You’re Getting Warmer, Philadelphia

We’re still weeks away from the first day of spring, but with the arrival of March, I’m already in a better mood. I’m more hopeful, patient, and glad. It didn’t hurt that we broke 60 degrees today. Nevermind we’re back in the forties and windy tomorrow. Nevermind snow is predicted for Friday. March, the most schizophrenic month of the year, is a month where my expectations are at an all-time low, and the appearance of buds on a tree or a warm sun on a dry day will lure pasty Philadelphians out of the shadows of their drafty rowhomes and onto the Schuylkill River Trail or to Paine’s Skate Park or out in shamrock booty shorts and a green tank top for St. Patrick’s Month. I don’t know if it’s the vitamin D or what, but people seem more willing to hold the door open for you at after-school pick up. Starbucks baristas call your name with aplomb not seen since December.

For me, these early hints of spring suggest an emergence from a darkened cave. I know, a little hyperbolic, but bear with me. But the colder weather keeps all of us indoors, and for introverts like me, winter provides a logical excuse to close myself off in the warmth of my home and…write. And watch TV. Potluck with neighbors. Fold laundry, lots and lots of laundry. Cuddle with the family on the couch. Bake macaroni and cheese. Learn how to make tamales. Get around to finally hanging some pictures on the walls. Tackle a few of the books collecting dust on my Kindle.

The inverse of that is I have a tendency to get a little weird when I’m away from people too long. For example, I have a verbal relationship with my dog in the winter that I don’t have when the weather is more accommodating. Frankly, Jazzy wishes I’d shut the hell up and find some friends I could wax poetic about the Oxford comma or how much I hate semi-colons. I often catch him giving me a look of utter repugnance when I’m standing there in the entryway of our house clad in my running tights, weather-proof jacket, gloves, and beanie, hemming and hawing about leaving the cozy safety of our home to run a few miles in the wind and ice. It’s not that bad once you’re out there, I tell myself. Liar, I also tell myself. Spring cannot come fast enough.

Horror Movie

Here we go again with another mass shooting, this time on the campus of Umpqua Community College, where nine people were killed by a gunman, a fellow student. After that incident, going back to teach class last Tuesday at my own community college, I was fraught with anxiety. On the surface, my day was nothing special. I taught “The Essay” to my Intro to Academic Writing classes, got a flu shot at lunch, and avoided a union meeting. But after the Umpqua CC massacre, after threats to Philly-area colleges on Monday, everyone seemed on edge. Teaching for me and attending classes for my students felt like a shared but unspoken act of defiance. We were playing the odds, of course—we are far more likely to be killed in a car accident on the way to school than by an active shooter on our campus. But I felt vulnerable and uneasy all day and coming to campus as usual was anything but usual. I couldn’t stop thinking that my classroom doors don’t lock from the inside and open outward, rendering it incapable of being barricaded if the (not) unthinkable happens. It makes me crazy to think I don’t have a chance to protect my students or myself at all in the (extremely unlikely) event we have an active shooter on campus. In response to the online threat of violence to Philadelphia-area colleges and universities on Monday, the advice we were given was to “be aware of our surroundings” and “report suspicious activity.” Advice like that makes for a pretty distracted teaching and learning day.

When Josh and I went to see Trainwreck last month and had settled into our seats, we were relaxed and eager to enjoy the Amy Schumer comedy we had heard so many good things about. And we did enjoy it…eventually. But not until after the theater treated us to a video on safety, which warns patrons to be on the lookout for “suspicious characters” with “bad agendas.” Unsettled, I turned to Josh after the safety video ended and whispered, “I wasn’t nervous before we sat down, but I sure am now.” I can’t even go see a comedy in a movie theater without being forced to think about how helpless we truly are.

Being told that we need to be constantly on the lookout for suspicious characters only ramps up the anxiety and powerlessness we feel, especially in light of the fact that we can’t seem to pass laws to help prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. Is a movie theater or college campus any less safe than a mall or a park? No. And our unease in public spaces will continue to grow until we find a better solution than just being aware of our surroundings. Because quite frankly, we’re no less safe, so I’ll continue to live my life. I will show up to class, go to the movies, enjoy a concert in the park with my family, and walk my dog in my neighborhood.

I’m looking at you September

As usual, we’re at the tail end of summer and I’m resisting the transition to fall. I’ve been successful so far at battling back black thoughts about winter and snow and the return of dark days and icy sidewalks. But, I’m a little nervous as I face coming to terms with the return of a full calendar and an externally-imposed schedule. Every year I ask myself, Am I ready?

I work all summer long, but I write, teach, and grade from home, which means I can work entirely at my own pace. By now, I’ve gotten accustomed to my long sunny days being punctuated with extended dog walks, trips to the pool, and mid-afternoon ice-cream breaks when I pick up VA from camp. I look forward to visits with extended family and weekend jaunts to the beach. I can wear shorts and flip flops every single day. All of that comes to a needle-on-the-record halt in September. September signifies the return to our actual lives, which for my family, mostly means school. And not just Virginia’s school, but mine and Josh’s as well. I actually have to show up and teach classes certain days of the week. And I can’t go in my running clothes. Virginia needs to be awake, fed, dressed, and on a bus by 7:40 every morning. In September, Virginia’s sports come back full throttle, too. That means picking up and dropping her off to gymnastics and soccer practice four nights a week. Weekends are dominated by games and meets. Once you throw in holidays and staying on top of my writing, I can safely say we are solid busy through next spring.

The thing is, as I grit my teeth and turn the page of the calendar from our lazy August to September’s starting line, I have to remember I love a schedule. I adore deadlines. When things loosen up around here in June, I go through a similar panicky transition and get nervous about letting go of all of our activities, making up a schedule for myself where I carefully compartmentalize my day into exercise, writing, grading, and shuttling VA around. By 6 o’clock, I’m ready for some lazy time. But the rigidness of my plan begins to erode in July, and after a summer of plenty of sun and fun, I’ve given myself permission to spend an entire Sunday afternoon reading on my porch. Or splashing around with VA and Josh at the pool. And you know what? That’s nice too. So am I ready? Am I ready? After a summer “de-scheduling,” I can say I’m well-rested and ready to take on what’s coming next. Bring it, September.

Shakespeare in the Park

For me, when done well, theatre conjures up all of the clichés that evoke transformative, life-affirming experiences. I laughed, I cried. I was moved. When not, theatre can be squirm-inducing, unintentionally funny, or worse, horrifically boring. As a kid, I was exposed to the classics that our community theatre at the time offered: Oliver!, Alice In Wonderland, Annie, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol. Almost every year we saw the San Jose or San Francisco version of The Nutcracker. We had a subscription to Scholar Opera (anyone remember Scholar Opera?) and saw tamed, kid-friendly versions of Carmen, La traviata, La bohème, and The Barber of Seville. I loved Scholar Opera so much because not only did they visit my school to perform a preview of the upcoming show, but after performances, the actors all stayed to shake hands with young audience members and sign our programs. I remember how special it felt to get a dazzling close-up of the actors’ costumes and make up. Heaven.

Even as an adult, theatre can still thrill me. Last Wednesday, Josh, VA, and I attended the opening night performance of The Winter’s Tale outdoors in Clark Park, which is a small, residential park located in University City. The funny thing about Clark Park is that there’s a lot going on that’s not going to stop, even when Shakespeare makes its yearly appearance. Kids swing and slide and squeal and giggle as actors emote onstage. Dogs bark at each other. I could see park goers tossing Frisbees back and forth. Just beyond the stage, there seemed to be a small group of hula hoopers gyrating off in the distance. As the sky darkened, I spied a few bats flying overhead. Surprisingly, all of these distractions totally added to my overall enjoyment of the show.

The best part about live theatre is sitting with a crowd to watch a specific performance. No matter if it’s opening night or the 500th performance, there’s something magical about that shared, finite experience. Last Wednesday, the audience crowded into the park and lounged on blankets spread out on the grass, balancing plates of dinner on our knees and drinking from plastic cups. Although in truth, we attended the play because VA had a couple of good buddies in the chorus, the production exceeded my expectations. The acting and direction made the difficult “comedy” easy to digest and enjoy. It’s easy to go with it when you can eat and watch a play at the same time. VA occasionally leaned in to ask what was going on, but she laughed at many of the jokes and loved seeing her friends up on stage. My favorite part was just watching a play on a warm summer night. I’m totally going back again next year, if the oracle allows.

Anywhere U.S.A.

I used to think I could live almost anywhere, but that field has narrowed significantly since I’ve gotten older and more rigid. When we travel someplace wonderful, I invariably gaze wistfully at the real estate listings in agents’ downtown windows on the way back to the hotel after dinner. In the car, I look up the addresses of a mansions overlooking bodies of water as we whiz by. Thank you Trulia. You feed me. I can’t help it. But it doesn’t mean I want to live there.

I’ve lived in some fantastic cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now Philadelphia. Each come with their own unique set of problems. Let’s start with the city Tony Bennett left his heart in, San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1970s and 80s, and lived in San Francisco for a good part of the 90s. If anywhere should feel like home, it would be San Francisco. For all its inherent natural and unnatural beauty, great food, walkable streets, temperate weather, a Peet’s Coffee practically on every corner, I can’t live in San Francisco because I picked a career where I make less than seven figures per year. Yeah, San Francisco, and pretty much anywhere in the Bay Area, is completely unaffordable for this community college professor. It’s so unaffordable, I feel like it’s telling me to stay away. So you know what? You can go screw yourself, San Francisco. I’ll find somewhere else to live.

So how about it Los Angeles? You’re fun—you’ve got a great creative energy, Januarys that regularly hit 80 degrees, awesome Mexican food, Ben Affleck sightings, margaritas. What’s not to love? Uh, a lot. We can pretty much start and end with traffic, even though I complained about the horrific hot, dry, and smoggy summers for four months straight when I lived there. The traffic is everything you’ve heard of and more. When Virginia was just starting to play with her little friends, it didn’t matter if her friend lived across town or across two valleys, it took 40 minutes to drive each way. When we lived in West Hollywood and I was attending and then teaching at a college 11 miles away, traffic regularly would extend what should have been a 40 minute commute (which is already ridiculous) to as long as an hour and a half (stupid fucking ridiculous). There were days when I would spend more time in my VW Jetta than I did at home. Los Angeles? You’re a dick.  I hope you get a venereal disease. Let’s face it, you may already have one.

Chicago is awesome, but Chicago = Cold. Brrrrrrrr!!!!! Next.

We finally found asylum in Philadelphia. Philadelphia has a lot going for it. It’s steeped in U.S. history, and there’s tons to do, whether you’re a foodie, an artist, a theater fan, or sports junkie. It’s affordable. We found our dream house in an even dreamier neighborhood that’s walking distance to museums, shopping, restaurants, downtown, coffee, you name it. What’s not to love? Good grief, where do I start? Philadelphia is one of the dirtiest cities around. New York is dirtier, but Philadelphia is on a mission to close that gap. It seems filled with litter. It’s everywhere. I’ve seen people throw fast food trash—hamburger wrappers, French fry containers, empty soda cups—right out their car windows like it’s a normal thing. Like, hello? Seriously? It blows around on trash days. I think more litter ends up on the street than in the trash truck. You know what else really bugs? The public school system. It’s an underfunded hot mess and until recently, we had a governor who couldn’t have cared less. Our public schools don’t have librarians, enough counselors or nurses. Parents have to contribute pencils, pens, copy paper, Kleenex, and hand sanitizer regularly so teachers don’t have to reach into their own pockets quite as much as they already do, because the district can’t afford enough basic supplies. So when I hear of other public schools throwing a fund raiser so their kids can each have an iPad in their classes, it kind of makes me want to throw up. Refusing to adequately fund schools is shameful and immoral, but something Philadelphia parents and their kids endure year after year. It’s embarrassing. Up yours, Philadelphia. But you know what? I’m here. I may be a lifer. You don’t always have to like your family to love them. I feel the same way about Philadelphia.

It’s the End of the World as I Know It

After eight years of living in Philadelphia, I have a love-hate relationship with the 4th of July. Let’s get the negative out of our system. For one, there’s a ton of noise. You just can’t escape it. It’s hot and the kids are out of school and bored out of their minds, and they’re constantly letting off fireworks in the street. People flock from all over to the heart of the city to binge drink all day and let off fireworks in the street. And most of us have been granted the day off work, which gives us a whole day for letting off fireworks in the street. On top of that, there’s an all-day party and concert going on in front of the art museum, which is a stone’s throw away from my house. Street closures make it difficult and annoying to get around town. Grocery stores will run out of hotdogs and hamburgers by noon. For one, full day, Philly resembles what movies tell us the aftermath of the apocalypse looks like. Not immediately after the apocalypse, but maybe like three years later, with people roaming the streets, burning crude fires all day in trashcans in the middle of the street, and barbequing who-knows-what in beat-up grills they’ve rolled out just for the occasion.

For us, Independence Day is like Halloween in San Francisco or St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago—the 4th is huge for Philadelphia, and it comes with all the crowds and excitement that one would expect. A big part of me wants to pack up the car on July 3rd and head to someplace quiet with nothing going on, where we could relax in the quiet, maybe spend the afternoon at the local chili cook-off, and then wait for the evening’s modest fireworks display over picnic dinner on a blanket in a park. But we never do. We always stay.

We stay because of the noise and the excitement. We stay because of the fireworks and the day drinking. I can walk out my front door to an immediate and immersive spectacle, whether it’s a makeshift porch party or someone handing my daughter a sparkler. We can take a short walk to a huge party sponsored by Wawa and be treated to music and street food and face painting (and sooooo many people). My neighborhood puts on a barbeque with its own small-town feel that includes a pie contest, grilled hotdogs and hamburgers, potato sack races, a piñata, and bottomless vodka tonics. Later, we might peel off to our own parties or go to Drexel Park to listen to the concert at the art museum and wait for fireworks. Josh, VA, and I like to get home after dark, into the comfort of the air conditioning to cool off for a little bit. And when we hear the first explosions, we scramble up to our roof to watch the fireworks above the museum. It’s breath-taking and reason alone to stay in town on the 4th of July. So I guess I don’t have a love-hate relationship with the 4th of July—more like a hate-love. And I feel fine.

Overthinking a Dollar

I can’t decide if I was a big jerk the other day or not. I probably was. As the queen of second guessing myself, I’m pretty sure I made the wrong choice. Last Sunday, Virginia and were on our way home from the pool, when we decided to stop off at the corner deli to grab a water ice, which is, for those who don’t know (I didn’t know until moving to the east coast) a cross between a snow cone and an Icee. We stood in line behind one other person, and I slipped out my wallet from my pool bag. I wasn’t carrying a ton of cash, but let’s just say my wallet was bulging with ones like I’d just gotten off my shift at the Wild Pony. The guy in front of us turned around, looked me in the eye, and asked if he could have a dollar.

“What for?” I asked.

“A sandwich,” he replied.

I hesitated and then shrugged. “OK, I guess,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I’ve certainly come up short when I’m at the front of the line to order lunch. A dollar sounded like kind of a lot to come up short, though.

The man continued, “I wanted the seafood salad sandwich and need a dollar more.”

I stopped. The seafood salad sandwich? The most expensive item on the menu? That’s a major upgrade from turkey. I put my wallet away.

I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. I changed my mind.”

He shrugged. “All right. Whatever.”

I felt both mean and right at the same time. Because it’s true, I’ve been in that same situation countless times, and you know what? I figure it out. I would never dream of turning to the person behind me and asking for a dollar, especially for something frivolous. If I’m ten or fifteen cents short, I’m not above raiding the penny bin. But if I’m short by more than a quarter, I order a cheaper sandwich instead and chastise myself for being stupid enough not to check to make sure I had enough cash for what I wanted. Or I go back to my car and dig around in the hopes of finding a few stray quarters and nickels. Or I give up, go home, and make myself a peanut butter sandwich. I would be too embarrassed to ask for a dollar and clearly, people are not embarrassed.

Still, I couldn’t shake how mean I felt. And to make matters worse, after the guy left, and I was pondering my meanness, VA gets to the front of the line and orders her water ice. The woman behind the counter handed it over and looked at me expectantly.

“Need a dollar, kid?” asked a kind man who’d sidled up to the deli counter.

I snapped to. “Oh, geez, no—thanks,” I told him sheepishly, scrambling to hand a dollar to the woman for the water ice.

In the end, it’s a dollar. If I had just given the seafood salad guy a dollar, I wouldn’t feel so mean. Now who’s frivolous?

The Earth Moved

I think we come to expect big, fancy, earth-shattering events to change our lives, sometimes for the better. But often it’s the smaller, less expected things that make a huge impact as well.

For the last few years, Josh worked a job with off hours (noon-8 PM), off days (Sunday-Thursday), and no off holidays. This is pretty normal for people who work in casinos, which are typically open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I’m not complaining, because I complained plenty during all the Thanksgivings VA and I spent without him. Josh was a much better sport about it than I was, and I wasn’t the one breathing second-hand smoke all day long, including every, single holiday. I don’t want to underplay how grateful we were that he had a job that allowed him to complete a Master’s as well as help pay the mortgage, but adjusting to the schedule proved a challenge.

Two months ago, Josh started a new job where he not only uses the Master’s he earned and doing work he loves and believes in, he also has weekends and holidays off as well as paid vacation time. Although I knew I didn’t like him working all those days many people get off, I didn’t anticipate how much I love having him home full weekends and holidays. It’s changed our lives 100% for the better. Last weekend for example, Josh got to watch Virginia run in a 2.5K trail race, which was heaven for him. He can attend soccer tournaments. We can go to his parents’ house in New Jersey for the weekend, if we want. Weekend weddings and bar mitzvahs don’t kill us any more.

Oh, and did I mention he’s home for dinner, too? Yeah—his new hours, of the 8:30 AM-5:30 PM variety, means he’s home for dinner. He’s also in a better position to help out a lot more—trips to Target and the grocery store, carpool runs, barbeque dinners are all a lot more possible now that his time at work has shifted. So sure, big, fancy, earth-shattering events like Josh finally landing a job he enjoys and believes in are life changing in the best way. But I’m enjoying the smaller, less flashy perks that allow Virginia and me to spend more time together as a family.

My So-Called Boring Life

Speaking of things I find fun now, my most joyous moment this week, without a doubt, was sitting on a couch watching a cooking show after dinner with Josh, Virginia, and Jazzy. And quite honestly, it’d probably make my top moments of the year, too. Is that sad?

If you’d have asked me what my top moment of the year was after college, I’d probably say, attending the U.S.A. vs. Brazil World Cup game in 1994. Or in 1996, performing in a play in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 1998, making my first improv team. In 2001, marrying Josh and in 2004, giving birth to Virginia and buying a house (in the same day—BOOYAH). Finding a dream job, running a marathon, completing a novel—yep, those are pretty easy moments to pick out. But lately I’ve been finding some serious joy in the every day.

And now? Seriously, the four of us piling up on our couch to watch the latest episode of Australian Master Chef is the most fun. I didn’t predict that I’d become so conventional. In fact, I’m pretty sure I prayed I would never become so boring. But I totally did! Twenty years ago, I mocked people like me—derided their conventionality, their lack of originality and zest for life. Maybe I am complacent and comfortable watching other people go after their dreams, while I sit on my couch sandwiched between Josh and Virginia with Jazz sprawled out on our laps. Does it mean I stopped having dreams, too? I don’t know. I think I used to think that people who contentedly watched TV after work had somehow traded their dreams or excitement to watch other people reach for the stars, like it was easier than reaching for the stars themselves.

Or maybe I just didn’t know how wonderful it is to sit and laugh with my family, ooh and aah at the culinary masterpieces (or sometimes less-than masterpieces) that appear before us on our television screen. Virginia talks about what she would want to cook and bake, and I can see the inspiration grow in her eyes. No, I think my mistake was writing off hanging out with family doing nothing productive as a worthy activity. It’s as much of a valid and worthwhile choice as it would be to attend the ballet or go zip lining. But frankly, after a long day, I don’t want to do any of that crap.

And Your Little Dog, Too

Virginia turned eleven last Tuesday and this Saturday, she’s inviting a bunch of friends over for a karaoke birthday celebration. She’s really looking forward to it. Me? Eh.

For just about every birthday, Virginia has wanted a party, and I try my darndest to feign enthusiasm. Most of the time the parties are a success—the kids arrive, they have fun, they eat cake, they go home. No grownups. I feel a kid’s birthday party should just be for kids. Give the grownups a break to run errands or see a movie. Or take a nap. I know I have a very narrow and limited view of kids’ birthday parties because personally, I don’t want to go to one that’s not my child’s. Leave me out of it. Once a year, I take one for the team and throw a party for my kid—that should be enough. The thought of accompanying Virginia to an afternoon birthday party where about a dozen kids are running around hopped up on Capri Sun and cake makes me break out in hives. When the adults are invited, the kid’s party turns into a kid’s party with gin and tonics. I’m sorry, but day drinking will not soften this situation. I’m angry I’m there and now fantasizing about all the grocery shopping I could be doing right now. And I hate grocery shopping.

Ugh, and can we just talk about the siblings for a sec? Every year, it seems one clueless parent will bring all of their kids to my daughter’s birthday party, like I’m some sort of babysitting service. This is not OK. I count on my RSVPs so I can order enough food, drinks, and party favors. I need a space that will accommodate the number of invited guests. Extra kids messes all this up. And, often I don’t know all the siblings—some are total brats. One year, one, not-invited older sibling cut in front of all the little kids in line for pizza so he could get first dibs. I wanted to punch him. And then I wanted to punch his parents. I get it. You’ve got two, three, four kids and you don’t know what to do with them. If Virginia’s birthday party is inconvenient because you don’t have an activity for the rest of your brood, bow out. It’s OK. I understand. I’d much rather a “no” R.S.V.P. than unexpected siblings who will complain loudly why they didn’t get a candy bag, but their sister did.

What’s that you say? Ah, yes. I hear you. Breathe in, breathe out. Saturday is going to come and go and before you know it, I will be a perfectly sane, relatively nice relaxed person once again. It can’t come too soon.