my writing, photography and the occasional handicraft

Over the last year, my life has changed pretty dramatically, mostly because it’s circled right back to my teenage years. I ended my long-term relationship, and began a new one… only it wasn’t new, exactly. The person I’m with now is the first person I was ever with, as we reconnected after twenty-five years apart. I sold my house, and we moved into the house my boyfriend grew up in. This was the same house he lived in when we dated as kids, so I’d been in it many times. It was virtually unchanged after his parents’ deaths: right down to the couch where we first made out! Though the old couch is gone, and our mix of furniture is now in it’s place, the wallpaper is the same as it was all those years ago.

My life is a strange mix of old and new, so it’s fitting that this post follows so closely on the heels of the same post from last year. Once again, I was at the fair. This time I took my new man, my son from the marriage that ended eight years ago, my recent ex’s two daughters… and my camera. Everyone had a great time.

Because I’d taken a thousand photos of the rides, the lights, and the empty fairgrounds over the last three years, I decided that this year I would try some street photography. I’m always nervous to take pictures of people surreptitiously. I don’t want to invade their privacy. But the kids were busy and my new/old man doesn’t really like posing for me, so there I was, either snapping the lights again, or finding something better. Street photography it is!


Furry tails were a popular prize.

Checking out the giant purple animal.

A mother and daughter sit find a quiet spot.

A mother and daughter find a quiet spot.

This woman's confidence and awesome outfit caught my eye.

This woman’s confidence and awesome outfit caught my eye.

A little boy plays with his blow-up hammer while his mom checks her phone.

A little boy plays with his blow-up hammer while his mom checks her phone.

A row of tigers judges contestants at the crossbow booth.

A row of tigers judges contestants at the crossbow booth.

A boy caresses his girlfriend's mermaid-dyed hair.

A boy caresses his girlfriend’s mermaid-dyed hair.

Riders wait to start spinning.

Riders wait to start spinning.

The ride operator shows my boyfriend where to sit when the ride stops.

The ride operator shows my boyfriend where to sit when the ride stops.

My son and ex's daughter wait to start the ride.

My son and ex’s daughter wait to start the ride.

A teenage employee checks his phone after the milking exhibit shuts for the evening.

A teenage employee checks his phone after the milking exhibit shuts for the evening.

The ride operator, wearing a climbing harness, hikes up to the stopped cars of the loop-de-loop roller coaster after one of the rider's safety bar didn't quite close.

The ride operator, wearing a climbing harness, hikes up to the stopped cars of the loop-de-loop roller coaster after one of the rider’s safety bar didn’t quite close.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have been reflecting, yet again in the last few weeks, on what I require in order to be happy for the rest of my life. I know this is a topic that speaks to most of us; human nature seems to insist that we seek happiness for ourselves, that we covet it when others have it, that we try to buy it, sell it, achieve it, or destroy it. I’m pretty much obsessed with happiness, but strangely, most of my life has been marked by a distinct lack of it. It’s not that I’ve never been happy, but more that happiness has had a fleeting quality, indefinable and misty as an oasis on the edge of a desert. Periods of brief happiness have always struck me as surprising and unsustainable.

Recently, I’ve been going through what I would term my second “divorce.” I put that word in quotes only because I was never formally married to this person, though we lived together for the last seven years. That time together, unlike my first (actual) marriage, was not exactly unhappy. It just wasn’t truly happy, either. It was easy to mistake peace and security for happiness after years of misery and instability. But what I found was that in the end, I was mostly peaceful and secure because I was left alone. By the time I realized that I wanted more than simply existing alongside another person, the relationship was well and truly over.

As life often does, it delivered me a new relationship around that same time. I was immediately struck by the passionate, emotional highs and lows of this new love. I realized very quickly that I had a capacity for enormous happiness and heartbreak that I had almost forgotten over the previous decade. And when happiness hit me this time, something else happened: I became determined to figure it out, hold onto it. This time, I want to be deliberate in my joy.

The funny thing is that after much wrestling and epiphanizing (that’s not even a word, but damnit, it should be!), I have also had to face the fact that the things which I require to make myself happy are not necessarily the things that make other people happy. Or maybe others do need these same things, but they haven’t yet realized it, or perhaps happiness does not hold the same urgent weight for them; I’m not sure. This has made it hard sometimes to recognize the roots of happiness, since the things other people claim bring them happiness are not the keys to it for me. After much reflection, I arrived at a list that I think is probably happiness, for me, in a nutshell. In the face of all the messages I receive about what should make me happy, as opposed to what does, I thought it would be a good exercise for me to list the six things I now believe are necessary for my daily bliss.

Keep in mind that I don’t think I need to have all six of these things every single day. It would be unrealistic to expect that sort of consistency from life, with all its beautiful unpredictability. But what I’ve found is that if I have all six of these things, I AM happy, and if I have fewer than say… four of them, then I AM unhappy. If I am missing one of these things for any serious period of time, I can take action to try to bring it back into my life. That’s reassuring in a complex world.

Jess’s Six Keys to Happiness (Your Mileage May Very Much Vary)

  1. A comfortable place to live

It’s remarkable to me that, living in our appearance-based culture, I’ve only just figured this one out: comfortable has nothing to do with beautiful. For many years, I’ve believed that a beautiful home, like something in a magazine, would make me happier. I’m clearly not the only one who has fallen for this. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read about making my home “a pleasant place for entertaining,” as if my friends can’t have a good time in a house that lacks “flow.” I’ve fallen for the Martha Stewart Industrial Complex just like everyone else around me, swept up in the need to make my life, and especially its outward manifestations, look perfect to everyone else. In the end, though, my pretty houses haven’t made my life happier. They’ve just been big, expensive things to get rid of when I move on.


So what does define a “comfortable” home? I have come to realize that it is this: I need to live somewhere that is both functional and safe. A functional home should have a comfortable place to sleep, and to eat, and to socialize. But it doesn’t have to be gorgeous, or fashionable, or expansive. I need to be able to keep it reasonably clean and uncluttered. I need to have room to be able to do the activities that matter to me. If my home allows me to relax and work and sleep, it’s probably functionally fine, even if the kitchen vinyl is dated. A safe home involves a place where I feel valued and not threatened or ignored. It also means I need to have my fire alarms working, that my neighborhood isn’t dangerous, and that my family can have some privacy in their daily lives. In a broader sense, I need to live in a safe country, where my rights are respected and my overall privacy is ensured.

  1. Satisfying work to do

I’m going to spend the majority of my waking day outside my home, working. This is the reality of most people’s lives: we work for others, with others. If I’m going to be happy, I need to feel that this time is being spent on something worthwhile. One of the eight Buddhist steps to nirvana is to have “right employment,” and this is absolutely true – I am rewarded by a sense of purpose in my day.

I know not everyone goes to work. Some people are retired, or unemployed. I’m not sure that the point is to be happy “at work,” so much as to have work that makes us feel good. This could be teaching, as it is for me, or it could be gardening, or it could be making music, or it could be creating crafts, or it could be working on the house. It could be searching for a more satisfying job. It doesn’t matter what one is doing, precisely. It just needs to provide a sense of, as the book Drive puts it: mastery, autonomy and purpose, most of the time. My father has spent his life working as an artist, which is a notoriously unstable job, yet overall, he is happy and fulfilled in what he does. My mother was an engineer, traditionally an occupation associated with stability, and she was absolutely miserable, surrounded by coworkers who were idiots and bosses who were sadists. They both, of course, had periods where what they did was more or less satisfying. It just goes to show that it isn’t the job description, but the way the job serves to enrich our lives, that matters.

  1. Good food to eat, relaxation time, and a healthy body 

Yummy food that I mostly prepare with my family from fresh, healthy ingredients makes me happy. Occasionally eating out makes me happy (but not eating out too much, or because I have no other options). Meals eaten with friends make me happy. Of course, I also need time to chill out each day and let go of stress. Maybe this involves a bath, or a movie on TV, or even a cocktail. It doesn’t matter, as long as I feel like I can breathe a bit.  Some physical activity (walking, stretching, gardening, weights, cycling) every day makes me feel better too. It’s literally impossible to be happy when I’m in pain or sick. To be honest here, just eating delicious, healthy food is half the battle won!

  1. Time with family and friends

Being alone for any length of time is not conducive to my happiness. It’s not that I can’t be alone. Of course I can, and sometimes a break from everyone is a good thing. There are nights when the idea of eating crap no one else thinks is dinner (goat cheese on crackers and a can of beets, anyone? Anyone?), watching movies that my family will hate, and crafting obsessively really appeals. But the truth is that, and it’s taken me a long time to really understand this, I can’t achieve true happiness if I’m not with the people I care about on any given day. This includes conversation, snuggles, games, support, and forgiveness with/from those I love. I need to be there for my family, see my friends regularly, go out and do things with people whose company I enjoy, let others challenge and change my opinions, and be with my family. I need to deliberately stay connected to my family and to my friends so that I’m never truly isolated. This is a weird concept for me, as I’m fairly content to be passively involved in the lives of my companions, but it might be the most important key of all.

  1. Physical affection from a partner

This is really, really important: full, rounded and joyous happiness involves lots of sex, snuggles, massages and touch from a man I love. Truly, I need this every damn day. I have to pay attention to my partner and myself physically, even when that’s hard because of life. Without touch, my body aches and my mind can’t be at ease. That most of us let these things slide in long-term relationships is tragic and ridiculous: physical affection is as primal a need in our lives as food and water. My sex drive is instinctual and essential, and it has to be maintained and nurtured and shoved a little from time to time.

  1. Time to reflect/be mindful


Even if it’s just running through this list, I need to take care of my own emotional and mental health by checking in. This is more on the spiritual side of things: I want to reflect on what I want, make sure I’m getting what I need, and connect with the deeper side of myself and others and the universe. I want to open my eyes each day to the beauty of my world, but also to see the dangers clearly. I want to think about my needs versus my desires.

When I ignore this last key, I get lost. I can’t see my way out of periods of stress and unhappiness, and those periods are inevitable. Learning to take a deep breath, reflect and ground myself again has been tough. Like everyone, I’m prone to getting swept away in my emotions. So I’m working on this one. It’s the key I tend to forget the most often, and it’s probably the one that leaves me most unhappy when it’s neglected.

So that’s it. If I have each of these things, every single day, I’m happy. It’s not really a challenging list, when I review it. I’m lucky in that I can set up a home where I feel comfortable, and I enjoy my job now that I’ve nailed down a good place to work. I have tons of hobbies and interests. I love eating, and I’m delighted to cook when I can do that with good company. I like spending time with my family. I’m excited to make love to my partner. And if nothing else, I can always reflect and bring my world back into perspective when days get tough. It’s not as though I can claim to have reached nirvana with this list, certainly. Happiness is never a state we achieve. I think we have to work on it, constantly, day by day. All I’m hoping for is to reach those moments of Woo-Hoo more often, and to hold onto them a bit longer. Eventually, I figure, all those daily moments will add up to a lifetime that feels, overall, pretty darn happy.

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Before I start, I should probably note that I’m about to write on a topic, rape, that many people find difficult to discuss. It’s only my opinion, obviously, about one aspect of a complex debate. Now enough saying what shouldn’t even need to be said, and on to the topic at hand.

It was the last day in my dorm before the beginning of summer break, in June of 1990. My freshman year was over, and I was looking forward to three months of working a crappy job, hanging out with my friends, and not thinking about homework. All of my close friends and my roommate had already gone home. I was lonely and bored in a pre-internet world. So when an acquaintance asked if I wanted to go to the last party on campus that year, I agreed.

I should note that I’m not much of a party girl. I don’t drink. That said, I do like boys, and I like sex. I like sex wholeheartedly, with no shame or reservations. I’m not big on shame in general, and even less fond of it when it applies to my sexuality. At nineteen, without a serious boyfriend and with a summer of manual drudgery ahead, I wanted what nowadays would be termed a “hook-up,” but which we called a one-night stand. I wanted to get laid, and I saw nothing wrong with that. I should note that I still don’t. I eventually decided that this sort of sex wasn’t for me, but that had nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the distinct lack of skill that most guys displayed when fumbling around with my body for the first time.

The party turned out to be on Greek Row, and it was filled with the sort of boys I didn’t normally date. I had a type I liked in college: smart, a bit awkward, conflicted, funny… but mostly artsy and weird and prone to too much angsty self-examination. Sometimes those boys looked like rockers, sometimes like poets, sometimes like athletes, but their interiors were pretty much the same. The boys at this party were primarily wealthy frat boys, cocky and loud and not so much into poetry. I figured that didn’t matter much, given what I was after.

The boy I ended up with (whose name I’d protect, if I could actually remember it) was deliciously handsome, reasonably charming, and radiated douchebag. He had that arrogance-mixed-with-disdain-mixed-with-lack-of-critical-thinking thing going for him that some women love, but that makes my skin crawly. Under any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have touched him with a proverbial pole, but hormones are a powerful motivator for ignoring one’s own judgement. Though he had been drinking, I’d caught him early in the night, with just a beer or two under his belt. He was able to hold a somewhat-interesting conversation, to flirt with me, to insinuate that we would have a very meaningless good time. I took him back to my room.

I don’t have a clear memory of most of that evening, because it wasn’t really worth remembering, to be honest. He wasn’t a great kisser or a bad one. But at some point, we got down to more serious business, and I let him put his mouth between my legs. This was where things got more memorable.

He was terrible at it. Like: really, really bad. Aggressive when he shouldn’t be, pokey and weird. It started out uncomfortable and quickly moved into mildly painful.

I said: “I think I’m done with that.”

What I meant was: let’s move on. Other than that moment, things hadn’t been objectionable. I knew even then that most guys weren’t all that skilled in the cunnilingus department. I wasn’t implying we needed to stop altogether, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t sound like that was what I meant. I was perfectly prepared to continue with other… you know… stuff.

Until he replied. Lifting his head briefly, he said to me: “Well, I’m not done.”

And then he went back at it, tightening his grip on my thighs.

I was gobsmacked. There’s no other word for it. That emotion is one of the few things I remember clearly about the whole thing. I wasn’t scared. I was totally surprised, and then I was pissed as hell. What idiot refuses to stop performing oral sex?

“Oh yes, you are,” I said, clear and cold and livid. “Either you stop, or I scream.”

He stopped instantly. The whole exchange lasted maybe ten seconds.

I don’t really remember much about throwing him out, but I know I did. He put his clothes on and left, and I’m pretty sure he called me some choice names in the process, but I didn’t care. It was over, and I was fine. If I have to admit it, I was pretty proud of myself. I had done exactly what I needed to do in a bad situation.

The next morning, I left for home, and spent my summer dating boys I’d known in high school, working at a chain record store, and having a good time. I didn’t waste even thirty seconds thinking about he who is now nameless, or what had happened between us. When I returned to campus the next fall, I saw him around. He didn’t acknowledge me, nor I him. He had a girlfriend. They seemed happy enough. I just assumed she wasn’t into oral sex.

Six, or maybe seven months later, I was sitting with a group of friends in the basement lounge of one of the dorms. It was the sort of night where most people were slowly nursing beers and telling stories that we’d normally have kept to ourselves. Someone told a story about being raped. Other women in the room responded with stories of sexual assaults, or situations that had made them feel violated or afraid. There was a general feeling of camaraderie, because as women, we’d all been around men who were threatening, even if we hadn’t ever been directly in their paths. At some point, it was my turn to talk.

I don’t know why I told that story then. I guess because it followed the general theme of “men being assholes to us,” and to be honest, I didn’t really have story where I was actually violated or afraid, so this was as juicy as it got for me. I said exactly what I just related about it, except I left out the part of being proud of my own response, because that seemed to suggest that other women should have, or could have, done something to prevent being hurt themselves, and I’ve never been one to use my own experiences to pass judgement on others.

I just like telling stories, I suppose, and will find one to tell no matter what the topic.

“Jess,” one of my friends said when I had finished. “You were raped!”

The funny thing is, looking back on that statement, I felt much the same emotion that I had when my bad date told me he wasn’t “done.” I was surprised. I couldn’t figure out how anyone could hold my story up to the other stories being told in that room and walk away with the impression that what had happened to me was really a violation. My story seemed so mild.

“No, I wasn’t,” I insisted. “I said ‘no,’ he said ‘yes,’ I told him to get the hell out, and he did.”

“Right, he didn’t stop when you said to stop. That’s the definition of rape.”

I stared at her. Because what she said was true, if you considered the few seconds before I told him to stop a second time and he did. But a few seconds didn’t feel to me like rape. It felt like a conversation, so to speak: an argument that up until that moment, I believed I had won.

“That’s right,” another girl joined in. “You were violated. You were raped.”

The other women in the room were nodding. It felt to me like they were sending me a message: you may not feel like a victim, but you are.

Social pressure is an interesting thing. At nineteen, I wasn’t very good at challenging it. These were my friends, girls I respected and hung-out with and trusted. I wanted them to like me and to accept me. Being a victim of an assault gave me something in common with them, and to be honest, I can be someone who finds it difficult to connect with other women. This was an “in.” All I had to do was admit that what had happened to me was a scarring, horrific experience, and it would bond me in this circle of femininity.

It would have been easy to say what they wanted to hear. They all knew the boy. Everyone agreed that he was not a very nice guy: boorish and rude and obnoxiously into himself. He liked to flash his money around campus. He was a mouthy smartass in class. He bragged about his frat and his body and his prowess. He fit the “type,” you know?

But I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t raped. That boy, however bad in bed he might have been, wasn’t a rapist, and I wasn’t a victim.

I took a deep breath, braced myself, and then said again: “No, I wasn’t.”

Like most moments in our lives when we feel pressured to do something socially and then finally refuse… nothing happened.

I wasn’t rejected. In fact, no one really cared. They had enough moments of genuine pain and terror between them to make up for me. The night moved on to other stories, and no one ever mentioned what happened to me again. None of my friends disowned me, or tried to change my mind later. I wasn’t kicked out of some mythical girls’ club.

Mostly, I have chosen to keep this entire experience to myself. I have, over the years, known plenty of women who were actually raped. Their experiences were horrific and difficult to relate, and I would never want to diminish their stories. I have also known at least one woman who was a pathological liar and whom I’m pretty darn sure made up her own rape story, just as she made up stories about me and all my friends. Women are complex and capable of many actions: kindness, passivity, aggression, beauty, and cruelty — much like our male counterparts. We pressure each other to conform in ways that are subtle and difficult to avoid, because they are based in insinuations. Being in a room full of women is sometimes like being in a high school locker room, but with way more metaphorical nakedness, and the internet sometimes feels like a very, very big room. The truth is that it’s not easy to be female, so we talk to each other in order to unpack each other, to place each other in a recognizable light.

Both the night in question, plus the reaction of my friends afterward, made me uncomfortable. That moment in my dorm room showed me that I was strong enough to stand up for myself, almost without thinking about it, when my body was being treated in a way I didn’t like. That was a good thing, but it also showed me that I was willing to let my desires get in the way of my judgment, a truth about myself that hasn’t much changed. The moment in the basement with my friends reminded me that it was harder to stand up for my own words than it was to protect my body. I learned how easily our narratives are turned around in the minds of others, how hard it is to keep a narrative from rearranging itself to fit the social norm.

Talking about this topic is difficult, because people hear what they want to hear. Maybe they want to hear me say that all women can simply stand up to men and walk safely away, even though this is clearly not true. Or maybe they want to hear me say that I suffered a sexual assault, which is not what I believe. Maybe they want me to say that women pressure other women to tell lies, but in the end, I don’t think anyone really wanted me to do that. Mostly, people want to apply a single experience out to everyone so they can add it to their understanding, even though that experience is unique.

This is why stories like the recent piece in Rolling Stone, and the recanting of that story later, make people so nervous. We want a rape narrative that fits our preconceived notions of how men and women behave, and we will ignore the truth in order to get that narrative. It doesn’t matter if that narrative comes from a brutal rape story about colluding frat boys, or if it comes from George Will insisting that crying rape is the new fashion on campus. My story could be twisted to fit either of those narratives, while I believe it fits neither.

As an English teacher, I also understand that once a story becomes public, what its author did or didn’t intend really isn’t important anymore. We can’t know for certain what Shakespeare wanted us to think about Shylock’s trial scene, or whether Milton genuinely sympathized with the devil: all we know is what the words say, and then we apply the layers of our own social understanding on top of those words, whether we want to or not.

So here are my words: I was not raped, or even sexually assaulted. Neither was I heroic, just because I told the guy in question to sod off. I was never required to tell a lie in order to maintain my social status; I was not forced to be a victim. I am a human being, navigating complex situations with other human beings. Things got weird when I was nineteen, as they sometimes do.

I was lucky, on many levels. The boy I was with was not a rapist, even if he was an idiot. I was not drunk, or naturally very passive. He was not drunk, or naturally very aggressive. The girls I spoke to later did not reject me, even if they did want me to see things from their perspective. I believe that the boy did not mean to harm me. I believe that the girls meant to include and validate me. Whatever their intentions, I was strong enough to stand up to him and to stand up to them. I’m still proud of myself for both of those moments.

I can understand how stories get twisted and retold and reshaped, both by the tellers and by the listeners. I get how a person can end up recounting and even believing their own false narrative out of pressure or shame or mental illness, and I see how the public would buy into it, because it was what they wanted to hear. Narratives are tricky things.

That’s why we view them (even when they are told at great cost) as mutable things that must be approached delicately. Narratives are not a single truth, no matter how much we wish that they were.

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We went to the Washington State Fair this weekend, and as usual, I took lots of photos. But we stayed late enough that the fairgrounds actually began to shut down, and I really enjoyed the eerie quality of those photos. So while I have some great pictures of my kids and colorful rides that I can post later, I liked the theme of these together. Hope you do, too!











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Okay, I know… what? You’ve never heard of these movies. That’s okay, neither had I. I’m not even sure how I found the second one, but like many serendipitous things, it feels like the movie I’ve been waiting for forever.

So some of you know that I’m quietly working on a new novel, with teenage characters (is it YA? I don’t know. You all will have to tell me, when the time comes!). To keep myself “current” in teen lingo, so to speak, I’ve been reading a bunch of YA romances (some are great, some are terrible, as expected) and watching movies aimed at teens. As a high school teacher, this is all pretty familiar territory. Teens are usually portrayed as ridiculously sex-crazed, way too smart-mouthed, and at the same time, impossibly stupid. That isn’t the picture I really recognize of myself at that age, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the teenagers I know, who are complex and smart and interesting people. Most teen films are, frankly, either dystopian fantasies or stylized vampire trash, and I think I’ve mentioned how I feel about vampires.

These two films, however, are gloriously different. It’s nice to be reimmersed in first love, with all its mistakes and passion and beauty. It’s even nicer when the characters are portrayed by talented, likable young actors who feel like they might be actual people, instead of metaphors for the downfall of society or for an adult’s nostalgic sexuality.

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The Spectacular Now (2013)

Plot: This is the sort of teenage movie that continually surprises with the lack of cliches. Sutter (Miles Teller) is loving his senior year: he has a hot girlfriend and more social cache than he knows what to do with. Charming, if a little abrasive in his cockiness, Sutter is perfectly happy to be the center of attention all the time, and to plan nothing for his future. This is the best time of his life, and he knows it. What really lubricates Sutter’s social experience is alcohol. He’s not just binge-drinking at teenage keggers, he’s carrying a flask and slipping booze into every cup he carries. When his girlfriend gets tired of his drinking and dumps him, Sutter’s at a loss. If being the life of the party isn’t enough, then what’s left? He goes a bender that lands him, unconscious, in a stranger’s yard. He’s “saved” by the neighborhood paper girl, Aimee (Shailine Woodley). She is in his grade, but he has never even spoken to her. They spend the morning hanging out, and before he really knows what he’s doing, Sutter has begun a relationship with the shy, sweet, and very innocent Aimee, who is thrown by this popular boy’s attention. He teaches her to drink, leading to devastating consequences for them both.

The Spectacular Now isn’t a romance, exactly, but it is. You root for Sutter to get his act together and understand that he is hurting Aimee. You root for Aimee to realize that Sutter is doing her no good. Yet at the same time, you recognize that they may be both bad, and great, for each other. Like a real romance, there are benefits and terrible drawbacks to their connection. The movie manages to resolve those drawbacks a bit too neatly at the end, but that’s okay. Few movies cover teen alcoholism with such startling honesty, and without resorting to turning it into a gross-out fest of addiction and misery. Sutter’s path to redemption is hard, but not unachievable.

Scenes to Watch For: The love scene between Sutter and Aimee is low-key and startlingly realistic. Roger Ebert’s last (or nearly) review was for this movie, and it was this scene that stuck with him for the simplicity of its cautious sweetness. I liked it too, but my favorite moment is actually Sutter and Aimee’s first kiss, which flusters her and suprises him, and then is gently dropped as both characters react to what they feel. I also loved the scene after their senior prom, where Aimee explains, in perfectly teenage language, the future she sees for them once she leaves for college. It’s heartbreaking and perfectly accurate in its naive hopefulness.

Actors to Love: My god, Miles Teller and Shailine Woodley! If you’ve only seen them in Divergent, or you know Woodley from Fault in Our Stars, you are in for a treat. Both actors are startlingly natural. You won’t believe either one is acting. They completely disappear into their roles. Teller’s brash confidence beautifully disguises his character’s anger and fear and emptiness, until it slips out in moments where confrontation and realization refuse to back down from his posturing. Woodley is so authentic, it’s almost hard to believe she was ever in another film, because she’s so absolutely Aimee, with her innocence and kindness radiating in every scene. Forget Jennifer Lawrence (who is also amazing, to be fair): Woodley is the real deal.



The First Time (2012)

Put out in very limited theatrical release, this movie would seem to be the very definition of a flop. RottenTomatoes critics (and there are only 17 reviews!) give it a meager 43% approval. If you let that influence you, I promise you’ll be missing out. I suspect this little gem missed it’s target audience somewhere along the way. has over 100 reviews, and the film gets 4.5 stars, and a respectable 7.0 on IMDB from nearly 25,000 reviews. What would I give it? Well, I watched it and then immediately (and I mean immediately) rewatched it. Then I bought the soundtrack (or rather, assembled 90% of it on Spotify). And then I came here to write about it. That’s how much I loved it. Is it perfect? Almost. There are a few overdrawn moments, and the make-up artist really needs to retire as soon as possible (if I can see the male lead’s make-up, you’re trying too hard), but I would easily say it’s one of my favorite little romances, period.

Plot: Dave (Dylan O’Brien) is standing in the alley outside a rocking party, rehearsing a speech that will hopefully move him out of the mythical friendzone and into the arms of his good friend, Jane (Victoria Justice). Overhearing him as she leaves the party in boredom, Aubrey (Britt Robertson) asks who he’s talking to. From there begins a series of conversations that show an immediate spark which neither person is prepared for. Dave really believes he loves Jane, and Aubrey has an older boyfriend (the slightly too cheesy Ronnie, played by James Frecheville as a self-centered, mopey dope). But Aubrey’s sharp critique of Dave’s needy love-paeon, and Dave’s get-over-it romantic side quickly prove to be the basis of a genuine attraction. They walk, they drive, they talk, and they fall in love over the course of a couple nights spent together. Aubrey plays moody alternative rock for Dave, who appreciates why she likes it. Dave points out that she likes him better than she likes Ronnie, and worries when he spills red wine on her bedroom carpet. They banter, they cuddle, then they kiss, and then…

This is where the movie absolutely rocks it. First off, Dave and Aubrey (or the actors playing them) have real, astonishingly sexy chemistry. Their pre-sex scene was so hot, I’d hesitate to watch it with other people in the room (and it’s PG-13! There aren’t even boobies, though there’s a constant threat of boobies). These two kids clearly genuinely want one another. There’s just one problem: they’re both virgins. They rush, or rather, stumble into sex. And it sucks. Really sucks. Like, can’t get around it, that-was-horrific sucks. There are tears, there are embarassed moments, mean things are said out of spite and hurt and fear, and it’s great. You really feel for these poor kids, because all the promise of a great experience is there, but they have no idea how to work with their chemistry long enough to actually please one another. Of course, the movie resolves the problem, but in a realistic and thoughtful way: they are going to have to work on this, and we’re just pleased that they want to try.

Scenes to Watch For: Dave’s friends are loads of fun, and I wish there were more scenes with them (unlike most cute-boy sidekicks). They give him real advice, and though it isn’t always good advice, it’s genuine. I particularly liked the contrasting opinions they have on what he should do after his failed attempt at love. Also moving is Aubrey’s reaction to a car accident that she and Dave drive past: they met the kids in the car briefly the night before, and though the conversation was meaningless and momentary, that they might have been hurt or killed (we never learn their fates) moves her to question if she can handle life as an adult. Of course, the make-out session Dave and Aubrey share before they make it into bed was fantastic enough to be mentioned again. Wow. Really. And then finally, there are several scenes involving a condom that are so genuine and awkward, they’re actually painful to watch.

Actors to Love: Both O’Brien and Robertson are great, though he is a bit more believably teenage than she is, mostly because she looks 22, which she was). I have never seen Dylan O’Brien in anything else (apparently he’s on the verge of stardom, as the star of The Maze Runner), but he reminds me of Kevin Bacon, circa Footloose, with a rangey cuteness that’s thrown off a little by a face that isn’t quite perfect. He also has marvelously subtle and realistic reactions to every conversation. When Aubrey starts talking about STDs after their disasterous first time, the hurt and horror in his eyes are startling. Britt Robertson reminded me of a young Renee Zellwegger, before she got so bee-stung and squinty as to lose her attractiveness. Her Aubrey is both sophisticated and a bit cruel, hiding a genuine sense that she never quite knows how to live up to the image she projects. All the supporting cast are great too, from Aubrey’s kind and loving parents, to Dave’s baby sister, to Jane’s self-absorbed super-hotty.

And did I mention the soundtrack? How much fun is it? More than fun. Bouncy, sexy, smart and thoughtful. I loved this film, and hopefully you will too. Unfortunately, I could only find it to buy on Amazon, and not available to rent (streaming) anywhere, but it was totally worth my $10.





A few weeks ago, my pre-teen step-daughter started reading The Fault in Our Stars. She instantly fell swoopy in-love with the novel, which is not surprising, as she is its target audience (actually, she is a bit young, but apparently precocious). Because she wanted to see the movie for her birthday, and because I have been secretly working on my own young adult novel, I decided to settle down and give the story a quick read.

I downloaded it to my tablet at 6:30. I read solidly until 12:30 in the morning. I may have cried once or twice, though not necessarily where John Green expected me to. Nevertheless, I thought it was moving, and lovely, and thoughtful, with a bit of silly teenage angst thrown in and a few romance novel conventions tucked conveniently into the right places. We went to film the next day, and while my three kids sat there stoney-eyed, my partner and I wept like babies. Overall, I would say the story succeeded in all the ways it meant to succeed: I laughed at Hazel’s witty narration, I rooted for her love for Gus, I was pissed at Van Houten, and I felt satisfied by the ending. If there were bumps along the way… well, few books exist without a bump or two (or 50 pages worth. I have read a lot of Dickens over the years).

Which brings me to my point. Since I saw the film and read the novel, I’ve become more aware of the criticisms surrounding this book (until then, I’d only heard my students and friends rave about it). They mostly seem to boil down to the idea that the teenage protagonists don’t really sound like actual teenagers, or that Green was “using” cancer to further a silly romance for teenage girls.

As Gus would say: “I reject that out of hand.”

I will quickly demolish the “they don’t sound right” criticism by saying this: yes, they do, sometimes, if you know the right teenagers. Most of the kids I’ve taught don’t talk like Hazel and Gus, it’s true. They don’t monologue, they don’t quote poems to one another, and they don’t speculate on the meaning of life. But a few of them have sounded exactly like these characters. I once made the mistake of trying to eat lunch with a group of particularly literate teenage boys and had to move seats when I realized they really were going to spend the entirety of their lunch period discussing Kierkegaard. So it’s possible, and why shouldn’t it be? Did Shakespearean teenagers really stroll around spouting iambic pentameter? Did Victorian teenagers all sound like Jane Eyre? Did anyone, ever, sound like the characters in Hemingway stories? Of course not, but we believe it because fiction is an idealization of life. My main concern with the voice of the characters I read is to believe that it’s consistent, that it’s authentically sustained, and these kids certainly meet that criteria. One doesn’t have to like the voices Green chose to give them, but to argue that they can’t exist because my friends and I never talked about Kierkegaard at lunch is like arguing that Romeo can’t tell Juliet that she’s like the sun because my teenage boyfriends never got further than complimenting my butt.

So now onto point two: The Cancer Plot.

Oh my god, when did we decide that utilizing any legitimately important life event was off-limits for writers? Seriously, if Green can’t use cancer to further his plot, than I’m going to lay down a few life events I would love to see eliminated from all literary fiction plots:

1. Incest. I’m actually serious about this one, just because it’s the main plot device for so very many overwrought novels. If I have to read one more story where the one of the primary motivators for the characters’ behaviors is the sexual exploitation of children by their family, I will scream. I’m looking at you, Southern Gothic fiction (particularly you, The Sound and the Fury and Beloved). If we struck this one from the literary play book, almost the whole of Oprah’s Book Club would vanish overnight.

2. Rape. Imagine if we removed this subplot from, say, The Kite Runner. What would be left? Lyrical descriptions of Afghanistan is what would be left, and I would much prefer to have read that book than the dreck I barely ended up finishing. I really did hate that book. But rape is a plot point in lots of legitimately great works, too. What about Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or A Clockwork Orange? Or House of Spirits? Or The Bluest Eye? Even The Lovely Bones falls by the wayside. Let’s not leave out drama. Go watch A Streetcar Named Desire in its original theatrical release format, and then watch it with the 30 seconds of restored footage that implies (as the play makes quite clear) that Stanley rapes Blanche. Then tell me that it can’t be used as a powerful motivator for character behavior simply because it’s been done a thousand times before.

3.Consumption/TB. If no cancer, than no TB, damnit. That eliminates about 60% of the French novels ever written, I think. No Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Les Miserables. It would also take out Crime and Punishment, and about half of the world’s great operas (because when people get TB, all they want to do is SING!).

4. WarTale of Two Cities is such a cliché! Nevermind War and Peace. And don’t get me started on Parade’s End, or Empire of the Sun, or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or for God’s sake, All Quiet on the Western Front. Who uses the suffering of millions as a plot device? Such exploitation!

5. Mental Illness. Besides the afore-mentioned Crime and Punishment, we could just strike out Heart of DarknessJane Eyre, and all those horrible “memoirs” about depression or suicide or addiction that have come out in the last ten years.

Need I go on? What if we cut out domestic violence, murder (oh please, for all the gold in heaven, can I never read another novel featuring a serial killer? PLEASE?), suicide, adultery… Oh heck, let’s just eliminate the ability of the writer to exploit a single negative thing that ever happens to anyone in real life. Because if we get rid of all that melodramatic nonsense, what we’re left with is the sort of pathetic, angst-ridden drivel that passes for entertainment on “real” network television: who will sleep with whom? Who will get voted off the island? Who will be America’s Next Top Model?

Oh for Christ’s sake. I would rather see kids read 100 novels about thoughtful, literate and totally believably pretentious teenagers dying of cancer and consummating their love with a kiss in Anne Frank’s house than let them see one more moment of Tyra Banks.

But if the book/television comparison ain’t doing it for you, let’s examine a few recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction: The Goldfinch, which uses the death of the 13 year-old protagonist’s mother as a jumping off point for the story; The Orphan Master’s Son is a coming-of-age story which is set in North Korea; Tinkers, whose main character is an epileptic traveling salesman; and A Visit from the Goon Squad  (the “goon” is death), which tells whole chapters in mock-PowerPoint presentations. Are they better written than Green’s book? Some people clearly think so. But that’s not because they avoid using exploitive plot-devices. I mean, let’s be honest: it’s hard to be more exploitive of current talking points than a white guy from North Dakota writing a novel set in North Korea

In the end, people have every right to loathe books like The Fault in Our Stars. Maybe you hated the characters, or the voice, or the language, or even the plot. But saying that a writer shouldn’t use cancer as a plot-device because it’s, well, cancer, is just stupid. Everything is open and available as a plot device. EVERYTHING. Because writers are creating tales about life, and disease, death, love, sex, war, fear, rape, birth… it’s all life. How could anyone tell a story without this stuff?

I think the critics who hate this story often pounce on it because it was written primarily for teenage girls, who are seen almost universally as silly (as opposed to teenage boys, who fund the freaking Transformers franchise, but who are apparently mental geniuses). Girls like love stories, and this is a love story. But they also like strong female characters who face dying with a steely-eyed determination befitting the epic battle that it can be, as we’ve seen in everything from The Hunger Games to Divergent to this novel. I would even argue that Hermione Granger fits this mold, and quite beautifully so.

Why not? Death is a big, beautiful, terrifying theme, just like Love. These are perfect vehicles for story telling. I say: go to it, John Green! Exploit away! That’s what great writers DO.

Note: though I could, admittedly, do without another YA novel about vampires, ever. Or any novel about vampires, really. I just don’t like vampires. Vampires are stupid. There, I said it.



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I took my son and his friend to the zoo this week on their spring break. Frankly, the pictures I took of the animals weren’t fantastic, as the camera was wearing my 20mm portrait lens (though I got some great photos of the kids). I was able to zoom in on a few and make them work, but my favorite by far is the strutting peacock, who was on the patio of the zoo restaurant and therefore ready for his close up!

The boys checking out the jaguars, who are on the other side of the cage


What’s that, you say? You want to see jaguars? I got jaguars.


See? Blurry and far away. Let’s try the penguin enclosure… wait… that’s not a penguin! Free-loader!


Inside the tropical aviary. Note the boy in the background ducking as some tropical bird dive-bombs his head.


The boys were pretty psyched about the zebras. Not sure why. My ex used to call them “fancy donkeys,” and he’s not far off.


The new Asian Small Clawed Otter pups, though? We went back four times. The little buggers were hard to capture, as they were so damned fast!


They came right up to the plexiglass to interact with the kids. Definition of cuteness.


And as promised: Mr. Peacock.