The Killer Lambs: And Other Norwegian Truths


When we arrived in Norway, nobody told us to beware of the sheep.

The fjord region of Norway is a magical land; a combination of Ireland’s rolling green hills, Switzerland’s picturesque red houses, and Canada’s snow-capped rockies, all situated along endless weaving water inlets. Pick any spot at random, and from there you can admire at least two waterfalls. Sure, it’s cold. So cold there is a Norwegian saying: We don’t have a summer– only two months of poor ski conditions. So cold the setting of Disney’s Frozen is based on a real fjord village (Undredal: population 112). So cold, when we switched trains in the mountains, hail beat down on our faces– in the middle of June. But damn, was it beautiful.

We arrived by ferry in Aurland at 4pm. It was the first partly cloudy day after a series of wholly cloudy and rainy days, so we decided to take advantage of the rare peak of sunlight by going for a hike. We chose a short-ish route, estimated to take about an hour and a half. Although it doesn’t get dark in Norway until midnight, there was no need to be heroes. An hour and half was about all I wanted to invest before hunkering down with a $16 beer. (Oh yeah, dollars are about as valuable as Monopoly money in Scandinavia.)

The route took us along the shoreline, straight up the mountain, along a ridge, and back down the mountain to our bed and breakfast. A no brainer.

We nailed the shoreline walk. Not one mistake made.


But after two and half hours of wandering the mountain forest, we accepted that we maybe-possibly-probably-okay definitely were lost. We made this decision after our makeshift trail ended at a fence so tall and wide we couldn’t circumvent it without serious Spidey skills.

We turned to assess our options, and that’s when we saw them.

The blood thirsty momma sheep, and her two creepy lambs.

They approached us directly, with intention, as if they knew us. As if we had slighted them. As if, in a previous life, we were shady car salesmen who sold them a lemon whose brakes failed and sent them over a cliff, and they’d waited two-hundred years for this opportunity for revenge. As if they were the wolves and we were the lambs.

The sheep charged. You might be thinking– what’s the big deal? They’re sheep. Just kick them away. But sheep are animals. Big(ish) animals. They have teeth, and cloven hooves for boxing gloves. At 250 pounds, they are pretty much Anderson Silvas on four legs. We froze. When the ewe was within eight feet, she growled. And when I say growl, I don’t mean a cute little baa-baa-black-sheep croon. I mean a wild dog growl.

(Don’t bother googling “sheep growl” in order to see what I’m talking about. You won’t find it. I’ve tried. The Internet will surface a video of an amenable woman getting shot in the butt with a hot dog gun (true and horrifying story), but it is completely devoid of any authentic sheep growl. I blame it on some underground mastermind sheep PR campaign. The same campaign responsible for the definition of the word “sheepish”. Lack of self-confidence, my potential-hot-dog-target ass!)

With small, hesitant steps–no sudden movements!– we skirted past them, leery of the drop at our backs and the possessed mammals at our fronts. But once we eased by them, they followed us– and snarled. So we retreated, and they cornered us against the fence.

“Are sheep dangerous?” I asked Phil from the side of my mouth.

“I didn’t think so,” he said, in a tone that implied he was now rethinking all his previously held beliefs about farmyard animals.

“What do we do?”

“We make a run for it.”

And we did. We sprinted past the sheep, up the very steep hill, aiming toward what appeared to be a road in the distance. I felt the breath of the brutes on my heels, and I couldn’t help but notice that Phil never once looked back to confirm I was not being torn to pieces by those woolly beasts (are we sure they aren’t descendants of woolly mammoths?).

Fearing the monsters at our backs, we never expected what lay beyond the hill crest.


The monsters’ homestead.

“We have to hop the farm fence and get to the road,” Phil said.

“But what about the sheep??!” I cried.

He gripped my shoulders. “We have no choice!”

Phil cut himself hopping the barbed wire fence, and helped me over. Then we climbed up a hill so steep we had to claw at it with our hands. We fled with the ferocity of Dr. Grant running from the Gallimimus.


The exertion triggered my asthma.

“I can’t make it!” I cried between wheezes. “I need help.”

The sheep were closing in. Phil extended his hand. “Come on!”

Since I am here to tell the tale, you already know we made it out of there alive. We did, and saturated with relief and gratitude for our escape.


But the experience left us changed. For instance, I now wonder if, all these years, we’ve misunderstood that notorious childhood rhyme. Everyone talks about Mary and her little lamb like the animal was her faithful friend. Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go. It followed her to school one day, etc. After this experience, I’m pretty confident that lamb was stalking that poor girl, and when the children laughed and played, that was just an example of nobody taking Mary– the victim –seriously.

It’s time we finally listened.


Graduation Swan Song: An Ode to Long Island

After five years of yearning, hoping, praying, and begging, we are finally wiggling free from the acrylic-tipped grasp of Long Island. And as we gear up for our next adventure, this time in the north shore of Boston (yes, swapping south shore for north shore and one infamous accent for another), I take a breath and prepare for the excitement to surge forth and wash over my outstretched arms. But just as unbridled enthusiasm approaches, and my fingertips begin to tingle, another, more unexpected, sensation sparks in my stomach.
I try to identify the foreign feeling spreading across my middle and reaching up to tickle my heart. It reminds me of the last day of summer camp, or the closing credits of a series finale.

Then I recoil.

It’s nostalgia.

For Long Island?

I’m experiencing the graduation effect, discussed in such shows as How I Met Your Mother and capitalized upon by such musicians as Vitamin C. Now that our departure is imminent, I’m becoming sentimental and, against all odds, developing a fondness for that which I so recently found distasteful. I suddenly admire the tenacity of the shirtless man who screams on our corner, the holiday cheer of the house decorated for Christmas all year long, the earthy scent of dog poo from the lawns of our eight immediate neighbors. I applaud the convenience of nearby highways and strip mall offerings. I discover that relentless traffic affords us time to contemplate life’s great mysteries, and I find the excessive honking of impatient drivers is not a symptom rage, but of passion.

I decide that the carrot glow of a fake tan in February is an iconic cultural beauty.

And why not award the word “dog” two syllables? It’s a good word; let it last!

If I’m applying such a sheen to the aspects of Long Island I once spurned, you can imagine how I feel about the parts I’ve always appreciated:

Pizza sauce has never been tangier, and its cheese is the perfect creamy compliment to the light salt and yeast of the dough. The ideal marriage of fat, carbs, and pureed tomato. Yum.

The untouched dunes of Robert Moses State Park are a natural wonder; I marvel at the landscape: plumes of sea grass sprout from the sands, the cobalt sea rushes against the shore in frothy licks and sparkles beneath the sun, as if its surface is encrusted with diamonds. All this, beneath an endless cerulean sky.

When we attend a Billy Joel cover band concert, I feel united with the crowd as we sway to the crooning of “Piano Man” or bounce to the beat of “You May Be Right.” The ‘sweet romantic nights’ he refers to in “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” occurred just thirty minutes away from where we stand! We are so proud of our Billy, an accomplished product of this paved island. He, along with so many other entertainment treasures, are our exalted alumni: Jerry Seinfeld, Rodney Dangerfield, the Baldwin brothers, Mariah Carey, Billy Crystal, Kevin James, Eddie Murphy, Pat Benatar, and Francis Ford Coppola. These artists are our graduated peers, the upperclassmen whose legends echo in the aisles of King Kullen, ping off the concrete of the expressway overpasses, and reverberate in the train cars of the Long Island Railroad. Their creative genius was nurtured on the very grounds on which we honk, and they left the island inspired.

Now that we, too, are departing, I can only hope that maybe, just maybe, so can we.

Are Doctors Just Sweet Talking Us?


Some women have terrible taste in men. I know– I used to be one of those women. Then I married a perfectly lovely man, and that must have thrown the universe off-balance. It’s since righted itself; I now have equally terrible taste in doctors.

You can read about my first bad experience here. But it wasn’t the last.

My new OBGYN seemed wondrous at first. Now I know– a little too wondrous.

Walking into his office was like walking into a best friend’s living room. Cozy and nurturing. It smelled like sunset on an orchard in autumn, and the lighting was warm and inviting– battery operated candles flickered on a coffee table amid a spray of women’s magazines and a zen rock garden. I had the impulse to pour a glass of wine and tell the receptionist my most embarrassing moment. I had the urge to giggle.

I settled into an overstuffed couch, inhaled the sweet home-baked smell of the place, and watched a few minutes of Ellen before I was called into an exam room. I reluctantly left the womb of the waiting room.

The exam room was outfitted with its own flat screen television. I sank into another overstuffed chair and the nurse handed me a cloth (CLOTH!!) gown. The fabric was so much more comforting than the thin crinkly paper to which I’ve been accustomed. Oh the luxury of cotton open at the front!

The doctor was a small balding man with a spunky personality. Kind of like Artie Bucco from The Sopranos before Tony burnt his restaurant down and he lost his god-damned mind. He asked questions about my career, my husband, and my hobbies. His wide-eyed response to all my answers made me feel downright fascinating. A writer? Wow! You play volleyball? Wow! Your husband is a math professor? Wow!

I liked this guy.

He finished the exam by speaking into a handheld recording device. “Alena here is a writer. How cool is that? I can’t wait to buy a copy of her book,” he said into the recorder. That sentence, the best sentence uttered in the history of sentences, was now a soundbite, saved for posterity.

I almost asked this man over for Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted him to meet my parents.

But like the bad-boys of my youth, this behavior was nothing but seduction with an ulterior motive. He was just courting me, wooing me with scented candles and claiming to also enjoy my favorite talk show host. He was flattering me with false interest (I should have known– nobody responds to “math professor” with “Wow!”)…. all so he could get into my pants.

And he did. On the first visit. At the time I didn’t feel shame. It was my annual exam–a warranted put-out. But then the reasons cheapened, while our relationship grew more expensive.

“Oh, I don’t give year-long prescriptions. You need to come in twice a year for medication,” he said.

“Really? My last OBGYN just saw me annually.”

“Too much can change in six months. All of my patients come every six months.”

I’m sick of hearing about your other patients. Stop comparing me to them! “But my insurance only covers annually.”

“It’s for your own good.”

Is it? Is it?

The fact that he held my prescriptions hostage, compelling me to visit every six months, was annoying, but I accepted him for him– flaws and all. (His waiting room is REALLY pleasant.) But now he’s taken it a step further.

I went in for my “six month” appointment yesterday. It was just a breast exam, an interaction that, if anything, he should have paid me $30 for.

After I tied my gown closed, feeling a little used, he said this: “You’re due for a sonogram, and our technician isn’t here, so we’ll need to make another appointment in three months.”

My instinct was to answer, “A sonogram? But I’m not pregnant.” But this seemed so obvious, I had to ask myself, “Wait… am I?”

Apparently he wants to ensure–every three to six months– that my uterus is in good health so that if I ever decide to get pregnant, there won’t be any problems. Kind of like viewing an apartment before you sign the lease and move in.

But since my lady parts AREN’T a five floor walk-up with leaky faucets and a crumbling facade (my facade may be soft–but I’m only 28 and, my god, not yet crumbling), this seemed excessive.

An appointment every three months? There are relatives I don’t see that often.

It was our break-up point. This man isn’t after my best interests. He’s just taking advantage of my insurance. To him, I’m just a friend with benefits. (Yeah, that happened.)

Well guess what, Doctor Wow! I’m not taking a day off work and paying another $30 copay so you can afford your house in the Hamptons and your granny smith Glade plugins and your fancy shmansy cloth gowns. Use paper like everyone else!

I’m giving my insurance to a doctor who deserves it.


I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean

Now, with a brand new cover!


The Public Cupping


My husband and I just spent a week in Texas, and while the experience lived up to some of my expectations of the Lone Star state (delicious Tex-mex, awesome live music, and hordes of young professionals wearing cowboy boots under their suit pants), there just wasn’t as much dust as I imagined. Also ZERO cacti, and none of the heat to breed the aforementioned dust and cacti.

In short, we were freezing.

While warming up in an Austin coffeehouse, we spotted a sign for a “Public Cupping.” What sounded like a free medical screening for men (turn your head and cough-eehouse?), was actually just a pretentious way to say a coffee tasting. The cold weather discouraged wandering around, so we had nothing better to do.

Quick background: My parents call me a coffee snob because I won’t drink their stupid Folgers– it tastes like dirty river water. While I can taste the difference between Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks (one is sour, one is burnt), I think the only real preference I have for coffee is that I like it strong.

Could I decipher the differences between coffees served inside a single coffeehouse? (Who cares?) Continue to find out….

The barista, a bearded man who probably brews beer in his bathtub, set three cups of coffee grounds before me, my husband, and two strangers. “Has anyone ever attended a cupping before?” he asked. And when we shook our heads no, he seemed as startled as if he’d asked us if we’d showered that week. “No? All novice cuppers? Well, the first step is smelling. I’m going to ask you to each take a turn sniffing the grounds. And when you sniff at a cupping, you sniff aggressively. I want to hear you smell. Stick your nose deep in the glass,” he said, demonstrating, “and huff.” At that, his nostrils flared and he snuffed the grounds with the same tenacity Superstar Mary Gallagher snuffed fingertips still warm from her armpits. He accidentally inhaled loose grounds into his nose (not surprising, since he’d basically just snorted them). After a few seconds of coughing into his fist, he managed to say, “That might have been too aggressive.”

We approached the glasses a little more timidly, beginning with a few polite sniffs. But the strangers grew brave. They dipped their schnozes deep into the glasses. I heard their smell, and I wondered how hygienic this scent-sharing was. As we rotated around, I tried to ignore the fact that I was sticking my nose into somebody else’s business.

My husband, too, became brazen. On his deep inhale, he avoided the barista’s pitfall of sucking the stuff into his sinuses. But on the exhale, he disrupted the grounds like a snow blower on a wintry mess. They shot up into his eye. This cupping was treacherous.

“What did you smell?” the barista asked us. I resisted the obvious answer (um… coffee?), knowing it’d make me a bad student. When we stared at him blankly, he prompted us with some olfactory clues. “Was one reminiscent of berries? A fireplace? Was one earthy, like raw potatoes? What smell-memories were prompted?” Smell-memories? Like: Did that coffee smell like an autumn afternoon reading the newspaper on your grandfather’s lap? Did it smell like your creepy neighbor’s tobacco pipe? Did it smell like your first solo drive? Was it reminiscent of the day your mother pulled snickerdoodle cookies from the oven and asked your father for a divorce? Did it smell like those tough cookies??

“I think that one had notes of honeydew,” one of the strangers offered. Suck up.

The barista nodded. “I could definitely see that.” Liar.

“Was that one burnt? Or maybe not burnt?” the other stranger said. Doofus.

The barista poured boiled water into the cups, set his watch timer to a minute and a half, and handed each of us a spoon. “See those grounds floating to the surface? When the time comes, we’re going to bend over, break the crust with the tips of our spoons, and sniff. The aromas will be most intense when they are initially released. Whatever you do, don’t insert the spoons too deeply. We don’t want to agitate the bottom. That will ruin the cup.”

Ruin the cup? There was so much at stake.

I broke the crust. I sniffed the once-trapped now-released bouquet at its most intense. And…

It smelled like coffee.

The barista scooped the crust off each cup and directed us to sample the coffee. “I want you to sip like you sniffed. Really slurp it up to spray it evenly across the tongue. When you’re done, rinse the spoon in this water dish before dipping it into the next cup. We don’t want to be passing colds to each other.”

Thank god for the magical powers of the shared water dish.

We spooned and slurped, spooned and slurped. And I’ve never had less to say. They all tasted exactly like coffee.

“What flavors make these cups unique?” the barista prodded. “Do you detect chocolate or caramel? Is it sour? Salty? Nutty? Does it take like freshly baked bread? A hot tire? Do you sense citrus? Herbs? A grassy knoll?” Does it taste like a work boot, a poinsettia, or a library book? Does it taste like a playground after dark, a swing swaying eerily, like in the introduction to Are You Afraid of the Dark? Does it taste like Home Depot or Lowe’s? Is this cup of coffee the elusive “beyond” in Bed, Bath, and Beyond?

“Is one more acidic than the other? More bitter? Is there an alkaline aftertaste? Is this cup more like a pat on the back or a slap across your face?

Think about the shape the coffee takes in your mouth. Is one round, reminiscent of a bouncing ball?” Is the coffee a straight line on your tongue? Or is it more like a decagon? Is it a rubix cube, rotated manically by a seven-year-old prodigy?

“Does the taste begin differently than it finishes?” Does it undergo metamorphosis, changing from an ugly caterpillar into a glorious butterfly? Or is it more like a pimply teenager who finally, after all her praying, develops breasts, enjoys her beauty for eight months, and then, after all that, gains 25 pounds in college?

“Would one cup taste better at a certain type of day? Is this one nice and complex, something to consider in the afternoon? Or is it a simpler flavor, something to enjoy in the morning, when you don’t feel like being challenged?” Would you like this cup in the rain? Would you drink this one on a train? Would you enjoy this java while a priest is ordained?

I stared at him. He stared back.

“This one tastes like honeydew,” a stranger said.

“I could definitely see that,” the barista said.

“Does this one taste burnt? Or maybe not burnt?” the doofus begged.

Coffee, folks. They all tasted like coffee.

Cut Down To Size

Happy New Year, cybersphere! I hope your last moments of 2014 were joyful.

After I shot the champagne cork across the room and emptied half the bottle on the apartment floor (apparently I don’t know how to open champagne??), I enjoyed a delicious dinner with my husband, sipped the remaining bubbly, and then joined Neil Patrick Harris on his yacht.

Just kidding.

It was Channing Tatum’s yacht.


Here’s a humor essay about a mean doctor who told me to lose 20 pounds, just published on The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review.

Start 2015 with some rumination, human connection, and maybe a laugh or two.

Until next time, cheers to our health and happiness.

Paris’s Finest


We’d schlepped thirteen miles from one side of Paris to the outskirts on the other end, and the Tour de France by foot transformed us into les miserables.

We’d walked that far partially because my mother heard about a church that was somehow associated with Joan of Arc and assumed that’s where she was burned at the stake, and partially because we’d seen a flyer emblazoned with the Brazilian flag that advertised a Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) meeting. Since my brother Greg, a Capoeira enthusiast, was, and remains to this day, convinced that the best way to experience another culture was to experience how that culture experienced Brazilian culture, and since we’d soaked in enough museums, cathedrals, statues, basilicas, palaces, and tombs to weary a French historian, my mother decided to throw Greg a bone. A bone that landed thirteen miles away.

Both purposes were a bust. The first stop on our pilgrimage landed us before an uninteresting building far from any other tourists, in a seedy neighborhood that convinced me, if a Joan was murdered there, it wasn’t the saint– it was Joanie from le block who ran with the wrong crowd and was shot in gang related violence. Otherwise, if that truly was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning, we three and some French pigeons were the only living things in the world to know about it.

Greg and I collapsed into the lap of a Joan of Arc statue while our mom poked around the premises, sure she’d discover a plaque that would validate her conjecture. But all she found were cigarette butts and empty bottles of Bordeaux, because even French thugs have a sophisticated palate.

We continued our journey to the address indicated on the Capoeira flyer. A park. A park which, of course, was vacated. Either the ninth rule of fight club was that flyers should misinform, or the Capoeiristas fled when they saw our sorry asses approaching– feet dragging, mouths slack, eyes deadened, limping toward them like a trio of slow, but ravenous, zombies, straight out of Le Walking Morts.

Now, in the middle of Nowhere, France, after a fruitless expedition, dizzy and aching from exertion, our choices were: 1) Kill each other or 2) Eat. Since we were too tired for the former, we looked for a restaurant.

As recent college graduates, Greg and I were frugal, and when you convert frugal from American dollars to euros, you get a couple of two-bit Scrooge McCheapos. We managed to sniff out the most inexpensive eatery within hobbling distance.

A very charismatic Frenchman seated us in a very empty restaurant– which, considering the French appreciation for food, should have been our first red flag. But in our defense, we weren’t looking for red flags since flags waving in France tend to be white.

We’d been dining at these low-cost establishments for several days, and were well versed in the strategy of ordering a selection, knowing odds were at least one item would be inedible. So it didn’t take long for us to relay to the friendly waiter that we’d take the chicken, fish, and beef.

“Oh, no. You don’t want the beef. You want an extra order of chicken. The chicken is very good today. Very good,” the waiter said, his head bobbing as if his nodding affirmation might hypnotize us.

“Thanks for the recommendation, but we’ll take the beef,” we said.

“Really, believe me. Go with the second chicken. You don’t want the beef,” he said.

“Thanks. Again. But we’ll have the beef.”

“Okay, we don’t have any beef,” he said, his smile now strained.

While we waited for our food to arrive– two chickens and a fish– I asked our waiter to direct me to the bathroom.

“You don’t need the bathroom. It’s better if you don’t need the bathroom,” he said, his smile so fixed and forced it seemed his face was seconds from exploding.

The bathroom was downstairs at the bottom of a long, narrow, and steep staircase– the type Indiana Jones might have descended carrying a torch, a torch which would have come in handy considering the area wasn’t powered by electricity. The only modicum of light was the flickering of a votive candle at the end of the tunnel, whose flame danced on the bathroom sink in the catacomb below. A blind person would have navigated the space better, guided by his heightened sense of smell.

But the blind man’s heightened senses wouldn’t have served him later, when the food arrived.

The quality of the food was immaterial, beside the point. We were so hungry and tired that commenting on, let alone complaining about, the leathery meats or flavorless sides would have been as absurd as a Rottweiler pausing before his bowl to request a pinch of salt. We ate, not for enjoyment, but for survival.

It was Greg’s turn to pay, but he was out of cash. Luckily the window of the restaurant displayed stickers for Visa and American Express, so he handed the waiter a credit card.

“Oh no. Believe me, you want to pay in cash,” the waiter said.

“No, thanks. I’m going to use this credit card.”

“It’s much better if you pay in cash. Trust me. It’s better,” the waiter said, insisting.

“No, really. I’d prefer credit card,” Greg said.

“Okay, our credit card machine is broken.”

My First Reading

Here’s a Youtube clip of my first reading ever, which took place at Monte Cristo Bookshop in New London, CT.

See that table of books behind me? I wrote those books! See those water bottles? Those water bottles were for me!

I was in a horrible car accident on the way home from that reading–we slammed into the divider at 70 mph and almost died– but I still think of it as a pretty good day.