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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Can A Chimp Write a Poem? Apes, Language, & Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises

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Can A Chimp Write a Poem?  Apes, Language, & Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises

*For Chimp-Inspired Writing Exercises, scroll to the bottom.

A few years ago, I went through a serious chimp phase. I read Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (interesting), I read the overly-long novel Bruno Littlemore about a chimp who learns to talk and has an affair with a human (I had mixed feeling about this one), and I read several books by Jane Goodall (all of which were excellent.) One day, my roommate came home to find me reading a collection of short stories I’d picked up at the library called The Ape’s Wife.

“Oh my god, are you reading about chimps again?” Kristin asked, exasperated.

“I like them.”

She shook her head and sighed. “You’re so weird.”

Well, guess what, Kristin! I’m reading about chimps again! The first was the novel Ape House by Sara Gruen (the author of Water for Elephants.) I was excited about reading this book, and it started off with a good premise (a family of ASL-proficient chimps becoming a reality TV show), but the characters were flat and the story quickly degenerated into silliness. Reading the novel made me hungry for some true-to-life stories about chimps.

Luckily, the universe knows what I like. Recently I popped into a thrift store in which all of the books were free. Lying there, on the top of one of the many messy piles of paperbacks, was the book Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts.

“This is really free?” I asked the girl behind the counter, holding up the book.


And so I’ve been spending a few glorious hours each day, reading about Roger Fouts and his work with Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language.

Washoe’s ability to communicate shattered what people thought they knew about humans, animals, and language itself. After reports of Washoe began coming out in the late sixties and early seventies, many people, scientists included, were frantic to preserve the notion that humans, and humans alone, had the gift of language. They looked for ways to undermine the accomplishments of the signing chimps.

But Washoe, and some of the other chimps who learned ASL, proved they had a true command of a human language when they began to recombine signs to create new meanings. Up until then, it was thought that animal communication was inflexible, and that humans were the only ones to use a finite number of sounds or symbols to create an infinite number of meanings. However, when Lucy, a famously horny and brilliant chimp, only knew a handful of signs, she began combining them to describe other objects in her world. She called watermelon DRINK FRUIT, oranges SMELL FRUIT, and a radish CRY HURT FOOD.

Roger Fouts and Lucy in 1972.  Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images,  and curtesy of Stuff You Should Know

Roger Fouts and Lucy in 1972. Nina Leen/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Courtesy of How Stuff Works

Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist, reworked his definition of language so that Washoe and Lucy’s signing would not be included. He claimed that human children (and not chimpanzees) are hard-wired with a “language acquisition device” in the left hemisphere of the brain, and that humans are unique in their genetic ability to learn grammatical structure. He pointed to grammar and syntax as the hallmark of language and, therefore, a clear sign of human superiority.

According to Chomsky, the rules of grammar and syntax are so complex that children can’t learn them by simple imitation – the rules of language are genetically encoded in our brains. Grammar is so complex, he said, because even a grammatically-correct sentences can still be nonsensical. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously was his famous example.

Roger Fouts worked with Washoe and Lucy in the sixties and seventies, but the debate still rages on over what exactly constitutes language, and whether or not chimps can truly use human language. According to Fouts, grammar isn’t genetic, it’s learned, and chimps can learn it, too. Maybe not to the extent that a human can, but Fouts did experiments that showed a chimp distinguishing between various grammatical commands, for example, “put toothbrush on blanket” versus “put blanket on toothbrush.” Maybe grammar isn’t so special to humans. After all, the chimpanzee is our closest ancestor, with 98% of their genes in common with ours. Whatever we have in our brains, chances are, they have it, too.

As a writer and a chimp-lover, I find all of this fascinating. Somewhere in our lineage, our ape ancestors began moving from hand signs, gestures, and noises (the way chimps in the wild communicate today), to a spoken language. Eventually, they found a way to represent this spoken language with visual symbols. And today, I can sit here and press buttons, make black symbols on a white screen , and communicate my thoughts with the world. It’s as amazing as a talking chimp!

From everything I’ve read (and documentaries I’ve seen, podcasts I’ve listen to, etc.) I believe that chimps can communicate symbolically with ASL, and that they can understand and use simple grammar. I suppose my question is, do chimps play with language the way that we do? Would a chimp ever compose a poem? Is literature the last thing that we humans can cling to as proof that we are special? If so, I suggest you sit down and write a poem immediately.

From the blog, "Ha! Tea 'n' Danger

From the blog, “Ha! Tea ‘n’ Danger”   Cartoon by Peter Parkour.


#1  My favorite part of Sara Gruen’s novel Ape House was the introductory quotes:
Give orange give me eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you.” – Nim Chimpsky, 1970’s
Gimme gimme more, gimme more, gimme gimme more.” – Britney Spears, 2007
Using this as inspiration, write a poem that could have been written by a signing chimp.

#2 Using Lucy as inspiration (drink-fruit for watermelon and cry-hurt-food for radish), come up with other novel ways to describe common words. Use these in a poem. See my example, The Girl at the Alcohol Lounge, on Burlesque Press.

#3 Using Noam Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” as inspiration, write more nonsensical, but grammatically correct, sentences. (And read Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein for even more inspiration.)

A shining indication of yellow consists in there having been more of the same color than could have been expected when all four were bought. This was the hope which made the six and seven have no use for any more places and this necessarily spread into nothing.” – Gertrude Stein, A Little Bit of a Tumbler


Can Chimpanzees Learn Human Language? from How Stuff Works

Friends of Washoe

The Jane Goodall Institute of Canada

The Chimp That Learned Sign Language from NPR (About Nim)

Lucy from Radiolab

Jane Goodall:  What Separates Us From Chimpanzees (TED talk)

The Magic Eye, or, How to Sleep & How to Write

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The Magic Eye, or, How to Sleep & How to Write

It’s not that my boyfriend is a sumo wrestler or anything, but he’s bigger than me, and heavier, and when we are sleeping in the same bed he weights down his side. I either roll towards him all night long, or I have to try sleeping on an incline, which is very annoying.

When I complained about this the other morning, Paul laughed. “Oh no. You poor thing. Having to sleep on an incline.”

“You don’t understand.” I buried my head under a pillow, feeling sleep-deprived and moody. “It’s very difficult for me. I’m going to join a support group.”

“A support group?” He laughed even harder, which made my grumpiness take a turn towards anger. (It is not, by the way a good idea to goad someone when they’ve had a bad night’s sleep and they blame you for it.)

I flung myself out of bed and stomped towards the living room. “I’m sure lots of people suffer from this problem. I’ll prove it to you!”  I spent the next hour googling “sleeping on an incline” and “boyfriend weights down his side of bed,” instead of working on my novel as I had planned. It wasn’t because I actually wanted to find a support group (there doesn’t seem to be one anyway), but because I’ve been doing anything and everything to avoid my novel. I’m afraid to start working on it again. I’m worried that after having taken a three-week hiatus, I won’t be able to get back into it, or I’ll realize it’s not very good. As silly as it sounds, I fear that I’ve forgotten how to write.

*  *  *

The other night I went to sleep before Paul, which meant the bed was blissfully flat. I should have been able to fall right to sleep, but instead I lay there with my eyes closed, not sleeping, for hours.

I don’t know if the problem was the strong espresso I drank in the afternoon (I’m not usually a coffee drinker), or the fact that I knew I had to wake up early. My Ukrainian student, Sergey, had bullied me into a Saturday ESL session at seven a.m. I wanted to get a good eight hours of sleep and be refreshed for a day of tutoring and writing and exploring my new city of Seattle.

But, of course, feeling pressured to fall sleep made it even harder to fall asleep. It was by now one-thirty in the morning, and I thought that if I didn’t fall asleep soon, my entire Saturday would be a waste. I’d be too brain-dead to work on my novel. I’d be too grumpy to enjoy an outdoor adventure.

I had tried all of my normal tricks: deep breathing, doing math puzzles in my head, imagining every room in my childhood house. With these exercises, I would grow drowsy and get tantalizingly close to drifting off. But I was too aware of my own desire for sleep, and this awareness made it impossible to find unconsciousness.

I felt as if I’d forgotten how to fall asleep. I knew this was absurd. I’d done it thousands of times in the past. Usually I just relax and let sleep wash over me. It’s like seeing the image in a magic eye picture. You don’t have to try that hard. Just unfocus your eyes and wait for the sailboat to appear.

Paul was next to me, sleeping like a baby and weighting down his side of the bed. I couldn’t handle being so close to someone who had mastered sleep when I couldn’t figure it out. I got up and went into the living room. I ate a bowl of cereal, checked my email, lay down on the couch with a blanket.

I wasn’t just stressed about waking up early for tutoring. I was stressed because I’d sworn to myself that Saturday would be the day I really and truly would start working on my novel again. That was why it was so important for me to be well-rested. I was worried about my writing. I was worried that I might have forgotten how to do something that is normally so natural for me.

I knew that the more stressed I was about writing, the harder it would be to get back into it.  Just like a magic eye picture, I need to relax in order to reach the happy unconsciousness of sleep. In the same way, I need this this relaxation, this slightly fuzzy focus, to access my creative side: that realm of my mind that lies just behind the surface, where images bloom and solidify and become a new reality.

I finally fell asleep around four.  I woke up two hours later for tutoring, and then I wrote this blog entry.  I spent the next two and a half hours working on my novel.  Then Paul and I went for a hike.  I guess Saturday wasn’t ruined after all.

*P.S.  Paul would like it to be noted that his character’s depiction in this blog is filtered through my creative lens, and though scenes and conversations are the way I (mostly) remember them, they may not always be one hundred percent accurate.

Where’s My Volcano? Or, Why Moving Is Scary and Fun

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Where’s My Volcano?  Or, Why Moving Is Scary and Fun

Last Monday, as Paul and I were driving through the Cascades and heading towards Seattle, we noticed a large, ominous mountain looming in the distance.

“Is that Mount Ranier?” I asked. “Wow.”

“It looks like a volcano,” Paul said.

“You know, I bet it is a volcano.”

We turned and looked at each other, our eyes widening. Then Paul grabbed his smart phone and flung it towards me. “Quick. Google Mount Ranier.”

“Oh dear,” I said, scrolling down the wikipedia page.

“What? What does it say?”

“Mount Ranier is a massive stratovolcano, located 54 miles southeast of Seattle,” I read. “It’s 14,411 feet high and considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world…Because of its large amount of glacial ice, Mt. Ranier could potentially produce massive lahars that would threaten the whole Puyallup River valley.” I glanced at Paul, whose knuckles were turning white on the steering wheel. “I wonder what lahars are. Should I look that up?”

“Keep reading,” he told me.

I ignored him and googled lahars, which turned out to be scary volcanic mud flows. Then I went back to the Mt. Ranier article and read out loud about the recent eruption in the mid-1800’s, and the volcanic action that had been noted as late as 1894.

“Oh my god,” Paul said, laughing crazily. “Why are we moving here?”

“I can’t believe we didn’t realize it was a volcano,” I said. “How did we not realize that?” I went back to the smart phone. “Although it’s an active volcano, as of 2010 there was no evidence of an imminent eruption.” I turned to Paul. “So that’s good. We’ll probably be fine.”

“Type in Mt. Ranier, Seattle, danger,” Paul instructed.

“OK,” I said, as we drove closer to Seattle, and, possibly, to our doom.

The Columbia River Gorge in Washington State (east of Seattle and the Cascade mountains.)  All of this is volcanic rock.

The Columbia River Gorge in Washington State (east of Seattle and the Cascade mountains.) All of this is volcanic rock.

Paul and I visited Seattle in May to look for an apartment and never once noticed Mt. Ranier’s eerily close presence. I realize now that was because the volcano is only visible in clear weather, and Seattle is usually swathed in a blanket of gray clouds.

In the week and a half since Paul and I have been living here, however, the weather has been sunny and cloudless, giving us a clear view of the mountain, which looms large behind the skyscrapers of downtown. We’ve taken to calling it “the volcano.”

“Where my volcano at?” I asked the other day as Paul and I stepped outside. “I need to keep my eye on him.”

“I think he’s a nice volcano,” Paul said.

“If we keep him happy,” I countered. Paul and I had already discussed creating a volcano shrine for the apartment and making weekly sacrifices in order to keep us safe during the time we live in Seattle.

“Hellooo, Cano,” I said in a sing-song voice, using one of my new pet names for Mt. Ranier, “where are you?” We walked up hill from our apartment building, and suddenly there he was, a ghostly behemoth, all blue and snowy white in the distance.

“There he is,” I said. “He’s always watching us.”

This is NO JOKE.  This is what it ACTUALLY looks like.  Photo courtesy of of mimerkel

This is NO JOKE. This is what it ACTUALLY looks like. Photo courtesy of of mimerkel

Before we moved to Seattle, I studied google maps, noting happily that the library and several yoga studios were a mile or less away from our apartment. What I didn’t realize is that they are a mile away up insanely steep hills I’m going to have to get used to climbing. Before we moved to Seattle, I had of course read about the rain, but I didn’t realize how ironically dry the air is and how I need to use massive amounts of lotion to keep my skin from peeling.

I knew about Mt. Ranier (that it was a tall mountain), but I didn’t know all his secrets.

Reading and researching about a place can only tell you so much. After a point, experience is the only way to really understand. That’s what makes moving so scary and fun. There are always going to be surprises. Like volcanoes that emerge from a sea of clouds, or a shiny blue-black bird, the likes of which you’ve never seen, who perches each morning in the tree outside your window, when you’re trying to get back into the habit of writing again.

I think, despite everything, we’re going to like it here.


This is what you get when you google “Mt. Ranier, Seattle, danger”:

Volcanic Killers from PBS

Mount Ranier:  One of Our Nation’s Most Dangerous Volcanoes from


Day 22: Gender Roles and a Place for My Tiny Toilets

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Day 22:  Gender Roles and a Place for My Tiny Toilets


1.  Get settled into my new apartment

2.  Get settled into my new city of Seattle

3.  Get back into a writing routine ASAP!

*Check out this guest blog entry I wrote for Compose magazine!

It’s a little weird to be living with a boy after so many years of living alone, or with other females. When I lived in DC with my roommate, Kristin, I would leave salsa jars on the counter with post-it notes attached to them saying, “Kristin, I can’t open this, can you? See… this is why we need a man around.” Luckily, Kristin could usually open the jars, but there was at least one occasion when we had to wait for her boyfriend to come over so he could open a jar of pickles neither one of us could seem to manage.

Now that I live with Paul, I never have to worry about going without condiments again. In fact, it’s kind of amazing how quickly we’ve fallen into some common gender stereotypes. I’ve been doing most of the decorating, grocery shopping, and cooking. And Paul has been going to the hardware store to buy supplies for securing the wobbly bathroom cabinet and staining the unfinished dining room table.

So how do I feel about all this Suzy Homemaker stuff? Good, actually. I’ve been living in other people’s houses for a year, so I’ve been drooling at the thought of setting up my own apartment, cooking in my own kitchen, using my own organizational system. (“You don’t want to move into our apartment,” Paul teased me the other day. “You want to move into your apartment.”)

That’s not exactly true.  For years I’ve been looking forward to the day when I’d have a partner, someone to help and someone who would help me.  I’m glad that Paul and I have different things we’re good at, different things we enjoy doing.  I’m happy to do the grocery shopping and decorating (although Paul did request that none of my “gruesome death stuff” go in the bedroom.)  On the flip side, I’m glad he set up the Internet and did most of the heavy-lifting, because, let’s face it, I’m a weakling with a technology curse. This way, Paul gets to eat a more varied diet in a lovely home, and I can stop calling my brother every time I have a computer problem. It’s a win-win.

Our living room.  The candelabras and most of the books are Paul's.  The painting, couch, and Picasso print are mine.

Our living room. The candelabras and most of the books are Paul’s. The painting, couch, and Picasso print are mine.

The first time I visited Paul in Maryland, his apartment was neat and vacuumed, and he had stocked the refrigerator with all of my favorite foods. But as our relationship progressed, the condition of his apartment began to deteriorate. I would arrive for the weekend to see heaps of clean laundry that Paul had retrieved from the dryer days ago but had yet to fold. Sometimes I would open the refrigerator and see literally nothing but a bag of coffee and some bottles of sketchy home-brewed beer.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Paul said one day, laughing nervously, “but I’m excited about us moving in together, because I think I need a woman around to help me with all the house stuff.”

I wasn’t offended.  I’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Our apartment building in Queen Anne in Seattle.  This city is made of steep, steep hills!

Our apartment building in Queen Anne in Seattle. This city is made of steep, steep hills!

I’m not really up to date with the latest in the world of feminism, but it seems like the newest mode of thinking goes something like this: men and women are different, and that’s OK, as long as society values both male and female strengths. There are things that men tend to be better at (i.e. physical strength, spatial awareness), and things that women tend to be better at (i.e. language, social awareness). That doesn’t mean there aren’t men who are great communicators, or women who are strong and spatially aware. It just means that, biologically, our bodies and brains have differences. We should recognize and embrace this.

This way of thinking makes sense to me. Men and women have different strengths, and that’s why they often partner together. (So that one of them can fix the Internet while the other one fixes dinner.) It doesn’t mean that women can’t partner with women, or men with men. It doesn’t mean that you can’t live alone and do it all by yourself, because you can. It just means that, in general, some of the stereotypes about men and women are  based in biology. (And yes, they are certainly enhanced by culture and society.)

The problem is that for pretty much all of history, male strengths have been valued over female strengths. If female strengths, such as communication and social relationships, were valued more, maybe we’d have less war, less crime. I don’t know.

It’s complicated. I can sit here and tell you I believe that men and women have different brain structure, but if you nod and say, “yeah, that’s why girls aren’t good at math,” I’ll probably rip your eyes out of their sockets and stuff them down your throat. The point is, this is a very touchy and difficult topic with no clear-cut answers.

The other night Paul and I walked 5 minutes (uphill) from our apartment, and this is what we saw!

The other night Paul and I walked 5 minutes (uphill) from our apartment, and this is what we saw!

The other day, Paul and I went to Ikea to buy some furniture with a gift certificate we received from my mother. I’m usually a thrift store furniture type of gal, so I’d never been to Ikea. I didn’t realize what a production it would be, but it was pretty exciting, and we left the store with a desk, a chair, some Swedish chocolate, and the unfinished dining room table.

Of course, everything (except the chocolate) needed to be assembled. Paul got to work on the table as soon as we got home. Then he started on the desk.

“I feel bad that you’re putting everything together,” I said, popping out from the bedroom where I was folding sheets and organizing them in the linen closet. “I can help.”

Not that I wanted to help. Putting together furniture holds very little interest for me, whereas Paul seemed to be enjoying himself. He laughed while reading the Ikea instructions and made comments like, “oh, I see how they’ve done it. That’s so clever!” After he finished the desk, he went swimming, then he came back and put together the chair. In one evening, he’d assembled all of our Ikea furniture. The next day, he put together my Target bookshelf. God, it was great to have a man around!

But I felt guilty. I could have put together that table, or the bookshelf. I could have even put together the desk, although it probably would have taken me five times as long as it took Paul. I started to question myself. Just because I have a man around now, does it mean I should stop trying to do things for myself? Am I going to start leaving salsa jars out on the counter for him to open without even attempting to open them myself?

Another thing we bought the other day was one of those over-the-toilet bathroom organizers. I needed a place for my tiny toilets and my hair products. Since Paul uses no hair products and has no bathroom collections needing to be displayed, I told him I’d buy and assemble the organizer myself – he didn’t need to be involved.

I opened the box and sorted through all the boards and the baggies of screws. I put the bottom part of the organizer together and screwed it in behind the toilet, but then I got to the part with the cabinets, and I couldn’t tell the difference between two of the types of screws.  Normally I would have just guessed and kept going, but now I have a man around. “Paul!” I yelled. “Will you come help me?”

A part of me had wanted to put the organizer together all by myself, just to prove that I could. And another part of me =was a little afraid of losing my independence. For so long, I’ve done everything on my own. The thing is, I’ve always wished I had someone to help me.

In the end, Paul took command of the cabinet assemblage, but unlike the Ikea furniture, I helped him. I helped tighten screws and hand him tools. I helped hold the cabinets in place while he attached them to the wall.  Turns out, the organizer assemblage required two people to be done properly.  Isn’t that what it’s all about? Two people coming together and offering their respective strengths for the greater good?

“I’m worried I’m not doing enough around the house,” Paul said the other day, after I’d made us some dinner and cleaned up before he had a chance to offer help.

“Of course you are,” I said.  We’ve both been contributing plenty, but in different ways.

My tiny toilet collection.

My tiny toilet collection.

Day 18: A Fight at Frontier Village and My Amended July Goals

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Day 18: A Fight at Frontier Village and My Amended July Goals

JULY GOALS:  Are being amended…
Before my boyfriend and I started our cross-country trip from Virginia to Seattle, I had fantasies of the journey. I imagined us riding barefoot in the car, watching amber waves of grains roll by outside our windows. We’d play each other our favorite music, have singalongs, get into deep discussions about philosophy. When we passed billboards for fun, crazy things, we would veer off the highway and have adventures in podunk towns, or at weird, roadside attractions. At night, in our motel room, we’d read quietly or watch a movie on my computer. If the motel had Internet, I’d write blog entries and email assignments to my ESL students. In the early morning, Paul would go for a run, and I’d sit out on the cool concrete of the motel walkway, meditating and doing yoga by the blue glow of the vending machines. Then we’d start off, happy and refreshed, ready for another day on the road.

But, of course, it wasn’t exactly like that. Paul seemed disinterested when I tried to turn him on to Radiohead, and our deep discussions were curtailed by my brain-crushing migraines, which were triggered, I suppose, by motion-sickness and the bright sun.

I didn’t realize how tiring and stressful our trip would be.  For the first few days, I was often cranky from my migraines and popping wooze-inducing meds, which meant Paul had to do three-fourths of the driving, which in turn made him cranky. On top of all the crankiness, there was stress from the fact that we were uprooting ourselves and moving nearly 3,000 miles away from everything and everyone we’ve ever known. The driving was long, and even though the sight-seeing was fun, it was exhausting. Every night, when we found a motel and lugged our suitcases up to our room, we fell into bed almost immediately, waking up in the morning still groggy and sore.

We did get off the highway in Indiana to check out these windmills!

We did get off the highway in Indiana to check out these windmills!


By Day 4, I had managed to get my headaches under control, but Paul and I were both tired and sore from our adventures the previous day at the tacky tourist town of Wisconsin Dells. I was also annoyed because the Internet at the motels we’d been staying in for the past few days had been so slow and crappy I’d been unable to do much more than check my email before it kicked me off. But I tried to stay positive. I was sure I’d have a chance to write and post a blog entry in the next day or so.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so cranky lately,” I told Paul as I drove us through the flat, desolate landscape of eastern North Dakota. “I’m going to try to be more positive, I promise.” One of my goals for July was to stop myself from saying negative things, but that had been really hard to do when I was tired, or hungry, or suffering from mind-mashing migraines.

“It’s OK,” Paul said. “I should try not to be so negative, too.”

“That would be good, actually.” In the past few days, Paul had cussed about things like dropping an almond in his lap, or having to slow down to fifty-five miles an hour because of road work. When he was negative, it affected me, and vice versa. We’d been constant companions for days now, with no alone time, often in the small confines of the car or a motel room. As much as we loved each other, all the togetherness was starting to wear us down.

“I’m going to take a little nipper-nap.” Paul grabbed my sweater from the backseat, balled it up, and tucked it behind his head.

“Don’t do that!” I squealed. “You’ll get it all sweaty!” I paused and tried to alter my angry tone.  “I mean, is there something else you can use as a pillow?”

“Never mind.” Paul grumbled.  He threw my sweater into the backseat and settled his head against the window.

“Sorry,” I murmured. I needed to try harder to stop my negativity, but I just felt so cranky.

In the tacky tourist town of Wisconsin Dells.  This is how I felt with my migraines.

In the tacky tourist town of Wisconsin Dells. This is how I felt with my migraines.


We drove for awhile, me listening to Jack White’s Blunderbuss, and Paul snoozing in the passenger seat. It was nice to have a little bit of alone time, and as I sang along to “Hypocritical Kiss,” I started to feel more relaxed and positive.  I was excited about seeing the badlands the next day, and then going to Yellowstone the day after that. I just needed to relax and stopping worry about having the Internet and doing work.  This was supposed to be like a vacation.  It was supposed to be fun.

Paul and I had agreed to stop in Valley City for gas, but as we approached the exit, we still had more than a quarter tank, and Paul was fast asleep, so I kept on driving. Let him sleep, I thought, feeling generous. He’d been doing more than his fair share of the driving.

As I continued down the highway, I noticed a billboard advertising “Frontier Village” in Jamestown, North Dakota, and then, after a while, there was another sign that said “come see the world’s largest buffalo!” I glanced in the distance, and there it was on top of a hill! A huge buffalo, surrounded by old-timey buildings. My heart skipped a beat. This was it, finally! My fantasy of seeing something random from the road and veering off to go check it out. Plus, there’s nothing I like better than giant plaster animals. I took the exit for Jamestown and pulled into a gas station.

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Paul’s eyes slitted open. His voice was thick with sleep.

“We’re getting gas in Jamestown, North Dakota!” I chirped, my energy level suddenly sky-rocketing. “They have the world’s largest buffalo here! And Frontier Village. Can we go see it? Can we go please?” My voice was climbing in both volume and intensity.

“What are you talking about?” Paul rubbed his eyes and grabbed his phone. I stepped out of the car, into the high prairie wind, and attempted to pump gas while holding my billowing skirt, hoping I wasn’t flashing the motorcyclists who watched me with interest. I grabbed the receipt and got back in the car.

“Frontier Town is two hundred and fifty miles away,” Paul said grumpily, holding up his iphone.

“Frontier Village,” I corrected. “And no it’s not. I saw it from the highway.”

“My phone says–”

“You’re phone doesn’t know anything.  We’re going right now!” My excitement about having a roadside attraction adventure was making me a little too forceful.

I peeled out of the gas station and drove up the main drag, following signs for Frontier Villiage and the Buffalo Museum. “I saw it from the road,” I said. “It looks awesome. This is exactly what I’ve been looking forward to! Aren’t you excited about the giant buffalo? Get excited!”

“We can go see it,” Paul said, yawning, “but don’t expect me to get excited.”

Immediately, my good mood plummeted. I pulled through the gates of Frontier Village, swerved into a space in front of the church, and yanked on the parking brake. “Fine. I’ll go see the buffalo by myself. You can stay in the car.”

“I’ll walk around with you,” Paul said. “But I’m not going to be excited until I wake up.”

“How long is that going to take?” I asked.

“You have to give me like a half an hour.”

“A half an hour?” I said contemptuously.  “What can we do to speed up the process to five minutes or less?”

And that’s when Paul and I got into our first fight of the trip. I won’t go into detail, but it involved me slamming the car door and marching down the dusty, deserted road of Frontier Village. It involved Paul calling my name and me ignoring him. It involved me crying.

But then there were apologies. There was hugging, followed by sheepish laughter and more apologies. There was also some nose-blowing on my part. Finally, hand-in-hand, Paul and I walked through Frontier Village, the fight already fading. And when we went to see the world’s largest buffalo, we were both excited.

We got back in the car and drove around Jamestown, looking for dinner. By the time we got to Bismarck, North Dakota, it was ten-thirty at night, and we were exhausted and sun-burnt.  All we wanted to do was sleep, but the cheap motels were completely booked. Why in the world were there so many people in Bismarck?

Finally, we forked out a hundred bucks for a room at the Comfort Inn and tried to be positive about it.  At least they had a hot tub, which we immediately utilized.  At least they had a good free breakfast (which we ended up using to restock our snack bag as well.)  When we climbed into bed, I thought about complaining of its lumpiness, and the flatness of the pillow.  But instead I snuggled up to Paul and said, “I’m so happy to be in bed.”

Paul with the world's largest buffalo in Jamestown, ND.

Paul with the world’s largest buffalo in Jamestown, ND.  Despite our fight, I still really like this boy.


In the morning we woke up, tried (unsuccessfully) to use the Internet, and then got back in the car for our drive to Teddy Roosevelt National Park. I was feeling good. Today I was going to stop being stressed out. I was going to relax and enjoy the trip.  When I felt like being negative, I’d look on the positive side instead.

We pulled onto I-94, and then, suddenly, I turned to Paul. “Shit! I forgot to meditate yesterday!”

He laughed. Then I did, too.

So now I need to come clean.  I haven’t meditated since North Dakota, and honestly, I don’t think I’m going to do it this month. I just don’t want to, and I can’t seem to motivate myself to start the habit. It turns out that starting a new routine when all of your normal routines are in flux is not a great idea. It turns out that traveling from Virginia to Seattle, moving in with your boyfriend, and settling in to a new apartment in a new city…. that’s a project in itself. I don’t need to add more to it. I think I was being a bit too demanding of myself.

I have enough goals for July already, and some of them I’ve already met, like managing to travel across the country without killing myself or Paul. We arrived in Seattle on Monday night, and now we are in the thick of achieving goals such as putting together our Ikea furniture, scouring the (awesome!) Goodwills for household goods, and getting Internet in our apartment (I’m writing this from a Starbucks). Soon I will work on goals like getting a library card and finding a place to do yoga.  And I’ll keep my goal of saying positive things, because that, I think, will only help the process.

Meditation will have to wait.  For now, I’ve got more than enough on my plate.


Day 1: Richmond, VA to Dayton, OH

Day 2: Dayton, OH to Chicago, IL. (spent the night in Rockford, IL)

Day 3: Rockford, IL to Wisconsin Dells (spent the night outside of St. Paul, MN)

Day 4: Minneapolis to Fargo, ND and Jamestown, ND. (Spent the night in Bismarck, ND)

Day 5: Bismarck, ND to Roosevelt State Park in Medora, ND (Spent the night in Billings, MT)

Day 6: Billings, MT to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming (Spent the night in Livingston, MT at the historic Murray Hotel)

Day 7: Livingston, MT to Missoula, MT (Spent the night in St. Ignatius on the Flathead Indian Reservation)

Day 8: St. Ignatius, MT to Seattle, WA

In Washington on the last day of our trip.

In Washington on the last day of our trip.

Day 13: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

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Day 13:  These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

1.  Meditate every day for at least 10 minutes 
2. Read blogs and learn how to promote my own
3. When I’m about to say something negative, say something positive

I’m on Day 6 of a nine-day cross-country road trip, and it’s been hard finding reliable Internet access, as well as time/energy to write and meditate. I didn’t anticipate how TIRED I would be. Going to Wizard Quest in the Wisconsin Dells on Wednesday left me with hurting knees, and after chasing prairie dogs in the hot sun yesterday at Teddy Roosevelt National Park, I felt like I had just run a marathon. Every night Paul and I fall into our latest motel bed, moaning about our aches and pains, and grumpy with lack of sleep.

I only have a few minutes today since we are about to depart from Billings, Montana and head to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Since I haven’t been writing as many blogs this week, I thought today I would introduce you to a few of my favorite blogs (see below). Yes, they are written by people I know. That’s how I found about them in the first place. But nepotism is the way of the world, and these really are  great places to browse during your online hours. Enjoy!

Bison on a hill in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota.

Bison on a hill in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota.

A Few of My Favorite Blogs:

Burlesque Press – A new company, created by the brilliant and beautiful Jeni Stewart, that host literary events and writing retreats. The Burlesque Press Variety Show features daily posts from writers. Vaudevillian in nature, you get a little bit of everything: poetry, fiction, humorous essays, book review (sometimes by me), and more. I especially enjoyed this essay by the one and only, Tawni Waters.

The Incompetent Writer – Written by a charming British bloke, Daniel Wallace, this blog offers practical writing advice, book and movie reviews, and writing prompts, as well as some excellent fiction.

Jen Violi – If you don’t follow Jen Violi (writer and book coach) on Twitter, you should. She asks creative questions and gives whimsical writing prompts, like “Monosyllabic Mondays” (describe your day using only one-syllable words.) Her blog is just as fun and magical as she is.


Day 9: Meditation, Creativity, & Snacks

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1. Meditate every day for at least 10 minutes
2. Read blogs and learn how to promote my own
3. When I’m about to say something negative, say something positive instead.

From what I understand, when you’re meditating and thoughts creep into your mind, you’re supposed to observe them without judgment, let them go, and continue to focus on your breathing. Sounds easy, right?

Wrong! Of course it’s not easy. First of all, as soon as I notice myself having thoughts, I judge myself for not focusing better on my breath. Then I scold myself for the thoughts themselves.

“Are you really thinking about packing snacks in the cooler again?” I asked myself the day before I left on my cross country trip. It was the fourth time my Type A brain had gone back to thoughts of “I have to remember to buy ice for the cooler,” and “should put non-perishables in, or will they get all soggy?” I mean, my god, was I really so worried about the snacks that I needed to have these thoughts running on constant repeat?

Not only is it hard not to judge, it’s hard to let go. I often find myself thinking of things during meditation that I don’t want to forget. Like buying ice, yes. But also ideas for blogs, thoughts about my novel, questions I need to look up on the Internet. I worry that if I let them go, they’ll never come back. And as a creative person, I’m terribly anxious about losing my ideas. I guess this is one reason why meditation is so hard for me. The purpose is to clear my mind. And an empty mind is exactly what I fear.

This is why I write...for the big bucks!  Check out my story at

This is why I write…for the big bucks! Check out my story at

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has a brilliant TED talk about creativity, and in it she relates an interview she did with the musician Tom Waits. For most of his life, he tried to “manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses,” but as he got older, he started to finally relax. One day he was driving down the L.A. freeway when he was struck with the inspiration for a song. But he has no pencil or tape recorder. He started to feel anxious that he was going to lose the idea and never get to write this song. But then, instead of panicking, he stopped. He looked up at the sky and said, “excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? … If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today.”

When you want your life’s work to be of a creative nature, you have to have some faith. Faith that this is the right choice for you, despite the possibility that you may never find money or success in it. And also faith that the ideas will continue to flow; that they are self-renewing and never-ending.

There is a famous Annie Dillard quote from The Writing Life that I think is appropriate here. It goes like this:

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

After I finished meditating the other day, I sat down at my desk, and all those ideas I’d been worried about losing came rushing back. It was a relief. I can let go of my thoughts during meditation with faith that they will come back in time. Good ideas run deeper than surface thoughts of snacks and planning. Even when it seems like all of my ideas are gone, there are more welling inside me, like ground water, waiting for a hole to be dug, a bucket to be lowered down.


Write Like a Spendthrift Pilgrim from Southern Belle View Daily

Let Go of the Words and Hope They Come Back

Elizabeth Gilbert and Tom Waits on Capturing the Creative Urges on Stories for Speakers and Writers

Drawing by me!

Drawing by me!