Practice.

How is it that you can tuck yourself into bed one night with a self-assured personality and a morning show anchor’s ability to make small talk only to wake up the next morning feeling like your foot is permanently inserted in your piehole?

Okay, I exaggerate.  It wasn’t exactly overnight, but something has definitely happened to me, dedicated readers, something disconcerting.  For fifteen years I’ve made a career out of chatter.  From coffee dates to business lunches to cocktail parties to book fairs and conferences and the occasional interminable business trip by train or plane seated next to a colleague, I’ve chatted with the best and the worst of them.  With a slight discomfort creeping under my skin masked by an open smile and an inquisitive nature, I’ve navigated the world of getting to know you conversation seemingly with confidence and ease.

Until now.  Chalk it up to having removed myself from that cocktail party rotation, to having taken several months off during which time I only really conversed with family and close friends, the latter mostly by phone or email.  Or point to the fact that I’m now in a new city and the people I’m meeting have absolutely no background on me, no context to draw on that might make the dance that is small talk more graceful and fluid.  Both of these are solid explanations and probably have much to do with it, but it doesn’t make the bitter pill go down any easier.  I’m in a new town, I really don’t know many people, and I’ve suddenly lost the ability to speak in complete – not to mention compelling — sentences.  Seriously, I’m not kidding:  I often find myself not speaking in complete sentences.

This is all to say that I used to be really good at conversation.  And now I suck at it.

“You’re rusty, Beck.”  That’s what Patty told me on the phone the other day when I shared with her my concerns.  “You’re in a new place and you have to meet people from scratch, something you haven’t done in a long time.  They don’t know anything about you and you have to tell them who you are.”

God, do I have to?

Here’s the other wrinkle.  I don’t really like very many people.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to say: “I don’t like people.”  Or, “people suck.”  Of course, this isn’t entirely true.  I can think of at least ten people I really really like.  And, if pressed, I could come up with probably a dozen more.  I guess I’m just not super interested in spending lots of time with most people.  I hate crowds and crowded places.  Don’t get me started on going to the movies or the mall or amusement parks.  But I do often enjoy talking one on one with someone new and I’m not someone who thinks she’s met as many people as she needs to, that her friend roster is full up, no openings until there’s an opening.  Especially now that I’m in this new place, no friends in sight.  I’m definitely open to meeting people right now.  It’s just that that desire is not being successfully transmitted from my brain to my mouth.  So when I open said piehole, some really stupid stuff comes out.

I could give you some examples.  Like the afternoon I spent getting my hair cut at the hip neighborhood spot Maya recommended.  My stylist was adorable and chatty and someone I could definitely see myself hanging out with.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to say one intelligent or intelligible thing during the hour I sat in her chair.  She complimented my gingham shirt to which I replied “I like green.”  Seriously?  I like green?  Or there’s the story from the book signing I went to when a female comedian and commentator I admire came to town.  She’s represented by my pal Kirby and I haltingly mentioned the connection to her when she was signing my book.  Followed by “He named his baby after me.”  Really?  (And no, he didn’t.)

Dedicated readers, I can’t go on like this.  This has got to stop.  So I hereby resolve to remedy this unfortunate development as quickly and as lastingly as I can with some good old fashioned practice.  Starting right now, I’m going to seek out situations that take me into the unpredictable terrain of conversation for conversation’s sake.  I’m going to sit next to the sweet elderly couple at the local theater and engage them in easy chatter (as I did last night before the play began).  I’m going to invite people I’m just getting to know to dinner or for a game of tennis and I’ll volley talking points to them over the net as assuredly as I do the tennis ball, albeit with more hits that actually land in their court if we’re lucky.  I’m going to show up to the weekly Austin Film Festival meeting and speak up when we’re critiquing the films, offering my opinion in a clear and steady voice (at last week’s meeting I barely made a peep and kicked myself all the way home.)

I’m going to do whatever it takes, just watch me.  I’m going to beat this affliction and get back into fighting shape.  And I’m not going to do it because I see business lunches or cocktail parties or book fairs on the horizon.  Dear God, I hope I’m done with most of those for the foreseeable future.   I’m going to do it because, despite my aversion to most people and my reluctance to spend too many more of my precious hours talking about only small things (that’s what small talk is after all, right?), I like the confident person I am when I’m conversing like a pro.  I like being someone who listens well and responds with the right balance of insight and humor, someone who gives as good as she gets.  Sure, I may have lost my footing a bit of late.  But I know, with practice, it’s only a matter of time before I’m back on solid ground.

In Defense of Defriending.

Ever since I was a kid, the word “friend” has held significant meaning for me.  I like to think it still does.  It was a word that I didn’t use lightly and a label that, once assigned, carried some serious weight and importance.  Those who’ve known me for a while have likely heard me refer to people I’ve known for years as acquaintances, still so nervous about upgrading someone to friend and officially transitioning a relationship into that sacred territory with its tell-tale intimacy and accompanying landmines, some already detonated, some not.

I’m not apologizing for this viewpoint, quite the contrary.  I truly believe we should all treat both the label and those labeled with the same reverence that I like to think I do.  Of course, of late I’ve found myself slipping in a serious way.  And you can all guess why that might be.  (Thanks, Mr. Zuckerberg).

Yes, I’ve slipped and how.  But anything that strays off course can always be set right again.  Right?  Over the last few weeks, in the hopes of remedying things and getting myself back on the straight and narrow, I’ve lost close to 200 friends.  Of course, I don’t mean “lost” the way I lost the friend that I wrote about earlier on this blog.  This was much different.  Picture a small boat carrying close to 400 people.  You’re sitting there, life vest in hand, and you look to your right and to your left and you realize that you really don’t know fifty percent of the people you’re sharing this boat with.  You know many many things about them (what they ate for dinner last night, what movie they last saw, how many miles they ran this morning, who they’re voting for in November), but you don’t really know them.  What’s more, you’re confident that, while they also know similar things about you (what dive bars you frequented in Jupiter, Florida in May, what you thought of that rom-com last month, how much you’ll miss Nora Ephron) you’re equally confident that their lives will be just as rich and full if you never told them another thing about yourself.  Ever again.

So you turn once more to the companion on your right.  You look them in the eye, gently ease their hands off the rail, stick a flotation device around their neck, and you push them overboard.  Followed by the next and the next and the next.  Pretty soon, you’re left staring at a much emptier boat, emptier by half.  And, oh my goodness, there on the other side where you had barely even noticed is your family and extended family and your best friend from childhood (whom you never could throw overboard even if you do rarely speak to each other these days) and your college roomie and your work friends from publishing who long ago transcended both the “work” label and your “friend” reticence.  They’re not all here, not all of your legitimate friends and intimates.  Some of them still refuse to get in the boat (I’m looking at you, Carrie), but many of them are present and accounted for and ready to spread out and take advantage of all of this extra space.  Space to breathe, space to connect, space to speak freely and openly about those things we all want to speak freely and openly about, however slightly trivial or exceedingly crucial they may be.

Of course, I recognize that this sort of friend genocide isn’t for everyone.  And I know that many people continue gathering friends and more friends and really do enjoy watching that list lengthen and that community grow.  And, truly, that’s cool with me.  I see lots of publishing people take advantage of their captive audience to share good news about books they love and I’m happy to read their posts and thankful to be pointed towards a new voice to enjoy, a new book to be discovered.  For them, having loads of friends to share these marketing snippets with is necessary and expected.  And I know that my friend John (you guys remember John) uses his posts and his posting power to spread truth and enlightenment and knowledge that we could all benefit from taking in.  He has many friends (one in particular) that I repeatedly counsel him to defriend, but he never will.  And that’s fine, too.

That’s the democracy of the word friend, of friendship.  We each assign it our own meaning and we offer it up as willingly or as cautiously as we so choose.  And occasionally the whole nutty thing circles back around, those who were friends become acquaintances only to reemerge as friends again.  Sometimes that happens.  I know I’m open to it, for sure.  And when it does, I’ll lean over the rail, offer my hand, hold tight and pull that person back onto my boat, where we have soft dry towels, lots of chatter about Game of Thrones and the sad passing of Nora Ephron, and at least four games of Draw Something going at a time.

Structure. (Or, “Humans for Jocks.”)

The thing about not going to an office anymore, about no longer having anything or anyone dictating your days, hours and minutes, is that, at some point, you begin to worry that you’re frittering those days, hours and minutes away.  I’ve mentioned before that I don’t always know what day of the week it is – this is something that Mrs. Johnny Rocket and I commiserate about often – and it’s true.  Well, not completely true.  I know that today is Saturday because the pool on the corner is already packed with children and adults alike and because there was a line at the Jiffy Lube at 9:30 this morning.  I know it’s Saturday because I heard Click and Clack while I was waiting in that line, followed by a rousing episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  Saturday, for sure.

But the identity of most other days eludes me on most other days.  I knew this was a danger going into this gap year, as I’ve taken to calling it, and I’m certainly not complaining.  However, always with an eye towards the inevitable end to these nameless days and a desire to have something to show for them, I’m constantly thinking about ways I can insert structure and routine into my life so that I don’t completely waste this time off that, let’s face it, is a gift.

This quest for structure led me to register for a class at the University of Texas for the summer semester.  I spent hours reading and rereading the University Extension course catalog and finally, after some agonizing, settled on an introductory class in Cultural Anthropology.  I’d taken a few anthropology classes in college, had even briefly entertained the idea of majoring in it instead of history (thank goodness I didn’t since I’m planning to draw on my vast and expansive knowledge of American history when I see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer next week).  Wonderful, I thought to myself.  I’ll spend the summer studying the habits of aboriginal tribes, discussing the evolution of social dynamics, and just generally shaping and reshaping the way I think about the world and her inhabitants.  Wonderful.

I paid my five hundred bucks and, on June 4, my quest for structure led me to a basement classroom in Mezzes Hall on the UT campus.  Fashionably attired in my Gap Outlet short shorts (age appropriate, I assure you) and matching tee, notebook and pen in hand, I took my seat across from the one other person in the room at five til class time.  And about two minutes later, the entire Freshman squad of the UT football team walked in to join us.

Seriously, this was Friday Night Lights Goes to College.  Sadly, none of them looked like Dirty Hot Tim Riggins, but they each looked young enough to be my kid.  With orange and white “Texas Football” lanyards hanging around their necks, they strolled in like they owned the place (well, I guess they kindof do) and I realized, at that very moment, two things: 1) This was going to be a good story and 2) this would be my first and last day as a UT co-ed.

Don’t get me wrong, these boys weren’t thugs or losers or anything of the sort, from what I could see.  This wasn’t my version of A Dangerous Mind.  But they were seventeen-year old boys and pretty early on it was clear they had no real interest in Cultural Anthropology. Remember in college there was that Geology class that everybody referred to as “Rocks for Jocks” because all of the athletes took it to get an easy grade to satisfy their Physical Science requirement?  Think of this anthropology class as “Humans for Jocks.”

Luckily, the class ended early.  The professor let us go after one hour instead of keeping us for the two and a half allotted, but only after he’d warned that he didn’t believe in multiple choice tests, that all of his exams would be essay driven.  Silence.  Then a low and drawn out “Shiiiiit” from the back of the room.  During that short hour, one student asked me if I would help him with his not-yet-even-assigned homework (“Did you take this when you were a freshman?” he inquired) and another asked me if I was a student.  “No,” I said.  “Then what are you?”  Good question, kid.

Here’s the thing.  I went to college already.  I attended classes, I studied and crammed for tests.  I listened to lectures and took copious notes and I worked hard to memorize those notes and regurgitate those lectures when required.  I have a Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and a minor in women’s studies that I’m proud of.  Over the years, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to jump back into academics, to pursue another degree, to once again join the worthy pursuit of higher education.  This experience at UT, as off the wall and likely untypical as it was, helped me to realize that I don’t really want to do that at all.  I don’t want to be in school again, even if it offers me that bit of structure and routine that I could sure use right now.  I can find those things in other ways, and I’m already starting to.  Answering the question “Then what are you?” might be a little harder.  But I’m starting to do that, too.

Some (Austin) Highlights So Far.

Today marks three weeks in Austin.  It’s also the first full day of Summer.  In honor of both I thought I’d give you all what you’ve been clamoring for.  Some (Austin) highlights so far.

The first few days here were all about settling into my sublet.  The landlords call it a “casita” so I will, too.  It’s situated in a lovely neighborhood north of the UT campus called Hyde Park.  I’m directly across the street from a sculpture museum and a half a block away from a neighborhood park complete with tennis courts and a free pool.  There are a couple coffee places down the way, a cheese shop, a spa, and a great vegetarian restaurant.  I like being in a spot where I can walk to local eateries and establishments, it reminds me of Brooklyn a bit.

My first Monday in Austin, June 4, was also the first day of the summer semester at UT.  Weeks before my arrival, I registered for a Cultural Anthropology class.  I wanted to give myself something to focus on during this summer break; something that would keep me from wandering aimlessly from day to day with no structure to speak of.  I showed up promptly for class on that first day and… never went back.  I have a gem of a story about that.  (Next blog post, I promise).

With my visions of a return to co-ed life suddenly dashed, I made my way to the offices of the Austin Film Festival and volunteered to be a judge for this year’s submissions.  My Austin Fairy Godmother, Maya, hooked me up with the gig and I’m so glad she did.  I love movies, no secret there, and I’m excited to have the chance to get to know Austin’s eclectic mix of film aficionados.  Of course, I checked out three screeners 10 days ago and haven’t managed to watch them just yet (lots of good excuses for that, mostly that the Bestie was in town).  Planning to watch them today, tomorrow latest, and make my way back to Salina Street to check out some more.  In the meantime, I’ve seen many many movies on the big screen – it’s a brilliant way to escape the heat.  My quick reviews:

Men in Black 3D: Loved it.  I saw this at the Alamo Drafthouse with six other people.  They seemed to love it, too.  And I don’t think the beer had too much to do with it.

Snow White and the Huntsman: Bella Swan in a fairy tale.  Charlize Theron is super fun to watch.  Chris Hemsworth should have taken his shirt off frequently and often.

Moonrise Kingdom: There’s something about how pleased Wes Anderson so obviously is with himself that always keeps his films at an arm’s length for me.  Bill Murray: please start making more movies.

Prometheus: Seeing this made me wish I’d watched Alien again beforehand.  Instead, the Bestie and I rented Alien immediately afterward.  Either way, it fell short of the humungo hype, but Michael Fassbender saved the day.  God, even as an android Michael Fassbender is dirty dreamy sexy.

Bernie: Highly entertaining, although the faux documentary style gets a bit old at times.  Still, it’s a great glimpse at Texas and small town life and especially small town life in Texas.  Well worth your time.

Rock of Ages: Better than I expected.  Tom Cruise, you really are kindof amazing.  Deeply weird and slightly creepy (or is it slightly weird and deeply creepy), but amazing.

Besides movies, there’s been lots of outdoor activity for this gal.  Running every morning (some days faster than others), swimming (haven’t done laps yet, am hoping to remedy that soonest), some tennis (not at all regulation, but so much fun and even more sweat), a hike into the woods followed by an afternoon at a natural swimming hole (complete with a waterfall and grotto), strolling through lavender fields (well, a few lavender bushes thanks to last year’s drought) and wildflower beds (at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center), a quick stop at the Alamo (yes, THE Alamo).

Add to all of that some live music (Gillian Welch, The Head and the Heart) and some delicious food (sinful BBQ, crispy fish tacos, homemade ice cream, fresh squeezed lavender lemonade, tomatoes just off the vine) and I’d say these first three weeks have been just as blissful as I’d hoped.  I’m still looking for some structure, but I’m also happy to see where these hot summer days lead.

There you have it.  Some (Austin) highlights so far.

Classic 89.

Those of you who know me well have probably heard me say more than once in the last several months that buying my car is hands down the best thing I’ve done in a long time.  Cleveland.   “All of the Olivers name their cars,” Keith told me when he chose the questionable moniker back in November, a few days after we drove my shiny new(ish) Rav 4 off the Toyota lot.  The purchasing of Cleveland is a story for another day, a pretty entertaining story.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll share that we were at Gatorland Toyota for five hours, my brother and I, during which time Keith said to our young sales associate, Ian, “You don’t know the people that I know and you haven’t lived the life that I’ve lived.”  Yes, he really said that.  To which I responded, “Did you really just say that?”

Buying Cleveland is one of the best things I’ve done in a long time for several reasons, some big, some small.  I love the freedom that owning a car has given me.  The ability to pack my bags and drive long distances if I want to.  Since November, I’ve driven from Gainesville to New York City and back, to Atlanta, to Salem, Mass, to south Florida several times.  In March, Moira and I drove Cleveland to Austin by way of New Orleans and then home again.  And on the first day of June it was back to Austin once more, solo this time.

It’s no secret that I hate to fly.  Since becoming a car owner, I’ve occasionally spent a lazy afternoon turning the pages of my road atlas, taking note of distances on the mileage grid at the top of each state’s map.  From Austin to San Diego?  About 1200 miles.  From Austin to Asheville?  Close to 1200 miles.  From Austin to Chicago?  Around 1200 miles.  Seriously, it seems that every place I want to go is about 1200 miles away.  Maybe 20 hours tops.  Easy for this Queen of the Road.  Buying Cleveland means more driving, less flying.  The fear is still there and I’ll face it when necessary, but it’s a sweet feeling knowing I can get most anywhere with a full tank of gas, a GPS and a clear head.

But, maybe more than anything, the reason buying Cleveland is one of the best things I’ve done in a long time is because it brought me back to one of my favorite pastimes: listening to the radio.  Most especially, national public radio.  This American Life.  Morning Edition.  Fresh Air.  Talk of the Nation.  God, I missed you guys.  Here in Austin I listen to KUT, the local station affiliated with the University of Texas.  It’s the best kind of radio station with a mixed format, half music (stellar music), half NPR or PRI.  All amazing.  I think I’ve heard a snippet of A Prairie Home Companion every day since I got here.  I’ve fallen in love with Richard Ford because of an interview I heard with him on the Diane Rehm show (seriously, in love).  Worrying about Guatemala is keeping me up at night (thanks, Ira Glass) and I’ve once again become obsessed with matchmaking Terry Gross and Ray Suarez (those two voices belong together).

Sure, I’ve listened to the radio here and there over the years since I last had a car (a Toyota Camry whose name Keith and I have both forgotten).  In my apartment in Brooklyn I’d try to tune into Car Talk followed by This American Life on Saturday mornings if I remembered to.   Recently podcasts have made that easier, for sure.  But nothing compares to radio listening while riding in a car; at least not for me.  I’m guessing I feel that way because that’s how I was introduced to it.  And I probably feel it even more strongly and bittersweetly these days because it was my dad who made the introduction.

And so, on this Father’s Day, having just heard another snippet of A Prairie Home Companion on my way home from taking the Bestie to the airport, that’s what I’m thinking about.  Riding alongside Johnny Rocket in one car or another — a blue Volkswagen van, a Fiat, a Jeep Cherokee — always with the dial tuned to 89.1 FM, Classic 89.  A splash of classical music mixed in with tons of national public radio.  He loved Click and Clack.  He loved Garrison Keillor.  He loved the news and the sharp debate.  He gave his money to the station and even his time as a volunteer during fundraising drives.  I’d be hard pressed to remember an occasion in my childhood when one of us kids was allowed to stick an eight track or a cassette tape into the car stereo system for a family drive.  If we were in the car and within the station’s frequency, it was Classic 89 all the way.   And while I’m sure there were plenty of eye rolls and long sighs and desperate pleas for relief from all this news and talk and grown-up chatter, it sunk in eventually.  It stuck.  Young, impressionable, head over heels in love with my dad, I sat next to him in that car with the windows rolled down, the warm air blowing by, and I listened.

And I’m still listening today.

Things Other People Said: #1.

“Nowadays, little girls attend five or six classes a week, then come out into society, then get married and devote themselves to their husbands. Hence no more models — no more delightfully picturesque, lazy, languorous moments. People are busy, people are fidgety, does no one understand that nothing is more precious than two hours stretched on a chaise-lounge? Dreaming is the stuff of life — and dreams are more real than reality.”   –Berthe Morisot, 1890

An aside: I did a report on Berthe Morisot when I was in middle school.  She held her own in the mostly male inner circle of the French Impressionist painters.  She was a wonderful artist.  When Carrie and I were in Paris in April we happened upon an exhibit of her work at a small and charming museum in Passy.  Carrie wrote down this quote, which at the time made her get a bit weepy.  Another aside: Carrie gets weepy easily.

Fifty Shades of “Ewww.”

Recently, on a rainy Monday, I was trapped inside the house looking for something to do.  Keep in mind, I have a stack of magazines that have been piling up since before I left New York.  And I’m still 600 pages away from throwing off the shackles of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Not to mention all the books on astronomy that I’ve been picking up and setting back down.  Oh, and there are those back issues of the Buffy comic books (I miss you, Lance!).  This is all to say that yes, I have plenty to entertain me on a rainy day.  So why, oh why, did I pick up my kindle and start reading Fifty Shades of Grey?

A better question: Why was Fifty Shades of Grey on my kindle in the first place?  Like all good publishing professionals, when I hear about a phenomenon, however ridiculous it might sound, I think it’s a good idea to familiarize myself with it.  And even though I now have an asterisk next to “publishing professional” in my Linked In bio and I really don’t need to be concerning myself with trending habits of the reading public, I figured I could still sort out a way to write it off on my taxes so I hit “purchase.”  That was a few months ago, just when all the brouhaha was haha’ing.  I never started reading it because I never really felt compelled to.  Truth be told, I just don’t think there was ever a rainy day (Thanks, Florida) until that fateful rainy day.

One word: Ewww.

Another word: Fuck you, EL James.

One more word: Seriously, women of the world.  We are better than this.

Oh, and I’m even more confused now than ever about this category we call “fan fiction.”  How, in the name of all that is holy, is this piece of garbage connected to Twilight?  Other than the fact that both of the female protagonists are cringe-inducingly awful?  That said, meeting Anastasia Steele (don’t get me started on the names.  Sigh) made me want to spend a girls’ weekend with Bella Swan.  It made me want to become her best fucking friend.  Bella Swan is now aces in my book, compared to this moron.

I could go on and on, but I won’t.  We’re better than that, dedicated readers, you and me.

I’ll just say this: When I was a kid I used to sneak into my mom’s closet and secret one or two of her Harlequin romances back to my room.  I’d curl up in bed and read them, cover to cover.  They were stories of damsels in distress and the men who rescued them, of both the historical and contemporary variety.  And, more often than not, the damsels rescued the men in one way or another, too.  There were longing glances and slow and steady build-ups that culminated in the first images I ever had of intimacy and sexual desire.  Those passages (always found close to page 120, as I recall) lit a warm fire in my belly and made me curious about all sorts of things.  I’m sure they did the same for adolescent girls throughout suburbia.

What they didn’t do was make me long to be tied up and gagged and forced to sit in a corner for excruciating lengths of time.  And while yes, those Harlequins made me want to find someone with a rockin’ body and sultry, dangerous eyes who would rescue me — a bit backwards, I know –  I’d say that’s a far cry better than wanting to find someone to flog me.

God, I hope today’s adolescent girls aren’t secreting away their moms’ copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.  I really really hope not.

Transiting the Sun.

There are certain perks that come with being the kid of an astronomer.

First, the most obvious:

Random person: “What does your father do?”  You: “Oh, he’s an astronomer.”

One of the best answers to that question.  Ever.

And then there’s the fact that everyone assumes that you know way more than you do about all things astronomical.  That misconception can come in handy when you’re a college freshman, desperate to impress your not-quite-but-almost first real boyfriend:

“See that small cluster there, Bobby?  Here, let me tilt your head so that you have a better angle on it.  There.  That’s a constellation called Pleiades, but people in the know call it Messier 45 or the Seven Sisters.”

Or

“Seriously, Bobby, Pluto is this close to not being a planet anymore.  You heard it here first.”

(Of course, I ultimately failed out of my freshman Astronomy Lab because I was too intent on gazing into Bobby’s blue eyes instead of at the night sky.  I can still remember breaking the news to Johnny Rocket.  Oh, the shame.)

But the best perk of all, hands down, is the chance to participate in and enjoy astronomical occurrences of all shapes and sizes with someone who knows what the hell is happening and can explain it to you.  Someone who’s a natural born teacher.  It’s the gift of watching those same occurrences through the 30-inch lens of a telescope your dad transported across the country and helped to install at an observatory just outside of your hometown.  It’s the ability to pack away in a suitcase a smaller but still quite powerful telescope and lens and accompany it, along with your father and mother and older brother, to Spain for a glorious seven day trip to see the Transit of Venus.

That trip, in June 2004, was the last astronomical event I shared with Johnny Rocket.  We set our telescope up on the lawn of the charming posada we were staying at in the coastal town of Malaga and peered through its specially modified lens at that small black dot making its way across the Sun.  And, because no teaching moment could be missed, my dad also instructed us on how best to look through the homemade slips of thick construction paper with the dark red filters he’d brought along as back-ups.  The next day, he and Keith and I sat at a bar on the beach and drank cold delicious cerveza and talked about conspiracy theories and Planet X and modern astronomy and so many other things, big and small.  I can remember the feel of the sand on my feet, the intense heat of the Spanish summer sun, and the one thought that pierced my mind again and again, sharp as a pin: My dad is so cool.

There were other memorable events for Jenny, Keith and I, the lucky kids of an astronomer.  Countless of them, really.  I remember being bundled up in blankets and placed in the back of our VW van in the middle of the night so that we could make the long slow trip to Cape Canaveral to see one of the first shuttle launches.  At dawn’s early light, we sat on top of that van in the middle of a sea of humanity (and rows and rows of port a johns) and felt the earth move, heard the deafening roar as that burst of light shot into space.  And I remember driving in the dark down long and winding roads to the observatory at Rosemary Hill to watch Haley’s Comet pass by.  That night, one of my dad’s friends mentioned to my 12-year old self that one day the Sun would supernova and swallow the Earth in a ball of fire and destruction.  I didn’t sleep for a week.  Sweetest of all, I remember carrying blankets into our front yard and lying down in the warm evening air to watch shooting stars dash through the sky above.  We’d chew on long stalks of onion grass and, eventually, fall asleep with the deep lull of our father’s voice telling us story after story about the Milky Way and the Big Bang and the celestial bodies just outside our reach.

As you all no doubt know, another astronomical occurrence is once again upon us.  The good daughter of an astronomer, I’ll be spending tonight’s Transit of Venus, the pair to the transit we watched in 2004, at a gathering hosted by the Austin Astronomical Society on a rooftop on the campus of UT.  I won’t know anyone there and I probably won’t stay too long.  But I’ll take my turn at the telescope and, in this town that’s new to me and exciting and full of promise, this town that I know Johnny Rocket would have been happy to see me settle in, I’ll watch that now familiar small black dot make its way across the Sun.  And, all the while, I’ll be thinking “My dad is so cool.”

Bones.

I recently dug up an email from last year that I sent to someone who works closely with Kathy Reichs.  It’s about the TV show Bones and Mrs. Johnny Rocket’s obsession with it.   I didn’t think to share this note with MJR at the time so I thought I would now.

“Dear _____,

Okay, this might sound super dorky, but I wanted to send Kathy Reichs a big thank you for Bones.  Seriously, a big thank you.  As you know, my dad passed away in February and I was in Florida with my family both before and after his death.  Those were sad, sad days spent at the hospital and even sadder after he died.  Between making the calls you never expect to have to make and dealing with bills and titles and memorial plans, it was hard to find much that could take my mind off everything that was happening.  And even harder to find the same for my mom.

And then I discovered her secret: She. Loves. Bones.  Loves it in a way that I’ve never seen her love a TV show before (okay, maybe WKRP in Cincinnati or Barney Miller, but that was some time ago).  Many an evening, we’d curl up on her bed and watch re-run after re-run (she has the Bones television listings memorized, naturally).  Of course, to a Bones aficionado like my mother my incessant questions started to drive her crazier than Zach’s roommates at the crazy house.  She’d finally had just about enough of that and directed me to start watching from the beginning which is what I did.  Since returning to New York in mid-February I have immersed myself most evenings (during those hours when I get weepier than I care to admit) in the lives of Brennan and Booth (seriously, just get together already!) and Hodgins and Angela (they’re having a baby!) and Zach (poor Zach) and Sweets and more Jeffersonian interns than I can count.  It’s been a real pleasure for me at a time when pleasures are few and far between.  I just finished Season 5 and expect I’ll be caught up on Season 6 before too long.  Not sure what I’ll do when it’s all over, but I couldn’t resist sending this note to thank Kathy for the welcome distraction it’s brought me in the last several weeks – and for the great conversations my mom and I have had at least once a week about the goings’ons at the Jeffersonian.

Thanks,

Becka”

Of course, I wrote this in April 2011 and much has happened in the lives of our friends at the Jeffersonian since then.  MJR and I had a somewhat heated discussion recently about the last episode of the most recent season and how true to the characters it was or wasn’t (Bones is on the lam!  She has the baby!  Will Booth prove her innocence and restore her reputation before it’s too late?  Will Cam be able to keep her team together despite betraying them?  And, really, how is it possible to write a detailed and lengthy code on a wall… in your own spit?).  MJR thinks Bones was acting out of character and, while I see her point, I think we all have to remember that Bones is a mother now.  She’s in love and enjoying the first truly healthy and balanced relationship of her life.  The woman is changing, she’s evolving, she’s becoming (dare I say it?) more human.  Her rational side knows that she’d be a goner if she went into the system and her emotional side (as much of a seedling as it may be) is going to take care of that kid no matter what.  I understood why she ran.

God, I can’t wait for this show to come back.

Though we may disagree here and there on plot devices and character motivations, I love that Bones is something MJR and I share.  More than that, Big Sis is a fan, too, although I think she mostly shares this with MJR.  The two of us don’t really talk Bones with each other and that’s fine.

And, even though I never heard anything in reply from Kathy Reichs, I’m glad I sent the note and I meant every word.  The days were long and sad.  Bones made them a little bit better.