Saturday, January 25, 2014


I had a teacher once who loved whales. She had whale posters hanging in her classroom and wore a tiny silver whale on a necklace. She would play whale-song nature CDs while we studied.

I had a boss once who loved otters. Her office was full of otter figurines in porcelain and carved wood and spun glass, while her desktop background was a picture slide-show of otters playing.

I have friends who love horses, or bats, or bunnies, or alligators. If we were at Hogwarts, this is what their Patronus would be. I never have to wonder what to get them for Christmas: anything with that animal on it. They collect the tchotchkes and can tell you factoids about the different breeds or species. This animal is the first thing they want to see when you take them to the zoo. They identify with these little beasts. They consider them lucky.

This is their totem.

I don’t have one.


We had cats when I was little. I'm sure it started with one or two, but then they had kittens, and the kittens had kittens, until eventually we had a small pride of friendly, outdoor housecats. The neighborhood cats hung around with our cats as well, all quite lazy and domesticated. I needed only to step outside to find a purring armful to love and play with. I knew all their names and personalities, and it was years before I understood that we personally did not own 27 cats.

My room was full of toy cats, and cat pictures, and cat coloring books. I had little-girl jewelry made of plastic, cat-shaped beads. I watched Hello Kitty cartoons. I always felt that Cinderella's problem with the cat Lucifer was that she just didn't understand cats.

You would think cats are my totem, but you would be wrong.


One year when I was very small the monarch migration came directly through my grandmother’s yard. It seemed as though the leaves on the big tree behind her house had turned October-orange until they lifted up and flew away.

I asked Mom over and over if I could watch the Katy the Caterpillar cartoon. I had a turquoise butterfly on a necklace that you can see me wearing in every picture of me between the ages of four and six. I still wear it sometimes. I have butterfly suncatchers, butterfly wall art, and preserved butterflies in glass cases.

They’re not my totem either.


As a child, I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and that was IT. From then on, it was all giant squids, all the time. It simmered in the back of my mind for years until scientists only in the past decade started finding them and filming them, justifying my childhood obsession with what everyone had assured me were mythological creatures. I read everything I could find about squid and octopuses, becoming a self-professed cephalopod expert. Go ahead: ask me anything.

Handy around the house with all those extra arms, yes, but not my totem.


 If you look around my house, you’ll find them everywhere: animals. Not just the cats and butterflies and octopuses, but others.

The peacock feather from when I visited a peacock farm as a child, as well as new ones I’ve acquired out and about, and the peacock-themed necklaces and earrings and one very impressive scarf.

The turtles I’ve collected since I first read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where a flat world is carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. The stone turtles in my rock collection, the turtle art hanging on the wall, the toy turtle I keep on my desk – they make me smile, as does the toy orangutan I keep around, also due to Pratchett, who once declared that a certain orangutan was a librarian and the sworn brother of all librarians everywhere, and may have influenced, only slightly, my own career choices.

The things I’ve collected – the sea shells I found at the beach and not in the craft shop, the locust casing I plucked off a tree, the empty wasp nest and shed snake skin, the bright feathers taken from parrot and flamingo exhibits at various zoos (where I may have slipped my fingers, just a smidge, over the perimeter where the sign said “Do Not Cross”).

The tiny Hedwig owl I’ve posed in front of my Harry Potter books, and the owl salt and pepper shakers in the kitchen, and the owls that come out for decoration at Halloween and don’t always get put away until Christmas.

The toy elephant Matt got me when we were dating and the coin purse with the elephant embroidered on it and the elephant jewelry from India and the t-shirts from the zoo.

There are frogs and llamas and bunnies and pandas, even unicorns and dragons and dinosaurs. Penguins, sharks, chickens, dolphins, mice and moles, and birds, and even flowers and trees, depicted on my clothes and walls and coffee mugs. At Christmas, you could get me anything with an animal on it and chances are I’d love it. I have tchotchkes and factoids for all of them. I identify with them. The first thing I want to see when you take me to the zoo is all of it, because I love everything.

It’s not that I don’t have a totem. It’s that I don’t have ONE.

Apparently, life is my totem.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


It’s not every night that one goes to bed with the promise of dragons tomorrow, but this was such a night. In the dark of early morning I lay awake in bed, thinking of hobbits and adventurous dwarves and the two long-anticipated-movie tickets safely nestled in my wallet on the kitchen counter. For more than an hour, I’d lain there using my phone to read Tolkien trivia and look at hobbit-hole floor plans, listening to my husband’s even breathing next to me. Now I had only to wait another ten hours for the show.

With a sigh, I put the phone on the nightstand, flipping my pillow over to the still-cold side and burying my face in it. Still, sleep would not come. Then I remembered: Hadn’t I heard something about a meteor shower? I checked the phone again. Yes, the Geminid shower, occurring tonight from dusk to dawn but only visible after moonset, just after four, local time. It was 3:59 already.

 “It will be an adventure,” I thought as the wind howled outside. “I can tell Matt about it in the morning.” Determined not to wake him, I slipped from the covers in the dark and crept, like a ninja, toward my bathrobe in the closet, cursing under my breath as I tripped over my shoes in a most un-ninja-like fashion.

In a voice as clear as though he himself had been lying awake and needed only this excuse to remedy his own boredom, Matt said, “What on earth are you doing?”

“Couldn't sleep,” I said, “and there's meant to be a meteor shower.”

“Say no more.” He threw the covers aside and reached for his workout sweats. I fetched my robe and his from the closet, stepping into my fuzzy slippers for good measure. Tying my sash as we walked down the hall, I said “It's been going all night but the news said it wouldn't be visible until the moon set at four.”

“You have good timing then.”

“I've been awake since two at least.”

In the kitchen, I heated water for tea as Matt lit the propane stand-heater on the back porch. When the heater glowed with blue flames, Matt came back inside, shivering. “It's cold!” he said, heading for the coat closet.

“Twenty five degrees when last I checked,” I said, keeping my voice low although there was no one else in the house who might have been disturbed. “Thus the tea.”

A few minutes later, we stood on the porch, gasping against the wind. Bundled in our thickest coats, over bathrobes, over pajamas, I cupped my hands around the ceramic mug, the air leaching the heat from my freshly brewed tea, as Matt fiddled with the settings on the heater. Only then did we look up at the completely overcast sky.

“Well,” Matt said, clucking his tongue the way the repairmen at the garage do before they tell me how much my tune-up will cost. “Which direction is it in?”

“Over by the constellation Gemini,” I said.

We both looked around at the constellation Cloud Cover, stretching from horizon to horizon, a solid blanket of gray-green rather than the inky black of sky.

“It's okay,” I said. “I couldn't pick Gemini out of a lineup anyway.”

“So,” said Matt, wrapping an arm around me as we huddled under the heater. The flames coming out of the top more than a foot above Matt’s head whipped furiously in the wind, their heat not reaching the lowly peasants on the porch below. “How you feeling about life lately?”

“Pretty good,” I said, sipping tea.

We chatted about bosses and holiday plans and video games, and looked at the cloudy dark sky in the hopes of seeing more than cloudy darkness.

“Tea's gone cold,” I said, eventually.

“Couldn't be expected to stand up to this wind.”

“Want to go in and light a fire?”

“I thought you'd never ask.”

After reheating my tea, I perched beside my husband on the ottoman in front of the fireplace, slippers off and feet propped close to the flames. We shared a blanket, though I had two others all to myself. “So much for having an adventure,” I said.

Matt nodded. “It's too bad about the weather.”

“Want to see if anyone on the other side of the world has posted the meteor shower on Youtube?”

He pulled his phone from a pocket of his robe. After a brief search, he said, “Well, what do you know? They have.”

I snuggled in close and laid my head on his shoulder to watch. Outside, the chill wind beat the windows; inside, stars shot across black and indigo skies.

When the videos were done sometime after five, I kissed my husband's cheek. “I think I could sleep now,” I said.

Returning my kiss, he said, “I think I could, too.”

And we slept through a clear and cloudless dawn with a story to tell in years to come of the night we braved the cold and the wind to see a meteor shower that wasn’t there, and how we hunted it down where it was, and we went back to bed with extra blankets and the uncommon promise of dragons in the morning.

So perhaps it was a bit of an adventure after all.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

You and Me and the Manatee

Just you and me, on the way to the sea,
with the sun so bright and the day so fine,
“My darling, I love you, and think fondly of you,
most all of the time.”

Just me and you, by the water so blue,
having our lunch at a seaside cafe,
when what should we see but a grand manatee
strolling up from the bay.

“By jove!” said he, “How delightful to see
sophisticated city folk here by the tides.
Let's dine here together, discussing whatever
our fancies decide.”

He pulled up a chair. When the waitress got there,
he ordered an “L” and went on to explain,
“An 'L', you see, is like a BLT,
only rather more plain.”

He started to chat about this and that
but mostly the virtues of life in the sea.
“You’d like it,” he told us, it’s charms he extolled us
most eloquently.

“Mermaids,” he said, with a nod of his head,
“are simply the finest, most talented folks,
with all the best graces, the loveliest faces,
and funniest jokes.”

He talked facing you, but I nodded too,
tapping my foot and grimacing toward him.
The manatee’s stances on my significant glances
was that he ignored them.

I said, “It’s been great, but this is sort of a date.”
As though I weren’t there, he went right on conversing:
“You’d love the whale songs! They sing all night long,
and spend all day rehearsing.”

Just you and me, and the manatee,
as I sat and I waited to slip in a word
but the manatee blurted out praises and flirted
as though undeterred.

Then “Dear one,” said he (to you, not to me),
“I feel we’ve connected. Do you feel it too?
Come swim by my side as my beautiful bride
In the ocean so blue!”

I said "I object! Sir, you've been too direct!
Or the likelier case is that I've been too slow!
My darling," I said to you, "I'd like to be wed to you!
Please tell him no!"

Complete silence followed. I sputtered and swallowed.
You blinked in confusion, and I’m sure so did I,
But the manatee laughed and he patted my back
With a wink of his eye.

"My boy!" He professed. "What a thing to confess!
I had no idea! Well, now I suppose
That it would be rude for me to intrude
While you properly propose."

He wished us best wishes, then returned to the fishes.
I struggled to find the right words for awhile,
then I shrugged a small plea and got down on one knee,
And you gave me a smile.

Just you and me, heading home from the sea,
With the manatee waving goodbye from the sand.
Just me and you, with the sky so blue,
And your hand in my hand.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

If you give Tori a task...

(With repeated and heartfelt apologies to Laura Numeroff. This is the last one, I swear.)

"And when you do, chances are… You'll end up giving the ferret some fudge." So ended my tale, conveyed to Sarah via text message. I was planning to post it to the blog, but couldn't wait to share it with my best friend. It added up to a wall of text I could have used to defend a city, filling up my phone's tiny screen as it scrolled on and on. I anxiously awaited her feedback.

Given the size of the text message, I waited a long time. "Wow," she said eventually. "That's kind of dark and awesome."

"Someone had checked out a stack of Numeroff books," I explained, "and I was like, 'What is this woman's obsession with giving her pets people food? Doesn't she know it's bad for them?' And the story came out of my mouth, fully formed, as patrons and coworkers looked on, so I had to write it down."

"That's a valid point I hadn't considered. I always saw them as allegorical, cautionary tales about toddler attention spans," said Sarah.

"I'm sure that's how they're intended," I said. "Of course, it looks an awful lot like my own attention span..."

Another wall of text followed:

If you give Tori a task, she'll feel responsible and set out to do it. 

While she's working on it, a new patron will want a library card. They'll need help finding a book. 

While Tori's helping them, she'll see the messy shelves and stop to fix them. Some of the books she finds will belong in nonfiction, so she'll take them to the shelving cart. 

The carts will be full, so she'll decide to do some shelving.

While she's shelving, she'll find books that need repair. She'll go fix those. 

At the repair desk, she'll see new books that need processing. She'll get to work.

One of the new books will look interesting, so Tori will want to add it to her list of books to read. The list is online, so she'll go back to her computer.

At her computer, she'll find the library card application she was typing up, and when she does, chances are...

She'll remember the task you gave her to start with!

"That's about right," said Sarah.