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.

Well That Was Fun

We attended our yearly neighborhood camping trip last weekend. “Camping” for me has become driving up for the day, after a hot shower and a couple cups of strong coffee of course, hiking around for a few hours in my trail shoes, getting my yearly dose of trees and fresh air, and then driving home alone in time to make myself a nice dinner I’ll eat in front of Real Housewives. That’s about as much camping as I can handle. When I was Virginia’s age, I could have spent an entire summer outdoors, barefoot and sleeping in a tent by a lake and living off of hard salami, Triscuits, and fruit. No longer. This is what a few decades of hotels and city living and easy access to plumbing can do to a girl. Now, I freak if I’m someplace I can’t blow out my hair or grab a cup of good coffee. Seriously. I’ve become the lady I used to roll my eyes at—I may now be in Goldie-Hawn-at-the-beginning-of-Overboard territory.

This got me thinking: my menu of what I consider fun changes as I get older. You know what’s fun now? Trying different kinds of cheese. When I see a cheese plate these days, I pounce and have to restrain myself from inhaling the whole thing. My ten-year-old palate was not exactly sophisticated, and I remember instantly recoiling at just a whiff of “stinky” cheese. Museums are a lot more fun since I’ve hit adulthood, too. Strolling leisurely as I take in gorgeous works of art is such heaven. I can’t go on vacation without visiting a city’s signature art museum. Turns out, this is not an activity that tops Virginia’s list. It’s an exercise in extreme patience for her to wander among the paintings and sculptures, and I remember feeling the same way.

A few weeks ago I took Virginia to a baseball game. She didn’t want to go at first, recalling how mind-numbingly bored she was two years ago when Josh and I dragged her to a summer afternoon game, and I knew this trip to the ballpark could be an expensive mistake. But as soon as we arrived, I started to see her turn around. I don’t know that the entire experience was all that exciting for her, but as soon as we walked through the gate, she was handed a bat bag—free for all kids that day. I bought her a Phillies hat. She enjoyed the opportunity to pig out on hotdogs and French fries. And after we settled into our seats, she actually watched the game and asked questions about the rules of baseball and how fans are selected to get onto the Jumbotron (criteria seems to hinge on behaving like an energetic moron). I thought, she’s warming to baseball—she must be growing up!

Yeah, “growing up.” Before I know it, she’ll be talking me into going glamping.

Tofu Goes West

So last Friday, I made dinner for the three of us. It was a new recipe and had all the components that I thought we’d enjoy: chicken thighs, brie, pear, fig jam, seasoned, chopped lettuce, great bread. Instead it turned out to be a big yuck—a drippy, sweet sandwich that none of us liked. Virginia was the first to bow out. Gamely, after the first disastrous bite, she divided the sandwich into its separate parts and tried to each one separately. No dice. She argued for a new dinner, but I refused—I already made dinner. She pushed her plate away in a huff. Josh got a little farther. He was starving, and probably could have made a meal out of his left arm, but instead went for the yucky sandwich first. He got through half before pushing his plate away and then raiding the refrigerator for the last piece of pizza from the night before. I, on the other hand, ate the entire sandwich. The whole thing. Every bite. This is totally out of character for me.

When I was Virginia’s age, my mom (who is a great cook) made dinners that I ate about half the time. I hardly ever ate dinner, and it wasn’t because I wasn’t hungry. It was the late 1970s and early 1980s, and my mom was a health nut back when baby boomers seriously considered carob as a substitute for chocolate. My mom’s favorite grocery store was a crunchy health food store, and her favorite cookbook was Tofu Goes West. Let’s just let that sink in and marinate for a little bit. Tofu Goes West. Remember when Seinfeld’s wife wrote a cookbook about how to sneak broccoli into everything to make your kid eat broccoli? Well, Tofu Goes West, wasn’t so much sneaking tofu in, but saying “Hey, guess who’s in this burrito? You guessed it—it’s tofu!” The tofu in these recipes “hide” tofu like a 2-year-old “hides” during a game of hide-and-seek. My mom managed to sneak tofu into and subsequently ruin everything that I had previously considered edible. Or even delicious. Burritos. Stir fry. Lasagna. Meatballs. Soup. I was pissed. I looked just like Virginia looked after she took her first bite of that awful figgy-brie-pear-chicken sandwich. And like her, I went no farther. I pushed my plate away night after night, simply because I didn’t like what was served, even if it was prepared beautifully and exactly according to the recipe. I didn’t consider that my mother might have put in some serious effort to cook it. I was not wasting precious time eating something I hated.

I am not that girl anymore. As I put together our weekly dinner menu, I picked the yucky sandwich recipe out of the latest issue of Cooking Light, a magazine that has successfully provided dozens of yummy recipes for meals that wowed the three of us. I chose and bought each ingredient. I know how much a jar of fig jam and good brie cost. I cooked those chicken thighs to perfection and waited for them to rest. I even stopped Josh from eating that pear. “No,” I scolded. “That’s for Friday night’s dinner.” I assembled the sandwich’s components and placed each sandwich back on the grill pan, where I flattened them on a large grill pan, creating the grill marks and allowing the sandwiches to blend and smoosh together into what should have been its delicious glory. In short, I knew exactly what went into making those horrible sandwiches, and because of that, I ate it. Maybe I ate the sandwich to make up for all of the tofu dishes I didn’t eat that my mom served up to me. Maybe I’m just making amends to my poor, unappreciated mother. Or maybe I’m just wrong and just should have made The Girl a grilled cheese sandwich.

Free Time Makes Me Nervous

I love a schedule. The whole family loves a schedule. Even our dog loves a schedule. In fact, he has a pretty solid routine. This is Jazzy on most days: morning walk, breakfast, play time, sitting at human’s feet, nap, lunchtime walk, treat, nap, afternoon walk, lap time, dinner, fetch, couch, nighttime walk, and bed.

As I imagine it must be for Jazz, I find my own routine both comfortable and comforting. It’s hard to overstate the joy that checking things off of lists brings me. Even though my days may not look identical day in and day out, I’ve pretty much chained myself to my calendar. And I think, I must be productive if I stick to a plan, right? And for most days, that’s what I—and I’m assuming (hoping) most of us—must ask myself before choosing to answer in the affirmative.

But sometimes I have to wrench myself away from my calendar and do something off the schedule. It doesn’t usually feel right immediately. Like I’m being undisciplined. Like I’m cheating or flaking on something. Like I’m letting my responsibilities slide. It makes me feel like I’m 19 and deciding to ditch class (again) and lounge by the dorm pool all afternoon instead. You do that enough (and I did—I had the deep tan, blonde highlights, and shitty grades to show for it), and you start to feel like a slug. And now, as the days start to lengthen and the rays of the sun filter onto my skin, I’m drawn once again to the outdoors. I’m so torn—do I skip an afternoon of essay grading to sit on my porch, catch a few rays on my calves, and finish my Tom Perotta novel instead? Or forgo a day of chipping away at my latest work in progress to attend a Sunday Phillies game with Josh and Virginia? For me, a schedule is good for the soul, but so is goofing off. Too much of either and I’m rendered as useless as a slug.

Our plans this weekend fell through, and to be honest, I’m nervous. I could easily fill my time with work. In fact, at this point in my semester, I won’t have much choice but to read through and grade a few stacks of papers Saturday and Sunday, otherwise I’ll be buried all next week. But I’d like to carve out at least one afternoon of free time to spend with Josh and VA, doing who knows what. I’ll figure it out when I get there.

A Good Deal

You wouldn’t think that the way in which a person prefers to buy and consume ice-cream would say all that much about an individual, but it does. Josh and I are totally different in this respect. I like to buy ice-cream in a single-serve cone form preferably from a hoity-toity ice-cream shop. I will happily plunk down $4 for a single scoop of outstanding strawberry ice-cream stuffed into a sugar cone. If Josh, on the other hand, witnesses me do that, I get the angry smile. Josh’s favorite ice-cream store? Shop Rite. Or Costco. Anyplace that sells ice-cream that comes in a tub.

He’s tried reasoning with me: “For $4, you can get a whole gallon of ice-cream, not just a scoop.” But that logic just bounces right off me. I don’t see buying ice-cream scoop by scoop as wasteful. In fact, I see buying a large quantity of ice-cream as wasteful. I typically don’t want ice-cream all that often, which is why I buy and eat it on a scoop-by-scoop basis. If I bought ice-cream in a larger size I’d 1) be stuck with that flavor for a while. Boring. 2) I wouldn’t eat all of it and weeks later it would render itself into that sticky goo topped with ice crystals. 3) Or alternatively, I would eat it so as not to be “wasteful.” And I’d be consuming ice-cream more often than I’d want and probably enjoying it a lot less, since I’d be so bored from having the same flavor day in, day out. Plus we’re stuck with crappy ice-cream

Me? Just give me one standout cone of high-quality ice-cream from Franklin Fountain. That tops off the end to a delightful summer afternoon. I would stand in a long line for that, and with Virginia, excitedly go back and forth on what each of us might order. Cookies ‘n’ cream? Rocky road? Sweet cream? I relish the whole experience right up to the last bite. Josh is more about quantity over quality. A gallon of Bryer’s or Friendly’s ice-cream? Fine. His enjoyment of ice-cream is directly correlated to the amount he gets. So if he gets a great deal on a great deal of ice-cream that can take him through a week or more of daily scoops, then he’s happy. Really happy. Like happy for more than a week.

So last week, Josh was faced with the choice to buy one box of Matzo for $2.50 or take home five boxes for free. Which do you think he chose?

Why I Run

I don’t really talk about running all that much. I like to do it. I do it most days of the week. I’ve done it for most of my life. But I don’t really talk about it. And the reason is because most people, especially those who don’t run and even some who do, find running really boring. I get that—I do. But today, as the outdoors looks more and more like optimal running weather, I’m going to be selfish and talk about why I run. So if running really isn’t your bag, feel free so swing by again next week—I’m sure I’ll have something stupid to complain about.

  1. I’ll start with the obvious: running makes me feel good. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… Weight. Lung capacity. Pizza.
  1. Running keeps my brain sane. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah..blah, blah, blah. Blah.
  1. Also, running makes me feel close to my dad. Like a lot of baby boomers, my dad took up running in the 1970s. When he was just starting out as a runner, he’d let me tag along and I’d ride my bike alongside him as he ran. By the time I was Virginia’s age, I was running short distances with him—maybe two to three miles at most. Once I entered seventh grade, we started training for 5 and 10K races together. All through jr. high, high school, and college years, and throughout my twenties, we ran all over Palo Alto—through neighborhoods, around Stanford campus, and up and down the grassy hills near the “dish,” where on a clear day, you can look south and make out the skyline of San Jose and up north, San Francisco. On family vacations, we’d go on running tours through Boston, New Orleans, Chicago.

And running was a time when we could just talk about anything. Usually it wasn’t particularly deep. One ongoing conversation was considering how much someone would have to pay you to lick a square inch of the sidewalk in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (My number is surprisingly low.) Or coming up with answers to the question, what’s the grossest food or drink one could consumer after a long, summer run? (New England clam chowder.)

But running was always a time he’d check in with me and see what was on my mind, whether it was friendship dramas, applying to college, or soccer tryouts. I spent a lot of time trying to persuade him that modern music wasn’t all crap and sometimes succeeded. And that’s what I often think about now when I run. This Sunday, it’ll be fourteen years since I lost my dad. I don’t believe in angels or ghosts, and I don’t believe he’s looking down from heaven. But I do enjoy thinking about the conversations we would be having when I run now. And in my own way, I’m still running with my dad.