Wednesday, September 21, 2016

So I Guess You Call This Autumn (2016 Version)

If I listen to the crickets and cicadas, screaming their songs into the balmy night, I can believe it's summer. And then I realize that their cacophony is quieter than it was, even a week ago.

If I glare up at the sun, blazing in a cloudless blue sky, I have no problems at all believing it's summer. And then I realize that this is probably just an unwelcome late-season heat wave, and will soon pass.

If I catch a whiff of freshly-mown grass, I know it's summer, and that someone, somewhere, is tired from the work of mowing. And then I think of the green lawns that will soon transform into grey, brown ground.

The farmer's market is still showcasing the fresh produce. The students are still wearing shorts and flip-flops. The air-conditioning is still running. The children are still running through the parks, screeching and laughing and playing. But the winter merchandise is out, and people talk excitedly of all the punkin spice everything, and their Christmas plans--even as they think beyond the holidays and contemplate the bleakness of the long, cold winter.

Even though it should still be hot for a good few days after today, this is the last day of summer. This heat wave will pass, and the land will know to do what it has always done--cycle into the dormant time of the year. Retreat, hibernate, hunker down. And very, very soon, autumn will begin in earnest. I welcome this change, as I hope I will welcome every seasonal change. But autumn, especially, I relish. The beginning is always the best--the beginning of a relationship, a vacation, a new home, or, in this case, the season of celebration and unpredictable weather. And so I love autumn the best. And it is almost here.

Good-bye, summer. It's been a long time since I enjoyed you. It's been a long time since I eagerly anticipated you. I loved you, and I will miss you, and I will welcome you again, in the fullness of time. But for now, I believe it is time to welcome my long-lost, much-beloved autumn. I am ready for it--the misty mornings and stormy nights, the brilliant foliage that's here one day and gone the next, the punkin spice lattes and Halloween decorations, the crisp air, the boots and peacoats, the soups and grilled cheese, the traditions. For the first time in 11 years, I get the privilege of experiencing fall. Its life will be brief, and its death will be sudden, but perhaps it's all the sweeter for it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

How I Fared at the Fair (and the Fair Fare Upon Which I Fared)

"When they pulled into the Fair Grounds, they could hear music and see the Ferris wheel turning in the sky. They could smell the dust of the race track where the sprinkling cart had moistened it, and they could smell hamburgers frying and see balloons aloft..."  
-E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web

Recently I duped cajoled persuaded one of my new friends--a particularly amiable chap named Jeremy, who is always up for hijinks and shenanigans involving this humble state of ours--into not only accompanying me to the State Fair, but also into going along with the 12 hour schedule of events I planned out for us.

This is not a typo: 12 hours. 

If you think there's not 12 hours of things to do at a State Fair, then you clearly haven't had the privilege to come to a Midwestern State Fair. And also you're probably a bit of an idiot. I don't know what other state fairs are like--hell, I don't know if the Indiana State Fair is always like this, but it being the Bicentennial and all, good golly, there was so much to do and see (and, uh, eat) that 12 hours simply wasn't nearly enough.

We went on a Saturday, after a week of gorgeously sunny, warm weather. As we drove up to Indy, the clouds were gathering in, heavy and close and grey, and--no joke--as soon as we turned on 38th Street and joined the line of cars waiting to enter the Fairgrounds, the skies opened up and the rains came down. It was an annoyance, but not a game-changer--on and off throughout the day, the rain continued. It was never a gully-washer--but it was enough to keep the crowds down a bit, and give us an excuse to spend some time at the Beer, Wine, and Spirits Exhibition Hall (more on that later.)

In the past, when I thought about county and state fairs, I thought about only a few things: food, and the Midway rides, and the carnies and hawkers. But in researching and planning this year's adventure, I got a chance to really think about the backbone of the fair: the farmers, and the creators. Early on, we spent a fair amount of time in the Purdue Science Agriculture/Horticulture Extension Building (and not just because it was air-conditioned!), and I'm glad we did, because it helped put so much into perspective. It was here that Jeremy spun a gourd (this is not an innuendo), and where we ogled the longest gourd (not the same one that Jeremy spun) and where I got to see ALL THE CORN and where we pondered the ethics of keeping a punkin that was on life support...

And where we saw beautiful displays of prize-winning vegetables, and a scarecrow that was legit scary and also won a prize (what the eff is wrong with Hoosiers?!?)

The thing that I found the best about this part of the fair was seeing the pride that people were taking in their produce and livestock, and the ways that they try to do outreach and inform people of the incredibly important work that they do. In a sense, County and State Fairs are like professional conferences for farmers, but open to the public. It's kind of silly--I think there's such a conception of farmers in America being backwards, or hicks, or bumpkins, but they do work that is critical to the survival of our human race. Like, the work that you and I do? It's important to some, but not in the same way that farmers are essential. It's fantastic to see them gathered at the State Fair and celebrating what they do, and the difference they make.

Now, let's talk about the Bicentennial Experience.

As I've mentioned, oh, 2 or 3 or 200 times, it's Indiana's Bicentennial this year, and they sure as hell did a fantastic job of celebrating it at the Fair. They had an entire exhibition hall dedicated to Indiana history, commerce, and culture. I was in hog heaven...

My favorite part was the LEGO display of creations that depicted Indiana life and culture. 

(College rivalries and covered bridges; it's what we are known for)

(And corn, too. We are totally known for corn. I about died when I saw this LEGO 
creation of a Hoosier family farm, complete with corn and soy fields and a basketball 
goal. It was hard to tear myself away from this display.)

Because of the weather (it alternated between "Oh look! More rain!" to literally ten minutes later: "UGH the sun is out and it's so humid!") we ducked in and out of many climate-controlled buildings, most of them filled with either displays related to farms and farming, or Indiana And Why We Are Awesome, or...

Replicas of Indiana farmhouses!
I honestly have no clue. Something needle-pointy? I love it. 
Quilts! Because Indiana. 
Collections of Antiques

Scrapbooking layouts. There is actually an award
 category for this, I think. Again, because Indiana. 
Bug collections. I'm not even kidding.
 There were SO MANY BUGS.

Bunnies who moon you.
It's as if, as my fellow adventurer pointed out, everyone in the state who is motivated enough comes together in Indy for the State Fair to say, "Hi! So this is what I've been up to this past year."

Now. Let's talk about what REALLY matters at a fair...

...the food. ALL THE FOOD.

This is merely one of about 1,816 food venues at the fair. 
About 1814.5 of them feature some sort of variation on deep fried victuals.

This is what the vendor called the "I'm Single Special"--a sampler of deep fried death. AKA Deep Fried Oreo, Birthday Cake, Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, and Cookie Dough.

Deep fried cheese...

 A bacon cheese burger between two donuts. (To be fair, it could have been worse; 
you could have gotten mac'n'cheese on it. Also, I didn't get this; my friend did. So, a win?) 

Funnel cake. SO MUCH funnel cake.  Regular funnel cake, Cookies and Cream Funnel Cake, Red Velvet Funnel Cake...BIRTHDAY CAKE FUNNEL CAKE! (Now, let's be clear: I didn't eat all those different funnel cakes. I'm just saying, there was a variety.) I ended up having a birthday cake funnel cake in celebration of Indiana's 200th birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY INDIANA! I ate that 
funnel cake all for you. It was too sweet.

And my favorite (and possibly the healthiest) things I ate: pig on a stick (AKA a wonderfully marinated pork chop on a skewer) and sweet corn on the cob. Both were indescribably delicious--and perfectly Indiana, too. I'll be dreaming of these yummies until next year's fair. 

After a cloudy yet golden dusk gave way to a humid, drizzly night, after a full 12 hours spent surrounded by folks from all over the state, after we spent all of our money and consumed two weeks' worth of calories, after we celebrated Hoosier history and culture, we trudged back to our car, parked in the vast center of the Fairgrounds. To the west, the Midway lights still twinkled; to the south, the Farmers Coliseum--built during the Depression as a WPA project--stood sentinel over the whole Fairgrounds. We were tired, over-full, but justifiably proud: we had done and seen and eaten just about everything we had planned for. We did right by the Fair, during this special Bicentennial Year. Because of those Bicentennial celebrations and exhibits, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And while I know I will return to the Fair many times in the years and decades ahead, none of them will ever be like this Fair experience, during my first year Back Home. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

In so many parts of the country, highways and roads were no doubt choked with traffic, backed up with holiday weekenders driving back from beaches, lakes, mountains, friends's houses. In a way, I was one of those people--driving back from a friend's place, where I had spent my Labor Day bobbing about on a lake, in a pontoon boat. But on the roads I took to return home late last night, I encountered few other cars. That's one of the blessings of where I was staying--it's in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana, and so the drive to and from Nowhere is really pretty laid-back. As I drove home to Bloomington, my eyes bounced back and forth from this old barn to that pretty farmhouse to all the cornfields. The high point came at sunset, when the sun turned a perfect orb of molten gold, framed with pink, and slowly sank down behind the cornfields. Unobscured by any clouds, the sun gave its rays until the last possible moment, as though eager to share every second of its warmth and light, knowing its time is running down. 

After that, the twilight deepened, and the shadows became almost indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside. Every now and then, a late-season firefly gave a feeble wink--weaker than the sun's strength, but still holding on to whatever life was left in it. The fields, so recently tinged with the sun, became obscured with eerie fingers of mist. 

Thus ends my first Labor Day back home here in Indiana, and I guess, given that I am now in a four-season climate, this means that summer is over. Sure, it was 90 degrees out yesterday, and will be again tomorrow. Sure, summer lasts for another few weeks. But I think we are approaching the descent into the cold months of the year, and I loved that I book-ended my summer with time spent sunning myself in the cold waters of a lake, surrounded by laughter and the sheer joy of being out-of-doors. 

Without meaning to, I totally had "The Summer of Mel." Picnics and cookouts in parks; new friendships made and old ones strengthened; evenings spent on my back patio blowing bubbles and drinking beer and listening to the dull roar of dozens of A/C units close by; more than one night spent dancing the night away at the neighborhood gay bar. It has been the best summer of my life, despite--or perhaps because of--the lack of an Epic Summer Romance. (Actually, now that I think about it, that's probably why it was the best summer ever!)

The roadside stands are still selling sweet corn--but pumpkins are appearing, too. Folks around town have already decorated their front lawns for Halloween. Some of us are ready for the next season, the death of the year, just as by next February or March, we'll be ready for sunlight and warmth again. 

Good-bye, summer. Thank you for...being you, which is hot and humid but not horrible and suicide-inducing. Thank you for reminding me of the proper magic of your months. I can't wait to meet up with you again. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Bloomington/Indiana Thoughts, Part 1

It's now August, and we're in the dog days of summer. The mostly warm-to-hot days of June and July have given way to day after day of muggy, cloying warmth, interspersed with thunderstorms to liven things up now and then. Somehow, the last two months have passed, filled with work and little adventures and time spent with loving family and friendly acquaintances and supportive friends. And so, time has sped by, to this point.

There are only a few fireflies, here and there, lighting up the twilight, and that, more than anything, is a silent, sobering reminder that time does march on, and despite the seeming perfection of life, it dwindles and sputters and dies.


Speaking of time passing, and the rhythm of seasons, and the ebb and flow of time passing...

...The students are returning.

You live in Bloomington long enough that, come May, when the spring storms are receding and the green foliage is at its most vivid, you rejoice, for the students retreat. They go back from whence they came, and you enjoy the reduced amount of traffic, the briefer wait times at restaurants, the shorter lines at the grocery stores, the fewer dude-bros hanging out around Kilroys on Friday and Saturday nights. But then you become one of the people that go to ground during certain times, usually around the middle of August, and then again during the Little 500.

We really cannot complain too much, because the existence of Indiana University, and thus the students, is what makes Bloomington Bloomington. We're a significant little city in this state. Without the university, we'd be another Solsberry or Hindustan or Danville or Paoli or Elwood. It is the students--their presence, their money, their diverse cultures, both national and international--who  make us who and what we are.

So they are returning, (or arriving for the first time) and the poor little shits are having to practically have to row their way here, because...


The last few days, we've been completely deluged with rain. Not, like, "Anchors Aweigh!" or "Louisiana drowning" rain, but several hours of steady rain, on and off, which can lead to some real gully-washing. Tonight, when wandering back to my car after a lovely outing with a couple of new friends, I noticed the rain-washed streets, reflecting a gleam from yellow streetlights. As I gazed into the murky gold muddling the asphalt, I thought about a younger me, 12 years younger, looking at a similar rain-washed street, in the same damned city. Then, I was a new arrival, just starting grad school, on the cusp of what I once thought was THE relationship of my life. I was 24 and bright and clueless and yet felt like I knew everything. Probably just like the students who look at those rain-washed streets tonight, for the first time.

It would be a goddamned privilege to live here for the rest of whatever years I have left to me, watching the generations of students come in and out, keeping this a town forever young. And yet...

On a slightly more sinister note...Lauren Spierer. Several years ago, I saw this poor duck and the circumstances of her disappearance showing up on my newsfeed. Being an Indiana news-junkie, even then, I was disturbed and saddened. And now, having moved back here, I can see that her presence is as strong as ever through her absence. One of my companions tonight remarked that we were driving past the place where Ms. Spierer disappeared--and as it turned out, it wasn't that far from where I had lived, just a few years prior. Like, just seven blocks away.

All safety is an illusion, even in a quiet little liberal college town.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Thoughts on Two Marriages

Last month on Facebook (the most reliable source for all breaking news) I came across a little article announcing that the author Elizabeth Gilbert and her partner were separating.

If you're not familiar with this storyline, never fear--I can sum it up for you pretty quickly: Talented author realizes that she is miserable in her marriage. Author divorces husband and decides to travel around the world to a lot of countries that begin with the letter "I" to eat pasta and find herself. Instead, she found herself another fella, fell in love, and wrote a memoir about the whole experience, making a boatload of money in the process, and getting a movie deal too. I can't say for certain, but I think there's a strong possibility that the book and movie inspired a good few women of a certain seconomic and educational strata to leave their partners and chase after their inner Julia Roberts.

(Not me. I didn't take a months-long trip to Italy or Indonesia or India, although I DID take a 17-day vacation to Indiana.)

I wanted her to have a happy ending. (I mean, what curmudgeonly troglodyte asshole DOESN'T want someone to be happy?) We all wanted her to have a happy ending because we want to know that we will have happy endings. But here's the truth: there's never a totally happy ending. Perhaps a happy pause between storylines.

Regardless, I did feel a slight see of connection with Elizabeth Gilbert, as one is supposed to do when reading the work of a talented memoirist. And then, she decided to marry her fella, for complicated reasons...but before she did, she wrote a book facing down her ambivalence about the institution of marriage. Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, I read it right before I got married.

We have nothing really in common, Ms. Gilbert and myself. She has achieved a great deal of worldly success and is much farther along than I am in her skills as a writer. But yet, here we both are, both of us separated and terminating our relationships with the partners that we once thought we would be with until the end of this life. I got married, and couldn't make it work. She wrote a book on marriage, and got married, and couldn't make it work. And there are no doubt a lot of people that have plenty of thoughts on that matter.

Last weekend, I came across a blog post about Elizabeth Gilbert's announcement, and the world's more-than-slightly-stupid reaction to it. I agreed quite strongly with her statement that "to suggest that readers are (or should be) somehow 'disillusioned' with the news of their separation is to hold Gilbert to a ridiculous standard--one nobody can uphold." She also takes the pretty generous, but not inaccurate, view that "marriage does not need to last forever to be a success." That all sorts of amazing things can come out of marriages that don't last. Children, and happy memories, and positive impacts, and lasting friendships can make marriages--even ones that end in divorce--a success.

Here is, at least for now, where Ms. Gilbert's and my story differ most drastically. I feel like--and I say this with no bitterness--my marriage was anything but a success. We didn't have children, we are not coming away with a lasting friendship, and just about all of my recollections of our six years together are tinged with vague emotions of contempt, boredom, disgust with both of us, homesickness, bitterness, disillusionment, and distrust. I know I shouldn't indulge in those kinds of emotions, and I want to move past them, move past this travesty of a marriage and all my flawed thinking that got me into that mess to begin with.

Maybe it's time to eat, pray, and love my way through Indiana. I've got the eating part down.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Another Indiana

It's a funny thing...back when I lived in That Place, and I expressed to folks my desire to move home to Indiana, they would give me A Look. Specifically, the look that said, "Girl, I know your politics. What the hell are you thinking, wanting to move to Indiana?" At which point, I would sheepishly acknowledge their point, and then rush to say, "Yeah, but not that Indiana!"

And now that I live here, whenever I remark on something being odd for where we live, I have lots of people helpfully pointing out, "yeah, but we're not Southern Indiana. We're Bloomington."

We're a diversity-lovin', recyclin', hippie-dippie, activist, academic kind of community, it's true. And so I didn't feel any hesitation or compunction at all, attending a Black Lives Matter rally this last Saturday.

Black lives have mattered to me for a very long time now, whether or not I actually knew to put the words to it. But regardless, for a long time I have been grinding my teeth over the blithe arrogance of people (read: white people) who don't see things wrong with things the way they are. I have a huge respect for folks who devote their lives to law enforcement, but I see that there are major issues with the way we handle the presence of minorities in this country, and I also see the disgusting racism that takes place, and I don't want people to think that All White People don't care. I am an ally. Even if all I do is show up to a rally, and hold a sign, and look my fellow country(wo)men in the eye and try to convey that yes, I acknowledge your struggle and I am here if you need me and I won't stand silently by. Even if all I do is that, I want to do it. 

So I did it. 

Funny thing to note: in the Midwest (even Bloomington) a #BlackLivesMatter rally is still very white. 

I came, I chanted, I rallied, I embraced the spirit of democracy that protects us all in America (in ideal America, anyway). But I learned something, early on. I commented to the person with whom I was attending, "Of all the places in America for this rally to take place, I cannot imagine a less relevant place than Bloomington." Bloomington, the hippy-dippy, diversity-lovin', academic oasis of Indiana--what police brutality or prejudice or inequality could we possibly have here?

Right away, I caught myself--spoken like a Caucasian middle class female who has never had to experience life as a person of color.

Even as an ally, I have so much to learn. But I want to turn up to the lessons. And while that might not be like a lot of Indiana--well, it's still my Indiana.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Departure and Farewell

A few days ago--much, much sooner than I was ready--I returned to California.

It didn't matter that I was only there for, like, 62 hours, or that I was no where near the horrible place where I lived before. It didn't matter that I was surrounded by people whom, for the most part, have no idea of the emotional shitstorm that went on in my life last year. It doesn't matter that it was a trip to bring closure to one of the few remaining things that tied me to California. I just didn't want to go. 

For the weeks leading up to this trip, I've been dreading it. There were times when I was about 10% convinced I should just bail. It was a trip in which I would be flying (ugh) to California (ugh) surrounded by some of the best librarians in the state of California, some of the most ambitious and accomplished current and emerging library leaders in the state, and would have to give a five minute presentation (ugh) about a project that essentially I sucked at. At least in my Crazy Aunt Mel brain.

But leaders don't quit, or something, and I felt like I owed it to the cohort to stick it through. After all, last year we vowed to ourselves and each other that "We are Eurekans, and we are in!" (and if that doesn't sound like a cult, then I clearly didn't live in California long enough) so I bought the damned plane ticket and slapped together a powerpoint presentation and memorized my talk and packed my bag and hauled myself up to Indy at ass-o'clock in the morning and flew out to the Land of Sun and Bullshit.

And I lived to tell the tale. In fact, almost immediately I was pretty happy that I went. I'd made some friends through the program, so everything else aside, I got to reconnect with them. In an over-air-conditioned conference room, I watched my closest friend in the cohort give an effing flawless presentation (while wearing my heels!) and knew that it was worth it for me to come, just to see that. In that same room, my mentors presented me with a pin and told me about how they could see how much I had struggled during the program, and came out stronger. In that same room, I stood before 50 people and talked about my project and somehow managed to acquit myself pretty damned well. Oddly, no one else thought the project was a failure--but then, according to one of my mentors, if I use my smile right, I light up a room and can sell ice to an Eskimo. And then, a very few hours later, I boarded a plane and came home.

After all of that, I am still not sure what professional leadership looks like for me, or whether it's something that I will ever really be ready for (shit, I can't even keep myself from crying at work), but after those 62 hours, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that while it was one of the sources of stress for me during the Year of Suck, it was also one of the sources of strength that I found myself equipped with when it came time to make my decision to move home.  It helped me leave California so that I could fly away from Indiana and then come back, as my home. It helped me to become the leader in my own life.

I don't know when I'll be back in California. I have neither an immediate reason nor a pressing desire to go back there. So when I flew away from there, it was both departure and farewell. And it was with a sense of closure, and a happy one, which we don't always have the luxury of experiencing, that I came home.