Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

A Visual Guide to Writers’ Notebooks

HI FRIENDS, I’M BACK! *runs around hugging everyone* Wait, you didn’t know I was gone? Well, I was. I was in Panama. I spoke some Spanish. I went on a zip-line. I made some jokes. I saw some sights. Me me me me me.

While I was on the plane back to this great country we call the US of A (I’ll be honest with you, my heart swelled a little when the kind, buff customs officer said, “Welcome back,” but that’s mainly because I’d been mentally playing out an terrible fantasy wherein I get detained for unclear reasons and spend the rest of my life pacing the floors of the O’Hare airport), I couldn’t sleep, so I drew you a useful chart instead. I hope it helps you understand why you should NEVER USE MY BLACK SPIRAL NOTEBOOK FOR YOUR TO-DO LISTS, CHARLIE. I WAS GOING TO WRITE IN IT SOMEDAY.

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13 Things I Loved in 2013

Peeps, I am PSYCHED for 2014. I think it’s going to be a fantastic year for all of us. Shout-out to my little sister who’ll be graduating high school and starting college, everyone from IU who’s going to be graduating with an MFA, and all others undergoing life changes big and small. Oh, and an extra-meaningful shout-out to anyone who’s about to come into a lot of money. These thrifted cardigans don’t pay for themselves!

In an effort to remain optimistic and grateful instead of defaulting into my usual mental state (fatalistic and consumed with a senseless desire for revenge), I’m taking a look back on the highlights of 2013–a strange and frightening year for young Tori if there ever was one. There were lows, there were ant infestations, there were terrified moments spent deep under the covers wondering if the apocalypse was nigh, there were creepy men on street corners talking to figures I couldn’t see, but there were also highs, and kindred spirits, and candles, and champagne, and paycheck after paycheck with more than 6 figures on it.

Here are some of the things I loved.

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2013-121. Hanging out with my guy. He cooks delicious egg sandwiches, he cracks me up, he lets me take hilarious photos of him when he’s carrying his bass over potholes, we’re in a top-secret band together, he’s not too grumpy, he’s the most supportive person of my writing by a long shot, he took me to a champagne salon on my birthday, and he is far too precious to be elaborated on via the Internet. screenplaygurrrrl

2. Writing a screenplay. Aside from some novellas in college (what up Northwestern CW Honors Program ’09), this was my first real foray into long-form writing, and gee willikers was it hard. But my seemingly senseless toil earned me the ultimate prize: having my name appear…in a list…ON THE INTERNET…beneath the name of someone who doesn’t use the Oxford comma!

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3. Going on a whirlwind trip to Colombia, aka “Colombia the country,” with these kindreds. When my friend Joe called me for a little commiseration about his “failed” trip to Colombia, neither of us had any idea that in about forty-eight hours, we’d both be on a plane to Bogotá. Our spur-of-the-moment trip taught me so much about how I want to live my life. I finally understood, viscerally, that no action comes out of inaction. There’s never going to be a perfect time, you’ll never have enough money (what up Indiana University graduate student “salary”), and you will always have to shuffle your life and budget around like a professional juggler. But if you bring yo’ passport and pack super light and are okay with not washing your hair for a while, it’s going to be amazing.

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4. Waitressing the night the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. It was basically like going to a huge party where ecstatic strangers buy you drinks and you walk away with $300 cash. Hanging out with Toews and the Stanley Cup was pretty awesome too, but as you can see, I was in a bad mood that day for no good reason. Women, right?!

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5. Actually, waitressing in general. I spent the summer waitressing and freelance writing, and it was just the funnest, most laid-back summer ever. After a while, I couldn’t keep up with the late nights/Jameson shots + early mornings article deadlines, but waitressing and writing are the perfect combination of extroversion/introversion, human interest/dreaming.

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6. Travels. Despite the fact that I’ve become terrified of flying after entering into an alternate reality via airplane in the spring of 2012 (long story), there is little I love better than going to a new city/town/country/bullfighting festival/party in West Egg/Yoknapatawpha county/WHAT?!

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7. Writing flash fiction, the world’s most enjoyable art form. This is probably my favorite thing I’ve written this year, if yer interested.

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8. Making tiny videos. I got no technical/financial/practical reason to do so, it’s just SO MUCH FUN. And is there a better reason for doing anything? (Funny. KitschySad.)

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9. Embracing the art of the terrifying decision. 2013 was the year I left three different jobs. No wait–four jobs. No, wait, five jobs–geez, #likearollingstone, am I right?! Because I’ve learned that what you don’t do often defines you just as much as what you do.

2013-52013-1010. Bloomington farewells, Bloomington reunions. Proof that just like Snow White and Prince Charming in “Once Upon a Time” (obscure art world reference, don’t worry about it), writers will always find each other.

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11. Meriwether reunion. We may not be any closer to world domination and we may have forgotten to create our famous podcast, “Insanity,” but we’re still the queens of the comedy hour. The question remains: is it all in our heads?!

photo-40 photo-41 photo-4212. SISTER reunion. We’re probably going to be roommates when she’s in college, because that’s what normal people do. And she gon’ be my best friiiiiiiiieeeend.

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13. All things family. Is this me ending with a sentimental cliche? No, this is me ending with a Marilynne Robinson quote:

There’s so much to be grateful for, words are poor things.

The Internet Makes Me Feel Sad, Part 2

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Some writer-type people are very vocal about their depression. Some are vocal about their sexual orientation, their childhood traumas, their totally misunderstood penchant for offering small children a lift in their nice, clean, white van. This is all part of this thing writers attempt to do called “connecting,” which, yawn, whatever, but there is one issue of mine that I want to be perfectly honest about because I don’t see many people talking about it: my reactions to the internet.

I wrote about this same issue a year ago, and not much has changed–except I like checking my email now, because every now and then someone says, “I would like to send you my Rwandan inheritance via money order!” and I’m like “Okay, here’s all the info you’ll need!” In this way I have become very, very rich.

Speaking of wealth, I have wanted to be a freelance writer for a long time, and things are finally happening. I got a paid writing job. A PAID WRITING JOB: rarer than a unicorn, rarer than a female director in Hollywood, rarer than finding quality saffron at the dollar store. As a hippie archetype in a lazy film full of one-dimensional background characters might say, “Cool, dude! I’m wearing a tie-dye shirt…Woodstock!”

My once-dark summer has turned into a pretty good time. I write articles in the morning, I write fiction in the afternoon (TOTALLY JOKING, I NAP), I waitress at night. I had a near-brush with a serial killer that I need to tell you all about, and I got to hang out with my little sister for like a week. “Far out, man,” says the hippie in the corner. “Why is everything you say so exhaustingly cliche?” we respond, but the hippie is silent inside his cloud of pot.

Unfortunately, doing online-type things has caused me to morph into a human-shaped mass of buzzing anxiety covered in a thin, easily-bruisable layer of skin.

The internet makes me sad. I can’t deal with the mediocrity of the internet, I can’t deal with the disposability of writing on the internet, I can’t deal with the thought that I might be adding to the worthless noise, but I need to be online to do the type of writing I want to do (quasi-journalistic, quasi-creative shortform writing that was designed for people like me: narcissists who can’t maintain an argument. OMG THAT WAS THE MEANEST THING I’VE EVER SAID ABOUT MYSELF, I’M LIKE EMINEM IN 8 MILE).

Let me be simultaneously more specific and more melodramatic. For the past few days, I have had intense physiological reactions to the thought of going online. My stomach has literally been in knots. YES, LITERALLY. IT’S A RARE DISEASE THAT ONLY I HAVE. I started crying in front of my sweet boyfriend yesterday evening as I attempted to do anxiety-relieving accupressure on my own arm. If that’s not the saddest thing you’ve ever heard, you must read the news.

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I think that flowers are the opposite of the internet. The feeling I get when I’m filching black-eyed Susans from a community garden, ransacking my neighbor’s lilacs after midnight, or snipping mint leaves from my grandmother’s herb patch to make the best chimichurri this side of the Panama Canal is an incredibly centered, grounded, relaxed, inspired peace. It’s the feeling of participating in a physical world as present, tangible organism.

…#biologymajor

The internet is none of those things. It’s not physical, it’s not dependent on time or place, it appeals to three senses at most (sight, sound, and touch, and that’s stretching it). Sure, it’s possible to be genuine–even genius–on the internet, but it’s all technically intangible, and to me, intangibility is a close cousin to the unreal, and though I’ll always be the kind of girl who flirts with spirits, I like my unreality in very specific forms: fiction, nighttime walks, and the best parties. Online, phrases and intentions are stripped of their weight and subtlety because of how easy they are to create and how devoid they are of dimension. Everyone is engaging through a screen, both literally and figuratively, and the whole thing has a frantic but non-vital hum. I find it hard to sustain a concentrated thought on the internet but very easy to contribute meaningless content. And now that I get paid for writing content, the temptation to be throwaway, quick, and depthlessly catchy is greater than ever. I try to hold myself to some sort of standard with the following formula: say something interesting, analyze it beyond the superficial, and conclude something new. But then…Buzzfeed exists. And I know this sounds dramatic, but I feel the effect of the whole thing in my body. My spine knots. My heart speeds up.

This afternoon, I went on a walk with my boyfriend and picked a huge tangle of wildflowers and after a minute of silence, I told him I understood why so many older writers have gardens. Believe me, I know the internet isn’t going anywhere and I wouldn’t want it to–I don’t think. I like being able to stay in touch with my childhood best friends on Facebook. I love some of the writing freedoms it provides and I like being able to work at my own open window (and not someone else’s) because I have a computer and an internet connection. But I am trying to figure out how to live without being hateful and anxious and scattered. And I know that I’m going to need a garden.

Love List #4

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1. SPRING FLOWERS.

2. The week finally being over. It seems like everything in my little world was due this week (a paper, a story, freelance assignments, a shower–whoops, didn’t quite manage to fit that one in) and I am currently rocking some serious sleep deprivation. But the week is done, the paper is written, the scripts are emailed, the story is paginated, whatever that means, not quite sure if I used it correctly, and I have a full bag of LINDOR Truffles within arm’s reach. Things are looking up.

3. Finally, finally, finally beating my boyfriend in bowling…after half a pitcher of beer, wearing an adorable outfit, and managing to be nice the entire time which is more than certain ultra-competitive men in my life can say for themselves. Also got a personal high score of 97, no big. ANYONE WANT ME ON THEIR LEAGUE?

4. Writing for Thought Catalog. This is the beginning of a great relationship I JUST KNOW IT RIGHT THOUGHT CATALOG? *leans way too fast for an awkward hug*

5. The sun. For a couple weeks there I was pretty sure it skipped town for another galaxy and I was wondering why we were all still alive and questioning everything I learned in my undergraduate astronomy class.

6. Not being run over by a bus. I think this is one we can all be grateful for (except for those of you who were run over by a bus this week).

7. The season finale of Pretty Little Liars. I’m kind of obsessed with how they’ve completely abandoned all narrative consistency for the sake of instant drama: bring back minor characters and have them do mysterious creepy things as seen through windows! Burn down houses! Have someone fly a plane! Imply that Jenna is bisexual! Gosh I love a good guilty pleasure.

8. Perspective. It’s easy to lose, but it makes everything click into place. For instance, I really want this girl’s life, but when I think about my life in comparison to people who, oh let’s see, stare death in the face every single day…sitting at my antique desk, rambling away on toridotgov is looking like a pretty sweet (unpaid) gig. I don’t, however, think the proper response to perspective is guilt–which is such an awful, pervasive emotion. I think it’s gratitude. And joy. And maybe donating some money. Or time. And being genuinely happy about the truffles, whenever life flings ’em your way.

Saturday Love List #1

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My name is Tori Telfer, and I’m a fatalist.

I just finished writing an extremely inflammatory blog post about Girls, Django Unchained, and Silver Linings Playbook, which I’m pretty sure would have lost me 90% of my friends (whatever, I’m right, ART IS NOT OBLIGATED TO REFLECT THE REAL WORLD OR TAKE THE MORAL HIGHGROUND ABOUT ANY ISSUE WHATSOEVER, BE IT GENDER, INCOME, RACE, PRIVILEGE, OR MENTAL ILLNESS–AND YOU’RE DELUSIONAL IF YOU THINK IT SHOULD. L’ART POUR L’ART! L’ART POUR L’ART!).

But then I stopped yelling for two seconds and skipped on over to my dear friend Rose’s sunny, adorable, quirky blog (check it out now or I’ll knife you) and I thought to myself: IS TORIDOTGOV TURNING INTO A WASTELAND OF DEPRESSION AND RAGE, HAUNTED BY THE ARCHETYPE OF THE SHADOW? (I’m really into Carl Jung right now.)

And then I thought: Tori, you are a nice young girl of considerable talent (capslock, making simple syrups, adding gin to things). Why are you giving yourself wrinkles by slouching around the wilds of the Midwest, scowling like an old Norse god?

So–hells bells, this is hard–I have decided to be positive for five seconds and write a love list like Rose does. Ahem. Here goes. Okay. Here are some things that I’m not totally bummed about:

1. My amazing morning.

This Saturday morning has been so blissfully lazy that it may have catapulted me into early retirement. My bed has been drowning in a patch of sunlight and I have been lounging in it like a cat for hours, drinking a cafe au lait from Feast and alternately reading The Writer’s Journey and re-reading Blonde (it honestly should have gotten the Pulitzer, Joyce Carol Oates is never going to get nominated again, it’s a total shame, the book is utterly heartbreaking and exquisitely crafted). I stayed off the computer for a few hours and was reminded of how amazing books and coffee and zebra pillows and white sheets are when you pile them all in the same place at the same time and dive into them like a salmon leaping upstream.

2. Certain hysterical girlfriends.

This is both a boon and a curse, because missing my girlfriends is like being in a SECOND long-distance relationship. But today on Facebook I was reminded of a sleepover that we had in Geneva, Illinois, and it gave me a serious nostalgia buzz (it’s at thing, trust me). This sleepover involved way too much wine, movies about sex cults, wandering through adorable antique stores, and being yelled at on trains. We attempted to get over our hangovers by throwing a FASCIST PROM-themed party the very next night (no joke) and drinking gin-spiked champagne while crying about our futures (guilty). We danced to “Bitch” and they hugged me and pretended like I wasn’t a total maniac. Every day is a Girls episode but cooler with these ladies.

3. My camera.

Yes, my parents don’t understand me in a lot of ways. But this Christmas, they patiently waited as I returned presents like a spoiled child, stalked Craigslist, analyzed and deconstructed the cameras therein–and then they drove me to a really creepy area of San Diego so I could buy my first DSLR Camera. And then my dad took me to a photography museum so I could be inspired. That was really nice of them and it’s so easy to forget the nice things that parents do when you have psychologically never left your teenage years behind.

4. Knowing actual poets.

I feel bad for people who aren’t friends with actual working publishing poets. I mean, nothing is cooler cuz people are like, Keats and Shelly are long dead!!! and then you rip off your jacket and you’re wearing a Poetry Lives t-shirt (that was an extended metaphor, something my poet friends taught me how to wield like a sword at long mojito-fueled picnics, and that sword thing was called a SIMILE). Check it:

Gulls by Lisa Hiton (Guernica)
Lion Orders a Frisco Melt at Steak ‘n Shake by Doug Paul Case (Vinyl Poetry)
Thirty by Leslie Marie Aguilar (Emerge Literary Journal)

5. My boyfriend (awwwww).

First of all, he secretly has the greatest comedic timing of anyone I’ve ever met. Second of all, his hair looks great at any length (yes, ladies, we sort of hate him because of it). Third of all, I’m not saying tomorrow is our anniversary or anything, BUT MAYBE IT IS. xoxo

 

(Notice that “writing” is not on this list today. We’re at a very tempestuous stage in our relationship now.)