A minor incident from my youth, which should have been taken as a strong sign that I was destined to become a copy editor:
I was 16, and I was taking a composition class at the local community college for college credit. My teacher was a young-ish, brown-haired woman with a pleasant disposition, which is all I can remember about her, save for this one moment.
We had been assigned to write a dramatic retelling of a childhood memory. I wrote a heavy-handed, theatrical essay about the girls-only club I started in fourth or fifth grade and about the club’s tragic demise when I, the self-appointed president, stumbled upon my minions meeting in secret to make a unanimous decision to dethrone me. (I was, after all, a pigtailed tyrant.)
After the papers had been graded, the instructor called me to her desk at the end of the session. “This was excellent,” she said, “you got the highest grade in the class.” I beamed. “But I had to take off a point for a spelling error,” she said, raising her eyebrows and flipping to the offending page. I was astonished and crestfallen. “There,” she said, pointing to a sentence in a concluding paragraph. “You wrote, ‘O, the cruel injustice of mutiny!’ but it should be ‘Oh,’ with an H.” I blinked and nodded and took my paper.
But as soon as I got in the car, I raged audibly. Oh, with an H? Had this plebian never read any ode, any poem, any ancient drama?? Clearly, she didn’t get it; clearly, she had never read literature. My fury knew no bounds.
The fact that this story is still vivid to me today, some 11 years later, is damning. O, the tyranny of the perfectionist child. O, the lack of grace for the classically uninformed. O, the inability to let the most minute things go.
A week of sartorial choices, sans photos of what I wore.
MONDAY, 5 JANUARY
Rosemary-hued pants from Zara; cream V-neck sweater from J. Crew; terra cotta-colored blazer from Gap. Madewell Oxford shoes. Which I love, because they are my first true “investment” pair of shoes, but I am realizing that they are a little hard on the heels, especially after standing at my desk all day. This doesn’t change my deep affection for them.
When I get home from work, I decide not to change what I am wearing for small group, even though I am tempted to don something slovenly.
To bed: Long-sleeved dark gray T-shirt from Gap; new red plaid flannel PJ pants from J. Crew.
TUESDAY, 6 JANUARY
New black Dannie pants from J. Crew, which I bought on sale with great anticipation, but I acknowledge they are much shorter than I would like them to be. But, the fact that they zip up in the back is an unexpectedly alluring detail. Old royal blue silk-like blouse that I lifted from Grace some years ago; black Forever 21 blazer that is missing a button at the cuff but I still wear because the cut is surprisingly good on me. My one pair of knee-high black boots, which are very comfortable, but are losing their shape because I bought them from Target. Still, they have held up admirably for two years.
At noon, I change into a long-sleeved gray T-shirt with painted navy blue lines from J. Crew Factory, because my department is going to play laser tag as part of a “team-building exercise.” The laser tag facility turns out to be an abandoned Office Depot with no heat and giant piles of brush and pillars of wood pallets, which makes the whole situation infinitely creepier. I make a few kills. I start to get in touch with my minute store of testosterone.
When I get home, I discard the blazer and put on Guion’s enormous gray sweatshirt, because I am cold. I take off my wool socks and boots, because my feet are feeling damp and I hate that more than almost anything. I put on these ancient striped socks and my oversized slippers. I am also cranky with the dogs. They have been hard to love today.
To bed: Heather blue leggings, same gray T-shirt I wore the night before, ancient striped socks.
WEDNESDAY, 7 JANUARY
Work-from-home day, so pajamas until noon, when I finally roused myself to shower. Then: Aging Gap jeans, which have become my home/running errands/don’t-need-to-look-awesome jeans. (They have been replaced in my heart by a pair of Zara jeans, which happen to be softer, cheaper, and more flattering. I’ve realized that Zara makes pants for my legs, more than any other store I’ve found.) Dark gray V-neck sweater; gray oversized cable-knit cardigan from Zara. (I love this giant, heavy cardigan, but it’s pilling terribly, after just about a month of wear. This makes me sad. There’s just about nothing you can do about pills like this. I bought a Sweater Stone, but I don’t think much can be done for seriously pilling cable-knit.) Black boots again with wool socks, because it’s brutally cold out there.
Found my black gloves, which I thought I’d lost, mistakenly tossed in the bottom of a to-Goodwill bag. Silently rejoiced at our reunion.
10-degree day. Dove-gray trousers from Ann Taylor Loft (it really is a funky gray, with dusky undertones); boatneck striped sweater from J. Crew Factory; very old chunky-knit cardigan from Banana Republic that Mom gave me for Christmas many moons ago. It belts around the waist, in this inset woven ribbon. I didn’t wear it at all when I first got it, and then I suddenly rediscovered it, and now it’s a winter staple. It is also pilling after all these years, but not too noticeably. Brown boots from Target that have held up marvelously after three years. Sometimes you find those miracle shoes at Target. I’ve found that most Target shoes are flimsy things that fall apart after a few wears (especially after they lost Isaac Mizrahi), but then there’s this magical 5% of them that are sincerely great, well-made, long-lasting shoes. These boots are part of that magical 5%.
I put the chickens away first thing when I get home from work. (We had a harrowing incident last night when we thought we lost them forever. But they came back. Like the good girls that they are.) I break up the ice in their water tray and retrieve an egg from the nest box, which has split right down the middle from the cold, taking care not to get the bit of yolk on my black gloves. I don leggings and slippers as soon as I get back inside.
To bed: Heather blue leggings again, long-sleeved gray T-shirt again.
FRIDAY, 9 JANUARY
Black pants from Zara; light heather gray v-neck sweater from J. Crew Factory; chunky-knit vest with a belted waist, a hand-me-down from Grace. Black Chelsea boots from Target, which are also part of the 5% magic minority.
I spend the evening planning and proofing for this week’s calligraphy jobs, adorned in my flannel pants and accompanied by candles and a glass of tempranillo.
To bed: J. Crew flannel PJ set.
SATURDAY, 10 JANUARY
Flannel PJs stay on till noon, while I am in the heat of three calligraphy jobs. After that, I change into my errand-day jeans; striped v-neck long-sleeved T-shirt; old navy hoodie that has holes in the sleeves but is still so substantial and warm.
I braid my hair in pigtails and put on a swipe of blush, even though I’m not going anywhere today. Over the afternoon, the braids loosen and soften and start to appear more attractive and artistic instead of straight-up Pippi Longstocking.
To bed: Leggings and gray long-sleeved T-shirt again (don’t worry; I’ve washed them).
SUNDAY, 11 JANUARY
Shower day. New dark jeans from Zara; fisherman-style blue sweater from J. Crew; black puffer jacket; Chelsea boots. Want to look stylish to go see Maddy at work at the new French bakery in town, MarieBette. It’s packed and we see many familiar faces. Guion works on Nettles posters and I read Independent People.
Since I was a very small, I have reveled in calling a thing by its name. I want to know the name, and even better, to bestow the name. I have always taken stock in the value of names, the meanings behind them, the spellings, the derivations. When I was 10, I checked out every baby name book at the library and read them cover to cover. I wrote long stories about wistful teenaged girls with absurd, meticulously chosen names (Shenandoah Artemis Montgomery was a favorite oft-used heroine). I wanted to know all of my friends’ middle names and reflect on them.
My grandmother has been cleaning out her house, and she has been finding pages upon pages of lists of names I made as a child. Sometimes she sends them to me in the mail. A recent find: On a tattered sheet of notebook paper, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I have written in pencil three columns of names of dog handlers, dog breeds, and dog names, for an imaginary dog show. Why? I have no idea. It seemed important to me at the time.
When we were small and traveling with Dad on business trips, we listened to books on tape. We were listening to Where the Red Fern Grows, and I was listening with rapt attention. Finally, this boy had saved his entire life’s earnings and bought himself a pair of redbone coonhounds. I was elated. And then the boy said, “I will call them… Big Dan and Little Ann!” My parents said I let out a loud wail from the back of the minivan. They were startled. “WHY?” I lamented. “WHY SUCH TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE NAMES?”
When we first started dating, Guion gave me a compliment that I had never heard before and have thus always remembered. He noticed my predilection for calling out the proper names of animals and plants when we walked. “It is like watching Adam walk through the garden, this need of yours to name everything,” he said, adding, lest I found the remark a reprimand, “and I love that about you.”
So, I’m thinking about names again. (We are on the verge of adopting a trio of bantam chickens, and so I’ve been doing a little research on Indonesian girls’ names.) And that is what I am thinking about now. Why this compulsion for naming?
My best answer is this: A good name gives dignity to its owner. And since I was tiny, I have felt that to be an important virtue.
Whether a plant, a mouse, or a small child, a name gives meaning and worth to that being. This is why farmers don’t name their livestock who will be killed; it is much easier to kill a nameless thing. This is why I’ve never liked the tradition of juniors (for pity’s sake, give the kid his own name). This is why I sigh when someone with a very plain surname gives their kid a very plain first name. This is why we gave our first dog a crazily spelled name (Pyrrha) and why we gave the second one a name in a similar mythological theme (Eden).
Or maybe all of this is just a heads-up to let you know that if and when we have children, be prepared for a weird name. A husband named Guion, after all, means that we have high expectations for ourselves in the odd name department.
On the morning of my wedding, I was lying in the hotel bed that I had shared the night before with my mother. Mom was getting ready in the bathroom. But I was still in bed, very absorbed in an episode of America’s Next Top Model. I have always been drawn by the novelty of freely accessible cable TV, a luxury perpetually unknown to me. After 15 minutes of inactivity, Mom looked at me and said, “Um, are you going to get out of bed and get married? Or just stay here and watch Tyra?”
A favorite recent anecdote, told to me by my coworker:
The topic of blood diamonds comes up when my coworker is home visiting her parents, who are very conservative, FOX News-abiding folk. Coworker tells her parents that our fellow coworker, P., recently said he’d never buy a future fiancee a diamond, because of the conflict regarding the precious stones and the fraught diamond trade in Africa. No one at the table knows much about blood diamonds, and so her mom says, “I don’t understand; what’s the problem?” Coworker says, “Well, it’s a human rights issue.” Mom’s eyes narrow, knowingly, and she says, “Ohh. I get it. So, he’s really liberal, huh?”
So! Score one for us, liberals! We have human rights on our side. Conservatives apparently don’t go in much for those.
When Sam was 3, he crushed his little hands in the door handle of the truck. Somehow, he’d gotten his baby fingers jammed up inside the exterior handle itself, so that Dad had to push his bruised, tiny hand even further into the metal handle to get it out. He screamed for such a long time, and it was miserable; us three girls were afraid for him, watching his chubby face contort with pain, sneaking glances at his purple fingers. Mom was in Atlanta on a business trip, which added greatly to our concern. Dad put all four of us on their big bed and turned on The Lion King, presumably hoping that the novelty of getting to watch a movie in the middle of the day would distract him from the pain. Naturally, it didn’t. We all ended up going to the ER together and waiting for hours, just for the doctors to tell us that his fingers weren’t broken and that he’d be fine.
Senior year of college, I took a course on Russian literature that I loved. We had to write our final paper on various themes from our favorite short story of the semester. I chose Chekhov’s brilliant “The Lady with the Little Dog,” but I didn’t want to write another generic paper, so I made a request of the professor. What if my paper was a short story, written from the perspective of Gurov’s wife, making her the sympathetic character instead? He thought about it for a moment and said he loved the idea.
I worked hard on my little story and had fun with it, even though I knew it wasn’t a mini-masterpiece. But I was pleased with my effort. When I got the paper back, I got an A–. Overall, my professor liked it, but his closing comment read, “Interesting attempt, Abby. But I do wish that the writing sounded more like Chekhov himself.”
Oh, I thought, OK. So write it more like the greatest short fiction writer who’s EVER LIVED? OK. Sure thing. I’ll get right on that.
I was rattled out of my tiny bed in the middle of the night by an earthquake, my first earthquake. I was in Oyumino, a relatively unknown suburb of Tokyo, in my host family’s home. I felt like I was dreaming. Half-awake, I looked around the room, looked at the walls and waited for things to start to fall off them, one by one, but it was my body that was shaking. Things weren’t shaking; the whole room was shaking.
The next morning at breakfast, Keiko was excited that I’d experienced an earthquake; she said it was a rite of passage for those who dared to live in Japan. She told me that no one was really much hurt by this quake, except for a teenage boy who was killed when his stereo system rattled off a shelf and crushed his skull.
I remember Spencer’s velvety gray ears, his constantly twitching nose, his long transparent whiskers, how the fur under his paws was yellowed and brown, how his testicles looked like wrinkled purple cocoons. We acquired him from our neighbor, who bought a bunch of rabbits from a pet store, in a moment of short-sighted weakness, and left them all in her backyard. Rabbits, as they are wont to do, reproduced quickly, and soon she had a semi-feral rabbit colony in her yard. I like to think we rescued Spencer from her. Dad built him a two-story bunny mansion in the backyard and lovingly stained the wood and added waterproof house shingles to the roof. When we were kind, we’d pick him up and cradle him on his back as if he were our baby. When we were unkind, we’d zip him up in purses and throw him down on the ground too roughly. He was always good to us, miraculously. Rabbits are not necessarily great pets for small children; they are nervous and tend to bite when cornered. But Spencer was astonishingly good-natured; he never bit any of us, even though he had plenty of reason to over the years.
I was born fearful. At least, I believe I was. Somehow neither nature nor nurture seems responsible for my anxious temperament. I do not have fearful parents; my father, if anything, is a daredevil, prone to boyish recklessness. But I emerged into the world with a tightly wound, nervous disposition.
As a child, I was afraid of everything. Water. Having to enter bodies of water. Putting my face under water. Old people. Old men with facial hair. Dogs (yes, dogs). The green slime that would collect on the rungs of the ladder connected to my grandparents’ dock. Chicken pox. Calling strangers on the phone. Vomiting. Splinters. Strangers. Dental visits. Public speaking. Card games. Parasites in any shape or form. Competitions. Boys with mental disabilities. Making travel arrangements. Having to perform in front of audience. Holding newborn babies. Holding the hand of someone who had eczema.
More than anything, I hated disappointing the adults in my life, which is why I so vividly remember the ways in which my fears disappointed or embarrassed them. I can only remember one time my sweet, saintly grandmother was upset with me; it was at her church, and she snapped at me, because I was too scared to talk to her friends and hid behind her skirts. I hated disappointing her more than anything, but I hated talking to strangers even more.
I remember how disappointed my father was that I was so fearful; he seemed incredulous that I, this tiny, whimpering thing, could be related to him. When I was little, he’d try to throw me in the ocean, and I would scream and fight him so passionately that his arms would be covered in small, bleeding lacerations. He’d endeavor to get me to play catch with him, and I’d just pull a George Michael. He was trying to make me brave and tough, but I was impervious to all such efforts and remained firmly entrenched in my nervous state.
I don’t know where these fears came from or why they were so specific and persistent. My siblings never seemed to suffer from this disposition; all three of them turned out to be buff, courageous athletes who laughed in the face of danger. And I would sit in my room with my books and wonder how they got to be this way.
My parents made me join the neighborhood swim team when I was a young teen, and it was easily the most miserable summer of my young life. Swim team combined almost all of my most virulent fears (water + competition + performance + various states of undress). Before every meet, I’d devoutly pray to get my period, a really horrific, bloody, wracking period; if the risen Lord answered my prayers and I was visited by the moon blood, I’d celebrate and then rush to tell my parents that there was no way I could compete; I couldn’t use tampons, because you never know how leak-proof they really are. If menstruation didn’t excuse me, I was a miserable competitor. On the blocks before the horn went off, I’d look down at the pool and wonder how my vomit was going to look, slowly rippling out across the surface of the water. (Thankfully, this never happened.) The coaches told me that I actually had a very good form, but I was so slow. I can still remember the muffled underwater sound of my coaches yelling at me during a race: “ABBY, GO FASTER! GO FASTER!” I wasn’t motivated; I just wanted to quietly get out of the pool, even if I was dead last, and never get back in it again. Meanwhile, Kelsey and Grace were racking up medals and asking if they could join the year-round league.
I have recovered from most of these fears (although I will still fight you if you try to throw me in the ocean). Thanks to some steady work of lifetime conditioning, some of my fears have become my great loves (e.g., dogs and public speaking). But I seem to have acquired new fears to replace the old ones. They haunt me to varying degrees, but I at least feel slightly more capable of handling (or at the very least, voicing) them.
My anxiety is often a mystery to Guion, who is, mercifully, one of the least anxious people I know. “Just stop worrying all the time,” he will tell me. I nod and tell him I’ll try. But I don’t know how to try. Worrying is one of the few things I’m really good at.