Pets, personality, and the faces we deserve.


Last week we took our dog to church.

The Episcopal church follows the lectionary, and the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost belongs to St. Francis of Assisi. Though best known for his solidarity with the poor, legend has it that Francis could also talk to animals. In honor of St. Francis, everyone got to bring their dogs and cats, bunnies and hamsters, turtles and guinea pigs to church last week.

We’d been to this particular service, held annually, once before. Oddly, it was the first service we attended at what was to become our church: we showed up on a Sunday morning to find the service was in the gym, and everyone had their pets with them. It was unexpected and a little nuts and a very fun and unthreatening way to ease in to a new community.

Now that we knew what to expect from this special service, we were looking forward to it. What I didn’t expect, now that we know people a little better, was how interesting it would be to see everyone with their pets.

Do you remember that scene in 101 Dalmations when Pongo stares out the window and watches the dog-walkers go by, all of whom bear an eery resemblance to their owners?

That’s exactly what it felt like at church. The Great Dane owners looked like they belonged with their noble, elegant Great Danes. The collie owners looked like they belonged with their fluffy, loyal collies. The Scotty dog owners looked like they had the Scotty dog personality, even if I hadn’t recognized it before I’d seen them with their dogs.

We have a chocolate lab named Harriet. she’s placid, companionable, and loves retrieving tennis balls more than life itself. Now, of course, I’m now wondering what our choice of Harriet says about our family. Did we choose a pet that reflects our own selves back to us?

George Orwell said that by age 50, everyone has the face he deserves. Our faces are the windows to our souls, and with every day we live, we choose—with every thought we think, every decision we make—what they reveal about our innermost selves.

(For years, I inadvertently attributed this quote to Oscar Wilde—it seems like the sort of thing he would say, doesn’t it?—and pegged the year as 40. I thought about this quote a lot as I edged closer to the imagined milestone. Now I’m relieved to discover I’m not so close after all.)

In a decade and a half or so, I’ll have the face I deserve, and my personality will ostensibly be on display for all to see. In the meantime, my chocolate lab is doing the job for me.

Does your pet reflect your personality? Have you noticed that other people’s pets accurately reflect THEIR personalities?

P.S. Musings on personality, from the archives.

It happens when you’re not looking.

It happens when you're not looking | Modern Mrs Darcy

We’ve been half-heartedly searching for a new kitchen table for months.

Our old one (visible in this instagram shot) was truly terrible, not for how it looks, but for how it functions. The table was literally somebody else’s junk: my parents’ old tenants left it behind when they moved out of their rental house, because it wasn’t worth moving. I don’t remember how it ended up in our old basement, but it spent a good 5+ years there, buried under craft supplies.

We weren’t planning on moving it to the new house—it was destined for Goodwill, if not the dumpster—but at the last minute decided to use it as a stand-in for the new IKEA table we planned to pick up within weeks of the move. The new table was a top 5 priority.

But we soon discovered our space was just a little too snug to accommodate the table I’d picked out, and finding one that worked was tough. My casual searches didn’t turn up anything that was the right size, the right style, and the right price.

Now that we’ve been in our house five months, I was more than ready to cross this item off the list. (Top 5 priority—ha!)

I didn’t like our kitchen table, but Will hated it with a fiery passion. He was in Seattle for business last week, and I wanted to surprise him with a new one when he got home. (Not everyone likes that kind of surprise, but he hates making house decisions even more than I do: he just wanted it done.)

So for weeks, I looked and I looked and I looked, and found … nothing.

I called off the intensive search. We’d keep an eye on craigslist, or build our own if we had to. (Shudder.)

It happens when you're not looking | Modern Mrs Darcy

But then our electricity went out Friday night, and the kids and I made an impromptu Trader Joe’s run so we wouldn’t have to open the fridge.

We found a parking spot in front of the newish furniture store next door. I’d noticed it before, and the cottage-meets-modern pieces they set out on the sidewalk to lure you in.

Just inside the open door, they had a round wooden table that looked just the right size, painted a cheerful Mediterranean blue.

I pulled the kids inside. We confirmed it was the right size and within budget, and I texted photos to my friends with great taste. They approved, and on Saturday, I went back to buy it.

The table is all set up and we’re all really happy with it—even my husband (he’s home—yay!) and my child who fears change. It’s not practically perfect in every way, and it could use a glass top, but it’s 400x better than the old one, and that’s good enough for me.

The irony doesn’t escape me, but it no longer surprises me. This is far from the first time I’ve found the perfect (enough) thing when I wasn’t looking, maybe even because I wasn’t looking.

One of my mom’s rules of life is that you can’t force a shopping trip: great dresses stubbornly appear only when you don’t need them. You have to buy them anyway, because when the time comes when you actually need one you won’t be able to find one in the racks.

And I have a half-dozen friends who met their significant others at a time when they’d sworn off dating. They said they were done … and then they met someone who made them change their mind.

Maybe this is just one of the laws of the universe, like Murphy. But I’m tempted to think there’s logic behind it, as well as serendipity. When we’re looking for a table, we see tables. Lot and lots of tables, to evaluate and compare, and ultimately choose from those options.

But I wonder if our bar is higher when we’re not looking. We have to like the table (in my case) well enough to let it seize our attention, interrupt our day, pull us into the store, and inspire us to negotiate moving it home on the weekend I’m single parenting. That’s a table worth pursuing, and one I’ll (knock on wood!) be happy with.

Do you find the best stuff when you’re not looking? I’d love to hear your examples, and your theories about why it works. 

Let’s talk about stress baking.

Let's talk about stress baking | Modern Mrs Darcy

I was surprised to learn from the comments of the recent post about my go-to cookbooks that not everyone is acquainted with the term “stress baking,” nor the virtues thereof. I’ve employed stress baking as a coping mechanism for so long that I took it for granted knowledge of the art was universal, if not universally applied.

Many people bake out of necessity, or for the joy of discovery, or as a means of artistic expression. I do none of these. When I bake (unless my kids have roped me into one of their “kitchen projects”—a euphemism if ever there was one) I do so as a means of stress relief.

It’s entirely possible that not everyone has the need for an outlet like stress baking, but for those of us to tend to live in our heads (ahem), it’s an excellent way to deal with stress, whether the variety is family drama, workplace issues, or General Overwhelm.

Baking isn’t easy, but that’s the point: it’s a precise, physical discipline that requires concentration on the task at hand, which has the added benefit of crowding out the swirling storm of thoughts in your head. It requires you to slow down and be deliberate with your actions, which yield a predictable and satisfying end.

Yet for the over-thinkers among us, baking is a different kind of hard: it requires very little decision making: a plus for anyone prone to decision fatigue. We’re talking about stress baking, not stress cooking, after all—and for good reason: cooking is improvisational, tolerant, and accommodating. Baking is exacting, formulaic, and unforgiving. Cooking readily accepts the cook’s whims; baking requires formulaic precision.

When it comes to stress relief, I have no doubt which is better suited for my own needs. Cooking may be satisfying at the end of a hard day; baking is satisfying in the midst of a hard month.

I don’t bake as much as I used to (silly gluten) but last night we had a special dinner at home, and Silas (age 4) and I made apple crisp. (We use the crisp recipe from Bread and Wine, even though we rarely make it with blueberries as prescribed) I’d planned on baking it alone while listening to Outlander book 5 (I’ve gotta chip away at those 55 hours whenever I can!), but Silas wanted to help. I don’t put headphones in when my kids are in the room, but Silas wasn’t feeling chatty, so we just stood at the kitchen counter together, largely in silence, while we studiously peeled our dozen apples (because I believe in leftovers) and mixed up our topping.

Making apple crisp is not at quite the same level as baking bread, meditation-wise. But his late-afternoon crankiness soon subsided to calm, and my fear of peeling off my own skin kept my attention on the apples, not on my to-do list. We both needed the break.

(Also worth noting: our house smelled fabulous. And Silas was heartbreakingly proud of his contribution to the family dinner.)

Of course, there are other ways to work off stress that have nothing to do with baking, although they share many of the same characteristics. Last week when I was feeling a little bit exhausted, I decided to paint the kitchen instead of tackling my to-do list. It was a physical task that required my concentration but no decisions. It required me to follow certain steps in a certain order, and yielded a predictable end result.

I felt extremely productive, and after a few hours’ work, I could say, “Look—I did that.”

I suspect stress baking isn’t far removed from angry cleaning, either. It’s missing a few key attributes (no formulas are required for organizational binges) but its shared drive to create external order out of inner (and outer) chaos makes the two cousins, at least.

Talk to use about your experience with stress baking. 

When the planes hit the Towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.

blue skies


9/11/2014 UPDATE: Since it took me years to write this post, I’m re-running it today, on this thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. I still think about this every single day.

I tried to write this post in 2011, and then in 2012, and now in 2013 I’m hitting publish. I’m warning you: it’s a long one. 

When the planes hit the Towers on 9/11, I was over the Atlantic Ocean, in a plane bound for New York City.

Our flight from Prague that morning had been uneventful, but as we neared the halfway point, the pilot made an announcement—in Czech—that sent concerned murmurs through the Europeans on board. When he repeated it in English, we understood why: U. S. airspace was closed, and we were turning around.

What could close U. S. airspace? There were a few obvious answers, none of them good. But the flight attendants wheeled out the beverage carts, and the cabin was soon abuzz with strangers sharing theories.

I wish I knew exactly what time we hit the ground in Prague. 3:00 p.m. New York time? Maybe 4:00? When we debarked from the plane—knowing nothing—each passenger was handed this printout from

Maybe one day, when I’m a better writer, I’ll tell you what it was like to watch our fellow passengers—especially the New Yorkers—gape at that paper in their hand and crumple to the ground.

The next few days are kind of a blur.

That night, the airline shuttled us to a hotel straight out of the twilight zone. We dumped our bags, washed our faces in the rust-colored water, and waited in a long, long line in the hotel lobby to call home. Many of the New Yorkers couldn’t get their calls to go through: the phone service to much of Manhattan had been taken out with the towers.

The next morning, we booked tickets home for Friday, September 14, contingent on American air space reopening. It opened—but only to domestic flights. We couldn’t get tickets out for ten more days.

Since we had time to kill, we decided to head for Germany. It felt like a bonus (and bittersweet) European vacation, except for the anxiety and candlelight vigils and hours of CNN in the evenings.

But then in Nurnberg I got stung by a bee. That’s not usually a big deal, but I’m allergic to bee stings. I’d had a reaction a few years before and carried an epipen for a few years, just in case, but I didn’t have my epipen in Europe. Long story short, I ended up in the Nurnberg ER, trying to tell the staff—in German—that I was having an allergic reaction.

But it wasn’t an allergic reaction. It was a panic attack.

*****     *****     *****

The rest of our trip was uneventful (save the jaw-dropping security for the tense flight home). It was a lot of fun, actually. But when we got back to the States, I started having panic attacks in my sleep. I can’t describe how horrible they were. The first time, I literally thought I was dying.

I went to my doctor after that first one back home. He said my experience was classic: my stress levels were running really high after 9/11, which made me susceptible to a full-blown panic attack with the bee sting. He said we needed to squelch them, and fast, because panic attacks lead to more panic attacks: with each one I was etching grooves in my nervous system that would make it that much easier to have another. So he prescribed anxiety and blood pressure meds and sent me on my way.

(My doctor didn’t suggest counseling, and I didn’t seek it. I never considered it: my circumstances didn’t seem to merit it, compared to the other events of 9/11.)

But my health went downhill, fast. I had always been in great shape, but I was suddenly running a resting heart rate of 96. I looked ashen, and shaky. I didn’t feel safe to drive. I didn’t want to be by myself. I was 23. I was a wreck.

This went on for months. The turning point came when I realized the blood pressure drugs that were supposed to help me were actually making me sick. I cut them out, then I tentatively started driving again, then running. The panic attacks started tapering off, and I started feeling like a normal twenty-something again. Mostly.

*****     *****     *****

More than ten years later, I still have the occasional panic attack, maybe once or twice a year, tops. I dug deep grooves back in 2001, and they’re easy to follow. I will always be more susceptible to them than I was before September 2001.

For a long time, I was embarrassed that I had this scar, of sorts, from 9/11. Nobody likes to talk about anxiety, to start with. But it also seemed unfair to complain about this comparatively small mark, when so many people lost so much that day.

I wish I’d known then that comparing losses doesn’t help, and often hurts, like it did in my case. I didn’t seek help because my loss seemed “comparatively” small, and because of my reluctance, I walked around with undiagnosed PTSD for a long time.

(Even now, I feel silly typing out those four official-sounding letters.)

I wonder how many people there are, like me, who lost something precious on 9/11, but don’t speak of it, because the loss seems so small—in comparison.

I don’t even know what to ask you about this one. Feel free to share thoughts about 9/11, anxiety, or comparing losses in comments.