Spencer once asked me why I do that — “You’re not getting a paycheck anymore” — but I just smiled, shrugged.

“I like it,” I said, and it was true.

Earning a paycheck hadn’t felt like earning a paycheck. It didn’t feel like work.

And I really miss it. More than I ever thought I could.


Surprise! A 75th birthday celebration

Behind the scenes in Maryland and Virginia, a group of cousins (and their respective parents) were hard at work preparing a celebration in honor of a special woman. Mom, Maw Maw and Aunt Margy are a few of her popular monikers. And as we gathered to celebrate her 75th birthday, we were all reflecting on what she’s meant to us.

Both my grandmothers played a larger-than-life role in my growing-up years. Maw Maw introduced me to baking, helping me patiently press out sugar cookies when I was as young as 2 or 3. One of my earliest memories is of standing in her kitchen with flour covering the counter, my little hands covered in sticky dough. She introduced me to peanut butter cups, Red Hots candy and tomato sandwiches (for breakfast). She helped me learn to try new things, exercise some patience (oh, the never-ending torment) and, best of all, to always try to get along with my sister.

Maw Maw was always patient, never had an agenda; if my sister and I wanted to spend hours playing a single game, she would happily oblige. Her house was always fragrant, like springtime, and I loved hearing stories about my dad running down the narrow hallway growing up. A large coloring book was hidden beneath the couch, and you would never dare utter an “I’m bored” at her Maryland home. There was always something to do, somewhere to go.

It’s funny the random, visceral moments that return to you later in life: the easy way I can recall the fresh, summery smell of the backyard when we would visit in June or July. The sound of crickets chirping as we wandered through the grass, admiring Maw Maw’s frog statue in the yard. Eating Pop-Ice on the back porch and watching “Strawberry Shortcake” on beta tape. Peering down the well near the driveway, and asking Maw Maw for sticks of wintergreen gum.

Even years later, I can remember walking into her cool-tiled kitchen and reaching up for my favorite drinking glass. Sneaking candy from her cabinets. Admiring the trinkets in a nearby hutch, and watching her pull family photos from drawers in the living room.

Everything I remember is through a child’s eyes.

On April 7, we celebrated Maw Maw’s 75th birthday with a surprise party. I’ve never helped orchestrate a surprise party — or any party, really. And it was awesome. Though my hat is off to my organized and awesome cousin, Karen, for doing the lion’s share of the arrangements, the small parts I contributed — like the tulip table decor — were so fun to put together. Save friends’ wedding and baby showers, I’ve never had a hand in planning an event — and I felt like I was doing a trial run for a reception. Everything went smoothly.

It was wonderful sharing happy memories and celebrating a lady who has had such an impact on our lives. Seeing Maw Maw’s surprised face — and she really did seem surprised — was priceless. Having so many generations of family together created a warm atmosphere, and I’m so thankful we could all be together.

I’m also thankful to be Margy’s granddaughter. May the good times only get better.


Memories of Easter candies past


So yes, I’m trying to lose weight. Like 90 percent of the general adult population. Like many friends and coworkers, all of whom conspire to keep me on the straight and narrow. Like my poor boyfriend, who is constantly trying to get me to embrace his healthy(-ier) lifestyle . . . and has faced my hungry, annoyed face on more than one occasion. Especially as I explore the theories set forth in Cynthia Sass’s S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, a diet book that is both enlightening and profoundly upsetting.

Because I seem to be doing All The Bad Things.

And I know a tough holiday is coming up, friends: a holiday in which I sacrifice myself at the altar of hollow chocolate bunnies. When I was a kid, Easter was all about family (and it still is, of course), worship and, well . . . presents. Edible presents.

I’m talking candy, y’all. Real, sugary, honest-to-goodness candy.

Like Christmas morning, Easter Sunday back in the ’90s would always begin with my sister and I huddled together while my parents prepared to capture our shrieks of delight as we ran down the stairs. Many years featured the Easter Bunny hiding little toys and plastic eggs around the living room, leading us into a small scavenger hunt, and we tore through the downstairs seeking our prizes.

This went on for a while — years and years. Until Katie, reaching the age of reason, finally looked at me with wide, blinking eyes. “The Easter Bunny’s handwriting sure looks a lot like Mom’s,” she scoffed, holding up a folded index card with scavenger hunt instructions. And being the older, bossy sister I was, I could only shrug with what I imagined as an impassive expression on my face. It was probably the mocking “I know something you don’t know” look all siblings despise.

At 26, I still look forward to Peeps and chocolate bunnies and robin’s egg bubblegum. And Reese’s eggs and Pixy Stix and Cadbury cream eggs. As long as I don’t get any NECCO wafers (blech, seriously — what are those?), I’m a happy girl — and no amount of faux-dieting I convince myself I’m doing will keep me from diving headfirst into my basket this year.

I’m Meg, a sweets addict. As evidenced by the time I posed in Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York City — quite possibly the most insane shopping experience I’ve ever had. In the twenty or so minutes we prowled the store, we saw and heard two glass containers full of sugary goodness smash to the floor . . . and trying to check out was enough to give me a panic attack. And all I wanted was a little porcelain container shaped like a cupcake.



And candy, of course. I don’t remember what I got, but there’s no way I left empty-handed. I must have brought home some sort of sweet for Spencer, who lives and dies by Jelly-Belly jelly beans. Pear flavored, to be exact. I tell the man he’s sweet enough already (aww), but he’s hopelessly addicted.

I don’t worry about it, though. I’m definitely not one to judge.

——

So tell me, friends: What’s your favorite type of Easter candy? What did you love as a kid? Has your sugar-covered palate changed over the years?

Boys like candy better than poetry, it seems


I love Valentine’s Day. I know some dismiss the holiday as another ploy for retailers to steal our hard-earned cash, but I really can’t find fault with a day designed to celebrate love. I mean, who doesn’t want it? Who doesn’t need it?

As adults, Valentine’s Day is a chance to ply our significant others with chocolates, cards and flowers. We share a smooch over a romantic dinner; we talk about the years gone by, experiences we’ve shared. It can be as crazy or as low-key as we want. Last year I was sick as a dog, so our plans included me mustering up the strength to go out for sushi and then falling asleep on the coach with some chocolates. And Spencer.

When we’re young, though, Valentine’s Day is a crisis waiting to happen. And if you think it’s no big deal whether you receive valentines in school, you’ve never been a 7-year-old.

I totally have. In second grade, Mrs. Brown orchestrated a way for us to leave each other notes: in the pink and red mailboxes we designed. Like many little girls, I had a massive crush on a classmate. He was blonde and blue-eyed. We met in the first-grade classroom next door, our hands touching over a shared bottle of Elmer’s Glue (or some such). His name was Daniel.

After loving him from afar for more than a year (a whole year!), I somehow decided that Valentine’s Day in Mrs. Brown’s class was D-Day. No more hesitation. Time to get bold and do something crazy. Looking back, it’s funny to see shades of who I am now in that tiny body. If there’s one way I have always hoped to win a man’s heart, it’s through a letter — or poem. I’m all about seduction through the written word, baby.

Daniel couldn’t have known what was in my heart of hearts, of course. The night before Valentine’s Day, I sat down with an array of cards my mom picked out. In the early ’90s, we’d reached a point of equality: each student was to bring a valentine for every member of the class. Regardless of how we feel about it, no one was left out.

But which valentine to assign to which kid was vitally important, you know — the wrong message to the wrong kid could prove lethal. I mean, what if you gave a “Be mine, Valentine!” to the boy who throws rocks at you on the playground? He could think you like him. And that is so gross.

Choosing Daniel’s valentine was tricky. After writing out every card but his, I had to find the perfect one. Valentine’s Day is all about love, I figured; how could I do anything but express my feelings for the boy with whom I was irrationally obsessed? Um, as a 7-year-old?

After much deliberation, I finally chose a card featuring Barbie with arms outstretched to Ken, her face split into a smile. “I Love You,” it read. My heart was pounding as hard as it ever had, but I wrote his name and signed my own. Our fates were sealed.

Passing out our valentines the next day, I crept up to Daniel’s mailbox and slipped the life-changing note inside. This was my chance to open up to him! To let him know how I felt! He’d see Barbie and Ken, read that “I Love You” and think . . .

Nothing. From the corner of my eye, I watched as classmates sifted through their sparkly bounty, enjoying the lollipops other kids had dropped in their mailboxes. If Daniel read my card, I couldn’t tell; he was probably too busy eating candy.

An early lesson learned: poetry’s great and all, but the way to a man’s heart is actually through his stomach.