Author Archives: blair

i went on a writing retreat and i imagine you have some questions


Wait, who were all these people?
My internet friends. My friends, from the internet. Yes, I’m a total #Millennial—I fly halfway across the country to hang out with strangers I’ve only ever seen before in a Twitter avatar, and it worked out great.

Why were you there?
My friend Kate Brauning—writer, editor, intelligent and magnificent human being—invited me to celebrate the launch of her debut novel, How We Fall, and her friend Nikki Urang’s debut novel, The Hit List. She hosted ten of us for a retreat and then a Big Ol’ Party which her staff videographer/husband livestreamed to the Internet™.

Where at?
Omaha, City of Dreams!

Did you—
Yes, I ate a steak, duh. I also saw the Mutual of Omaha building.

Did you guys, like, drink and stuff?
You tell me.


What did you do?
Sat around and typed. Mostly, we took over the little high-top bar-table in the lobby and clear away the weird centerpiece baskets of grass ball-things so that all eight seats could be filled with writers writing (in Alex’s case, VERY AGGRESSIVELY. Girl types like a machine gun).

What did you do?
I was working on the twenty-fifth version of the first day of school scene in the book I’ve been writing for two and a half years. I worked pretty hard on Saturday and really hard on Sunday and by the time we were loading up the car on Monday to get to Sioux Center for the #official #YALaunch party I decided that I had to scrap it all, again.

Oh. So then what did you do?
Alex and I sat in the backseat of Kate’s car and I read aloud a book about Chardonnay grapes and switched accents every paragraph. French was my best and Irish was probably my worst (I think I got about 12 accents in, total).

No, I mean about your book.
Right, so, when I was out of accents, Alex and I sat down and plotted out what my three main characters Wanted and Needed and how that could manifest through every scene in the first third of the book. I made a lot of useful notes and Alex got a little carsick from the smell of beef jerky (sorry!) Then I talked a lot with Bethany about retellings, and points of view, and characters, and it was useful and she was smart.


(This was directed at the book, not Alex)

My solution came on Tuesday morning when I sat down to write an edit letter to myself. It’s the best idea I’ve had so far and I think it’s gonna work.

What else did you do?
Laugh like a crazy person. Drink like a fish. Put really nifty scribbly nail decals on my fingers (poorly) and make my hair do that thing. Sleep too late EVERY DAY and then have to awkwardly launch myself from bed when the maid knocked on the door so I could politely explain that, no, sorry, I’m not yet awake at nine in the AM, could she um please sorry come back thanks? Go around the room and read from our writing—every person, and every person was good. Answer interview questions ON CAMERA like a REAL FAMOUS PERSON and wonder if I should really write that book about centaurs. Make this gif, I don’t even know:

output_KNSBEp Get gas at a Kum-and-Go (cultural touchstone of the Midwest). Watch the swirling midnight Iowa snow outside the car windows on the way home and feel suddenly very, very sad in the pit of my chest. Make friends. Gossip (a little). Leave my EpiPen in a restaurant like a dingus only to have our very kind waitress return it to me the moment I recrossed the threshold. Fly home, optimistic, laden with ideas, and sleepy.

Please list all the inside jokes.

  1. Omaha, City of Dreams!
  2. This version of the Jurassic Park theme song
  3. This version of “Wrecking Ball”
  4. This version of “My Heart Will Go On”
  5. Okay, really just anything involving recorders
  6. “Just use another cheese as the cracker for the cheese.”
  7. Cake Brauning, Éclair Thornburgh, Alex Yuschip (or Yuscheese)
  8. That one time I made Alex cry with laughter when I brought up the Chicken Bone Incident of ’13 at dinner
  9. Geckos
  10. BLOODBEARD, my as-yet-nonexistent feminist heavy metal collective

Please list all the snacks, sparing no detail.
Triscuits, Wheat Thins, microwaveable cakes, pumpkin bread, baby carrots, snap peas, sharp cheddar, another block of cheese that I think was Monterey Jack?, herb brie, Cheetos, beef jerky, Fritos, Cheese-Its Snack Mix, almonds (not for me), KitKats, Reese’s Cups (also not for me), Starbursts, M&Ms, Dove chocolates (the kind with inspirational messages on the wrapper), smoothie shots, fruit-flavored water, Goldfish (crackers), apples, the good kind of very dark purple grapes, smoked Gouda, mini cupcakes.

What was the best part?
Nearly everything.

I admire Kate so much: she is driven, smart, inventive, generous, kind, articulate, and a fantastic writer. She is just on, man. And what a thing to do for so many people. I suggest you go Buy! Her! Book!

What was the worst part?
When I came downstairs at 9:15 and the hotel breakfast was already out of egg-and-spinach sandwiches even though breakfast was not officially over until 9:30, dammit.

Oh God!!!! What did you do?
Ate two instant oatmealz and listened to Daft Punk. U no how I do.

Let’s get one more gif of you and Alex, please.






It hurts.



How’s your day so far? the dental hygienist asks.

My dress is rumpled and the stained part of the slip is probably showing. My hair is sticking up weird, even though I put in the extra five morning minutes with the blow-dryer. I look terrible and I feel like throwing up.

None of this is her fault. But what does she expect me to say? Does anyone enter a dentist’s office with a cheery demeanor, knowing what’s in store there? It’s never good news to be in a dentist’s office. It’s the ‘we need to talk’ of physical locations. Pain is waiting, just beyond the beaming posters of multicultural people in multicolored crewnecks whose only common attribute is their gleaming white teeth. We’re all in this together, they are saying. Dental work is just part of being human, like headcolds or sunburn or heartbreak. Sorry, but you’re asking for it simply by having a corporeal form. Smile.

Just okay, I say. I am here to get a tooth drilled, after all.
She smiles politely, without showing her teeth, and leads me back to my chair.

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the best time i ever went to france with my sister

My sister and I do not have the greatest travel record. Until recently, all of our trips together involved someone getting hit (her), bitten (also her), or fantastically, world-meltingly angry (me).

Decked out and ready to go...

Decked out and ready to go…

...and more recently

…and more recently

But she just graduated from college, and I’ve survived two years in the wild as a Young Adult Millennial, and that plus a spontaneous Kayak search for plane tickets to Paris last November were enough to convince me that We Could Travel Together. I booked us cheapo round-trip tix from JFK and then six months later we took a train to a subway to an AirTrain to a very, very compact jumbo jet and then there we were: Paris, France, city of dreams.

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The rental car seemed like a much better idea from the safety of my American laptop. It was a very vroomy diesel-powered Mercedes—automatic, thank God—but the instant we rolled out of the Gare du Nord I started hyperventilating. We—meaning I—were going to drive this thing?! In Paris?! And then into the wilds of French farming country?!? What if it blew up, or got a flat, or needed more gas and we didn’t have a credit card with the little puce on it and the gas-station attendant murdered us? And—putain—what about the roundabouts?

Well, we made it. Turns out, Alice possess all the hallmarks of an excellent travel companion: laid-back attitude, unusually stable blood sugar, calming reading voice. In Paris, when it took us two hours to roll our bloated American suitcases (and bloated American selves) to our rented flat (apparently June 6th is some kind of holiday? Joking, joking; we will never forget except when jetlag makes us cotton-brained), she was preternaturally composed even when I was about to burst into tears. When the dashboard of our rental Mérco lit up with a terrifying red ! she told me not to worry, even though I was convinced the car was about to blow up real good (turns out, it was an alarm to tell us that there was another car in front of us, because apparently French drivers don’t just look out the windshield?) She did not complain that most of our meals were a variation on a ham and cheese sandwich (all the rosé helped) and I don’t think she even snored.


She is also adorable. She wondered why Holland was involved in so many French political situations (that’s M. le Président Hollande, for the record) and freaked out when we saw a bunch of tiny ponies in the Jardins de Luxembourg.

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We had what can only be called a grand old time. We saw Notre Dame, Père LaChaise, the Musée Cluny, Chartres, the squat, crumbling castle of William the Conqueror, a random battlefield I made us swing by where young Guillaume broadsworded his rebellious cousin into submission, Mont-st-Michel, the Bayeux tapestry, the Louvre. We saw the graves of Abelard and Heloise, gigantic Rubens paintings and a more modest-sized Caravaggio, and three movies in theaters that were resoundingly French and definitely funny. I made a really good French joke (ask me about it, I’ll totally explain the pun to you in person), and she laughed. We went to the spectacular ruins of Jumièges Abbey and ate bullet-shaped strawberries and supermarket vanilla pudding. She drew pictures and I lay in the grass and woolgathered. We made friends with a French girl named Juju and saw an entire line of French boyscouts in berets and gloves and ponchoes marching through a thunderstorm with banners of saints held on high.

Photo Jun 14, 7 08 11 AM IMG_4949

Still, I have never spent a vacation so nervous (and I’ve had panic attacks in Reykjavik, Verona, and every airport I’ve ever been in). Alice and I have never traveled abroad without our parents (or if not our parents, someone else in loco parentis who could, you know, rent the car and make sure we had a place to sleep). The hour-and-a-half journey from the Periphérique to the rental return place on the spiderwebbing, unmarked streets of Paris remains the most charged with adrenaline I’ve ever been (though I did manage to let slip a few lusty Mais merde, connard, va t’en! through the window).But if I have our dad’s temper, Alice has our mom’s patience. We are becoming adult humans, and we can take care of not just ourselves but each other.

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“I don’t want to be one of those people who says, I just love Paris, you know? Because those people are awful,” I told her. Alice rolled her eyes. Why can’t you just like what you like? she said. Who cares what other people are doing?

She had a point. What a smart human that child grew up to be. I’ll never bite her again.

drawing it in

I am learning to draw, and I suck.

Three weeks ago I marched myself into the art store around the corner from my office and purchased my stuff: big sketchbook. Three pencils. One eraser. One sharpener. Then I marched myself home and spent an hour squinting at myself in the mirror and drew a self-portrait.


I woke up like this.

Well. All the trusty muscles in your fingers and hands can be so amazingly goddamn slow when you haven’t used them to do the thing that you’re doing. I perch on my couch after work with whiskey and my sketchbook on my knees and drag the pencil back and forth in an attempt to render whatever’s handy: usually a literal hand, sometimes a foot, once, a grapefruit. They come out okay.


Drawing is loaded. I’m the daughter of and sister to two very talented illustrators. But I want to learn, including the part where I suck a lot, for a very simple and self-indulgent reason: I want to draw my characters.

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Few things in this world are perfect, but my name is one of them.

It’s not an easy name. I’m constantly repeating it and spelling it out (Bee-Ell-Ay-Eye-Are, no E). Nine out of ten introductions, the script goes “‘I’m Blair.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Claire.’ ‘Actually, it’s Blair. With a B.” But I could never have been anything but a Blair (though my boyfriend’s father affectionately affords me the dignity of a definite article—I am THE Blair, for there shall be no others!) Being known by any other name may have had no effect on my relative olfactory sweetness, but I, me, could not have been called anything but this: five letters, two vowels, one syllable. When I was a kid and learning to type, I put a p at the end, I presume for decoration—Blairp, why not?—but beyond that, I have never wanted another label, appellation, nickname, or tag.


If you know me or follow me on Twitter (aren’t those just the same these days?! Har har har! #millenials), you will see that I keep an OHSA-style countdown of how many days since some well-meaning writer has proposed a book to “Mr. Blair Thornburgh.” I take more amusement than offense at the mistake—it’s my canary-in-the-coal-mine, no-brown-M&Ms litmus test for writers doing their due diligence (because a glaring inaccuracy in a query letter speaks poorly of their abilities to, I don’t know, write). I’m not trying to make fun of anyone, and I’m not trying to be unfair, either. My name—insofar as it’s mine—is weird. I get that. Facts of Life and Gossip Girl notwithstanding, male Blairs do outnumber we ladyBlairs 3-to-1. I know because I was named for one.

It’s not entirely accurate to say that Blair McKillip, Jr. was my grandfather, because he and I never were at the same time. What he was was my mother’s father, a brilliant lawyer, a cutting wit, a deer hunter, and a deeply, tragically troubled person. He left behind a wife and three children—including 11-year-old Becky, who would one day become my mother—and a raw hole in their lives I’d never thought I could imagine.


I know the exact moment that I graduated from being merely Blair. I was just out of college, working at a newspaper, wobbling home on the J train in heels every night to sleep on a sublet mattress. New York was an expensive place to be lonely and I was doing okay.

A story came in: a man had drowned. The more details that filtered in, the worse it got. A pediatric surgeon, Chinese-American but a Jewish convert for his wife, three kids, swimming out into Lake Michigan to save another who wasn’t his, by all accounts an impossibly kind human being. The worst kind of person to die, in other words. He worked—had worked—at the hospital attached to my alma mater, and so I was tasked with dredging up details. I hated it. Regular, benign interviews about banal things like foie gras and 501(c)(3) documents already sent me to the bathroom to shake and breathe deeply, and this was infinitely worse. Phone calls went unanswered—obviously. I squirmed with every redial, bothering people at the absolute last time people want to be bothered.

And then, one morning, my inbox pinged: his daughter. Her GMail icon was something bright yellow and happy—a bee, a sun, I don’t remember—and her message was an essay, a beautiful and intelligent remembrance of her father, her hero. She was thirteen years old.

The paper picked it up immediately. We published it in the next print edition with photos from her Bat Mitzvah—big paternal hands on resting newly adult shoulders, a smile more joyful than any I have ever seen. I mailed her family five copies of the paper and sent her an email to say thank you for sharing.

“Ms. Thornburgh,” her reply began, “Thank you so much for this opportunity. It has always been my dream to be a published writer.”

That evening, I made it across the bridge into Brooklyn before I started crying. Because somewhere I was still Blair, age thirteen, wanting desperately to be a writer; somewhere else another girl had gotten that same wish in the most fucked-up way possible. Here I was now, Ms. Thornburgh, a few bylines under my belt, big city girl. Ms. Thornburgh kicking off stupid high heels that never fit, denting the wall beneath someone else’s posters, and crying ugly sobs. Ms. Thornburgh, pressing her phone to her face—Rebecca Thornburgh on the glassy surface, the minutes ticking up and up with nothing but gasps—begging “Please tell me this girl is going to be okay. Please tell me she’ll be okay” and not even needing to hear anything back because the very fact that she is, and that she is Blair’s daughter, and that she is my mom, and that I am Blair mean yes. Yes, because we name things that they might not die. Yes, some things remain.


I did not know Blair McKillip. But when I say I have nothing of him but his name, I do not say it lightly. That name is everything to me and everything that is me. Humans are creatures of words, and names are the most proper and holy of those. This name is conscripted to me for common and sacred use, transfiguring from a barcode I bubbled in to the SATs to a sticky square on the front of my sweater to whatever—if any—essential quality there is to the flesh-and-blood being who types this stuff. B-L-A-I-R, past and present. And one day, it will be everything there is of me.

Last weekend I went to a beautiful wedding—this is not redundant; not all weddings are beautiful—and I cried six times. The last time wasn’t even at the ceremony; I was just looking at the wedding-day pictures of parents and grandparents set up at the reception and quietly weeping into my placecard. I realized that getting married is basically telling someone “If the only thing that survives about me for time immemorial is my name stuck to yours with a little equals sign in the front of the family Bible, that is okay with me. That is what I actively choose.” Everything else of you will fall away until you are a nothing but nodule in a string of who-begat-whom, a line of letters, a name.

If there is any magic in the world, it is in words, because they are what conjures for us things that are not there. And if for humankind there is life eternal, it is in and of and through our names.

So. It’s Blair, girl Blair, with a B. Nice to meet you.


Not to brag, but I am really good at having my feelings hurt. In this particular case, I don’t remember what sparked it, but here’s how it has gone down in the past: I mention something I like—anything from puréed soups to the city of Montreal to a particularly lovely section of Bach’s “Wachet auf” cantata—and my conversation partner responds with a resounding “meh.”

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will never hurt me. Personal attacks? I can shrug off. Criticisms of my work? I can evaluate intelligently (and sometimes, I agree). But a that’s-so-boring dismissal of something I like? Then I’m all shimmering eyes and clenched jaw and sinking heart. And GChats to my friends, peppered with teenage emphatic consonant reduplication (“whyyyyyy,” “ughhhhh”) and demanding reassurance. Asking “when will I stop taking it personally when people dislike things I care about?”

Answers ranged from “awww” to “hahahah never.” Not the most positive prognosis.

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

If you love something, let it go, even if that thing is the organ that pumps blood through your body

I love a lot of things. Strange things, singular things, things with no competitive opposite to spur me into a zealous defense (Star Trek. No, Star Wars! Quit liking things I don’t like!). The things I love I love with such depth and yet such fragility that a chilly reaction on the part of my peers makes my chest ache. When eyes glaze in the face of the elegance and force of “O terque quaterque beati,” I deflate. When my boyfriend rolled his eyes at my favorite cover version of “Where is my Mind,”  I smacked the stupid car radio in my Volvo and cried for the rest of the long miles of Ohio.

See? Dumb things. Small things. Not things that normally engender steely differences of opinion and resultant emotional responses. Just trifles that come as treasures from my mind, My chouchous are personal and strange, and instead of building them up in the sights of those opposed, I just let myself crumble: this person is unmoved and bored; I am not. I am boring. I am wrong.

But, Phil-Collins-style, I can’t stop loving stuff. Stuff is so neat! Epic poems, graying tapestries, sweet potato fries, peculiar turns of phrase, really good cups of coffee, Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, slang and junk and brussel sprouts with bacon. Knicknacks, kickshaws. Moments of magic in the late night and early morning. I want to pluck every charming chunk of creation and put it in my self, like a reverse horcrux, a jingling curio cabinet I carry in my heart (I carry it in my heart). So when these things bore others—or worse, merit no attention at all—it hurts.

After I asked the first question, I moved on to a second. What is it about passion that makes it so painful? And after I asked the second question, I was all, hahaha, doy. I’m the Worst Medievalist Ever! Answer: everything.

Passion—it comes from patior, pati, passus sum; I suffer. Yes, Latin! Roll your eyes all you want, but as far as unlocking long-hidden arcane power goes, etymology is the closest thing we have to runic inscription. Roots are radical*! And beyond that, this particular truth is strengthened by one of Western thought’s most insidiously fundamental ideas—no, not Jesus, but good guess. Fin’amor! Courtly love! You know, love is pain? You don’t even have to go all the way back to the twelfth century for that one; just listen to practically any pop song.

So passion is suffering, but to suffer is really just to experience (verb, trans. “Experience or be subjected to.”) Think of it this way: in Latin, the word altus can mean both “deep” and “high.” Passion’s the same: it cuts both ways. Profound all around. And if pain is part and parcel to being passionate, then suffer it unto me. I’d rather get bent out of shape when people roll their eyes at this beautiful expression of nostalgic futility (do they not GET how hard those Newfoundlanders had to struggle for their cod?!) than just smile dopily along to some Dave Matthews song. Passion, but not passivity. Ughhhh with the yayyyyyy.

*obnoxious tautology alert

the importance of being earnest

Once, I got subtweeted. Or I think I did; the thing about subtweeting is that You Never Know (also, it doesn’t stand for “subtle tweet,” as I initially believed. Nor does #nofilter mean that a post is real-talk honest). I had just fired off some cheery ~140 character missive about how trying to get people to like my novel is like begging strangers to love my imaginary friends—which, okay, not the smartest thing I’ve ever said, but it’s the internet—and then, a few tweets later, an online acquaintance (“Follows You”) quipped something about—and I’m paraphrasing—how painfully earnest some people can be.

Twitter is weird. My own digital nativity notwithstanding, I don’t quite get what it’s for (whence my tweets of John Dowland lyrics, jokes about paleography, and the inexplicable #seachantyoftheday). If it’s supposed to be my platform, I don’t do enough self-promo (as in “UM HELLO MY BOOK IS ON AMAZON“), and if it’s supposed to be for friends only, well, I can’t shut that gate once the Twitter cows have gone. I follow a hodgepodge of actual IRL friends, nifty news sources and blogs (hello, @Medievalists!), and writereditoragents who seem like they’re up to cool things.

Which: earnestness. Am I earnest? Sure. I really love writing. I like my job a whole hell of a lot, too. And I love what I write, which is where it gets weird. Some stuff I write ends up on blogs that are so super-cool that they would probably never use a compound adjective as dorky as “super-cool.” Sometimes I’m canny and ironic and au courant with zeitgeisty satire. But the larger portion of what I write—by an order of magnitude, wordcount-wise—is earnest. Imaginary friends, playing in a Scrivener jungle gym and getting up to adolescent hijinx. I love it! I love doing it! I want to share it and make it happen so much that I will do even dorkier things like go to bed early, not live in Brooklyn, and just generally enthuse. It may be hip to be agnostic, but I’m a believer. I always have been.

Okay, so, quo vadis with all this, Thornburgh? Just some hope, since hope goes hand-in-glove with earnestness: I hope other people are equally afflicted. I hope Huey Lewis was right. Because when people believe in stuff, I lend them so much credence I don’t care if I ever get it back. I’m subtweeting the whole world! Please keep on caring, because I care about people who do care. #nofilter #earnest

à la recherche

We need to talk about the Renaissance.

Or, okay, I need to talk about the Renaissance. I’m having some confusing feelings. If you’re anything like my dear roommate, whom I will very kindly tell you dated Chaucer to “at least a hundred years ago,” you might not get why a Medieval Studies lady wouldn’t like Shakespeare, but the fact is that that the 400 years that separate my period of expertise from the Renaissance is roughly the same amount of time from the construction of the Globe to 2013. They are Different Eras.

But! I think I’ve finally shrugged off the Medievalist chip on my shoulder about anything post-Columbian and, well, it’s not so terrible. I still won’t go so far to say my thinking has been reborn (because, seriously, Renaissance? That’s just propagandistic. The term implies that all the important scholarly work fueled by Charlemagne and his contemporaries was just a looooong, dark, gestational period of the soul. To call the post-Medieval era a “rebirth” implies that Alfred the Great was NOT SO GREAT AFTER ALL, and I just cannot cotton to that).

However—as any Canterbury-bound Nun will tell you—Amor vincit omnia, and I have gone all weak-kneed and swoony for Elizabethan England. Love is strong as death, especially when a centerpiece of said love is death (Plague outbreaks! They are fascinating) There is beautiful, heavy-looking clothing, and religious unrest, and deep inquiries into what it means to be possessed of a human psyche. There are plays and poems and songs and dances. And it’s all so sexy. Seriously, I don’t think there could be another word for it (well, sensual would do in a pinch, but real talk: sexy just sounds sexier). All those John Donne poems and close-clutching gaillards and codpieces and farthingales are just bursting at the seams—mostly metaphorically—with a peculiar human ache. It’s enough to make you want to go all “PLAY A VOLTA!”

I can see you now, and you’re all like, okay, way to go, girl-who-finally-got-around-to-appreciating-a-significant-portion-of-English-history, but what does burgeoning humanism have to do with YA novels? OMG—or as Ye Old Teenz would say, God’s wounds. Everything.

The Renaissance was an adolescent age. Everything was new, possible, exciting, and strange*. For the first time, like Copernicus’s Earth-and-Sun switcheroo, people entertained the idea that man might make God, and not vice versa. And speaking of entertaining…there is the theater.

It was an art form without precedent. Greek tragedy and medieval mystery plays aside, the synthesis of the Latin-learned philosophy of the University Wits and the rustic comedy of tumbling and jigs brought forth something new, peculiar, and…still strange. O My America! Behold a wonder heere! The sentiment echoed across artistic media, but I have to suspect—and I do have to, because now I’m writing a novel about it—that when these young men got onstage and “not described, declaimed, or didactically evaluted, but rather dramatically recreated” the human thought process, the lines that they spoke were the best form of this new self-awareness. The thrilling adrenaline of being onstage for the first time echoes in every line of iambic pentameter, “the most natural verse rhythm there is, corresponding both to natural speech and to our heartbeat…” I mean, that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what art should do: magnify.

Swooning aside, and down to hard facts. I’m writing a book about young actors on the cusp. It’s the best. There are vulgar jokes (the wordplay! Ughhhh all the wonderful chances for wordplay!) and allusions to Ovid and hotblooded men in shirtsleeves. There are Lost Plays and Early English Playbooks and inns, playhouses, and guildhalls. There are morris jigs and Squeaking Cleopatras and bits with dogs. It’s really exciting and I’m really excited about it, partially for the long-lost joys of scouring articles, getting to know scholars by name, and making endless interlibrary loan requests, and partially for writing all the kissing scenes.

A thing that I learned: at the end of all Elizabethan plays, the company would come out again (or rise up from the floor, if they were dead), and dance a jig together. Since that is obviously THE BEST, I’ll leave you with this:

*Especially, ahem, these guys, AKA my bro-tagonists.

the road re-taken

Last Friday, for the first time in five years, I took the 23 bus. Ten minutes, a handful of stops, a shortcut from gym to home. Or new home, I guess.


I’d always hoped I would get to live in Philadelphia as an adult. I’m not an Eagles fan and I can’t remember the last time I ate a cheesesteak, but my roots run pretty deep. Growing up, I had a dad whose job it was to inspire the whole Philadelphia region and remind it of its own greatness and a grandfather who’d saved Pennsylvania from nuclear holocaust (among other impressive feats of office). It rubbed off on me—not because of tribalism or sentimentality, but because I come from smart stock. They—we, I guess—know good things when we see them and don’t give them up. And this place is one hell of a good thing.

Philadelphia is a city of contrasts—colonial elegance and urban sprawl, world-class universities and a shamefully low literacy rate, endless, verdant parks and scraggly empty lots. There’s the perfect, classical order of the grid streets—numbers one way, tree names the other—and the do-what-you-want, shortest-distance diagonals of the well-worn Lenape footpaths that eventually hardened over into real roadways. And the names! Unpronounceable festivals of consonants and double sibilants. I was born by Tulpehocken, grew up following the Wissahickon to the Schuylkill, cut my teeth on Wawa hoagies, and now I’ve got a new home on East Passyunk avenue.


PASH-yunk, not PASS-ee-unk. I’ve actually had to practice this. My landlords did a good-natured double-take when I said I was born here. My right-side-of-the-tracks prep-school upbringing scrubbed out any hints of regional accent: I put a t in “water” and “orange” (color, flavor, or fruit) has two syllables, not one. But I’m intractably proud of Philadelphia, even if I don’t sound like it.

The 23 bus starts at the former site of Borders Books and Music in Chestnut Hill, where I would go after school in 7th grade to drink (and spill) Italian sodas on magazines that my friends and I never actually paid for. It cruises through the hippie-topia of sustainable, diverse small businesses in Mt. Airy straight on to Germantown’s Revolutionary War mansions cheek-to-jowl with check cashing joints and gas stations. It stops at Coulter Street for my pre-driver’s-license self to alight and go to homeroom in the Classics office at 31 West—“And to the church in Philadelphia, write Behold, I have set before thee an open door.” But it keeps on going, through North Philadelphia, to dim parts of the city I still haven’t seen, and then, when I’m ready, it grabs me at 12th and Locust, because I’m back, somehow, in Center City. It deposits me almost two miles further south, and from there, it’s only a few blocks walking to Passyunk. PASH-yunk. My home—all my homes—have a backbone, a current, a physical conduit to match my travels through time and space. It’s cool.

I haven’t been everywhere, man, but I’ve been a few places, and what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not the journey, and it’s not the destination either. It’s the revisit, the revision. It’s There and Back Again on Tolkien’s bent road. And this city—by design and by happenstance—is just that: the prescribed, dance-step precision of William Penn’s neat corridors and the heart-following, instinct-honing, and literal trailblazing of the Native Americans’ secret A-to-B routes. Either way, you get there and look back at everything. Life isn’t a trip, it’s a whirlwind—revolving around the same things but always lifting you up.


Welcome back, welcome home. My door’s always open.

ars longa

My mom cleaned out some bookshelves the other day—the horror. She sent me a list of potential jettisons, just in case, and THANK GOD, because in addition to Anastasia Krupnik (taking this to my grave) and and The Aeneid, Book VI (ditto, since it’s only thematically appropriate), she was going to give away The D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths.

I got this book from my fifth-grade teacher. I didn’t know it, but it contained my life’s mission.

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Upper-right-hand proof that this is ex my own personal libris

Of course, I had no idea at the time. I was just a weird girl with a bad haircut who who still liked dressing up in her queen costume instead of getting ZAPPED. (Getting ZAPPED was a short-lived trend among my more preternatural classmates that involved writing a time of day on the back of the hand and the name of a member of the opposite sex on the palm. Flip it over before your time is up and you’d have to ask them out. Out where? Nobody knew.) We were assigned to read one story one morning per week and look up and define certain words therein in a notebook. For the first time, I had a planner: different subjects blocked out, assignments (plural) to juggle. I cried a lot (in class and out. I was a stressed-out kid.) But I loved to read.

Myths are funny things. They’re kind of like words—it’s hard to think back to a time before you knew them, like they’ve always existed in your Campbell-meets-Jung mental miasma. But there was a time, specific Monday mornings of my 10th and 11th year, when I was turning the pages fresh. I didn’t know that Athena was going to pop out of Zeus’s head or that Atalanta was fast or that Aphrodite was going to wash up on shore like a plastic, dolphin-killing six-pack holder. I also, for obvious reasons, did not learn the extent of (or even the meaning of) philandering in Greek myths, though I did get to unlock other new and arcane-sounding words: aphrodisiac, athenaeum, cairn, even cereal. Fourth and fifth grade were like a secular age of reason; I was ready to learn and everything I learned stuck. The Middle Ages, the Greeks, and how to write a check (Mrs. Hineline was comprehensive). And every Monday, more stories.

The year waned, middle school loomed, and I ran out of book. No more colored-pencil D’Aulaire illustrations and no more myths. There can only be so many, after all. The book’s ending made me sad—not how the stories terminated, but that they had to stop, period.

The Trojan War happened. The last story was about Aeneas escaping. Right-side pages were getting thin. But when I turned the last one over, there they were again, all the Gods on little name-tagged clouds: Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Athena/Minerva.

Salvete, amici novi!

Salvete, amici novi!

I remember the feeling so clearly: it didn’t have to end. There could be more. I don’t think I’ve felt so powerful an emotion reading, before or since. It was wonderful. From then on, my destiny was written—not in the sense that it was predetermined, but that it consisted of things written down. Scripta manent.

But that was it, for then. I didn’t know. Later, there would be French, and Latin, to layer one understanding of stories on another, and then history, and then college, and then writing, and then back to my old house and my old book where I’d refind the stories I’d traced in endless iterations.

Look; they’re all still there.

Having a life mission sounds quaint, self-important, and dramatically dire by turns. But if I have one—and I think I need one—this is it. That turning-the-page feeling. It’s a kind of quod est demonstrandum—what IS to be done—which is just a present refreshment of what was, once, to be done (QED, as it were). In other words, the same thing as other people have done. The same stories they’ve told, but in other words. The form of QED is an impersonal imperative, a form that English lacks. The idea that something can be universally necessary—it’s very Latinate, I think, and very wonderful. Or I wonder about it, anyway—what it means for everyone and what it means for me. What is to be done, in the face of so much time, so many stories? Participate. I want to take things from one place to another, because that’s what stories do. Translato studii: the translation of knowledge. Tell and re-tell. One day it will be pleasing to remember even this.

Keep your books. Keep your word. Keep going.