Get smart

The power of the sun in the palm of your hand.

The power of the sun in the palm of your hand.

I’ve reached a sort of milestone lately.

In college I never had a cell phone. Halfway through freshman year, a friend gave me a broken early-generation touchscreen iPod that could text in wifi zones. I was perfectly satisfied with it. My friends, though, were annoyed — sometimes it was faster to search for me across campus or text someone I was with than wait for the iPod to blink awake.

So I didn’t officially acquire one until I moved to Worthington, straight out of college. I thought about it and selected a cheap pay-as-you-go phone in Wal-Mart. (If you’ve ever watched a crime thriller in which the protagonist purchases a “burner phone” to make a call on and discard, this was that phone. I had it for 18 months.) It was a temporary measure, I told people who asked, a phone to use until I researched something more permanent, more broadly useful.

I didn’t do any research.

I kept putting off the upgrade for a lot of reasons — picking out the perfect smartphone requires effort, funds, a commitment to researching the best possible decision… And I was getting by just fine with my little flip phone. I was also a little concerned about becoming glued to my phone.

However, the permanence also bothered me: if I was going to invest in a smartphone, I’d plan to be consistent, dependable… be around in a way I hadn’t before. Even though getting a good cell phone opens up the possibilities — access to maps, reviews, the whole of the Internet — it felt like putting down roots. It meant being accessible to others in a way I felt I hadn’t agreed to be, didn’t want to be.

I’ve always enjoyed the freedom to drop off the grid — not just in a no-social-media kind of way but in a disappearing sort of way. I’ve never liked responsibilities that made me stay wired in all the time, and investing in a smartphone seemed like it would require that. I could have people relying on me, and I’ve never felt ready to carry the weight of that.

It took me awhile to figure that one out, and I’m still thinking it through, even now.

But at the end of July, a fumble at the airport left me phone-less after midnight in St. Paul, and I started to rethink the delay.

I purchased a Moto X smartphone from Republic Wireless on a plan that’s fairly affordable on a student loans budget if I use wifi instead of data. I had to Google how does data work, but all in all, it was a success.

(While the flip phone was gone and before the smartphone arrived, a technological mix-up at the office and the falsely optimistic words, “Roberta can fix it, she has before,” and my coworkers’ inability to call me led to one of them a-knocking on my apartment door frantically at 11:30 p.m. I wasn’t quite asleep yet, but it sure took me awhile to sleep after.)

The phone arrived in a shiny white box, and honestly? I’m loving it so far.

I get emails on my phone, so I can take a walk on my lunch break and still stay in the loop at work. I’m starting — slowly — to use that Twitter account I started ages ago. I love Instagram, and I love having a camera available all the time. (And one of my coworkers gave me a brief tutorial on Snapchat, so maybe I’ll figure that one out, too.) (No promises.)

And the permanence thing? I’m still shaking that idea out, seeing where it came from. I’m not as opposed to the idea as I was before. Still, I don’t plan to be wired in 24/7.

There’s something to be said for jumping the grid now and again.

If you want to find me on Twitter or Instagram, I’m listed as @robertafultz. Snapchat… I’ll let you know.

Summer’s in the details

Hidden vista at the end of our canoe trip.

Hidden vista at the end of our canoe trip.

Late start, late arrival, pitch tent by flashlight. Whispers, sleeping arrangements. Family. Hard-packed ground, slanted sleeping pads, stretch, backache, relax — twigs rustling, trees creaking. Darkness hums. Loon call. Don’t remember fading out.

Awake at sunlight, asleep/drowsy/asleep, scrabbling at tent zipper. Pour-over coffee, tired affection, easy. Cousins, multiplying. Squeaky pump for cold water: not as difficult as I remember.

Lake time — morning, afternoon, evening. Tippy canoe, strong wind — flip in shallow water. Drenched through, skin sun-roasted damp. Swimming in clothes. Dogs in water — affection with a lot of splash. Black leech — unnecessary panic. Sister squeezes its head so my skin doesn’t tear open, tiny teeth unclenching.

Crossword, group-sourced around campfire. Camp food — quick and ashy, toasty, messy, utterly delightful. Twenty-second rule for fallen morsels. Red Vines become a food group. Sleep until I wake up; awake until I sleep.

Aching muscles, “shower” onshore beside lake, carefully rinsing soap before we jump in again. Slackline — I survive one-and-a-half-steps. Kayak and water lilies. Fishing, boat race — Dad lets me drive. Sunburn on an inflatable raft until boredom strikes, then drop in, clothed again — there’s a theme here. Fresh watermelon, catchup talk. Family teasing turns to debate turns to argument turns to conversation — I worry, but I really believe some things stay.

Playing card games, word games, lying games. Winning and losing. A book — by lakeshore, by fireside. Dad cradles his guitar. Hymns, a new soloist; we rib Dad for shifting keys higher, straining our alto voices.

Clear solitude at night, bright moon wide over water. Wolf howl, far away. Thin pillow clouds cruise across sky, borne by steady wind. Reminds me of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, inhuman; I won’t forget. Zipping up our tent while someone snores.

Driving home — back to civilization, running water, cell service. Sleeping hard, waking early. Long drive back to Worthington, coffee traded for consciousness, but I haven’t felt this awake in ages.

It doesn't quite feel like summer until the annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake in the northlands -- no wifi, no running water, no stress.

It doesn’t quite feel like summer until the annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake in the northlands — no wifi, no running water, no stress.

Sea change


On a clear day.

I fly into San Francisco Thursday morning, muscles sagging with the weight of more than 24 sleepless hours and the knowledge of a full day to come. I’ve traveled this far for the wedding of a close friend — and even as I can feel the exhaustion climbing its way up my spine, I reach for the caffeine and carry on. I don’t want to miss anything.

That isn’t to say I’m functioning at the top of my game, and the thought, “These people would be so lovely if I was awake to appreciate them,” passes through my mind more than once. We immediately set to the final stages of wedding prep — laundry, last-minute decorations and those wedding expenses you can never really anticipate. (I spend ten minutes in the children’s aisle at Target comparing the yellow-green My Little Pony with the purple sparkly one. I can honestly say I didn’t expect that errand — and also, the purple sparkly one is prettier.) I steal maybe 45 minutes of precious sleep in spurts over the course of the day and crash early Friday morning when I hit the mattress.

The wedding is lovely. Guests sit on picnic blankets on the grass, everyone brings something for the potluck reception and we finish constructing the bouquet maybe 20 minutes before the ceremony starts. The bride dazzles, the groom is grinning, and the flower girl adorably misunderstands her “scatter petals” instructions.

A few of my friends are married; several are in long-term relationships. Many of the men and women I know lay claim to serious relationships early in life. Sometimes the idea feels like closing a door, not swinging one open. I like change, but permanent change… No one approaches it lightly.

Having never, well, married anyone, I’m not in a position to talk about it. Take this with a generous handful of salt. But from the outside — sometimes I see a couple that makes each other better, steadier in ways they themselves don’t notice. That’s not a locked door; that’s fresh air. The bride wears a lavender gown. The boutonnieres are Lego superhero figurines. It’s their own wedding day and they’re making time to hug everyone, snacking on cookies, setting standards for generosity, kindness. From the outside, it looks like doing it right.

The next day a few of us make plans to go to the beach. I’ve never been to the California coast; I haven’t seen much of the ocean at all. But the sand is hot and the water is salty, and I picture the planet as a gigantic punch bowl — the slightest tilt slamming waves high into the shore.

“If I lived here, I would never leave,” I say. I can feel my eyes stretching wide to take in the different shades of blue, blending together, framed by mountains.

One of my friends keeps finding creatures — sand crabs, I think they were called — and offering to let us hold them. “Watch,” he says, and drops one on the wet sand. It turns tail-up and burrows in before the next wave comes, leaving a tiny, shallow dent in the sand. It’s gone in less than a second.

I laugh. And I keep laughing — at the tug of the undertow on my ankles, the family playing tug-of-war with seaweed, one of my friends trying to learn how to float. I get a mouthful of water when I turn, still laughing, directly into a new wave. That makes me laugh, too. It takes me a while to realize that I’m not laughing because things are funny; I’m laughing just because I’m happy.

I sit on a towel on the beach, insulting my friends, eating far too many gummy candies. My skin is tacky with salt. A few of us walk down the pier, taking pictures of seagulls and unsuccessful fishermen. I chat about space pirates with a kindergartener; I clearly think it’s a more acceptable life plan than he does. When we leave we eat ice cream and fancy quesadillas, and I — apparently — fall asleep mid-conversation on the drive home.

It’s been a while since I laughed like that — not to be polite or to fulfill a social requirement or even because things were funny or surprising, but because I liked the people I was with and the place where I was. “I would never leave,” I said then, which is preposterous and not a viable option but still seems true, an accurate statement, as I write this sitting at my kitchen table.

I’ve got one more trip planned — this one up north, to family, a week by a quiet lake at a quiet campground. I’m looking forward to cold morning swims and guitar nights, food flavored with a little campfire ash. I expect to sleep a lot, and also to be woken up by a crow right outside the tent at daybreak. I won’t worry too much if things happen differently, though. It’s good to leave a little room for surprises.


Seagull feet :)

Life in color

Post-color glitter extravaganza.

Post-color glitter extravaganza.

I’ve been darting about the state, sometimes further, this month — a holiday in my hometown, a few days here and there snatched with scattered friends. I spent last weekend in the Twin Cities: a few friends and I had signed up for a Color Run.

The Color Run, for the uninitiated, is a 5K walk/run during which people on the sidelines throw colored powder at the participants, until their clothing (and skin) (and hair) (and sometimes the insides of their mouths) are a bright, messy kaleidoscope.

Technically, this was a color-and-glitter run, which probably should have made me hesitate to sign up, but I was so enthusiastic I couldn’t draw back. Sure, glitter never washes out — but on the upside, it provides a lot of chances for “Twilight” puns.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I spend the day before with friends in the Twin Cities — coffee and a walk, nachos and music. I curl up at my college roommates’ kitchen table, determinedly scribbling hues into a Barbie coloring book, as we talk about Marvel movies.

That evening we attend a rodeo. It’s my first rodeo, and let me tell you: if you’re not aware of the events, seeing a grown man leap off a running horse to tackle a steer to the ground is a bit of a shock. (Also, it looks a lot more painful for the humans than the animals involved.) We laugh and cheer and sometimes clap in commiseration, and no people or animals are seriously injured.

Traveling is tiring, and work is hard to leave behind. For much of the weekend I am easily distracted, half-exhaustion and half-caffeine, brimming with what I need to get done.

“I’m sorry I’m so boring today,” I say unthinkingly as we drive out my friend’s garage.

“You’re never boring,” she says, offhand. (I wince — was that a compliment? — and then I preen, because my greedy ego will get its paws on whatever it can.) It makes me think, though.

Serious moment: when Grandma Nana — my mother’s mother — was sick and growing older, my mother came back from a visit looking unsettled and said, “She worries she’s not as fun as she was before.” Grandma Nana used to attend parties and wear gorgeous Southern dresses. I have seen photos of her with her head tipped back, smiling and tangibly beautiful with that movie-star shine.

But cancer eats away, and chemo draws at what’s left, and — there are only so many ways to keep people interested in you until you’re dressing up as someone you think they’d like.

It’s something I’ve never been able to forget, not because it introduced a new fear but because it voiced something my younger self thought we weren’t supposed to talk about.

We show up achingly early for the Color Run, and it’s already sticky with humidity. No one is keeping time. Most of my friends — actual athletes — outdistance me from the start. One stays further back with me, and we walk/jog/run the distance, laughing as our fingers get cloudy with color, making hand prints on T-shirts. I get a faceful of color at the blue station that makes my running buddy snicker uncontrollably.

At the end of the race, my hair and skin are coated with powder, and I don’t notice one of my friends pouring glitter directly onto my head until it starts to filter over my glasses.

“Really?” I say, sparkles falling down my face as I raise an eyebrow.

She giggles.

When I see the pictures later, I have to laugh: it’s a group of my friends, glowing at the camera, color artfully dusted over their clothing — and me, grinning, looking a little like a Smurf that accidentally wandered into the paranormal teen romance section.

I think the old insecurity is always going to be there — am I interesting, funny, entertaining enough? Am I enough to keep you around?

But I also think there’s value to diving in headfirst and a little blind, ignoring the way I appear to others in favor of the experience.

A day — and several showers — later, I glance in the mirror on my way to work and find a sparkly blue smudge somehow still embedded in the side of my face.

I grin. Some things never really go away.

Re-living U.S. history

I haven't uploaded pictures, so this lovely shot is from Washington, D.C.'s website. You can read about the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial here:

I haven’t uploaded pictures, so this lovely shot is from Washington, D.C.’s website. You can read about the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial here:

I didn’t exactly plan out the trip. One email conversation with a friend — “Were you serious when you said I could visit? Great, when?” — and one plane ticket later, I flew into Washington, D.C., with carry-on luggage and a vague notion of “seeing the sights.”

I wanted to see my friend, a grad student at GW University studying something to do with math (I’d explain it if I understood it), and I wanted to see the city — after all, it’s the epicenter of the national history I’ve been learning and re-learning since preschool.

Part of the fun of it, though, is seeing the city through my friend’s eyes, with my friend’s soundtrack: “Here’s the best breakfast in the area, and it’s not too far from the Smithsonian, and we might need to stop at the farmer’s market —”

I’d like to think I take everything in with wide-eyed wonder, like the kid sitting next to me as we whirl across galaxies in the Air and Space Museum’s iMax theatre. In reality, I probably just stop talking and forget to blink. There’s too much information for me to take in; I don’t have anywhere to keep it. I honestly don’t know how much I retained.

The old and new, side by side — I’ll remember that. Heat-weathered brick buildings and fading documents behind temperature-controlled glass, tucked next to shiny-new bookstores and enviable street style. Fresh people and words jutting up against history and structure. Old city with new breath; I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, no matter where I go.

My friend takes me to the National Gallery of Art. We jump from a photography exhibit to a gallery of 1600s paintings, and I keep absentmindedly stepping close to the canvases to squint at details. It doesn’t work with paintings; I end up with blotted paint a few inches from my nose. I have to back up before I can see it at all.

In a coffee shop we start talking, perhaps a bit too loudly with too many hand motions, and a woman with a laptop turns and says, “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” and then the three of us are hammering out a reading list of Russian literature while our drinks warm to room temperature.

I have snapshot memories, and I’m always trying to step back far enough to see the whole. I’m not sure I want to anymore, at least not always. Sometimes the pieces have to stand on their own.

We walk through the memorials at night — reading all the quotations on the walls of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s; meandering across the sprawling expanse of FDR’s. It’s a longer walk than I expected: despite my best efforts to think lofty historical thoughts, shoe blisters and humidity keep me tied firmly to the present.

When I get back to Worthington I am exhausted. I drag myself to a class I volunteer for at West Learning Center, where I practice American history test questions with an immigrant applying for U.S. citizenship.

“What did Martin Luther King, Jr., do?” I ask. She stares ahead in concentration. She’s learning how to pronounce and understand the word “amendment” at the same time.

What’s history to me is new to her.

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.

The view from up here

Bucket list.

Bucket list.

It’s a misty morning for our adventure, no wind and just a glimpse of sun. I’m running low on sleep, and I can feel it as I trip out of bed, find a sweater and calculate the fastest route to coffee. The haze, both in my head and outside my window, reminds me of university. It’s a pleasant thought.

There are three of us in the car, driving to Tracy for a powered parachute fly-in. I’ve never seen a powered parachute up close. I’ve never left the ground on anything smaller than a commercial flight.

I opt to take the car’s back seat, and while the two in the front politely ensure I’m included in the conversation, they don’t make me talk. I’m grateful. I tip my head back against the seat and stare out the window, watching clusters of trees emerge from the fog and tuck back into it behind us. I know the fields stretch out around us, but I can only see the outer rims butting up against the road, the dividing hedgerows between. I’m slowly coming into focus, but everything else is still grainy.

I like fog. On foggy days people talk like they’re holding secrets and revealing them, intentionally giving and withholding information. When everything else is obscured, the things we are allowed to see seem to matter more.

“And to your left, you’ll see an elevation change,” my friend announces like a tour guide, shifting gears.

I laugh. I haven’t made any secret about how much I miss hills, valleys, dips and turns, landscapes with shape surrounding me that I can burrow into or emerge from, shielding from the ever-present wind.

Nearly a year and a half here, and I’m still not used to living in flat space. Sometimes this corner of the plains feels like modeling clay that’s been rolled out instead of shaped, smooth and two-dimensional. Still blank, as if the artist got distracted and forgot to finish the project. I find myself searching for dips in the ground, cricks, tall trees, anything to add depth or height or texture to the horizon.

By the time we reach the airfield, my friends are concerned. The sun hasn’t burned off enough fog, and low visibility makes for unsafe flying conditions.

My friends talk shop with the owner of a small one- or two-person plane parked in the hangar. The word “EXPERIMENTAL” is painted across the wings, presumably to comply with safety regulations. It does not inspire confidence.

After a while — I’m not sure how long — I realize I’ve started to squint as the fog draws back. The sky has been growing brighter in increments, though I notice all at once.

The powered parachute owners are excited, anxious to be in the air. They start prepping the engines, unfurling the chutes.

“Want a ride?” a few of them offer.

This is what we were hoping for.

I’m looking the other direction when someone drops something into my hands and I reflexively catch it — a helmet.

(“I don’t think I would fly with that pilot,” my friend said, six minutes ago, on the way to the aircraft. “Bit of a cowboy. Risk-taker, maybe not safe.”

“It’ll be fine!” she says now, a little too brightly. I glare.)

I’m shaking as he checks the seat belts, as I try to steady my hands on the braced frame around my seat. (This frame also says “EXPERIMENTAL.”) It’s both nerves and anticipation. I was lured onto this adventure by the possibility of flying, and I’m shivering with excitement, but as he starts the engine my mind starts flashing through all the times I’ve been afraid of heights.

And then we leave the ground.

It takes us a few minutes to gain height (the “cowboy” is a steady pilot), and then I’m too busy looking out to notice how high we are until I realize the trees and barns below us are actually quite small.

Can see for miles.

Can see for miles.

I’ve never been to Tracy before today, but it’s lovely from above, all sky and patchwork fields, postcard-like. I can see the dips in cornfields that have been oversaturated with rainwater. I watch cars zipping — inching — down the highways, flushes of color on a square grid below. Barn roofs, angling upward, comfortably concave. I haven’t stopped shaking, but I’ve started laughing, too. I don’t remember when I unwrapped my fingers from the parachute’s frame.

The flight ends too soon, of course, and it’s not until I’ve disembarked that I notice my hands are perfectly steady. In the air I was shaking from cold, not nerves.

The wind is stronger, higher up. I hadn’t really noticed.

Self-portrait in reflection of pilot's helmet.

Self-portrait in reflection of pilot’s helmet.

Car trouble: Second edition

Ever since I got my driver’s license in high school, car trouble has claimed a prominent role in my life. Part of the routine, you know, like paying bills or extinguishing kitchen fires: after a while you just get good at it. There’s enough time between incidents to lull me into false optimism, but it’s not quite a surprise anymore when it happens.

Much like the petunias from Hitchhiker’s. | Gif from the aptly-titled

Last summer, I sent my beloved, young-at-heart Charlie — so adventurous, and never a dull moment! — north to my parents, where she (so I hear) lives on in placid retirement. In exchange, I got Georgie.

Georgie, the trusty and rusty companion of my current life, is a baby blue minivan with (you guessed it) a bit of character. She trundles down highways and country roads alike with an air of resignation: she doesn’t want to, not particularly — but, well, if she must. She groans reluctantly at when we pause at stoplights (pesky traffic rules!) and sighs with browbeaten despair at the tyranny of cruise control. If one adheres to the belief that, if wheels and an engine are properly attached, anything will “drive” — lawn furniture, for example — Georgie is your patron saint.

But I am unkind; Georgie has been a long and faithful friend to my family. She has patiently suffered through Minnesota winters, cross-country road trips and a plethora of minor collisions. She more or less taught my siblings and I how to drive. She, like Charlie, is a survivor.

There were warning signs this go-around. Sometime during the winter the dashboard lights, the pilot fish of impending car trouble, flickered out. On one of my visits home, my parents hauled her off to a repair shop and got the main panel lights re-lit, though she still can’t show the time.

Next — the second warning sign — about a month ago the lock switches stopped working. Perhaps it’s true that every switch has a limited number of flicks in it, and we reached that limit. Perhaps Georgie simply decided automatic locks were one luxury I could do without.

These issues are more or less cosmetic — inconvenient, both of them, but I can get around them. I can wear a watch. I can hand-lock the doors. It’s not too much trouble.
Last weekend, as I drove into St. Paul to see family and friends, I noticed something a little off as I merged into city traffic.

Hmmm, I thought. The car used to accelerate when I pressed the gas pedal.

I pulled Georgie into the next exit, found a place to park and tried to assess the damage. (Meaning: I popped the hood and looked for smoke.) Something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t pinpoint the source.

My parents were also passing through St. Paul at the time and met me to help. Together we gathered around the engine in silence, looking for something, anything, to help us zero in on the problem. Dad took the keys and drove a bit; we brainstormed past car problems as he checked the oil, tapped the various cooling parts of the engine. We finally realized (mostly by trial and error) the hub of the left front tire was hot to the touch.

The working theory is that the brakes start to engage on their own. (Good ol’ Georgie, trying to work overtime!) I’m not a mechanic, so if anyone has experienced this problem before, feel free to offer tips!

The problem went away when Dad put the car in reverse, for whatever reason, so Georgie and I have gingerly continued our friendship since then, with strict parental instruction to “get someone to look at it” if she fritzes again.

“Maybe I’m the common denominator here,” I speculated morosely mid-assessment. “The cars always break when I’m driving.”

“Right,” Mom said. “Or, maybe you only drive old cars.”

So perhaps that’s the solution — a new(-er)(-ish) vehicle. It’s not exactly a possibility on a student-loans budget — anything I could afford wouldn’t be an improvement — but maybe in the future I’ll have the chance, and Georgie can spend her numbered days with Charlie in retirement.

Mostly, I’m worried that by the time I finally get a fully-functioning vehicle, all of the good names will be gone.

How to take a day off


1. Sleep in.

Step one doesn’t go so well. It’s been a busy week, and the combination of stress and poor window shades snaps me awake at the unholy sunrise. I pretend to be asleep for another half hour (almost convince myself a few times, too) before I give up and start pretending to be awake. I’m usually better at that one — fake it ’til you make it, I suppose.

2. Drive.

I take I-90 west from Worthington, fields of wind turbines stretching out around me. While driving, I don’t have any other responsibilities; until I park the car, everything on my list of things that must get done keeps a holding pattern. Temporary freedom. The slight hills and divots in the earth become higher, lower, a tad more extreme. The number of trees starts to multiply — fractionally, but there are more, and closer to the road. They box me in; they wake me up. I am learning to love this landscape — even-keeled, all sky, wide open — but tightly-parceled forests and hills that warp the roads still feel like home.

3. Shop.

I’m not much of a shopper, but I’ve recently noticed my closet has all the same clothes in it as it did this time last year, only thinner and with more-permanent wrinkles. I have a list of things, too, that I can’t seem to find in town.

I find a mall and wander but can’t seem to find anything I like: all the clothes seem misshapen, too large or too small, the color choices dull or glaring. I try out a new lipstick, only to realize the shop assistant is standing less than two feet away from me, watching me, saying, “Hmmm,” and “Want me to find a different shade?” This is not a day off, I grumble to myself; this is a makeup interrogation.

I must not be in the shopping mood.

4. Write.

I leave the mall for a bookstore. Oh, I think. This is the mood I’m in. I walk through the aisles, checking for new installments in series I read as a kid, locating my favorite authors. I buy a book — T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, for those of you who like poetry — and spend ten minutes geeking out like I haven’t since university.

Then I find a cafe and a cup of coffee and a table and my notebook with the broken spine and I write. The first few paragraphs are exhausting, words squeaking reluctantly out of my pen. It gets easier after that, and then there are pages full. I’m learning — why does it take me so long to learn the simplest lessons? — that writing steadies me. It makes me more certain of some things, more flexible toward others. Today, it relaxes my shoulders, tensed since step 1 — since before, honestly, since the week before last. I am hunched over a low table in an uncomfortable chair, but I already feel more like myself.

5. Hike.


I leave the coffee shop and meet a friend and a very happy golden retriever at Devil’s Gulch state park. “Jesse James Jumped Here,” the sign at the head of the trail reads. One side of the trail has thirsty tree roots grasping around crumbling rock wrapped in climbing tree roots; the other side opens to what seems to be flat grassfields. I stand close enough to the edge of the gulch to make me feel dizzy, looking down into the slow running water. I’m not good with heights, but they make me feel more myself, too.


6. Ignore the list.

All day I have half-heartedly postponed the list, but when I get home I push it aside in earnest. What’s a day off for if you can’t enjoy it?

I’m a skilled procrastinator, I remind myself. Even if I haven’t had half a weekend off, I’d write that blog twenty minutes before it goes on the page anyway.

Things Minnesotans will do to avoid offending others

1. Wait indefinitely

There’s one register open in the grocery store, and four people are lined up. The cashier is either new or excellent friends with the first customer, because she has four items and the line hasn’t moved in one minute and 48 seconds. I know, because I’m kind of in a hurry — I need to be back at the paper in 30 minutes and I haven’t had supper yet. (My fault; I didn’t think to plan a menu.)

But the line remains quiet. We check our phones, shift our weight from one foot to the other and browse through the tabloids as more customers silently join us, the checkout line curving slightly into the aisles. Come to think of it, there’s another cashier in my sight line, straightening the candy aisle. He hasn’t noticed the long line, and no one makes a move to cue him in.

Eventually the line lurches forward, the next customer already piling things on the counter as the cashier hands her friend the receipt. I get home with exactly 20 minutes left to cook and eat dinner — and given the bustle of my week, it feels like time to spare.

I’m told it’s a Minnesotan thing — this rather extreme generosity toward others’, particularly strangers’, time. You can spot it when people calmly wait their turn to speak in a casual conversation and when there’s always one roll left in the basket at the dinner table. (“Children and selfish people usually get the last slice of pie,” my dad explained to me years ago at a Fultz clan Thanksgiving. “Everyone else knows better.”)

It’s almost aggressive: from past grocery store lines, I know that if one of us in line had demanded attention — “Excuse me, can we get some help here?” — the rest of the line would have turned on that one like hyenas. (Well … polite, self-restrained hyenas. We would have pointedly ignored the offender and assured the flustered cashier that it was “no problem, none at all.”)

There’s a breaking point, of course; even the most patient Minnesotan will snap if the line stretches all the way to the frozen food section. But where is that point, exactly? And where do the extremist passive-aggressive Minnesotans take it too far?

2. Moving in

I’m on the phone with an out-of-stater, talking through the pros and cons of moving to a new apartment in town with a friend. Living with someone I already like — pro. Less privacy and personal space — con. Change — pro/con.

“Anything else for the pro-move column?” my out-of-stater asks.

“Well, she has one of my books,” I say. “I don’t need it back or anything, but I still want to read it occasionally.”

I was joking. I was joking, right?

I’m just worried it will spiral out of control.

3. Marriage

“He looked so hopeful. I mean, I didn’t have anything else planned for the next sixty years.”

4. Death

“It’s not much of a cut, really; don’t go to any trouble. I’m keeping the bleeding on the linoleum, so it’ll be easy to clean up. It’ll be just fine in a minute.”

I’m curious about others’ experience of this passively aggressive Minnesotan habit. I’m willing to believe that I have a greater share of this tendency than others, but I don’t think it’s all me. (Grocery lines, waiting rooms, restaurants…) Is it a common trend or a fairly isolated phenomenon?

And really, how far is too far?

Taking my own advice

As it turns out, practicing ‘rest’ is ridiculously difficult.

I’ve been waking up before my alarm lately, and not because I’m pleasantly well-rested. (I’m pretty sure my sleeping habits are a carryover from college life, or toddlerhood, or something.) I wake up when the light leaks from behind my bedroom curtain with my daily plan already cycling through my brain. My life is mapped out these days, nearly every minute accounted for.

I’ve picked up a few work projects and a part-time job (shoutout to student loans). I’ve started a few projects on the side, too, things I know I need to learn if I want to continue in my field.

It’s not all work, though. There are messages to receive, replies to send, groceries to buy, miles to run, bills to pay, people to see, household appliances to fix, words to read, things to learn. There’s always something to pay attention to.

I enjoy being busy. I like knowing I’m doing things, keeping my mind in motion, staying on my feet. I firmly believe (to the chagrin of my mother and at least half of the roommates I’ve had) that a messy desk means a full life. I look with pride on my kitchen table, piled with yesterday’s mail and tomorrow’s drafts. I also know that I tend to assign myself value according to what I do and how much I can contribute.

I spend a lot of time in my life coaching my friends and family to disengage, step away from their responsibilities and unwind. I’ve seen enough burnout to know that overworking, even doing valuable work, tears a person inside-out.

For me, the bigger problem is the niggling feeling that I should be doing something, the guilty feeling I get after I stop working for an impromptu dance party or opt to read for fun rather than research when I get home from work. It’s the voice in my head saying, “Really, you could be productive right now,” and, “You haven’t responded to that email yet, have you?” and, “After three consecutive days cereal doesn’t count as a meal,” and, “Shouldn’t you be writing?”

It’s kind of annoying.

However, all the things it’s telling me to do — they’re good things. Things I value. Who doesn’t want to excel at their career? Be accessible to friends? Have functioning kitchen appliances?

As I sketched out this blog post during a morning break (irony?), I could hear the news blaring from a television, and I scribbled something in the margin of my notebook about a story I wanted to include in today’s paper. I think — I hope — this constant awareness makes me a better editor. It makes me automatically interested in the communities around me, excited to learn more and experience more.

But sometimes it comes back to that value thing — measuring myself based on how successful I am, how timely my responses are, how much I accomplish.

How little I relax.

The voice in the back of my head saying should helps with productivity, I think. It doesn’t do much for quality of life.

Sometimes, I’m learning, I can’t rest on my own.

This week, when I went to spend time with “serious” friends and talk about “serious” things, we toured a bit of Worthington I hadn’t seen yet and then went for ice cream.

And sometimes — when I think I can get away with it — when I wake up before my alarm starts chirping, I turn it off and go back to bed. It doesn’t feel like a victory — the should voice goes crazy — but I think it might be one anyway.

Rest. It’s a lot of work.