Category Archives: Personal

Weird Visual of the Day

Humans are infinitely varied creatures. Why not celebrate that?

My family has this game we call “Weird Visual of the Day.” Whenever we’re out and about, we look for people and things that are ever-so-slightly out of the ordinary. We’re not looking for the kind of full-on strangeness that’s sad or dangerous. We’re not looking for spectacle. We’re not looking for people whose hobby is looking outlandish. We’re looking for the kind of everyday oddballs that you find in any medium-sized city, especially in a college town like ours.

It’s not competitive. My family doesn’t keep score. It’s just a way to remind ourselves to keep our eyes open, because humans are such wonderfully varied creatures.

Like the woman and her dog wearing matching coats…and shoes. Or the couple wearing deer costumes and glittery masks doing a slow-motion dance in the middle of Maynard street, accompanied by a tambourine. Or the guy sporting a hairstyle I can only describe as “Elvis Mohawk.”

Or the people who put a tiny volcano in their front yard.

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Or the time we were at a high school football game and the woman two rows ahead of us took it upon herself to turn around and teach our entire section the words to the school song. Patiently. Loudly. Out of tune. Her companions were embarrassed for her. I was delighted.

I was shopping with a friend when we saw this in the mall parking lot.

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My friend was horrified. “Who would do something like that?” she asked.

“Someone way more fun than us,” I answered, reaching for my camera. Seriously, how can you not love this stuff?

Weird Visual of the Day is my favorite thing because I love quirky people. Happily, this weekend, I’ll be surrounded by them.

I’m going to a science fiction convention called “Life, the Universe, and ConFusion.” I’m sitting on four panels. When I’m not paneling, I’ll be mingling with scientists, gamers, authors, and artists.

At ConFusion, I don’t expect to see the weird visual of the day. I expect to see the weird visual of the hour.

I know my fellow con-goers will not let me down.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She is sure that at some point, she has been someone else’s Weird Visual of the Day.

We Are Not Things

Words to remember. Words to live by.

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My dearest friend Chris bought me this bracelet. I love it (and her) so much that it finds its way onto my wrist nearly every day.

It’s a simple aluminum cuff stamped with the words “We Are Not Things,” which is one of the taglines from my favorite movie: Mad Max Fury Road.

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“We Are Not Things” is a cry of liberation from desperate women fleeing across the wasteland in search of a better life. But truly, it applies to every character in the film, including Mad Max himself.

And it applies to me. And to you. And to everyone I meet.

We are not things.

I always wear it on my right wrist, with the words facing me.

I catch glimpses of it at odd times during the day. When I’m cooking. When I’m putting on chaptstick, and especially when I’m at the computer. I spend most of my time alone so usually I’m the only one who sees it.

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But I’m the one who needs to see it. Because in this internet age, where wit is social currency, I sometimes forget that there’s another human being on the other end of the computer.

As a writer, I put a lot of stock in words. I know what words mean. I know how to use them. I know how to combine them to achieve exactly the effect I’m hoping for. The problem comes when I’m on social media, having fun with my snarky friends, trying to top one joke with another. On social media—especially Twitter—many times the effect I’m hoping for is “making myself look good at the expense of others.”

Most of the time this is okay. Even hilarious. Nobody is hurt when I mock Comcast for their poor service or make a joke about the latest political debate. But there have been times when I’ve let it get more personal, and more nasty, than that. Once, I trusted my words far too much.

I made some observations about a friend I’ll call Stephanie (not her real name). Then, I used those observations to talk about my own shortcomings. I thought it was okay to use Stephanie as a platform because ultimately, I was the butt of my own joke.

Just typing those words make me cringe. I thought it was okay to use my friend as a platform. I thought it would be funny.

It wasn’t funny. Stephanie didn’t care that the joke was on me. She cared that I’d used her to get a laugh. I’d treated her like a thing. She took me to task for it and has not yet forgiven me. Nor have I forgiven myself.

I never want that to happen again. So I wear my bracelet, and I remind myself that we are not things. And I stop and think before I tweet.

Chris has never met Stephanie. She didn’t know any of this when she gave me the bracelet. She simply wanted to give me a memento of a movie I love, a reminder of my own liberation, a token of our friendship, and a pretty piece of jewelry to wear.

But she also gave me a beautiful reminder to take care with my words, because I am not, you are not, and we are not things.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who is passionate about helping new writers. 

Lessons From a Lifetime of Cooking

My mom didn’t teach me how to cook. She taught me something more important.

My mother was an indifferent cook. She put nutritious meals on the table every night, but she didn’t find it interesting or satisfying in any way. What she liked to make most were simple baked dishes. Anything she could put together, slide into the oven, and walk away from was ideal. We ate a lot of casseroles.

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Mom’s real passion was sewing. Since my siblings and I liked wearing custom-made clothing, as teenagers, we took over the kitchen so Mom could stay in her sewing room.

With the kids in charge of the cooking, bland casseroles gave way to stir-fries, slow-cooked meats with fresh herbs, and complex pasta dishes. Given freedom in the kitchen, my siblings and I have all become excellent, self-taught chefs.

Even all these years later, after cooking countless meals for my own family, I’m still picking up new ideas. Here are three things I’ve learned this year.

1.Most cookbooks are aspirational, not instructive. I’ve bought a lot of cookbooks. Some of them I’ve only used once. But I’ve learned that it’s perfectly okay to look through gorgeous illustrated recipes for French cuisine and then cook a simple stew. If the cookbook got me into the kitchen, it’s done its job.

2.  No two loaves of bread are ever the same. I recently learned to bake artisan bread and it’s changed my life. It’s the only bread my family eats, I bring it to every potluck, and it’s my go-to thank you gift. With this one recipe, I feel like I’ve been given the cheat code for life. But I’ve also learned that effort and outcome are two different things. I’ve baked gorgeous loaves worthy of a magazine photo. I’ve also baked misshapen lumps, flat bread where I wanted puffy, and high-rising tall loaves where I wanted focaccia. They were all delicious, but every time I put the dough in the oven, I cross my fingers that I’ll get the results I was working toward.

3. When cooking a new recipe, always have a special dessert, in case it flops. Cupcakes always work. Not the grocery store ones, but the really fancy ones that come from the specialty store and look too pretty to eat. You bust those out after dinner and everyone will forget the curry that tasted like dirty socks.

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These lessons all have one thing in common: acceptance. You can only control so much. At some point, you have to let go and let the heat do the work, trusting it will be okay. And that you’ll survive if it’s not.

That’s one thing my mom did well. Most of the time, her recipes turned out just fine. But when they didn’t, it never bothered her. She had so little of herself invested in the outcome, she could take a Zen approach to it all.

A tiny bit of my heart still breaks when I spend hours on a meal only to have the roast turn into a chewy brick and the vegetables become a bland mush. But it helps to remember how lucky we are to have this food, and it helps to think of my mom, who knows that one kitchen fail doesn’t mean much in a lifetime of cooking.

Especially if there are cupcakes for dessert.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who hasn’t eaten a casserole since learning to cook.

The Top Ten Benefits of Being a Low-maintenance Gal

The less I care about how I look, the more I feel like myself.

I’ve had exactly one manicure in my life and that’s because someone gave me a gift certificate to a spa. I don’t color my hair. My favorite lipstick is chapstick. I’m always clean, well-groomed, and appropriately dressed, but everything else is optional, and I prefer not to opt in.

This is my current twitter picture.

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No makeup, unfussy hair, not even trying to hide the circles under my eyes. But it’s exactly how I look day-to-day and I want to be my authentic self online. My authentic self is a low-maintenance gal.

Being low-maintenance does not mean I’m lazy or I don’t like pretty things. Nor does it make me less of a lady. I smile a lot. I flirt. I love to hold babies and my favorite color is pink.

My style icon is Firefly’s Kaylee Frye.

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She’s sweet, she’s feminine, but she’s just not interested in obsessing about her looks. Kaylee dresses up sometimes, but only when it’s fun to do so.

So in honor of Kaylee Frye, here are the top ten benefits of being a low-maintenance gal.

10. I don’t spend money on makeup. I slap some sunscreen on my face and I’m good to go.

9. My bathroom is tidy because I don’t have a zillion little jars all over the counter. There is always room on my countertops and in my vanity drawers.

8. I travel light. That TSA rule about 3 ounce bottles in a quart-sized ziplock? No problem.

7. I can walk for miles and miles in my very cute, very flat shoes.

6. I’m a good role model for my kids. I’m showing them what a healthy, confident woman looks like. I don’t criticize my own looks and I hope they never criticize theirs.

5. Getting dressed up can be fun sometimes. It’s even more fun when it’s outside my usual routine. And special occasions feel even more special because I’ve made an effort.

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4. I have nice skin. Maybe it’s because I don’t put makeup on it. Or maybe it’s the other way around and I don’t have to put makeup on already good skin. Either way, I’m happy.

3. I can get ready to go at a moment’s notice. You want to go somewhere fabulous five minutes from now? Come pick me up. I’ll be ready.

2. I’m compassionate. With my own very low beauty standard, I’ve got no place to judge yours. I have never—not once—commented on someone’s weight, hairstyle, or clothes, not even in my own mind. Because I literally do not care. I notice what people wear and how they fix their hair. I enjoy their efforts. I don’t keep score.

1. I’m never going to be the prettiest or best dressed person in the room. It’s incredibly freeing. I’m the opposite of self-conscious. I’m okay with not being the pretty one or the cool one or the fashionable one. I can just be.

Other people like to go all-out with clothes and shoes and makeup and that is great. A chic hairstyle and flawless makeup is a joy to behold. Fashion is an art form. It truly is.

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Like Kaylee, I appreciate all the pretties. I love that these women make our world a more beautiful place.

And I especially love that they never ask me to go to shopping with them.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who owns exactly one lipstick.

[Photo credits: Fox Film Corporation / Mutant Enemy Productions]

I Never Meant to be Evil

Fictional villains—just like real ones—have reasons for what they do.

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When I was in sixth grade, I went to girl scout camp for two weeks. I ended up in a cabin full of girls who were all older than me, all knew each other, and had already formed their own clique.

I tried everything to get on these girls’ good side. I went along with their decisions about who got which bunk, how we would line up for meals, and which celebrities it was acceptable to have a crush on. I laughed at their jokes and tried not to feel left out when they talked about kids from their school or teachers they hated or places they knew.

Still, I spent most of my free time by myself. One day when I was alone in the cabin, I got the great idea to tidy it up.

I thought I was being nice. I thought my cabinmates would appreciate my efforts.

I thought wrong.

I accidentally put one girl’s Tiger Beat magazine in the wrong place. When she returned and couldn’t find it, she accused me of stealing it. The magazine was soon found, but the damage was done. I was labeled a thief and the other girls stopped talking to me for the rest of camp.

I didn’t try to defend myself, and maybe that was my mistake, but really, what was there to say? I thought it was obvious that I hadn’t taken the magazine and in fact, the other girls should have praised me for picking stuff up off the floor. But from everyone else’s perspective, I was a villain, even though I had done nothing wrong and everything right.

The same thing is true of fictional villains. They have reasons for what they do, and those reasons have to make sense not only to the bad guy, but to the reader. The antagonists do what they do not only for their own selfish reasons but for what they perceive as the greater good. Even Hannibal Lecter killed people who were (in his opinion) worse than he was, thus lowering the world’s total quota of evil.

When I was a brand-new baby writer, I once got back a critique from a writing contest. The judge said of my antagonist, “What’s his motivation? Is he just evil?” I thought, um…yeah. Isn’t that what villains are?

Well, no. A good antagonist has motives as strong and worthy as the protagonist’s. The reader, and even the hero, must (just for a moment) almost believe that the villain is correct.

One writing teacher even suggests outlining the entire novel from the antagonist’s point of view. Although I’ve never quite gone that far, I’ve found that time spent developing my antagonist benefits every other aspect of the book. After all, no one, wants to be evil.

Sometimes, we just want to tidy up the cabin.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who is passionate about helping new writers.

Pen in Hand

Do you love your handwriting? Hate it? Does anyone else ever see it?

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Some say handwriting is a lost art, but I don’t think so. Pen and paper are cheap and we all use them. We take notes, we write lists, some of us journal. We’re very used to seeing our own penmanship.

But what’s lost, I think, is the chance to read things written by others. Besides your kid’s homework papers and holiday cards, when is the last time you read something handwritten by someone else?

When I was a kid, I used to love watching my dad write. He held the fountain pen in his left hand and wrote beautiful cursive full of swoops and flourishes. I have recipe cards for dishes I will never make. I keep them because they are in my grandmother’s spindly writing. I’m fascinated by old diaries and letters as much for the handwriting as the words themselves.

So I wrote this blog post, so someone besides me could see something written by my own hand. 🙂

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who only works with manuscripts that are not hand-written.

Art as Rebellion

When you go to a school that worships football, creative writing can be a rebellious act.

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When I was in high school, my friends and I started a literary magazine. Our sports-oriented, Catholic school didn’t have a literary magazine, and our principal didn’t want one, so my friends and I made one on our own time. It had our names on it, and was clearly an independent project.

There was nothing anti-school or anti-faculty or anti-religion in the magazine. It was all angsty teenage poems and one really cool science fiction story about a superhero who controls the weather.

We put a ridiculously low price on the cover, something like fifty cents. We weren’t trying to make money. We simply wanted to repay my friend’s dad, who had bought the paper for us and helped us with photocopying. We openly sold the magazine at school, the same way kids sold candy bars for their church trips or raffle tickets for YMCA fundraisers.

We were proud of our little magazine. And that pride is what got us in trouble. We put a copy into the mailbox of each of the English department faculty and gave one to our principal. We thought they’d like to see what their students had achieved.

The principal was livid. How dare we publish a literary magazine? How dare we do it without faculty approval? We were threatened with suspension. Our crime was selling a non school-sponsored magazine on school property. It was a flimsy excuse and he knew it, but he also knew he could make it stick. If he caught us trying to sell our magazine at school, he might have to kick us out.

For writing a literary magazine. On our own time. And selling it to our friends.

This was in the pre-internet era, otherwise our story would be all over social media. We’d probably have Facebook groups and IndieGoGo campaigns to raise money for our next issue and petitions calling for a public apology. But this was the digital dark ages. We had no voice. We had no power. The principal shut us down. We never published a second issue.

I spent the rest of high school—and many years after that—terrified that I’d be punished for writing.

I didn’t realize at the time that it was the principal who was truly terrified. We were writing, we were publishing, and other kids were paying for our words. We had better things to write about than our crappy redneck football school. We hadn’t mentioned it at all. But we could have. Oh, we could have.

We could have written about the drunk assistant principal or the abusive religion teacher or the inequitable funding between sports and the arts. We could have written about corruption and scandal. And we could have written reams about hypocrisy—about the ways Christianity was used against students on a daily basis.

It’s not often that I’d like to go back in time. Overall, I much prefer being a grown-up to being a kid. But if I could live one day of my life over, I might pick the day that my high school principal tried to bully me out of writing.

Because if I could go back to that day, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t apologize. I wouldn’t ask for forgiveness. And I certainly wouldn’t promise to never do it again.

I would tell the principal that he could have what he wanted. I would tell him that we were done selling our literary magazine at school.

I’d tell him that a second issue was coming, and this one would be distributed for free.

Because my words—and those of my friends—are priceless.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who knows what should be changed and what can’t be–in fiction and in life.

Stolen Time

Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line. Sometimes I think I’ve personally waited all of them.

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My life is not that challenging if the worst thing I do is stand in line. So why do I hate it so much?

It helps if the time spent waiting is proportional to what I’m waiting for. It has to be “worth it.” Thirty minute wait for a table at my favorite restaurant? No problem. Forty minutes for a roller coaster at a theme park? Sure. But make me wait behind two people at the drug store when all I need is a bottle of shampoo and I’m thinking OMG my life is so terrible lines are the literal worst.

It’s not because I’m an impatient person. I am very patient with my family and friends. Even strangers. I don’t mind when a pal is late for a coffee date or my sister doesn’t text back right away or someone zooms ahead of me in traffic.

Nor is it because we live in such a fast-paced world and we’re all impatient nowadays. Other studies have shown that the elderly are just as unforgiving of a long line as youngsters.

My big problem with lines is the theft.

I feel it most when I’m waiting to pay for something. When I have to wait in line, I’m paying twice: once in money and once in time. And the stores know it, too. They’re perfectly willing to hire a smaller staff, saving themselves a lot of money by costing each customer a sliver of time.

But time is a commodity and the older I get the more valuable my time is to me. Which is one of the reasons I’ve moved most of my shopping online. I use Amazon Prime because heck yes I’ll pay extra for two-day shipping and other perks. Come to think of it, I’ve never waited in line at Costco either—another pay-to-shop establishment.

It sounds ridiculous on the surface. Why pay to buy things? But that’s not what I’m paying for. I’m paying for extra staff to quickly ring up my purchases and get me on my way.

And I’m getting a bargain by no longer paying the hidden cost of stolen time.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who never makes her clients wait in line. 

Luxury Living

Real estate signs in fancy neighborhoods promise “luxury living,” but I know better. True luxury is actually owning a house rather than being owned by one.

My family used to live in a fancy neighborhood.

Really fancy.

It was a planned subdivision as flawless as a movie set. A hundred houses sat on wide, curving streets featuring cul-de-sac islands filled with trees and flowers. Houses were big. Yards were weed-free.

The neighborhood association cost $550 a year. Membership was mandatory.

For that price, we got private garbage pickup and the streets were plowed in winter. And we got rules. Lots of rules. The association told us what color we could paint our house and mailbox. It inspected our sidewalks for cracks and our trees for low-hanging branches. It didn’t allow basketball hoops or boats-on-trailers or RVs in the driveway, even for one night.

When the streets got potholes and the township wouldn’t repave, the neighborhood association charged each household in our subdivision three thousand dollars and hired a contractor to completely resurface the roads.

How the neighborhood looked was the most important thing.

And our house? It was freaking gorgeous. It was 3200 square feet with three bathrooms and a two-story great room and one of those curving staircases made for a girl to flounce down in her prom dress. It had a kitchen with endless counter space and a cooktop island and a white tile floor. It had a walk-in closet ten feet by twenty feet and a bathtub so big we could never fill it properly because our hot water heater didn’t hold that much.

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Our beautiful house was also a shoddily constructed money pit.

The siding was glorified particleboard and the roof shingles were the thinnest kind made. The furnace was a builder’s special, meant to last five years or so. Ditto the hot water heater and the kitchen appliances. There were carpenter ants in the walls and mice in the attic. When we weren’t fixing things, we were cleaning. (Actually, I was the one doing the cleaning. Constantly. Did I mention the white floor?)

In the end, I didn’t care how my house looked. I cared how it felt. And it felt very, very bad. Our family could sprawl all over our huge house, but we could never fit in it. When my husband left me, he said, “I’ve never felt at home here.” Gee, me neither, hon. And even though he hated that damned house as much as I did, he urged me to stay in it anyway. I don’t know why. Some kind of punishment, maybe.

But I was done being punished by that house. I sold it at a loss and got out.

Now my kids and I live in town, in a neighborhood of tiny ranches. My street is a little less showy, a little less uniform. I no longer live in the sanitized Hollywood version of a neighborhood. I live in an authentic place. We don’t need a neighborhood association to tell us what to do. We all take great care of our homes because we live here.

My new house is the classic 1950s style with three small bedrooms and one bathroom. They don’t build them like they used to, but thank goodness they once did. My house is brick outside with plaster walls inside and a real wood floor. Every part of it was built to last. The previous owners did renovations with integrity, using high-quality finishes while matching the period style. My house might not be new, but it has more strength and character than houses half its age.

I can clean the entire thing, top to bottom, in half an hour. I’ve got a sixty year old maple tree in the front yard that drops an infinite number of leaves and yet my kids and I can rake them all up during the halftime break of a single football game.

I have less than a third of the physical space I had in my old house but my mental and emotional and spiritual space has increased a hundredfold. My kids and I love our new house, and a part of me thinks it loves having us live in it, too.

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I call my new house Darling. When I walk in the door I always say, “Darling, I’m home!”

Because I am.

For the first time ever, I am home.

About the author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire who lives in the perfect house on the perfect street in the perfect town.