My Greatest Life Failings in a Covered Wagon on the Oregon Trail (sort of)


Dear potential readers who may potentially never materialize,

Having now received enough outside validation, it is time to take the plunge into the big, scary river of blogging. I have decided it is a river and not an ocean or a pond or something because (a) I like the who-knows-what-she’s-gonna-write-today-JUST-AROUND-THE-RIVERBEND-YAY-POCAHONTAS imagery it conjures in my mind, and (b) if we ford at too deep a crossing location, we will drown like in the original Oregon Trail and so now there’s an element of danger too!

But don’t be scared. We are all in this theoretical covered wagon together. To make you feel a little more at ease about embarking upon this journey with me, I have decided to tell you something about myself that I think frequently but don’t often tell people. That is, there are many things in my job (I’m in the Army) and intrinsic to my life (like being a girl) that are expected to come naturally to me (or I’m at least supposed to have developed a passable competence for performing), but I am really terrible at doing.

So, in the spirit of full disclosure (because isn’t that what the Internet is all about? Telling strangers about your life? Also let’s not forget the buying-of-things-I-don’t-need-but-I-really-want-and-oh-look-it’s-on-sale and pictures of baby animals), I give you a semi-complete list of things I am expected to be good at and am actually have no talent for:


When I said “actually have no talent for” instead of “for which I have no talent,” I cringed. And then chose not to change it. I know the difference between “lay” and “lie” (lay is transitive and requires an object and lie is intransitive) but sometimes I just want to lay down, even though it makes no grammatical sense. Also sometimes I like to say “so-and-so and me” did something instead of “and I” just because it makes me feel like a little kid instead of a grown-up, and sometimes little kids get toys or candy for no reason, and I would like more of that in my life.

Sometimes, though, I use bad grammar because I am bad at grammar. English is a weird language. It beats up other languages and takes their words and then it’s confusing. Dangling modifiers get me every time. I use them without knowing I’m doing it. Would you like me to explain a dangling modifier to you? Sorry, I can’t. I googled it the other day and I still don’t get it.


Clinical studies have shown that people get depressed and eat their own hands when they’re inside too much. As human beings, we need sunlight and non-climate-controlled air every day. But you know what? You can get all the Vitamin D you need on a daily basis in just a few minutes by driving to and from work with cancerous UV rays streaming through your window. Various groups of my friends have been calling me Snow White since high school because I have dark hair and the shade of makeup I wear on my face is “translucent fair.” That dainty sovereign and I actually have more in common than you might think: remember when she has a panic attack in the woods because it’s dark and she’s fleeing aimlessly and then all of a sudden it’s light out again and the scary eyes were just baby rabbits and the fangs were dead branches? That’s me during land nav. I do not like nature. There are bugs and the sun and the wind burn my face and animals are mean and rabid in real life instead of snuggly and so basically I am disillusioned because Disney lied to me.

       3. BEING STERN

I am really pathetically bad at being mean to people sometimes (even when they deserve it). Anyone who has heard my rants about how someone is incompetent or ridiculous or annoying or a waste of air knows that I generally just try to ignore that person or give them fake smiles instead of just telling them I hate them. I guess this is mostly at work. I am in charge of people. As in, legitimately have authority over them. It isn’t as if they would blow me off or ignore me if I asked them to do something. But because I hate being bossed around, I hesitate to boss other people around too. So I’m usually like, “Specialist So-And-So, if you have time, will you get me that report?” WHICH IS RIDICULOUS. OF COURSE THEY HAVE TIME. IT IS THEIR SOLE FUNCTION IN OUR MOTOR POOL TO BRING ME THE REPORT. I SHOULD HAVE HAD THE REPORT AN HOUR AGO. This is why I will never be a general or a colonel or probably even a major and I am going to spend large portions of my Army career doing other people’s jobs because I don’t like being a jerk (even when people deserve it).


I am not just talking about the inner workings of vehicles either—that part is actually easier for me to fake at work. I am a maintenance control officer, which basically means whenever a vehicle doesn’t get fixed in my brigade, it is probably my fault. So I spend a lot of time nodding sagely when people tell me about a cracked casing or a broken flywheel and then I scurry over to Google and look it up before anyone realizes I had no idea there was some kind of casing on a transmission and I couldn’t pick a flywheel out of a lineup even if the lineup only had puppies and one flywheel in it. I am talking about cars that people drive on the road every day and I drive behind and in front of and largely ignore (unless they are driving too slowly, in which case I use a lot of language my mother does not approve of). People are like, “oh yeah, I drive an Equinox,” and then everyone else automatically seems to know that is a Chevy. Well unless I have seen one of those new Chevy Equinox commercials recently, I have no idea who made the car.

 I also do not know where your car was made. I love America lots, but I don’t really have a hang-up about buying a foreign car. That’s one of the great things about America: we can import stuff that works from other countries. Here’s another great thing about America: you can go through life relatively unscathed without knowing the make and model of other people’s cars.

       5. DOODLING

When doodling, I enter a strange state in which I cannot remember basic features of things I have been looking at or imagining my whole life.

Picture this: I am in a meeting. I am bored. I decide to doodle to stay awake. I decide to draw a dragon because it whimsical but also fearsome, like me. I give it a head that kind of looks like an alligator and a big fat tail. Tail is too fat. Wait, does the tail need scales? What kind of feet do dragons have? I draw hooves. That is ridiculous. Dragons do not have hooves. Do dragons have ears? How fat should his belly be? Wait, is this a girl dragon? I give up and draw a big cloud of smoke around the dragon’s head. I can draw some pretty sweet clouds. Now my doodle looks like a puffy scribble with claw-hooves and not a cool geometrical pattern in the corner that normal human beings seem to be able to draw when they are bored. This may also explain why I was really bad at remembering which characters went with which words when I took Chinese.


This is somewhat related to #2, but deserves its own spot on the list because walking in a winter wonderland has a special place of hatred in my life. I never had a particularly strong feeling about winter growing up because I grew up in Texas, and we don’t really have winter there. But then I went to West Point, which is in New York, which is COLD COLD COLD COLD COLD for way too long each year. When the air outside is so cold it hurts your eyeballs and everything green dies for a significant portion of the year, a place is too cold and therefore unfit for human habitation (evergreens don’t count because they’re just playing Devil’s Advocate. “Look at me! It’s winter and I’m green!” Go home, pine trees, you’re drunk). I did not grow up with snow on Christmas so I have no nostalgia about winter. New York feels like Narnia when it’s still cursed in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: always winter, never Christmas. In fact, my favorite thing about a White Christmas is the Bing Crosby song, and I can enjoy that regardless of temperature.


I am not athletic. I am uncoordinated and I still trip on flat surfaces for no reason even though my dad promised me I’d outgrow it after my teens. I don’t like running or lifting weights or doing exercise videos or any of the normal things people do to lose weight or get in shape. I like to dance badly and frolic in my youth. Those are my top two fitness regimens of choice. I also like yoga because I am reasonably flexible (or I used to be anyway) and being good at yoga means being really still instead of moving really fast. I support being really still.


I am not good at Words With Friends, the word game sensation that is sweeping the nation. I know, I majored in learning and analyzing English words, so I should be good at word games. But I’m not. In fact, I am pretty useless at ALL word games. Word searches? Totally useless. Unscrambling words? Likewise pathetic. I didn’t learn to read by piecing sounds together, I just started reading whole words. I’m actually impressed by people who can figure out a word by sounding it out. I either know it or I don’t—making all kinds of slurring, stuttering sounds isn’t going to help me. I think holistically when reading. Imagine nine-year-old me with dorky glasses, red-faced with rage because some “Language Arts” teacher has forced everyone to read line-by-line and cover the rest of the page with a piece of paper so they won’t “lose their place.” Lose their place. LOSE THEIR PLACE?! Um, excuse me – your learning tool is keeping me from seeing the rest of the paragraph! I was a mass of prepubescent fury at the injustice of not being able to scan the paragraph in one glance. So consider this your fair warning: if we’re playing Words With Friends, whether I’m winning or losing, I am probably cheating.


I taught my third sister how to read when I was still too young to really remember doing it. I think I just read aloud to her and when she started reading early my parents bragged that I had taught her how. I mean, who needs some fancy, private school education with actual teachers when you’ve got a bossy seven-year-old willing to do the job for free?

I must have gotten cocky, though, because then I decided I should also teach our baby sister how to read. I have a distinct recollection of writing “APPLE” on a chalkboard in our backyard and trying to coax my sister’s pacifier out of her mouth long enough for her to parrot the word back to me. When she could not (or would not) comply, I downgraded to the monosyllabic “CAT.” And when she still couldn’t read it, I underlined the word fiercely. She tried to take the chalk from my hand, but I was the teacher and she was the student, so it was my chalk. She ended up crying, and I ended up abandoning my quest to teach my youngest sister how to read. “Maybe in a few months you’ll try again,” my mother said consolingly to her bullied baby and disgruntled tutor.

I now have a great deal of empathy for both parties (both the teacher and the student) after a bunch of upbeat runners made wild claims about my potential for improvement as I trudged along beside them, nearing an asthmatic fit. Trust me on this one: if abilities could be absorbed and applied through osmosis, I would be able to run a five-minute mile, and my baby sister would have been reading before she could walk.

       10. MATH

Nobody expects me to solve multivariable calculus functions in my head, but most people can add and subtract double-digit numbers with a basic level of competency. Today in our training meeting, there was a slide with a bunch of numbers on it (alas). “119 personnel,” the commander read off. “Now how did you come up with that number? Oh, I see, never mind. 88 available, 21 trained, 10 unavailable. That adds up.” And I sort of looked around the table at the other people to see if they too thought that added up, because I was thinking, IT DOES?! HOW DID YOU DO THAT SO FAST. Numbers are really hard. (Yes, I did use a calculator to generate this numerical example for your edification. You can sue me if you want; I won’t be able to add up how much money you want anyway.)

So that’s it: the top ten things that I can think of at this moment that I am really, truly terrible at doing. This is not an all-inclusive list, and is subject to addition, revision, wild exaggeration, and perhaps someday deletion, assuming I ever learn how to add numbers in my head or decide I like nature.

Basically what I’m saying is that it’s a pretty good list. I hope you feel a little better about climbing into my covered wagon. I can’t promise, though, that we won’t run out of ammo or die of diphtheria or sink the wagon when we try to caulk and float it across the river. I promise to make any and all shady deals with Native American traders necessary to get us to the other side (have some faith; I’m approximately 1/64th Cherokee Indian). Welcome to my blog.

– Kelley


  • Brian Sears 5 years ago

    This is Brian Sears, I think you’re brilliant, and I approve of this message.

    • Kelley 5 years ago

      I now feel entirely validated in this endeavor. Also I miss you.

      • Brian Sears 5 years ago

        I miss you too! Hope you’re doing well! Leaving for Korea tomorrow. We should skype sometime!

  • Sam 5 years ago

    Like Brian, I too think this is brilliant. And I mean Brilliant in the “would make an awesome episode of Dr Who” brilliant.

  • Bekah 5 years ago

    Oh, Kelley, you’re my favorite <3

  • Jesse Faber 5 years ago

    With one sentence Kelley Duke has changed my life; “Go home, pine trees, you’re drunk.”

  • Camille R. 5 years ago

    Doodling and math are overrated. True story.

  • Lyndsey 5 years ago

    If you don’t like traditional fitness (or being stern) (or regimented grammar), how did you get through West Point? I’m adding you to my RSS reader and will be following your blog! Here’s hoping for regular updates. If you need an accountability buddy, I’m sure any of us YWS kids can help.

    • Kelley 5 years ago

      “Fake it till you make it.” That is how I got through West Point…and most days in the Army. (Thanks, Lyndsey!)

  • Jimothy 5 years ago

    Love you Kelley 😉 this made my day…now i heve to get back to planning Founders Day (grrrrrr…)

  • Mary Helene Toth 4 years ago

    You made me smile & laugh as I’m a native Texan currently transplanted to the Arctic tundra also known as Michigan. I’m a 1997 USMA grad and your Beat Navy post was on our ladies Facebook page. This is a great blog; I hope you keep it up and FYI in 15 yrs you’ll probably hide kale in your kids’ smoothies and lasagna like I do.

    • Kelley 4 years ago

      I still can’t believe how viral that post went! Viral being a relative term, of course. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Writing in this blog keeps me sane after long days of work orders and motor pool drudgery so it’s the cherry on top to know it’s relatable and enjoyable. Stay warm in Michigan!

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