A Few Of My Favorite Things

Christmas is on the way, and if you’re anything like me… finding what to give the people you love can be a challenge. What do they like? What will they enjoy? What won’t end up in the pile of things they’ll give to Goodwill when they do a big clean to start the new year.

Well, I’ve come up with a solution to that issue — or at least, a strategy. Rather than trying to figure out exactly what someone else might like or enjoy, I’m giving things this year that I have field-tested, approved, and can’t live without.

That candle that I buy in bulk? That lotion that never leaves my side? That blanket I curl up under every night? These are the things that I know someone else can love because I love them so very much. The following isn’t my wish list—I literally have (at least one) of everything on this list. It’s my must-haves. My favorite things. And if you’re in my family, you might see one of these items under the Christmas tree. Check ’em out, and see below for why this item has become a part of my survival guide.

[Read more…]

The Gift. An Excerpt of “Beyond The Point.”

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Many of you know that for the past three years, I have been working on writing my debut novel. It is with great joy that I can announce, that today—I have finished the first major revision of the manuscript, and I am ready to begin shopping it to agents nationwide. 

Here’s the pitch:  Beyond the Point is a novel based on the true story of four women who went to West Point and their struggle to maintain their friendship across war, marriage and life after college. I tell people it’s like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets Zero Dark Thirty.  That usually gets people to laugh and lean in. 

I was born at West Point. I lived there again from 1997-2003, when my dad was serving as a professor at West Point. Though I wasn’t a cadet myself, I had a unique vantage point on the women that chose that path. I tell people it was like living at Hogwarts, but never getting to learn any of the magic. Over the last few years, I’ve learned the magic. I’ve interviewed those original four women extensively, but I’ve also interviewed dozens of other graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, too. Beyond the Point is a novel that provides a composite picture of all their stories. It answers the question, what happens when girls like you and me put on a uniform and decide to serve? How does your faith change when you face suffering? And what is the nature of friendship, when time and distance separates us?

Here’s why I think the world needs this novel. Unfortunately, as it stands — the majority of the stories we hear about women in the military focus on non-fiction accounts of sexual assault or the pioneering women who were “firsts.” The first female general. The first female Army rangers. And while those stories are harrowing and inspiring, they also create a sense of distance between the average U.S. woman and the picture of that woman in uniform. Those “first” stories might, inadvertently make girls like me, think that they aren’t intense enough to serve. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is, the Army is full of women just like you and me. Women that have hopes and dreams and friendships and relationships and chipped nail polish and an addiction to Madewell. The world deserves to see more women in uniform in pop culture.

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This is what veterans look like.

And I’m not just saying that because I want a movie deal (although I do)The future security of our nation depends on the next generation of girls seeing military service as a viable, honorable path that is open to them. Already, congress has enacted a law that requires 18 year old women to register for the draft. If that day comes that they need to step up to serve, will they be ready? Will they be able to picture in their minds, what it might look like to put on that uniform?

I’m excited, now, to share an excerpt from the novel with all of you who have been with me through every step along the way. And the fact that I am doing it today is significant. Exactly ten years ago, on November 15th, 2006, a 2004 graduate of West Point named John Ryan Dennison, was killed in action while serving in Iraq. His then wife, Haley Dennison, was deployed in Afghanistan. Their story—her courage in the face of loss—sparked the inspiration that led to this novel. 

That I would finish this major revision on this day of all days? I think God orchestrated that. I think he cares about dates, trips around the sun, and honoring the past. I think he wants us to remember. And I hope, through my words, to help you to remember, too.

And now… for the excerpt:

 

THE GIFT.

NOVEMBER 13, 2006 // TARINKOT, AFGHANISTAN

Assuming he was scared by her gear, Hannah Nesmith took off her helmet and sunglasses and placed them on the ground.

“Hatha le-ik,” she said. This is for you.

The boy wore navy pants and a striped shirt, both at least two sizes too big. Dark toes peeked out of his sandals and his heels threatened to strike the rocky ground. Every student at the school was dressed this way. Nothing fit. Everything covered in dirt. His arms and neck and face were tanned and smooth—the color Hannah liked her coffee to be when it had the right amount of cream and sugar.

The boy took two steps backward, his mouth closed tight, like he was trying to swallow something bitter. She knew he probably wasn’t used to interacting with women, and yet, Hannah’s commanding officer had sent her platoon on this humanitarian mission specifically because she was a woman. He said her presence would put the children and the teachers at ease. But Hannah knew these children would think she was a transformer robot before they believed she was a female. She wore an ID patch on the bicep of her uniform and an M16 slung over her shoulder. A kevlar vest flattened her chest and before she’d taken it off, the helmet hid a bun at the nape of her neck. But surely he could overlook her brunette hair and blue eyes for the sake of a free, fully inflated soccer ball, Hannah thought. When the convoy had pulled up an hour earlier, the children were using a ball of trash tied together with string.

There were no clear roads leading to the school, no buses. The infrastructure for education had crumbled because for decades the Taliban had used this part of the nation as a haven for opium production and Sharia law. Hannah wondered how far this child had had to walk to school, what his parents did all day, and whether or not there was even food at home for him when he returned at night. Across the field of rocks and dust, a male teacher wore a white salwar kameez, the long traditional linen garment with a high collar. A blanket hung over the doorway to the classroom and inside, there were a dozen scrap wood desks surrounded by cracked walls and posters of Arabic prayers. Pockmarked, bullet-riddled blackboards at the front and back of the room were covered with arithmetic problems written in chalk. If the children needed to use the bathroom, they had to walk 200 yards to a trench behind the school. Sometimes they didn’t make it that far, which was why the entire courtyard smelled of warm urine.

Hannah licked her lips, feeling the dry, parched sensation cross her tongue and fill her mouth. Afghanistan assaulted her, constantly pressing every inch of her skin with its hot fingers. Her chest rose and fell, as though her lungs didn’t know how to breathe in air this thick, and sand found its way into her hair, ears, mouth and nose—every crevice it could find, as if it were trying to bury Hannah alive. Ignoring her growing thirst, she focused on the boy in front of her and lifted the soccer ball once more.

This is for you,” she repeated in English.

Again, no response.

Maybe Tim and Dani had been right after all. Sophomore year at West Point, they’d tried to persuade her to take Arabic, but how could she have known? That was before the towers came down. Before war was a certainty and not just a possibility. Even still, Hannah would have stuck with Spanish. West Point was hard enough without the pictographs.

She couldn’t understand what he was doing. Now he was crying, looking back over his shoulder at his classmates, who were busy running after Private Stanton and Sergeant Willis. Willis and Stanton were terrible, bobbling around with the ball, holding their M16s so they wouldn’t swing around their backs. The children were laughing. It had turned into a game of chase.

Hal taraa,” Hannah continued. “Look.”

When he turned back to look at her, the little boy’s eyes narrowed with hate. A loogie of spit came out of his mouth, flew through the air and landed on the ground between them. Then he wiped his mouth, ran across the school yard to his classmates and put his hands up in the air to stop them. Hannah could no longer keep up. The boy was yelling. He pointed back at Hannah, at the soldiers, at the sky. Every now and then she heard the only Arabic word she really knew. Allah.

Slowly rising from the ground, Hannah put her helmet back on her head, kicked the wet dirt and had a dismal thought.

How were they supposed to win the war if they couldn’t even give away a gift?

The Top Ten Rules For Traveling in New York City So You Don’t End Up Hating It

If you know me at all (even a little bit) you know that I love New York City. But my obsession didn’t start with one trip, one ride in a cab, or those two tickets to Hamilton. (Although to be honest, the Hamilton experience didn’t hurt.) No, my love for New York City grew in my heart the way the sun rises, slowly—so imperceptibly that it’s hard to actually distinguish when the night ended and the day began.

Part of my slow-growing love, though, came from making a lot of mistakes. I’ve made ALL of the rookie mistakes. I’ve done ALL of the things that people desperately want to avoid so they don’t look uncool. Whatever. New York gets you. It trips you up with its obstacles and people and differences from every other city in America. But it doesn’t do this with prejudice. New York isn’t out to get tourists. It’s just out. And if you know it’s quirks, and some quick tips—I believe you will grow to love it just as much as I do. (Okay, maybe not that much… but a lot.)

Don’t look at your phone in the cab.

It’s tempting. You’ve just arrived off the plane. You’re excited. Where to first? The cab line! You wait and you tell the driver where you want to go, and then you sit there for half an hour as he bumps and stops through traffic, all through the city. It’s extremely tempting to check in on your e-mail, your social-media, to take a cab selfie and post it… or whatever you’re about to do. But DON’T. You will get sick. Cab nausea is a thing, and it is as hard to kick as a hangover once you get out of the taxi and onto the street. Don’t start your first day in New York off with motion sickness. Trust me. Put the phone away.

Bring water and a large tote.

I know you’re not allowed to bring water on the plane, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring an empty water bottle and fill it up as soon as you arrive at Laguardia. Water is essential in the city and helps to ward off the aforementioned cab-nausea. If you’re going to have a water bottle with you, I’d also recommend (especially for the ladies) carrying a large tote bag rather than a small purse. That way, as the day goes on, you have a place for little souvenirs or things you pick up, as well as that water bottle. You want your hands free.

Go to the bathroom whenever you’re given the chance, because you won’t always have the chance.

This rule is kind of obvious, but much to my chagrin, I often forget to follow it. Especially if you’re keeping water close at hand, it’s important to take any opportunity you’re given to use the john. If you’re in a pinch, the city hides its bathrooms in large department stores and Starbucks coffee shops.

How To Pack For New York City

 

Wear Sneakers.

Sneakers are to city living as water is to the fire department: essential and live-saving. Invest. (These are my current favorites. These are another pair I love. And another.) Wear them with pride. If you’re afraid of looking like a tourist, check out the next rule.

Pack in Three Easy Steps: (1) Grab everything you have that is black. (2) Pack it. (3) Oh wait. Sorry, just two easy steps.

New Yorkers don’t wear black because they’re mean or boring. They wear it because they’ve learned the city—and you WILL sweat, no matter the season. Black helps you avoid embarrassing sweat stains and also helps you to pull off those sneakers you’re not used to wearing. Almost any sneaker looks awesome against an all-or-mostly-black attire. Also — you won’t have to worry about choosing what to wear and wasting precious time each day. Just throw on the black and go.

Use the Subway Without Fear.

The Metro isn’t hard and it isn’t dangerous. Fill up a Metro Card with $20 (there are little touch-screen kiosks in every station), and you can share that one with your fam. Just swipe, move through the turnstile, and pass the card back for the next person to swipe. (This is much easier than buying a card and for everyone to have to dig in their pockets for their card while the rest of New York waits behind you, annoyed.) Take a cab, only whenever absolutely necessary. If the light is on, the taxi is available to hail. Nothing is more embarrassing than spending all your energy yelling at taxis that already have people inside of them. (Been there. Done that.)

Stay Local.

Do a neighborhood… not the city. For example, Soho is great for shopping. The Upper East Side is great for little cafes and strolling through Central Park. Midtown/Times Square is good for nothing. By keeping your adventures limited to a neighborhood, you’ll help yourself from burn-out and save some things for your next trip. (Because you’ll want to come back.)

Four meals a day.

If you’re visiting the city, you’re going to be on the go a lot walking, seeing, experiencing. By choosing to eat four or five small meals a day rather than three big ones—you’ll give yourself a bit more flexibility to sit back and take a rest when the afternoon comes and you’ve been walking for a long time. Eat breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at 12 p.m., a later lunch around 4 p.m., and then a proper dinner at 8 p.m. or later. Little stops for coffee or juice are also good excuses to get off your feet (and find a bathroom).

Take your time.

NYC gives you the feeling that everyone is moving a hundred miles an hour, but that’s not necessarily true. They just know where they’re going. Most people in the city follow the same route every day—walk these blocks, take this subway, go into the office, then do the same commute in reverse. If you’re exploring the city, it’s okay to not know where you are. Just pause, move over to the side of the road, look at your phone, figure out where you’re going. No one will fault you for this. They will fault you for standing in the middle of the sidewalk and trying to figure it out.

Do one thing you would normally do at home in the city.

For me, that’s going to brunch. For someone else, that might be going on a run or going to a yoga or spin class. That might mean finding a ju-jitsu gym or tracking down the best beer brewery. The coolest thing about NYC is imagining how your life might look if you lived there. And no one lives in Times Square.

So there you have it people. My ten tried and true rules for loving New York City. Do you have any tips that you would add to the list?

(P.S. — here’s an old post about my past rules for NYC. You can see how they’ve changed.)