Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mountain Stage

Last night I went downtown for the Mountain Stage, a live radio show aired on NPR. I drove the 25 minutes to see The Indigo Girls at the Clay Center hoping that I wouldn't regret parting with my $20. "One ticket please," I said at the box office.

"Someone left an extra ticket here," the woman at the counter said. "They told me to give it to the next person in line if the seat's okay with you."

I reveled in my luck as I walked toward the front of the auditorium to row A, seat six. I suffered a rush of empathetic stage fright for the host and performers when the "On Air" lights flickered on. Gary Jules opened the evening at 8 p.m., singing and strumming his high-strapped guitar alone on stage. The Asheville resident wore a fedora and cuffed jeans that revealed the red socks under his loafers. His songs were so simple yet lovely that I wished I had a smartphone so I could download them from iTunes on the spot. I'm a sucker for haunting melodies (and listening to my favorite, "Horses," on MySpace right now).

Billboard Magazine profiled Jules when his song "Falling Awake" broke the top 100 despite being only available on iTunes after it played during a dramatic episode of Grey's Anatomy. "I actually wrote it as a happy song about my son being born," Jules said of the tune, which played in a scene where doctors pulled the life-support plug on the father of one of the lead characters.

Then another lone guitarist named Chris Smither took the spotlight, looking like a '70s photograph with his shagged hair and button-up shirt tucked into slim-cut jeans. The story-telling musician has released 11 albums over the past 40 years. I liked his song about the constant questions his three-year-old adopted daughter from China asks. The audience laughed to lyrics like "Were you as big as you are now when I was born? I been this big a long time, that's why my face is worn / But were you ever little, and if so where was I? Yes I was, but you weren't anywhere or anywhy ..."

Next a woman with an actress-lithe body and toned arms stepped on stage carrying a guitar. Turns out she was Jill Hennessy, the eponymous lead of Crossing Jordan, a former Law and Order cast member and a Broadway veteran. So not only is she a beautiful TV star, but she also writes country songs that she sings with her deep, powerful voice. "I sang for money on the streets of Toronto 20 years ago," she said. "The Indigo Girls had a show one night. By the time I made enough money for a ticket, they wouldn't let me in."

After Hennessy came one of the world's best banjo pickers, Alison Brown. The Harvard grad said an astronaut took her new CD on a recent Hubble mission. He wanted to listen to it for the first time in space. I expected to see a woman rocking out bluegrass on the banjo, picking the life out of the strings and breaking into wild, spontaneous jigs. But Brown moved nothing besides her fingers as she played a set that reminded me of elevator music, making it look like she could strum in her sleep.

At 10 p.m. The Indigo Girls took the stage. Unlike most musicians I see in concert, I wasn't taken aback by how attractive, stylish and slim they were. But I couldn't get over their dream-like harmonies, solid acoustic talent and poetic songwriting. I wanted to call someone up and tell them to turn on their radio. I didn't want songs like "On the Way to Fine" and "Sugar Tongue" to end, but even when they did they kept replaying in my head the whole drive home.

So I guess you know you're from Appalachia when you're into folk music, even though you've never been able to develop a liking for country or Southern rock. Come to think of it, the Mountain Stage fit my mission of embracing my West Virginia roots while I'm stuck here. And I wouldn't have minded parting with my 20 bucks one bit.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fall with it

This is the first week of fall, my favorite season. There’s something about that smoky scent in the air, the crunch of leaves beneath your feet and the pumpkins on porches. I’m ready to pull on a pair of knee-high boots, wrap a scarf around my neck and zip up a jacket to head outside on a crisp evening. Oh, to live in a Land’s End catalog.

The season brought new beginnings when I was growing up. Fall meant first days of school with new classmates, teachers and locker numbers. It was a time for blank notebooks and sharp pencils stuffed in fresh backpacks. Back-to-school-shopping for corduroy and tights made me giddy.

My birthday comes in autumn, as does Halloween, one of my favorite holidays. I cut felt leaves and hot-glued them to myself then stuck a wreath on my head and called myself a tree when I was nine. Another year I hung a white box I’d painted with black dots over my shoulders. I tied fuzzy dice around my ponytail and convinced a friend to join in the project so we could be a pair of dice. The next Halloween I cut a picket fence out of a box and made construction paper flowers and a pipe-cleaner butterfly headband for a garden costume. My last year going door-to-door I painted my hair pink, dressed in black and pulled on a knit cap for an Alias spy inspired get-up.

Now that I’m graduated from school and trick-or-treating, fall makes me want to go pumpkin picking, carve a jack ‘o lantern and roast apples and squash. I have berry lip stain, September fashion issues and cozy sweaters on my mind. I want to drive down an interstate curving through hillsides igniting into oranges, reds and yellows.

If I weren’t all grown up I'd jump in a pile of leaves and knock on doors trimmed in scarecrows and skeletons, carrying a big bag and chanting “trick or treat.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

On the Gauley: Braving my Mountain Roots

My father handed his waiver to our whitewater rafting trip leader, a red-haired giant with waist-length braided pigtails and mutton chops that spread across his neck who referred to himself as Dougie-Doug. He paused, giving my dad a double take. “Hey bro,” he said, leaning in to whisper. “You got your wetsuit on backward.”

I came around the corner. “The knee pads go in front, Dad,” I said, pointing to the legs of my own Star Trek jumpsuit.

While he returned to the locker room, I explored our whitewater outfitter’s base camp in The New River Gorge of the Appalachian Highlands. The unfinished wood and vaulted ceilings made it feel like an oversized hunting lodge. I felt out of place among all the grizzly guys. The few other women on the campus were sinewy and makeup-free, sporting ball caps and Patagonia duds

Our trip marked the first day of Gauley season, the three weeks when the Summersville Dam releases a torrent of water that roars down nearly 700 feet of rugged canyon to create 28 miles of raging rapids. Whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world flock to West Virginia every fall to paddle the river. The rapids rank one-five on a scale determined by force and risk. A six indicates a 50 percent survival rate. A seven is suicidal.

As newbies, we’d be rafting the less intense Lower Gauley rather than the brutal Upper Gauley, which has five back-to-back class five rapids. If Dad had his way, we’d be going down the mild and scenic New River. However, we’d received an involuntarily upgrade when the company canceled the trip he originally signed us up for. The high school age limit for this more intense excursion explained why beer-guzzlers outnumbered the church youth groups.

After we buckled our helmets and life vests (which the staff referred to as pfd’s), we filed into a blue and white school bus for a one-hour ride to the Gauley River deep in the mountain gorge. Doug started the ride rattling off a stand up routine of farm animal jokes.

We stopped smiling when he transitioned to the safety lecture. He warned us of the importance of holding our paddle grips during even the most aggressive of rapids. “Let go for a second,” he said, “and that hard plastic handle will knock out your teeth or bash in your face.” I imagined my new braces lacerating my lips when we hit a violent wave.

Then he ordered us not to swim upright if knocked out of the raft. “The river’s 500 feet deep in some spots, but other times we’ll be grazing rocks,” he said. “Tread water, and your feet will hook between rocks or an ’86 Chevy. You’ll be snapped while we’re reeling ya in with the rope or the waves are pullin’ ya.”

If we fell out and our guide motioned us to come on but then turned away to lead the raft in the opposite direction, it would be because his responsibility was to pull the crew to safety first. “That’s when you do your best impression of an Olympic swimmer,” he said. “And remember, when you hit a rapid never stop paddling.” He closed his speech with an offer to bus any of us who’d changed our minds about the trip back to the parking lot.

I stared out the window the rest of the ride. I had begged for this trip, insisting that I couldn’t leave West Virginia without rafting its world-class rapids. Dad was quiet too, looking like a petrified, nerdy astronaut with his retired ‘90s eyeglasses and white helmet sitting high on top of his baseball cap. What had I gotten us into? It would be my fault if the rapids knocked one of us unconscious, pinned beneath an undercut boulder in what Doug referred to as the washing machine of a monster rapid. I pictured a split helmet and ripped life jacket spewing out four hours later.

We met our guide Ray when we arrived to the river. He’d waited in line at dawn in hopes of surfing on our trip. With hopeful guides from all over the world heading to the Gorge, snagging a gig can get competitive during the 20 days of Gauley season.

After we shoved our raft in the water, short, buff and bare-chested Ray told us get off the middle cushions, which he called ejector pads. Instead we had to sit balanced on the raft’s outer edges, bracing ourselves with our feet. “Three paddles forward. Break,” ordered Ray as we set off on the big-water river. “Now four paddles back.”

Before each rapid Ray instructed us where to swim if our brace failed and we fell out. “Don’t go left — there’s a gnarly rip current by that third rock over there,” he’d say. “But don’t veer too far right either or you’ll get caught in that twisting hydraulic.” Soon my calves cramped from the ferocity with which I sandwiched my feet in the crevices of the raft.

I sat behind Tim, staring at the XXL scrawled on the collar of his too-short wetsuit rental. Tim was about 6-foot-seven and provided commentary throughout the trip, with statements like “I learned to tell time with my thumb” and “When Ray says technical he means difficult.”

I clenched my paddle grip with white knuckles as we bounced through our first class five rapid. The rest of the group hooted while we pounded down the steep run. “Woohoo!” “Bring it on!” “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” they shouted. When the waves splashed my face I squinted, lips pursed in silence, paddling for dear life and squeezing my legs to the raft with all my might. “Stop hollering and start paddling!” I wanted to scream during the aquatic roller coaster. I kept rowing even when the water launched us so high that I paddled air. I remember my dad waling “Ride ‘em dogies!” when he surfed the waves on a boogie board during beach vacations. Not now. Not a peep out of him either.

We crashed and swirled through rapids dubbed Pure Screaming Hell (which included two deadly holes called Purgatory and Hell Hole), Heaven Help Us and BFR (an acronym standing for your first guess). When not maneuvering the torrential chutes and their ferocious waves, we coasted by waterfalls and boulders through a tunnel of rock wall and forest.

“Come on,” Dad said to me when we floated to a less turbulent pool that Ray declared safe to swim. Without thinking, we jumped overboard to flail down the Swimmer’s Rapids. I yelped as soon as I hit the 50-degree water. “It’s cold!” I shouted. I tried to keep my toes in view as I glided down the river. Dad fought to swim to our boat as the current swept him toward craggy ledges. He felt panicky and hypothermic, he later told me. Jim, one of our crewmates who’d also gone for a swim, suffered an asthma attack as the chilly waves pounded his face. That’s why Ray left me floating out there on my own. I feared he’d deserted me to body surf the next round of rapids.

When the boat made its way over to pick me up, Dad leaned overboard to thrust me up by the armpits with all his might. When that didn’t work, he held onto me and flopped himself backward. I shot into the air and slid across the floor of the raft to land on top of him.

Not long after our slapstick performance we parked ashore to end our 12-mile, five-hour run. I shivered in my soaked layers, dreading the hour-long bus trip back. I had jumped in the river wearing my jacket, wetsuit, long-sleeved Under Armour tee and swimsuit under my life jacket. I couldn’t imagine peeling all that off to use one of the portable toilets. I curled up in a cold, wet ball against a window in the middle of the bus. Sputter. The bus didn’t start.

Our bus arrived more than an hour later. Doug felt responsible for the holdup and entertained us on the way back with stories of the local Fayetteville police force, more Dukes of Hazzard than Mayberry according to him.

Back at base camp, Dad and I met outside the locker rooms ready to drive the 20 minutes to our campsite at Babcock State Park. He already had his headlamp strapped across his balding head. I wonder what Doug and Ray thought when he tipped him while wearing the contraption. That night we roasted hotdogs and then crawled straight in our sleeping bags.

After breaking camp the next morning we headed back to the whitewater outfitter for our Treetop Canopy Tour. Outside a group of tattooed guys in board shorts smoked cigarettes and spoke to a couple of park rangers holding clipboards. “Must have gotten busted for something,” Dad said. Then our zip line guide Heath informed us that their friend had died rafting the Upper Gauley an hour earlier. The 40-year-old man had fallen into the water and suffered cardiac arrest.

I couldn’t stop contemplating the sobering scenario as we geared up in our harnesses and helmets before hitting the new, state-of-the-art course. We began by perfecting our technique on a zip equivalent of a bunny slope. Then we moved up to the platforms built around Eastern Hemlocks and White Oaks connecting the network of cables. The real zips were long. And fast. And high. And as we proceeded they got longer and faster and higher.

We assumed the jokester guys in our group were ball players on a team-bonding trip with their coaches. Filming the perfect YouTube documentary interested them as much as the thrill of whizzing along at 30mph while hanging 110 feet in the air. They surprised us when they revealed they were a bowling team from Raleigh.

Our guide Heath the wild-haired mycologist and Dad the doctor bonded over Latin terminology. They pointed out the red fungi crawling across the trees and the lethal white Amanita Verosa Destroying Angel mushrooms sprouting below as we wobbled across Indiana Jones-style bridges. My apprehensions eased after getting double clipped to double steel cables. I focused on sitting back in my harness and tucking my legs into a cannonball to increase my speed like Heath suggested. Dad maintained a death grip on his trolley that slowed him down. His fear of heights kept him from appreciating the sweeping views of the rocky Mill Creek and rhododendron patches below the forest canopy. I found swinging my body around the platform edge to rappel to the ground at the end the most nerve-racking part of the three-hour tour.

That weekend Dad kept pretty quiet. I fretted that he regretted letting me drag him on the extreme adventure. But after he bought the DVD of our whitewater trip and compulsively checked to see if our zipping pictures had appeared online, I realized I was in the clear.

As for me, revealing I’m a West Virginian is easier now that I don’t have to sheepishly admit to incredulous audiences that I’ve never rafted my state’s world famous whitewater. After trekking the Andes, wandering Tuscan hillsides and hiking through Argentine rainforest, I’m getting around to conquering my own state.

On the way home from our weekend adventure we stopped at the Tamarack Best of West Virginia restaurant for pan-fried fillet of rainbow trout, kale and fried green tomatoes. I strutted in smelling of campfire, rocking river-water waved hair and wearing Vasque hiking boots. And for once, I felt like a native mountain woman.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

World's Worst Barista

I spent last summer living at the beach in Charleston, S.C. Jealous? Don't be. I spent most of the three months wearing a green apron inside a teeny Starbucks. I imagined myself steaming lattes for smiling customers when I filled out the application. I would educate curious clientele about the selection and roasting process of Sri Lanka beans and the subtle caramel notes and nutty undertones in our signature espresso shots. I breezed through my two-week training course at a cafe in an upscale brick shopping center led by a team of baristas with peppy personalities best reserved for kindergarten teachers. They awarded me a Barista Certification Pin even though my test cappuccino exceeded the weigh-in limit by .7 ounces. Then they sent me to an out-of-the-way, understaffed drive-thru Starbucks attached to a Tire Kingdom.

The first day I rolled two soggy loads of garbage across the parking lot to the raccoon-infested dumpster in the 100-degree coastal heat. Sweat drops formed around my hairline. The mechanics laughed and whistled. Then I donned a pair of yellow rubber gloves to scrub the urinals in the bathroom shared with the tire store. I dragged away heavy rubber mats and shoved out refrigerators to sweep and mop. I came home at 11:45 p.m. smelling of dish water and burnt espresso with whipped-cream stained sneakers.

I woke up at 5 a.m. the next morning and drove back over the Cooper River Bridge to man the drive-thru during the Saturday rush. (With 11 Starbucks in my vicinity and three within biking distance, the only one that hired me was 20 minutes away.) The line of cars wrapped around the parking lot and extended to the road in the mornings. Customers played with their blackberries while waiting up to 20 minutes for their a.m. caffeine fixes. Most kept a cellphone attached to their ear as they ordered at the speaker and paid at the window. Sometimes they'd hand over a credit card and ask me to reload a couple of hundred bucks on their Starbux Goldcard as they chatted.

One Sunday morning a woman with cropped gray hair and sunglasses beat on the drive-thru window. I hesitated before stepping in front of the automatic screen, half expecting her fist to crack through it. "Are YOU Ashley? Did you make this latte?" she asked.

"No ma'am," I answered.

"I said no foam," she said. "Do you all not understand what that means? This has an INCH of foam." She rolled up her window and drove away before I could offer to remake her drink.

By 10 a.m. I was ready for my lunch break. I returned 30 minutes later to discover that we'd run out of cold plastic cups. The shift supervisor, a fill-in from another store, couldn't convince any nearby stores to spare us any. We had to explain to customers that they could have that Strawberry Banana Vivanno Smoothie or Tall Iced Mocha, but we'd have to serve it in a hot paper cup. "What the f*** is wrong with you all?" a burly guy asked me at the window. The bleach blonde in the passenger seat shook her head.

My beverage-making skills didn't improve as the weeks rolled by. My register drawer came up $20 short. Twice. My headset pack wouldn't stay clipped to my pants. It would fall and rip off my headset, yanking my hair and one day tearing my earring halfway down my earlobe. A gallon of whole milk busted on me when I opened the industrial refrigerator one night. I spent half an hour sopping up the mess with a mop. Another time I knocked over the giant sugar bucket when I tried to pick up a pile of straws that had fallen underneath it. I ended up sweeping up three sticky dustpan-loads of sugar. I usually had some caramel stuck to my forearm or chocolate sauce smeared on my cheek. My once manicured nails peeled down to stubs from handling all the sanitizing solution. And my skin always reeked of stale coffee and sour milk.

Some days I spent my entire eight-hour shift at the drive-thru window, handling thousands of dollars and watching oblivious customers roll their eyes at the speaker or pick their nose in the drive-thru camera. I came home and threw myself on my bed, still in my uniform. "Welcome to Starbucks. You're on with Rachel. What can we get started for you?" replayed over and over in my hazy sleep. "Would you like a a cinnamon chip scone to go with that Venti Skinny Hazlenut Latte with light whip?"

One afternoon a skinny woman in workout gear pulled up in a jeep and ordered a Grande Green Tea Frappuccino with four pumps of raspberry syrup. "I'm sorry, but we're out of raspberry syrup," I said.

"Unbelievable. You were out when I came by two days ago," she said. "How hard is it to pick up the phone and order more? I want to speak with your manager." How would I explain that we didn't have a manager because she'd quit after being demoted a week before I started? She ended up asking me to substitute strawberry juice for the syrup. She took a sip and handed it back to me. "Nope. Tastes funny. Throw this out and make me a normal Green Tea Frapp."

With every shift came a new story. A woman drove off in tears when we told her we were out of decaf espresso. "It's hard to care when I saw villagers fighting over rice last week," shrugged a barista who'd returned from a humanitarian trip to Kenya. Another day a mom rolled her eyes and squealed her tires after I handed her two trays of drinks for her van load of kids. Yes, she'd waited 20 minutes, but did she consider that she'd ordered a bag of specialty ground coffee, six drinks and three heated pastries when we had a line out the door in the front?

"How's Tom?" some customers asked. Tom was a barista who'd shot scalding sanitizing solution into his eye the week after I'd started. I never saw him again, but a shift supervisor told me his eye swelled to cartoonish proportions. He had a 90 percent chance of regaining his sight.

One petite woman came by a couple of times a day to order a Venti whole milk, 10-pump, extra-hot, no-water, add-whip Chai Tea Latte. A tiny, sun-baked dog groomer came in for her afternoon six-espresso-shots-on ice. Another woman would drive through in the morning and afternoon to get two Venti Mocha Frappuccinos with extra whip, extra caramel and extra chocolate drizzle -- for herself. She barely fit in her car. I cringed with guilt like a dealer serving addicts their fix.

One day the woman who'd banged on the window to yell at me for her over-foamed latte came back and pointed to me. I cowered. "Yesterday I had the best Caramel Macchiato of my life," she said. "That girl made it." I didn't know what I'd done to the lauded latte -- maybe put in one too many shots of vanilla syrup or forgotten an espresso shot.

I relished repeating orders to customers, secretly hoping they'd detect a tinge of sarcasm in my tone. "So that will be one triple Tall decaf one-percent, 2-pump, 170-degree, no-whip, stirred-to-the-left Mocha and one non-fat iced Grande Cinnamon Dolce Coffee with eight ice cubes," I'd say into the headset. My coworkers told me I flashed a death glare into the monitor screen. Sometimes the veteran baristas would chime into their own headsets to interrupt me when I sounded confused after a complicated order. "Sorry about that Kim -- she's new," they'd say. "I'll have your two non-fat extra-dry Grande Vanilla Cappuccinos right up, hon. So did y'all have fun on your Alaskan cruise with the Rogers?"

July 4 I worked from 2-10:30 p.m. A pair of goateed Jon Gosselin look-alikes drove up and ordered two quad Venti Java Chip Frappuccinos. Now that's 48 ounces of chocolate-chip-coffee milkshake with eight extra shots of espresso topped with a mountain of homemade whipped cream and chocolate drizzle. I noticed the guys were still sitting outside the window five minutes after I'd handed off their drinks. "Can I get you all anything else?" I asked. They didn't speak. The driver just pointed to a small half-ring stain on the leg of his faded jeans. He'd set his drink on his lap. "Can I get you some extra napkins?" I asked.

"No," he said. What did he want me to do, get in the car and scrub him with a wet rag? They rolled their eyes and drove off, only to return 10 minutes later. I asked the shift supervisor to answer the window. The guy grunted and pointed to his pant leg again. My angelic coworker made them another round of free drinks without a word.

But what amused me more than the cellphone dependency and elaborate orders I encountered during my Starbucks experience were the dogs. We'd hand out dog biscuits to the canines in cars. Sometimes dog owners would drive by and only order a newspaper or cup of water so their pet could get a treat. I miffed customers if I forgot to toss Fido a biscuit. Once a couple gave me an expectant look after I handed off their beverages and dog treats. Another barista clued me in -- They were waiting for the whipped cream cups for the pooches.

One day I fussed over a giddy Yorkie in a beat-up pick up and offered her a treat. She didn't even sniff it. When I handed the big guy in the stained T-shirt his latte and pumpkin loaf, he pulled the bread out of the bag and let Princess nibble it from his fingers.

"I'm over this," an insurance salesman who did a short stint at our store said one day. "The Starbucks drive-thru is a microcosm of American society and everything that's wrong with it."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Look seven years younger

If you want to shave a few years off your look, I don't recommend Botox injections or facelifts. Don't ask your stylist for girlish bangs or shop the trendy racks of Urban Outfitters. Forget the latest antioxidant cream. Instead, I suggest you get braces.

People mistook me for a high-schooler on three occasions this weekend. As I'm approaching my 24th birthday, I took no offense to these assumptions. First, our whitewater rafting crew asked me what I wanted to study when I told them I'd finished school last year. The next day, our zip line guide asked me if I was over 18 and eligible to sign my own consent form. "Yes, six years over," I answered. Later our other guide asked me how I'd gotten a signed excuse to skip school to raft the Gauley River and zip the Treetop Canopy Tour. "No, I'm not playing hooky," I said. "I've already graduated." I didn't have the heart to clarify that I was referring to college.

People tend to peg me as a few years younger, but never have so many consecutively mistaken me for a teenager until I started flashing a metallic smile.

So, if you're set on looking youthful, book an appointment with your local orthodontist and get yourself outfitted in wires and brackets. But then again, considering the procedure will cost you a few grand, a couple shots of collagen and a microdermabrasion peel or two would be a more economical alternative.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Confessions of a converted cat lady

I consciously made my first truly irresponsible decision my senior year of college. I got a cat. I’d just returned to the States and signed my first lease. Before I’d always wanted an animal of my own, but a pet had been out of the question because I'd lived in a dorm and made a habit of leaving the country for months at a time.

I'd come back from Argentina with a new perspective. In one semester the South American grading scale destroyed the perfect GPA I'd nurtured for three years. I grieved death and elopement 5,000 miles away from home. I resolved to stop sacrificing my happiness in the name of responsibility. I would no longer spend all my energy trying to make straight A's. Why had I built a life of discipline and self-denial?

I started my last year of college running for miles by the water in downtown Charleston. I spent hours at the beach walking by the waves and reading in the sand. I channeled my creativity into decorating my enormous 19th-century bedroom, poring over design magazines and the Marshall's home goods section. And I decided that a kitten would make me very happy.

* * *

Before I’d been wary of cats. I shrieked upon discovering a fat cat snoozing on my bed in Buenos Aires. I grew up with a mom who shuddered in disgust at the mention of a feline. As a child I came home from playing with the neighbors’ kittens with swollen eyes, hives and chronic sneezing. My dad suffered similar allergies and shared my mother’s disdain for the creatures.

But my new roommate’s cat Captain Jack changed my mind. The shy tuxedo hung out in my room, sprawled on my bed or stretching with me while I did my post-run yoga. Desperate for furry affection, I forced him to cuddle even if his claws ripped a hole in my new sweater and snagged countless shirts. The watery eyes and itchy nose faded as he won me over with his soft fur and purrs.

When I went home in December my childhood sheltie (R.I.P. Molly) seemed big and smelly in comparison. I declared to my parents that the day I drove back to South Carolina I’d visit the shelters in search of my perfect kitten. They begged me to reconsider. “That varmint will never step foot in this house,” my dad said. But by then they knew that when I make up my mind to do something – like take a job in England or interview for a fourth unpaid internship – no one is holding me back. I spent Christmas break Googling “cute white kitties.”

* * *

The day after I adopted Evita, I bought a pink collar, pink bowls and a pink litter box at Petsmart. From then on I studied in my bed with her on my lap instead of at the library. I wanted to bond with her during her kittenhood. I forgave her when she sprinted across my keyboard (ripping out b and p) as I typed my senior thesis or batted claw marks into my notes while I memorized media law cases. I let her chew a few textbook corners, sympathizing with her teething gums. Evita soon recognized the sound of my bike rolling up the driveway. She’d greet me meowing at the front door. I even bribed my best friend to move in my bedroom for a week to keep her company when I bought a last-minute flight to Peru. "I can't believe she got her cat a nanny," my roommate said.

But my parents were right. I wasn’t ready for the commitment. I decided to move to Barcelona after graduation. Would they mind watching Evita in the meantime? She was less than a year old. I left a notebook full of detailed instructions, with lines like “Please wash my collar every couple of weeks. Give me a snack before bed so I don’t wake you up early. Use only the clumping, fresh scented litter that makes me smell like a powder puff.”

I felt so guilty leaving her behind. I feared my father would resent babysitting my cat. I insisted that my mother e-mail me a weekly photo of her so I could track her growth. I showed the pictures of my gatita to my little English students in Spain so often that three-year-old Casilda started kissing them and saying "I like my cat."

* * *

Seven months later I came home from Europe to find that Evita leaps across the house to greet my dad at the door when she hears him open the garage. She meows and flops her self belly-up on the rug until he administers her an osteopathic rubdown. He calls "Evita Carmelita!" before he goes to bed. She follows him upstairs for Tie Time, in which he drags an old tie along the carpet and into the jacuzzi for her to pounce. Then he builds her a pyramid of pillows on the queen mattress for a ritual he’s dubbed Pyramid Power. She dutifully leaps on the floral bedspread and dives into her fortress. Only her swooshing tail sticks out. He says she’s recharging her batteries.

After her nightly pyramid, my mother hides two treats for Evita to find in her pink kitty cube. In the morning, she yells “Here Evita!” before she makes the bed. The cat likes to tunnel under the sheets or between the pillows in what she believes is a game just for her. Throughout the day Evita naps in an office chair beside my mom while she’s on the computer. My mom occasionally breaks from the screen to comb Evita’s gray-and-white coat to a plush sheen. The kitty rolls over to let her groom each side, purring and wallowing in the massage. Some evenings Evita curls up on the footrest of my dad’s Lazyboy chair as he reads Cat Who mysteries aloud.

I confess that I’m jealous. I want Evita to love me. And I’m disappointed in myself. I’ve failed at adult responsibility, ditching my first pet on my parents. But mostly I’m relieved that my kitty is happy. I want the best for her. And maybe valuing her welfare above my own desires is a sign of developing maturity after all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Race is run

I survived the 15-miler, hills and all. I crossed the finish line at just under two hours and fifteen minutes, placing 245th out of 482 runners. I don't see much of a speed career in my future. Despite my modest nine-minute-mile pace, I almost felt like a real athlete running around the city past all those distance markers with a number pinned to my chest, flashing my best this-is-just-a-piece-of-cake smile to all the onlookers clapping or shoving plastic cups of water in my face.

Runners seem to feel a tinge of regret after the race -- usually an excuse about some injury or poorly marked course. I wish I pushed harder that last mile. I'd planned to go all out at the end, but I got nervous, noticing that I was suddenly all alone and fearing I'd be finishing last.

I can't imagine running 11 more miles to finish a marathon. No, I don't see a marathon in my future unless I had a killer training plan and running partner. In fact, I'm thinking of cutting down the running and taking up zumba and swimming. I believe my running career has peaked ... although I might get around to a half-marathon or at least another 10K.

I made one big mistake Saturday -- I forgot my post-run stretch. I was was just soo sleeeepy when we made it home at 10:30 a.m. -- I'd been up since 5:45. I slipped under the covers for a two-hour nap. When my parents and I went for our Sunday hike, my quadriceps screamed with every step, especially when the trail required us to climb up half a dozen ladders over barbed-wire fences. Gnats swarmed my face and buzzed in my ear while we waded through waist-high weeds (doubtlessly swarming with poison ivy and snakes) that made my freshly shaved-and-moisturized legs burn and itch. I wondered if I was really cut out for this outdoorsy stuff as my boots squashed in the mud and I pummeled face first into spider webs.

But I totally am -- because this weekend I'm going camping, white water rafting and zip lining. I'm not worried about bashing my skull on a river rock or slipping out of my harness 50 feet in the air. I'm nervous that my dad and I might kill each other in an argument about hotdog roasting or tent pitching.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Done deal

I'm sporting the braces. Maybe it's because the ibuprofen hasn't worn off and I've yet to see a photo of myself, but right now I'm thinking this isn't so bad. It's almost like getting a haircut or a piercing -- a new look that makes me give the mirror a double take. The almost painless procedure took about 45 minutes. Certainly less traumatic than signing my name to that financial contract. After lunch (at home, thankfully) I passed a mirror to discover that I wore half my salad in my teeth. That's been the ugliest of it.

Later I bared my brace face at the Putnam County Farmer's Market, where the area retirees stock up on their summer produce. This isn't a yuppie affair with canvas totes and buttons and leashed golden retrievers. This is where suspender and trucker hat wearing farmers whose white undershirts stretch across their bellies tell you they'll give ya a pounda 'taters or 'maters as soon as their nephew Buddy gets the change for your $20 out of the pick up.