Past My Expiration Date

My brother just moved to London this month, and I must admit, I’m a little jealous. He’s got a lot ahead of him—looking for an apartment, unpacking, finding a convenient grocery store, mastering the public transportation system, acclimating to the weather—and it can take a considerable amount of time to settle in and start to feel comfortable. But I love all that. And I’m good at it.

My husband likes to remind me that I love to move. For about a decade, I moved on average, every two years—from L.A., to a variety of apartments in the Bay Area, a couple places in Chicago, and back to L.A. And two years is about the length of time a person can move in to a new city, get settled, fall in love with it, and then move on. Now that we’re in Philadelphia, in a house and neighborhood that all three of us adore, it gets harder to justify leaving, ever. For one, it’s not just me anymore. It’s unfair to yank Josh and Virginia all over the country just because I feel the urge to discover a new city. We’ve also made good friends here, and I like my job. Philly is far from perfect and there’s plenty about the city I find annoying and distressing—the chicken bones in the street, the limited public school system, the epidemic level of double parking that blocks traffic. But for me, the good outweighs the bad, and we’ve cobbled together a pretty nice life for ourselves. We may be lifers here in Philly.

Still, the itch remains—I’m probably most comfortable as a bit of an outsider (and it’s useful as a writer), and a newbie in an unfamiliar city is the ultimate outsider. A city is enormous when you’re getting to know it. Every long walk feels like an adventure. The way I saw Philly at first is much different than how I see it now, seven years later. It’s harder to see what’s become so familiar. Fortunately for me, Philadelphia is a city where you’re still considered a newbie even after you’ve lived here for 20-30 years. If you moved here from somewhere else—no matter how long ago—you’re an outsider.

I’m probably romanticizing moving a little bit and suffer from a mild case of amnesia when it comes to relocating—the packing and shipping is truly stressful, even when it’s just across town. Every time we do this, Josh and I swear up and down that we are never moving again. Next time I get the itch to relocate? Maybe I’ll just refurnish the house.

Handle with Care

I take criticism poorly. I value criticism, but at first, it makes me want to throw my laptop across the room. Eventually I come around, but it’s a process. A lengthy process. Anyway, I thought about that as Josh, Virginia, and I ate dinner last night. It was a new recipe—and on paper, it looked like a hit. Instead, it was meh. After the first couple of bites, I knew the seasoning was off, and the meat, tough. Yet, I had to ask, “What do you guys think?” “It’s OK. The meat is chewy, like gum,” said Virginia, picking up a glob of chewed pork off the lip of the bowl to show me. And Josh? I could see smoke start to come out of his nose as he attempted to formulate a way to tell me that the dinner wasn’t good in the nicest possible way. Kid gloves.

When Josh and I were first married and I was back in school after a long absence, I’d have Josh read through my essays and offer some feedback before I’d hand them in. He didn’t hold back. “This is awful,” he’d say, pointing to a horrific sentence. Or, “Cut this entire paragraph—you’re just repeating.” Usually he was right and my papers improved after revising thanks to his comments, but on the way, I’d get defensive and mad. Sometimes I couldn’t even look at him for hours before swallowing my pride and revisiting my work. I know, you’re not criticizing me, I’d think. You’re criticizing my work. But you’re criticizing me.

Criticizing essays, though, is nothing compared to criticizing creative writing. A coworker today told me she was thinking of dropping a creative writing course she is scheduled to teach and asked if I’d be interested in taking it off her hands. I’ve always resisted teaching creative writing because of the feedback factor. Look, there’s a big difference between criticizing an essay by a student who’s writing about T.S. Eliot versus giving criticism on a poem written by someone who thinks they’re T.S. Eliot. I know how thin skinned I am, so how could I possibly be equipped to handle a whole class of fragile student egos? I want to help these students, but I’m so afraid I’m going to hurt their feelings. I can relate to them. Because of the way I take criticism, my husband must live in constant fear of pissing me off. I can relate to him.

In the interest of getting out of my comfort zone, I think I may just take the class if it’s offered. Yeah, I may be reading some awful, repeat-y, heart-on-the-sleeve, poorly-written creative writing, but I’ll at least come from a place of empathy. And hopefully compassion. I just hope they understand I’m only trying to help.

Nickel and Dimed

At the beginning of every new year, I always run into people who are hoping to devote more time to something extra that they consider good for them, i.e., exercise, journaling, meditation, cooking, yoga, or “me” time. Sometimes I’m right there with them. But I think we soon discover that the more we pack into the extra moments of our day, it becomes hard to find the time for stuff we have to do like work and eat and sleep and parent.

Yes, it’s come to a point when our free time is so micro-managed, we have to divide up the bits and pieces that we do have like we would portion out a single stick of gum among siblings. We even have cell phone apps for doling out our free time for something more “constructive”—10-min. meditation, 7-min. NYT workout, 5-min. kegel exercises—and before you know it, you’ve carved up your precious free time into tiny chunks, which now feel like even more “must-do”s.

On most days, especially those days when I need to be on campus to teach, I’m especially crunched for time, but it doesn’t mean I should flake out on my workout, right? (“Right!” says every single you-can-do-it magazine article and blog post appearing during the month of January.) What to do? I set my alarm a little extra early to squeeze in a short workout. Of course, just because I set my alarm, doesn’t mean I actually get up and go through with the plan. On the occasions when I do, I go through a 12-minute series of push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, planks, jumping jacks, and some running in place. I do feel good that I did something, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking, since when does 12 minutes of exercise actually amount to anything? (Besides allowing me to feel a small swell of pride for my discipline for the day?) Well, that sense of smugness comes at a price. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’m ready for a nap. Tired, you say? How about ten minutes of mindfulness? And then fifteen minutes in front of the energy light? Oy, what did I get myself into? I have to help Virginia with her homework, take her to gymnastics, cook dinner, and oh yeah, first I need to drive over an hour to get home from work.

What do I learn from this? That if I have a free 10 minutes to do whatever I want, when my attention is not needed for anything important, then my 10 minutes might be better spent hitting the snooze button in the morning rather than getting in a mini-workout. Or maybe the best way to relax after a long day is pigging out on salted cashews and catching the end of an episode of Real Housewives of New York. Mindlessness over mindfulness, I think—that’s the ticket.

Trouble Sleeping

I had one of those nightmares lately where you wake up and will yourself to stay awake long enough to create the needed distance to eventually slip into a more peaceful sleep. It didn’t happen. I was up for hours. The dream was related to a tragic accident that affected some friends of mine combined with a few recent discussions I’ve had with Virginia about kindness.

A few weeks ago, the husband of one of my best friends was part of a large group of bicyclists out for a weekend ride. He was not hurt, but the group was involved in a horrific accident. From what I’ve read in the news, a couple of the cyclists at the front of the pack got tangled up and crashed. One of the riders behind swerved and landed in the path of a truck, which hit him. He died at the scene. My friend’s husband posted that all he could do was keep his hand on the cyclist as he lay dying so that the man wasn’t alone. It’s awful and deeply sad. The guy was a husband, father, and educator, loved and missed by many. And he’s gone. Just like that.

But I was also moved by how generous and caring my friend’s husband was, as he stayed with the cyclist, keeping his hand on him—a simple physical gesture to help the man feel less alone in his last moments. And when I found out about the accident, it coincided with some conversations that Virginia and I have had about the importance of kindness. “Kindness” and “caring” are terms we often throw around with a level of casualness I now don’t think they deserve. They are qualities with weight and imply our responsibility and inherent respect for other beings. And sometimes it takes great strength to extend the type of kindness that my friend’s husband did for that man.

And so in my dream, it was my turn to extend that act of caring for a gravely injured man, who lay in the road bleeding and broken after being hit by a car. I flagged and screamed for traffic to come to a stop. I woke up before I could find out whether I had the fortitude to help him. I hope so, but in reality, I don’t know. I understand it was only a dream, but what do you do when you can’t do anything?

Some people just seem to know the right thing to do and say in difficult situations, but I am not one of those people. And I admire anyone, like my friend’s husband, who is. I guess the right answer is always to reach out, even if I have nothing beyond, “I’m sorry.”

You Like What You Pay For

Now that the holidays are out of the way, I can focus on one of my favorite aspects of the season: movies. It’s this time of year when I’m in between semesters and it’s still cold outside, I make the time to see as many Oscar-contender movies as possible. If I made New Year resolutions, seeing movies would sit at the top of my list.

I haven’t seen a ton of movies lately, which is a mediocre start to the season, but I’m not out yet. Virginia and I finally caught Big Hero 6 in the theater. Yeah, it’s an animated “kids” movie, but I was laughing and crying and clutching the armrest during the same funny/sad/scary parts as VA. Josh and I saw a few buzzy movies this fall with one-word titles: Birdman, Foxcatcher, and Boyhood. I’m excited to catch Theory of Everything, Wild, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Top Five, Big Eyes, American Sniper, Selma, Inherent Vice, and Into the Woods, to name a few. And I’m sure I’ll watch the updated Annie with VA before she heads back to school.

And you know what? Thanks to my relatively non-discerning taste, I’ll probably like everything. Almost anything I pay to see or read, I like. Some of it I love, but really, the vast majority I enjoy and admire. I’m sure a large part of it is because I pay for books and movies. I don’t pay for something I don’t already have interest in seeing. Handing over money to watch Birdman means I’m already halfway to liking it already. Typically, I’ve already listened to the review of the movie on KPCC’s FilmWeek. I read the Entertainment Weekly article on the movie’s principal star Michael Keaton and listened to Terri Gross’s interview with Edward Norton. And this is all in preparation to plunk down my $14 for a ticket. By then, I’m super excited to see the movie and convinced I probably won’t leave the theatre disappointed.

My admiration might also be in part due to understanding a little of how much hard work goes into making anything creative, and with movies, it’s a miracle just to get a movie made and distributed, let alone seduce people into buying tickets. Marketing is a bear from what I remember of Josh’s short tenure as an assistant editor and editor at a post-production house that produced content and commercials for DVDs. A large team of talented and creative people worked their balls off to package and market DVDs. And that was just for DVD sales, not to sell seats in theaters. And of course in my own experience, I’m learning more and more about how to get a book out in the world and persuade readers to read it. It’s not as simple as writing the thing, polishing it up, and putting it out there—not in traditional publishing, anyway. No, it’s a ton harder than that. It’s—and I hate this phrase—a labor of love for a whole team of enthusiastic and dedicated supporters. And for that devotion to a creative project, I’m apt to at least like it. For the record, I like free stuff too.