Keep Your Friends Close and Insurance Company Closer

Shame on me. Seriously. This week, Josh and I finally decided to buy a new car. We’re overdue. We need something safer and with all-wheel-drive, so we settled on a Subaru. And when you buy a new car, you need to also buy auto insurance. I was not looking forward to that phone call, though I happily considered the ways in which I could drop my current carrier. Because when I looked at previous years’ statements, our payments kept inching up every six months. I meant to look into it every time I watched the rate hike and find out why, but I didn’t, and this cost us. This month, after the rate increased again for our aging car, we were paying over $140 per month to insure our old, crappy car. Neither Josh nor I have had any tickets or accidents, so when you lump in a car whose worth is in a steady decline, logically, it would seem that our payments would go down. Nope.

Well, a couple of days ago, I called and when I mentioned I was shopping around for rates, they told me, “We’d hate to lose you after 13 years.” And I thought, holy crap, we’ve been loyal customers for 13 years and they’re screwing us? The representative offered me not only more coverage for both the new car and the old, but also for $50 less than what we’ve been paying for just one, old hatchback. So it got me thinking, am I just being scammed? Is auto insurance just one more way I’m slowly being ripped off? Do I now need to pay attention to my rates going up as Josh and I become more attractive drivers in their eyes and my cars age? I thought our payments were supposed to go down.

It reminds me of when we had cable. Every year or two, I had to make a phone call to the cable company and threaten to leave in order to get them to continue the deal we had before they jacked up my rates. I hated playing this game, which is why we eventually cut the cord. I feel like these companies are less concerned with customer satisfaction and instead count on their customers being too busy to comb through each bank and credit card statement every month even when they start feeling they’re getting ripped off. Most people have other, more pressing daily tasks that require their attention—working, walking the dog, helping a kid with their homework, making breakfast—and companies know that. So now I have to pay attention to my auto insurance. And by the way, we’re sticking with our auto insurance company despite the fact we now need to attend to our payments. You win, Geico, but I’m keeping my eye on you.

Sincerely Yours

Dear Sarah,

Welcome to your 70s! Wow, I must start off by saying—you look great. I mean, you clearly are drinking enough water and your skin, well, it’s the skin of a woman at least 10 years younger! All of the sunscreen you slathered on every day, year after year, is finally paying off. That “procedure” you had done to your face as a 65th birthday present to yourself really has made you look rested and refreshed all these years. I must say your face looks age-appropriate, but also elegant and soft. Well played, lady.

I am also way impressed with how active you are and how much energy you have. Are you seriously running another marathon this year? Well, I guess that’s what happens when you stay in fighting shape your whole life (and get your running shoes on and butt out the door even when you’re feeling lazy). I’m so glad you took up yoga in your early forties like you promised yourself you would—it’s absolutely saved your posture and flexibility. I see exercise isn’t your only healthy habit. Although you’re not a crazy nut about eating right and allow yourself the occasional indulgences, it’s obvious you think about what you eat and make smart choices most of the time. Cooking just about every night wasn’t always the easiest, especially after a full day of work and shuttling Virginia around for gymnastics and soccer. But your effort paid off—eating well-balanced meals and making sure you got your fruits and vegetables every day worked out for you. Switching over to wheat bread and laying off the Cheez-Its probably didn’t hurt either.

There’s an ease about you these days that you haven’t always had. You’ve learned to relax and enjoy the moment more. Was fretting about every mundane detail so important? No, of course not. You’ve learned to avoid stirring yourself up over things that don’t deserve it. I’m also glad you spent all that time with Virginia helping her with her homework, even when she was totally sick of you. Now you have that relationship you always wanted to have with her. And how great is it that you and Josh are still madly in love and partners in life after decades of marriage? I’m betting the increase in travel, especially after you both retired, kept the fires burning. Not harping on Josh about leaving the entryway light on all the time probably helped, too.

As write this letter to you, my older, wiser self, I’m thinking—I’m trying to everything right here and being old better be fucking worth it, or I’m gonna be pissed.



Pioneer Woman

There are few things more personally satisfying for me than polishing off dinner leftovers. There’s a teensy bit of that pioneer spirit that makes me want to repurpose last night’s dinner into something new and delicious and worthy of a second take. And often it is not “new and delicious,” but at least it’s gone.

I must say, lately we are killing it in the leftovers department. Last night’s roast chicken dinner? *Bam*—nuked and sliced over salad the next day for lunch. Or *bam*—diced and turned into chicken salad. Or *bam*—shredded and stirred in matzo-ball soup. And that’s just chicken. Most leftovers of any sort—pork chops, roasted veggies, salmon—I’ll pile on top of a salad for lunch. Or stir in with morning eggs. And my weariness of eating virtually the same thing for a few days in a row can’t steal my joy of finishing them. We’re eating our leftovers—yay, us! However, the days when I am forced to step on our garbage can pedal, hold my nose, and toss the ancient beef stew into the trash are sadly far from gone. When I must throw out leftovers gone bad—it’s a crushing defeat. Darn you, slow-cooker pork from last week—you’re just not worth the risk!

Calling myself a pioneer woman is a pretty grand overstatement. I shouldn’t be so proud of eating leftovers. But deep down, I know I’m just not tough enough to eat the same thing twice a day for days on end. A day and a half, yes. After that and I start to get cranky. And a pioneer woman would shovel her own damn snow. But yesterday, when I asked Josh if he needed help shoveling our front walk, I asked in that voice that really meant, “Please, please don’t take me up on my offer! I hate shoveling snow! And it’s so warm inside.” I’m sure the pioneer woman composts. When I think of composting, I think, yuck. I also think, bugs and rats. And a pioneer woman is probably a master camper, able to sleep every night under the stars and subsist on nuts, berries, and squirrel meat. My idea of camping is to go to the woods for the day and then catch a ride home before it gets dark. Home is where my bed is. And my hair dryer.

I know having that true pioneer spirit is probably the best way to be, but frankly, I’m going to have to settle for pride in finishing up my dinner leftovers. I’m just too lazy and not good enough to embrace my inner pioneer woman.

Your Opinion Could Get Me Fired

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that explored the subject of how I take criticism, but also treaded—ever-so-lightly—on how I give it. I didn’t get very far. The post ended with how I might view and critique my creative writing students’ manuscripts and it felt, well, uncomfortable to say the least. “What do you think?” I asked Josh. He shrugged. I read each sentence over repeatedly, just to make sure I wasn’t saying anything that might be taken the wrong way. Landing on a title that wasn’t completely inappropriate proved to be a challenge, too.

As a community college professor, it’s 100% in my best interest to scrutinize every public phrase I write that is associated with my job, which is one reason why I don’t really write about it (the other is because no one wants to read about what college professors do except maybe other college professors). I’ve seen the fallout. Remember that Bucks County high school English teacher who called her students “dunderheads” and “lazy whiners” on her blog? Well she was fired for it. Seems like a minor indiscretion to me, though her blog upset many parents (how dare a teacher think those unkind thoughts about their children?). I can’t help but think it sounds pretty normal for a high school English teacher to become frustrated with her students now and then. Blogging those thoughts off your chest? Probably not the smartest way to vent in the media age, but it’s a shame she lost her job. And as a mom and a wife, I would think twice before posting something that could harm or embarrass my kid or my husband. My story doesn’t need to be their problem. I love my job. I love my family. I’d be super bummed if an offhand comment ruined my life as I now know it.

I feel strongly, though, that we should be able to tell our own stories, even if some take offense, even if these stories might hurt other peoples’ feelings, even if our own truth does not square with someone else’s who might have even played a role in the experience. It can come at a cost, though. It’s up to the writer to decide if the risk is worth the perceived reward of getting the story out there. But not me. Sharing my mad love of coffee and complaining about winter are pretty low stakes. I can’t imagine I’ll be any more forthcoming in the future because frankly, I’m too afraid. A tell-all memoir is probably not in my future.

Me, Myself, and I…and the House and the Girl and the Dog

Josh has been away on a work trip, so I’ve been a single parent for the week. I admire anyone who can do this successfully on their own and know many who make it look easy. It’s not. The number of plates I had to spin this week saw a significant jump in numbers. Getting Virginia to school on time, walking the dog, dealing with trash day, keeping VA busy during a holiday and a snow day, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, shoveling snow, holding down a job—seriously, there are just not enough hours in the day when you’re doing it all on your own. But it’s been OK. I didn’t burn the house down, my dog didn’t starve or anything, but I did notice a few unexpected changes.

Our eating habits immediately changed. Josh is a three squares a day guy. And he likes a complete dinner with a main, side, and salad. Virginia is more ambivalent about complete meals, and you know what? With the pressure off, so was I. I haven’t quite gone back to the days when chips and salsa stepped in as a just-fine dinner, but if VA wanted 3 servings of matzo ball soup for dinner, another serving the next morning for breakfast and one more for lunch, and the last of it for after-school snack, I’m gonna say “sure, why not?”

I could find no good reason to shave my legs. None. Josh is away and it’s February in Pennsylvania.

I’m not on light patrol all day long. Josh tends to leave the lights on during the day and sometimes at night. He just doesn’t notice and forgets—it’s a quirk. And it’s not a big deal—to him—but I do find myself roaming around the house periodically during the day turning lights off. This week, it’s simple: the lights are off during the day and after we go to bed at night. No roaming. Josh tells me I have my own personality quirks too. Apparently I load the dishwasher totally wrong. But you know what? I’ve been loading it just the way I like all week.

The three of us left behind are certainly cozy around here. I think with Josh away for the week, Virginia and I, and even Jazz, too, can feel the emptiness in the house acutely, so we stay close. None of us want more alone time. I find I’m more eager for her to return from school, so I can make her a snack and hear all about her day. I happily help her with her homework and she lets me. The best way to watch TV/read/do homework? It’s when VA, the dog, and I are all piled on the couch. That goes for sleeping too—best way to sleep is when VA, Jazzy, and I are all snug in the bed.

Although I feel good about how the week went and thankful disaster didn’t strike as an unfortunate result of my neglect, I’m anxious for Josh to return. He brings balance to our little household, and frankly, my legs could use a shave.

There Are Two Kinds of People in this World

The day may start, but mine doesn’t until I’ve had my first cup of coffee. My coffee roots run deep. My grandparents and parents were all heavy users. When I was really small, before Starbucks and Peets, I remember the can of Yuban that lived on our kitchen counter. My mom always prided herself on the ability to brew the best coffee, no matter what brand or blend (the secret is to use enough coffee—weak coffee is an abomination). Living in the Bay Area, though, we soon kicked Yuban to the curb when we became Peets Coffee early adopters and never looked back.

We have a family history of encouraging/pushing coffee, because it’s lonely being the sole coffee drinker in a household. I got hooked really young. By the time I was three, I was allowed coffee milk in the mornings, which made me feel grown up and sophisticated. And by thirteen, I was drinking coffee black every morning. To this day, when I grab coffee with a friend who needs milk and sugar and/or any other powdery substance offered by the café just to get the stuff down, I think, not a coffee drinker. Anyone who likes flavored coffee? Not a coffee drinker. Frappuccinos don’t count. Mochas don’t count. Pumpkin lattes don’t count.

When I moved to southern California for college, at the time a region without Peets readily available, my mom made sure she had a couple pounds shipped to my dorm every month, just so I wouldn’t have to experience withdrawals. Isn’t she the sweetest (enabler)? I’ll do the same for Virginia, who indulges in a coffee milk every now and then (please don’t call Child Protective Services). But her experience is different from mine. I—gasp—married someone who doesn’t drink coffee. Josh hates it. And after VA was born, and I could finally drink a fully caffeinated beverage again, I’d look down at my sweet baby and think, is this one going to be a coffee drinker? A true coffee drinker? Like, not one of those hazelnut fake coffee drinkers?  One day when VA was about two and half, the three of us were at a mall to use their indoor playground during a sweltering summer day. I grabbed an iced coffee to sip while we watched VA tottering around on the foam mats. She saw me find my seat next to Josh, holding the drink and made a bee line. “Sip?” she asked. I looked at Josh. He shrugged. Maybe she’ll hate it, I thought. She’ll learn her lesson, and I won’t have to be the parent who stunts her child’s growth by supplying her with coffee through college. It’s like forcing a kid to smoke a pack of cigarettes to ward him off smoking for the rest of his life. I handed the drink over and she took a tentative sip, swallowed, and went back for more. She downed as much as she could before I wrestled it away from her greedy little toddler hands. In that moment, I knew she was going to carry the coffee torch from my side of the family. And if she’s anything like me when she gets older, you might keep your distance until she’s had her first cup of coffee in the morning.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

As someone who loathes winter and all things snow, I am reluctantly going on a weekend ski trip with Josh and Virginia. Last year I got out of it by taking a last-minute trip out west to visit my mom for the weekend on account of self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder. No one can say northern California is particularly warm in the winter either, but in February, it’s certainly balmier there than in Philadelphia. What a break to spend a few days in 50 degree weather.

I hate to even complain about going away on a weekend trip, but given the circumstances, what choice do I really have? I don’t understand why anyone who lives in freezing temperatures and snow for 3+ month would waste a weekend and money just to be surrounded by even colder temperatures and more snow. So why go this year? I’ve been grappling with that question this week as I look ahead to traveling to the Poconos, a region that enjoys more cold and snow than Philly for the opportunity to slide down an icy hill on skis. This sounds more like torture than recreation. However, Josh, Virginia, and our friends we’ll be traveling with consider skiing “fun.” VA asked that I go this time around, “I want Dad and you to go this time.” I didn’t want to say no to that. Are you kidding? I couldn’t say no—not when your child is asking to spend time with you. Plus, she’s ten, so I know my days of her wanting spend any amount of time with me are numbered. Any day now she’ll be turning into a sullen teenager who’d rather drop dead than be caught within shouting distance of her mother. Josh and I laugh and joke about how embarrassing it will be to have us as parents when she hits puberty. We are not cool. We are goofy and socially awkward and will most likely volunteer to chaperone her school dances.

So now she wants me to join them and I’m going. I wouldn’t miss it. And truthfully, I’m doing it as much for me as I am for her. Before I know it, I’ll be that mom who’s required to walk at least ten paces behind VA and her friends at the mall. But until then? I’ll be the mom who gets to spend a weekend with her daughter in the freezing, freezing cold.

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.