Stories, Art, Food, Teaching, Travel, and the other Loves of my Life

Stories, Art, Food, Teaching, Travel, and the other Loves of my Life
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?" Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thursday: Mad Chaucer Debate

Class was really fired up over the Wife of Bath debate we did today.

I just split them down the middle and called one side "The Optimists" and one side "The Pessimists" and asked them to answer the following questions as a team:

"Did the Knight really change? Or is he just 'gaming the system?' Is the woman actually a sovereign being, or does she end up perpetuating the cycle?"

They already knew the answers, based on what team they were on, but then they had to find evidence from the text.

At first, I was worried it wouldn't work because I "assigned" them a position, but I did it because I wanted them to think through both sides, not necessarily just form an opinion. And, much to my surprise and delight, they took OFF.

And now, a picture that warms my heart:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wednesday Writing

Not that I have any babies to name or anything, but I always have names kicking around in my head. I'm a fiction writer, and I figure, they're characters waiting to be born.

I will actually often go and search for names from specific countries if I'm working on a character who I've come up with a background/ history for, but not yet named. If I didn't look, my characters would all sound like the same WASP-y or Latina kids I grew up with. Which is fine when that's what I'm writing about, but often, it's not.

I wrote a story a long time ago about a nurse in Johannesburg who adopts a baby boy. I looked for African names online and found one I love: Kefentse.

I also thought Asher was a really cool, unique sounding name (this was found during my Hebrew-name search). I liked that one so much, I filed it away under "possible future baby names," thinking I was so original and off the beaten path.

But, according to this, I am so not. Number FIVE on top 100 boy baby names of 2010. Lame. Maybe by the time we have kids it'll be as original and uncommon as I thought it was.

Do you have any tricks that help you write stories?

Face Off

Don't get me wrong, I love Anthropologie, and if I won the lottery it would probably make the top three places I'd go first, after Etsy and REI. Maybe fourth, after Cost Plus. But, Anthro has always reminded me of stuff I'd find at the flea market or antique store for way cheaper, if I could just comb the stalls long enough.

Then, the problem becomes... the waiting. In a month I will have a kitchen that's three times the size of the one I have now and it's soooooooo tempting for me fill those cupboards. Gah.

But, when I found this, the challenge became clear: which one is the $6 glass, and which one is the $3 glass? Both are available for purchase right now.

Heh heh heh

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Place...

... has a yard.

A small one, but an honest-to-goodness, plant-stuff-in-the-ground, surrounded-by-a-fence YARD.

I am just a wee bit ecstatic.

Monday: Wish I Were Here


I've been working my way through this cookbook for a few months now, and I have the travel bug, bad. The pictures just make we want to teleport.

We're moving June 1st, and the new place will have a designated classroom for me and my students. I'm so excited! We're picking out colors to paint the walls as we speak. I have been really inspired by some of the rich reds and golds and vibrant sea blues, and think they would work well in a room that will do triple duty as a classroom, office, and guest room.

If you could teleport right this very minute, where would you go?

What We're Having Tonight: Spinach Pesto

Ed is not the biggest veggie-man. He'll dutifully eat a few raw ones, mainly tomatoes and cucumbers, assuming they come in salad form, but beyond that, he's not too adventurous: no broccoli, under any circumstances, no more than a bite of swiss chard followed by a gag, and brussel sprouts aren't even up for discussion.

I, on the other hand, love my veggies, in just about any form. Call it the by-product of having a nutrition scientist for a mother. To keep us both happy, we have a lot of salads, and I usually puree whatever's in season beyond oblivion, into a soup that he doesn't even suspect is mostly carrot.

When that gets old, this is my best stand by. He literally had no idea it was mostly spinach until this past Friday, when we were meeting friends for a dinner party, and running behind, so he had to make the pesto while I stuffed the peppers. He kept saying, "Are you sure it's this much spinach?" And I would smile, nod, and remind him that, Honey, I know what I'm doing.

Sneaky Spinach Pesto:
  • 1 bag of organic spinach leaves, cleaned
  • 2-3 handfuls of fresh basil (we grow it on the patio and I basically pick both plants clean every time we make this)
  • 3-8 cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Small handful of toasted pine nuts
  • Salt to taste
  • Pecorino Romano cheese to taste (optional)
Puree everything in the food processor until smooth. Toss it with fresh pasta, use it as a dip for bread, drip it over a Caprese salad, bake it over polenta... or, like we did on Friday, make an easy party food: slice mini red bell peppers in half, fill with a spoonful of goat cheese, and top with a dollop of pesto. Bake at 350 for fifteen minutes or until the cheese bubbles slightly.

It keeps well for about a week in the fridge, in an airtight container. Ours has never actually made it that long, but I'm guessing.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


"As an undergraduate, I liked writing short stories and was happy to be in the air conditioning, rather than out banging nails in the Arizona heat. It was cool to hang out with other people who loved books and go to smarty-pants parties. But it was a teacher who took me aside, a mentor who made me strive, a writer who showed me that all my perceived faults — lying, exaggerating, daydreaming, rubbernecking — combined to make something good called a story." ~Adam Johnson

Oh, that just makes my heart hurt.

Post-Thesis Panic

I have had this creeping-in-on-me fear
that, after May 12th, my writing days are over.
That I will never again have this community, these due dates, my ruthless colleague down the hall who writes on the top of my manuscript "You know Tristen... I'm just not sure this is ready to workshop."
My students. My office. I commuted here, which makes for a half-ass grad school experience in many ways, but I'm suddenly panicking about how sad I will be to see it all go.

May 12th. The day of my thesis defense. The longest thing I've ever written, and everyone in the room has read it. And nobody outside the room has.

It's the damndest thing.

I will keep writing, even if I have to force myself. Actually, I don't know if there's a point to saying that. I've had many a "am I a real writer" crises as of late, so I still have to wonder... if you have to force yourself, is it really in you? Should you try if that's the case?

Anywho. I'm going to write more poetry.
'Tis all.

Simple Pleasures: Patio Garden

As a child, my parents did a lot of gardening. At Mom's house, she had planter boxes bursting with flowers, arrangements designed to attract ladybugs, butterflies, and bees. She'd plant things to use in the kitchen, research plants that needed less water, plants that do well in our climate. She planted many different things, with the theory that at least a few of them would take off and do well.

My dad was totally different. At his house, he approached it more like agriculture: he'd plant fifteen tomato plants, twenty ears of corn, and sunflowers. Not much variety, but we ate well, and he always had a soft spot for the sunflowers.

Small Pots: Parsley, Kitty Grass, Blue Bells, Lavender, Mint

Now, I'm the kind of girl who thinks everyone is entitled to a garden, no matter how small or shadowed your patio or yard or window box may be. We've got a lot going this season: strawberries, tomatoes, carrots, beets, basil, dill, cilantro, mint, lavender, parsley... and of course, kitty grass. But I have to replant that every few weeks because they are absolutely insatiable.



Wednesday Writing

Epilogue: Not sure why the first and last chunks seem like the most appropriate sections to unveil (maybe I'll start chronological order next week) but I'm having trouble getting my head around this thing.

First off, I've simply never written one coherent story that is this long. I had tried to write novels before, or even longer stories, but I could never get past forty pages. I had a lot of help getting myself out of corners on this, and people helping me figure out where to go once I got stuck and felt like there was nothing left to say. That was enormously helpful.

I also didn't feel like I could really edit until I had the whole thing down on paper. Like I told my mom, it felt like re-arranging furniture in a house that hadn't been built. But now I can mess with it, and I know there are so many problems (more on that later), but for now, it. Is. A hellofa lot further than I've ever gotten before. And that's something.

What about you? Ever worked on something that felt so massive, but you had to finish it before you could go back and polish it? Or do you fine tune as you go?


Alexis and the kids lived at my parent’s house for a year and a half. By the time Drew and I got back from our honeymoon, she had moved out into her own two bedroom apartment: bunk beds in one room, queen size bed in the other. She taught preschool at the YMCA and went on dates with men she met on Facebook.

One Friday, Drew and I drove up for Grace’s birthday. It was late, we hit traffic, and didn’t get to Donato until after eleven. I drove him downtown, showed him the old opera house, the hundred-year-old bank, the hotel everyone swears Buffalo Bill stayed in. We drove past my old Girl Scout cabin, the wall Luke and I threw dirt clods at to see if they would shatter, the high school.

“There’s my pool,” I said, “The place I got my first job.”

He asked if we could go inside and I said they used to hide the spare key in the drainpipe out back. We parked the car and tip toed around the building.

It was dark, and the pool was covered in blue plastic tarps that looked black under the faraway streetlights. Occasionally, a car drove by, and crickets strummed in the nearby soccer field. We crept around the stucco building and I poked my fingers into the opening of the drainpipe, felt the familiar brass key.

“You’re in luck,” I said.

We walked back toward the front entrance and I opened the lock on the chain link fence, the door whined on its hinges as we stepped onto the concrete. The lights were all off, but I could see the high dive silhouetted between the two diving boards, knew where the guard stands were chained to the fence, knew exactly how many paces it was to the starting blocks.

“I haven’t been here in years,” I said, “But I’d know that smell anywhere.”

The chlorine that burned the preschooler’s eyes in my swim class and made them refuse to count my fingers underwater, even with goggles. The bleach we glugged into the water after one of the kids pooped. The water that shredded my racing suits every six weeks like clockwork and streaked my hair and bleached the hair on my arms startlingly white and leaked out of my pores when I was on land and smelled exactly like that pool.

“I can picture you here,” he said, “It’s weird. Like the ghost of your high school self running around.”

“No running,” I said, “Pool rules.”

He laughed and started walking along the edge of the pool, peering down at it.

“Can I put my feet in?” he asked.


We rolled up our jeans and sat side by side under the high dive, our ankles dangling in the water, pushing the tarps with our toes.

“We used to run across these every summer,” I said, flicking the tarp with my foot, “Right before State. We’d all come here at midnight and run across the tarps naked.”


“Yeah. It was stupidly dangerous, actually. You can drown. The tarps can suck you under.”

“You guys were all lifeguards though.”

“Still stupid.”

He leaned back on the balls of his hands and looked up at the sky, at the outline of the diving board blocking out the stars.

“Did you ever do diving?”

I shook my head. “I dove off it, but just because I had to for my WSI. To teach swim lessons. But I just swam, I was kinda scared of the high dive.”

“But you did it?”


“How do you teach someone to go off the high dive?”

“Start them on the steps and the side of the pool. Then the low dive. Then you just tell them to go to the end of the board and do their flat hands and fall straight down.”

“Fall straight down?”

“Yeah. It’s not hard, it’s just scary.”

He asked what ‘flat hands’ were and I interlaced my fingers like I was saying a worried prayer, straightened my arms and flipped my hands so my palms faced away from me, forming a flat plane.

“Like this,” I said.

His teeth flashed in the darkness and he asked, “Can we try it?”

“The high dive?”


“You’re crazy,” I said, then jumped up and walked to the corner of the pool. I told him to go to the other end and we hooked the corners of the tarp to the metal reel, turned the handle until the tarp slid off the pool and wound around the giant cylinder, over and over itself like a jelly roll, and the water shimmered below us, dark and bottomless, though I knew that it was exactly twelve and a half feet deep. We shimmied out of our clothes and approached the high, narrow ladder.

“I’ve never gone off a high dive before,” Drew said.

“I’ll go first.”

“How high is it?”

“Seven and a half meters.”

“It looks a lot higher than that from down here.”

I kissed him and climbed up the ladder. At the top of the tower, I looked around, at Drew and Donato below me: the headlights on the cars, streetlights in the parking lot, the shine in Drew’s eyes and off the tips of his teeth. I felt like I did the first time I dove off that thing, the day the instructor said, I’m sure you guys already know how to do this, but we have to do it anyway, go ahead and dive off, and my mouth had gone cold because I had never once done it, had only jumped in feet first with Luke cannon-balling after me, Alexis tanning below us and scoring us with her fingers, 8, 8.5. I ground my toe into the sandpaper grit of the diving board, planted my back foot, blew out all the air in my lungs in one big rush, knowing that before I hit the water I’d suck it all back in without even trying, and took off running.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thesis Update:

One-hundred-and-sixty-one-pages, thirty-nine thousand, three-hundred-and fifty-seven words.

It's short for a novel, I know, but... done and DONE.

And now...

(Actually, it's far from done, but at least it's on paper.)

Tuesday: Discussion

This one is going to be quick. Last night, instead of reading a story, I had my students listen to this one:

They were far more engaged than I expected them to be, I thought it would be much harder for them to listen to a text than to read it themselves. But I was wrong. Granted, Tobias Wolff is an awesome reader, and probably reads aloud with much more command than they read silently in their heads. They were cracking up, eyes popping at the swear words, faces twisting in disgust as the bunnies died.

I'm curious about the relationship between traditional reading, and listening to a story. Do you ever use audio "texts" in your classes? Do the students take notes? Are they engaged? Can this be a powerful part of a class, or is it simply a nice break if they're tired of reading?

Image courtesy of

Monday, April 19, 2010

So Promising

I get so excited when I see things like this... a garden always makes me feel like I have something to look forward to. Even if it's just weeding.

Monday: Wish I Were Here

Costa Rica:

Six months after Ed and I started dating, we booked plane tickets to Costa Rica. We had both just gotten in to grad school, and decided that summer was our last chance to have a wild, reckless adventure, footloose and fancy free. We spent three months trekking around, sharing an apartment the size of our living room, even hosting our friends when they flew out to visit. Now, we like to think of it as our "relationship boot camp," because sharing such a small space for so long, relocating to a community where the only people we knew were each other, and being so far from everything that was familiar really intensifies things. It brought things to the surface: the good, the bad, the ugly.

Even though we were both so ready to come home, now every time May 1st approaches, I remember us on that plane, and the night we landed in Liberia. The airport had a thatched roof, I squealed "Mi primer estampilla!" as they stamped my passport, we found an Italian restaurant in our apartment complex and listened to the monkeys as we wolfed down sausage pizza.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thesis Update: 36854

I opened my baggy monster file this morning, and the word count is at 36, 854. That sounds SO much more impressive than 141 pages.

Image courtesy of Life Tracks at

Simple Pleasures: Sleep Soother

There was once a time when I'd never heard of such luxuries as "linen spray," "bed mist," or "room tranquilizers." In high school, I loved the smell of conditioner so much, I would mix it in a spray bottle with water and spray it over my bed. Or, I'd rub a sheet of fabric softener over my sheets, to get that freshly-laundered scent that I've always found so clean and soothing.

And then, behold! Trying linen spray (or whatever you want to call it) for the first time is like trying gazpacho for the first time: weird at first, but so memorable, and from then on, you either love it or hate it.

I've tried quite a few mists, but this one by V'Tae is by far my favorite. Not too floral, not too "clean" (which borders on "chemical" all too often), I swear I don't last 30 seconds after my head hits the pillow. One of my favorite things is crawling in to my neroli scented sheets with freshly shaved legs, I feel downright royal. And for $18, it's a splurge I can handle.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thesis Update: 140 Pages

This thing's a mess.

But so far, I think I've settled on a Prologue...
Oh, and a title. I think it'll be called "My Real Sister." Or "The Real Sister."
But you know, that could change.



That winter, Mom and Walter took us to Tahoe for a day of snowboarding. We loaded up the Soccer Mom Express the night before, laid our snow gear out on the floor, Denny and Luke did lunges around the living room to get the quads ready. Walter waxed all the boards and got us up while it was still dark, Alexis and I climbed in the back seats with our pillows and throw blankets, Denny and Luke took the pilot seats in front of us. We were all back asleep before Walter hit the freeway.

At one point, we heard a loud crack and snapped awake. The back window of the Odyssey shattered, with what we thought must have been a gunshot, and glass flew over Alexis and I, flew all the way up onto the dashboard. Mom screamed; if Walter had been anyone else in the world he would have steered us right off the road. But he kept us straight and steady on that windy mountain pass, Denny and Luke covered their ears, and Alexis threw her arms up and over me, pinned me to the seat, arms spreading over me like a snow angel, covering my head with hers. Her breath was hot against my skull, through my matted hair. Mom wheeled around and called back to us and asked if we were all okay, we each answered her at once, Yes, fine, then she unbuckled her seat belt and climbed in back with us. She looked at us each individually, hands brushing softly against our cheeks, said our names fast. Luke? Fine. Denny? Fine. Jamie? Fine. Lex? Fine.

It wasn’t until Walter pulled over and Mom helped Alexis and I pick the glass shards out of our hair that I saw how hard Alexis had been crying. She had faint scratches on her neck, on the backs of her arms, and on one cheek. She was hardly bleeding, but she was breathing in short, loud gasps, and her cries sounded like she was choking. Mom tried to hug her but she shook her off and said she didn’t want to be touched. Then she came over to me and dropped her forehead on my shoulder, let her arms hang limp at her sides, and cried. I raised my hands and smoothed them over her hair, she sobbed until I could feel her tears dripping down my back.

Later, when we took the Odyssey to the Honda dealer to replace the window, they explained that we had a defective window to begin with, and the drop in temperature caused it to splinter. The boys teased Alexis for crying, and gave up the search for the bullet that we had been so sure was somewhere in the car. I wanted to laugh with them, Like anyone would really shoot at a minivan, but I couldn’t, because I had been scared, really scared, and hadn’t even realized that Alexis threw herself over me until it was all over. And then we found out it wasn’t a bullet and the boys laughed and I forgot all about it. Until years later, once my senses did finally come to me, and I realized what it had all meant, that she had tried to protect me, that her split-second, natural reaction was to throw her body over mine and offer herself up for scratches, I called her up in the middle of the night blubbering so hard she thought I was drunk.

“Tahoe,” I explained, “Remember? When the parents took us. And the window broke?”

“Yeah… Jamie… what’s wrong?”

“I just wanted to thank you.”

“What? For what?”

“For what you did.”

“What are you talking about? Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I mean for what you did. When the window broke. I didn’t get it then. But I just wanted to thank you.”

She was silent for a while and I asked if she was still there.

“I’m here,” she said, “Sorry. I was just remembering.”

Then she started laughing and said I was crazy and that it was over ten years ago and neither of us were thinking and I said That’s the point, that’s the point! And she sighed and said not to read too much into it. Then I laughed with her and she asked if they ever found the bullet and I said yes, thinking she was joking, but then she said Really? Where? and I asked her if she was serious and she asked what I meant, then I told her there was never a bullet, that the window broke because it got too cold too fast.

“Really?” she said.

“Yes. Really.”

“You’re not messing with me?”

“No. Swear to God.” I shook my head and Drew rolled over in his sleep, clamped a pillow over his ear. I kissed his knuckle and lowered my voice to a whisper.

“Because all these years, I could have sworn it was a bullet.”


Friday, April 16, 2010

What We're Having Tonight: Chicken Curry

I'm so glad the weekend is here... this week was crazy!

I used to have Fridays off, but now I have class until noon and students until 6:00, so I don't get home until 6:30. But I do have a break between 2 and 3:30, and I'll putter around the apartment, cleaning up and throwing something into the Crock Pot. I love coming home to the smell of dinner!

In college, E spent a year studying abroad in the UK, and he developed an addiction to Indian food. After we started dating, curry and beer on a Friday night became one of my favorite things.

On days you have the time to do the traditional version, it's better. But, this is my lazy-mama method:

Chicken Curry: Serves 4


Canola oil- ¼ cup

Yellow onions- 2 chopped

Garlic- 4-6 cloves, minced

Ground Coriander, 1 ½ teaspoons

Ground Turmeric, 1 ½ teaspoons

Cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon

Cauliflower, 1 head, cut into bite size florets

Green Beans, 1 pound, trimmed and coarsely chopped

Salt to taste

Fresh cilantro

1. Brown the chicken: In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, warm a few tablespoons of the oil. Add the chicken pieces, and cook until golden brown on the bottom, about 4-5 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook until the second side is lightly browned, about 1-2 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to the slow cooker.

2. Saute the vegetables and spices: In a frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add onions and garlic, sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add coriander, turmeric, cumin seeds, and sauté until fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Add about a cup of hot water and stir with a wooden spoon, scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan. When it starts boiling, remove the pan.

3. Add the cauliflower and green beans to the cooker. Pour the seasoned liquid over them. Sprinkle with a few pinches of salt (Himalayan pink salt is especially yummy) and stir to combine. Cover and cook on the high heat setting for 4 hours, or the low heat setting for 8 hours.

Serve over steamed basmati rice and garnish with fresh cilantro.

Note: If I'm being really lazy, I'll skip the green beans, and just toss in a bag of frozen peas about 30 minutes before serving...

Photo courtesy of Happy Tummy at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thesis Update:

I have written 134 pages of my thesis. I'm supposed to be calling it a novel, but it's more of a monster at this point.

I once went to a writing conference where Jane Smiley said "Don't even worry about the first draft. Just write it." I wrote that down in my planner and keep coming back to it when I realize this thing is a mess.

That's not the point, though. I have an actual due date. It's April 19th. And 150 pages, minimum.

Which means, I have four days to write sixteen pages. Which is not quite enough to make me panic. Which also explains why the beginning of this blog is so timely.

I mean, why write a thesis when you can write to yourself online?

It's Official

I do also want to mention that yesterday, my husband and I legally changed our names. Err, we started the long process that it takes to legally change our names. We filed the paperwork at the courthouse, paid the atrocious fees, found a newspaper to publish the proposed changes for four weeks to see if anyone objects (at least, that's why I'm assuming they make you do that).

So, technically, our names won't change until June 22nd. But I am still pretty effing excited.

More on that later. I have office hours coming up and a Chaucer lecture to write. Woo hoo!


Hi. My name is Tristen, welcome to my blog.

I feel like I should say something about who I am or what this will be about. So.

I come from a small town, moved to the big city, lived abroad, then "settled" in the suburbs. I have a big family, but they feel too far away. I am finishing up my MA thesis as we speak, and am starting this in the hopes that I'll keep writing the way I have been for the last two years, minus the deadlines, plus the community.

I like food. And travel. And stories and art and animals. Rare combination, right?
I also get a wild hair every now and then and think maybe I was born to be on Broadway. (I have, for the record, no practical reason to think this). I am a newlywed. Still sorting out things on the new home front. I'm a teacher. I can throw a wicked fast ball.

So. If you like to make things, read and write things, eat things, and talk about things, pull up a chair. Stay a while.

Nice to meet you,