Wednesday, September 24, 2014

one year with Mona.

These last two months have had two major one-year milestones: one year of marriage in July and one year of home ownership/Minnesotan living in August. But it’s not over yet, folks. September marks one year that we’ve had our cat, Mona.
She came from James’s parents’ house. Their cat has a couple litters of kittens every year, and the kittens are always the cutest, fluffiest things you’ve ever seen. Mona was no exception. She was born last July, and she was a ball of fuzz.

James and I had never lived in a place where pets were allowed, so we had never even considered it. When we bought our house in Luverne, that meant that we could FINALLY have a pet. I wanted a dog so badly (and still do), but James and I simply aren’t around enough to give the dog the attention he’d deserve. We both commute to work, so the dog would be at home alone for at least ten hours a day. We also love to take road trips on weekends (true story: we only spent only two entire weekends at home this entire summer), which would prove much more difficult with a dog.

A cat would be a better option, but I thought a cat was out of the question. For years, James had thought that he was allergic to cats – his parents’ cats live outside, and whenever he’d play with them, his eyes would get itchy and he’d sneeze. I knew this, and I resigned myself to never having a housecat. I’d made it 26 years without one, so I knew I could survive. (SIGH.)

But then Mona came along. James saw her and fell in love. You could hold her in the palm of your hand, and she’d stretch out and flop upside down. James’s mom offered Mona to us, and James said, “Well… my eyes aren’t TOO itchy, so I bet I’d be ok! Let’s take her!”
(Turns out he’s not allergic to cats at all. James always played with the cats outside, so his allergies were just your regular old pollen and such.)

James’s brother Jesse was the one who gave Mona her name. (It’s important to note that Jesse doesn’t like cats.) James, Jesse, and I were sitting on the steps with the kittens, and we were trying to come up with a name for our new cat. “How about Mona?” Jesse said. “It’s the ugliest name I can think of.” He had once had a van named Mona, and somehow, it seemed perfect for our cat. Mona stuck.

We brought Mona home when she was two months old. We knew absolutely nothing about cats, so we didn’t think to get a cat carrier for the three-hour drive home. Mona sat in a paper box and mewed as we pulled out of the driveway. We felt terrible, so Mona spent the rest of the ride roaming around the car and sitting on our shoulders.
 She explored her new home with gusto and settled in nicely. She loved to nap on bellies and laps, and she was nothing but adorable. 
Until she wasn’t.

James and I quickly learned that kittens actually suck. Mona’s sweet cuddly phase lasted all of a week. As soon as she felt at home in the house, she let us know. Mona was a holy terror. She would bite our hands with her tiny kitten teeth and wait around corners to pounce on us when we came down the stairs. As she grew older, the higher her vertical became: she had been at our house for mere month, and she was already big enough to make the four-foot jump onto our kitchen counter.

Mona began to drag Kleenexes out of the garbage and chew them up, and she would take stray dollar bills and hide them.
This also happened. More than once.
We bought her countless toys, but she would manage to get them stuck behind or under something within seconds. I came home one day to find our gigantic aloe plant in the sink. Her little paws grew so strong that she learned how to open drawers – she even opened the door into the garage by sitting on a nearby shelf and jumping on the handle with all her weight. If Mona ever grows thumbs, we’re in serious trouble.

For all the mischief Mona got into, she still had her cute moments. She would climb into the dryer while I was folding clothes, or we’d find her sitting innocently in the sink.
Mona would cuddle you while you were sitting on the couch, and she’d rub up against your legs when you came home from work.

However, the mischief was far more prevalent than the cute. James and I assumed she’d grow out of it eventually – after all, she was still just a baby. For the first few months, we let her sleep on our bed. She would inevitably wake us up in the middle of night by a.) chewing on my hair, b.) climbing up on the headboard and then falling off, or c.) jumping on the dresser and swatting my earrings. I had to be the one to ban Mona from the bedroom, and for the sake of a good night’s sleep, I’m glad I did.

When James and I went to New Orleans in January, we left Mona with my parents. They had a great time with her – she snuggled on the couch and got off the table when Mom told her to. Our demon cat was a perfect angel for my parents (except when she climbed the Christmas tree). 

Why couldn’t she be that way at home?

In spring, our cat troubles increased. Mona’s eyes were watering all the time, so we took her to the vet – she had an upper respiratory infection, when meant liquid antibiotics and eye drops. A few weeks later, Mona began having accidents outside her litter box, so back to the vet we went. The vet informed us that Mona had crystals in her bladder and would need to be on special prescription bladder food for the rest of her life. Mona didn’t mind the change in food, but she did mind going to the vet. She spit and hissed – and REALLY didn’t like when she had to go back a month later when the problem came back. She had some kind of kidney infection, so we had to sneak pills into soft food and give her liver-flavored liquid antibiotics, which she didn’t appreciate in the least.

Because of all these problems, we had to put off spaying her until she was healthy. We experienced Mona in heat, and it was actually a nice change – instead of hunting us all the time, she would roll around on her back and want us to rub her belly. When you said, “Mona!” she would close her eyes and say, “Murrrr.”

We got Mona spayed in June, and she was pitiful for about a week… but then she was back in full force. Have you ever heard that spaying a cat makes them lazy? It’s not true. Mona no longer has a low gear. (And if she does, she only uses it when we’re not home.) Ever since she got spayed, Mona has been hunting us non-stop. She has a taste for flesh, so if you’re wearing shorts, she WILL come for your legs. She also likes to bite toes. We’ve tried everything to get her to stop biting us: from spray bottles to distracting her with toys to putting her in cat jail to verbal shaming, but nothing has worked (especially that last one).

Mona’s vertical has improved, too. She will leap up and wrap her freakishly strong little feet around your arm and latch on with her teeth. She jumps in the windows with absolutely no problem, and we find her on top of the fridge from time to time. Once, Mona jumped up and punched me in the face. No kidding.

Her biting has frustrated both of us to no end, and I've never been as mad at an animal as I have been with Mona. She only bites if there are two of us home - oddly, if it's just you and Mona, she will not only NOT bite you, but she will snuggle up on your lap. I can be totally furious with her, but all she has to do is settle in on my lap and start purring, and my heart just melts.
Damn that cat.
Mona does all sorts of typical cat things that are endearing enough for me to forget how mad I am at her after she bites. She loves to roll around on freshly vacuumed carpet and will sit in a paper bag for hours. Mona loves boxes and cramming into weird places.
We would find her in all sorts of nooks and crannies, so we started taking pictures of her and calling them “spot the cat.” James put them on Facebook, and they’ve been a huge hit.

Sometimes, he has people come up to him and say, “I couldn’t spot the cat! Where is she??” We might need to publish a book.

There’s not a whole lot that scares Mona. She will run away when you first turn the vacuum on, but she’ll come back to stare at it. I have a little wooden duck that you push around to make its feet flap. The first time we rolled that duck at her, she arched and hissed. “Hooray!” we thought. “When she bites us, we can just get out the duck!” But alas, it was not to be. After a few minutes of hissing and spitting, we turned around to find Mona nuzzling the duck. Dammit.

So after a year with Mona, we’ve got our fair share of puncture wounds, but we’ve also got plenty of fun “spot the cat” pictures. And Mona is nothing if not entertaining. She’ll get bursts of energy and zip all around the house making weird noises – until she runs into a door. Or she’ll trip down the stairs. Or she’ll go sliding off the table. Graceful? No. Hilarious? Yes.

Sometimes, I feel this overwhelming guilt that we didn't adopt a shelter cat. I volunteered with a cat rescue organization in Minneapolis and with the Humane Society in Sioux Falls, and there are so many wonderful cats everywhere that need homes. And we were the assholes who adopted the kitten because she was cute. However, she was a farm kitten, and judging from her less-than-intelligent behavior at home, she may have been a victim of natural selection if left in the wild. James assures me that we did the right thing by adopting Mona - the kittens at his house don't have the greatest survival rate thanks to cars, coyotes, and jealous feral cats. He says that the cute fluffy ones are the first one to go - I'm not sure if he's just making that up to make me feel better, but I'm going to choose to believe it. 

At this point in her life, Mona is just over a year old and is still a kitten, and we’re doing our best to keep that in mind. We’re anxiously awaiting the day when Mona is happy to sit on our laps and cuddle - without first giving us scar tissue. But for now, we’re just going to have to sit tight and wait it out. Mona may be an asshole, but she’s our asshole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

top ten Tuesday: childhood books.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. I spent much of my childhood with my nose buried in a book – I would even bring a book along when I went out to eat with my family. (Rude, I know. Shame on me.) I blew through every elementary reading assignment – I was up to my neck in free pizzas from Book-It, and I eventually needed a second plaque for all my Accelerated Reader gold bars. I read the elementary school library dry, and the day I got my Brookings Public Library card was one of the best days of my young life.

So it’s no big surprise, really, that I ended up with an English degree and working in a public library. For an avid reader like me, being in close proximity to thousands of books every day is basically heaven on earth. I read more now than ever, thanks not only to the sheer convenience, but I am constantly making mental reading lists as I’m out and about on the library floor. Ever since I started working here, not having anything to read (previously a very real concern of mine) has not been a problem.

But I’m not here to talk about the books I read now. My love of books began long ago, and I want to talk about the books I loved most as a child. These are books that I can read now – twenty-some years later – and the memories of the first time I read them are as clear as day. So allow me to present my top ten childhood books!

(Note: I did cheat a little bit in some – ok, most – cases by counting a series of books as one entry. But you’re just going to have to live with it.)

(Another note: with the exception of Goosebumps and the Welcome Inn series - sadly, I no longer own those books - all of the photos of these books are the books from my own collection. You can tell because there's a cat named Mona in several of these pictures.)

See how beat up this book is? Obviously well-loved.
My first pets were cats – cuddly farm cats who would rub up against your legs and occasionally fall victim to the school bus. These cats were strictly outdoor cats, so I lived vicariously by reading about lucky children who were allowed to have house pets – and these pets, I might add, had a much longer lifespan than any of mine. (See: school bus.) Peppermint is the first book I can remember truly loving. It’s a picture book about a runty white kitten who is born in a candy shop. The candy shop owner names all of the kittens after candy and sells them – but nobody wants Peppermint. (My heart broke for Peppermint – as an emotional three-year-old, I wanted so badly to take Peppermint home and give her all the warm cuddles and canned tuna that she could ever hope for, but as you know, it’s hard to take a fictional cartoon kitten home with you.) Peppermint lives in the candy shop for a while, and her white fur gets all dirty and dusty. Finally, a little girl – the special little girl that was MEANT to have Peppermint – comes into the shop, sees Peppermint, and is in love. Peppermint and the little girl live happily ever after. When it comes to stories about cats and dogs, I love a good happy ending.

Ramona series – Beverly Cleary
Ramona Forever was the first Ramona book I ever read - that copy
sitting on top was given to me by my grandma Lorraine.
Beverly Cleary has a way of writing that perfectly captured the thoughts and feelings of a young overly enthusiastic girl. I’m counting the entire series as one entry because I couldn’t possibly choose my favorite Ramona book. Each and every one of them had chapters that hit home with me in such a way that it felt like Beverly Cleary was living inside my head. Remember in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 where Ramona throws up in class and is completely mortified? That was (and still is) one of my worst nightmares. And it’s not just Ramona herself that makes the series so good. The dynamic between Beezus (the older sister) and Ramona (the younger sister) is spot-on, and while I liked Ramona better as a character, I felt an awful lot of sympathy for Beezus. As an older sister myself, I understood very well Beezus’s desire to just be left alone with her book. I reread the Ramona series not too long ago, and those books were just as good as I remember.

The Little Duckling
The Little Duckling is one of only two picture books to make my list. It’s about a boy who finds a duck egg and – with the help of an incubator – hatches it. He names the little duckling Henry and raises him – he even teaches Henry how to swim in a kiddie pool. Henry is happy as a pet duck (he even goes on walks and sits with you while you read), but he knows there’s something more out there. When Henry becomes too big for his pool, the boy knows it’s time to set him free. The book ends with Henry happily swimming off into the sunset, and – this is true – finds a lady duck almost immediately. I would’ve killed for a pet duck like Henry.

Roald Dahl
This is an action shot of Mona knocking over my copy of The Witches.
I’ve never met a Roald Dahl book I haven’t liked. Some, however, shone above the rest. My absolute favorites were (and still are) Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The BFG. Roald Dahl’s stories are equal parts wonder and sarcasm, magic and harsh reality. He creates the most wonderful characters – a friendly giant who collects dreams? A reclusive candy magnate who has no qualms with putting ill-behaved children through the ringer? Witches who have square toes and wear wigs? A principal who was a champion javelin thrower and hurls students as such? And of course, the wonderful characters have equally wonderful adventures, and the good guy always wins in the end.

Great Illustrated Classics
Mona swoons for the Great Illustrated Classics.
I don’t remember how old I was when these books showed up at our house, but they were a gift from my grandma Lorraine – a former elementary school teacher. I ate them up. They’re exactly what they sound like: classic novels with an illustration on each page. I read each and every one of them, but I had my favorites: I couldn’t get enough of Treasure Island, and I read Oliver Twist time and time again. This was my first introduction into what could actually be called literature, and it was much more palpable when you knew anything you didn’t understand would be explained in an impressively penned illustration.

The Fudge series – Judy Blume
Mona would like me to quit taking pictures of books and
feed her already.
Just like Beverly Cleary and the Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books were perfect renditions of young life. However, Judy Blume goes beyond Beverly Cleary – age-wise and issue-wise. Where the Ramona books end when Ramona is ten-ish, Peter and Sheila make it all the way to twelve – and if you remember being twelve, that’s when shit starts to get serious. Sure, the Fudge books have the classic sibling conflicts (Peter v Fudge), but there’s some deeper stuff, like self-acceptance and conquering fear. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could have a REAL childhood without reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

the Welcome Inn series
For the life of me, I absolutely could not remember what these books are called. I could picture the covers, I knew the main characters' names (Molly and Gwen O'Brien), and I remembered some plot snippets... but none of the important stuff stuck with me. No titles, no author, no series name. Even Google couldn't help me. I wanted to reread them so badly, but that wasn't going to happen until I figured out what they were called. But then? Library to the rescue. My library JUST started subscribing to a database called NoveList, and you can enter vague search terms (related to the plot, characters, whatever) to see if you can find your book. I tried about a zillion search terms, but the one that finally got me there was "Molly inn" filtered into children's books. When I saw that familiar cover, there was much rejoicing. Anyway, there were four books in the Welcome Inn series, and I acquired them all via Scholastic book orders. (Remember those? Book order days wqere the best.) These books were about two sisters who live with their parents in an inn on the east coast somewhere (they’re not homeless; the parents run the inn). There are all sorts of spooky adventures – they help three ancient sisters find a skeleton key, they explore secret passageways under the island, they free a ghost, and they run into mystical creatures called kelpies. The books were certainly intriguing, and I read them over and over. And now that I FINALLY know what they're called, I feel an Amazon order coming on.

Harriet the Spy
Who doesn’t love Harriet the Spy? Every kid who has ever read that book immediately started carrying around a little notebook, writing down observations. But hopefully you learned enough from the book so that you didn’t write down ALL your observations – after all, that’s what got Harriet into trouble in the first place. It’s a good lesson for real life, as a matter of fact. I, too, hauled around a spy notebook and jotted down my youthful ponderances, but it was short-lived. When I discovered that my deep thoughts about the world around me weren’t actually that deep, I gave up. It’s probably just as well – as Harriet could tell you, no one likes a spy.

Goosebumps – R L Stine
One of many that I owned in the late 90s.
Ahh, Goosebumps. Remember the utter joy of a brand new Goosebumps book? You could run your fingers over the slime-inspired Goosebumps logo and feel those little raised goosebumps. I loved these books, but I had to keep them hidden in my room – my sister, a notorious chicken for most of her young life, thought the covers were too scary. There were SO many Goosebumps books, and I could occasionally persuade my parents to buy one from the book order. Alas, I don’t remember a whole lot of the Goosebumps books – there was one about a ventriloquist dummy that I liked, and I really enjoyed the Goosebumps short story collections, but my favorites were the books where you chose your own ending. (I realize that Goosebumps was far from the first to do this, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it.) The choose-your-own-ending book set at an abandoned carnival that I recall being especially thrilling.

Fear Street Saga
Mona questions my literary choices.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but every main character in every Goosebumps book is twelve years old. Every single book. The Fear Street books are basically Goosebumps for the slightly older reader: the kids are teenagers who live on a cursed street, and their adventures are a little more grim. I never read a whole lot of the Fear Street books… except for the one my mom picked up at a garage sale. It was book two of the Fear Street Saga: the epic and chilling tale of how Fear Street came to be cursed. I read book two, loved it, and wound up with books one and three. Basically, it boils down to a family feud during the witch trials: a judge named Fier burns a girl named Goode at the stake because he doesn’t want his son to marry her – and the Goodes curse the Fiers. Gruesome misadventures follow over two centuries. I recently found all of these books at a used book store and bought them in a nostalgic haze. They’re awfully cheesy as I reread them fifteen years later, but I still find myself intrigued. R L Stine sure knows how to hook his readers.


While there are so many books I loved as a child (don’t even get me started on Little Golden Books) and many more that I loved as I continued through school (Gone With the Wind! Flowers for Algernon!), these are the books that really stick in my mind. These books helped instill in me a lifelong love of reading, and what’s not to love about that? Reading them now is like revisiting an old friend, and I can still feel the same joy and excitement I felt when I was reading them twenty years (!!!) ago. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

let's talk about Bob and Calla's photo shoots.

You almost certainly know this about me already, but I’d better restate just to be sure: I love to take pictures. Ever since I took my first disposable camera on a trip to Denver when I was eleven, I am rarely found without a camera. (True story: throughout high school, I carried at least one disposable camera in my pencil bag at all times. Camera phones were MADE for people like me.)

And what does every photographer need? A willing subject. My friends were often said subjects, but one friend was more willing than others – and that friend was Bob.
Bob and I became good friends in spring 2003 when we played Jesus and Satan (respectively) during church services in Lent. Bob never seemed to mind my incessant picture-taking: while some friends would eventually begin to moan and groan, Bob was ready for his close-up.

I told you about how Bob took my clarinet senior pictures – that, my friends, was only the beginning. I graduated in 2005, and Bob and I had a relatively carefree summer ahead of us.
In between our part-time jobs and our movie project (remember that?), Bob and I spent our time taking pictures of each other – most of the time they were goofy, but once in a while, one of us would take a picture of the other that actually looked good… dare I say great?
The one that really set us down the portraiture path was a picture I had taken of Bob in Hillcrest Park in Brookings. 
He liked it so well that it became one of his senior pictures – and we realized that since both of us were so good looking (and a touch narcissistic, yes?) and had an eye for backgrounds and poses, why not make the most of it? The possibilities in the world of amateur portraiture were simply endless.

Our photo shoots started out around my parents’ house – easier access for wardrobe changes, plus there were plenty of country-fied backgrounds that would contrast perfectly with our fancy clothing.
Like old grain bins.
 Bob was the stylist, and he chose the wardrobe – and would often be in charge of hair as well. The wardrobe covered several decades, from my grandma’s 1950s prom dress... my mom's 70s spring wardrobe... a torn up 80s bridesmaid's gown...
Yes, I'm on my parents' roof. garments that Bob himself made.
Again with the roof.
The longer we did our photoshoots, the braver we got. It didn’t take long for us to use up all the backgrounds at my parents’ house, so we’d take our photos at the parks in Brookings...

From McCrory to Pioneer to Hillcrest, no park was safe.

...or around the Terry Redlin Center in Watertown.
People were staring.
The best photos were invariably the ones we took at abandoned buildings. Growing up in rural South Dakota has its perks, and one of them was the proximity to picturesque uninhabited houses. It was in one of these houses that we planned to film our movie, but the abandoned house next door to that one became a prime photography location.

When it came to our photo shoots, Bob and I were fearless. We tramped through long grass, inspecting each other for ticks at the end of the shoot. We gingerly stepped around dead raccoons and cowpies. We army-crawled through barbed wire and electric fences – and, when necessary, fled from angry livestock (and once from a pair of gigantic turkey vultures). Anything for the sake of our art.

Bob printed a few of these for his senior pictures, but on the whole, our photoshoots had no real purpose. It was something fun (and cheap!) for us to do, and we loved thinking of ourselves as artsy portrait photographers. Bob and I spent two whole summers (and at least a couple of college breaks) doing our photo shoots, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

(Because you couldn’t possibly have seen enough fancy pictures of Bob and me, here are a few more for the road…)

The pink prom dress was a clear favorite.

We had our pouty model faces down pat.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

let's talk about senior pictures.

Senior pictures are both a blessing and a curse. Most seniors are pretty ok with dressing up and having someone take artistic pictures of them – pictures that you then get to hand out to your friends and listen to them  gush about how great you look. The curse part comes decades later, when the clothing and the hair and the poses are all way out of date, and your once stunning senior pictures provide fodder for your kids to make fun of you.

My senior picture experience was a little different.

The summer of 2004 was the summer in between my junior and senior years of high school, and traditionally, that’s when you get your senior pictures taken. I, a rather ugly duckling at that point, was more or less indifferent as to who took my senior pictures. It was a necessary evil, and the only thing that really mattered to me was that I could have one senior picture in my Muppets t-shirt.
My mother – bless her heart – did her very best to convince me to put a little more effort into my impending senior pictures. She took me shopping for senior picture outfits and happily accompanied me to the photography studio (which was actually just our neighbor’s basement). 
We tramped through forests and weeds and went through at least six outfit changes, and Mom stuck with me through one dorky pose after another.

My senior pictures came back just as I was making the slow transition from girl-with-little-regard-for-makeup-and-fashion to girl-who-actually-cares-what-she-looks-like. It was early in my transformation (I was at the girl-who-is-attempting-eyeshadow-and-eyebrow-plucking stage), but even then, I could see what a hot mess I was just a few short months ago. And, even though my photographer was the nicest lady, posing seniors was just not her forte.
This happened.
Mom set up a one-outfit last-ditch photo session for me at an actual photography studio in Brookings. She did this with the hopes that I would actually do something with my hair, but as you can see, that didn’t exactly happen. I had just gotten this goofy shaggy haircut, and I thought it looked just fine. Yet another case of 20/20 hindsight.
It was better than that last group, but not by much.
A few months later, I was looking back at that picture with regret. It was around February 2005, and I had completed my transformation from ugly duckling to swan (or, at least a less ugly and better groomed duckling). Senior pictures had already been submitted, and I was kicking myself for being the girl with the Muppets getup. I hadn’t handed many of my senior pictures out, as some of them were almost too dorky to see the light of day. (It’s been ten years, and I’m still cringing.)
I mean, COME ON,
By this point, I had been carrying a disposable camera with me at all times for at least a year and a half. I had taken some artsy (or so we thought) pictures of Bob, and we always had fun doing it. I don’t remember who had the bright idea, but we thought it would be hilarious to take some faux senior pictures of me looking all serious with my clarinet. Everyone knows that senior pictures with band instruments tend to be the most ridiculous, and we figured that’s what the outcome would be – but since they’d be intentionally ridiculous, they would become awesome by default.

One frigid February day, Bob came over to my house and picked out my senior picture wardrobe. I’d spent most of the morning curling my stupid hair, and I’d be damned if I’d let the snow and cold stop us from taking pictures. We took pictures all around the house and even ventured into the snowy South Dakota tundra.

When the pictures came back from the developer – yes, they were on film – we were downright impressed. These jokey clarinet pictures were by far the best of my senior pictures! I quickly had them made into wallet prints and distributed them to my friends. These pictures were the ones that I placed in my graduation invitations, and these were the pictures on display at my graduation party.

These senior pictures opened the door to two entire summers filled with photo shoots. Bob and I spent every nice day and almost every spare moment with our photo shoots (stay tuned for that story). But it all began with my clarinet senior pictures.