Monday, November 29, 2010

The Other Nicholas from Nebraska: A Day with Nicholas Sparks

For those of you who don't know, I work in the Advancement office of a private school. So, my work life is full of event planning and fundraising. One of our biggest fundraising events is our Signatures event. We invite an author to give a speech at a luncheon in a fancy ballroom and often to sign books afterwards. The money raised from this event supports the fine arts at the school. In year's past, the school has hosted Barbara Bush, Anthony Bourdain, and John Grogan (author of Marley and Me). This year, they managed to snag Nicholas Sparks, author of A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, Dear John, The Last Song, and eleven other rather formulaic (according to my mom) sappy novels. I have never read any of his books because I never liked any of the movies. Although, he is a famous person, and he might be the first to admit it, and I can't hide the fact that I was a little excited to meet him and hear what he had to say. I think I was ready for his slightly inflated sense of self, what I wasn't prepared for was the role of bouncer/body guard to keep back the seething masses of woman. Personally, I think I should have received some compensation for putting myself in harm's way for the man, but I'm just the hired help.

His visit began on Thursday night three weeks ago. Several days earlier, he announced to us that he would be willing to give a more in-depth version of his Friday luncheon speech to faculty and students on Thursday night. This was very generous of him as many teachers and students could not skip school on Friday to attend the fundraiser. The Advancement office briefly met Sparky (our nick-name for him) before he was escorted to the stage of the Performing Arts Center. His talk was titled, "Learning the Craft." Many of us had brought pen and paper, prepared to take detailed notes from this author who has had half of his novels turned into movies (which indicates, I think, that he writes bubble-gum novels). The talk was funny and engaging, but it was all about HIM. It was a focus on how amazing he is, how lucky he was, how he does everything. If anything, we hopeful writers learned that we should capitalize on the tragic things that happen in life (all of his books are based on true family stories) so we can sell them for $1 million a pop. Great. I don't consider my life full of sappy love tragedies. Or vampires. I'm screwed.

I will say this about him, he is very good with students. He took lots of questions and answered them all. He even answered a girl's question on how to tell her mom not to make her quit sports because she has a B in science class. He also told us the answer to what is, according to him, the most frequently asked question: he wears boxers. I knew it.

Friday was the big event. I put on a short dress, black tights and tall boots. In hindsight, perhaps I should have worn steel-toed boots and a muscle tee that read "Security." Registration and set up for the event went smoothly. I even got a picture with Sparky.

His speech for the luncheon was an edited and shorter version of his speech the night before, which was fine with me because I was focused on my food. Man was I hungry. No sooner was I done with my dessert (cinnamon and peach cheesecake), and it was time for us, the Advancement staff, to start preparing for the book signing.

Dear Lord, the book signing.

Ladies, start your engines. The moment women spotted us setting up the table, they were up out of their seats and queuing  up. I even saw some of them reapplying makeup. That's right. When it was their turn in front of Sparks, they were gonna look so darn fine that he would be inspired to right his next book about them. Uh huh, you keep those pipe dreams alive ladies. In the meantime, better apply an extra coat of that cherry flavored lip gloss (just in case Sparky leans in close while signing your book) and I'm going to get ready to play your personal paparazzi and his personal body guard. Ready, go!

You think I'm joking? Well, I'm not. I had to walk up and down a line of several hundred women, aged 12-75 and remind them that Mr. Sparks only had time to sign two books and no, he wouldn't be able to personalized them. Now please have your books ready and opened to the title page. If you would like a picture while Mr. Sparks is signing your books (remember, only two books per person), then please hand me your camera or iphone when you reach the front of the line. You'd think that after repeating these simple instructions multiple times these adults would be ready when they reached me and the table with Sparky. Oh no, all of these instructions had to be repeated while with one arm I physically held back the rest of the line and with the other free hand tried to work the camera feature on an iphone.

I think the funniest thing about the whole ordeal was that, despite multiple reminders and me shouting "look at me! smile!" 99.9% of the women forgot to look at me while Nicholas Sparks signed their books. All you could see was a wall of brown or blonde hair...yeah, who's going to believe that's you tagged in the photo on Facebook when we can't see your face? Epic fail. Sparky, on the other hand, never failed to turn, smile and pose perfectly for every shot. Good boy, Sparky. Kinda felt bad I didn't have a treat for him.

Thanks to the hard work of us line Nazis, and Sparks' signing efficiency, we finished on time, despite the last seven ladies in line who kept rotating through to make sure all 10 of their books were signed.

At the end of the day, after seeing Sparky off to the airport in his town car, we all went for drinks in the hotel bar.

Yes, I'll have two amaretto sours please. Cheers!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sore Thighs, Soaring Heart

I found part of me last weekend, part of me that I had packed up and put in a box for almost 4 years. It pains me to admit I let part of me wither from neglect, but I know that a healthy helping of humble pie is one of the things that will help me ensure that I don't do this to myself again. My pride can take a hit and I can admit that I was wrong.

What was I so wrong about, you ask? What part of me was packed away in a box? The part of me that, for almost 12 years, jumped astride a horse for dressage lessons at least once a week during the school year and more often during the summer. When I was 7 or 8 I convinced my mom to let me try dressage lessons. She took me to her old instructor, Karen. Ironically, my mom was forced to stop her own lessons when she discovered she was pregnant with me.

Karen was, and is, a horse person through-and-through. She told my mom that I could come over for a test lesson to see if we could work together. Karen is not someone to put up with childish crap in children, or adults. It only took one afternoon out at the barn and my heart was sold. Lucky for me, I think Karen saw this and agreed to give me lessons. I continued riding and learning with her through the first year of college. She was one of the most influential and important people who helped me grow and mature as a young girl. Sadly, I don't think I fully realized this until college.

Although I never owned a horse, or competed in the arena, I took my riding very seriously. However, after my sophomore year in college, travel, internships, jobs and my blossoming life as an adult crowded out my time for Karen and for riding. After the summer between my college freshman and sophomore years, I never returned to the barn, to Karen, or to the horses. I tried several times to call her on the phone and see her at the barn, but each attempt was met with answering machines and notes left in the tack room. I know I could have tried harder to hold on to this very large part of my life, but I think I was too distracted by the promise of new adult adventures and ashamed I had let my connection to the horses and Karen slide so far already. I started to feel so ashamed about this that I stopped letting myself think about my life with horses in it.

Flash forward three years and some change to last Saturday. I had had multiple dreams with horses in them over the past few weeks. Enough was enough. I can take a hint. I've started over in many ways down here in Texas, starting again with horses should be no exception. My friend Dave had made a horse date for me out at a friend's stable. I was going back to place I never should have left. These thoughts were flying through my mind as I reached for a box in my closet. A box that hadn't been unpacked after my move.

Kneeling on the floor, I looked at the writing on the top of the box . It read "Horseback Gear" in my mom's perfect handwriting. I felt a searing pang of home sickness shoot through my chest. Of course my mom would have packed this box, she had always encouraged me in my riding and we shared a bond over our love for horses.

I grabbed a pair of scissors and jabbed violently at the masking tape which was holding such a large part of me inside a tiny, dark, cardboard prison. When the tape had given way and all four flaps of the box top were peeled open, my hands were greedily shoving my riding pants and vest into my face. Ahhh! It all still smelled of Tesoro, Madison, of Hagi and Avatar. The horses that had taught me so much. I could try and hide memories, but oh the smell! That couldn't be washed from these clothes even after 100 washes. I grabbed up my Tipperary helmet and then looked to my two pairs of boots. One I used to wear during the Michigan winters. They were well insulated and were great for mucking stalls and crunching through muddles of partially frozen mud. The second were my knee-high dressage boots. Which to wear? I was pretty sure I would be put into a Western saddle that afternoon, so better go with the winter ankle boots.

Cody was his name, and he must have thought I was out of my mind. I kept wiggling in the saddle on his back and asking Ben to adjust the stirrup lengths for me. I was told Cody had a sensitive mouth because of some prior abusive riding and care, so I rode with an extra long rein. After a half an hour of finding my seat, listening to Cody and making sure he was listening to me (how I expected him to feel my small riding signals through all that leather of the Western saddle, I don't know) I decided we could try for a nice sitting trot. Now that was an embarrassing endevour.

My dressage training was getting me squat with this horse. Ben jumped back on him and even he couldn't get Cody to move faster than a walk without some serious leg thumping. The solution: spurs. Cody only had to see Ben put them on my boots. As soon as I remounted, he had a more lively walk. That's more like it.

I won't say my sitting trot was elegant. I was still unsure of his pace, gate, and the saddle, but I could sit it and keep him at it steadily, which was all I needed to know. I had my mind set on one goal, one of my favorite things in this life: riding the canter. I think God made my heart for the canter and the canter for my heart. Again, I won't say they were the best circles of canter in the arena, but they were smooth and fast. My legs wrapped and formed around the saddle and Cody. I let my hips find his rhythm. And then I let my heart sing a song of praise as it soared at the pace of the canter.

It was all very poetical. The feeling of my inner thighs the next three days were not. But they were a bitter-sweet reminder of what I had rediscovered by swallowing my pride. Those aches and pains were also a confirmation in my mind that the English saddle is superior in many ways to the Western. But that is a post for another day.

This post is dedicated to Tesoro, my first horse love, Hagi, a mare who matched me in attitude, Madison, the fastest ride of my life, and Karen. I would not be the person I am today without her. God bless them all.

Madison and Me almost four years ago.

Friday, November 19, 2010

It's Wanting What You've Got

Thank you, Sheryl Crow, for giving me those perfect words. And yes, I think I will soak up the sun :)

On Halloween weekend I was given a most wonderful surprise. That Thursday night, just before 11 pm, I got a call from my boyfriend. He told me that he had decided he would drive 12 hours on Friday to be with me that weekend (everybody say, "awww"). I was ecstatic to say the least! We had both had a rough week and the thought that we still had 25 of the 42 days apart still to go was just too much. I could barely sleep that night. First of all, I kept running through a list in my head of the things I needed to do and clean before Nic arrived. But more importantly, I was caught up in the realization that what I had been waiting for, what was being denied me, was going to show up on my doorstep in less than 24 hours. It was like suddenly being told a week into advent that Christmas was actually going to come tomorrow, several weeks early.

The entire time that Nic was with me that weekend, I couldn't help but look over and see him and think that I wanted so much what I had right next to me. You would think this should always be the case, that we we deeply desire what God has already given us, but more often than not, we stop desiring something after we acquire it.  This is a very sad thing. But, this post is not about sad things, it's about a very blissful weekend of wanting what I've been blessed with, a loving boyfriend.

One of the highlights of the weekend was a lunch date to a little mom-and-pop restaurant called The Country Bumpkin's Cafe. I discovered this little treasure on the 30 minute drive from my apartment to the nearest outlet mall. I'm sure 9 out of 10 people speed past this little cafe without noticing its existence. It's on a road bordering country pastures and it looks like someone's house with only a small sign out front. Once I saw it, with it's wrap around porch complete with porch swing, I knew I had to stop and eat there the next time Nic was visiting.

When I was younger and my family would go on road trips, my dad loved to stop at the mom-and-pop restaurants to make sure his family got a slice of Americana in each town. I remember really abhorring having to stop and eat at these places, places like Paul Bunyan's Cook Shanty in the Wisconsin Dells. Of course, we then discovered that the Shanty served fresh, right-out-of-the-oven cinnamon and sugar dough nuts at every table and the biggest stacks of pancakes we'd ever seen (pancakes are a personal addiction). I think this experience might have cured me of my aversion to mom-and-pop establishments. I now thank my dad for taking us to these places, he planted a seed of curiosity and appreciation in me. Now that curiosity was piqued by this Bumpkin's Cafe. Luckily enough, Nic has a wonderful sense of adventure when it comes to food and was more than willing to indulge me by taking me on a lunch date to the cafe.

I had done a little research prior to our date. I wanted to see if the Cafe had a website (I was very doubtful). They did not, but they did have a very popular Facebook page (go figure!). As I scrolled down the list of comments on their wall, I discovered that this place was a favorite in many locals' hearts. They raved about the Bumpkin Burger and their homemade desserts. Perfect. From the Facebook comments I planned out what we should order before Nic ever arrived in Texas.  I know, I'm kind of a planning freak.

When Nic and I pulled into the small,  gravel parking lot of the cafe, there was only one other car parked in front of the large porch. An older couple sat at a wooden picnic table on the porch. Both of them stopped and said hello as Nic and I made our way inside the tiny restaurant. It was kind of like walking into someone's covered porch at their home. It was full of mismatched tables and chairs and the walls were decorated with Texas country memorabilia (ahem, remember the decor of the Big Texas Saloon?). A lady, who could have been our grandmother, leaned out to us over the ledge of a half opened door. She asked us how we were and pointed us to menus that were paper print outs stapled together. I already had in mind what we should order, but we looked anyway. We ordered the Bumpkin Burger, the peach cobbler and of course I got sweet tea, then we headed outside to the porch to wait for our lunch.

When our burger arrived, it screamed Texas. It's a big burger, with the works of lettuce, tomato, onion, but it's also topped with barbecued beef.  Cow and more cow. Mmm, baby, but was it tasty! I'm not a huge meat person, but this made me a believer from the first bite. Nic and I were glad we split it because it was rather big (but it's Texas, so we shouldn't have been surprised) and we wanted to leave room for our cobbler. It came out shortly after we finished the burger. It had literally just come from the over and was too hot to eat. When we could eat it though, we agreed we had never eaten so much sugar, butter, and biscuit soaked in sticky sweet peach syrup. We joked that Nic would need a shot of insulin as well after this dessert. It wasn't the best cobbler, but the burger and sweet owners who severed us were worth it.

I can't wait to take my mom, dad and brother to the Country Bumpkin's Cafe. Just knowing it exists and having eaten it's signature burger makes me feel more like a local.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Imp Walked in to a Texas Saloon...

...thinking she was ready to get her yee-haw on, but shut my mouth and slap my grandma, I had another thing coming!

Everyday I enjoy learning from and observing Texans. They truly are a different breed down here, and two weekends ago I learned that maybe, just maybe, I'll have a harder time assimilating than was originally thought. Luckily, I have made some very kind and fun-loving Texan friends who are bound and determined to make me see the light of the Texas way of life. Two Fridays ago is a shinning example.

Dave, Chelsi and Jessica, friends I made at the church I've now joined, invited me to a country music concert featuring The Josh Abbott Band. The week before, Dave had lent me their CD and LP so I would be able to sing along at least a little during the concert. Growing up near Detroit, I am still suspicious and highly selective about my country music. That being sad, I found myself enjoying All of a Sudden, On My Mind and even I Just Wanna Love You and Good Night for Dancing. Yes, although I usually prefer my county songs to be about revenge on the ex, these last two prove that I do have a sentimental side. Awwww. Moving on!

The venue for this concert was a place called Big Texas Dance Hall and Saloon. Ya don't get much more Texas than this ya'll. Pool tables, 4 bar stations (where ya better order a beer son, non o' those fancy mixed drinks!), loud loud loud country music, and country decor complete with deer heads hangin' on the wall. In the center of this saloon is the "dance floor." I've never seen anything like this. Let me try and describe it to you. It's an oval shaped wooden floor, slightly elevated, with a bar in the middle, and counters with bar stools lining the outer perimeter. Apparently, this is what you call a two-step dance floor. It's great for, well, the two-step, a sort of waltz, polka, some country versions of swing, and of course, they manage to squeeze line dancing out there when Cotton Eyed Joe plays at the end of the night. This is the stage for my evening.

I spent a good 20 minutes deciding what to wear that evening. What does a northerner wear to a Texas dance hall? Can you Google that question? Maybe I should have tried, because I knew the moment I stepped in those swinging doors at Big Texas, I stood out like a sore thumb. I had my tight, dark, skinny jeans on, some wedge heels, a gray evening blouse with my big silver cross necklace (the closest I come to bling) and my cute new wristlet. Here's what everyone else was wearing: fadded and/or torn blue jeans/blue jean skirts, boots, cowboy hats, and all of their bling was worn from the waist down, i.e. big belt buckles and rhinestones on their jean pockets. I guess club/bar/evening attire doesn't directly translate from the metro Detroit area to south of the Mason-Dixon line. In the words of my friend Geoff, "maybe I should have Googled that sh*t."

So, while my Texan friends enjoyed their beers and sang along to the country music being DJed before the show, I took in the sights. We must have been an attractive group because a Big Texas employee came and asked if she could take our picture for their Facebook site. We agreed and grouped together for the picture. As I was smiling away I could just image one of those captions in children's activities books being posted beneath this picture, "Which one doesn't belong?" Note to self, wear more plaid next time.

In true Texas style, just as I was beginning to feel the lonely outsider to this Big Texas crowd, they brought me back in again and started to make me feel like family. The DJ did a musical 180, and guess who could be seen bouncing in her seat and head bobbing to Sir Mixalot's Baby Got Back and Usher's Yeah! ? That's right, this Imp. But I gotta hand it to those country girls, they know how to get their Usher on!

Once the concert started we moved to the front of the venue and closerto the stage. The band was a fun group humble enough to interact with the crowd and make jokes. I enjoyed myself. Maybe country music concerts aren't so bad after all.

We left close to 1 am and carpooled back in Dave's truck (what else would a Texan friend drive??) to our neck of the woods. Dave lives in my apartment complex so he drove us both home after dropping the others off. This is when possibly my favorite part of the night happened. And it's probably not what you think.

A few miles from the apartment we saw a group of deer crossing the road. They were the first deer I'd seen since moving to the Houston area, and I didn't realize how much I missed them until then. In Michigan, we affectionately call them Michigan speed bumps. Upon seeing them, I became so overcome with homesickness for Michigan and Michigan deer that I almost opened the truck door to chase after them...and probably hug one of the smaller ones if I could catch one. But I refrained, and not five minutes later I saw my first LIVE armadillo. Armadillos are Texan speed bumps. Dave must have read my mind about the deer because he told me armadillos are a lot of fun to chase. Probably easier too, I thought to myself. So there they were, deer and armadillos in the same night. Perhaps they were trying to tell me that I can still be a Michigander at heart while embracing Texas. But I thank God my bumper has never embraced either animal.