Friend Feature: Natalie B.

There’s a scene in The English Patient where the nurse Hana tells Almásy of the arrival of the thief Caravaggio. She mentions that he’s Canadian, and Almásy wonders why that matters, why people are “always so happy to collide with someone from the same place”. Hana replies that during the war, where you come from becomes important.

In the last few months, I’ve become increasingly convinced of this. It’s not that there’s a war on – I mean, there are many wars, but few that touch my life directly – it’s that spending time in the same place gives you a shared vocabulary, a set of references, of people and places and things that provide context that can then go unspoken.

When people from junior high and high school started to turn up on Facebook a few years ago, I did the mass-friending, only to be reminded that I didn’t really like most of those people in high school, and so didn’t really have much interest in rekindling relationships that never really existed. I removed most of the high school people just as quickly as I added them – with the exception of those who seemed interested in actually being friends, not just performing friendship by friending.

My friend Natalie fell into the latter group. I’ve known Nat since the third grade, when her family moved to Illinois and her dad became principal at our school. With the exception of one week at camp, I don’t know that we were ever really friends in grade school and junior high – and then we went to different high schools, and the rest would be history if it weren’t for Facebook and P90X.

About two years ago, Nat started blogging about her path to fitness via P90X and running. Her posts were hilarious, honest, and motivational, and provided  a connection and a path to actual friendship. When she finished P90X and ran her first half marathon, I sent her a package including a BRING IT pin – I have the same pin on my backpack.

Nat was in town a few weeks ago to cheer her cousin on in the Chicago marathon, and we made a point of carving time out of the busy race weekend to meet up for brunch. I wasn’t sure what to expect – it was probably the first time we’d hung out apart from church functions since junior high – but instead of the likely awkward small talk between acquaintances, we had a lovely, rambling meal and talked about everything from our parents’ retirement to sex ed to running to our struggles to find a place to fit in (or out of) a church.

I don’t know how much of this friendship can be credited to where we come from – It’s not that Mr. Steely’s 8th grade science class provided a foundation for this friendship, or that it came up in our conversation at all. But it was there, as were all of the other artifacts of growing up in the same place at the same time around the same people and experiences. And perhaps that was just enough to ground what could have otherwise been an ephemeral Facebook friendship.

Either way, I’m thankful for Nat’s friendship, though I might feel differently by next October if we follow through with our hare-brained plan to run the marathon. I’m also thankful that no matter how rough we look when we cross the finish line, we’re almost certainly guaranteed to look better than we do here:

8th Grade Class Trip

Places I Have Lived: The E Haus, 12th St, Rockford, IL

August 1999 – August 2002

My first real apartment! It is also worth noting that the three years I spent here were the longest I’ve spent at a single address since my family moved out of the house on Pepper Drive.

I moved into the apartment on 12th Street in the fall of my junior year at RC, but I’d been a regular visitor for nearly a year at that point.  The apartment was occupied by a rotating cast of coworkers from Barnes & Noble, so I have no idea who first lived there, or whose name was on the original lease, if there even was one.  The circumstances – or, rather, the conversation – surrounding my first visit are subject to some debate, but the facts are these: I helped Eva do a bathtub full of dishes.  She was living with Stu and Jessica at that point, Jeff and Steven having both moved out.  I remember late nights in the apartment after closing, hanging out with my impossibly cool coworkers and hoping they’d like me as much as I liked them.  In the spring, Stu and Jessica moved out, and Erin – another coworker – moved in.  If we weren’t working, the three of us would order pizza (cheese and pineapple) and watch Must See TV.  When I needed a place and there was an open room, it made sense for me to move in – and my boyfriend along with me.

Looking back, I can’t believe how insanely cheap the place was – we paid something like $450 for a three bedroom apartment, split four ways.  Even split three and eventually two ways, this was worlds cheaper than any place where I’d lived before or since.  We kept it up to exactly the degree of squalor that you’d expect from 3-4 early 20-somethings.  Eva and Erin had a continual battle of wills over the dishes, and I wasn’t much better.  At one point shortly before I moved in, they boxed up all of the dishes and stuck them in the attic, where I found them sometime later, still crusted in food, though miraculously not disgusting.  We hosted Thanksgiving dinner for our friends, but had to farm out most of the cooking because we had one oven rack and zero counter space.  We also had maybe three chairs, so everyone had to sit on the floor.  We wanted to learn about wine, but did so with 2 bottles for $6 deals.  We hosted a lot of parties.  It was a very fun time.

Erin had the first room – large and sunny, with hardwood floors and giant windows.  My boyfriend and I moved to this room when she moved out before Christmas.  I had the second room, which had accordion doors and a walk-in closet, and which we later used as an office.  Eva had the back room – tiny and painted in two different blues.  When she moved out in the summer of the following year, we used the room for storage and for our cats!

Baby Gypsy

I had never had a cat before, and I wasn’t the best cat owner, but good lord, did I love those furballs.  We had hideous hand-me-down furniture, made worse by destructive cats and lots of parties.  Our kitchen was big enough to dance in, and the bathroom had a claw-foot tub where I would often read entire books.

Our landlord was a 30-something guy who would come over to do maintenance – and would stay to drink beer and hang out with us.  Our downstairs neighbor was an obsessive snow shoveler and griller, the two of which came together when he would clear a pathway to his charcoal grill at every snowfall.  Our next-door neighbor fed squirrels and may or may not have been in a ladder cult.

Oh, the stories this apartment could tell.  We stayed for the duration of my time at RC, and another year beyond that.  On 9/11, I watched movies on that hideous couch in order to avoid the non-stop coverage of the towers going down.  In this apartment, I started to learn how to cook, gave up my vegetarianism, and fell deeply and somewhat disastrously in love.  I discovered yoga and Hello Kitty Cube Frenzy.  I did a lot of things I regret, and many more than I don’t.  It was in most ways an ideal college apartment, and I was very sad when we moved out, even though we weren’t going far – next door – and would visit often, as my sister and her best friend were the new tenants.

Places I Have Lived: Hampton Ridge Dr, Rockford, IL

January 1999 – August 1999

The apartment at Hampton Ridge wasn’t really mine. My name wasn’t on the lease, and I never received mail there. I don’t remember if I paid any rent, and if that’s the case, I probably owe the guys money. I stayed in the apartment on and off during the fall semester of my sophomore year at RC, but started staying there full time when my boyfriend and I got back together after Christmas.

We shared a very messy room in the ground floor apartment, clothes and magazines overflowing from the closet and the storage drawers under our waterbed. I was in charge of the newsstand at Barnes & Noble, so I brought home giant stacks of back issues, the covers removed. The guys both worked nights, and I got used to a semi-nocturnal schedule, getting up in the morning only when work (and, less frequently, class) required it. The upstairs neighbors’ kids seemed to never sleep, as someone was always running laps around the apartment or dropping things off their balcony onto our patio – yet we were always the scapegoat for noise complaints.

It’s really kind of amazing to me how little I remember about our life in this apartment. Other than the Thanksgiving dinner that we hosted for my boyfriend’s family, I don’t recall cooking in this apartment. I know that we had a mouse once, and that it died an ignoble death behind a cabinet. There was a pool and a fitness center, but I wasn’t able to use either on my own since I wasn’t technically a resident. We moved out at the end of the summer, shoving many of our possessions into the dumpster immediately behind the building, including the couch that Joe hefted in and then smashed to pieces.

Places I Have Lived: Olson Hall, Rockford College, Rockford, IL

August 1998 – January 1999

The summer on the farm ended in a flurry of activity.  The guys had about a week to find an apartment and move out; I on the other hand was moving back into the dorms.  My three friends and I had secured a suite in Olson Hall, a smaller and more centrally located dorm than freshman year’s McGaw.  Olson had two single sex floors, each of which had somewhere around 10-12 suites housing four students.  Kelley and I lucked out, however, as in the time between committing to our housing situation and the beginning of the school year, Mayra decided not to come back to RC, and Amanda accepted a job as an RA – leaving just the two of us in the suite.

There were pluses and minuses to this living situation – as, I’m sure, is the case for all dorms.  RC didn’t have a football team, so baseball and soccer players filled in the rowdy partying gap – and we lived directly above a suite full of ’em.  The window below our living room window was both kicked out and kicked in several times throughout the semester.  It was almost impossible to sleep after 25c wings night at the closest bar to campus.  We made up for it by dragging furniture around our rooms very early the next morning.

Most of my memories of life in Olson are pretty vague.  Kelley basically had the suite to herself.  I stayed in my room for about half of the first semester, but after a brief break-up and reconciliation, I moved in with my boyfriend and only returned to our suite for parties and to move out at the end of the year.  I remember getting my car stuck in a snow drift over Christmas break, and having to leave it there for a few days since no one was available to dig me out.  I also remember many games of Trivial Pursuit, including one where Kelley’s boyfriend didn’t know the answer to a question about Little Women (?), and I replied – from the shower – with “C’mon! It’s a classic American novel!”.  Cos that’s how I roll.

Places I Have Lived: McGaw Hall, Rockford College, Rockford, IL

August 1997 – May 1998

My parents had their heart set on me attending Wheaton College. When I wasn’t accepted to Wheaton, I was heartbroken, even though I felt strongly that I wasn’t ready for college. Why I didn’t fall back on my acceptance at Iowa, I don’t know. In retrospect, I regret it – but then my life would be completely and unimaginably different, so those regrets are ultimately futile. My acceptance (or lack thereof) to Wheaton was deferred to the latest announcement date, putting it past the deadline for applying just about anywhere else. I resigned myself to a semester at Rock Valley while applying elsewhere, and filled out an application for Rockford College on a whim.

I was accepted almost immediately and, in the middle of July, received a full scholarship. The one condition was that I had to live on campus for my four years. Fine by me, especially as this news came during a particularly tumultuous time in my relationship with my parents. I exchanged letters with my new roommate, and in mid-August, I moved out of my parents’ house for good, though I’d return for a few weeks here and there over the next few years.

All RC freshman lived in McGaw Hall, inconveniently located at the far end of campus, literally over the river (creek) and through the woods. In my memory, McGaw was a giant high-rise; in reality, I think it was six floors, and I think Mayra and I lived on the third. I know we didn’t live on the second, as the girls that lived below us would complain about Mayra waking them up by coming home from class, putting on Barbie Girl, and dancing around our room.

My First Dorm Room

Our room had two twin beds, two desks, two dressers, two closets with accordion doors, two windows, and two bulletin boards. Whenever we had deadlines, we would compulsively rearrange the furniture. Please note the requisite Beatles and Jim Morrison posters, the psychedelia lifted from my mom’s dorm room, the giant desktop computer, and the desk littered with coffee mugs. The temperature control in the building was terrible – in one room, friends would be freezing, while we kept our windows open through the winter and our floor was hot to the touch.

There was a kitchenette and a tiny laundry room on the floor. The extremely narrow shower stalls made shaving my legs nearly impossible – not that I was inclined to do so very often. We had keyed access to the building, though later in the year they switched to ID readers. This was problematic as I went through literally five IDs in the first few months through no fault of my own. There was an intercom by the exterior door, but friends often couldn’t get through because I was chatting on the RWorld BBS with friends or my boyfriend.

Freshman Friends

I have no idea how my dorm experience compared to others’. I made ramen in the kitchenette and drank a lot of Mountain Dew. I avoided the extremely terrible cafeteria food whenever possible. I made friends with my neighbors – Amanda lived next door, and Kelley down the hall – who would be my roommates in the coming years. My boyfriend spent the night, though in retrospect I have no idea how two of us not-small people fit in a twin bed. Mayra and I both stayed at McGaw until the very last day of move-out week for both Christmas and the end of the school year. It wasn’t always an ideal living situation, but I look back on that year with many, many fond memories.

A Coffee Interlude

We don’t even really try to find good coffee in my hometown.  Rockford – at least the side of town where I grew up – is made for Starbucks.  There’s no hipster scene in NE Rockford – just suburbanites with Kate Gosselin highlights and families in their SUVs flocking to the latest chain restaurant.

Which is to say that we found ourselves at Starbucks Saturday morning, in desperate need of caffeine and bearing a list of orders for the similarly addicted.  We were greeted by the overly enthusiastic barista (OEB) in tight pants.

E: Good morning.  I need three tall coffees with room, a tall iced green tea, light ice, unsweetened, and whatever he’s having (gestures to Shane).

Shane: Can you make a cappuccino that is, you know, less than 12 ounces?  Like 7 ounces?

OEB: You have no idea how long we’ve waited for someone to ask precisely that.  Didja hear that? He wants a real cappuccino!

Impressively-Bearded Barista (IBB): (excitement)

Shane: No, you know, I’ll just have a tall coffee as well.

OEB: No, no, we can do it!  We don’t have a whole lot of control over the espresso, but we can definitely make you a smaller drink.

IBB: I can make you any size you want!

Shane: Are you sure?

OEB: Yes! And you know what, we’ll give it to you for free.

E: Thanks!

OEB: (Repeats the order back, forgetting the iced tea)

Girl Barista: Did you want medium or bold?

E: Medium

OEB: Wait, was his coffee a medium?

E: No, no, we just wanted the medium roast.

OEB: Oh, right, sorry!  (Finishes transaction)

We step to the side to wait.  I add half and half to my coffee, then ask for skim milk for Mark and Jenn’s.  Shane is presented with a medium cappuccino (16 ounces).  They forget the iced tea, which I ask for again.  We leave with five drinks, wondering what exactly just happened.

So maybe there is hope for good coffee in Rockford.  There are baristas out there that want people to drink real cappuccinos.  They just aren’t sure how to make it happen.

Places I Have Lived: North Mulford Rd, Rockford, IL

June/July 1996 – August 1997

Sometime in 1995, my family started house hunting.  I’m not sure what exactly spurred this move other than that our house was paid off and it was a financially advantageous time to move.  At around this time, some family friends put their house on the market – a house and property that my parents had long admired.  While I could see the merits of the new house – especially the pool – I mostly remember deeply resenting the idea of moving.  I didn’t have my drivers license, much less a car, so moving anywhere would mean being impossibly far away from my neighborhood crew.

By the time we moved in the summer of 1996, the house had undergone substantial renovations.  The original house was fairly small, so my parents worked with an architect and contractors to knock down walls, build a second story with bedrooms for each of us, expand the kitchen, and add a garage when it became obvious that the original garage didn’t actually connect to the house in the way they thought.  As was the case with the previous moves, Mom found herself pregnant during this renovation, and my brother was born a few months before we moved to the new house.

On the ground floor: my parents’ suite, including a room that was supposed to be an office but became Eric’s when he was conceived between the architectural designs and move in. Their bathroom, one of my favorite rooms in the house, had a whirlpool tub, a sunlight, and a panel of stained glass. A “great room” with a wood-burning stove, a ceiling extending to the second floor, and views back to the creek and bordering arboretum. The kitchen, with similar views, where you can occasionally see a deer or fox while eating your breakfast on a quiet morning. Upstairs: three bedrooms, one for each kid. Jenn’s and my rooms connected to a shared full bath; Mark had his own 3/4 bath. Downstairs: a small exercise room and a larger family room. A 3/4 bath lined in pink tile under the stairs. And then the pool/pool house: roll-down canvas panels covering the screened-in walls, and a bathroom where there were always more bugs than I liked to think about. Perfect for pool parties or cookouts, not so perfect if you had to close it up at night.

I only lived in this house for a little more than a year – beginning the summer before my senior year of high school, and ending when I moved out to go to college. I returned for a few months here and there, but in total spent less time in this house than I have in a couple of my subsequent apartments. Maybe that’s why it’s never felt like home for me – I never had the time to settle in and make it my own, or perhaps I actively avoided doing so because I knew I would be leaving soon, or perhaps I resented it for not being the house where I grew up in the neighborhood that I loved. That year was also kind of crazy – I was a senior, applying for college, and working two part time jobs. I had major roles in the fall play and the spring musical. There was a new baby in the house and then, over the winter, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. We all shouldered extra responsibilities.

I loved the windows and the breeze in my new room. I took the van to Lowe’s and returned with a trunk full of cinder blocks, which I used to build brick-and-board bookcases. I burned incense and listened to Procol Harum. I read piles of library books in the saggy double bed that previously belonged to a great-grandpa (or great-great?). I annoyed my parents by walking too heavily – my room was directly above theirs – and by staying up late connecting to Juno so that I could email friends. My friends and I dressed for one of the high school dances in my room, and took photos down by the creek. My adolescent rebelliousness flared in the last summer I lived there, and I couldn’t wait to move out.

Places I Have Lived: Pepper Drive, Rockford, IL

January 1984 – June/July 1996

We moved to Rockford in the winter of 1984, right around my 4th birthday. Mom was pregnant with Jenn, and I was the only one who was sure she’d be a girl (I was right). I can’t imagine moving to a new city in the dead of winter with two kids under 4 plus another one on the way – I know this move was hard for Mom, though I can’t really even begin to comprehend it. I know that the other stay-at-home moms in our neighborhood became her lifeline, and so we grew up with family friends that were like family – the Kensingers, the Ericsons, the Wilhelms – and that have remained close to this day.

It’s hard to talk briefly about the house where you grew up. I apologize.

porch rail
From left: Jenn, Chelsea K., Sara K., Ditka, Mark, Bart K., me

Our house had two stories and a finished basement, all resplendent in early 80s style. The house was chocolate brown, with a cement front porch and a two car garage, where I would get the car stuck on my first attempt at backing out. When we moved in, there was no furniture in the front room, and I remember playing ‘store’ in the front window with the kitchen set that Grandpa built. Later this would be the living room, with nice furniture and the piano, where we grudgingly took lessons. The dining room was infrequently used, as often happens with rooms of this type. Mom would sew our Halloween costumes at the table, and I remember dusting as part of weekly chores and finding coins left on the wooden chair rail.

When we first moved in, the kitchen had brown wood paneling, brown wood cabinets, brown wood slat blinds, and brown linoleum. We would play in one of the tall cabinets, pretending to be Oscar the Grouch in his garbage can. In a later remodel, the external wall was replaced with doors to a sunroom, and all that brown went away. I learned to cook in that kitchen, though it’s probably more accurate to say that I learned to prepare food.

The family room, adjacent to the kitchen, had a fireplace and more wood paneling. One year we had racoons in the fireplace and had to have animal control come and take them out. Living (and playing) took place in this room: the stereo and tv were here, as was our first computer. When we got our first dog, we tried to keep her out of this room and off the new white carpet (bad idea!) by constructing a barrier between the rooms out of furniture and boxes. She immediately figured out how to climb over.

I am nine

There was a small ‘mud room’ with backyard access; after a remodel, this became a home office, and the laundry and storage moved to a new room carved out of the garage. I spent many hours in here on AOL in high school, chatting with friends, doing homework, and listening to Sgt. Pepper. I don’t think that Mom ever got to use it as the home office she envisioned.

The ground floor half bath was absurdly gold and brown when we moved in. I think this was the first room to be updated.

The basement had hideous orange and brown carpet, a sort of bar that was mainly for storage, and a store room. My memories of the basement are mostly of it being in a state of chaos from three kids playing video games, listening to books-on-record, doing art projects, and generally making a terrific mess. In junior high, I carved out a little nook under the stairs as my private space, though why I sought this out, I’m not sure. A later remodel would turn the basement into a much more habitable guest space, adding on a half bath, built in cabinets, a space for watching TV, and a small office for Pop. I spent a lot of time down there in high school, exercising or watching tv and talking on the phone.

We each had our own bedroom on the second floor, though our play as kids spilled out into the hallway and down the stairs, where we would amass all of our beloved stuffed animals for impromptu camp outs. My bedroom was the first on the right, with a closet that bumped out over the stairwell. When I was small, this closet was ideal for playing the sort of games that involved climbing around the room without touching the floor, whether your flavor involved hot lava or a sea full of sharks. I could watch the mailbox from my window, and yell out to my friends amassed in the front yard. When I grew into an angsty adolescent, I had a lock – with a key – on my door to keep prying siblings out.

Stuffed Animals

Tied closely to my memories of the house are my memories of the neighborhood. Those same families that provided support networks for my parents also provided friends for Mark and Jenn and I, and we ranged free with those friends until long after sundown. We went to school and carpooled with many of the neighborhood kids. When I was 15, Sarah and her family moved in next door, giving me the neighborhood best friend I’d long wanted. I babysat kids from the neighborhood. My homecoming and prom dates were guys from the neighborhood. All of which made leaving this house in 1996 even more difficult.

The Holidays, y’all

I could attempt to recount the things we’ve eaten over the last week, but really, you can probably imagine it.  You’ve been reading about our meals for a year.  You know that before we go out of town for a few days, we try to eat down the fridge, which is what we did on Wednesday.  You know that on special occasions like our anniversary or a Thursday, we like to have snacks for dinner, which is what we did for Christmas Eve Eve as we watched Love Actually and opened our gifts for each other.  And you know about the holiday excess we’re trying to avoid.

Festive Shane

We spent Christmas in Rockford with my family, including this handsome fellow who dazzled us with his crawling and his good looks:

Christmas Max

There was the traditional Christmas Eve corn chowder, more bland than it should have been, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with the salt shaker and the most important spice. There were dozens of cookies stashed in the cold garage: gunk bars, brownies, chocolate coconut pinwheels, and sugars.

Mark and Evonne

We had German food for Christmas lunch – Mexican last year – sauerbraten and spaetzle, warm red cabbage, German potato salad, and an assortment of sausages. Somehow – perhaps thanks to the gym – we made room for Swedish pancakes at Stockholm Inn on Sunday, Beef-a-Roo, and cocktails and snacks at Garrett’s with Jenn.

Open wide!

And then on to Lakewood for a few non-holiday days with Shane’s family: tacos and Blizzards with his brothers, scones and excellent coffee at The Root after a visit to Trav’s funny gym:

Post-run olive scone at The Root

A visit to the Cleveland Art Museum, where we saw an incredible Damien Hirst piece made entirely of butterfly wings, followed by a tasty but cold and stressful lunch at Tommy’s in Coventry – I had tempeh salad, nom nom nom. Watching the Hawks win – or at least most of the game – over beers and food with the whole family at Buckeye Beer Engine. Time with kitties, cousins, and grandpa. And a couple of remarkable hot dogs at Happy Dog before heading home:

Happy Dog-14
Photo by edseloh

Among the toppings we tried were blue cheese coleslaw (me), marinated mushrooms (Orin), and habanero pickled red onions (Shane) – plus a really great chimichurri and a garlic-tomato jam for our tater tots.  I wish I had photos of any of this, but despite taking the camera everywhere with us, we only managed a couple of pictures of the cats.  I’ll try harder next time, promise.

1126 Laotian at Bamboo

I can’t say that I’ve had much Laotian food. In fact, I’m not sure that I’d had any before today. But oh my goodness, that’s got to change.

After a really nice evening at the farm, we hit the road first thing this morning and drove to Rockford, arriving just in time for lunch. Jenn suggested Bamboo – they don’t get there often, it’s in the absolute opposite direction from all of the Black Friday shopping, and it’s sort of the polar opposite of the turkey-and-stuffing options available at most of our normal Rockford haunts.

I’m easily overwhelmed by menus at Asian restaurants, a fact that was compounded today by road-weariness and a persistent Thanksgiving food coma. I definitely did NOT want something heavy or something fried, so I settled on the Laotian Spicy Green Papaya – more properly known as Tam mak hoong: shredded unripened papaya, fish sauce, anchovy paste, and a few other things I can’t remember at the moment. The waitress was skeptical.

“Have you had the papaya salad before?”

“No, but it sounds good.”

“OK, I just wanted to make sure because it’s not sweet – it has fish in it.”

“Yes, I know.”

Shane was also concerned that it would be too fishy, but I was firm in my choice, and glad of it when a beautiful, funky, and fresh salad was presented to me.

Som Tam
Photo by tim7423

Even better, however, was Shane’s lunch: Nam khao. It wasn’t just good – it was crazy good – a nutty, crunchy rice salad studded with cured pork eaten by hand out of lettuce leaves. I got lucky – Shane had a few too many appetizers and wasn’t able to finish, so I scooped up bite after bite, trying to figure out what and how exactly it was made.

My Nam Khao (Lao rice salad) at Precita Park
Photo by Gary Soup

The secret? The rice is made with coconut milk, then rolled into a ball along with curry paste and other seasonings and DEEP FRIED. Once it cools, the rice ball is crumbled up – crispy bits and all – and tossed with the rest of the ingredients. It was unlike anything either of us have ever had – and we can’t wait to get more of it.