The winter of Swift and Who.

Taylor Swift Because Bow Ties Are Cool

I had a pretty rough winter, for reasons I don’t really feel like going into right now. Maybe later. But it’s safe to say that it was one of the worst on record, and this includes the winter immediately following the death of my mother.

Two things saved me during this Season of Suck:

Taylor Swift and Doctor Who.

Let me start with the latter. My husband is a huge Doctor Who fan. New series, not the original flavor. We’ll have been together 8 years come June, and over the course I’ve our relationship, I tried to get into Doctor Who with him several times. I remember a few of the Rose Tyler episodes. I remember none of the Amy Pond years. When the Impossible Girl came on the scene, I started half-watching the show with him on a regular basis. And by the end of this most recent season, I was mostly watching every episode.

During Christmas break, we usually pick a series to binge on. One year it was Downton Abbey. Another (or was it the same?) we watched the first season of Awkward. This year, I decided I’d go Who, starting with Christopher Eccleston and straight on through to Peter Capaldi.

When Joe realized I was attempting to do this on my own, he was all, “Nuh uh, no way, I’m getting in on this Who action with you.” So, we watched it together. There were still some episodes I had difficulty concentrating on. Sometimes the plot would get too out there and I’d find my attention drifting. But mostly I enjoyed it. Not just because I’ve always appreciated good sci-fi, but because it was a good bonding thing. Doctor Who had always been HIS territory, not mine. And now I was finally sharing it with him.

And then came Season 5, and with it the introduction of A) fish fingers and custard and B) Miss Amelia Pond. I fell in love with her instantly. She was just so cool. (Much cooler than bow ties, and BOW TIES ARE COOL.) It didn’t hurt that I’d loved the actress playing her, Karen Gillan, on the short-lived sitcom Selfie. But honestly? I would’ve loved her regardless.

Doctor-Who-Amy-Pond-Wearing-Round-Glasses

Amy Pond kicks ass. Period.

And then there’s Rory, her hopelessly devoted love interest. Rory, who’s almost always getting himself killed or otherwise in trouble. Rory, who starts out as a punchline but ends up being this romantic hero of epic proportions. Their love story grows on you – or, at least, it grew on me. And when they exited the show, it was in an equally spectacular fashion that broke my heart into a million pieces. I literally sobbed, and not just when I watched it. I was heartbroken for days.

I’m getting off point here, and that is this: what I liked best about my Who binge (besides Amy Pond, that is) was how the show had this relentless optimism to it. Not quite Star Trek: Next Gen-level, but still. (Light bulb moment: this is one of the things I’ve always loved best about Quantum Leap – the optimism in someone’s destiny being to put right what once went wrong. But I digress. Again.)

At a time when I needed it most, the Who-niverse lifted me up. And now I’m a convert.

So, what about my Tay Tay obsession?

I’ve always liked certain songs of hers. I was a ninja listener, buying a track here or a track there on iTunes. But then “Shake It Off” came out, and I got a little obsessed. It’s a catchy song, yo. And it was so upbeat. You can’t help but smile when you hear it.

And then “Blank Space” dropped, and I was like OH MY GOD, WHY AM I SO OBSESSED WITH THIS ONE, TOO? Not only did I buy it, but my husband and I once spent a forty-minute car ride listening to it over and over and over again. Yes, that’s right – my death metal- and pirate rap-loving spouse adores Taylor Swift as much as I do. And yes, we’re both well into our 30s.

Anyway.

I bought the rest of 1989. And then I bought the rest of Red. And then I bought the rest of Speak Now. For the past several months, what I mainly listen to is those three albums on shuffle. No, I’m not joking. It’s All Taylor, All the Time.

To switch it up, sometimes I’ll listen to the Taylor Swift station on Apple Radio. But it can run too country or too High School Musical, and then I’m like, “Let me go back to my own Taylor Swift station” (three albums on shuffle).

I’ve stopped trying to hide my affection for the musical stylings of Miss Swift. In fact, after a recent frustrating day at the office, my coworker April kept saying, “Just think about Taylor. Think about Taylor!”

Because Taylor Swift makes me smile. Her music makes me dance. Yeah, I know she sings about heartbreak, but even that stuff sounds sweet and happy in a weird way.

So here’s the best part: If you Google “Doctor Who and Taylor Swift,” you will find some of the most random isht you can imagine, including this gem:

Rose Tyler Taylor Swift

So maybe I’m not the only one who’s ever had a winter of Swift and Who. Maybe?

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Mrs. Love, Cruce, and Andre III.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, which always gets me thinking about the influential teachers I’ve had over the years. Here are a few (but not all) of my favorites.

Mrs. Love

Mrs. Love was my middle school English/Language Arts teacher. She was kind of a badass. Her classroom library was stocked with a bajillion titles, spanning a wide range of genres and reading levels. It was from her bookshelves that I first picked up Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. Yes, in a middle school classroom.

If you are unfamiliar with the book, there’s a lot of bad language, graphic sex, and of course, drug use. I liked the novel, but felt like it was a little too adult. I told Mrs. Love something along the lines of, “I don’t think this should be on your shelves,” for all of the reasons I just listed (language, sex, drugs). Mrs. Love’s eyes flashed at me and said, “I don’t censor books. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t read it.”

I’m totally paraphrasing here, because let’s face it: seventh grade was a long time ago. Even though I can’t remember exactly what she said, I will never, ever forget that look in her eyes when she said it.

This is the story I always tell about Mrs. Love (and even recounted to her once we became Facebook friends), because it was such a defining moment in my life. Here was this adult who knew I was reading about really adult things, and was in favor of me deciding for myself if I was ready for them. Later, after I published Bringing Up the Bones and Anyone But You, and would receive letters from young readers telling me that the language or sexual situations made them uncomfortable, I would think of Mrs. Love. And in my response, I would channel her: “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t read it.”

I spent a lot of time in Mrs. Love’s class. She introduced me to Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School. I still remember my Sideways Story I wrote for an assignment, and how crushed I was that Mrs. Love seemed to like my friend Erika’s so much better. I cared what Mrs. Love thought about my writing, and spent most of my life convinced that in her eyes, I would never measure up to Erika.

When we reconnected on Facebook, and I shared the “I don’t censor” story with her, she shared a story with me. This is what she wrote:

I gave a totally ridiculous book report assignment: Write a book report using only 9 sentences, each of them corresponding to one of the elements of plot. Most of the reports I got I deserved: “The characters in this book are….They live in…..” Then I got a gem on Rebecca which began something like “The road to Manderly intimidated yet thrilled the young governess…” I was blown away by your writing, your insight, and your creativity.

This, truly, is one of the biggest and best compliments I’ve ever gotten in my entire life.

Cruce

I met Cruce when I was 16 years old and taking a summer college course at UD. I wrote a couple of pieces for class assignments that Cruce really liked. One was titled “Passion Pink” and was totally modeled after a story I’d read in Sassy magazine. Another was an autobiographical essay styled as a how-to about marrying my mom off for under a thousand dollars.

What I wrote wasn’t as important as the fact that Cruce believed in me and my writing. He worked with me to improve it. He taught me about the importance of revision. But most of all, he showed me what it meant to be in love with words.

I say this was all Cruce but it wasn’t; he co-taught the course with Rosemary Crawford, a high school teacher who shared his love of language and word play. I still remember how Rosemary’s face lit up after reading a few sentences from “A&P.” She said, “I’d kill to have written that!” And she meant it.

Back to Cruce: I kept in touch with him after the summer college course. I took his short story workshop my junior year in college. I wrote pages upon pages, some of which got published and some of which didn’t, but many of which got me into grad school. In fact, Cruce is one of the reasons I ended up in grad school to begin with.

When I left my crappy first job, working as a reporter for a crappy paper in crappy Fort Wayne, Indiana, I came home not knowing what to do with my life. I looked for jobs in journalism, but I didn’t really want to work in journalism. Cruce recognized this. He said, “Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

What he said is another defining moment in my life. Because even though it’s a duh kind of statement, it wasn’t duh to me. It was a revelation.

I credit Cruce with me making the decision to attend grad school, but that’s not entirely true. He counseled me about grad school, and he gave me a letter of recommendation, but he kind of thought I was using it as a crutch. I only ended up applying to one school; if I hadn’t gotten in, I wouldn’t have gone. Cruce told me I was giving up control – letting other people make my life choices for me. He was probably right; at 21 I was completely lost. It still worked out for the best.

There are so many Cruce stories I could tell, so many times he played an integral role in my life. He is a father figure in the way my own father never was. In fact, I didn’t invite my dad to come to my wedding, but you bet your ass that Cruce and his lovely wife were there.

Cruce at My Wedding

I love this picture of Cruce. It is him, in a nutshell. Photo credit: Laura Novak.

 

Andre III

In graduate school, I took a novel-writing workshop with Andre Dubus III, son of the legendary short story writer. This was not long after The House of Sand and Fog came out, and Andre was being courted by Hollywood in a big way. He missed a bunch of classes doing book promotion stuff, and it pissed me off. I was paying a lot of money for grad school. I didn’t like it when my teachers canceled class.

Plus, I hated the workshop. It was filled with semi-pretentious writers who worshipped at the altar of Andre. They loved him. Adored him. And they hated my stuff. HATED IT. I workshopped a very early chunk of Bringing Up the Bones, and they tore it apart, syllable by syllable. Okay, I’m exaggerating. But it was a painful workshop unlike anything I’d ever endured. Later, I’d describe it as standing in a room full of strangers, buck naked, with everyone shining flashlights on you and pointing out every single flaw.

Yeah, it was that bad.

So bad that I didn’t write a word for a good, solid 7- to 8-week chunk of my first semester at Emerson. I remember long talks with my aunt, during which I told her I thought I’d made a huge mistake in trying to pursue my MFA. “I suck at this,” I said.

“You don’t,” she said.

“What if I’m no good?”

“Everybody feels that way.”

And then Andre’s father died, and we had class not long after, maybe a few days? He stood in front of us and said, “I need to talk about my dad.” Then he did. It was heartbreaking. My eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t the only one. There’s something about being around someone else’s naked pain that does that to you.

I met Andre for coffee not long after. I expressed to him my frustrations about the class, and how I hadn’t been able to write. I don’t remember our conversation word for word, but I do remember that we talked about revision. We talked about powering through the fear. He shared with me what he liked about my novel, what had stuck with him. And whatever he did say ended up giving me the courage to get back to it.

It wasn’t until long after the class ended that I realized just how much I’d learned from Andre. He was a proponent of writing from page 1 to The End, without outlining or penning scenes out of order. Doing that, he said, made the process inauthentic. If you were writing toward a predetermined point, you weren’t allowing the process to unfold organically.

He never wrote under the influence, even if he’d had a single beer. At least, he claimed not to. It was inauthentic, he said. It tainted the process.

Andre talked a lot about authenticity and the organic process, and Art with a capital A. All things I’d joked about with my grad school friends when I was in my “I hate this workshop” mode. But later, when I was able to fully appreciate what I’d learned from him, I felt kind of stupid. Andre was a good teacher. It just took me a long time to recognize it.

There are other teachers who had an enormous impact on my life – Iris Phillips, my first and second grade teacher. Mrs. Valentine, who taught me how to read between the lines through Lord of the Flies. Lisa Jahn-Clough, my grad school mentor and later friend, who introduced me to a world that felt like home. I could write a whole essay on her alone, but that’s another post for another day.

At any rate, I am so appreciative to all my teachers, and not just the ones named here. They helped shape who I am. They opened my mind, my heart, and my world. I know that sounds incredibly cheesy, but I mean every word of it. Sincerely.

The long absence.

So, um, remember how on January 1 I was all, “I’m going to blog three to five times a week”?

Clearly, that didn’t happen.

But here’s the thing: I have a totally valid excuse reason for this. I had a book to write. A book that was originally due in February, but for which I was given an extension until early- to mid-April. And even then I didn’t hit “The End” until last Sunday.

It’s nearly 63,000 words, making it the longest thing I’ve ever written by a comfortable margin.

I don’t know how much I’m allowed to tell you about this book yet. The whole project has been a little hush-hush. I can tell you that it’s another YA novel. That it features not one, not two, not three, but FOUR first-person female narrators. Oh, and it will be the first book I publish under my married name.

What else can I tell you? I had a lot of fun writing it. A LOT. It’s a juicy, dishy book. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve done previously. It’s the kind of book you’d want to bring with you to the beach. A beach read. But, like, a good one.

It’s also one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. Not because of the twisty plot and multiple narrators, but because I have a full-time job. I have a really busy full-time job. I wrote my first two and my seventh novels all while working full-time jobs, but with every year my current job grows in responsibility. I manage a team now. I lead a lot of projects. It’s not uncommon for me to put in 45-50 hours at the office in a typical week. Balancing that with a family and sleep doesn’t leave oodles of time for writing.

So the draft went a lot slower than my editor would have liked, though in actuality it still took less than nine months. In the beginning, I was writing in the mornings, 45 minutes to an hour before I’d start to get ready for work. Later, that wasn’t turning out so well, so I started to put in 60-90 minutes in the evenings. But the last month of the draft, I was having better luck on weekends, putting in 3-4 hour chunks at a time.

At any rate, it’s done! When I sent it off to my editor, I almost cried from sheer relief. It’s been a struggle, this one.

And of course the perfectionist in me wanted at least another month to go through the full MS, making it better before anyone’s eyes got on it. But that wasn’t tenable with the time frame. I even told my editor that it was a hot mess first draft (as most first drafts should be), but that I knew that we’d make it great in revision.

When I sent the draft, I figured I’d have at least a week’s worth of breathing room from book stuff. I was wrong. Not two days later I got an email from my editor’s assistant asking me to approve cover copy, write my bio, and let her know if I’m providing a head shot or not. And about ten days before that, she sent me this big, long marketing survey that needs to be completed pronto.

It’s probably authorial suicide to admit this, but I am so very bad at the business part of this business. It just doesn’t interest me. Time and again I wish I could just sit in my Tiffany-blue office, banging out words on the keyboard, and not bother with any of the rest. Self-promotion makes me horribly uncomfortable. And social media is part of my day job, so the last thing I want to do at night is more of that for me.

But the fact is that I am not a good enough or important enough author to say, “No, thanks, I won’t be partaking in these shenanigans.” If anything, I need to be ramping up my shenanigans.

Blech.

Anyway, I swore I wouldn’t take up a lot of space in this blog on navel-gazing nonsense, and here I am, being extra-special naval-gaze-y. So let me stop here before I make the both of us want to wretch.

Birthday Vacation, D.C. Edition: Day 1.

BFFs

Obligatory birthday selfie. Note: neither of us are wearing makeup because we’re headed to the spa. Hopefully you consider posting this pic “brave” and not “stupid.”

Believe me when I say that no one in the world needed this birthday vacation more than I did this year. I mean, if you follow this blog you have a decent idea of the kind of crap the universe has been hurling at me. But that isn’t even the entire picture.

So, yeah. I needed this. Badly.

Day 1 started off with me paying the mid-month bills, because I am – above all else – a responsible adult. Once I got the grownup stuff out of the way, I loaded up the car and headed to Wendy’s.

Our first stop was…Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s sort of a tradition, especially when we’re heading south. But then it was back on the road and onto our nation’s capital.

We rolled into town around 12:30. Hotwire had landed us a room at the Hotel Palomar, on P Street in Dupont Circle. From the website the place looked posh but it was NOTHING compared to the actual hotel. A valet greeted us and took our car (for a steep fee, of course, but we have 24/7 in-out privileges and the room itself was very affordable). The lobby was gorgeous – super plush and with a real fire burning on one side.

I have to give this place major props. One, they let us check in early. Two, when we got there, they decided to change our room from the prepaid king size (with Hotwire, you don’t get to choose) to one with two queen beds. We got vouchers for free drinks and learned that they serve wine and snacks in the lobby every night from 5 to 6. Everyone was so nice and accommodating. It’s honestly one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had.

And then we saw our room.

Hotel Palomar Room

Can you believe that shiz?

We did some quick unpacking because we are nerds like that, then headed over to Teaism for lunch. It was about a five-minute walk from the hotel. We selected it because of its proximity to both the hotel and the spa we were off to afterward, but oh – it was lovely. Obviously the name tells you that tea is their bailiwick, but the food was tasty and perfect for a spa day. We each got bento boxes (or, as my mom used to call them, “benito boxes”). Wendy had the salmon while I opted for the vegetarian, mostly because it had spaghetti squash and pepitas in it. Both were crazy tasty and now Wendy wants to eat every meal at Teaism (no joke).

Bento Box Lunch

Then it was off to Spa Logic, for our half day of pampering. When we got the magical Groupon deal, we had no idea how close this place would be to our hotel. Literally a couple of blocks. It’s as if all of the stars aligned for us.

Wendy started off with the massage portion while I went off with Lana, the facialist. She was a small, soft-spoken woman who nonetheless had ZERO problems lecturing me on how I was taking care of my skin. I needed Vitamin K cream to hide the capillaries in my cheeks. Vitamin C serum to stop the signs of aging (this she felt was DIRE). I needed to stop relying on the “sun cream” in my moisturizer and use a separate sun cream. My pores were filthy. Had I ever considered full-face waxing?

Even so, I loved Lana, because I love getting facials. I haven’t had one since our last birthday trip, because I’m also cheap, but still.

An hour later, Wendy and I traded spots and I landed on Monica’s massage table. The Groupon was for a “reflexology” massage. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured it would be massage-like and that’s all I needed to know.

Let me tell you: Reflexology massage is hardcore. At least, Monica’s version was. She did a lot of painful poking, squeezing, pulling, rubbing. At points I was singing Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” in my head. No joke.

I think it’s safe to add reflexology massage to the master list of Things That Lara Does Not Enjoy All That Much.

Later I told Wendy that half the time I felt like I was a lifeless body she encountered and she was shaking me to see if I was dead or not. Parts were okay, though. During the second half, Monica spent a lot of time on my feet and calves, and that was nicer. In between, there was a weird butt rubbing thing that caught me off guard, but I tried to just go with it.

Then we were whisked off to the basement for manis, pedis, and complimentary glasses of wine. I chose a lovely ruby color for my toes and a burnished gold for my barely there fingernails. Wendy went cherry on the toes and shell pink on the hands.

Mani Pedi Time

The mani-pedis were fine but nothing special. When we were done, I let Mike (the one who’d been working on my nails) rip the excess cavewoman hair from my eyebrows. He left behind two red welts on my right one. I never have luck with waxing. Or threading. Hence the reason I had cavewoman eyebrows in the first place.

Back to the hotel, where they were having Happy Hour. Another complimentary glass of wine (theme for the weekend: people getting us tipsy for free), some crackers and gourmet olives and we were happy ladies.

After a quick freshening up (which involved reapplying makeup over our newly facialed skin), we walked half a block to Panas Gourmet Empanadas for dinner. It’s a fast casual type place. We got a tray of empanadas for two, selecting eight different flavors so we could sample as much as possible. It came with razor-thin plantain chips and four dipping sauces. The crust on the empanadas was crisp and the fillings were inventive. My favorite was the BrieArt (brie with mushrooms and artichoke hearts) Wendy liked the CubaNovo (roasted pork, onions, cilantro, and lime). Best of all, the meal was CHEAP – only $16 for everything.

Yards of Empanadas

Using our superior navigation skills, we found the Dupont Circle Metro station and took the red line to Union Station, where we picked up our Monuments by Moonlight tour. (Tip: you save 10% when you book online, which makes it more affordable than the Goldstar deal.) We loaded the Old Time Trolley, helmed by the affable “Hoya Hank,” our tour guide for the evening.

When the weather is warm, the top of the trolley is mostly open. In the winter, the windows are encased in vinyl. This helps keep things warm(ish) but it also obscures the sights and makes for poor photography. Even so, there were three stops on the tour where we were allowed to get off and explore. The first was right on the water and it was OH-EM-GEE cold. Like, chilled-to-the-bones cold. Still, I’d never seen the MLK or FDR monuments, so that was cool (in the figurative sense, I mean).

The next stop was to a place I’d also never seen in person: the famed U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima. We only had five minutes at that stop, so there wasn’t much lingering. We also drove by Arlington Cemetery. You couldn’t see much, because it was dark, but you could make out the rows and rows of white headstones. It was eerie.

Iwo Jima Memorial

The final stop on the tour was the Lincoln Memorial. This was a place I had been to before, years ago. In fact, when I did the math in my head, I’m pretty sure my dad took me there when he was the age I am now.

We walked down to check out the Vietnam Memorial, which was also difficult to see in the dark, and then got back on the bus. Some of our more adventurous comrades managed to see the WWII memorial and Korean War memorial as well.

Hank was full of interesting trivia and historical anecdotes. Wendy said, “He makes me want to see a bunch of things I never wanted to see before.”

The tour wrapped at 10, and we made an impulse decision to head out to U Street for second dinner (“It’s a late-night snack!” Wendy said). We’d been trying to figure out how to fit the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl into our itinerary and weren’t able to. So this was a perfect detour.

There’s a sign behind the counter declaring that the only people who eat free there are Bill Cosby and the Obamas. I wondered if the Cos was still welcome. I’m guessing yes, because his mug is EVERYWHERE.

Ben's Chili Bowl Hearts Bill Cosby

We ordered what you’re supposed to order: two half smokes with chili and the works. We also opted for a side of cheese fries and a vanilla milkshake to split.

Half Smokes

I’d been to Ben’s Chili Bowl once, at least a decade before. Some friends and I bought tickets to see Cat Power at the 9:30 Club and ate there before. That night it had been crazy crowded, but at 11 on a Thursday? Not so much.

It had taken us about 45 minutes to get to Ben’s, because the DC Metro runs slowly at night and the trip required two trains. After our half smokes I felt like I was going to fall asleep right at the table. So I suggested that we treat ourselves to a cab ride back to the hotel, which was literally a mile and a half away (but would’ve likely taken us another 45 minutes to get to by train).

Our driver was like the Best Cab Driver Ever. His vehicle was clean, he drove like we would drive, and he kept up a lovely stream of conversation. We learned he was from Nigeria and visited his parents there once a year. He’d been to Delaware, he told us, and he liked it. Almost moved there, even, but cab drivers can’t make a decent living like they can in D.C.

It was the perfect ending to a great first day!

Birthday trip blogging.

So remember how I said I was going to try to blog the birthday trip while I was on it?

Well, I started to. I wrote the post for Day 1 Friday morning and added links and everything, but since I only had the iPad and not my laptop I was having a lot of trouble getting my photos uploaded to the right place. I outlined the post for Day 2 (bullet points) on Friday night, but slept in Saturday morning and so didn’t have time to write the full post. Saturday night we got back to the room so late that I didn’t even have time to outline my recap for Day 3. And Day 4 was a half day plagued by rain, so when I got home Sunday late afternoon all I wanted to do was crash.

All of this is my lame, placeholder-y way of saying that the recap for the birthday trip is coming, I swear it! Look for the first installment tomorrow.

How to plan a kick-ass girlfriends getaway.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

The best way to see the Grand Canyon? Helicopter, of course. Our first annual birthday getaway, 2010.

It’s January, which means Wendy and I are about to embark on our annual birthday getaway.

A little background: Wendy and I are practically birthday twins, born a week apart. In high school, we even had a Doublemint-themed joint birthday party at our friend Ebbie’s house.

At some  point, Wendy pitched the idea of us going to Las Vegas for our 35th birthdays. The idea became a reality and marked our first birthday trip together. We had such an amazing time that we were like, “We should do this EVERY year!” So, now we do.

Subsequent birthday getaways included:

  • Road trip to Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC
  • Long weekend in NYC
  • Epic Texas adventure in San Antonio and Austin

This year’s destination is Washington, D.C. A place we’ve both been to many times, both separately and together. But this time is different.

This time, it’s our birthdays, yo.

There ain’t no party like a Wendy-n-Lara party because a Wendy-n-Lara party don’t stop.

Anyway.

I thought it might be fun to share how we actually plan these little getaways. Keep in mind that we’re the weirdos who make a full-on spreadsheet for Cookiepalooza each year. There are definite methods to our madness.

STEP 1: Choose the Destination

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

Wendy and me at the famed Pineapple Fountain in Charleston, SC, 2012.

The conversation about next year’s destination starts during the current year’s trip. We knew, for instance, that we wanted to do a Savannah/Charleston trip while we were on the plane home from Vegas. In Savannah, we spent a tipsy night making a long list of future birthday destinations. NYC was an easy choice; we had agreed we wouldn’t get on a plane two years in a row to try to cut down on costs.

This year’s destination took a little while to nail down. For about three weeks over the summer, we were certain that we were headed for a cruise somewhere. I’d even found a crazy good deal through U.S. Airways, but missed the deadline for the rock-bottom prize. When it shot up $300, it didn’t seem so appealing anymore. We’d also talked about heading to the Poconos or doing a spa weekend in Hershey – some place really local – but in the end, we decided to head back to D.C.

STEP 2: Take it to Pinterest

Once the destination has been selected, we create a joint Pinterest board to start marking things we want to do, places we want to see, food we want to eat. We didn’t actually start this until our NYC trip; I think I was on Pinterest when we did our road trip to the South but hadn’t really started using it until I was planning my wedding. We also have a board for Future Getaways.

We aim for a mix of quintessential experiences (like horseback riding after a barbecue lunch at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas) and things that just really appeal to us (like spending an afternoon wandering around the foodie haven that is Chelsea Market). The cool thing about going back to a city we’ve been to before is that we’ve done a lot of the quintessential things already. This allows us to focus on a couple of the Smithsonians instead of feeling like we have to do all of them in a long weekend.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

Horseback riding in Driftwood, Texas, 2014.

STEP 3: Make Your Travel Arrangements

If we’re flying somewhere, I book the flight first. And yes, I said “I” – I tend to make a lot of the arrangements for these trips. One, because I’m a bit of a control freak and two, because Wendy is the same way and gets stuck in this role for all of her family vacations, so she enjoys relinquishing the duties to me once a year. We live by a big U.S. Airways hub and I have a U.S. Airways travel rewards credit card, so we typically fly U.S. Airways.

Next comes the hotel (or hotels, if we’re doing multiple destinations). I use Hotwire almost exclusively for travel. In 14 years of using the service, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had bad experiences. We usually stay in 3-5 star hotels for wicked cheap. These are places we likely wouldn’t foot the bill for at full price. Or we’ll opt to save even more money though Hotwire, and get a place like a La Quinta for like $47/night.

I don’t only use Hotwire for the birthday getaways. I used it for Joe’s and my trip to Chicago this summer. I’ve used it to book Girl Scout trips with my old troop. Seriously, if I’m staying in a hotel that’s not related to work travel, odds are I’ve booked it through Hotwire.

Finally, I go after any necessary rental cars. This usually involves me Googling to find coupon codes and/or ongoing sales. Rentals are easy; I’m very short and prefer a compact. These tend to be on the cheaper side.

STEP 4: Find All of the Deals

I love using Groupon when I’m planning vacations, because you can usually find deep discounts on touristy things you’d balk at paying full price for. In San Antonio, we found a crazy good deal on tickets to the Tower of Americas. And for our upcoming trip, Wendy and I are doing a half day at a posh salon for a ridiculously low price (also courtesy of Groupon).

We also stalk deals on Living Social and Goldstar. When we went to NYC, we got half price tickets to see Avenue Q Off-Broadway. This year, we got an excellent price on a nighttime tour of the Washington monuments and half-price entry to the Newseum.

Here’s my favorite tip that won’t help most of you: a lot of cities have Restaurant Weeks in January, to encourage people to eat out. Charleston and New York were two cities that we just happened to visit during such weeks. You can get amazing menus at fancy restaurants for a low prix fixe rate. Like, would I have had a gourmet dinner at Nougatine at Jean-Georges without the Restaurant Week deal? (The answer is no, I probably wouldn’t have.)

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine, 2013. We were making fun of people who do this pose to hide their waddle or double chin. We are dumb like that.

Wendy, me, and fellow January birthday girl Jenna at Nougatine. We were poking fun of women who do this pose to hide their double chin or age-related wattles. We are silly like that.

Sadly, I found out too late that Washington D.C.’s Restaurant Week starts the day after we head home.

STEP 5: Build Your Itinerary

This is where my control-freak nerdiness comes out. Each year, I build an exhaustive itinerary for our birthday trips. It includes information about our flight and rental car (if applicable), all hotels, and a day-by-day breakdown of what we have planned. For each destination I include addresses, phone numbers, web and email addresses, hours of operation, and any estimated costs. At the end, there is a list of additional places that we might want to see, things we might want to do, and food we might want to eat. This allows for flexibility if one of the choices doesn’t work out or we change our minds.

Just to clarify, I don’t go all Clark Griswold on Wendy. It’s not like I say, “OH MY GOD, it’s 8:45 and we should be at X destination!” It’s more like, “On Thursday, we’re going to the spa for three hours. Here’s where we would like to eat dinner. This is what we’ll do after dinner.” Believe it or not, it can actually be way MORE relaxing to know where you’re getting your next meal than to have limitless options.

This year, Wendy has been more hands-on with the planning part. Today she came over and we sat at my dining room table, laptop to laptop, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Index cards were involved, breaking desired destinations up into neighborhoods to consolidate travel time. Three hours later, we had an almost-full itinerary.

STEP 6: Make Your Reservations

I’m not going to lie: we do a lot of good eating on our birthday trips. It’s a mix of classic locales and Chowhound favorites. In NYC, we hit up Gray’s Papaya and Katz’s Deli in addition to places like Pastis and Big Gay Ice Cream. None of THOSE places required reservations, but a lot of stops on our list do. Today, for instance, we made reservations for Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (dinner on Friday), Dukem (dinner on Saturday), and Farmers Fishers Bakers (Sunday brunch).

If there’s a restaurant that requires reservations way ahead of time, it’s best to make the reservation and then build that day’s activities around it. Confession: at least one of our D.C. days was literally planned around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (I told you, we eat GOOD on these trips!)

STEP 7: Map Out Your Routes

On cities where we don’t plan to drive, like NYC and our upcoming D.C. trip, we’ll also take some time to plan out our public transportation. Like, “We’ll take the red line to this stop and then walk three blocks to our destination.” This doesn’t always work out for us, so we’ll both have backup aps on our phones.

STEP 8: Make Your Packing List

This is more me than Wendy, but I’m someone who needs packing lists to make sure I remember everything I need to bring. This includes things that are easily overlooked, like my mini hair straightener, the adapter I need to charge my camera, and my allergy eye drops. My anxiety over forgetting stuff is far more heightened when I’m getting on a plane, though I’m not entirely sure why. But you better believe I’ll be printing out two copies of my packing list this weekend (because I need one for the return trip home, duh).

And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

I’m thinking I might try to blog our trip while we’re actually on it. This will depend on how tired I am when we get back to the hotel each night. This year’s itinerary isn’t nearly as cracked out as the ones from previous years’, because as I mentioned, we purposely tried to plan something a little more low-key. Next year is the big 4-0; I suppose we’re saving up our money and our strength for the big birthday blow out. We’re thinking Europe. Wendy says she doesn’t care where we go, as long as she gets to use a passport.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a packing list to finish up.

Longest. Week. EVAR.

You ever have one of those weeks? You know, where you just get unexpectedly hit with…well, with a whole lot crap?

The week started off well. The Monday after a holiday break is never easy, but the Monday after an extended holiday break is brutal. Only, for me, this year, it wasn’t.

I got up at 6 a.m. I wrote for 90 minutes. I almost hit my daily writing goal (was maybe 100 words short). I got dressed for work, went into the office, and killed it. Stayed 30 minutes late to finish up a few things, then headed home, where I made zucchini soup and a tuna and white bean salad for dinner. I also made some “nutrient-dense” muffins for the rest of the week’s breakfasts.

Logged a little time with the husband, watched an episode of Doctor Who on Netflix, and then logged another twenty minutes or so of writing time, during which I beat my daily goal by 51 words. Afterward, I packed our lunches for the next day and nabbed a little more cuddle time with Joe before getting to bed at a decent hour.

All good things, right?

On Tuesday, I had a doctor’s appointment in PA. It’s about a 25-mile drive that takes less than 45 minutes to do when there’s no traffic. But on Tuesday, we had our first significant snow of the season. Joe decided to drive me; an hour later, we’d only made it about 2/3 of the way there. My morning decaf kicked in and I asked Joe to pull off at the first available exit so I could find a bathroom. He did, the brakes locked up, and we slo-mo skidded into a big ol’ HVAC truck. Here, see for yourself:

Crashed Car

So there was that.

Meanwhile, there was all of this Drama (capital “D” intended) with the tow guy that the state cops called to move our car out of a busy travel lane. I won’t bore you with the details but they took our smashed-up Fusion to a collision center in Chester, instead of the awesome Brandywine Body Shop (which is less than a mile from our house). And how the tow guy took off with our car but left us stranded on the side of the road, in the snow, and how we had to wait for over an hour for our rescue ride.

There were phone calls to AAA and State Farm and the Chester collision shop and our body shop and a million other people. There were problems with the rental car from Hertz, not the least of which included starting the car only to discover the low tire pressure warning light, calling the front desk to ask them to fix it, them telling me they couldn’t, and us having to seek assistance from a rival rental company’s techs across the lot.

Oh, yeah, that was a banner day, I tell you what.

But it really SHOULD have been a banner day, since Tuesday was when my new book, You First, was officially published. My first tween novel! My first novel period in five and a half years!

Picture Perfect

These arrived on Thursday. I literally squeed!

Wednesday was all about digging myself out from the hole I fell into with Tuesday’s shenanigans. Thursday was all about meetings – so many meetings, one right after another, my LEAST favorite kind of work day. It was topped off with the discovery that there was blood in my dog’s urine.

Yes, BLOOD.

In my dog’s urine.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. A lot.

And then chased this crying with a viewing of Parenthood, which made me cry even harder.

This morning, I called the vet first thing. They could see Scout. Did a clean urine catch with some Tupperware that is headed for the recycling bin. Drove him over to the vet’s office at 8 a.m. Came home to work. Around 10:30, got a call from the vet’s office pointing out that Scout is scheduled for a dental cleaning on Monday, and did I want them to do it today? Sure, I say. Let’s knock it out.

Around 3 o’clock start having anxiety about the dog. The first time he ever went under anesthesia was for neutering. He was really small and had a horrible reaction to the protocol they used. We almost lost him. So now whenever he needs anesthesia, I usually need a Valium. (Not really. But close.)

At 3:30, I can’t take it anymore; I call the vet for an update. They still haven’t done the cleaning OR run the urinalysis. Great. More anxiety. Call the body shop for an update on my car. It’s still in Chester. They got the collision center to release it but asked State Farm to get it towed. State Farm didn’t. Get a call from State Farm. They chastise me for not returning “several calls.” I check my cell. There is exactly ONE missed call from 1:39 p.m. yesterday.

When is this week going to end?

Not before there is more lecturing from State Farm. It’s interrupted by a call from the vet telling me that she wants to do some radiography on the dog. Great, do whatever you have to do, this dog is everything to me. He has to be healthy. HAS TO.

I cannot deal with one more thing going wrong this week. I really can’t.

At 5:02, I call the vet again. Earlier I was told the doctor needed to leave at 5. I’m worried that there have been no updates. They’re still working on Scout, the front desk chick tells me.

This can’t be good, I think.

At 5:12, the vet calls. I was right. The news isn’t good.

Scout has two sizable bladder stones. They should be removed as soon as possible. By a specialist.

I ask questions. A lot of questions. I’m supposed to be leaving town on Thursday, for Wendy’s and my annual birthday trip. I’ll be back on the 18th. Can I get the surgery done on the 19th?

Risky, the vet says. If the stones get much bigger, Scout’s body might try to pass them. This could mean a blockage. Will someone be home with him 24/7?

Emergency surgery it is. EXPENSIVE emergency surgery.

The first specialist center I call tells me my best bet is to bring him in tonight. He’ll hang out in a crate until someone is available to do the surgery. Since he’s stable, he’d be at the bottom of the triage list. The cost? Between $3,000 and $3,500.

I call the second specialist center. They have zero openings between now and Monday. They tell me to call UPenn. UPenn can’t even schedule an appointment until Monday. If I bring him in for an eval and his situation is deemed urgent enough, they’ll call in an emergency staff. That costs money. LOTS of money.

The first specialist center it is!

Joe gets home from work and I fill him in on everything. Then I go over to CareCredit to apply for financing to pay for my dog’s surgery. We’re approved, print out the paperwork, and head over to Banfield to pick up our groggy dog, all so we can deliver him to the next crate at the next vet center, where he’ll wait for someone to cut him open and remove these potentially dangerous bladder stones.

In the car, I hold Scout tight and start to cry. I’ve had so much loss in my life these past couple of years – I can’t lose him, too. The bladder stone surgery isn’t high-risk but it will require more anesthesia, and as I said, Scout doesn’t do well on anesthesia to begin with. This is what scares me more than anything.

We sign in at the animal ER and are taken back to an exam room. A nurse checks Scout’s vitals. All is well.

An hour goes by without seeing a doctor. Bad things happen at the animal ER. A stray that was hit by a car gets brought in. I can see the blood on its white fur. Another dog comes in having had seizures. We hear its owners sobbing.

Scout in Hiding

Scout hiding under the bench in the exam room. We’d brought him a toy for the crate wait.

Another twenty minutes goes by. Joe and I are both starving. It’s been almost seven hours since I’ve eaten and I’m out of water. There’s a Wawa two minutes down the street. I leave Joe there with Scout and make a quick food run.

I am gone at most 15 minutes. But in my absence Dr. Kelly comes to talk to Joe. Scout doesn’t need surgery, she says. The kind of stones he has can be dissolved by the special urinary food that he’s already on. He’s got a UTI, she says, and the UTI might have caused the two stones to form in the first place. Let’s clear up the UTI, do a culture to make sure we’ve diagnosed the right kind of bacteria, and keep an eye on his urine production. Then, in two to three months, we’ll do another round of X-rays to see if the stones have dissolved or not.

When Joe tells me this, I’m relieved. But I’m also kind of pissed. I’ve spent the past several hours in blind panic over my dog’s health. Needlessly, it turns out.

The doctor returns in another 20 minutes to talk to me. Everything she says contradicts what we were told by Banfield. She wants to do a culture on his bladder, for instance. I say, “Don’t you have to put him under to do that?” She says, “No, not at all.” But Banfield told me that they DO put dogs under for that.

Dr. Kelly takes Scout back to get the culture. I feel suddenly exhausted, like I could fall asleep right there on the exam room floor.

Scout is discharged a short while later. We go over the instructions with a nurse. He trots out of the emergency vet center and hops into the car looking happy. The mood in the car is infinitely lighter than that of the drive over.

We walk in our front door at 9:38 p.m. I feed Scout so I can give him his antibiotic. Then I change into my PJs and prepare for some much-needed couch cuddles with my two favorite men.

Finally.