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Quality Assurance

How are you celebrating the long weekend?

The last few hours of 2015 find me in a sixth-floor triangular hotel room with an urban view of snowy rooftops, plumes of furnace exhaust animating the scene. In the distance a clock tower indicates that the morning is well underway. I’m still in my pajamas and fuzzy socks thinking the hands of that clock can move as swiftly or as slowly as they will—today is a rare day with no agenda.


Triangles are definitely appealing to me right now—spending some time considering what the shape will mean in 2016.

I’m thinking too that at the end of the calendar year, we stack the deck against our own intended successes—celebrating with what are often excesses of food, drink, décor, and gifts. January first arrives with its resolutions and we’re starting at more of a disadvantage than usual.


Cityscape out of my window.

And even though I gave up making resolutions several years ago (, I want to push that big reset button at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, just like anyone else.


There are several logical beginnings in the seasonal year—the fall brings the start of the school year, which will always feel like a new year to me. Spring, when we emerge from the cold to the fresh sight of new growth, is another bright beginning. But I’ve come to appreciate the gift of turning the page on a new calendar in January. Whatever holiday(s) we celebrate from Thanksgiving to the end of the old year, they encourage gathering together, lighting the dark, and sharing tokens of love. We feast to celebrate the harvest and festoon trees and mantles and houses with lights and baubles. Cards and letters connect us to friends and relations, and if there’s an urgency to hurry-up to finish the last of the old year’s work, it soon gets lost in the swirl of it all.

This year I’m fortunate to be marking the end of that period and 2015 with a pause: four days without a plan a little under two hours away from home. In an un-formed difficult-to-track way, my thoughts are riffling through my memories of 2015, looking for the meaning and lessons therein. I keep coming back to paper towels.

In my bustling household of peeps and pets, paper towels are a constant, even as I opt for more environmental choices when I can. At Costco I purchase twelve rolls at a time, complete with the select-a-size feature, and the package lasts for months. In the last dozen, more than a few of the rolls have been misaligned, with one ply bearing a fold to match it up with the other. As the roll unspools, the fold travels up or down the spiral of the towels, thickening and thinning and spiraling up and down the roll, sometimes right off the edge. I’ve never seen this before, but now when I make my children’s lunches in the morning or clean up at the end of the day, the extra fold of paper towel catches my attention—a bemusing curiosity.

Paper towels will forever remind me of a student paper written in response to a narrative essay I used to assign routinely to my developmental writing students. Frustrated by their retelling of stories they relied upon for writing assignments, I challenged my students to do something they had never done before and write about it. They had a week to come up with an experience, something all new to them. The assignment turned out to contain a little magic and generated some of the liveliest writing I read as a professor. Over the years answers to the challenge included wearing shoes of two different colors for an entire day, going to a new restaurant, and exploring a few extreme sports. One woman, a returning adult student, elected to investigate whether a roll of paper towels actually contained the number of sheets it claimed on the package. To conduct her experiment she gathered together several volunteer children from her neighborhood and together they unrolled the entire roll down the length of her street. They each counted the paper towels to be certain they had a reliable number and gathered quite a crowd of spectators in the process. There were a few more paper towels than the package claimed, and the inventive narrative that the student wrote was a breakthrough in her writing, the marvel of it staying with me more than twenty years.

Paper towels might not often be surprising or delightful or infused with magic. They might feel instead like a necessity for cleaning up life’s messes. But watching my paper towels with their running misaligned folds unspool gives my household chores a kind of whimsy that connects me to the spirit of doing something I’ve never done before. Twenty-fifteen indeed included some enormous “never-done-before” moments—like taking my children to Spain—but just now it is for this modest lesson that I am most thankful: When there is whimsy in the same-old, there is a spirit of adventure available even if I’m simply navigating the work of cleaning up. The New Year promises opportunity for lots of change and transition, shiny initiatives that we believe will change everything for the better. But lunches still need to be made and studio floors still need to be swept—if I can bring to these chores a sense of sparkle and delight, then maybe just maybe each moment I step into will have a little of the magic of something I have never done before.

Happy New Year with my love & best wishes for 2016, Rxo


A Twenty-Minute Town

A Twenty-Minute Town

What are you thankful for?

Dear Des Moines,

In a few weeks’ time, the calendar will mark eleven years since my family and I arrived here—we were five people, two cats, two dogs (one of them dying) on a icy sixteen-degree day complete with a wind chill that was way below zero. Halfway up the stairs of our new suburban box, a house the square footage of which quite possibly exceeds the cumulative footage of every other house I’d lived in before, I sank to the mini-landing and thought, “We’ve made a terrible mistake, moving here.”


The Iowa Capitol, beautiful outside and worth a visit to see the twenty-nine types of marble inside!

Last week, I drove Sixteen to orientation for his winter/spring position as a Senate Page. As he struggled to tie an acceptable full Windsor knot in a new tie, a gift from his grandmother Ninety-One, on the drive downtown, I suggested he remember this moment. In twenty or thirty years, I told him he’d be effortlessly tying his tie in the back of his limo on his way to work. Or maybe he’d be so rich he wouldn’t have to wear a tie. “Or so poor, I can’t afford one,” he smiled, something neither of us believes will happen, but it completed my thought in the cheerful way that we riff off of each other. Oh Des Moines, even as I was marking the moment with him, cruising along I-235 toward the capitol building, I was remembering a much earlier foray on the same highway from the first year we lived here.

We knew hardly anyone, arriving halfway through the school year, and Sixteen, then Five, was put into the afternoon Kindergarten class. Our schedule revolved around his bus to and from the abbreviated school day, interwoven with his sister’s nap. Every Friday morning we drove downtown to the indoor Farmers’ Market. There we purchased milk from Picket Fences dairy, tasty bites for lunch, eggs from a farmer called Brent, and occasional crafts and other delights from the merchants we came to consider our first friends in the area. When he realized his sixth birthday would fall on a Market Friday, Very Nearly Six hatched a plan: we baked mini-muffins together and bearing this basket of treats went to the market as usual. Six made his way through the market, sharing the muffins with his merchant friends. They were truly charmed.

The following fall our schedule shifted and by-then Three was enrolled in morning preschool, her brother at his elementary all day. Still our hearts broke when the indoor market closed, even as the building was repurposed into the wildly successful Gateway Market and some of the merchants went on either to open retail establishments of their own—Café di Scalia, Zumi—or to become a gold standard in local produce: Picket Fences milk, cream and ice cream are now for sale all over the area.

Last week, after I dropped Sixteen, at midmorning on a Friday, I pulled easily into a meter right in front of the county office building. In fifteen minutes I had turned in license plates, netting a refund check, and completed the paperwork, photo and all, to renew my passport. I topped off my meter and walked through the skywalk system to the indoor holiday Farmers’ Market. Hosted in a skywalk nexus for two days in November and two more in December, this is the place to purchase the last tastes of the Iowa summer—jams, jellies, honey, late produce. I scored heritage carrots, watermelon radishes, a tiny tray of baklava for Ninety-One, Dutch Letters for Sixteen and Thirteen, and a hostess gift for a fall party.

I still hadn’t used up as much time in Des Moines as Sixteen, Thirteen and I spent purchasing train tickets in Madrid. Or, I remembered with a smile, my three-hour trip to the Maryland DMV when Thirteen was Three Months and the tip-top of her downy head appeared in my driver’s license photo. So I found a seat in a coffee shop and thought, as I often do, what a pleasant and easy place this is to live.

In fifty years, I’ve lived in six states and two foreign countries. I have dreams of living abroad again and living near the sea again, so someday, Des Moines, it may well be time to leave you again. In fact, I don’t think that I truly believed when we moved here that this would be the place from which my peeps would graduate, but I did know that I wanted them to have a sense of stability, a launching pad into their own lives. You have helped me create this foundation for them, Des Moines, and for this, too, I am grateful.


Looking west from the Capitol—home is less than twenty minutes thataway!

In the years we’ve made a home here, Des Moines, you have proven yourself to be a town of opportunity, a town of reliable medical care, a town where my bankers know me by name, and a town where I can live on the west side and drive downtown in under twenty minutes without speeding. You’ve come to be a town where without exception no matter where I might be, I will run into at least one person I know. You’re the town where my children are thriving, with opportunities like Sixteen’s Senate page position and Thirteen’s upcoming performance as a Flower in Ballet Des Moines’ professional production of The Nutcracker. You’re a town, Des Moines, that has given me all of these gifts alongside the gift of an amazing community of people with whom I work and play.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, Des Moines, I am thankful that my pilgrimage landed me here. I am grateful you are the pleasant mid-western city that you are.

Wishing you and yours a happy full beaver moon, a glorious Thanksgiving, and a brilliant thank you for riding along on my journey. Namaste, Rxo

2013 in Review

For the first day of the New Year, I took a look back at 2013 with help from the stats helper monkeys, who prepared a 2013 annual report about Overneath It All. It’s an awfully cool gift for me to see who’s reading what. Thank you, as always, for taking this journey with me. Happy, Happy, Happy New Year! Happy two-new-moons in January–the start of something great. Wishing you big love & lots of joy, Rxo

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 38 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Beggars Can Be Choosers

Beggars Can Be Choosers

How was your Halloween?

In what strikes any transplant to the greater Des Moines, Iowa, metropolitan area as the oddest possible tradition, we trick-or-treat here on the night before Halloween. The practice, the local newspaper explains every year, began sixty or seventy years ago in an effort to safeguard the well being of children going door-to-door. Dressed in costume and sticking to the sanctioned hours of six to eight p.m., children ring the doorbell and chorus “Trick-or-treat” when the resident arrives. Traditionalists will then ask, “Do you have a joke for me?” And easily or haltingly, the children will issue gentle jokes in exchange for candy treats.

“Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?” The child might ask.

“I don’t know,” parries the resident, standing with candy bowl in hand.

“It didn’t have the guts!”


“What do you call a cow with no legs?”

“Hmmm, haven’t got a clue,” shrugs the candy bearer.

“Ground beef!”

Our first Iowa Halloween, Fourteen and Eleven were Six and Three. Three wanted to dress as “a sparkly star.” Her brother wanted to be Harry Potter. I made him a black satin cape with a red lining he still finds occasion to wear. Three’s star costume, fringy, silver lame fabric hot glued to fourteen-inch star cut-outs, stuffed like cushions and worn sandwich board style over the shoulders, hangs over the top of my office door.

I make my children Halloween costumes every year because it’s something I remember my mother doing for me. Neither of us is a practiced seamstress, but either one of us can haul out the sewing machine and make a costume or sew a long seam to turn brocade into a tablecloth or remnants into a curtain. Over the years I’ve made Eleven a cat suit, a squirrel costume, a sparkly ballerina dress, a vampire cape, and a fairy costume (with three different gossamer fabrics and several pieces, it was by far the most complex). Fourteen has also been a squirrel, and he has needed a Jedi robe to be Yoda, repurposed to dress as Luke Skywalker a couple of years later, the Harry Potter cape, and a Lego costume, which we made out of a cardboard box adored with flat-bottomed plastic bowls as six Lego studs. That was a particularly cool costume, but nearly impossible to wear. It was quickly smashed when he donned it for the Halloween event at his school.

This year when it was time to sew Eleven’s Athena costume, I found the sewing machine heaped with items to be donated to Goodwill and quite dusty, testament to just how often I use it. It takes some doing for me to remember what I know about sewing, and I always feel I could do better—leaving more time for basting and fitting the costume, for example. Then I tell myself it’s a costume and needs only to hold together as such and sew away. When the costume was finished, Eleven’s squeals of delight and the joy she took in wearing it to her school’s dance—Monster Mash—and out for Beggars’ Night, were hugely gratifying.

Eleven dressed as Athena, goddess of wisdom. Yes, yes she is.

Eleven dressed as Athena, goddess of wisdom. Yes, yes she is.

Beggars’ Night. Traditionally the night before Halloween, observing Beggars’ Night means that when we actually arrive on Halloween, the festivities are over. For all of the talk there is about how we hurry into the holidays and merchants start merchandizing earlier and earlier (not just talk—a local department store this year had Christmas trees up and decorations for sale the Thursday after Labor Day), our very own community rushes the holiday by twenty-four hours. Even after nine years, this still takes me by surprise.

Nonetheless, Halloween is a fairly easy holiday: Purchase candy—I bought full-sized candy bars this year in varieties that should we have leftovers Eleven, with her new braces, can eat; put together a costume; enjoy going door-to-door. We’ve generally carved pumpkins and this year we made just one: Eleven carved “BOO” in big letters on her jack-o-lantern with some amount of assistance. “Aren’t you going to carve one?” she had asked me at the grocery store, selecting the biggest pumpkin she could carry. I gave myself permission, “No, not this year.” I knew that getting hers done would involve effort by me and I thought, why not simplify? I don’t need to carve a pumpkin this year even though in other years creating an ornate design in a pumpkin has been one of my pleasures.

As a mother, giving myself permission to change up what we’ve always done for holidays isn’t always easy. There’s a voice in my brain that tells me I should be creating traditions for my children, things they’ll remember and recreate in their adult lives. I remember a pile of homesick teenagers, freshmen in college, hanging out in the hallway outside my friend’s dorm room, just as our first semester was closing in on finals. Taking a break from studying, we longingly described our familial holiday traditions. We each shared things that we cherished the most.

That Christmas at home it was well below zero and icy when I got off the plane dressed impractically in high heals and a wool skirt. My luggage didn’t make it and I spent most of the break housesitting for family friends, wearing borrowed clothing. With changing family dynamics and my own struggles to reconcile who I was learning to be at college with who I was at home, nothing about my first Christmas home from college was like any other Christmas. Still, I was home for the holidays and the experience had all of the magic and comfort I needed.

So while other years I have dressed in costume, carved a pumpkin, even organized a children’s costume parade, this year I didn’t. I didn’t dress up. I didn’t make a pumpkin. I didn’t save, clean and roast the seeds from Eleven’s pumpkin. I didn’t haul out the Halloween decorations or play scary music or suspend ghosts made from sheets across the front door or turn the garage into a spider web. All of these are things I have done in the past. I did, however, go along on Beggars’ Night while Eleven and two friends ran from house to house filling their treat buckets and Fourteen stayed at home to dole out candy. I did say, “Yes, please,” when neighbors circled around a bonfire enjoying the mild October night and greeting trick-or-treaters offered me a glass of wine for the trek around the neighborhood. I did marvel that I had off from work a rare Wednesday evening and that fact granted me a little freedom I could thoroughly enjoy. I did learn, or maybe relearn, that even if we don’t do what we did last year, even if we don’t have a checklist to follow, and even if we simplify our observance of a holiday, we can celebrate because we’re together, because the spirit of the holiday will carry us, and because with less shoulds and items on a to do list there will be more opportunities for freedom and fun.

And I did have the best Halloween I can remember.

This post comes out as Mercury moves out of retrograde, as the November Beaver moon approaches the quarter mark, and as my magnificent friend and sometimes writing date Kim does me the great honor of publishing my words on her blog, my first guest post ever. Should you wish to read it, find “Plus One” here: Thanks, as ever & always, for sharing my journey. Namaste, Rxo

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