Mortarboards and “Mischief Managed”

I’m having the hardest time deciding what quote to put on my graduation cap.  It’s the only part of the regalia I get to keep, the tassel and the mortarboard, so I figured why not personalize it a little?  The Commodore has a LOTR quote (in Elvish because she is awesome) and the White Tree of Gondor, and the Southern Belle decorated hers in a nod to her future grad school.  I’ve seen Disney themes, puns on student debt, gaming metaphors, etc.

I looked up C.S. Lewis quotes and found “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  But that kind of sounds like college sucked and I’m happy to be leaving, and that’s not my attitude.

Then there’s an Augustus Waters quote from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: “You are going to live a good and long life filled with great and terrible moments that you cannot even imagine yet!”  But that’s kind of long.

Or there’s Disney, something from Beauty and the Beast, but “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” doesn’t quite seem to fit when I’m staying in my college town for the immediate future.

I considered a lyric from Hamilton, something like “I am indomitable, I am an original” or “Write day and night like you need it to survive.”  Those are still kind of obscure, though, as popular as the musical is.

Maybe a Bible verse?  “God is within her; she will not fail”?  Something literary, from Harry Potter or Arabian Nights?

I have so many options my friends have joked that I should just put a notebook on my cap that includes all the quotes, with the tassel for a bookmark.  I feel like I’ll know the right quote when I hear/read it – but I only have 8 more days to find it!

Don’t Steal My Spot

They say you don’t have assigned seats in college, but everyone knows that’s a lie.  After the second or third class of the semester, no one wants to move.  The class has shifted around briefly and is now settled into a comfortable arrangement of friend groups and varying degrees of attentiveness.  Why mess with it?

But she did.  One day, midway through the semester, I walked into my global lit class to discover that some girl was in my seat.

I didn’t even know she was in the class, meaning she’d been in the back up until that day.  She glanced up to meet my glare, then quickly looked back down at her phone.  My friends had all moved down one seat in the row so there was still space for me, but as I slid into place, J. leaned over and hissed, “I don’t like this.”

“This angle is throwing me off,” A. agreed, nodding at the whiteboard.  Even the subtle shift of a few inches to the right had thrown off our entire groove for the class.

Sadly, not an option.

Now, I realize this sounds somewhat petty.  We are, after all, voting adults.  Can we not just take Elsa’s advice and let it go?  It’s just a chair.

Well, I got to the next class ridiculously early to reclaim my rightful place, so I sat in my normal spot.  When Miss Seat Stealer waltzed in, she did a double take, glared at me, then slid into the seat next to mine with a stage whispered, “I guess I’ll just have to take Charlotte’s seat,” to her friend, who shrugged and sat down without complaint.

So I’m not the only childish one in this tale.

I’m a creature of habit.  The uncertain hovering on the edge of a classroom, wondering which row to sit in and which friends will be within reach for in-class discussion, should be reserved for the first, maybe the second, week of classes.  We’re all outsiders for those first couple of days, until the class gels.  After that, it’s a domino effect: if one person moves, the person whose seat was stolen must now occupy someone else’s seat, displacing yet another person to someone else’s chosen spot, and so on until the whole class feels as awkward and uncomfortable as the first day they walked in.  Each person temporarily becomes an outsider again as they wonder where on earth to sit.  And we are too far into the semester to justify that feeling!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to class a little early.  That seat is mine.

my spot



Winter Break

Well, I survived my penultimate undergraduate finals week.  And now I sit in our living room across from the Christmas tree, surrounded by festive Yuletide decorations and books (seriously – we have four bursting plastic totes of Christmas books alone) and it still doesn’t feel like The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.

I’m still in that dazed letdown phase that follows a period of intense stress.  Relieved as I may be to have finished up my classes, going-going-going for two and a half weeks straight leaves me a little bewildered when I get home and there’s not as much to do.  I sit here casting around for the assignment or project I’m certain I forgot about, too used to having Something To Do hanging over my head.  The Engineer once “assigned” me coloring pages to do over the summer so I wouldn’t stress out about not having anything to stress out about.

This year, of course, I do have something to do – my thesis project.  Which is due at the end of February.  Which I’m trying not to freak out about just yet.  After all, the vacation is young.  And I do love my topic (the Arabian Nights), so the reading will probably go faster than I think it will.

But stress is not exactly conducive to the magic of Christmas.

So I suppose it couldn’t hurt to give myself a few days to breathe – and watch my favorite Christmas movies from childhood.

Sexism and Smoothies

“Do I want a smoothie?” I mused aloud.  One of my coworkers looked up from the couches in our hangout area.

“Is that even a question?  Smoothies are always a good idea,” he said.

I laughed.  “You’re right.  I do want a smoothie.  The real question,” I said, waving my wallet at him, “is whether I want to spend the money.  Because that would make my wallet very sad.”

He shrugged.  “Why would you pay for the smoothie?”

For a moment I thought he was suggesting I somehow blend and steal my own fruit drink, but after a moment he added, “Just ask people for the money.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“No, seriously,” he said, leaning forward, “just tell people you forgot your wallet or you don’t have any money and you’re thirsty and can they spare you any change for a drink.  Now, if I tried to do that it would take me all day.  But you – you could probably find someone offering to buy you a coffee within – ” he thought for a moment ” – fifteen minutes.  Tops.”

Incredulous, I just stared at him.

“Oh yes,” he said, seeing my expression, “sexism is alive and well, and you can exploit it!”

I laughed.  We didn’t know each other well yet, this coworker and I, but I knew enough to realize that he was merely commenting on the sorry state of our collegiate society, not being sexist himself.

As I walked to the student union, I half-wanted to try out the experiment, just to see what would happen.  My coworker, however joking his tone, had a point.  I’ve joked with the Engineer before about using such tactics; whenever he worries that I won’t know how to put chains on my tires going over the pass for winter break, I just bat my eyes and say sweetly, “I’m cute and helpless.  Someone will stop.”  In reality, of course, the thought of playing Damsel in Distress makes my eyes want to roll out of my head.

But here, on the same campus where I’ve had male classmates say they don’t hold the door open for girls anymore because “they might get mad,” I could probably have flirted my way to a smoothie.

We females are still thought of as Damsels, just with varying degrees of receptiveness to Manly Heroics swooping in to save the day.  Many boys don’t let girls do things for themselves because they see us as equals, but because they’re afraid of us snapping at them.

Can’t we all just hold doors and lend money for smoothies regardless of gender, because we’re all humans trying to navigate the madness that is college life?

I am Unikitty

Princess Unikitty is the embodiment of positivity.  (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, drop everything and go watch/rewatch the brilliance that is The Lego Movie.  I’ll wait.)  In her beloved Cloud Cuckoo Land, Unikitty leads a life of carefree, rainbow-colored chaos, where anything goes – as long as there are no frowny faces.  Her commitment to thinking happy thoughts runs deep, even when the bad guys show up and Cloud Cuckoo Land turns less rainbow and more explosive.

bd74bcda5e98a5c9d683de753d200473Obviously, this is not the healthiest emotional habit, and it doesn’t sustain Unikitty for long.  Even as she explains the motto above, her face becomes red and angry.  Though she tries her best to suppress negativity, it’s still there, lurking just beneath the surface.  By the end of the movie, Unikitty’s anger at seeing her friends attacked overpowers her obsessively positive mindset, and she busts out some fantastic animated karate to take down her fair share of bad guys.  Plus it’s funny to watch someone go from determinedly cheerful to Hulk-smash furious in 5 seconds.

Isn’t it?

Though moviegoers recognize that Unikitty should not be dealing with her emotions this way, she still presents a fair picture of the emotional facade our society expects of us.  We place a great deal of emphasis on BE HAPPY! without sufficient focus on the methods we use to get there.  We encourage people to “let go” of negative emotions as quickly as possible, to “shake off” experiences and feelings we deem “toxic” due to their Not-Happy nature.  In effect, a lot of us really do push those thoughts “down deep inside where you’ll never, ever, ever, EVER find them.”

Unfortunately, this is not the same as feeling them.

I haven’t talked about this yet on this blog, but my own Unikitty-esque emotional habits led me into a serious struggle with depression about a year ago.  All of my emotions, Happy and Not-So-Happy, completely shut down.  I went numb.  And at first I couldn’t figure out why.  I thought depression and anxiety needed some kind of trigger, but I hadn’t had any traumatic event in my life.  Eventually, my counselor traced it back to the Really Big Conflict, as I’ve referred to it, from The Internship sophomore year.

I thought, like Elsa from Frozen, I had just let it go.

In reality, I was more like Unikitty, pretending Cloud Cuckoo Land wasn’t crashing down around my ears.  I shoved the anger, hurt, and confusion deeper and deeper down until finally the Happy Thoughts shut off too.

Something my counselor told me: You can’t feel things selectively.  You can’t just ignore negative emotions without eventually turning off the positive ones too.

As Unikitty shows us, if Not Happy Thoughts are simply shoved aside in favor of Happy Thoughts, there comes a breaking point.  Either you explode, like Unikitty, or you go numb, like I did.  Being happy All! The! Time! is all well and good if you’re just that kind of person, but I’m learning the importance of truly moving on – feeling the negative feelings and making space in your mind for them before taking that deep breath.

So maybe I won’t identify so strongly with Unikitty anymore.  But she’s a good reminder of my old habits – and why they won’t sustain me any more than they did her.

UPDATE: The original title of this post was “Unikitty is My Spirit Animal,” but having learned of that term’s importance to native peoples and cultures, I’ve decided not to use it here. I have edited the post accordingly. (2019)

Some articles about this:

Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down from Psychology Today

Negative Emotions are Key to Well-Being from Scientific American

The Importance of Negative Emotions from Huffington Post

Things I’m Trying to Be Better About


Calling home.

Making healthy dinners.

Awareness of how much I’m spending on coffee.

Awareness of how much I’m drinking coffee.

Posting on this blog.

Posting on Changeling Scribbles (actually no don’t go read it because I haven’t posted anything in weeks).

Reading for pleasure.

Working on my own writing.

Doing laundry before the basket overflows.

Not overscheduling myself.

Eating a real breakfast, not just a protein bar on the way out the door.

Leaving the Engineer’s at a reasonable hour because he gets grumpy when he doesn’t get to bed before 11.

Leaving the Engineer’s at a reasonable hour because I cannot actually replace sleep with coffee.

Pulling myself out of stress spirals about what to do with my life post-graduation.

Going out and doing things occasionally.

Loving myself.

My Life in Books, Part 2: Rereading Runaways

Elementary school was a time of reading and rereading for me as I discovered the escapism of my favorite books.  Several of my favorites tended toward children cleverly making their own way in the world – with a lot of detailed lists of the chores and tasks involved in their survivalist adventures.

1. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

download (4)This was the best runaway book ever.  Claudia spends the first several chapters of the book preparing extensively for her escape from her boring suburban life – saving her tiny allowance, choosing a sibling to accompany her, selecting a destination.  Needless to say, I identified with this level of forethought; I was never one to just take off in anger.  I also loved the idea of living in a museum, having it all to myself at night, and investigating a mysterious statue.  And then, when Claudia and her brother meet Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?  I wanted to be her too, this little old lady living in a house full of her own personal collection of artifacts with a secretive filing system that makes sense only to her.  She was great!  But more than that, the characters seemed to understand the escapism I was seeking in the very books I read.  It wasn’t about anything specifically bad in everyday life.  It was about “coming home different,” as Claudia puts it, having something to assuage the ordinariness of home life.  It was about having a piece of adventure to hold onto while one quietly assumed one’s daily duties – precisely the reason I read.

2. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

9780064400589_custom-0dc27ef1292bfe782c935e615a12b66a172f4107-s6-c30Like Claudia, Julie is realistic about her plans.  She wants a change of life, not just to make a scene.  Escaping a fairytale-esque step-family situation (in other words, not good), Julie ends up living on the Arctic tundra and befriending a pack of wolves.  She lives by the same rhythms of nature as the animals she follows, from lemmings to caribou to the wolves themselves.  Even though the book was full of detailed technical descriptions (e.g., Julie makes her own winter clothes out of caribou skin…after making her own needle and thread from other parts of the caribou), I pored over it as a kid.  I think I liked the idea of being self-sufficient, of filling my day with simple but useful things.  There wasn’t much dialogue, except between Julie and her imagined voices for the wolves, but it reassured me that I wasn’t the only one who imagined conversations in her head.

It was also one of my first books with a bittersweet ending; the wolves move on.  So does Julie, who goes to live with her father.  As much as I wished she could go with the wolves every time I reread the book, Julie’s sense of self was more important than a happy ending for the sake of happy endings.

3. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George…again.  Hmm.  Honestly never knew that.

JacketAnother self-sufficient, outdoorsy runaway book, I think I mainly loved this one because of the falcon.  I wasn’t planning to burn my home out of a hollow tree, or make snares, but falconry?  That’s just cool.  Minus the part about stealing a nestling.  However, in case I ever did decide to dash off to the forests of Washington (and goodness knows there are plenty to choose from), this book would have provided a wonderful manual.

This was another unsatisfying ending, at least for me.  Sam’s family shows up, agreeing that they could all “get away” from society.  But I wanted Sam to live happily ever after in his solitude.  It frustrated me that his family caught up with him, even if he was lonely.  I liked the idea of carving out a life (literally) alone somewhere.  It appealed to my introversion.  So I kept rereading it, despite the ending.

4. Mandy by Julie (Andrews) Edwards

mandyEven before I became familiar with the flawless Queen of Everything Julie Andrews, I loved this book.  I actually recommended this book to my kindergarten teacher’s daughter (she was in 4th grade at the time, so this made me very proud).  Although not exactly like the other runaways on this list, Mandy also has a secret escape from her everyday life.  Again, this appealed to my introverted side; I preferred my books, imagined experiences of my own or shared with Bird, to playdates or sports.  Mandy climbs over the orphanage wall (what young reader doesn’t love a good orphan story?) and discovers an abandoned cottage on the neighboring estate.  She begins fixing it up.  She figures out how to budget for supplies, schedules her visits when she knows no one will be looking, and works until her fingers blister.  Weirdly, I enjoyed the lists of her chores.  It was like vicarious cleaning pleasure, and as a kindergartener I wished I could find my own little house to fix up just right.  This may sound as though it goes against my feminist grain, but it was more about creating a world, a haven of one’s own (Mandy only wants something that’s hers, rather than something charity or the orphanage gives her) than just following some kind of societal norm.

My Life in Books, Part 1: The Formative Favorites

I can divide up my life by books: epochs of reading indicated by the particular volume that served as my security blanket, my favorite refuge, for that period.  These are the formative few that found me at exactly the moment I needed them.

1. Angelfish by Laurence Yep

41LEKDC-oYL._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_The W-Z shelf in my elementary school library formed a corner with another, lower shelf that, when I settled criss-cross onto the nubbly carpet, made me feel safe – walled up in a castle.  The books at eye level when I situated myself this way included Angelfish, which I checked out so many times throughout the years at St. C’s that the librarian gave me that copy as a graduation present at the end of 8th grade.  She said it was clearly mine.  I called it my Belle book, after the scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when the bookseller gives Belle her favorite book free of charge.  The reason I read it 17 times in a single year is that Angelfish is a love story about a girl and dance.  Robin, the narrator, loves ballet so much she declares she will always find some way to be a part of it, even if it means just sweeping the stage.  “That’s the way you love something when you’re young,” her teacher responds.  The plot involves Robin helping a victim of the Chinese Revolution rediscover his own art – originally dance as well, now painting – and reaffirm the value of having that joy in one’s life.  Having quit my own ballet lessons years before, I probably couldn’t have told you in 8th grade why I loved this book so much.  Now I think I needed it to give me an example of how to hold on to your passion despite the naysayers.

2. Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede

51eC4uO6deL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This must have been one of my first feminist books.  The stubborn, witty heroine, Cimorene, gets bored being a princess, so she runs away to serve a dragon.  Although irritated by the conventions that bind her (dealing with all those princes trying to rescue her against her will, for instance), Cimorene also frequently uses her society’s stereotypes of silly princesses to her own advantage (e.g., getting an evil wizard to let slip a few details of his plan).  She finds a way of life that makes her happy and fulfilled even though few people originally understand her desires.  Beyond the quips and amusing dialogue that appealed to me as a sarcastic teenager, Dragons showed me that if you persist in chasing your dreams, you’ll find people who will listen to you.  The dragon she serves, for instance, believes Cimorene when everyone else wants to write her off as just another hysterical princess.  Plus there’s swordfighting.  Who doesn’t love swordfighting?

3. Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner

41unxgoV6iL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I gave up reading anything but religious books for Lent one year, and it led me to this memoir of a Jewish girl turned Episcopalian.  Nearly every page held a turn of phrase that made me think, “Yes, exactly,” or “I thought that was just me!”  In a section on Lent, the author’s priest asks her to give up reading for the liturgical season, and I nearly dropped the book in surprise.  I just saw so much of myself and my own questions and confusion about faith (and life in general) in this book, even though I was raised Catholic and intend to remain in the Church.  I love the honesty about the difficult parts of belief and the self-awareness the author demonstrates in her writing.  Once I finished the book, I immediately turned to the first page again, this time with a pencil to underline and annotate the parts that spoke to me the most.  Since then, I’ve read it nearly a dozen times, at least once a year, each time making new notes and looking back on my past self’s questions and scribbles about faith and life.

4. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

6a00d8345169e469e2016760e64a3f970bFrankie does not get the guy.  Her friends and family don’t accept her as she is.  But that’s not the point.  When I started high school, I could identify with Frankie’s sense of confinement within others’ perceptions of her.  Her family doesn’t deem her smart enough to use her cell phone when she gets lost or attend a prestigious boarding school without a nice boyfriend to “look after her.”  The boyfriend is not much better; although most of Frankie’s schemes are designed to earn his respect, she soon discovers that he preferred it when she was arm candy in need of his protection.  But she keeps going, realizing that she actually wants to prove something to herself more than to her boyfriend.  After that, others’ opinions don’t matter so much.  By the end, no one quite knows what to do with Frankie, except Frankie herself.  In my freshman year of high school, when I discovered this book, I had just been frozen out by the group of girls I used to rely on for approval.  I needed the self-discovery role model that Frankie provides.  And I needed the honesty of the last chapter: “She might go crazy…They do sometimes go crazy, these people, because the world is telling them not to want the things they want…another possibility – the possibility I hold out for – is that Frankie Landau-Banks will open the doors she is trying to get through.  And she will grow up to change the world.”


Freshman year of college made me overly conscious of the word “home.” I consciously said I was going back to my dorm, or my room. When I did say “home” by mistake, my friends looked at me, puzzled.

“I don’t mean home home,” I said.  We used repetition for emphasis, as if we were gossiping about who like liked who else in eighth grade.  As the year went on, I slipped into using the word more and more often.  Now, in my third year of undergrad, my friends and I know when someone means “home” vs. “home home.”  There’s a subtle difference that truly collegiate ears can hear.  But it still strikes me sometimes that I now have three “homes.”  I have to wonder if it cheapens the word.

I had been through a phase like that before, when my dad finally bought a house after the divorce. I was determined not to bestow the term “home” on his bachelor pad, angry as I still was. But after a while I admitted that Dad’s house was just as much a home base for me as Mom’s, particularly as college loomed and I was clinging with white knuckles to everything familiar in the face of having to go away to a huge campus (by my sheltered standards, anyway) where the only people I knew were the ones I never really liked in high school.  “Home” was suddenly akin to “haven,” and it stayed defined that way for the first half of my college career, particularly since I found myself having to move once a semester for a year and a half for various unforeseeable reasons.

But now, as a new transition rears its head like the Cave of Wonders bursting out of the desert, I find myself thinking more about “home” as something I am about to create than something preexisting.  In a way, this is sad.  I love being able to return to the places where I grew up and revisit the life I used to have.  However, since Bird took over my room (I had the bigger one all through high school) as soon as I went to college, I haven’t actually gone home to the room of my adolescence for almost three years now.  Instead, I’m arranging the apartment the Commodore and I share, making it suit us both, and spending pretty much all my free time either here or over at one of my friends’ apartments.  I’m enjoying our little nest (and I love not having to move again until at least graduation!).  But even this is temporary by nature; I’m not even living here full-time, since I go home for breaks.  (Not that I’ll be home for the summer – I have an internship three hours away.)

The Southern Belle and I were discussing our plans for the summer, and she brought up a good point.  She told me that although she looks forward to returning to the South, it’s not because she wants to see the people and places she left behind, but rather because she is excited to see how she as an adult fits into that space.  It’s about her, not her past.

I agree.  “Home” is shifting from “origin point” and “haven” to “where we fit/belong in the world” – and that might not be the places we grew up anymore.  I’ll always love going home to my parents, but soon my “home home” will change.

Part of me wants the glamour of city life, living in some brick apartment building with plenty of character and becoming a regular at the coffee shop down the street, walking to work or taking the subway in flats and changing into my heels in the elevator.  Part of me wants the quiet of suburban or even secluded country life, where I can putter in the yard and make a house a comfortable place for me and my family to spend our days, not having to venture too far into society if I don’t feel like it, having a view of something other than concrete.

Surprisingly, only a very tiny part of me wants to run back to the “wispy peach” room at my mom’s house and the “papyrus green” one at my dad’s.  It sounds more exciting to me right now to have the agency to create my own home – furnished, of course, with the beloved, familiar, castoff furniture we’ve been saving in the basement for years.  And for once, I’m okay with the uncertainty.


  1. most reliable or complete, as of a text, author, criticism, study, or the like
  2. having its fixed and final form

I’ve been noticing this word a lot lately, particularly on Pinterest and Buzzfeed.  It seems like nearly every post involves a “definitive” ranking or roll call of some pop culture reference.  But by definition, every list cannot be definitive.  There are too many other people waiting in the wings of the Internet to rank the Pretty Little Liars’ season 1-infinity outfits, or the best animated Disney films (ALL OF THEM) or the things all 90s kids remember.

Some of these lists I might be willing to believe, considering the source.  Oh My Disney, for instance, might have a reasonable claim on being the “most reliable” place to find a list of the Disney princes’ hairstyles.  But they fail the second definition in that these lists, however authoritative the source, will never be in their “fixed and final form.”  Just try Googling “definitive ranking of” and finish the phrase with your own favorite fandom/fruit/fish family.  See how many results turn up.


124,000 search results in 0.36 seconds.  Nice work, Google.  But do these really deserve the title “definitive?”  Most can probably be dismissed out of hand because of their purely opinionated basis, with little or no authority to back them up, and the rest – well, as long as someone else comes out with their own “Definitive Ranking” next week, none of these will ever be the “final and fixed form” of the list.

Which begs the question, why are we so fond of this word on the Internet?  If the fluidity of our medium means that in the next hour someone else with more authority can come along and write their own post about the subject, why do we grasp at the title of “definitive” for ourselves?  The very place we publish these things undermines our credibility.

I tried to think of places I use or hear this word in my everyday life.  I realized that I, too, want to create something “most reliable and complete,” hopefully in a “final and fixed form.”  For several years, I’ve told anyone who would listen that I want to write the definitive work on the Arabian Nights.  That obsession is worthy of its own post(s), but now that I think about it…can I really claim for myself that my eventual tome will be the definitive work?  Or is it something that others will have to decide about my work later?

How does one dare claim this word?  It’s just daunting.  And yet, I applaud those who put forth their opinions and personal research with this brave word attached – as repetitive as it is to see so many supposedly definitive lists on Pinterest.