Shaunacy in Russia!

Don’t forget you can read my study abroad blog this summer at


Update: The Office of Undergraduate Research no longer hosts my original study abroad blog. But if you do want to find it, it’s archived in this PDF


Adventures in Russia!

Thanks to the language grant I received for my trip to Russia this summer, I have a new study abroad blog! You can find it here. I’ll be posting regularly about any excitement that occurs starting around June 7th, when I’ll be jetting out of Illinois for the great unknown.

For a fun tidbit from Russia, I suggest you look here, at this Petite Giraffe live webcam stream?

Cleaning up

Unfortunately, my mother might tell you, my grandmother’s death and subsequent (though delayed) house purging only served to reinforce my massive genetic need to collect shit.

Not real shit. Though, considering the cat, there was probably some of that in there too.

Strange things have been found in the houses of the last few of my mother’s dead family members. There was my great-grandmother, an infamous pack rat whose house was filled with treasures like a paper bag full of cleaned out egg shells and a jar full of mercury. There was my great aunt, who is the reason I now possess a homoerotic nude wrestling statue and OJ Simpson’s classic If I Did It.

My mother and aunt converged upon my late grandmother’s trailer in August, nearly a year and a half after her death, to clean it once and for all of the things that had accumulated there over the years.

They brought boxes with their trash bags, to pack up her collection of china clowns, hundreds of family photos, thank you cards written by grandchildren barely learning to spell, persona-defining items of clothing.

Partway through the process, my mother texted me, overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of her mother’s worldly possessions.

“I hope when I die, no one has to question ‘why the fuck did she have this?’”

On the contrary; that’s exactly what I want people to ask upon my death. I can only hope to provide some gem of surprise for my descendants, some physical proof of my quirks and whimsy.

Though my grandmother had quit smoking a few years before her death, we never stopped associating her with the pungent smell of cigarettes. It had seeped into every fiber of her clothing, her carpets, her ceiling, and for a temporary amount of time, anything that spent more than five minutes in her house.

When I stepped through that door for the first time since the day of her funeral, when my father and I came to collect her wedding photo and I wrestled with the temptation to cry at the familiarity of her trailer park home, the smell hit first. It could have been 10 years ago, coming for a weekend to watch television and put together that United States map puzzle that I blame most of my knowledge of geography on.

Even now, the smell took me back to the days when my hair went all the way down my back (and was green from chlorine) and my mother still sewed my Halloween costumes to coordinate with my sister’s, and I came to my grandma’s house to eat chocolate cake and watch soap operas. Except that this time, I drove here, and the furniture was gone from the front room no one ever sat in, replaced by piles of minutia and brimming over cardboard boxes.

“I found a gun!” my mother squealed. The heavy handgun was gold plated and inscribed on the barrel with a date, 1918. Before my grandmother was even born, and broken since who knows when. My mother threatened to get it fixed and take it back to Louisiana with her, to defend herself from back bayou ghosts.

We wrapped her creepy clown statue collection carefully in paper and stuffed them in a Styrofoam box to be taped up, until the next wave of house cleaning. I stashed an antique camera in my bag to take home. We leafed through family photos. “Who’s the fat chick?” my mother asked, pointing to my grandmother’s graduation photos of her lined up, arms around friends since forgotten.

There were the pictures of my mother and her siblings, of my cousins and great uncles, on Halloween, in the portrait studio, at school. I could point to the pictures – you look like me here, like my sister more in this one. Doesn’t my cousin look good with that weird 80s hair flip? We packed up her old school leather suitcases and possessions of a different era. We left the light-up Virgin Mary statue, the stapler she had owned all our lives, the 50 years worth of bank statements she kept in a dresser by the door.

There were things we didn’t take that meant the most. That black stool in her kitchen, where I spent seemingly all my childhood sitting, eating cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers off a little plastic tray while I watched Spongebob or possibly her late afternoon soaps. The box of flaked mashed potatoes in her thin plywood cupboard, the only potato product I would eat for years. Her trademark. The microwave that she used solely to store her bread products. The way the walls creaked under the slightest touch, like you could run through them. The red leather coat hanging in the closet she always referred to as “that red thing” that weighed 10 pounds. The corner where I played with toys and books older than I was. That Lite Bright on which I made illuminated worlds of sailboats and colored-bulb-traced roosters.

There were things we took that no will could leave us. My mother’s increasing tendency toward buying the smallest tool for the job. All the curse words she accidentally taught me as a child, driving through stop lights and around town. My belief that boxed mashed potatoes are a legitimate food product. A lifelong caffeine addiction.

But I’ve always been a pack rat, walking a fine line between collector and useless junk accumulator and usually straying toward the latter. I like stuff. I like to hold tangible, real life, pointless objects, look at them, and store them in boxes and trucks and containers like the ones I wasn’t allowed to have as a child because I would fill them with weird shit. And despite the fact that it took days to clear out my grandmother’s house of her worldly possessions, which now will probably sit around my house taped into boxes for the next 10 years, the experience only left me more firm in my junk collecting ways.

Because yes, that is something I would wish upon my children.

Though there are intangible things in life that will always remind me of my grandmother, I like that there are boxes of her packed into a storage room in my house. I like that I can pick up the miniature statue of the policeman-clown riding his tiny clown patrol car off my shelf and say “my grandmother had a weird love of clowns.” I like that one day, my own kids might find the useless antique camera in my house, and I can say, “yeah, that belonged to my grandmother.” In a strange way, I like being able to tell people that my tiny, 100 pound grandmother was packing heat, and say “yeah, maybe I’ll show it to you sometime.”

In a weird way, when I die, I want my family to be forced to sift through the house full of strange things I’ve collected over the years, and wonder how in the hell I ended up with them, and then take them home and tell their friends. In an utterly narcissistic way, I want them to be able to keep a small part of me.

I want them to text their children and ask “where the fuck did she get this homoerotic nude wrestling statue?”

Summer Movie List

For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, I kept a running tally of all the movies I watched this summer. Since I’ve arrived back in Evanston, I guess summer is officially over, and I should probably stop counting. I wish I had made it to 50. My favorites were probably Brick, Absurdistan, and Rushmore.
  1. The Vanished Empire
  2. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
  3. Away We Go
  4. August Rush
  5. Cashback
  6. Get Him to the Greek
  7. Toy Story 3
  8. St. Elmo’s Fire
  9. Rudo y Cursi
  10. I Heart Huckabees
  11. Mongolia
  12. Adaptation
  13. Punch Drunk Love
  14. Hard Candy
  15. Cyrus
  16. Inception
  17. Me and You and Everyone We Know
  18. Lost in Translation
  19. Brick
  20. Uncertainty
  21. Pootie Tang
  22. Killers
  23. She’s the One
  24. Robin Hood
  25. Youth in Revolt
  26. Henry Poole is Here
  27. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  28. Confessions of a Shopaholic
  29. Manic
  30. Absurdistan
  31. Raising Arizona
  32. Rushmore
  33. The Runaways
  34. Memento
  35. Mouth to Mouth
  36. Bottle Rocket
  37. The Squid and the Whale
  38. The Men Who Stare at Goats
  39. A Song for a Raggy Boy
  40. Date Night
  41. The Switch
  42. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  43. Get Low
  44. Avatar
  45. Strange Brew
  46. The Extra Man
  47. Greenberg
  48. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  49. The Mystery Team

Never safe from shuffle shame

Sometimes, while emotionally distraught, you start singing along with with whatever’s on the stereo just because you know it. Then, you realize you’ve been mumbling the words to Flight of the Conchords for half a minute, and suddenly tears seem like a much more embarrassing prospect.

This is the power of Think About It, Think Think About It.

(READ: Gabi, music saved my life.)

(No, really. I’m kidding.)

(But I still love you, Jemaine.)

A plane ride for a sunny day

“You want to go in the fast one,” they told me.

I’m often under the impression that other people know what’s best for me, so I agreed.

I climbed into the cockpit of the Van’s RV 6A kit plane, a shiny white plane made out of aluminum that looked like it might be a toy. As a kit plane, it hadn’t been built by a factory, but by an amateur. But he could have fooled me. It seemed perfectly assembled – or at least I hoped so.

My pilot, Norm, walked me around the aircraft, to show me how to properly get in. Step here, not here, grab hold here, but never here, and I was in, nestled in a glass box, my legs wrapped around a joystick and resting on two peddles used for steering.

Norm will be the Air Boss of the Camarillo Airshow this weekend, and is a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association at the airport. Word on the street is, he used to fly for the FBI.

He climbed in on the left side of the plane and showed me how to put on my headset.

Now I felt ready; lowering the microphone near my mouth and switching it on, I could pretend I knew what was going on. Ground control? Ground control? Static and low voices rattling off series of letters and numbers filled my ears.

Take off seemed much more natural than in any of the commercial planes I had been in. Though for once I could see the preparation going into it, and had to acknowledge that a fallible human was guiding me into the air instead of pretending the plane was some giant robot contraption that flew itself, it seemed like we were just accelerating, and then suddenly, pop! We were soaring through the air.

Orchards coiled around hills and lined the brown squares that of farmland. I could see the summer’s endless fog gathered along the coast, the traffic caught in a bottleneck like those diagrams of blood vessels moving through veins. I could see exactly where my house was.

I named places off silently: Somis, Saticoy, oh look, Spanish hills! But at a certain point, I stopped recognizing the place where I grew up.  Which hill are we circling over? I wasn’t sure.

We radioed to our two fellow flyers, two World War II-era military trainer aircrafts, which we knew were nearby, but had disappeared. I finally understood how something as large and loud as a plane could be stealthy. Once reunited, we flew for a few minutes in formation. The Camarillo Airshow, said John Slice, president of the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, has more formation flying than almost any other airshow.

But up-close and personal within the formation, I got a chance to see the planes in action: the J-3 Cub, a yellow trainer plane which is flown from the backseat, making it impossible to see what’s in front of you while you’re on the ground, and the Fairchild PT-19, an open cockpit trainer.

But the kit plane is a zippy little thing, with speeds up to 200 miles per hour. It was harder to fly at the slow speed required to stay in formation, so we broke off to see what it could really do.

Norm told me while we were still on the ground that his plane could turn practically on its wing, and he set out to prove it to me. The G-force meter climbed higher, and through the windows that were now almost underneath me, I could pick out people’s swimming pools and see isolated houses I have never known were there before.

Norm pointed to a vast array of white buildings. “That’s Amgen,” he told me. “And look over there, where the water is. That’s Westlake.” I had never seen Westlake Lake before. Honestly, I didn’t know it had one.

We circled around Thousand Oaks, waiting for other planes to land before we could get back. “Do you want to steer?” Norm asked me.

I took hold of the controls, the little joystick just like the one I used to use when I played my fighter pilot’s computer game as a kid. I have a sneaking suspicion Norm was firmly keeping me from rolling the plane as I jerked us into turns. Good for him. We did a few ‘S’ turns high above the Grade, to give the pilot ahead of us some more breathing room.

Yes, I felt like I might vomit. There are worse things to do in the name of journalism, I thought, but I sure didn’t want to reach for that paper bag.

Luckily, with air traffic dense, we couldn’t do the fancy, high speed landing Norm wanted, and we glided gently back onto the ground. Mission accomplished.

And hey, you can read the article I wrote about it here.

We’re not in Kansas anymore…but where the fuck are we?

Much to my disappointment, it turned out not to be a laser light show extravaganza as I had been promised.

But it had pretty much the same effect – a dizzying psychedelic swirl of colors and CGI animation drawn from one phrase lyrics strung together to create something that still didn’t quite have a story line. 50 minutes of the room pretending to spin around me, like the flashing bright shapes spinning down into oblivion in Twilight Zone-esque dream sequences.

Better than the experience itself was the ability to say that yes, I have been to the Dark Side of the Moon show at the Baton Rouge Planetarium. The same could apply to the awkward double date that took me there: between my mother, myself, and two young Louisiana drillers.

I was what one might call “mildly hesitant” when my mom asked me if I wanted to go out with a kid in Baton Rouge, whose mother she worked with. I’m not exactly looking for blind dates these days. But, she said, he sounded excited to meet me. A really sweet kid, she said. This could be not a date, I thought, I guess. Like a day out with a foreign exchange student. Interesting, fun, a way to get a local flair in my bayou vacation, but without the need to get groped somewhere along the way.

So she suggested I invited him along on the most un-date like outing possible – a trip to the planetarium with us. It took me 10 minutes to bang out the invitation via my mother’s Blackberry. I felt like an old woman, poking at the tiny keyboard slowly and with only minor successes. But his response time proved him eager – so eager. Yes. What time? He told me his car was broken. We’d have to pick him up. Oh jesus, like a middle school date. I gave him my phone number so my mother could stop handing me hers. What was I doing tonight? Oh. Well. Going to the observatory and then going to bed, I hoped. I threw in work and the excuse of being tired from flying. His text message style reminded me sharply of a certain ex-boyfriend of mine. I had to ask my mother for a second opinion on what wyd might mean. I was beginning to regret this.

At 10, I got a new one. Are you still up? I was mildly creeped out.

The next day, we were out and about until around 4, at which point we returned to the glories of an air conditioned apartment and I promptly passed out drooling onto my hand on the off-kilter couch. I woke up to find a text message from the hour before. What are you doing? We were supposed to pick him up at 7, but it was only 5:45. I promptly got another: Shaunacy?? Disturbed and loathe to actually make contact, I did what I usually do in such situations. Avoidance is key, but shreds of truth help. Sorry, I fell asleep. I think we’re picking you up at 7?

i looked at ur facebook and u seem like a  really cool girl theirs some were I have to take u I think u would love it and its not to far from where were going

My first thought involved the fact that I could probably never truly bond with a boy that used the wrong “there” so unabashedly. My second thought was “holy fuck, this sounds like he’s going to take me to a dark corner and I might not come back.”

“He just sounds like he wants to take you somewhere and show you something!” My mother said.

Yeah, show me something, all right. My plan had been to tell him, if things got hairy, that I was married, pregnant, and also a man. It seemed like a solid enough plan.

I left the apartment to take advantage of the wifi at the coffee shop across the street, sticking my cell phone in my backpack. Fucking women’s clothing with its fucking lack of pockets. I had tried to make a quick phone call to my friend Zach, as my foremost authority on all things boy and most things southern, to get a second opinion on exactly how creepy it sounded. When I took my phone out of my backpack again, I had missed a call, and had a flashing message from Google Voice. Dustin. Shit. The voicemail was just a few seconds of empty air, and I didn’t know why the fuck he would have called me. I can barely muster up a willingness to call my best friends on the phone, much less pseudo strangers I’m almost afraid of.

Then the text. Hey call me when u get a chance. Reminiscent of my mother, really. He’d friended me on Facebook sometime within the last few hours. His profile was sparse, but the picture said clearly “I am bro, hear me roar.”

I sucked it up and hit call.

Do I introduce myself? I wondered. He’s never met me. But he talked like we were old friends. I settled on a hey, what’s up? Like I knew what I was doing. Calm, collected, cool as the Kia after 10 minutes of full strength air conditioning.

His voice was significantly less creepy than his text messages. He asked if I was a photographer. Kind of not really? He told me there’s this old pier he really likes, his favorite place in Baton Rouge. He thought I would like it. The third word out of his mouth was ya’ll. He asked about bringing his roommate. Significantly less creepy. But still. 7. I am picking you up at 7. We are picking you up at 7. This was going to be like a middle school dance date, if I have anything to say about it.

It took 3 phone calls and a text to find his apartment. Three phone calls which consisted mostly of him giving directions while I repeated what I thought he said back to him. Of course it’s on “Old Jef.” Could we get more southern? Tiger Bin? Tiger Bend. A gas station in a church? The Chevron with the Church’s. What about a middle school? Why does the road change names arbitrarily? What’s your street number? No, like the number of the address?

In the end, I spot him coming out his front door. Dyed black hair, young. “That’s him.” Cute. His purple button down shirt matches the laces on his shoes. Slight stubble. This could be okay, even if he is wearing a necklace. I don’t know what to do, though. Do I get out of the car? Do I roll down the window? Shit, it’s air conditioned in here. I get out. I attempt to shake his hand, which he turns into something which could, under different circumstances, become him kissing my hand. He can’t pronounce my name. He asks me if it’s this hot in New York. Why do people always assume I’m the New York one? His “boy” Charlie, just went to put gas in his motorcycle, and will be back soon. We sit awkwardly in the car while he and my mom talk about Fugro.

My mother works with Charlie’s brother, Storm, their other roommate. She loves Storm. She’s heard about Charlie. Glad I can let them bond about that. We get back on the interstate, headed toward the planetarium, and Charlie follows on his bike.

He’s got a job waiting at Exxon, and works at a grocery store till then. Good, employed. Likes BMX and dreams about motorcycles. He doesn’t say anything without passion. He loves things. He hates things. He loves sushi. It’s his favorite thing ever.  He hates that guy that fired him. I don’t think I’ve ever expressed love of any sort to someone I met 3 minutes prior. It’s engrained in my middle school like sense of cool.

The conversation eventually turns to me, and when he asks me what journalism is, I know we’re in trouble. Ah well. I feel safe enough not to take the Swiss army knife in the front seat with me when we leave the car. He asks me if we mind that he smokes. I shrug my shoulders, knowing he’s not gaining any Mom-points there.

We’re parked outside the old State Capitol, this monstrous castle building surrounded by tall black fence in the middle of downtown. The sunset has left the clouds behind it streaked with yellow, and it looks like something out of a period film. I’m surprised my mother doesn’t make me stop and take a picture. But Pink Floyd lies ahead, in the rounded red dome of the planetarium.

As we pay for tickets, Dustin tells me he knows I’m a photographer because I have 600 pictures on my Facebook.

“Yeah, and he tried to make me look through all of them!” Charlie chimes in. Shitballs, what kind of embarrassment have you seen? Mostly I just have way too many pictures of trees and things I’ve baked. None of them paint me in a particularly flattering light of coolness. They enjoyed my Spam photo. I can imagine them around a kitchen table, leaning into a laptop and pointing at the weird faces that are prominent in all my profile pictures.

The expected bomb hits as we sat in the planetarium, watching the fisheye blur swipe over whatever weird advertorial powerpoint they have going on. To his credit, he doesn’t use the phrase “music is my life,” but the sentiment is the same. He doesn’t know who the Arcade Fire was, but I haven’t heard any of the other bands he listed, other than, of course, Lil Wayne, though he very well could be kidding about that.

The turning, flashing colors set to illustrate Pink Floyd makeme feel mildly nauseous, and when we left we wandered into downtown to get pizza.

Is college like you see it in the movies? the boys ask me. I don’t know how to explain it. The idea of not going to college and still having a job and being okay in life goes totally against everything they tried to teach me in school. Foreign exchange student moment. We leave when Dustin begins to get antsy, moving around in his seat like an 8 year old boy who’s been sitting too long. He needs a cigarette. For lack of anything better to do, I suggest, despite the darkness, we go check out the aforementioned pier, and my mother promises to come back in a few hours. Between the two of them, the boys seem more or less harmless.

We walk along the levy next to the river, the bugs picking at us in the darkness, and the cultural gap widens. To prove you had balls, he says, he and his friends climbed to the top of the supports under what they call the “New Bridge,” where cars zip by overhead across the river, using notches in the metal and service ladders and beams not wide enough to feel comfortable on. This is not my crowd. He says he had driven his truck along the bike path on top the levy, late at night.

The pier turns out to be a rusted, creepy little bridge out to a large cement block on the river. I step carefully, hoping my foot isn’t going to go through the metal at any point, like the already gaping holes we could see in the pitch black. This is not how I want to die. When we reach the end, we aren’t the only ones out there. We wandered around for a few minutes, looking at the one swinging support pillar no longer attached to its cement foundation, the giant rusted shack covered in graffiti, the messages written onto the ground. Then back onto a rickety bridge, and solid ground I’m rarely so happy to see.

At this point, though it’s 10:30 p.m., it’s still 90 degrees, the humidity wrapping snugly around us, and we’re all dripping sweat. Dustin reaches out to show me the layer of moisture that has gathered on his arm, and for some reason thinks it’s a good idea to wipe in on my neck. This is almost surreal in its weirdness, I think. Who are you?

We walk by the casino boat, where he wishes he could go. Even just for the food. They debate the merits of each of the high railings we pass as a BMX destination. For lack of something better to do, we walk down to the real pier, which stretches out brightly lit toward the river. Two homeless men are passed out on the path across the levy. A group of teenage girls are at the entrance to the pier dancing to music to an iPhone. Charlie tries to work his magic, and we leave him there. I text my mother the S.O.S. They’re bored, and looking for trouble. I’m looking to get back in my bed and read my book. I use a plethora of excuses. I would, but…I can’t drive the rental car. I’m too young and the company is paying for it. I would, but…my mom really wants to go to bed, and keeps bugging me. I would, but…I’m really not that fun.

As we wait, Dustin and I sit near the fountain, where he finds a sports watch lying on the ground. He grabs my wrist and puts it on me. It would have been sweet if he had been my 7th grade boyfriend, but as it was, I was mildly disturbed by a homeless watch being slapped on my wrist by a stranger. He leads me hopping along the cement squares sticking out from the fountain pool, again reminding me of my 13-year-old self. Are you sure you can’t do anything else tonight?

He’s hastily trying to find other plans as we leave. We bid Charlie good luck on his game. I’m relieved to get back in the car, air conditioned and safe as it is. We’re almost back to his apartment when Dustin asks “would you be willing to buy any alcohol?”

My mother knee-jerks out a startled “no?” before reminding him that she’s friends with his mother. I smile/grimace awkwardly out the window and try not to laugh. Before he gets out, he tells me it’s been nice to meet me, and ruffles my hair from the backseat, threatening to text me.

I don’t know which one of us is the foreign exchange student in this situation.