A Day in the Air

 Tom Huang, who teaches at Poynter Institute and serves as the Dallas Morning News Sunday and Enterprise Editor, often posts his airport observations on Facebook. I am now addicted to recording the bizarre and inane details from a day of flying.

I awake to the sharp, incessant sound of a chip bag in close proximity. Next to me, a teenager is smothered in neon. She smells like Target – a sweet plastic odor mixed with popcorn, and she clutches a giant pillow like an indignant four-year-old.

On the flight to D.C., a curly-haired woman says she likes the book I’m reading, and I think of her as I read the writing she said was good. It is. On the way off the plane, her son’s teddy bear has been left behind and I run-walk up the concourse, clutching the small animal as if it’s my own. When I reach them I suddenly don’t know what to say, holding the fuzzy thing out like a strange offering.

The next time we leave ground, I sit near the couple with the leather bags. Wealthy, sullen. She orders pepsi-no-ice and finishes half a dozen crossword puzzles; he stares idly out the window, responding to her awkward chatter with silence.

On my return journey, I sit curled in the terminal, engrossed in headphones and sandwich. A family with toddlers invades, the father performing his lines as if on stage at a comedy club: “WE BETTER BRING SNACKS SO WE CAN SHUT THEM UP HA HA HA.” On the plane, I fold my wrap sweater up around my head like a bird wing and try to rest. My neighbor turns the bright monitor off for me. All around is the thick swishing sound of soda cans opening, dozens of metallic grasshoppers taking to the air.

Halfway Through


I got into the Christmas spirit on my third visit to CVS this year. I’d dragged the overflowing tub of holiday decorations out of the attic earlier in the week, sighing and grumbling as I sifted through the same old wrinkly red placemats and disturbingly cheery snowman pillows. It felt as if I had tucked them away just weeks ago.

The idea of filling our living space with sparkles and whimsical Santas yet again nearly led me to tears. I had so many other, more practical things that needed doing. Alas, we’d decided to have our annual “Festivus” party, so I grabbed the ribbons and bells and began to arrange them around the house hurriedly.

By the end of the week, the neighborhood had sporting twinkly white lights that peeked through curtains onto icy sidewalks. Bold colors in the shapes of stockings and reindeer popped on across the street. With five nails and a hammer I marched up the attic stairs. Ten, then twenty minutes later, after numerous trips to the basement for further tools, I stood in a sea of wires and lights and felt like I had been reborn as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I’d broken rule #1: check the lights before stringing them. I ripped the partially-lit star off the window pane and cursed the moment of inspiration I’d had.

The week wore on in a montage of cranky, stressed out scenes of shoppers frantically stock piling gifts, standing tensely in lines, and strapping quickly-selected trees onto their cars. My first trip to CVS bore a new string of lights, which I carefully plugged in and strung between the nails, a small smile growing on my face. As I placed the end of the string on the last nail, the row of lights flickered and went out. My smile turned over and I shoved the broken lights back into the box sourly.

Weekend shoppers’ plans were covered in ten inches of snow. Two days later, more slippery weather sent everyone home without gifts again. The optimistic among us ventured to predict: “At least we’ll have a white Christmas!”

I walked to CVS for the second time, trying to hum carols in my head. I fetched another package of lights from the back of the shelf. Back in the attic, I plugged them in and stared, shocked, at the colors that filled the attic like a circus show.  I know one thing to be true: stars are white. Back into the box went the colored bulbs. By now I was starting to feel a tiny bit amused by the situation, a sure sign of insanity.

Giggling quietly, I put on my boots and headed back to the store, following my footsteps from only a few hours before. I was on a mission, dedicated to brightening our neighborhood as if it were an act of patriotism or thick-headed team spirit. Dishes had piled up, emails needed to be answered, but I was not to be deterred. I grabbed some white lights, plopped the colored lights back on the Returns counter, and flew home. As I stuck the last piece of wire on the nail and stood back to admire the glob of lights that somewhat resembled a star, I felt a spark of something like holiday spirit.

That night I watched an older Dr. Who Christmas Special; as the camera panned along the set of a nineteenth century English Christmas, the narrator reminded us that this season happens as we are fumbling through the shortest days of the year, in order to make us stop, light candles, gather, eat, and say “congratulations, we’ve made it halfway through the darkness!”

I liked the reminder that instead of being cold and grumpy, we can focus on buying random objects and fixing broken strings of lights, and then come together for a few moments to admire the effort we all put in.

The next week, after cold rain had ruined the lovely heaps of white snow and replaced it with gray globs of muck, we filled our home with friends and food. One man, arriving late from work, came over as he took off his coat, eyes shining. “It’s so nice to be here – it really feels like the holidays,” he said, looking around at the crowd. “And I love the tree or whatever it is in your attic window!” I smiled, and knew it had all been worth it.

The Stubborn Lives of Freelancers

Only a hopelessly romantic soul could find beauty in a production trip for an ad for a major oil company. But there were so many interesting people I left after the shoot was over, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them.

My brain is working slowly today on making the connections I would like to make. About the heart breaking slowness of it all, the day to day dull patterns of money ebbing and flowing and the tooth brushing and eating and transporting our bodies from one place to another.

Just having met so many souls who piece together their freelance lives, their creative lives, making time for their dreams or putting their aspirations on hold while they travel: screen play authors making words come together on laptops in vans that whiz toward the airport; musicians and comics and actors going home to start over, start again; writers waking up to wash the evening’s dishes, vacuum dog hair. All of us throwing ourselves up against a wall, a formation made of stone that crumbles from time to time to let us in a little further, to give us hope that these slamming motions repetitive and continuous and monotonous will give way to our stubborn, relentless poking.

As I drove home the other night, the almost-full moon floated up above a multitude of clouds that danced like a weird finale of costumed performers in a recital: the spiky sharp mohawked with the round fluffy tutus with the long, narrow gymnast with the polka dotted  polka dancer, until the curtain ever so gradually fell on them and the road ahead of me was gray and lit only by beams of electric light.

The dull ache of the slowness of it all gave way, like the fade of daylight, to a feeling of hope for all those I’d just met, each headed on their own path toward fulfillment or disappointment to lives filled with regret and longing or overflowing with success and recognition. And even those, those who reached their goals they so naively and courageously spoke of, even they will eventually want more, and pursue that again with just as much chance of winning or losing that battle. And just the way we all pine for something, someone, some life, and the way human nature tends to always want more, and the hilarious and painful truth of it all made my chest overflow with a heavy, jittery feeling of happiness and content. Maybe it was just the lack of sleep and delirium of being away from home working for five days straight, but whatever the cause my eyes blurred up and the feeling burst out of my throat and I laughed and whimpered and kept on driving under the nearly perfect moon.

Inside the Box: A NH Magazine Publication

Last summer my Dad and I went up to Maine for an unusual excursion – to find a specific large, wooden box that he once lived in. I wrote an article about it and my father’s hippy past that was published by New Hampshire Magazine, in the Nov. 2011 edition. Enjoy!

Goodbye to Winter: Yankee Magazine Publication

The March/April issue of Yankee has finally hit the shelves (and mailboxes) across the country, and I’ve got an essay in it. Not only did they do a great job with the illustration and layout around the essay, they also included a profile on me in the Editor’s letter. So, go get one and check it out!

Here’s a link to the article:


Winter Ridiculousness

Actually, this is an unpublished musing that is looking for a home…if ever a New England winter would return that would warrant such an article!

In cold weather, people collect tissues with the hording instinct of squirrels.  They tuck them into their pockets, their shirt sleeves, and keep a stash between the car seats just in case.  With rosy noses like faucets, everyone builds mounds of them on coffee and bedside tables. The tissues hunch over, sprawled out like wrinkly origami projects gone awry.

The interior landscape in the winter changes too. With my freshly donned fuzzy socks, I strategically hop from one spot to another in our entryway to avoid puddles from snowy boots or dog paws. On cozy days at home I go through at least three pairs of warm socks, unavoidably running into a drop of snow or dripping mitten that renders my warm sock soggy.

In smaller spaces, I get almost militaristic about drafts and stalk the rooms, hawk-like, searching for the source. Several years ago, my boyfriend and I rented a small cottage apartment without insulation, where the winter winds would howl straight under the floorboards. I’d swing on him as he hunted for a snack in the fridge: “Close the refrigerator door! It’s making it cold in here!” Our small woodstove stood no chance against those absurd conditions.

After an icy blizzard several weeks ago, I emerged to clear off the car.  The outside world felt like a dream: the muted rumble of distant plows scraping asphalt, the whine of snow blowers lulling me from nearby yards. I turned to hear the tick-tick chip-chip of the neighbor unearthing his car, like an arctic archeologist making a slow, deliberate discovery. I smiled for a moment before starting in on my own hulking ice pile.

Later in the day I venture out to do errands in the gray light at four p.m. People take on the look of hobos and vagrants in the wintertime, wool hat tips hanging off the tops of their heads like melted candles.  Sporting ill-fitting coats, baggy pants, and giant snow boots, everyone performs the negative-zero-shuffle and lumbers along, staring at the ground.

In urban winter, navigating sidewalks requires ninja-like skills. Mounds of frozen brown ice lump up on either side, making a narrow path like deer tracks lacing their way through the winter forest.  There’s just enough space for hooves, or boots, to be laid one in front of the other. As I trek across town I stare at the ground too, my entire field of vision a changing montage of browns and grays. Keeping my chin tucked in against drafts, I watch my boots stamp over a filthy collage of frozen water and dirt.

A group of friends and I stomp our feet and wiggle our fingers as we enter a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with thin crust pizza and big carafes of wine. We unwrap ourselves, piling layer after layer into a hulking pile on the red vinyl booth seats. Amidst the cruel cold outside, the warmth and friends seem even more amazing.

One friend shares a story of his baby’s winter instincts: fierce winds blew and temperatures hovered at zero during a recent walk to a music class for his two year old. As she rode in a carrier on his back, her mitten came loose. Without any hands to help her, he calmly instructed her to hold onto the mitten, and demonstrated clenching his fist. The two year old watched keenly and kept her little fist closed for the rest of the walk. She was a survival baby.

As I defrost behind the steamy windows in the restaurant, I wonder what kind of conversations we would have in New England if there weren’t some sort of temperature extreme every six months, some new climactic adventure to make our lives more interesting. Soon I’ll be venturing out to dig in my garden instead of un-digging my car, and skirts and sandals will replace the hobo coats.  I look out the window at hunched pedestrians passing by and look forward to what other stories and adventures will usher in the next season in New England.

Pomp & Circumstance: “Greening”

I wrote an article on the “greening” phenomenon for a friend’s magazine, Pomp & Circumstance. The issue isn’t out yet, but here’s the article in its text only format. They’re going to be adding graphics to support some of the data that goes along with the content. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

It was on a recent trip to the local Frosty that I finally called its bluff. I wasn’t expecting to lose my respect for the Green Movement as I ordered a double dip soft serve, but there it was.  As I stood in line my eye caught a compelling type face and familiar shade of green – a poster designed for the eco-conscious ice cream eater. “An Eco-Friendly Treat: no dish + no spoon = no trash.” Simple drawings explained this theory, displaying a tempting cone vs the ugly dished ice cream. It was completed with a big “X” slashed through a trash can. “Tasty Treats for the Environmentally Cone-scious!” “Wow,” I thought, “if eating ice cream cones could save the planet, why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?”

It crept up on me, the “greening” phenomenon. I composted food with worms when I was nine, and touted the importance of recycling to anyone who would listen. I even founded a Junior Conservation Commission, hawking cookies at town meetings in my small town in New Hampshire to buy acres of rainforest in Brazil. That was when they were going for fifty bucks a pop – quite a deal. But in the last ten years or so, the movement has picked up pace. It’s about time: the first warnings of global climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions only came out about twenty five years ago.  And in the summer of 2008, when gas prices shot up, the terminology of “carbon cutting” and “food miles” entered mainstream vocabulary for good. Soon after, the movement grew to levels of unprecedented popularity, quickly becoming, as fads do, a bit ridiculous. All of the symptoms of a phenomenon.

The “Happy Valley,” otherwise known as the Pioneer Valley, my current home base in Western Massachusetts, now glows neon green. Forest green, kelly green, olive green, emerald green. Since the earliest whisperings of climate change and food security, this Valley has ramped up the greening issue to a full-blown obsession. The local alternative radio stations are chock full of ads to green up your grocery shopping, construction company choices, and dog food purchasing. There are tips about how to cut back on your carbon emissions and how to generate zero waste. Neighbors reduce their driving and trash can size with a competitive edge. And even though all of this is wonderful for the earth, I can’t help but roll my eyes.

To figure out why someone like me – someone who hand-painted T-shirts for my Conservation Commission twenty years ago – has been pushed so far as to mock the Green Movement, I looked to my family who still resides in the politically center and right-of-center state of New Hampshire.

When I burst in the door of my grandparents’ farmhouse from my idealistic valley, where composting is a social statement and buying produce from the store is frowned upon during farmer’s market season, I am met with common ground. I back up suspiciously. Here, too, composting is a way of life. Recycling is second nature. Eating from your own yard, or your neighbor’s garden patch, has been the way of life since my mom was crawling around the farm house. And yet they (gasp!) vote Republican and hold differing political views than the liberalistas in my town. How could it be?

Raised in the Depression, my grandparents waste nothing, and raised my mother and aunts that way. As a form of frugality, no one in the family breaks the cardinal rule of first reducing and reusing before recycling. Carpooling and buying local produce is just cheaper, not hipper. “No wonder I’ve rolled my eyes at the newly initiated environmentalists,” I think. “Most of America has been doing this for decades.” Around people like this, I can feel my eyes staying put in their sockets, not rolling upward. No one is inventing anything new here – it’s all just common sense.  Here, I can see the possibility of moderate citizens taking the “green phenomenon” and adapting it to their own lifestyles. Real change could happen.

Unfortunately, the Left has hijacked the green phenomenon and carried it off to pedestals on each of the coasts where it’s revered as hip and morally the right thing to do. That is why, on my second stop in New Hampshire, I wasn’t surprised at my other family’s indifference to most tenets of the use less / save money philosophy. It seemed easier to shop at the grocery store than visit a farmer’s market where one may be bombarded by petitioners harassing them for their signatures.  It just made sense to drive the few blocks to the corner store, since biking may mix them up with the college “hippies” in their small town. The movement is wrapped up with lifestyle choices that they don’t care for, issues that don’t need to go hand in hand with composting. As I drive home, I realize that that’s the real crime of the “green phenomenon” – it’s stolen these common sense activities away from the rest of the country. I wish I could put them back in their rightful place in the center – for everyone.

Since I can’t single-handedly strip the green movement of its holier-than-thou associations, I hope to just demystify it for anyone I talk to. To live by example, not by the fads. To forge conversations with friends and family that are less about politics and more about common sense and the economics of “greening” our habits – it just makes sense to buy local food, pay less for trash pickup, and bike around town. Basically, more doing and less flaunting.

As I left the ice cream counter with my “green” cone (I’ve always hated eating from a dish) I thought about this crazy phenomenon, and all the problems it’s causing for the issue that’s at the heart of the whole thing – trying to make less of an impact on the environment. But with all of this being said, I couldn’t help scowling a bit at those customers with ice cream in their dishes as I walked to my seat. Like everyone, I’m still trying.