Homepage Update

So I decided to update the homepage today instead of working on a blog post. New year, new aesthetics. And a new “tagline” that better outlines all my topics of discussion.

In case anyone is interested though, here’s an explanation of each of the new pictures.

chapel

This is the Chapel of Memories at Mississippi State University. I graduated from MSU back in 2008 and got married in this chapel in 2009. I lived in the dormitory next door back in the day and the bell tower saved me from oversleeping on more than one occasion. The building itself was built from the bricks salvaged from Old Main Dormitory after it burned. Old Main (originally just “the main dormitory building”) was the first dorm on campus (built in 1880) and, after four expansions, was the largest college dorm in the country. Four stories high with more than 500 rooms, it housed over 1,500 students at a time. It burned on January 22, 1959 (sixty years ago this month!). As a tribute to all that was lost, bricks were salvaged from the rubble and used to build a campus chapel. It was dubbed the Chapel of Memories and, along with the bell tower, sits in the main part of campus, diagonal from the Colvard Student Union.

eudoraweltylibrary

This is from Eudora Welty’s house. She’s a famous writer from Mississippi. Her nieces once complained that whenever they visited her, they had to move stacks of books just to have a place to sit down. I don’t see the problem with that. Also, if you ever think your family is a little crazy, give The Ponder Heart a read. I read it in my Southern Literature class in high school and it has influenced my own writing voice in several ways. Also, it makes me giggle.

magnolia

A magnolia. The state flower of Mississippi. Most people think of magnolia trees as smaller trees used to decorate a landscape. However, they can grow to be quite enormous given the right conditions. In fact, when I was very young my family lived out on a farm. The semi-circle driveway that came in off the glorified turn row leading to our house curved around a magnolia tree that was over fifty feet tall. As far as I know, it’s still there, but I haven’t been back in many, many years. I used to love to climb that tree and remember my biological mother, God rest her soul, yelling at me to get down before I broke my neck or got snake bit.

kudzu

Kudzu, aka The Vine that Ate the South. You cannot kill this stuff, and it covers everything it touches. When the world ends and all of us are gone, cockroaches and kudzu will keep Keith Richards company. But seriously, if ever they figure out how to make useful products out of kudzu to replace plastics, it’ll save the planet. It grows so fast that “sustainability” will never be an issue.

So that’s it. Those are my big updates. A tagline and some pictures. It sounds so simple that I won’t tell you how long it took me. Let’s pretend it was quick.

A Hairy Situation

I’ve mentioned on the blog before that I have curly (wavy, if you want to get technical) hair. Most people who know me didn’t know that until recently. Some of them still don’t know that this is my natural hair instead of the board-straight locks that they have been accustomed to seeing on my head. You might be wondering how that’s even possible. Because every day for twenty years I either wore a bun or flat-ironed my hair. Every. Single. Day.

When I was a little girl, my sisters loved to play with my hair. I was like their little doll. My middle sister practiced braiding on my hair so she could see how different techniques would look on our hair. And then, when her hair started to get curlier, she continued to practice on me because my barely-there waves were easy to manipulate. But then middle school happened.

My sisters (and my brother, for that matter) are several years my senior. So by the time I started middle school, they had all moved on to college or careers. I was suddenly the lone kid in the house. So you can imagine my horror when puberty, in all of its benevolent glory, changed my dark honey, subtle waves into a dark molasses, frizzy nest. Braces and acne, and the plethora of other pubescent problems weren’t enough. No, I also got to have hair reminiscent of a labradoodle who stuck their paw in a light socket. Awesome. And there was nobody around to commiserate. Even better.

Cue my very own Regina George. For the sake of this post, let’s call her M. Now, M was a popular girl with an “it’s my world and you just live in it” attitude and gorgeous blonde hair. She wasn’t always nice to people and people, for the most part, didn’t care because she was M. For reasons unknown to me, in sixth grade, M decided to make me her new project. I was the Elphaba to her Galinda (with a Ga!). She was determined that she could take my no make-up, messy bun, jeans and t-shirt style and burn it to the ground so I could rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Well, I’m in my 30s now and am still partial to jeans and t-shirt, but do at least throw on (at minimum) some mascara before I’ll agree to leave the house, so she won some and she lost some. But back then, her real battleground was my hair.

She curled it (and burned my forehead with a curling iron in the process). She hot rolled it. She fluffed, styled, and quaffed. She would ooh and ahh until she realized that my hair didn’t “fall” like hers did after she curled it. It stayed in those tight ringlets up next to my head and made me look like Shirley Temple after a bender. It was not cute. So she changed her tactics. She crimped it. All the rage back in the day, it is something that should never, ever be done to someone with remotely frizzy hair. I went from light socket labradoodle to the love child of Hermione and Einstein. Y’all.

Then she had an epiphany. She took the plates off of her crimper (yeah, I know, I’m dating myself here. I’ve already admitted I’m in my 30s, though, so meh) and traded them out for flat ones. She straightened my hair. Suddenly, my dark hair matched M’s style completely. She squealed in delight. In less than a year (it took me a while to convince my dad, who just didn’t understand the need for a twelve-year-old to have anything other than a hair dryer as part of her daily routine), I had a flat iron of my very own. I never did become one of the popular girls, but I didn’t care. I had awesome hair!

The next year, my father remarried and I moved far away from M, but my flat iron came with me. However, there was already a girl in my new school who had my same first name, large blue eyes, and gorgeous, perfectly straight, dark locks. People confused the two of us at first. She was hard to compete with, so after a while, I gave up. Messy buns with a halo of frizzies got me through the day, and through sports practices too.

Little changed over the next decade. When I wanted to look nice, my flat iron ruled the day. When I didn’t care, messy bun it was. When I first became a mom and had even less time to get ready, there was the very occasional day when I left the house with my waves and curls on display, but I had to be desperate.

Fast forward to this year. Medical issues arose and one of the less-than-glorious symptoms of my particular issue was hair loss. Until this year, if I wanted to know what my scalp looked like, I had to physically separate and restrain sections of my hair to see it. It took effort. And no small amount of it. But after my hair began to shed, if I didn’t style my hair just right, small white patches could be seen. I was heartbroken. I was scared. Moreover, I was more insecure about my hair than I had been since before that first time M introduced me to heat styling. All the soul-crushing angst of puberty, none of the youthful glow to accompany it.

My doctor pointed out that I should do whatever I could to treat my hair more gently. My hair loss might stop. It might not. It might grow back, it might not. No matter what, it had the best chance of being healthy if I did my best to make it so. The only way to do that was to stop heat styling and all the other harmful things I was doing. It was time to embrace my natural waves and curls.

It’s been a few months and I can tell you that on a good hair day, I have grown to love my waves and curls. I wonder why on earth I covered them up for so long. On not so good days I miss my flat iron so much it hurts. I’m still insecure about my hair, but I know what I’m doing now is better than what I’ve done for the last two decades. And this time around, I have the benefit of knowing what my middle school self didn’t yet know–it’s okay to be me.

I have pondered, though, why I spent so many years in an exclusive relationship with my flat iron and never really got to know my curling iron (which I have also ditched) or hot rollers (which my oldest sister had an intense love affair with in the late 80s). Well, in most media, when the nerd girl gets a make-over, they straighten her hair. When a girl is an outcast, she has crazy, frizzy, curly hair. Mean girls, villains, or side characters, might have heat styled, twisting locks. But protagonists don’t. And I didn’t want to be a sidekick in life. I wanted straight hair.

Even the shampoo aisle makes it clear. There is an entire aisle of (harmful) straight hair products with a smaller section of healthier products, all still meant for straight hair. On the next aisle, there is a tiny section of healthy, curly hair products. Curly-haired girls are an afterthought and never the main attraction. So when we connect over our curls via social media, no wonder we retweet and like until our hashtags go viral. We have to support each other because we know nobody else will.

So here I am, embracing my natural hair and declaring that, at least in my life, the protagonist has curly hair. There will be no make-over montage (at least not involving hair). There will be no surprise reveal. This is me. This is my hair. I’m going to slay the dragon and look fabulous doing it, thank you very much.

Curly hair, don’t care.

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Resolutions for the New Year

Happy New Year!

low angle photo of fireworks
Photo by rovenimages.com on Pexels.com

Part of me wanted to start this post with “May 2019 be less of a dumpster fire than 2018!” But that’s not fair. Yes, there were some trash things that happened in 2018, but not all of it was bad. In fact, I’m going to take a moment to celebrate.

  • My youngest turned one. He’s not really a baby anymore. That’s bittersweet because I love watching his milestones. Running. Talking. Climbing everything in sight. But it’s also a little sad to know just how fast he’ll grow up. Having said that, I’m choosing to celebrate.
  • My oldest turned five. His birthday is late in the year, so this is recent. I’m still a little in shock. I have a five-year-old. Next year, he’ll start kindergarten. He’s my firstborn, so I knew absolutely nothing about parenting before him. I still know nothing, but now I know that I know nothing. Still, it’s a miracle we’ve both made it this far so hats off to us.
  • My husband and I celebrated nine years of marriage. And we still like each other. A lot. Cheers.
  • I got another, brand new, shiny and tiny nephew. I get to be near a baby again, but don’t have to change diapers this time. That’s pretty special.
  • I added to my list of critique partners. She is one of those partners who is a natural teacher, because of how she asks her questions. It forces me to think about why I made this decision, or wrote a passage that way. She doesn’t just comment, she asks. She makes me be the one to really think it through and digest it. It’s both hard and immensely helpful.
  • I gave myself a break. I didn’t always post on schedule. Sometimes, I started reading a book for a review and let myself DNF. I took a step back and didn’t berate myself for it. Okay, I didn’t berate myself as much as last year. It’s progress. Baby steps.
  • I learned a lot. Some of it by listening more than I talked (that’s new for me too!), some of it by reading (tried and true favorite!), and some through trial and error. Regardless of how, I learned and that’s always a good thing.

Truthfully, there were many good things worth celebrating in 2018. And yes, there were hard things, both on personal and more global levels. However, I am going to make the choice to celebrate the good and move into 2019 with my head held high. And because I love lists, I’m going to write another one for my resolutions.

  • To listen more and talk less. I started actively doing this in 2018 and it worked out well. I want to continue, but since I’m such a talkative person, I need to be purposeful about it.
  • To be more intentional about my health. If I say I’m going to go to the gym every day all year long, it will be an absolute lie and I’m destined to fail. However, if I give myself a more realistic goal that will also improve my overall health, that seems more sustainable. So that’s it. I’m putting myself back on the list of priorities.
  • To write more. To write better. To finish a big project. Basically, I took a step back in 2018, but in 2019 I want to step up. It’s time to dive back in.
  • To be kinder to others.

I think I’ll stop there. A shorter list is a more manageable list. Wish me luck!

What are your resolutions for 2019?

The Bow Tie Redemption

I’ve never been fond of bow ties. Especially not after I had to wear a red sequined covered bow tie and cumberbund in the 5th-grade choir.

Then as an adult, I began to associate bow ties of all designs with a certain person I knew who wore them every day. He harassed me. Sometimes it was more blatant than others, but it was all harassment and happened often. After I broke off my association with that person, I still had a little flare of anger and revulsion every time I saw someone wearing a bow tie. It was most unfortunate that they made a huge mainstream comeback right about that time.

Then I started a new job. I became a teacher. My first day, in the summer and weeks before the students came back, I hauled supplies and decor to my classroom and prepared to spend hours creating a welcoming learning environment for my new charges. I was excited and nervous. Mostly nervous. Across the hall, I could see a very tall adult about my age playing cards with what was clearly a group of students. I heard snippets of their hushed conversation and their laughter. When they concluded their game, the students left and the adult came over to introduce himself. It turned out he was the English teacher with whom I would share my end of the hallway for the next school year.

Over the next few days, he came into my classroom to check on me and introduce other teachers as they trickled in to prepare for the new year. By the time school started, I had a friend on staff and was all the more blessed for it. But on the first day the students joined us, I cringed. My new friend showed up wearing a bow tie. Gross.

It was unfair to judge his fashion choice so harshly. I knew it. It was irrational. And yet, I did. I detested bow ties. I didn’t say anything, even though he wore a bow tie every day without fail. It was his signature look.

Over the course of the year, we ended up coaching soccer together and spent a portion of each afternoon decompressing or sharing crazy student stories. We discussed Doctor Who, Ernest Hemmingway, Black Adder, religion, politics, music, and our ups and downs as educators. I made other friends on staff, but “Jones” was my buddy. And before any of you get any ideas, he was my completely platonic buddy. We were both married and my spouse felt like he knew Jones long before I ever got the chance to introduce them.

When I left my position at that school to embark on a new adventure, there were several things I missed. One of them was Jones. He was more than a smart, funny guy. He was a truly gifted teacher. He cared about his students deeply. And he had the world’s best catchphrases. “The utter/sheer jackassery.” “Feckin’ ridiculous.” “That’s nice.” The last was said with a deep–and exaggerated–southern drawl with just a hint of condescension, and something about it made me laugh every time he said it. It was his own personal version of “Bless your heart.”

Less than two weeks ago, I got word that Jones passed away. It didn’t seem real. How could this shining light be snuffed out so young? Students, fellow teachers, employers, classmates, and family began posting tributes on social media. They were all beautiful in their own way, but they also all had one thing in common. In every picture, Jones was wearing a bow tie.

Years of memories with a common thread. A man who was deeply loved and had an inexplicable affinity for bow ties. When I realized it, tears welled up and I started to giggle a bit. My husband thought I was hysterical, I’m sure, but he let me be because I was grieving. I will miss Jones in ways I cannot say. And I’m sorry for the students, at every level that will never get to know his gift. His legacy is one of caring and dedication. And bow ties.

But now when I see a bow tie I don’t cringe. I don’t gag a little. I don’t think of that man who harassed me. Instead, I think of Jones. Of hot tea and themed yarmulkes. Of my first ever teaching friend. Of a man who spent his life serving others.

If anyone was ever going to be able to redeem bow ties, it was Jones. And he did it. One more thing I can add to the long list of reasons I’m grateful to have known him.

Goodbye, Jones. Thanks for everything.

10 Things You Can Do To Show Support for Someone with Mental Illness

It’s time for another 10 Things post. I was originally going to do 10 More Things about the Georgia Aquarium because I took a behind the scenes tour and that place is a nerd paradise. Then I thought I might go festive instead and write a 10 Things about Christmas. However, all those plans changed at the last minute.

This morning I got a phone call from my best friend. Someone very close to her, whom she loved dearly, lost a battle against depression. Out of respect for those closest to the person, I will withhold further details. My friend is grieving and in shock. And like most people who lose someone who has been battling mental illness, she knew on a logical level that it was not her fault and there was nothing more she could have done, but on an emotional level, she was struggling.

It was not her fault.

She did everything she could to support her loved one.

I spoke with her throughout the day because she’s my friend and she needs support now too. But as I sat down to write this post, I couldn’t help but think about the many people who fear this situation more than any other because they have a loved one living with mental illness.

This is not the first time someone I know has lost a battle with mental illness. I wish it were. Unfortunately, this is too common an outcome because our society still puts a stigma on mental illness which discourages some people from seeking the help they need or sticking to a treatment plan.

I’m no expert. By any stretch of the imagination. So when it occurred to me that this month–since it is one of the hardest months of the year for people with depression–might be a good month to talk about how to support your loved ones with mental illness, I had to do some research. I turned to Psychology Today, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Psych Central who all offer tips for anyone who is trying to show love and support to someone with a mental illness.

If any of this information is incomplete or outdated, I apologize. And if this post is something you think you might need to read through, please also do more research on your own. I will repeat: I’m no expert. Please seek more knowledgeable resources. In the meantime, hopefully, this can get the ball rolling in the right direction.

In tribute to those who are suffering because of their own battle with mental illness and to all those who have to stand on the sidelines as they witness their loved ones battle.

10 Things You Can Do to Show Support for Someone with Mental Illness:

  1. Research. Ask questions, read articles and books. Devour the information available so that you know how the illness works. Do not let misconceptions make the illness just a “personality quirk”.
  2. Have Reasonable Expectations. If your loved one has a few good days in a row, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re cured. You need to know that and so do they. They should still try not to exceed their limits.
  3. Get Help for Yourself. Every resource I consulted strongly advocated that family members and loved ones of the person with mental illness seek outside support for themselves. A therapist, a support group, etc. You need someone to talk to.
  4. Encourage Them to be Honest with their Treatment Team. Is this medication not working? Does it have some side effects that they’re not comfortable with? The doctor needs to know. They are not disturbing the doctor by being honest, they are reasserting control over their bodies and their lives. Encourage them to do so.
  5. Know Where to Draw the Line. You have to set limits. No matter how much you love someone, if they put you or your mental health in danger, it isn’t helping either of you. Set limits.
  6. Treat Them with Respect. Do not talk down to someone with a mental illness. Speak at an age and maturity appropriate level. Living with mental illness does not lower their IQ.
  7. Be a Good Listener. Ask how they are doing and wait for the answer. Engage in the conversation. Show them you genuinely care. Don’t just hear their words, listen to what they are saying. And this should be a discourse, not a debate.
  8. Pick an Appropriate Setting. If you are going to talk to someone about their mental illness, do it in a place or at a time where they won’t feel ambushed or put on display. They need to be comfortable and willing to share, not called out in front of friends or family.
  9. Don’t Guess. If you don’t know how you can help, ask. Even if you think you already know what is best, ask. It isn’t your life, it’s theirs. They have control. Unless they are in a position where you know they can or will do self-harm. That changes everything.
  10. Remain Calm. If you are speaking to a loved one about their mental illness, it will not help them for you to get heated or melodramatic. I’m not saying you can’t have feelings on the matter, but this isn’t about you. It’s about them and how to best support them.

This isn’t a complete list. Please seek other sources.

Above all, know this: Even if you do everything you are supposed to do, sometimes they lose the battle. It isn’t your fault. It’s not their fault. They were fighting an internal battle and lost. You couldn’t fight it for them, no matter how much you wanted to slay their dragons. And if you lose someone to this battle, it’s okay to seek help for yourself, too.

I sincerely hope that I didn’t mislead anyone with bad advice and again, I strongly suggest seeking other sources, but I wanted to take the opportunity to start a conversation. To serve as a reminder.

10 Things About The Georgia Aquarium

Yesterday was a momentous day for my family. My oldest turned five. He was so excited all day. It was the kind of excitement that’s infectious. Everything was fun and amazing because it was his birthday.

Instead of a party this year, he wanted to go on a creature adventure for his birthday. What can I say? Wild Kratts and Planet Earth are his favorite shows. Anyway, since we live in the south and have family in Georgia, we negotiated a trip to The Georgia Aquarium. He’s been once before and still raves about it.

So perhaps while you’re reading this, I’ll be traipsing through the world’s second largest aquarium with a look of awe to match my son’s. It doesn’t matter whether you’re five or ninety-five, that place is cool.

Which is why today’s post is 10 Things About The Georgia Aquarium.

male_whale_shark_at_georgia_aquarium
Male whale shark at The Georgia Aquarium
  1. When it opened in 2005 it was the largest aquarium in the world. It was surpassed in 2012 by one in Singapore, though after the expansion currently in progress I’m unsure if it will regain the lead.
  2. It sits on land donated by the Coca-Cola Company. And thanks to corporate and private donations, it opened debt free.
  3. It is the only institution outside of Asia to house whale sharks.
  4. More than 100,000 specimens representing over 700 species reside there. Including a manta ray rescued from a net in South Africa–it is one of only four sites worldwide to showcase such.
  5. Its biggest individual tank is 6.3 million gallons, and combined it has more 10 million gallons of marine and salt-water habitats.
  6. While the aquarium has served as an economic boost for Atlanta, the board also pushes education and conservation as prioritized goals. When the dolphin show fell under controversy, it was redesigned to focus more on education.
  7. The coral used in exhibits is man-made and part of a joint project between Georgia Tech and The University of the South Pacific.
  8. The aquarium partners with universities (eg Georgia Tech, The University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Florida Atlantic University) and the federal government to help save endangered species through research and education.
  9. It has a 4D simulator that can take you on a submarine tour of prehistoric seas.
  10. The aquarium is part of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, and although run as a non-profit, has some of the highest admission charges nationwide.

 

Well, that’s it for November. Maybe next year I’ll give you 10 Things About Veterans’ Day, but for now whale sharks and manta rays are dancing through my head. Just keep swimming!

ARC Review: Unmarriagable by Soniah Kamal

Publication is set for January 15, 2019. If you liked Pride & Prejudice, you’ll want to make this a belated Christmas gift to yourself.

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Alys Binat teaches English Literature at the British School Group of Dilipibad. Her students both admire her dedication and pity her singleness. Alys, on the other hand, not only doesn’t regret being single but has no plans to marry. But she does attend the most anticipated wedding of the year.

During the first of several days of festivities, her sister Jena falls head over heels for Bungles Bingla, despite the thinly veiled insults bandied about by his sisters. Alys also sees a handsome face in the crowd, but when she overhears Valentine Darsee disparaging her and her choices of reading material to Bungles, she decides he’s not quite so handsome after all.

Unfortunately, as the wedding festivities continue and Jena spends more time with the Binglas, Alys is forced to spend more time with Darsee. Everyone thinks he’s such a catch, but Alys can see beyond his wallet to his snobbish pride and has deemed him unmarriagable.

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This is billed as Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. It doesn’t disappoint. The general plot follows the original, but with a distinctly new flair. There is a line in the book that talks about mixing scones and samosas and that is a pretty good way to describe the story itself.

Our favorite sisters are all present; the beautiful and kind Jena, the flirtatious and boundary-pushing Lady, the reserved and pious Mari, and the artistic Qitty. Set in 2000 and 2001 Pakistan, the Binat family once again serves as a commentary on societal expectations of women and the double standards they face. But there are some new changes that I found interesting, too. For example, Qitty spends much of the novel being fat-shamed by Lady. In the original P&P, I found Kitty to be more of a prop or a throwaway character. Here Qitty holds her own and gets the proper ending that Kitty never did.

Another new aspect of the story is the mingling of different religions and cultures. Before the familial falling out that sentenced the Binats to live in Dilipibad, Alys attended international schools and mentions the influence they had on her worldview. There is a mix of Hindu and Muslim traditions, and even the celebration of a Christian holiday by a beloved aunt, as well as a scene that incorporates the closing of the border to India. And don’t get me started on the wedding events. I need this to be made into a Netflix film ASAP just so I can watch the party scenes.

There were a couple of things that brought me out of the story a little, however. There is a lot of exposition. Anything that was necessary for a non-desi like me to understand what was happening from a cultural perspective, I understood. But there were a few instances, especially early on as she covered the family backstory that info dumping slowed the story down quite a bit.

The other down for me was the head-hopping. The story is in the third person omniscient, but it still pulled me out of the tale to slide from Mrs. Binat’s thoughts to Jena’s to Alys’ to Darsee’s in the span of a few sentences.

I have seen a couple of other reviewers who said they found Alys militantly feminist and unlikeable and they thought the Binat sisters too cruel to each other. I, however, would disagree. Given the cultural contexts of each story, the characters are spot on. The original Bennet sisters were quite cutting and judgemental of each other, especially Lydia and Kitty. And I think that Elizabeth would have been thrilled to see her reincarnation in Alys.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The visual created by the setting gave the story new life. I stand by my opener, go ahead and make plans to give this to yourself as a belated Christmas gift. You won’t regret it.