Stories from middle America

Here are just a few things I’ve been interested and inspired by this week:

  • The Curious Case of Men and Women’s Buttons.

    Have you ever wondered why men’s and women’s shirts button on different sides? Several theories exist, but let’s all blame Napoleon. Dammit, Napoleon.

  • Fictitious Dishes.

    I stumbled on this wonderful book at Rare Device in San Francisco last fall. They were featuring some of the original photography and the evocative tables capes caught my eye. After reading that the artist, Dinah Fried, started this series of “photographic interpretations of culinary moments from contemporary and classic literature” while a student at Rhode Island School of Design, I was hooked.

    It’s all my favorite things: art, design, food, and books. I’ve been perusing my copy this week, and it’s made me happy.

  • Hotel Covell.

    This boutique hotel in Los Feliz is on point. It’s the right mix of hipster-cool, airy California vibes and refined luxury. I have a huge design crush on Sally Breer now.

I’ve heard it from others and have said it countless times myself: “I just don’t have the time to sit and read a book.”

Listen, we’re all insanely and overwhelmingly busy with any number of professional commitments, passion projects, family and friends, get-togethers, and the like. Our free time flounders in a choppy sea thick with calendar alerts reminding us of something to do (or something we forgot to do).

I work in a public library. You may think that in a four-story building teeming with books I’d be reading every day. And you’re right: I do read every day. However, it happens because I make it a priority. Of course, making something a priority means abandoning (or at least delaying) something else.

Blaming social media is too easy. What I instead find in my own life, and witness in strangers on a daily basis, is our absentminded behavior with our tech. Every hour, we blandly scroll through our social media feeds, our email, our text messages from two days ago. Those wasted moments really start to add up.

We know why we do this: we’re all stressed, and we need a mini mental vacation. But a few months ago, I started picking up a book and reading a page or two when I need a grown-up time-out.

Books on a park bench

I discovered that stepping away from social media allowed me to quickly clear my head, as well. The varied voices we hear from Facebook and Twitter can stay with us. A nonsensical post or tweet you read from a complete stranger can take up valuable space in your mind. And you may simmer on such unnecessary content without even knowing it; when instead, you could be feeding your brain with a great story.

“But Wendy,” you may be thinking (or saying, in which case I won’t judge you for speaking to a webpage), “you work in a library. Of course it’s okay for you to read at work. But that’s just not an option for me.”

Please allow me to politely disagree. If we’re talking about a day at work, save up your free moments, take the entire lunch or the entire break allotted to you, put away your device, and pick up a book. (Or, if you’re a fan of ebooks, download one or two or more.)

The more you read each day, the more you will find yourself wanting to read each day.

It takes practice. The reactive nature when our devices beep and chirp and squawk is just that: reactive. But it doesn’t have to be. Silence the darn thing and put it out of view.

And it takes planning. Keep a book (or ebook) with you at all times. It may feel like you’re back in college lugging around books — ahem, The Goldfinch and her 775 pages — but the only barrier between you and the book you’ve been wanting to read will be, quite frankly, you.

When you arrive home, the same pull often exists to our televisions. So much streaming content! So little time! But remember the beauty of such on-demand entertainment: it is always there, patiently waiting for you. (The same holds true for the pages and pages of photos, status updates, and tweets.)

Teacup with stacks of books

Resist the urge to grab the remote and, instead, open the book you’ve been reading (or have wanted to read). Your local library is a great (and free) place to start. When I’m unsure of what to read next, I love visiting the Omaha Public Library BookNook. Library staff regularly review various titles. Which means trying a completely new genre, when borrowed from the library, won’t cost me a penny. (Beat that, two-day free shipping.)

The success in most experiences — yes, even the recreational, restorative ones like reading — comes from structure and planning ahead. Enjoying a bottle of wine means stopping at the grocery store. Zoning out during a sixty-minute massage means making the appointment. Relaxing in your favorite PJs means doing laundry every now and then.

Make room in your handbag for a book, pick up a copy, and start reading today. Which title will it be?

Dogeared is Wendy Townley’s monthly column on COOP, where she writes about all things literary. Sometimes that means the new paperback stuffed in her Vera Bradley bag, sometimes it’s her latest library treasure, and sometimes it’s her own thoughts about this magical thing called writing.

“I’ve got a great idea. Let’s put our house up on Air BnB!” He was all but glowing, he was so proud of his idea.

I smiled, screaming inside. Do you know how much work that’ll take?! My fellow freely admits that he has trouble getting rid of stuff, while I dislike things without a place to be. Don’t get me started on duplicates unless you have a few minutes.

We do actually have a small guest room. It also pretends to be an office on some days and my closet on others. You might call it a junk room, and I wouldn’t correct you. We also have a loft, an open floor space upstairs that does indeed have a comfortable queen-size bed — as well as all of our holiday decorations, random computer parts, and my husband’s sprawling art projects.

As he was contemplating where we’d stay while we had Air BnB-ers in our home, my eyes were glazing over. We’ll need a quarter million Rubbermaid tubs, I’ll have to clean the fridge, our windows have never been washed… Then there’s the fact that we still have a lot of second-hand furniture (and not the cute vintage kind), and the linens on the guest bed are the ones I used in college. I was really into animal print.

Animal print guest room

Behold, my college aesthetic. Except for the dresser, which I painted myself when I was in high school.

Let’s just say that setting out a bottle of wine and some flowers are the least of our worries.

But I’m rolling up my sleeves. We had a chat about, okay, realistically, this is what it’s gonna take to get this very lived-in, rather second-hand home ready to be a hotel alternative. We’re doing this, you guys.

Of course, we’re also doing this with some help from Birdhouse. Jessica will — thank goodness — be stepping in with some pointers so I don’t end up sobbing in a corner somewhere clutching animal print.

I was sitting in the place where my grandmother died just 12 hours earlier.

In the time it took me to pack, grab my work computer and drive four hours to my hometown – her imprint on my childhood home was already vanishing. Where hospice had put her hospital bed the couch now sat, quickly replacing the empty spot in the living room. I sat on the third cushion in from the inside wall and read the evening news headlines.

This is death. To help with the pain, we try to go back to normal as quickly as possible.


Two years ago, Gram left her beloved Florida to live with my parents. Dementia paralyzed her mind into an almost-toddler state. My mom cared for her own mother in ways that mirror how my brother takes care of his five-year-old daughter. She stepped up to the task with little question; it was just what she had to do.

There’s a hint of the things my mom is free to do now. Today, we drove to a town an hour away and grabbed a burger. For the last two years, mom would have been glued to her phone; worried a home healthcare nurse would call with an emergency.

But no one wants to say anything about that.

No one wants to tell my mom that the norm of her last two years is now different. We don’t want to get excited about the weekend trips that she and my dad can take now. In the back of our minds, there’s the spicy chili my dad can make again. No one wants it to be different, but yet – they do. Because getting old, as my Gram would say, is for the birds. And watching your loved one slide downward is hell.

Death can feel incredibly personal even when it has nothing to do with you. An accident you hear about from a friend of a friend. An obituary you read in the newspaper. We never talk about it, and it’s always there. I thought about the bartender who served me a beer at lunch the day I left town. I can still see her, in an ivory and black printed shirt and bright pink matte lipstick. She smiled at me with those pink lips and asked why I was driving four hours into the middle of Nebraska on a Tuesday.

“My grandmother died,” I answered, with slight hesitation. I knew what would come next: the apology. The sorry everyone says when someone dies. The sorry I don’t know how to respond to because it was time for Gram to go. The sorry that makes me feel bad for my mom, for losing her mother. The sorry I worry about receiving when it’s my turn to lose a parent. I instantly regretted exposing my personal tragedy to a stranger when I could have just said “for family.”

Last night, I was elected to stay in Gram’s old room since the three other bedrooms were taken. New sheets and blankets were put down. But it smelled like her. I slept with the light on, opposite of her spot, and stared at her pillow. I wasn’t that close to her. I felt the predictable pang of regret for not trying harder before dementia took her. I felt the predictable resentment for her not trying harder.


When I think about the death of my Gram and about when I’ll take care of my own family, I think about what kind of legacy I want to leave. I will not be remembered for my subpar musical talents or nonexistent basketball skills. My mother has given me the greatest lesson there is: We accept the love we think we deserve, and we deserve great love from those we chose to surround ourselves with. My legacy, I hope, will be that those I care about will never have to question my love. I’ve never had to question hers.

Rest in peace, Gram. You raised one hell of a woman in my mom.

Photo album