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.

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.

Keeping Up Appearances

I’m aware that keeping up appearances conjures up inflated visions of grandeur, but I think if no one were looking and I didn’t feel compelled to do so, I would slack on the most mundane, everyday activities. I’d rarely clean my house. I might just give up wholly on scrubbing my bathtub—who’s going to see that? I’d sit around surfing the internet while dishes pile in the sink and my vacuum cleaner would collect nothing but dust. Surely, I’d tell myself, the smell would eventually be motivation enough to get me off my butt to clean (right?), but if the only one who knows about my disgusting house is me, then who cares? Make-up and hair spray would be things of the past. I’d teach classes in exercise attire. I’d eat cheese curls in public.

There’s certainly a part of me that functions best when I try to keep up appearances. It’s a version of the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality that can get someone through their day perhaps more successfully than had they behaved authentically. So when is it important to keep up appearances? How about at work? Let’s say your alarm didn’t go off, and you accidentally slept in 20 minutes late. Oops. You rush to shower and dress. You prepare bagged lunch for yourself and your kid. The kid’s off on the bus, and you get in the car and the gas light flickers on. Shucks. The closest gas station is the one that’s always thirty cents more a gallon than everywhere else. You get on the highway and realize you left your lunch on the kitchen counter. Dang. And as soon as you realize you’ll need to buy lunch from the cafeteria today, traffic comes to a standstill thanks to a stalled vehicle in the middle lane. You get to campus five minutes after the beginning of class and as soon as you walk into your classroom, you notice your sweater is inside out. Sigh. Not a good way to start the day.

How to salvage it? Pretend your shitty morning didn’t exist. Push down the series of mini-rages you just had in the span of two hours and slap on a smile. Sure, you can apologize to your students for being late, but it’s now time to move on, and what better way to move on than to negate a crap morning? Wear that smile like a Stepford wife, even if all you want is to tell the world to go to hell, burn the sweater, and crawl back into bed and start again tomorrow. This day is about to get better, dammit. I am turning this ship around. And before you know it, your class is humming along, students are learning how to spot fragments and run-ons, and you are slowly forgetting that you need to switch around your sweater once you have a second to yourself in your office. By the time you’re in line for today’s cafeteria special, you feel, well, pretty normal. You’ve gone from telling yourself, “everything’s fine,” to everything really is fine.

But then again. Some days just suck…and you start over the next day.

Winter Is Coming, Part Deux

I’ve had mixed feelings about writing about therapy, but I talk about it to everybody. Maybe not everybody. You’re welcome, Acme cashier.

So here goes. After a healthy amount of year-round winter anxiety and perhaps too much self-diagnosing via WebMD, I decided I probably had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and took myself to see a therapist last week. It was my first time sitting on the couch, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I did know that I needed a game plan for this winter, and I was anxious to seek the opinion from an objective third party.

Turns out I was wrong about having SAD. I just dread winter too much. In so many words, the therapist suggested I find ways to turn that frown upside down. And for the time being, I’ve decided to believe her. What do I have to lose except for a bad attitude? Apparently, I do one thing right already: I run throughout the year, including winter. Exercise is a key way to beat the winter blahs, so I’ve got the exercise quotient covered. I’ll take some extra Vitamin D and use the special light a friend of mine gave me last year. But I may just need, as my mother was fond of saying when I was about fifteen, an attitude adjustment.

We batted around a few ideas and the therapist offered a few theories, but I wanted to strategize, so before the hour was up, I asked for a homework assignment. I wanted something to do, something to test out as the cold weather tightens its icy claws around my neck. Maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic, but it can feel that way until April. She suggested I read or watch the weather report for the following day and then write down my thoughts and strategies in my journal. I think it’s a way to take the season day by day and tackle any issues, i.e., a sudden dip in temperature, a day of freezing sleet and rain, or a looming Nor’easter.

She also thought I should look for fun activities that I can only do during the winter. This may pose a problem, because cold-weather anything, even activities that many might describe as “fun” still sound horrible. Skiing? Nope. Ice-skating? Nuh-uh. Sledding? No. I’ll watch from a distance swathed in a hat, scarf, long underwear, sweater, puffer coat, and two pairs of pants. I probably should just stick to classic winter activities such as sipping hot chocolate, indulging in comfort food, watching TV, and reading novels. Indoors.