Alabama Living: Brownilocks and the Three Bears

It is decidedly strange and wonderful to slip into your best friend’s life and family like you’d always been there and had just stepped away for a minute. To already know, from a multitude of phone conversations, the flow of life in that household—and then to inhabit it and have it come alive all around you.

In the big picture, my time in Alabama was like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes. It was a homecoming. At times, however, it also bore a strong resemblance to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (except that my hair is brown).

The first night I slept in Amy’s bed because she was out of town. Her mattress is topped with a thick memory foam pad, which for me was way too soft.

The next few nights I slept in D’s bed (she got to sleep on the floor of her brother’s room, which thrilled her). Although comfortable, her mattress had been cursed with some dark magic that caused the comforter and blankets to continually slide off onto the floor. I was awakened frequently throughout the night, confused about having only a thin sheet to protect me from the subfreezing air-conditioned temperatures.

A slight alteration to D’s bed a week into my trip created my ideal sleeping situation. D’s brother had been yearning for a thick memory foam pad on his bed just like his mom’s—and fortunately that’s precisely what he received for his birthday. The thin foam pad that had been on his mattress was moved to D’s bed and it miraculously solved the problem of the disappearing bedding while also adding a layer of softness. Finally I had found a bed that was just right.


Goldilocks caught in Baby Bear’s bed. Illustration by Leonard Leslie Brooke

Then there were the bath towels. Amy doesn’t splurge on much for herself but she had recently splurged on some amazingly thick bath towels (they seem like distant cousins of her memory foam mattress topper—no joke). As you might guess, they were a little too high-brow for me; they almost stand up by themselves and meet you at the shower door when you get out. The ones in the linen closet, though, that were probably over a decade old, were too threadbare (and we ended up donating many of those). My “just right” towels were the practical fancy ones that had a thick soft pile and were cozy and absorbent without drawing much attention to themselves (and are much nicer than any towels I own).

Other situations fell outside the fairy tale mold but nonetheless illuminated my preferences.

The broom in Amy’s kitchen is the best I’ve ever used. It’s red and has a wide head, something like this:

Broom Capture

O-Cedar Angler Angle Broom With Dust Pan**

I’ve typically bought crappy dollar-store brooms that have narrow heads comprised of inconsistent and course fibers that somehow move the dirt anywhere but into the dustpan. Amy’s big red broom, however, made sweeping fun and easy (and induced the realization that I have become someone who is grateful for the efficient and enjoyable functioning of a BROOM. Dear Gawd, who am I?!).

In yet another WHO AM I?! moment, I spent much time admiring Amy’s choice of sponge: Scrub Daddy** (something I’ve seen for years on store shelves and never purchased). I found this happy sponge to be effective and appealing to the touch. In cold water it remains hard and in hot water it softens. Washing silverware by hand is a breeze: just stick it through the smile and voila! Also, it doesn’t get smelly like most sponges and that’s a huge plus.


Then there was the much bigger issue of falling in love with Amy’s Honda Odyssey. Minivans are amazing and I would almost consider having kids simply to justify buying one. I most loved the countless drink holders: the van had no issue accommodating my bottle of kombucha, a water bottle, AND a cup of coffee—all at the same time!

Also, everything I needed was at the touch of a button: I could open and close the sliding doors or open and close Amy’s garage doors. It was like (my childish idea of) being a fighter pilot! The smooth ride and powerful engine only added to the fantasy.

Everything about the Odyssey is in stark contrast to my beloved 20-year-old Honda CR-V. Driving Amy’s van on and off for almost three weeks made returning home to my car…difficult. Before I knew the magic of a modern vehicle, I thought my ride was perfectly fine. I mean, the windows are automated—that’s pretty fancy.

Yeah, no. As I am now altogether too aware…nothing about my car is fancy. It is basically a Fred Flintstone-mobile. The tires might as well be made of stone and it might as well be powered by human legs.

Fred Flintstone Car

I endanger my own life every time I merge onto the highway because I have to figure out which fast-moving SUV would be best to cut off. The road rage I inspire in other drivers with my I-think-I-can slow car will likely be the death of me.

Fortunately (and unfortunately) this Brownilocks is adaptable and can downlevel disturbingly quickly. After a few weeks back at home, I’ve mostly blocked from memory the smooth, powerful ride of Amy’s minivan. I once again feel pretty fancy being able to roll down the back windows with the touch of a button. And I’m still making strong choices about which cars to cut off.

I still dream of all those cup holders, though…

**I am not being paid to endorse these products and I’m not even sure what brand Amy’s broom is.**


Alabama Living: Damn You, Dryer Vent Cover!

I am not great at handyperson work. I can clean, I can organize, I can approximate cooking even…but you might not want my “help” with “easy” fix-it things around the house.

I’m pretty sure as a child I absorbed the message from my dad that there is no such thing as easy where house projects are concerned. Any time he was working on something, my brother and I knew we’d get hauled to the hardware store at least three times and that my dad would be agitated until the project was done (meaning we knew to get lost).


Cut to Alabama last week when I was drying some laundry and the machine kept shutting off and throwing an error code. I finally mentioned it to Amy, who calmly wondered whether I’d googled to find out what was wrong. Duh! GOOGLE ALL THINGS!!

The googs came back with: “If your LG clothes dryer is showing error code d80, d90, d95… this means there is an issue with AIRFLOW EXHAUST LINT BLOCKAGE.”

One point for technology! Thank you for telling me what you need, gorgeous and smart modern dryer!

I can clean out the exhaust line! That’ll be EASY!

And it was…at the start. I pulled the dryer out from the wall and cleaned out both where the vent pipe attaches to the wall and where it attaches to the machine. Easy peasy—look at me.

Then I went outside to battle the end of the line:


My finger is holding up the flap to reveal the screen.

As you can see, there was a pileup of lint on the screen. I had tried vacuuming it the previous day, but it wouldn’t budge. Being then left to my own clever devices while Amy was at work, I decided I would remove the entire vent cover—so I found a box cutter and carved into the clear, thick silicone caulk holding the cover to the house. It took a minute but finally I extricated it.

With only a naked exhaust pipe before me, I was able to stick my arm in up until about my elbow to pull out what lint I could reach. The bits I could see much further down the pipe I dragged out with the handle of a broom. All told I’d liberated at least four giant handfuls.

And then I got a text from Amy: “Advice from the guys at work is to clip off the mesh of the screen. Apparently most dryer vents do not have them.”

Ruh roh.

Me: “Oh. Too late. I cut all around it and pulled the whole thing off. But that’s a great idea. Wish I’d thought of it.”

I forced the cover back onto the pipe as it had been (trickier than you’d think because of siding butting up against the top of the pipe) and called it a day. It would need to be replaced or recaulked, but at least now I could get back into the laundry game!



A couple days later I had time to revisit the issue and here’s what I learned: It’s far more effective to clean out the exhaust pipe when the dryer is ON! (I don’t know that it’s advised, but it sure seemed to work!)

The dryer just happened to be running when I scaled the ladder and removed the vent cover (the screen of which had already become covered over again with lint). I was at eye level with the tube and of course looked directly into it. The hot air rushed at my face—followed by a massive pile of lint! (Oh to be a neighbor witnessing my surprise…)

Realizing I was onto something, I grabbed a mop whose head fit perfectly into the tube. I pushed it in as far as I could and when I pulled it out, another giant pile of lint blew swiftly into my face. (It was like a game to see how much I could dislodge and how much I could coat myself in lint dust.)


Later that evening, the friend who gave Amy a ride home from work was sweet enough to let me pick his brain about the new vent covers I’d purchased that weren’t fitting. Within minutes he had it sorted. He took a pair of regular scissors (I thought I needed wire cutters) and cut the screen out of the original cover. Then he drove home, returned a short time later with silicone caulk, and reaffixed the cover to the house. Done and done. Yeah!!

I learned more about dryer vent covers than I ever thought I’d know in my lifetime. And now you do, too: They should not have screens on them.

Alabama Living: The Minimalist Warrior

I’ve been in Birmingham, Alabama, now for almost two weeks and I’m scheduled to be here for one more. I’ve officially embedded myself into my friend Amy’s family. (For the backstory on the history of our friendship, please refer to a previous post called The Move-In Day Miracle here.

Amy is renovating her kitchen and flooring so I’m here to be project manager, warm body in the house while workers are here, personal organizer, purging cheerleader, errand runner, design consultant, and backup responsible adult (in case of emergency only). And by purging cheerleader, I don’t mean I wear a short skirt, bounce around, shake my pom-poms and have an eating disorder. I mean that I’m cheering Amy on as she makes a zillion choices every day to get rid of stuff.

She’s the master of letting things go—she just needs me to harass her late into the night (I don’t have her attention until about 9:00 p.m.) with questions like:

“Hey, how attached are you to this?”

“Where did this come from?”

“What does this do?”

And all followed by some variation of:

“Can we (and by we I mean you) get rid of it?”

I ransack closets and pantries and drawers and make a horrible mess constantly—all in the name of eventually making it all pretty and (hopefully) easier to maintain.

As a single mom with a tremendously adult job who commutes through fiery rings of traffic hell, Amy has come to appreciate the importance of not wasting her time attending to her stuff. Her time with the kids is limited enough after 10-hour days, so her first priority is to maximize every moment she can with them. Too much stuff equals scattered attention, frustration, and overwhelm.

Amy is a warrior of minimalism fighting to rid her house of evil clutter. And damn is she brutal! With me to do the grunt work, she’s able to make the tough choices and then move on—I take it from there by counting, packing, and hauling the items to the garage.

Her goal for this year (2018) is to get rid of 2,018 items.

That sounds like a lot but I don’t think she’ll have any trouble hitting the mark. When I start “exploring” a new area and arranging like with like, it becomes obvious really fast which types of items are out of control. For example, the kitchen pantry had over a dozen lunch bags/boxes in it because her daughter LOVES lunch bags. She loves the kind that zip, the kind that have her art on them, the kind that have stripes, the kind that have handles, the kind that don’t have handles, the kind that are padded, and the kind that have a special pouch for an ice pack. The girl loves her bags! Fortunately she’s also chill about letting them go, which is fortunate for all involved.

The lunch bags have now been reduced to this:


Lunch bags are in the purple tote. Plastic storage containers were also out of control!

Undoubtedly the stickiest items are the ones inherited from beloved (and now deceased) grandparents. Amy’s hesitancy to let something go is typically code for “that came from my grandparents’ house” or “that was my grandmother’s/grandfather’s.” In this case, I remind Amy that she has dozens of gorgeous items from her grandparents on display all over the house. And if they’re on display, they’re obviously meaningful. Now that I know where to look, her grandfather (who was an amazing human being) is all over the house—represented in items like this gorgeous creation he carved by hand:


St. Francis of Assisi, yes?

Anything he created has his energy and love in it through and through. That’s the stuff of magic to keep and cherish. The stuff he just happened to own? In most cases it’s clutter (if not useful or brings great joy).

The purged items count is currently at 600. It’ll be fun to see how high we can get it before I leave.

For this weekend, however, we take a break from the house projects and head to the beach.

(More Alabama stories to come…)

The Many Tiny Things

Since Chester’s passing I’ve started listening to an American Public Media podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking. My cousin Rachel mentioned on Facebook that she was obsessed with it, so I looked into it. Here’s the description:


After the first couple episodes I was unclear about whether it was helpful or harmful to be listening. (I have a tendency to make poor choices about my media consumption when I’m feeling vulnerable.) I kept listening and eventually noticed that the episodes about grief felt like a cold compress on my swollen heart.

In the show I’m halfway through today, a woman named Holly is in day one of widowhood, having lost her husband after a prolonged illness. She shares that in the shower one day, shortly after her husband had become non-responsive, she melted onto the floor crying about not having written down the two recipes that were in his repertoire. He could make two amazing meals and she had no idea what was in either or how to prepare them and therefore could not pass this knowledge on to their son.

She mentions that if she were to share this heartbreak about the lost recipes with a “normal” person, they would think she was crazy. Nora, however, totally gets it and explains that we are all the sum of the many tiny things that make us who we are: our recipes, our jokes, our smiles, our quirks…so of course Holly should cry about those two recipes. That is loss. When we lose someone, we lose the many tiny things.

And that’s it. Regardless of whether we’re grieving an animal companion or a human…we miss the little things. And we miss the biggest thing: the physical presence of that particular body animated by that particular soul.

I walk into my room and miss seeing Chester’s food bowls on my dresser. I open my closet door and expect to see his litter boxes. For weeks after his death, I held a stuffed animal while falling asleep the way I used to hold him. It took me weeks to get rid of the short glass on my bedside table that provided his primary source of water. His pillow with the soft purple blanket still resides on the bed next to my pillow (though it was weeks before I could bring myself to wash it).

The Costco trips have slowed almost to a stop because I no longer buy a rotisserie chicken for him every week. When I pass the pet food store, I have to override the muscle memory that would turn my car into the parking lot to get him more of the protein and gravy pouches he loved.

Yesterday I took a short nap and my friend’s cat perched on me for a few minutes and purred. Tears ran down my face and into my ears because I was reminded how much I miss having a purring Chester lying on my body like an extra appendage.

And that’s grief, right?

I miss his smell, I miss burying my face in his chest, I miss the way he lounged atop my body like it was as much his as mine, I miss his voice (both his regular meow and the gruffy meow-yell it became near the end of his life), I miss the softness of his fur, and I miss the way he could become a kitten in the blink of an eye and start chasing his tail.

As Nora said, it’s the million tiny things that we lose.

But what can never be lost is the love.


The Catch-Me-If-You-Can Workout by Chester!

From the moment I brought him home, Chester was a great companion for Beautiful White Princess. They were fast friends and their temperaments complemented each other well. One time I even saw them curled up on the bed together!

I bonded with Princess by brushing her perfect long hair and telling her stories of her beauty—of how it was legendary far and wide. She tucked me in every night by lying on top of me, her face inches from mine, and letting me scratch her cheeks and head while she purred and kneaded my chest and licked the sheets beneath my chin.

I bonded with Chester by chasing him through the hallways of my apartment building—a game he invented for us. I lived in a front second-floor unit of a small three-story building with basement. One night Chester was pawing at the door asking to go out. Being the sucker I am, I let him out to explore the hallway. (Princess had done this in my previous apartment building but she never went more than about 25 feet.) Instead, he disappeared into the front stairwell and was gone—like totally and completely gone in an instant. Like Harry Potter disapparating kind of gone.

Screenshot-2018-4-5 59 Ogden St Denver, CO 80218

This is what the hallways look like now (since being renovated).

I laughed and guessed he’d gone up a floor, so up I ran. No cat. Hmm. Down a floor. No cat. Down another floor. Ha! There he was, sitting in the middle of the hallway staring boredly as if he’d been waiting for hours. As I ran toward him laughing, he turned and sprinted into the back stairwell. This time I saw that he’d gone up. As I was more than halfway to the back stairwell, I increased speed and followed him up. But did he go one or two levels? A quick stop on two revealed no cat. I ran up to three and there he was in the middle of the hallway again, bored and watching me. By this point I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe–his nonchalance was killing me! As you can imagine, as I started to approach him he turned tail and sprinted into the front stairwell again. How the EFF was I going to catch this cat?!

I don’t remember how the game finally concluded (any of the times we played it). I might have had to shut front and back stairwell doors strategically to be able to trap him. Or maybe he finally just let me catch up to him. That game cracked me up—every time—and we played it almost nightly. I had already known he was magical at understanding what I was saying to him and now I knew he was faster than the speed of light. He was a trickster with a dry mischievousness.

We played that game for many months until I came home to a note on my door from the apartment manager. She said she’d received complaints from a neighbor who was deathly allergic to cats that my cat had been spotted in the hallway on numerous occasions. So as not to kill this neighbor, I was expected to keep my cat in my apartment at all times.



I would need to think of a way to give Chester more opportunities to run and play and change altitudes within my apartment…

Eventually I would land upon the brilliant idea of building him a cat tower.

How I Became Chester’s (cont.)

Did I leave you hanging with that last post? Yes. Yes I did.

Lemme guess: You’re thinking, “Okay, so you have a healthy cat at home (in your one-bedroom apartment) and a (potentially chronically) sick cat in your car. What’s the plan now?”


Indeed I was in a pickle. I had rescued this guy by hook and by crook, but I hadn’t expected he would be ill.

We headed first to a veterinary clinic. (I’m starting to think I adopted him on a Monday because I remember taking him straight to the vet and most vets are closed on Sundays. Perhaps the security guard backdated the adoption paperwork?)

According to my records I took him to Washington Park Veterinary Clinic, a place I’d never been. (I would have sworn I took him to Firehouse Animal Hospital—this is starting to freak me out. Why can’t I remember my own life?!) The staff was incredibly understanding and didn’t even charge me for the exam. They drew blood to test him for FIV and leukemia and sent me to the lobby to wait for the results.

While waiting, my mind was flooded with worry about what I’d do if he was found to have a chronic communicable disease. The Ragdoll had tested positive so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that he might also.

When the tech came out and told me that he was absolutely fine except for a terrible case of kennel cough, I remember trying to choke back tears of relief (which I’m fairly certain I failed at). The amount of emotion I felt was overwhelming and caught me completely off guard. What sway this cat had over me already!

I was given a liquid antibiotic for his kennel cough and I was told he’d be okay to be around other cats in 7 to 10 days.

With tears streaming down my face I explained to him in the car that he was going to be just fine once we cleared him of his nasty cold.

But…now what?

next move

I couldn’t take him home for risk of exposing Princess to kennel cough. I couldn’t take him to Rebecca’s because of her two cats. Who did I know who didn’t have any animals and might love me enough to care for my sick cat?


Despite her cat allergy, Katie readily agreed to take him in and care for him for the 7 to 10 days it would take him to recover. So off we drove to her tiny one-bedroom apartment in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

What a strange experience for this cat! To be adopted by one person but then taken to stay with someone else for the first week. I told him about Princess and about how excited she would be to meet him… “But I can’t risk you getting her sick the way some other animal in the shelter got you sick. So we’re going to Katie’s house. She’s my best friend and you will love her; everyone loves her—she’s delightful. But maybe don’t love her too much, okay? I’ll be over to visit as often as I can. Your only job is to rest and to heal. We’re going to have a great life together—you, Princess, and me. You’re going to start feeling better really soon. Katie is going to give you a medicine that will help you be able to breathe easier and open your eyes wider and not be such a sneezy-head.”

And so it went. This sweet man started to be called Chester and he recuperated in Katie’s apartment. She subsisted on Benadryl while sharing her bed with this cuddly, swollen-faced cat who sneezed a lot. She will forever have my undying gratitude. ♥

043007 messy table

Chester many years later with Miranda, who clearly adored him (as did all the ladies).

How I Became Chester’s

At the age of 26 I had just moved into a one-bedroom apartment with my four-year-old cat, Beautiful White Princess. I had a new job and was spending time with my girlfriend, Rebecca, so Princess was often alone…and seemed lonely.


Beautiful White Princess in Repose

I decided she would be happier if she had a friend, so Rebecca and I went to the Adams County Animal Control Center to find her a cat. For the life of me I cannot recall why it was so specifically THAT place…but given that it was a long drive to get there, I know it was intentional.

To get to the cats, we first had to walk down THE LONGEST CORRIDOR EVER of dogs. Behind the chain-link fencing of their cage fronts they barked, jumped, smiled, or danced—so excited to see people who might take them home. This was traumatic for both of us because we knew we couldn’t help any of them, so we averted our eyes (with only moderate success) and walked like speed racers.

Three of the cat room’s four walls were comprised of perfect rows and columns of individual metal cages, each with a tiny litter box and a bowl of water. There were little cat faces surrounding us from low to high like a feline version of The Hollywood Squares.

cat cage walls

My mom had gravely and adamantly warned me away from selecting a male cat because of…reasons I can’t quite recall (but likely pertained to the possibility of spraying). Whatever she’d said, likely multiple times, had influenced me enough that I was only open to adopting a female.

The first one to capture my attention was a tiny Ragdoll who clearly was not well—her eyes and nose were runny and she seemed to feel puny. She was sweet as could be, pure fluff with only the tiniest body hidden under so much long fur. Perhaps because her need seemed the most dire, I decided uncharacteristically swiftly that she would be my new cat.

Also of note was an orange tabby who was putting on a huge show by meowing and purring, rubbing his face all over the front of the cage, and sticking his little paws out in an effort to grab us. He was so freaking cute…but unfortunately male.

I told the staff member I wanted the Ragdoll and was told that because she was ill, she would need to be tested before they could release her. I left empty handed, waiting impatiently for the phone call that would tell me she was okay.

When it finally came later that evening, the news was devastating: She had tested positive for either FIV or feline leukemia (or both) and would be euthanized per shelter procedure. I grieved a cat who had been mine only in my imagination—such a beautiful sweet tiny creature!

And still I needed a cat for my cat.

The next day was Sunday and my only chance to return to the shelter until the next weekend—and I didn’t want to wait that long. Rebecca couldn’t go with me but also didn’t need to: “If he’s still there, get the orange tabby—the guy who was rubbing his face all over the cage and reaching his paws out. He’s been on my mind since we left the shelter. No matter what else I might be thinking about, his face pops into my mind. He’s the one.”

“But he’s a boy!” I protested.

“I know, but apparently he wants to be your boy.”

I didn’t question Rebecca’s intuition; I had taken her with me for a reason and I trusted that if she felt so strongly about one of the cats, I couldn’t go wrong to follow her guidance. She had two gorgeous sister tuxedo cats, Miranda and Alexa, and I greatly respected her knowledge of and connection to felines.

I made the long drive back to the shelter, marched to the front door with my cat carrier, and was confused when the door wouldn’t open. I peered through to a darkened lobby and noticed a Closed sign hanging on the door.


“Wait, what? How could it be closed?! There are animals in there who need homes!” I was swept up in emotion, mostly frustration and mild panic. What if my cat gets adopted before I can come back? What if he isn’t even here now?

Right then a security guard unlocked and opened the door. It’s possible I was crying, or at the very least looked incredibly pathetic, because he asked if I was okay. I explained that I’d tried to rescue a Ragdoll the day before but that she’d been found to be ill and had to be euthanized so I was here to get the orange tabby (sniffle sniffle wipe tears sniffle). “I drove a long way and this is my only day off this week and I’m just here to pick up the orange tabby.”

He was incredibly sweet and obviously cared about animals because he said, “Well, I don’t work directly for the shelter but I’ve been around here long enough to know the process. Come on in, I think we can get you your cat.”

The guard walked me down the long dog corridor and hollered for someone once we got to the end. It was a different experience this time because all the lights were dimmed—like during a power outage when only the emergency lights are functioning. A young man with Down Syndrome appeared and walked me to where the cats were.

Although a room different from before, I beelined directly to the orange tabby who was, as before, meowing and rubbing his face all over the bars of the cage and reaching out with his paws.

And then he sneezed.


And then he sneezed again.


The shelter worker didn’t seem to notice or care about the sneezing as he opened the cage, grabbed the cat, and transferred him to my hard-sided carrier. Then he left the room to continue with his normal duties.

I leaned over and looked intently into the cat’s eyes, which were only tiny slits because his face was so puffy. I said slowly and clearly, “Rebecca delivered your message to me, so I’m here to take you home. Here’s the deal, though: They are not supposed to let me have you if you’re sick. And obviously you are sick. I need you to do everything you can to NOT SNEEZE in front of the security guard.”

During the entire walk along the dog corridor I spoke insistently and repetitively above the barking: “There’s only one thing I need you to do: You cannot sneeze in front of the man. You must be totally quiet. I’ll get us out of here as fast as possible. Your only job is to be silent.”

I must have told him 50 different ways that silence was imperative in front of the nice man.

When we got back to the lobby, the guard was waiting with a clipboard of paperwork for me. I set the carrier on a bench near the door—as far away as I could without drawing suspicion—and then stood at the counter writing as fast as I could on form after form. I paid $8.00, made sure all was good with the guard, thanked him profusely, and then exited as quickly as I could without breaking into a run.

Upon reaching my car I placed the carrier on the passenger seat, shut my door, and:




For the next five minutes he sneezed nonstop.

Clearly this guy was something special.