The family you choose vs. the one you’re born into

I spent Thanksgiving week in Kansas City at my parents’ house. I hadn’t seen them in about six months, and hadn’t seen my dog for longer than that. The house was mostly the same, which a few changes here and there. My mother had, for instance, cleaned out and organized my bedroom, turning it into a tasteful yet still personalized guest room.

This was a notable Thanksgiving because it was the first one I’d spent with my parents in three years. Last year I spent Thanksgiving in Germany and two years ago I was with my grandparents in Vermont. Three years ago, I had just returned from England and was still readjusting. Four years ago, I was in England.

We decided to spend the week together, just the three of us. And the dog. I’ve always been closer to my parents than many people, I guess, because I’m an only child. At the end of the day, it’s the three of us. And the dog, so long as there’s cheese.

I’m also normally a fairly insular person. I don’t let people in easily and I can be aloof. I don’t make friends that easily but the friends I have are uniformly rock solid. So the arrangement of me, my mum and my dad is pretty much fine with me.

And yet I spent this week in almost constant contact, via email and Gchat, with my boyfriend, thousands of miles away. It was important to me that he understood what was going on and why, what was involved and that it mattered to me. He’s promised to celebrate the holiday with me when and if we make it to that point of being able to celebrate it together.

While it was great to celebrate the holiday with my biological family, it was also wonderful to start to share it with, if all goes well, my eventual chosen family: me, my boyfriend and our blended families. There’s that saying of, “Friends are the family you choose,” but this is decidedly deeper … legal even, eventually, maybe. It was a big step for me to share the intricacies of the holiday and family traditions with someone else, and for that sharing to be valued. That my boyfriend is a foreigner makes it that much more special, because, lacking the Thanksgiving tradition growing up, he has my example to follow.

Poor prior experiences with trying to open up about traditions to the men I’ve dated made me appreciate the enthusiastic response from Jamie all the more. It made me want to go all out for him and to make him look forward to the holiday every year as much as he would if he were American.

I think we may make it after all.

(Jinx.)

Insert a Style Pun Here

One of the hardest things I’ve done as a copy editor is explain to non-copy editors what a stylebook is.

Last month, I was charged with updating POLITICO Pro’s rather outdated stylebook, which includes a longer general section and then smaller sections for each of its 14 verticals. It was a fun and challenging project to work for; I also view stylebook maintenance as a “rite of passage” for all career editors.

I told my parents and friends about the work project, and then set out to explain what it was I was doing. So much of it seems minute or arbitrary, and some of it is. But what matters is consistency. It doesn’t matter if we spell out the Environmental Protection Agency or not of first reference, so long as it’s the same in all of our stories. It makes for better, cleaner copy and a crisper, more consistent product.

I went through the old stylebook line by line and kept what I thought we needed and discarded anything that was outdated. I included points that I thought were important and had to come down on one side or the other for some items. It took me about two weeks of fairly consistent work, but it was finally finished.

Is it wonky? Definitely. Boring as hell to anyone who isn’t a Pro editor or producer? Probably. Is it still very important for us to produce high-quality copy? Yes.

Did I have a blast doing it? You bet.

Language for the masses? Wunderbar

It’s been a busy couple of months. Work’s picked up as the 2014 election looms, I spent a fantastic week in England with my now-boyfriend, and I’ve gotten to spend time with friends in D.C. during my precious few moments off. (And the Royals are in the World Series.)

One other thing I’ve done, at the recommendation of my boyfriend, is try out Duolingo. It’s a Web-based language-learning program that is completely free and based on crowd-sourced translated content. It’s set up like a game, with organized lessons, points, levels and a currency that can “buy” supplemental lessons and other goodies. The lessons are a combination of translating phrases into English, translating English phrases into the language, transcribing audio of the language and verbally repeating phrases in the language. The lessons are separated by topic, such as colors, verbs, time, adjectives and clothing.

So far, you can learn German, Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese. Dutch, Irish and Danish are in beta development, and still more are in the works. It’s set up like a community, where you can compete with friends for points, discuss lessons to figure out what you might have missed, and translate articles and read translated articles.

Again, it is all free, based on the idea of learning languages as a tool of economic mobility. It stands in stark contrast to Rosetta Stone, which costs hundreds of dollars for a five-level program. I have Rosetta Stone in French, German and Hebrew, but I was curious about Duolingo as a supplement.

I think I’m addicted.

I dabbled in French first, then resolved to work through the German program, since I’m more familiar with that language. I do go back daily and do a lesson in French to keep my “streak” (number of uninterrupted days you complete a lesson, part of the “game” aspect), but my focus now is on completing the German program before going back to work through the French program. Once both programs are done, I’ll go back and do revision lessons on them to “keep my bars up,” and then start on a third language (I’m thinking Italian).

It has always been a goal of mine to become at least conversational in as many languages as possible. I know that true fluency will probably come only with total immersion for an extended period, but Duolingo seems great at teaching the basics, while keeping it fun and making you want to come back. I look forward to traveling more now, because I know I can sample the languages beforehand.

If you’re interested in learning a language but unable or unwilling to make a large monetary commitment, I’d definitely look into Duolingo. It’s probably best paired with other tools (I still use Rosetta Stone and try to read German news sites regularly), but for light study, it’s a great tool.

In praise of digital relationships, romantic and otherwise

Earlier tonight, as I prepared to go to bed, I looked up a few old schoolmates on Facebook. People to whom I was never particularly close, even then. The ones I found were nearly strangers to me. I have nothing in common with them now, and the only thing I had in common with them then was geography. Even that wasn’t exactly a matter of agency, given that we lived where our parents had chosen to live.

I’ve long rejected the notion that friendships and relationships should be based on geography. Obviously you’ll eventually want to meet your closest online friends and especially your online romantic interests, and romantic partners would ultimately relocate for each other. But choosing a friend or a partner based on elementary school or high school or even college always seemed needlessly limited to me. I know many people who found their long-term partners in school; I wasn’t one of them. And while I do retain close friendships with many people with whom I went to school, I have just as many close friends whom I met through various online means, based on our mutual interests.

Because of my shyness and, to use the technical term, resting bitch face, I’ve long had difficulty getting close to people I meet first in person. I know that I come off as a bit awkward and aloof. I communicate much better in writing. Even my co-workers compliment my humor and wit in our office chat program. So it makes sense that someone like me would more easily forge written-based relationships. 

One of my best friends now is someone I’d have never met at all, in person or otherwise, were it not for our mutual love of Harry Potter and various other geekery. We crossed paths online over five years ago and up to this point we’ve visited each other and we regularly chat long-distance about other things: cooking, pets, work, moving. I talk to her about things I’d talk to any true friend about in person.

My current long-distance partner (soon to, in a few weeks, hopefully become my short-distance partner for a few days at least) approached me because he admired my online writing about, of all things, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” That was six months ago and we’ve been talking non-stop ever since. Though I’m eager to see him, I don’t consider what we have to be inherently less meaningful because it’s mostly based on written communication.

Finally, the peril of going to school in the Midwest and in England and living on the East Coast is that nearly all of my friends, even if they began as in-person friends, became long-distance friends. Written communication is absolutely essential, whether it’s a tweet, email, text, Facebook message or something else. This is what helps me sustain my friendships, because the vast majority of my friends live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

I have more in common with a handful of people thousands of miles away in England than I do with a handful of people in Kansas with whom I shared a few years of schooling 20-odd years ago. It’s worth it to me to forsake in-person interactions for the time being in exchange for a deeper emotional attachment through writing. I wouldn’t trade a day’s worth of emails with my partner for 50 middling OKCupid dates in D.C.

But I am excited to see him, though …

It’s OK to spoil yourself

About two months ago, I threw my back out and was out of commission for a few days. The pain was immense and I had to take a prescription muscle relaxer and painkillers. Toward the end of my recovery, I made a quick decision to do something I had wanted to do for a long time, but hadn’t yet dared: I booked a hot stone massage for myself, and a facial treatment.

Both treatments, at the Willard Continental’s Elizabeth Arden spa, went amazingly well. I felt incredibly relaxed and rejuvenated and my face had a noticeable glow that almost made me look pretty. I justified the expense by writing it off as a treatment for my back; the facial I’d gotten just because hey, I was already there.

Earlier today, I went back to the spa and had another massage (Swedish this time) and another facial. My skin is still glowing and my back kinks are worked out. Did I have a “medical” excuse this time? No. I wanted to go, and I did. And it was amazing. And I don’t feel guilty about doing it.

I’m finally to the point now where I have a healthy savings cushion built up. I can fulfill my rent and student loan obligations and other bills, and still have a decent amount of money left over. More recently, I’ve been buying (small) things for myself that even a few months ago I’d have written off as frivolous or unnecessary: a new ring, a necklace, a pair of flats, a pretty blue lace slip. None of them are necessities, but all of them give me enjoyment and allow me to express myself.

As long as you pay up for the necessities, whatever you do with the gravy is up to you. It’s been an almost overwhelming concept to me, given that I’m practical and frugal almost to a fault (I rarely buy anything that’s not on sale, and I don’t have much jewelry or even pierced ears). I don’t blow through my money or rack up credit card debt I can’t pay off. But I also don’t second-guess myself. Do I really need that bra? Do I really need those shoes? That facial? That flavored espresso drink? No, I don’t need them. But I want them, and I have the means to get them.

So why shouldn’t I?

On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

Finding your voice

Not too long ago, I was having dinner with some friends, a couple. One of them described a book she had just read, but couldn’t think of the author or the title. Based on her synopsis, I remarked that it “sounded like something Chuck Palahniuk would write.” She ended up looking up the book on her phone, and the author was … Chuck Palahniuk. Her girlfriend was impressed that I could identify the author correctly — I hadn’t actually read the book.

I’ve thought about that exchange since it happened, and I’m still torn on whether, from a writer’s perspective, it’s good or bad or both or neither. On the one hand, here is a writer with such a developed voice and tone that a mere summary of a book was enough for me to identify him. On the other, from a more cynical perspective, it could be seen as the mark of someone who perhaps relies too much on a singular focus.

As a writer who does far too little of her own writing, I fell on the side of positivity (how un-Palahniuk of me) and settled on the former interpretation. I’d honestly love for someone down the line to read something I’ve written, or hear about something I’ve written, and positively ID me as the author. Really, it shows a familiarity with the overall body of work, and that’s something an author should strive for.

(The book was “Invisible Monsters,” I think.)