Throwback Thursday: Zen in the Art of Pooh Journaling

Every Thursday, I dig I out an old diary and share an entry sans editing (in hopes we’ll all see my grammar and apostrophe use improve) with a short commentary. If you like laughing with/at Young Ashley, feel free to use the handy search bar to the right and simply type “Throwback Thursday” and you’ll find the whole archive. Thanks for reading!

Exciting news, you guys! I’ve moved onto the second diary in my collection! We’re getting closer to my truly humiliating entries!

You're right, Ashley. These are two COMPLETELY different notebooks. You have such dynamic taste.

You’re right, Ashley. These are two COMPLETELY different notebooks. You have such dynamic taste.

Tuesday May 4, 1999

Hello. My name is Ashley Elizabeth Otto. I’m in the fifth grade at Clovis Grove Elementary school in Menasha Wisconsin. I play the violin. My instructor is Ms. Jane B—- F—–. My best friends are Ashley A, Ashley M, Katie B, and Malee L. In my family there are 4 other people, not including myself. First there is my Dad, Kraig. He works at “J.J. Keller”, and he works for My Uncle Mark, who is my favorite uncle. (I’ll tell you about him later.) Next my mom, Eileen. Her maiden name is H——. She works at “Piggly Wiggly”. Next Corey he is 12, he goes to Maple Wood Middle school. Finnally Ryan. He is 5, he went to “Tinny Tots”. Ms. F—- says that I have extraordinary talent in music. Thats good for my dream! My dream is to be in the New York Symphony, and a hairstylist on the side. I’d like to marry a doctor and live in a big house. My dream car is a VW Beetle. End. 

Saturday May 8, 1999

I feel great today! Even though its only about 10:40, I really feel great! I have a feeling today will be  a great day. Or a “happy day” as I used to call it. Corey would call it a “Rock and Roll day.” Today I slept in till 8:00. I got up, played a game of pool with Corey. (We got a 10 in 1 pool table, its got pool, basket ball, lots of games, a lego table, and more!) I had a toaster strudle for breakfast. Then mom went to Dawn’s house. (she’s still there.) While she was there I got into the shower, shaved my legs. Then I blow dried my hair, washed my hair, and now I’m writing in you! I will work out after this too. I don’t know what else to say. End. (for now!) 

I still feel great! Ok, so there’s this girl, Hilary Hahn. She looks like she’s 11, but she’s 19! 19! Well anyway, here’s here story for Time for kids: 

[i then proceeded to copy a short article about Hilary Hahn in unbelievably tiny print]

What’s really amazing is that at age 10 she got into a musical academy! I wish I could do something like that! Well I almost did. I’ll tell you the story of when I started violin. It begins last year…

“Please dad! I really want to play violin! Pleeeeeaase!” “Well I’ll have to check with your mom first.” Well after Dad talked to mom about it, they said yes. We had to go to Gegan to get fitted for our instrument. My cousin Kyle was there, he would play the cello. I was fitted with a 1/4 size violin. On my first lesson at 9:00 on a Monday morning we learned “twinkle twinkle little star.” Plucking. I did not want to practice plucking. “OH wow! I can pluck!” So, I practiced with my bow. When my mom came to my 12:00 lesson one time I passed “Mississippi hotdog.” (a twinkle variation) Ms. F—– stood on her head! I was the first one in my group to pass it. So while there were on song #1, I was on song #2. One day when I had passed “Perpetual Motion” the 9th song Ms. F—– called and said that song #9 was the song that she wanted her students to be by the end of their second year. So she was going to give me a scholarship to Suzuki summer camp! Well even with the scholarship it was to much for my parents to pay. So I didn’t go. Well, she said that if during the summer there were no lessons that I might get private lessons. Well I didn’t do that either. So in the summer school classes there was Strings Lessons. All because of me! Me! Well sometime in March we had our annual “Strings Festival.” We had a rehearsal at 12:30….

I proceeded to list more rehearsals and lessons that establish my excitement and apparent status as a Suzuki Book 1 prodigy. “Gavotte is a simple song, but hard bowings to it” was my grammatically unsound statement about my progress at that point. It wasn’t so much an entry about me starting violin so much as an overview of my accomplishments my first year. I just sort of bragged about myself. Sort of begs the question: have I really changed at all?

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice the dates of these entries overlap some of my earlier Throwback Thursdays. I promise, I’m not going back, I’m just moving on to the next journal. I thought my excitement over new notebooks and journals started much later in life, but turns out it’s always been an issue. The cursive of this first entry is so tightly written that it makes my hand sore. Flipping through this diary, I find that most of my hand writing here is small. Maybe I’ll find that I was a passionate advocate for paper conservation while writing in this notebook. Or maybe it’s just that I was hoping the publisher would more favorably judge a neatly written journal when deciding which 10 year old’s journal to publish next.


I remember writing introductions for many of my early diaries, but I think this was the most deliberate one. It was as if I expected to have a conversation with it. “Wow, that’s really your name?” my diary would say. “No! Your dad doesn’t work there! And your brother went to ‘Tinny Tots’? What did they do there, study tin cans and potatoes?” For the record, it was actually called Tiny Tots – I was just a moron who didn’t know how to spell. I think these introductory entries were a sort of offering to the journal. It felt too assuming to just start writing about my days. I thought each journal needed a preface – as if anybody would read them and not be able glean the details from later pages. Obviously I was still learning the art of story telling. I’ve since learned a few things about writing.

Construct a story by establishing the plot (I needed to ask my parents if I could play violin because I wanted to join Malee when she left math for lessons), introducing characters (me, 11 and anxious; my father, work-weary with dirty fingernails; my mother, fresh-faced and wiping the counters), illustrating the setting (early fall, cool breeze brightening the warm air of my parents’ kitchen, we’re standing near the drawer with the telephone book), create tension (I had asked the year before, but my dad said no, that I was too young – maybe next year), sprinkling in dialogue (“Can I pleeeaaase, Dad? Can I?” “Your mother and I will need to talk about it”), and granting a resolution (they said yes, I kicked ass).

This second diary looks like a much more serious attempt to capture my place in the world. It was around the time I was first made aware of impermanence. I wanted something to leave behind – a collection of Pooh journals, apparently – that would justify my existence. At the time, I remember hearing my mother warn me about the end days, saying that the rapture was near. I was almost certain I would never make it to 18. I didn’t think I’d die, I would just never reach that age or I would just be raptured in a Jesus beam. I guess you could say these diaries were my gift to the sinners not raptured.

Actually that seems like more of a punishment. “For all of eternity, your only reading material will be a Pooh diary written in metallic gel pen recounting one girl’s greatest indecision: whose hotness is hotter – Leonardo Dicaprio, James Van Der Beek or Joey M? Hope all the sins were worth it, heathen.”

It’s obvious that my journaling began as a desperate attempt to stake a claim on my life. “I was here! I lived! I have thoughts that matter! My story has got to be important!” Though I don’t journal as often as I would like, I think I write for the same reason. I think this blog has established my stake (according to search terms, a claim whose only worth is its advice on encounters with ex-boyfriends), and my personal journal tackles much more personal issues. Now I use my journal for the venting I’m sick of bothering Andrea with. It’s for the thoughts not entertaining enough for Twitter and too depressing to make into Facebook statuses. I suppose my more recent journals would reveal an apparently depressed and often romantically confused woman whose biggest wish is to find a way to survive on fourteen hours of sleep each week.

Keep dreaming, Ashley. Keep dreaming.


Brighton Beach

The following is an essay that I am currently revising in preparation to share with my writers’ group. Enjoy!

We ripped off the top of my rusty Geo Tracker and hopped in, not sure of the destination. Heather, Carissa, and I took turns choosing songs on my ipod, each one full of adolescent lust – an ache for attention with the dull throbbing of discontentedness. As we listened and sang, we fell more in love with the night.

It was a clear night and the sky reminded me of sailors in the fifties – navy uniforms that made hearts thud in anticipation. The stars were brighter and dustier than I had seen in a year, full of the promise of summer’s arrival. The evening air had traces of the day’s earlier humidity and we welcomed it as it pummeled the bare skin of our arms. It was the night of my high school graduation and the three of us ignored the loud houses we passed, containing my red-faced peers sucking down cheap beer. The city was full of kids ready to move on to the next step. It didn’t matter what came next, as long as it didn’t include the dingy, noisy lockers of high school. Before any of us had felt the crazed spontaneity of a drunken night, we were content with our innocent endeavors. The most toxic thing about our Friday nights were the lattes purchased at the coffee shop while we wasted the gas money our parents had given us, swirling around the tri-city area.

As the engine churned away miles, we passed memories back and forth. We agonized over lost relationships and slid gossip across an unseen table. We wondered what would happen in three months when I left for college and they stayed behind to finish high school.

“Ashley, don’t worry. We’ll visit every other weekend,” Heather said. “It’s not like there’s anything to do in Menasha.”

“Yeah,” Carissa said. “You can show us around the big city that is Stevens Point and tell us what it’s like to be in college.”

Smiling to myself, I imagined a cramped dorm room and the idea of big pit classes with cranky professors in argyle. I was looking forward to the independence, though the idea scared me a bit.

“Heather, remember the time we were camping with my family and we stole my mom’s wine coolers after she went to sleep?” I changed the subject.

“Omigod that was so funny!” Heather shrieked, then told Carissa the story.

We talked about our first kisses and blushed, remembering the faces of those boys. We pondered how eye colors changed and tried to define what it felt like to be in love.

“It’s exhausting,” Heather said. “It’s beautiful, but I hate feeling like I depend on Jim, it makes me feel crazy.” She paused, watching her hand grabbing at the air. “It’s overwhelming – obsessive and time consuming, but it smothers you just right.”

Carissa was staring beyond the car, watching a couple walk lazily with fingers intertwined. “It’s perfection. It’s like you have all the puzzle pieces and you can accomplish everything.”

I paused to think of what I knew I love. I knew enough to know I had never been in love. I had dated a few boys, nothing very serious, but each time I let myself get carried away.  “I think of an hourglass,” I said. “My brain empties, but my heart fills up.”

After driving around for an hour, Heather decided she wanted to go swimming. “It’s frickin’ hot,” she said. “Ashley, take us to the beach.”

“Heather, you do realize that the beach is probably closed, right?” Carissa asked.

“Well screw that. I want to swim.” Heather was the youngest of us. Spunky and stubborn, she was never afraid to mouth off to her mother or to tell her boyfriend he was being a moron.

So I drove to the beach, which was, in fact, closed. It was ridiculous to think that a lake could be closed. A chain link fence was all that blocked us from the cool water. Heather jumped out the back seat of the car. “I’ll meet you in there.” She walked over to the fence and found footing in the links. “The beach is open when I say it is.”

Carissa and I stood behind, waiting for Heather to leap off the other side before climbing ourselves. While we fumbled over, she stood impatiently.

“Imma beat you there!” Heather exclaimed, running and pulling her shirt over her head. Carissa skipped out of her jeans. I peeled off my tank top. Thundering into the water, we let out girlish squeals, not expecting our skin to be met with such shocking coldness.

In a few seconds, we grew quiet as our bodies adjusted to the water. Eventually it felt warm and didn’t seem to mind that the three of us were in nothing but bras and panties. It welcomed our splashes as we floated on our backs and looked at the stars.

“When I was little, I used to think stars were crumbs from the moon, “I said, breaking the silence.

“Ashley, you sound like a crackhead,” Heather said.

“Shut up, Heather.” Carissa pushed her underwater.

“Ya bitch!” Heather spat when she surfaced.

While we splashed and laughed, I paused momentarily. Remember this moment, I told myself. I tried to soak in everything about the instant – the far off blinking buoys, early summer’s sticky yawn, the sandy clinging to my ankles, and the shimmering laughter of my two best friends. Soon, adulthood would be upon me and I would no longer be able to enjoy childlike moments deserving to be cast in porcelain. I wished suddenly that I had an album full of the last year: the Friday nights spent in party dresses, eating pancakes and crepes at IHOP, disgusted by the taste of lingonberries, exchanging Christmas gifts while pretending to be drunk off of sparkling grape juice, groaning with laughter as Heather sang Disney tunes and danced with her cat, the night we painted Heather’s room, only to have the project turn into a colorful fight, with us hurling fistfuls of paint that left flakes of green and yellow in our hair. I inhaled as deeply as I could, as if I could savor the flavor of adolescence and girlhood all in one gulp.

An hour later, we stepped out of the water drenched with moonlight. We picked up whatever clothes we could find, not bothering to give the right shirt or bottom to the right girl. When we came to the fence we threw the heap of clothing to the other side, pausing for the moment when the heavy jeans and t-shirts were silhouetted in the streetlight. We climbed the fence, no longer talking or laughing. All I could do was breathe in the summer air and smile to myself. In the car, I turned on a song that we all knew the words to. Together we sang out, “Someday you will find me caught beneath the landslide, in a champagne supernova in the sky, a champagne supernova, ‘cause we don’t believe that they’re gonna get away from the summer, but you and I will never die, the world’s still spinning around and we don’t know why…


While searching for my letters yesterday, I came across my box of journals and diaries. The earliest I could find was 1998. I spent the evening reading through them and laughing at myself and the things I felt I needed to document. When I was growing up , my mother used to ask why I wanted to keep a journal. “What will your kids think? Do you really want them to see everything you did and thought?”

I think I shrugged, not feeling strongly enough about it to articulate my thoughts. If I had been able to, I think I would have said something like, “Yes, I want them to see that I went through the same crappy feelings they go through.” Of course, at 13, I didn’t have that foresight. Or any foresight, for that fact.

Because I’m in the habit of publicly displaying my complete lack of perfection, I thought I’d share a diary entry from fifth grade, complete with commentary.


Dear Genna: (I addressed this to my cousin when she moved to South Carolina. I’m not exactly sure if I had the intention of sending these to her.)

I hate this time of life. I’m so fat. I’m having hormones. (Hah, yes, just “having hormones:” that was how my mom explained my violent moodswings which went from weeping on my parents’ waterbed to smiling and watching tv in a half hour) Yesterday I was feeling great. Today I was fine until Mee (Malee’s cousin) gave Ashley A a note. <<<smear from a tear (yeah, I actually wrote that) A LOVE NOTE. Why couldn’t Nick K. do that to me? I feel so out of place. I a lot fatter than other girls. I hate myself! Even though I lost 3 pounds I feel fat. I have a headache. I’m crying this must be the worst day of my life. (It truly was the worst day of my life. Worse than the day than  the day my two-year relationship ended with an e-mail.) My mom says “it’s part of growing up” “Part of becoming a teen.” I don’t wanna be a teen, boys don’t want a fat stupid girl like me. (My 20-something version of this is something like “Men don’t want girl a who blogs and laughs at NPR podcasts.”)

An hour later…

I’m not so mad anymore. I took a shower, shaved my legs, and brushed my hair. I feel great! (Funny. This still works for me today. TRUST ME, LADIES. Shave your legs and you’ll feel like a new woman.)

In my best dream ever, this is what would happen: 

I would be the most popular girl and Nick K would kiss me and we would go to a movie. (The sequence of those events makes sense, right?)

I still wish Nick would write a love note to me. (What? Never mind, we’ve moved to a different story entirely.)

We would be partners in math we’d both look up in each other’s eyes. Our lips move closer here’s what it’d look like:

“Omigosh! that was wonderful!” I’d say. “Ashley, I’ve been meaning to say this to you; I love you.” (Yeah, bitch, I used semicolons in fifth grade. *does Z finger snaps*) “Oh Nick I do too.” “Do you wanna meet at little lake Butte des mor?” (that spelling isn’t remotely close) “What time? Tell me and I’ll go!” “Ten o’clock” (Excellent organization of dialog, Ten-year old Ashley.)

“Math is over” says Mrs. Holso.

“Good bye, Ashley!” 

“Bye Nick”

(Well at least we parted graciously at the end of math.)

I love you he’d mouth. I stare completely transfixed. (Yeah, I was a 10 year old who used the word “transfixed”.) What do I wear? I panic. I don’t have anything! (This still happens to  me when I go on dates.)

I’d go shopping getting tips from Leo. (Yeah, Leonardo Dicaprio was my stylist. Ain’t no thang)  I get a beautiful cool dress: 

We meet exactly at ten…


“Ashley! It seemed like the longest day in my whole life without you”

“I know.” 

We’d kiss and do all that good stuff.

I’m tired. See yah!

Ashley Otto

P.S. It’s safe to say I love him now.

Clearly, even at 10, I had an excellent sense of verb tense, dramatic pacing, and narrative. Also, my dialog is superb. It’s evident that I’m committed to telling the complete story, beginning to ending, sparing no detail. I also truly knew the meaning of love.

You can expect to see this in the next New Yorker.

Loons are Assholes

So I spent the last week or so camping. Since you all religiously check for new blog posts, I’m sure you figured out that I didn’t have access to the internet and was unable to update you on all the exciting things of my day. But don’t worry, I’m prepared to let you know what my days were like:

Wake up anywhere between 8 and 9:30, make a healthy breakfast (pancakes, cereal, fudge poptarts, or breakfast pudgie pies), drink a cup of percolated coffee then put on my swimsuit, grab a book (Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying or Lorrie Moore’s Self Help) my slouchy lawnchair and park in the shallow water where I read for a few hours before breaking for lunch, dinner, a nap, and a shower in the evening. Around sunset, I might join some family members for a cocktail cruise around the lake. Once the dark set in, I’d join my aunts, uncles, and cousins around a campfire where we listened to Alice’s Restaurant, played campfire games (“I’m going camping. I’m bringing keys and a kite.” “Can I bring a ninja and a rake?” “No.” “Could I bring a ninja and a rake?” “Yes.”), and drank old fashioneds.

Each day was basically a slight variation of this. Except Tuesday, when my dad suggested we go for a midnight cocktail cruise.

What could be better than a nighttime putter in the boat while we nursed melted whiskey cocktails? The sky was a bit overcast, so the lake was darker than usual, but there were still a few pinpricked stars. By the time we boarded, I had finished three glasses of wine and had just started my first old fashioned. I joined my dad, Corey, Ryan, and my Uncle Chisi (That’s his nickname, meaning “small” in Japanese) in my dad’s fishing boat. I was giddy and giggling, laughing about the buoy that read “HYDRANT PIPELINE,” telling Ryan that it was actually a hydrangea pipeline (“What happens if you hit the hydrangea pipeline?” “If you hit it, pink and blue hydrangeas will explode out, obviously.”) and then joking about crazy things Kanye West might do if he bought Boulder lake (make his servants walk around the lake barefoot because he couldn’t stand to have shoe prints on his trails). If you can’t tell already, I have a morbid fascination with that guy. He’s a caricature of himself.

We were about halfway around the lake when Chisi heard the soft moan of a loon. “Turn off the motor,” he said, the cigarette that sat perpetually in the corner of his mouth bobbing along with the syllables. “I wanna hear the loons.”

So my dad complied. He turned the motor off and we sat drifting slowly. A loon called soft and slow from the east side of the lake. Another cooed from the north end. After a pause the east loon called again, and we all made remarks on how nice it sounded. My dad went to start the boat up again and I said, “No, one more.” And sure enough, the north loon responded to the east.

Satisfied, he went to start the motor again. And it puttered.

Just puttered.

Did not continue.

“Awww shit,” my dad said. He always accentuates the “sh” sound in shit. The desperate frustration is more apparent that way.

“Alright, how many paddles you got in here?” Chisi asked, tossing his cigarette butt into the water.


None?” Chisi asked in that incredulous tone the Otto men have mastered.

“Nope. That’s on my to-get list for the camper,” my dad responded. Then he stood up to take off his sweatshirt. “Looks like I’m swimming.”

Somebody suggested the trolling motor. Corey hooked up the trolling motor and steered the boat towards the shoreline, in hopes that the battery would last until we got to a walkable depth. We all turned our gaze toward a light at the far southeast corner of the lake, near the boat landing of the campground, as if our combined stares could propel the boat faster towards the shore.

“All to hear a damn loon,” Chisi said.

“And now it isn’t even calling,” Ryan said.

“What an asshole,” I said.

My dad kept scratching his head and tightening his face into that tight grin he gets when he’s faced with the responsibility of problem solving. He gets that look when he’s pondering what’s wrong with a car engine or how he’s going to repair the overflowing washer again.

“We’ll get there dad, don’t worry about it,” I told him.

“Yeah,” Chisi said. “This is some funny shit.”

“Yeah, it’ll make good blog material,” I said.

My dad threw his head back. “You’re gonna blog about this?”

“Of course I’m going to blog about this. It’s hilarious.”

As the tone of the trolling motor got lower and the lights on the shoreline began to go out, I was glad that I was the only woman in the boat. Because of that, I would be the last one to be asked to get in the water to pull the boat into shore.

Eventually we got to water that was shallow enough to walk in. My dad jumped in, grabbed a rope, and began the slow trudge to the boat landing.

Soon Ryan stripped down to his underwear and jumped in to help.

Earlier in the evening my dad and I had a conversation about how some people might say he spoiled me but that he didn’t care, that I was his little girl. If this wasn’t proof, I don’t know what is. I mean, I know I wasn’t the only person in the boat, but you can bet that if I was the only other person with him, he would have given me his sweatshirt to stay warm while he trekked across the lake.

About two hours after leaving the dock, we were about 50 yards from the boat landing, it started to rain. By that point, my bladder could barely contain my four drinks. The men were all lucky enough to relieve themselves in a Folgers can kept in a cubby, but the same anatomy that saved me from pulling a boat across a lake also prevented me from relieving myself. Then I remembered that I had left all the windows on my wing of the camper wide open, practically inviting the rain to make all of my clothes, bedding, and books damp. Fortunately, we were able to get back to the campsite before the rain fell below the canopy and soaked everything.

What did I take away from this experience? First off, sometimes year-old batteries decide to stop charging themselves. Second make sure to have paddles in your boat. Last, and most importantly, loons are assholes who stop calling when the year-old battery in your boat dies and you realize you have no paddles. Also, if you ask nicely, your little brother will allow you to post a picture of him in his underwear on your blog.