Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

A Face Made for Pictures

Years ago, back in the early aughts, when I was but a poreless, fresh-faced ingenue, I was stopped on 23rd Street by a generally unthreatening stranger. I don’t remember how he phrased it exactly, but what I remember hearing was: “You have a face made for pictures.”

I thought this sounded better than the typical street comment, far more flattering than something like “Hey! I like your butt!” or “You look like trash. Can I take you out?”

I was young and naive so I stopped to chat with him for a bit, and as it turned out, he was actually a small-time movie producer. In fact, he was just coming home from filming all day. “Oh boy!” I thought. This was it! I am totally getting discovered right now! Id always heard about being at the right place at the right time, and my time had finally come! Wait till the kids back home hear about this– stopped by an actual movie producer on the street in New York City and asked to star in his next picture! I’m gonna razzle-dazzle ‘em!”

“So tell me…” I leaned in. ‘What were you just filming? Have I seen any of your work before?” My fingers were crossed behind my back, praying for him to say he’d filmed Grease I and II and was now working on casting part three. I would be phenomenal as Sandy’s Texan cousin, the one from Dallas with big hair and lots of jewelry who seems real “Aw, shucks” and superficial on the surface but shows great depth and emotional complexity once you get to know her.

“My movies don’t really make it to theaters,” he explained, “but they make a lot of money. They’re adult movies. Any chance you’re interested? I really mean it. You have a great look.”

So, porn. I have a face made for porn. I felt like calling my parents and thanking them for their genetic contributions. How proud they would be.

(PS: Please note that I only have the face for porn, not the body).

***

“Can I draw you?”

It’s the line every woman has dreamed of hearing from a man since Kate pulled Leo into her wood-paneled cruise cabin and drooped a huge diamond between her double lattes. To be asked “Can I draw you?” indicates a face not just stunning but special, the kind that should be committed to paper and tucked away in a vault or framed and tipped on a mantle. Unless, of course, that drawing highlights your bare naked boobies– then it should be wrapped in butcher paper and tucked in your underwear drawer for safe-keeping.

Earlier this week, a young man took a seat next to me on the subway. In his lap was a sketch pad; his pants pockets were stuffed with colored pencils.

“Excuse me?” I asked. My ears were stuffed with headphones even though I was busy reading a book. I’m a New Yorker. I multi-task.

“Can I draw you?” He asked again. He had a very serious look on his face. I recognized that look. It was the look of someone startled by beauty, an artist who had finally found his muse. A man looking– really looking– into the heart and soul of a woman. As a 38-year-old in the dead of winter, I was neither poreless or fresh-faced; I was slightly chapped and quite ruddy, with a complete and utter absence of anything resembling a youthful glow. But I guess you could say he found my inner glow, and who was I to deny him the joy of capturing that?

“So, where will this drawing be going?” I asked. I was a bit more cautious in my older age, and didn’t want to find my face wallpapering a mens’ restroom in midtown or attached to some product placement for hemorrhoid cream. I support art and the people who make it, but I have a face made for porn, and I need to protect myself. Plus, if he was going to make money off my dry chapped face, I wanted in for 50%. I’m a New Yorker. Let’s make a deal.

“Well, my main goal is for you to give me 20 bucks when I’m done with it.”

“Sorry, that’s not gonna happen. I’m on a tight budget right now.” My ego dropped to my shoes where it belongs, and my nose went back into my book. The artist tried again and asked the dude across from us if he could draw him, but he was getting off at the next stop, so the artist turned his attention back to me.

“Can I still draw you while you read? Would that be ok?”

“Sure, knock yourself out.” I was curious to see his artistic interpretation of my face. I’ve been drawn as a cartoon a few times, and I actually found the likeness pretty remarkable. My mother sat for an artist as a (blonde) teenage girl and he drew her with thick black hair in a gauzy one-shouldered dress like Cleopatra. Mine were always a bit more literal.

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A cartoon drawing of me with my other dance team compadres in high school. I’d say “guess which one is me!” but my name’s right underneath it, so that kind of spoils the fun…

When you know someone is drawing you, it’s impossible to just sit there and breathe in and out like a normal person. I was happy he was sitting to the left of me; that’s my good side. But he was sitting so damn close I knew I’d have to do a bit of facial contortion to really get the best angles. I found myself trying to elongate my neck and make my cheekbones look more angular by cocking my head slightly to the right. I tilted up my wool cap to show off more of that beautiful forehead. I wiped my nose to make sure there weren’t any little surprises.

As we approached 57th Street, he focused back on closing the deal.

“I’m getting off at the next stop. Do you want this picture?” This guy’s affect was totally flat, devoid of all emotion.

cartoon drawing woman

I looked over at the portrait of my face and felt a twinge of sadness. His version of me looked so melancholy, completely spiritless. I looked like every other commuter on the subway–weary, bored, exhausted. Plus– and there’s really no way to say this without sounding like an asshole– I thought I was prettier than that?

He’d scribbled a big 5 on the corner, and I’m still not sure if that was his calling card or some kind of subliminal message, but I ended up handing him a $5 bill and taking the portrait home. It was all I had, and I could appreciate this guy’s hustle, as well as his talent. Artists have to pay the bills somehow, and he’d come up with a pretty interesting strategy.

It’s not the kind of thing I’ll lock in a vault or tip on the mantle, but it’ll definitely make a fine addition to my underwear drawer.

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A Robe made for Queens

 

I got a big, white, fluffy robe for Christmas this year. When I opened it, I wasn’t sure if I’d get any use out of it. Who wears robes these days? I asked myself. Turns out, I wear robes these days. I’ve been wearing this thing every day. It actually pains me to take it off when I leave the house. If they’d let me wear it to work, I would.

It’s not a slinky silk or toasty flannel. It’s not the kind you monogram and hang in the Four Seasons bathroom. This robe is a full-on velour blanket with sleeves. It’s almost unimaginably soft and ridiculously cuddly. When I tie the thick sash around my waist I look like Lebowski and feel like a swaddled child. When Vin hugs me he calls me his “little bear cub”. Did I just make this weird?

Suffice it to say, the year has started with ease and familiar comforts. Homemade chicken soup and too many chocolate chip cookies. Netflix on the couch with socked feet and piles of blankets. Dinners in dark restaurants with friends–warm fried chicken and flaky biscuits smeared with butter and honey. Winter is not as wicked as I’ve always thought it to be; in fact, if you do it right, the downright coziness is almost better than an afternoon warming your face in the summer sun.

I said, almost.

We’re watching Making a Murderer each night (you too? How funny.). We come home from work, eat a little bit, then I put on my big fluffy heaven robe and drape myself across Vinny’s legs. I’m a blanket for him, and he’s an ottoman to me. We yell at the screen, grab the sides of our heads in anger and despair, and yell terrible things at the TV screen. Last night he brought home a cookie the size of a pancake and we ate the whole thing. Unlike the rest of the resolution-making world, I didn’t join a gym on January 1st. I discontinued my membership to save money.

Like I said, this robe is going to get a lot of wear this season, especially once I grow out of all my pants.

Now be a lamb and fetch me a hot chocolate, would ya?

 

 

 

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Thoughts on New Year’s Eve-Eve

 

I’ve always wanted to go to one of those really fancy New Year’s Eve parties. The ones where men with slicked back hair wear sharp tuxedos and women pour themselves into tight sequin dresses and bloody their lips with bright red lipstick. I’ve pictured myself in a huge ballroom with a live band on stage; huge floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch out across the length of Manhattan skyline, revealing the million tiny nightlights that show up for work every evening. It’s the kind of party where confetti falls like rain from big blankets hung across the ceiling and champagne bottles are popped open by perfectly capped teeth.

In this particular fantasy, a man who looks like 1987 Tom Selleck strides toward me, leans against a wall and asks, “So what do you think about this party?”

I smile– no teeth, all lip. “I love it. The music’s great. I would have given up some of this raw bar for some Rotel dip, but that’s just a personal preference. What about you?”

“I’ve seen better.” He’d say, leaning against a railing. “Or at least I thought I had, until just now.” He lifts up the corner of his mustache to reveal a smirk, a smirk that says “Hey, baby… you wanna get out of here?” and “The only thing hotter than Rotel dip is you.” Then he winks and nods before asking: “Are you here alone?”

“No, I’m here with my husband. He’s the skinny one with the bushy beard and long hair.” I point across the room, to the dessert section. “See him over there? He’s the one flirting with that pile of donuts dusted with glitter.”

“Huh, oh yeah.  Good looking guy. That’s a rookie ‘stache though.”

“Tell me about it. I can’t wait to see what it looks like after he nosedives into the powdered ones.”

“Nice meeting you, pretty lady.”

“Likewise. Enjoy your evening.”

Alas, nothing like that ever happens on New Year’s Eve. I haven’t been approached by a handsome stranger in public for centuries now.  The last ten years, we’ve mostly attended intimate affairs at our friends Aubrey and Mitchs’ house, where I inevitably end up falling asleep on the couch long by midnight. It’s sweet of them to continue inviting their narcoleptic friend to all their parties.

The worst NYE was 1998, when I attended a Matchbox 20 concert in the middle of a parking lot in Houston. I don’t even remember liking Matchbox 20 very much, but somehow I always ended up at their concerts because it was 1998. Anyway, December is still warm enough in Houston to have outdoor concerts, so a small group of us went to enjoy $11 draft beers and greasy tacos. At 11:45, my bladder (the ultimate party pooper) decided it could no longer participate in the events, so I excused myself to the powder room. I say “powder room” because it sounds a lot more delicate than “a big line of porta-potties.” The line was a million people deep and barely moving, but I had no choice but to wait in it. As I stood there, it became clear to me that not only would I not be getting kissed at midnight, but most likely I’d be squatting over a disgusting plastic hole, my pants down around my ankles, breathing in the veritable potpourri of smells one can only find in a modern-day outhouse.

At the stroke of midnight, I heard whoops of laughter, cries of hope and joy, screams of “Happy New Year!” echoing through the hollow walls of my porta-john. “Happy New Year”, I mumbled to myself. I worried that spending the stroke of midnight on New Year’s in a portable toilet was a harbinger of things to come.  That a moment like that would imbue the following months with oppressive obstacles, less-than-ideal circumstances, and frankly, shit.

And of course, that didn’t come to pass. I don’t remember anything particularly distressing happening in 1998 because I was in college then and protected by the magical forcefield of youth. If that were to happen this year? Why, the results could be disastrous.

So instead I’ll put on my flat shoes and a t-shirt of breathable cotton and Vin will tweak his facial hair with some beard wax. We’ll head over to Mitch and Aubrey’s house for some tasty snacks and a champagne toast. The gang will clink glasses and toot paper horns, and I’ll be curled in a ball on their mid-century-style sofa in the front room, sleeping my way into 2016, dreaming of Tom Selleck.

 

 

 

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Not Home for the Holidays

This past July, Vin and I went to Texas to hang with my family and sweat all over ourselves. We spent one afternoon splashing in dad’s pool and everything felt right with the world.  It was a perfectly casual summer day, and there was literally no where else I wanted to be. Dad kept bringing out pitchers of frozen cocktails, my niece and I were knocking around in the water, and we basically spent an afternoon laughing our heads off. Then Vinny got a text message: His sister had the baby!

We all lifted our plastic margarita glasses in celebration. “To Baby Kevin!” But Vinny looked sad. He wanted to be back in New York with his family. Something important was happening, and he wasn’t part of it. I could see it written on his face, that wistful sense of longing when you realize everyone is hanging out and carrying on without you. I felt bad that he wasn’t there; he wanted to be and he should have been.

I have that feeling all the time. It started when my parents divorced, and intensified when I moved to New York. I’ve lived thousands of miles away from my family throughout my adult life, so you’d think by now I’d be used to it, but I’m not. It still sucks.

airplane with sunset

It crops up on anniversaries and holidays, when I should be there, but I’m not. It happens on Mother’s Day, when I’d love nothing more than to bring a bouquet of flowers to mom’s door and cook her breakfast. It happens on a sunny Saturday afternoon when friends and neighbors gather in dad’s yard to drink cold beers and eat fish tacos. It happens when babies are born and school plays are produced and birthday gifts are unwrapped. I wish hanging out with my family weren’t an elaborate production. I wish it didn’t involve planning and plane tickets and large sums of money. I wish I could drive over for Sunday dinner like it’s no big deal. I want to share lunch with my niece in her school cafeteria on a random Tuesday. I want to eat mom’s Mickey Mouse waffles next Saturday for breakfast.

But more than sadness, I carry guilt. I created this distance. They all stayed in place, and I chose to move. I feel guilty that I’m not there to participate fully in our family life. I wish I had the time and the money to attend every important event with them. I keep waiting for my mom or dad to get a wild hair and move to New York City. In a few years I’ll put a bug in my niece’s ear, convince her to apply to Columbia or Fordham or Hunter. My brother will kill me, but I’m willing to take that chance.

A few weeks ago, mom sent me a text message: “Your brother’s wife had the baby!” I lifted my coffee mug in the air and toasted “To Baby Aiden!” even though no one was there to clink the other side. He was born in late November and I’ll meet him in early February. I timed our next visit with my niece’s 11th birthday. It’s about damn time I attended one of her parties. Pretty soon she’ll be too old to have them.

I just packed up the Christmas box I’m sending to my sweet niece and brand new nephew. It’s filled with books and toys for the baby, baking supplies for our big girl. We travel to Texas every other year for Christmas; this year we stay in New York. It is what it is.

Included in the box is a book from the ’80s called PEOPLE. It’s the most wonderful children’s book I’ve ever seen, filled with illustrations of people from every possible country and culture to help children notice and appreciate the vast and beautiful diversity in our world. I think it’s actually out of print, which amazes me. The world could use a few fresh new copies of this book.

I found it abandoned on a curb in Brooklyn, while trick-or-treating with our New York City nephews and their parents. I already had a copy of the book at home; it’s been one of my favorites since childhood when my aunt and uncle sent it to my brother and me. Scrolled on the inside cover was a brief but touching dedication– “To Jennifer and Adam– two very unique and beautiful people”– Love always, Aunt Renee and Uncle David.

Growing up, I barely saw my aunt and uncle. They spent their young married years sleeping in tents in Greece and teaching English in Japan. They were never around on Christmas morning and I’m pretty sure they never huddled around the cake as I blew out candles and made a wish. They weren’t a big part of my childhood, but I feel very close to them as an adult. They’ve hosted us countless times in Austin, and we’ve shown them some of our favorite spots in New York. We learned how to make authentic paella and pan de tomate together while traveling in Spain. I hope one day to have the same relationship with my brother’s kids, the ones I barely see.

I plan on scrolling a little message to my own niece and nephew on the book’s inside cover, just like our aunt and uncle wrote to their dad and me. ”To Allison and Aiden– two very unique and beautiful people. Wish we could be with you on Christmas. We love you, and will see you soon.”

I’ll stuff the box with crinkled tissue paper and deliver it to the post office later today. I’ll feel good for a minute, congratulate myself for being a thoughtful and dedicated auntie. And then I’ll feel that twinge of guilt twist and burn inside, wishing I could always be there to watch them open my gifts in person.

 

 

 

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It’s Just a Season…

 

There is an enormous pile of rubble where my grocery store used to be. A wrecking ball tore through that sucker, and all that’s left is a mound of crumbling red ruins surrounded by a deep green construction fence. They’ve torn it down to make room for a huge pile of glass-block condos with a shopping center on the bottom floor. The old grocery had a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago, and all I got out of the deal was some half-price tin foil and a bag of cinnamon chips. They were already out of chocolate.

Up the street, our local bagel shop swapped out wood paneling and linoleum floors for white subway tile, marquee letters, and free Wi-Fi. Another bagel shop further up started selling Bacon-BBQ cream cheese; such a blasphemous mutation of a New York classic even my Bubbie in Houston is rolling over in her grave. My corner bodega now sells kale smoothies. My hair salon, where very mature women go for their weekly wash-and-set, just got a makeover too. They rolled over the bright green paint that made complexions sallow and painted every inch soft mauve, one wall covered in that plush upholstered fabric you’d see in a rich woman’s closet. I wonder if they’ll keep the sign in the window advertising group bus trips to Atlantic City. Somehow I doubt it. They probably consider it tacky now.

Astoria, Queens

The Athens Cafe, a classic Greek coffee shop where people could sip frappes and eat flaky honeyed pastries for hours, closed after 30 years. Now a trendy Southern spot where they slip duck fat in the biscuits takes its place. We went Saturday night. The biscuits were amazing. The duck fat really does add incredible flavor. What was my point again?

It’s getting crowded here. It’s getting younger too. Hipper. More hoodies and Chuck Taylors. More ironic beards than real ones. Tin ceilings in coffee shops. There are so, so many coffee shops. And rents! Gah! Don’t even talk to me about the rents.

But who am I to complain? Am I allowed to? Aren’t I being hypocritical?

I’m not a native New Yorker. I wasn’t raised in this neighborhood, or anywhere near it. I live in a city, where change is constant and inevitable. For me to expect Astoria to look and feel the way it did ten years ago is foolish and naive. This is not MY NEW YORK or MY ASTORIA. I didn’t found this city. I don’t get to decide who and what sticks around. I’m a hypocrite. I complain about change, while absolutely LOVING most of the changes.  Vin and I have tried almost every new restaurant in town. We are those assholes rolling in with wide-brimmed hats and skinny jeans. We would put subway tile in our kitchen if we had one. We crane our necks up at tin ceilings in coffee shops and sigh because we find them so beautiful. I’m exactly who real New Yorkers complain about when they complain about gentrification– I just got here earlier. Vinny gets a pass because he was born here, and also because he is Vinny, and Vinny is so damn charming it’s hard to be annoyed with him about anything. Plus, hello…his name is Vinny and what’s more New York than that?

Meanwhile, I worry about Old Astoria being pushed out by New Astoria. I sigh about potentially losing businesses I’ve never patronized. I want the shoe cobbler to have work forever. I don’t want the barber shop to let go of their striped pole or start serving shots of whiskey like they do in Manhattan. I hate how sugary their cakes are, but I’d never want that 60-year-old bakery to lose their lease.  What if they close the old vacuum repair shop? The one that fixes only 20-year-old models? Wouldn’t it be sad if that fabric store went away? What will become of the neighborhood if we lose the European housewares stores? The ones that sell fuzzy toilet seat covers and lace tablecloths that look like huge doilies? Where will Astoria find its charm then?

When I moved to Astoria ten years ago, it wasn’t the trendy neighborhood it is now. It was safe and there were plenty of things to eat here, but it wasn’t a place where the reputation was such that they could charge ridiculous rents for small, nondescript apartments. Now it is, which sucks, unless we are actually able to buy property here, in which case… keep growing Astoria! I think you need another really great pour-over coffee place on Steinway Street! See? Hypocrite!

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It’s early November, and the leaves are wearing their autumn colors. We don’t have a ton of trees on our block, but the ones we do have are definitely in their prime. It doesn’t get more beautiful than autumn leaves, it really doesn’t. Check your Instagram. Everyone agrees.

The changing of the leaves signals a last hurrah for the growing season, and the transition is fast, moving from green to red to gold to bare in a matter of weeks. We’re already through the better part of the show; the leaves will all be on the ground by next week, and the thought of it makes me sad. As the leaves fall and the branches go cold, I remind myself that time is a gypsy, forever packing up and traveling in and out of town. I remind myself that nothing is eternal; that everything–eventually– will change. That change can be good. That it’s all just a season.

sad tree

 

 

 

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Final Push for the Luby’s Tea Cart Ladies

Growing up, nothing was more comforting than dinner at Luby’s. Now Luby’s, for the uninitiated, is a cafeteria chain and apparently a very, very Texas thing. When you’re a kid, the place you call home is the sun and every other place is like another planet, orbiting around you. I just assumed people in other states spent Friday night shuffeling down a line with a green plastic tray, waiting for a lady in a hairnet to fill their plate with the Lu-Ann special– half a piece of chicken, fish or pot roast, two sides, and a hot buttered roll. I thought everyone else bought fresh shrimp from a little trailer in the K-Mart parking lot and pinned enormous mums to their chests for Homecoming. How arrogant we are, the very young.

The food is probably not as special as my memory of it is– how could it be?– but I do recall having some pretty satisfying meals at the Luby’s off 61st Street in Galveston. My typical dinner was the fried fish with a squeeze of lemon or the chicken fried steak, surrounded on all sides by tiny ceramic bowls filled with gluey mac and cheese, waxy green beans that piled on top of one another and squeaked against my teeth, and velvety mashed potatoes, dented with a spoon in the middle and filled with a puddle of thick brown gravy.  We’d shove our trays down the line until it was time to pick the final flourishes– a warm cloverleaf roll or a big slab of cornbread (toss-up), a thick piece of gloppy but luscious chocolate cream pie or a glass parfait dish filled with chunks of electric blue jello (pie–always, forever, that’s not even a choice), iced tea or lemonade, or if your parents were feeling generous, fountain soda. (Iced tea, no question).

lubys meal

Dad would foot the bill as dads are wont to do, then we’d carry our trays to the nearest booth and shimmy in, one by one. We’d eat our dinners and chat about our week. Occasionally people we’d recognize would pass our table and say hello– a coworker from dad’s office, a classmate from school, a neighbor, a friend. It was the kind of town where it was often hard not to bump into people. Luby’s, TCBY, Home-cut Donuts, Randall’s grocery– go there, you’re going to run into somebody you know every single time. Maybe that’s why my mother taught me to never leave the house without lipstick. Although I think that might be a strictly Texas thing too.

My brother’s personal tradition was to finish his meal, take a deep breath, then untuck his shirt and unbutton his pants so he could hit the line again and go for round two. Eating dinner at Luby’s was a lot like Thanksgiving; you had to go in hungry and commit to a well-constructed plan. My brother viewed a night at Luby’s as a marathon, not a sprint, and made his preparations accordingly, not only by picking the right outfit, but by harnessing his mental energy to become a strategically mindful eater, choosing just the right dishes to leave him calm and satisfied rather than overstuffed and lethargic, or so bloated and comatose we’d have to haul him out in a wheelbarrow.

While he was gone, one of the tea cart ladies would roll through, offering refills. Wait… you don’t know what a tea cart lady is? Oh. You must be from one of the other planets. Bless your heart.

Iced tea is a big deal in Texas. My mother brewed a glass jar of it weekly on our back porch, under the sizzling beam of a blazing Texas sun. My camp kept it ready and available in the dining hall for us to guzzle throughout the day, huge galvanized pitchers we barely had the strength to lift. And my father, in several restaurants where they know him, is given an entire pitcher of the stuff because he requires more refills than any mere mortal could possibly keep up with. Being a truly Texan chain, Luby’s recognized the importance of free-flowing iced tea, and thus employed a fleet of cordial ladies to circle the restaurant pushing metal carts filled top to bottom with slender glasses pre-filled with our favorite beverage. They wore muddy brown or maroon smocks, tied at the waist with thick, white apron strings and flat, sexless footwear like candy stripers asking, “More tea? More tea?” in lilting Texas accents as they paraded up and down the aisles. The tea cart ladies are long gone now, replaced by people who simply take your order, and come back with your refill. I miss the good old days, I really do.

vin at lubs 

I spent Halloween in Brooklyn this year, dressed in cowboy boots and a western shirt to match a few members of the great New York family I married into; the family I was born into would not have considered my outfit a costume. Our twin toddler nephews were adorable little cowboys–custom-made baby chaps included– and since I already have a few pieces of Western wear, it was difficult not to oblige the offer to join in the seasonal fun.

We went to Fort Greene Park where hordes of revelers were dressed to the gills. We saw whole families dressed as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, gangs of superheroes, Mister Potato Head, a walking banana. I kept waiting for one of them to dethrone the greatest costume I ever saw, but it’s been 18 years now, and no one has ever come close.

My brother, the same one who used to unbutton his pants and untuck his shirt in preparation for his 2nd dinner at Luby’s, joined a fraternity in college. The year he pledged, the active members made him dress head toe as a wolf–not the scary, threatening kind, but the plush, storybook version you want to cuddle up next to because the fur is so soft. In one of my favorite photos, my brother is unrecognizable in his wolf costume, with his arm around his older sister, adorned in blonde braided pigtails and dressed like Baby Spice. Flanking my other side is one of my best girlfriends, a spunky sorority girl wearing an old prom dress, fake dreadlocks and a sash that reads “Miss Jamaica”. If Facebook had been around back then, she’d have probably made national news. 

We clinked our red solo cups and danced the Monster Mash, then halfway through the party, one of the other pledges finally made his appearance. He was at least 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and quads like tree trunks. His furry leg hair was the same color as his frumpy brown dress, and his waist was so thick he could barely tie the apron strings around the back. His hairnet was secured with thick metal pins and his enormous feet barely fit inside his orthopedic shoes. He slowly mingled around the party, pushing an old metal cart across the stained concrete floor. When he finally made his way toward us with his cart full of glasses, I couldn’t help but put down my beer and toss back a Lipton.

Aside from a few out-of-state admissions, we were all a bunch of Texas kids. Many were from Dallas and Houston, while others came from tiny towns no one else had ever heard of– but we’d all grown up grabbing glasses of tea off a traveling cart, all bargained with our parents for the cream pie instead of jello. It was a moment that made every one of us smile and feel nostalgic for our childhoods, even though technically, we were all still in it, albeit the tail end. There was beer on the floor and neon on the walls. Girls were dressed like naughty nurses and guys looked like wild animals. But suddenly, out of nowhere, out fell this little crumb of pure, innocent sweetness.

And oh, what a treat that was.

 

 

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A long-ass post about Montreal, married life and general minutiae

 

Friday morning, 7:30am: We hop in a cab. The driver is laughing his head off, the kind of laugh where you worry a little pee might come out. We start giggling along with the radio program he’s listening to and it instantly becomes one of those New York moments you hope for. The cab doesn’t smell and the driver is delightful.

8:00: We’re headed to Montreal for 3.5 days to celebrate our third anniversary. We almost went to Niagara Falls until we realized I could only look at falling water so long before my bladder yells uncle. I’m very excited to visit Montreal, and am still amazed we can go to another metropolitan city in another country speaking ANOTHER language and it’s only an hour away. They speak a lot of French in Montreal which should be interesting for me since I sound like Clark Griswald on his Pig in a Poke European vacation when I try to pronounce French words.   It’s kind of like my dad in Spain, when he just added an “a’ to the end of every word and called it Catalan.

I have always been intimidated by people who speak French, and have been known to look at French toddlers with befuddlement, for how can someone who can’t toilet independently understand the nuances of such a beautiful and sophisticated language? I always assume French children are smarter than me because they already know something I don’t. I’m pretty sure my sister-in-law is teaching our twin nephews a bit of French and I am already bracing myself for future intimidation. They already dress better than me, and they’re only one.

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8:40am: I’m wearing a Montreal appropriate outfit because I try to imbue my clothing with local flavor wherever I go. Texas, I bring boots. California, tank tops. I’ve never visited Montreal, but in my head the locals are tidy and very chic. I am basing this simply on the fact that some of the buildings in Montreal look a bit like Europe, and Europeans can dress. As such, I’ve taken care to outfit myself in a way that suits the weather and my location for the next four days– distressed jeans, a cream cable-knit sweater, tall black boots and a beige trench. My trench is snug and a bit too short in the waist because I bought it in the children’s section of ZARA to save 30 dollars, then shrunk it in the dryer because I am both fiscally conscious and domestically incompetent. 

The real star of the show is my new tan fedora, which lends me the appearance of both a sophisticated North American traveler and my mother shopping for pork chops in 1983, when she could often be found at our local Kroger’s hiding a head full of sponge curlers with a glamorous wide-brimmed hat.   

8:55am: We have checked in at La Guardia, and are now at our first authentically French stop for the day—the airport Au Bon Pain.  There are six women at the counter getting lattes; one is wearing a bachelorette sash and all six are wearing floppy wool hats in a variety of colors ranging from eggplant to cocoa. I look like their cast-off friend, the one who didn’t get invited to the party and is now stalking them at the airport. I get myself coffee and a chicken noodle soup which I accidentally ladle all over the formica counter, then attempt to sop up with those flimsy plastic sheets you’re supposed to use when picking up corn muffins. I hide my eyes under the lip of my hat, leave the mess there and scoot away quickly because I’m supposed to be better than this. I’m dressed neatly and traveling to a city where the dominant language is French. I am supposed to be an urban sophisticate.

9:30 am: On the plane, Vin and I joke about our imaginary second spouses–the people we’re leaving behind as we run across the Canadian border together. I don’t know why we find this so amusing, but we do. Vin is married to a lovely Nigerian woman named Gwendolyn with three children; they spend most Saturdays at the farmer’s market in the country. Gwen loves Sports Center and can stay up all night playing video games and listening to old records. My alternative husband is Persian and extremely wealthy. I never greet him by name, referring to him only as “The Sultan”. We don’t fly coach and my closet looks like Mariah Carey’s. I wear expensive lingerie and lacy corsets but sleep on the other side of the house because I hate him. I assure Vinny that our marriage is based purely on love, which is why I sleep in the crook of his arm wearing dollar-store underwear and pajama pants with a hole in the butt. 

10:25 am: The flight is over in 55 minutes and I’m in another country. That’s amazing. My friend Aimee’s recent trip to the DMV took longer than this (sorry Aimee, that le sucks).

10:40 am: We scoot through customs into an airport so bright, airy and modern it looks like we just stepped into a dystopian movie. Everyone is completely silent. Everything is sterile and ridiculously clean. I can hear my own footsteps. It’s kind of freaky. We step into our own little kiosk and essentially check ourselves into Canada. We no longer have to wait in a long line to scan the paper ensuring the country we didn’t smuggle in firearms or bushels of fresh produce.

“This is the greatest machine in the world!” says Vin, who loves technology only slightly more than me, and quite a bit more than that whore Gwendolyn. “It’s a thing of beauty,” he marvels. A woman in her mid to late sixties is at the kiosk next to us, talking herself through the frustrating process that used to be handled by a real person in a metal booth. She mutters: “Ugh, why is everything computerized now? I hate this.” Vinny helps her scan her passport, and she flashes him a wan, tired looking smile. She looks grateful, but sad.

11:40 am: We check into the hotel. Vin locks our passports in the room’s safe. Adding this detail means nothing now but will make perfect sense later.

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12:30pm: We walk from our downtown hotel into Old Montreal. The buildings are cute and predictably old, but there’s nothing to indicate that this area isn’t strictly for tourists, which is a shame because Montreal residents should get to enjoy this pretty street but I’m fairly certain they have little use for tiny grizzly bears and decorative bottles of maple syrup. I refuse to eat on the main street here because I know how the world works and assume this area involves mediocre, overpriced food cooked up special for suckers. Here’s a tip for people visiting New York City. Never get duped into eating in the following places:  Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Jekkyl and Hyde Club, Serendipity 3, Sbarro pizzeria, the Times Square Olive Garden (or anywhere in Times Square PERIOD), the M&M store, Manhattan’s Little Italy, Restaurant Row, from a kiosk in Manhattan Mall, or anything on or near South Street Seaport. Cancel your reservations and tell them Jenn didn’t send you.

1:00pm: Vin finds a real local’s joint called Olive & Gourmando, where everyone is speaking French and eating pressed cheese sandwiches. This place bustles with energy, and makes us excited to see what the rest of the city has to offer. We finish up then walk around, smiling, sun on our faces, nothing on our agenda. A nice change.

The first thing I notice about Montreal is that it is almost unbelievably clean. I don’t see trash anywhere. I don’t see trash cans or street cleaners anywhere either. I think the people of Montreal are so clean that they don’t even produce trash. I slipped on a piece of pizza coming down the subway stairs last week. I routinely dodge puddles of vomit and old chicken bones on my walk to work. Where am I?

cute guy in pumpkin patch

2:15 pm: I twist Vinny’s arm until he agrees to pose in a small pumpkin patch. Vinny’s signature season is autumn and he dresses for it all year long. V’s a team player and complies. An older lady walks up and smiles at Vinny, “Do you come with the pumpkin patch?” She asks playfully. He replies that he’s only visiting the patch, then she asks if she too can take his picture. Vin grants her wish, so if you come across this photo on your aunt Helen’s Facebook wall, now you know how it got there. The woman’s husband walks behind Vin, grabs an apple and takes a big bite.

2:30 pm: We turn a corner and spot the six girls from the bachelorette party on bicycles, pedaling one by one down the narrow street. One girl take her hand off the handlebars, points at us and yells “Hey! You were on our plane with us!” 

“I recognize you too!” I yell back. In hindsight, this seems like a pretty dumb thing to say, but really, what was I supposed to say? “Hey guys! Wait up!”? None of us are wearing hats now because the wind is too strong. I chased mine down the street twice before I finally gave up and stuffed it in my tote bag. But we recognize one another all the same because we are more than just dumb Americans in floppy hats. We are English-speakers in a French-speaker’s world. We are bonded.

 Basilica Montreal

3:00 pm: We check out the Basilica. It’s stunning, gorgeous, overwhelming. Its size is humbling and the detail in the architecture is just remarkable. Half of the people are snapping away with cameras;  the other half look annoyed by them. Some pray, some genuflect, many send text messages. Suddenly, someone begins playing an organ from up in the back and it’s not a religious song, it’s a dark, haunting classical piece that boomed though the alley of the cathedral like a thunderstorm. It was amazing.

Vin was captivated. He also looked a bit like Jesus in a fedora, just hanging out in the middle of a church in Canada on a breezy Friday afternoon. I keep waiting for the lady from the pumpkin patch to pop out with her Samsung and ask “Do you come with the organ music?”  The guy behind Vin is all, “Eh, is okay, I’ve heard better.”

basilica montreal

7:oo pm:  Lipstick, concealer, cab to another part of town for dinner. The cab driver is wearing a beautiful wool blazer, a nice hat, a lovely scarf and a smile. “Bonne soirée”, he greets us, then turns on the radio and begins listening to opera music at a completely pleasant volume. The cab smells like a Strawberry Shortcake doll, not takeout Chinese or Halal meat, and I’m again reminded that I am a foreigner in a foreign land.

We are dropped off on a cute little street with a few tiny cafes. Our table is sandwiched between two very young couples. Vin orders a delicious and attractively presented goat cheese salad that the average 22-year-old would have Instagrammed. I leave the phone in my handbag because I’m 38 and starving.

The couple on my right and Vin’s left is on their first date together. The girl is so loud, and the guy is so bored. She is the queen of questions: “How many dates have you been on?” “How did they go?” “Why haven’t you dated more?” “Are your parents still married?” “Do you think they still love each other?” “How did they meet?” “What does your Dad look like?”

The guy chews his steak. Drinks a sip of water. Drinks a sip of wine. Nods. Dies inside. Dreams of going back in time and swiping left.

“Do you think your parents settled for one another, or were they like, actually into one another?” “Can I give you some advice? Don’t go for the hot girl all your friends are into. You need to go for the girl you actually, like, really really like. Life’s too short, you know? Never settle, never ever settle.” I glance over at my husband, and feel gratitude for having reached the point in our relationship where we can easily sit in silence at a dinner table, where the only truly important question left is, “You gonna finish that?”

9:30 PM: Uber, hotel, yadda-yadda, bedtime. 

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montreal chinatown

 

DAY TWO:

8:50 am: I run downstairs because when we checked into the hotel the lady at the front desk smiled and said they serve free coffee from 6-9 am. I pull my little paper cup to the lip of the dispenser and it comes out in sad, tired little drips as if to taunt me and say, “Really? Ten minutes before closing? Get your shit together and come down earlier next time if you want a piece of this.”

“I’m on vacaaaaaaaation”, I whine inwardly. “I need coffeeeeeee.”  I am happy to note that no fewer than three gentlemen are furious on my behalf. Two of them are members of an (English-speaking!) couple, and another is the French-speaking gentleman in a wool blazer who works in the fancy men’s suit shop in the lobby.

“Oh my God– is it gone?” one of the English-speaking guys says. “Are you sure? What do we do? You’ve gotta get your coffee!” Without having said a word, these people understand me. I feel loved.

“Ugh, I really do. I tried tipping it forward to get the last of it out, but the handles were really hot. It’s not worth scalding myself for. Or…maybe it is?” I try tipping it forward again and almost cry it’s so hot. But then someone runs to me with a tiny silver pitcher full of coffee and we embrace and I can start my morning like a kind, benevolent person instead of one with a withdrawal headache and a heart full of hate.

9-9:50 am:  I hang in the lobby writing and drinking coffee while Vin is upstairs showering. I’m always ready to go earlier than Vin, but my new system is to just wait outside doing something else rather than waiting in the house and getting impatient chanting, “Vin are you ready yet? Vin are you ready yet?” This way I get to enjoy my morning and people-watch in a lobby where many people speak French and several will literally run toward you with hot coffee. These are good people. I may stay here all day.

10:30 am: Before we do anything today, I have to buy a coat because it’s freaking freezing here and I didn’t bring the right clothes. I did this somewhat intentionally since the American dollar is stronger here, so anything I buy will essentially be 30% off, right off the bat. I find a coat at a Canadian store called Simon’s which Vinny compares to JC Penney but I’m thinking more like Macy’s and will tell everyone is the Canadian Saks Fifth Avenue. We walk through a few blocks of construction and down some back alleys to a place Vinny has located by phone to eat our breakfast.

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10:50 am: We land in a café that’s so us it’s scary. The walls appear distressed to the point of almost crumbling. The tables are heavy old wood. There are plants hanging from the ceiling. Brass fixtures. Oh, my…we love this place. I am served what is probably the best breakfast I have ever eaten. A perfectly poached egg with a light hollandaise sauce served on top of a huge hash brown cake atop a mound of roasted brussel sprouts and chunks of thick, salty bacon. If this sounds as good to you, come over next Sunday for brunch because I will be recreating this dish every weekend until I outgrow all of my pants.

12:00: We take our first trip on the Metro. I will never become impatient with NYC tourists again for not understanding how metrocards work because it takes two different pe0ple for us to figure out how to purchase cards and where to put them in the turnstile. All the directions are in French everywhere, so we are mostly going by context clues, which we apparently suck at.

12: 50 pm:  We enter the Botanical Gardens because I saw on pinterest that they had these unbelievable topiaries of dragons and wizards and shit and it looked completely magical. When I ask the ticket girl about the magical dragons in her yard, she informs us that those were part of a traveling exhibition that hasn’t been here since 2013, and if we really want to see them we need to go to the Ottawa Botanical Gardens in 2017. We mark our invisible calendars–next Sunday: brunch with poached eggs and hash browns, 2017–Ottawa.

man in leaves

Montreal botanical garden

Montreal botanical gardens

1:15- 3:30 pm:  We traipse around the gardens learning more about plants. I am genuinely surprised by how much Vin seems to be enjoying himself, as taking a walk through nature is not generally his idea of a good time. “Jenn, look at that tree. What kind of tree is that? Wow– look at this plant. I love it. ” He wants to continue walking, taking the long route. This is typically my role in the relationship, and things are completely off-balance cause I’m ready to go roll up in a ball in front of a Canadian TV program. Is You Can’t Do That on Television still on? My feet are just killing me. The tall black boots were a terrible choice, and my occupational hazard of day- long sitting has not primed me for this much continued walking. Also, I’m just not sure what’s happening here. It’s as though I married a stranger. This event opens up a lot of questions for me. Do we ever really know who we’re sleeping next to in our cheap underpants and threadbare pajamas? Maybe Vin is a wealthy Persian and I don’t even know it. That would actually be awesome.

3:45 pm: We’ve arrived at the Jean-Talon food market. Stop the presses. Hold the phone. Jump back, honky cat. Drop me off here, leave me forever, I’ll make out just fine. Aisles and aisles of gorgeous, impeccable, abundant vegetables and fruit. Broccoli in four different colors– FOUR!, piles and piles of luscious leeks, bushels and barrels of juicy red and orange tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, herbs, garlic. A woman snapped a fresh okra pod in half and gave it to us to try and I wanted to take a bag of it home with me to make a fresh salad but I couldn’t because I was staying at a hotel with $20 club sandwiches and no kitchen access. This place was my heaven, the kind of utopic wonderland that makes me want to hug freely and pass out high fives. I feel suddenly homesick. I want to go home and play with my cookbooks.

food market in montreal

fresh garlic

pumpkin patch

fresh grapes

5:00 pm: Head to the Mile End neighborhood. Eat an authentic Montreal bagel, different than New York bagels. Less puffy, not chewy. I’m not going to tell you which one I like better (cough, cough, of course I am… NEW YORK BAGELS RULE); the only thing I’ll say is that they both beat Lender’s by a landslide. 

5:30 pm: My feet are in agony. It feels like someone took a cheese grater and rubbed it against my toes. They hurt so badly I am no longer enjoying myself, and that’s a shame because it’s a lovely day otherwise. I don’t know exactly what’s going on inside my shoes, but I’m terrified to find out. I am picturing a podiatric apocalypse, like maybe there’s not even feet in my shoes anymore, but shrapnel or a quarter-pound of ground hamburger. In the meantime, poor Vin is researching places we can sit and hang so I can drink coffee, rest my patties, and spend the majority of the late afternoon whining.

5:45 pm: He finds a tiny cafe called Croissanteria, which is charming and adorable and looks like it could easily fit into any Brooklyn street. We sit, we eat pastry, we rest. An older woman with a cane walks in with a younger, attractive man. It’s evident that the man is not her son or nephew. The waiters look nervous, and rush to get her to her favorite table, currently occupied by a sweet-looking family with  a young daughter. The lady with the cane shoos them out of her table, and the family moves to some lowlife booth in the back of the restaurant. The cane lady slides into the bench with the handsome man, then leaves for 15 minutes, so he sits there bored and alone, gazing out the window at the rustling leaves. I don’t know who this lady is, but assume she is either the cafe owner or the mayor of Montreal.

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9-11 pm: We have one of the best dinners of our lives at a chic Italian restaurant called Impasto. Vin has porchetta with pear and broccoli rabe, and I enjoy a pasta with lemon and cream that shaves two years off my life but is completely worth it. The dessert is a homemade ice cream with strawberries and pistachios and it feels like an angel is kissing me square on the mouth when I eat it. There are two guys next to us–one looks like a miniature version of Joey Tribiani; he is tiny, tan and muscular, and has come to a great Italian restaurant to only drink black tea. His friend, however, has an incredibly robust appetite in every sense of the word– he orders a charcuterie platter and two pasta dishes for himself while chatting endlessly about his social life. You’d think hearing the phrase “anal sex” no fewer than six times would make me less hungry, but you’d be wrong. I’m happy for this guy’s active sex life, but my one true love is food and I hope we get to spend many happy years together. Unlike him, I do not fear commitment.

 

DAY THREE/  FOUR

10am- 4:30 pm: More walking, exploring, crying about my feet hurting. I feel as though I have shin splints and I am scared to see what’s lurking beneath my sock. Every step hurts. Somewhere in there we eat poutine at an open air spot in Old Montreal. Poutine is apparently the official dish of Canada and it consists of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. I find it utterly gross, and am also weirded out by the fact that there’s an enormous sculpture of ET lurking in the corner of the room.

4:45 pm: Return to hotel. Take off boots. My poor precious little baby toe has an enormous bubble on it. It is tender to the touch and looks very much like a planetarium. There is no tub in our room, only a fancy shower, so I climb up onto the bathroom counter and give my feet a soak in the sink. I will not tell you what I do next, but will explain that it involved some very hot water, the hotel sewing kit and gentle, rolling tears.

I crawl into my fluffy hotel bed and read. It’s a book called 12 Patients, and it’s an inside look at the inner workings of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. Reading about real medical problems makes me feel like a baby complaining about my toe blister, but it also doesn’t stop me from whimpering softly to myself. Vinny has left the hotel and is combing the streets of Montreal searching for emergency supplies to cushion my aching foot.

5:30 pm:  Vin comes back with a spool of gauze, medical tape and a package of three little wraparound bandages designed to cushion corns. He takes my left foot in his hand and begins to gently bandage me. My heart swells even bigger than my toe, and I gaze at my husband with pure love and bottomless gratitude. “The sultan would have never done this for me,” I whisper. I have always known that I married up, but it’s acts like these that show me how far.

8:30 pm: We have scored a reservation at a place made quite famous by Anthony Bourdain. They specialize in things I don’t eat like liver mousse, pickled tongue, and foie gras served about 20 different ways. Our waiter looks like a character actor, the kind that would be cast as a jaunty but evil villain who sneaks around in a silk scarf and black beret while twisting his thin mustache and making creepy shapes with his mouth and eyebrows. I am fairly certain he is high on cocaine because no one is this excited to yell meat specials. The restaurant’s specialty is “duck in a can”, literally two pieces of duck and foie gras shoved in a soup can, boiled, then poured onto your plate at the table in a river of sauce and vegetables. It sounds repulsive and costs nearly $50. A place like this is sort of wasted on us. Vin orders the Happy Pork Chop (it’s covered in sauerkraut, that doesn’t sound happy to me), and I order an endive and apple salad with an entree of tuna tartare. The waiter says “Yes! Perfect!” but is probably thinking, “Why did you come here?” The table next to us has just acquired their meal– it’s an entire hen, resting on a bed of raviolis swimming in cream sauce, and it is served in a full-sized dutch oven. My stomach hurts at the sight of it.

the next day:  We check out, and head back to our favorite cafe where we start off with pastries and end with lunch. We cab back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and jump in our last cab to head to the airport.

“Bon voyage! Thanks for visiting Canada!” says our lovely driver, before disappearing into the clean, litter-free street of Montreal.

We pull up to one of the kiosks and begin checking into our flight. It asks for a credit card, so we swipe. It asks how many bags we are checking in, so we hit ‘none’. It asks us to swipe our passports and I yell “FUUUUUUCK! We forgot our passports!!!”

We quickly discuss our plan of action. We almost hop in a cab to go back to the hotel and procure our passports in person, but instead decide to call the hotel and ask if they can help us skip a step, go unlock our safe and have someone bring the documents to us here at the gate.

We call the hotel, explain the situation and they send a cab driver to our arrival gate with our passports in a manila envelope. “Fast! Fast!” the driver says to Vinny when he finally makes it. We breathe a sign of relief, and go check in. Anxious and overwhelmed, we almost enter a secured section of the airport instead of proceeding forward to our gate. A guy at a table eating a hoagie calls over to us, “Read the sign, guys”, and I already feel like I am back in America. Ah New York sarcasm, how I’ve missed you!

New York City view from sky

We exit Montreal, and 45 minutes later fly over our own city again, the place where Vinny was born and I have grown. From up here, the whole place looks like a Lego set, a movie scene, a Woody Allen love letter.

Now we’re in New York. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle where dreams are made of. We have made it here. We can make it anywhere.

But we really wouldn’t want to.

 

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How personal do you get on your blog?

 

I just discovered this new writer who is making me lose my shit on the subway. Her stories are so outrageous and searingly funny that I can’t stop grinning from ear to ear, shaking my head, and laughing out loud. I clutch my stomach and wipe the happy tears from my eyes. And then, I try to tame myself down. Because that’s what I do.

One of the reasons her writing is so strong is because it’s uninhibited, honest and raw. This chick really puts it all out there. Admittedly, not all of her stuff is up my alley (there’s an entire essay dedicated to the rankness of her farts), but many of her stories had me doubled over in pain from laughing so hard because nothing was off limits–ridiculous sex stories, truly mortifying moments, hysterical family memories.  She’s almost painfully self-aware, and ballsy enough to call attention to her baser qualities. She allowed herself to be very vulnerable and writes in a way that shows she’s clearly not afraid of embarrassing herself. But she also seems afraid to write things that have the potential to truly embarrass others, and that’s where I struggle most as someone who writes in the first-person as opposed to fiction.

how personal should i get on my blog?

The best writing, in my opinion, is just like this. You have to pretend there is no one reading your stuff in order to give yourself permission to really let go. You can’t look over your shoulder worrying “Who’s going to read this?”. You can’t pause and say, “But how will this make me look?” or “What will my mother think?”. Writing without those types of restrictions is refreshing and real, and reminds the reader that at the end of the day, we’re all just a bunch of fools fumbling around trying to figure ourselves out.

I really wish I could let myself write this way, but I can’t. Turns out, I am an inhibited person in life and on paper. I have my reasons, and if you’re a blogger who finds herself holding back from writing the whole dirty truth, I bet you do too. My reasons are this: I have a husband, a family, a personal life and a full-time job to consider, and if something I write compromises any of those things, I’d have a really difficult time recovering from that. To me, that risk will never be worth any potential rewards.

So, back to this writer. Her name is Sara Barron, and if you like to laugh you should read her two books because she is truly funny in a way that I will never be. First of all, she ain’t afraid to let her freak flag fly, and will entertain you with many tales of sexual hilarity, including the time she got carpal tunnel syndrome from excessive masturbation and discovered her grandmother’s vibrator in a bedside table drawer. This is a classic distinction of what will always make someone like her funnier than someone like me– had this stuff happened to me, I would carry those tales with me until the day I died. Maybe I would share them at an intimate gathering of my very closest friends, but that’s it. They’d go no further. Two hilarious stories up in smoke, because I couldn’t handle embarrassing myself that way, and my family would (rightly) spear me with a long, pointy dagger if I publicly upset my grandmother. I would never want to bring negative attention to someone I love so much. Plus, I’m still counting on her to direct traffic to my blog.

The truth is, I’m not really at risk for that to happen anyway. I don’t have a ton of wild stories to tell because I’ve never been an incredibly wild person. I have been cautious and relatively conservative my whole life. At slumber parties, the other girls would sneak out the front door and have boys meet them down the street. I’d stay in the house, read magazines in the corner, then put myself to bed at a reasonable hour so I’d wake feeling refreshed in the morning. I usually shared my first few pancakes with the host’s mother; we’d clink juice glasses and swap sections of the newspaper.

I also have a hard time writing openly about my personal feelings. My observations– no problem. But my feelings? That’s very difficult. I’ve got the hang of “show, don’t tell”, particularly when it comes to describing a scene or a setting, but when it comes down to really shooting from the hip and writing from the heart, I struggle. I’m like the Georgia O’Keefe of blogging– all landscapes, no self-portraits.

I am a psychotherapist, and all day long I work within boundaries. Boundaries are huge with dorks like us. I have a job in which I purposely shroud my own background, personal feelings, values, and biases so that I can actively listen, accept and learn about everyone else’s. I have done such a good job at this that it’s now difficult to swing the other way– to let my guard down, to let someone in, to reveal too much. And yes, the idea that my clients would find this blog is something I worry about and tailor my writing around all the time. That’s why I have a different name at work than I do on here, and my Facebook page is named after a movie character. I’m wearing dark sunglasses and a big floppy hat in my Instagram photo. At my day job, my identity is not a secret, but my personal details are to always be sort of vague. This runs exactly counter to the kind of first-person writing I do, and I’m having so much trouble navigating that divide.

Like I said, I’m just another fool fumbling around, trying to figure it all out. With this blog, and the little book of essays I’m stringing together, I continue my quest to determine which stories to tell and how. I’m still trying to get a handle of knowing how far to push and when to pull back. The shape of things is still rather nebulous, with loose shapeless edges that stretch far from center. Nothing is tight; nothing is concrete or secure. It’s a bit of a freefall, frankly.

But there is one thing I do know for sure. My grandmother’s secrets will always be safe with me.

 

 

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Developing Self-Discipline

 

She was in the pool with one of my twin nephews while my foot dipped in and out of the water. I’d neglected to bring my bathing suit, and regretted it immediately. They looked really refreshed in there.

“What were the highlights of your summer?” My sweet sister-in-law asked, spinning a towheaded toddler around and around in the water. It looked like she was having one of hers right there.

I stumbled around that question for a minute, because while I checked off most of the boxes on my annual city-in-the-summer list, I didn’t do anything totally out of the ordinary. No travel, save for a brief, sweaty trip to Texas and nothing that would make SUMMER 2015 stick out in my mind as being particularly memorable.

(Wait, I take that back… seeing George Clinton and Parliament Funk on the beach was pretty bad-ass.) Plus…these views from a sunset cruise were awfully killer.

statue of liberty

night sky

This year, more than any other, has been about keeping my nose to the grindstone. This has been a year when work has definitely trumped play, where jumping right in has been replaced by patiently holding off. For me and Vin, this year has been all about saving. We pick up extra shifts when they’re available and turn down pricy events when offered. I have two main objectives this year–SAVE MONEY. FINISH ROUGH DRAFT–and anything that deters too significantly from that goal is usually something I graciously decline.

It’s called discipline, and I’m trying really hard to have more of it.

We watched Whiplash last week, a movie which hinges on the idea that discipline (and a bit of emotional torture) is the path to mastery; that if you really want to become great at something, you do it and you do it and you do it until your fingers bleed.

My discipline is far less severe and punishing, and I have done it for years. My discipline is waking up very early (today it was 5:30) and writing. My fingers have never bled, but they have definitely cramped so I feel as though I might be getting somewhere. I sit in my little backyard with my computer perched on a tiny rolling desk I purchased expressly for this purpose. I drink coffee–hot, never iced–and am almost always wearing something absolutely ridiculous–pajama pants, a mismatched tank top and usually one of my husband’s dirty button-downs he left out the night before. I am always wearing glasses–never contacts, not yet–and my hair is either very dirty or exceptionally clean with a towel coiled around it like a serpent. I type and type and type and then I lose myself and read with great concentration from the Book of Face, where my friends tell me all their secrets and post pictures of their children on the first day of school.

From there, my discipline is interrupted by one or two more refills of coffee, followed by subsequent trips to the bathroom, where it becomes aggressively necessary for me to scrub the toilet. I realize then that the sink looks a little grubby, so I scrub that too. Then I realize my mascara expired two years ago so I go on a bender throwing out old cosmetics. By this time, I have to pee again, and since the toilet is where all great ideas are born, I take this moment to appreciate the divine intervention my coffee inevitably provides each day as I write my great pages. I will leave this bathroom feeling fully inspired, my bladder temporarily free of interruption, my electric fingers ready to charge at that keyboard of mine. After washing my hands, of course.

And this, this is the discipline.

I am writing a book of essays, so I read books of essays rather compulsively, the same ones over and over by people I consider masters of the art–Didion, Daum, Crosley, and mostly Sedaris, because he is the freaking king of all kings. I read them now not for pleasure, but for education, checking for structure, pacing, dialogue and flow. I am not concerned about publishing anything; I am simply committing myself to finishing something. I make notes in the margins, flag certain passages with post-its (my dad calls them FLYTS for fucking little yellow things. He also calls capers “rat turds”, which would lead one to believe he dislikes them but nothing could be further from the truth.). Anyway, clearly I digress. The point is, my father has a special way of expressing himself, and I continue my pursuit of the same.

In Whiplash, the teacher instills in his students that the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job”. Subscribing to this notion, I’ve stopped patting myself on the back. I no longer look to my friends and readers for effusive praise and positive reinforcement. You won’t catch me winking in the mirror anytime soon.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have to get off the internet now. I need to go scrub my toilet and punch myself in the face.

 

 

*I was inspired to write about my creative process after reading a really funny post about how hard it is to blog on Avoiding Atrophy. Go check it out!

 

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Neighbors and New York City: This is not a love story

Sunday morning I was sitting in the yard drinking coffee when I was suddenly jolted awake by the bone-clattering caterwaul of a power drill. It was the guy next door, the one who’s been in heaps of legal trouble all related to his house (in these here parts we call folks like him a slumlord). In his lifelong pursuit to win America’s ugliest backyard contest, he was constructing some type of low-rent pergola, the kind of thing that looks beautiful in a country garden with vines and flowers or tomatoes growing all over it but looks absolutely ridiculous in urban settings. This pointy unfinished wooden structure had just been fashioned over a huge mound of concrete in the middle of his very narrow yard, a space that currently houses an avalanche of overgrown weeds, a few bricks of unused drywall, and in the past– a broken toilet.

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Suddenly, drama unfolds…

“What the fuck are doing back here?” Hark! It is young Juliet on her balcony, calling down to her fair neighbor, the middle-aged slumlord with a power drill in his hand and a dollar sign in his heart.

“I’m minding my business. Why don’t you mind yours?!” He called back to her. Ah! Unrequited love! Heartwrenching.

“Your yard and your house look like shit! You don’t take care of anything back here, and now you’re building this stupid thing. I’m calling my landlord!” She didn’t waste time whispering sweet nothings. She yelled them– a girl who knows what she wants.

“I like it natural! Do you know natural? Do you understand NATURAL?” (I think he likes it natural).

Juliet got flustered and threw her hair over her shoulder before hightailing it off the balcony and back into her apartment. The slumlord continued to drill, muttering “crazy girl, crazy girl” to himself.

These are the people in my neighborhood.

***

I grew up in a quiet cul-de-sac lined with nice, unattached brick houses, manicured bushes and long driveways. It was a peaceful suburban subdivision where we all knew one another, and if we didn’t, we introduced ourselves so we could become allies, friends, compadres. Texans are a famously friendly people, and ignoring or displaying untoward hostility toward your neighbors is a big no-no. In my home state, it’s considered quite rude to pass your neighbor without a smile and a wave or a cheery, “Mornin’!” In my grandparents’ neighborhood, people who don’t wave back are assumed to be Communists. My father and his wife are best friends with their next-door neighbors; they eat dinner with them three times a week, and our families celebrate Christmas together. My wedding reception was in their backyard.

I have had to adjust to a different attitude regarding neighbors since moving to New York City. First of all, I have so many of them. I live in a three-family house, so I have neighbors on the two other floors. Our house is attached to two other three-family houses, both filled with a revolving door of interesting characters. Those people are my neighbors too. Then there are the houses that flank my next door neighbors’ two houses–people in my direct line of sight when they are perched on their balconies. All these houses are filled with people and technically they are all my neighbors, even if they never say hello back and I wouldn’t ask them for a cup of sugar if my birthday cake depended on it. If I make the choice to do yoga in my backyard wearing nothing but a pair of old boxer shorts, a scuba mask and a purple wig, there are at least 35-40 neighbors who will be able to easily witness this. Moreover, I could don this get-up, do yoga in my backyard, and I still wouldn’t be considered the weird neighbor.

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Let’s start with the power drill guy to our right. For years, that house was like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory– nobody ever came in and nobody ever came out. Then a few years ago, he started doing construction work in there– all without the proper permits and always at the worst possible times of day– Sunday morning, 10:30 pm on a Tuesday– drilling, hammering, pop music blasting through a boombox. He whittled a hideous pergola for his front steps, a ridiculous addition for a Queens row-house and an obvious eyesore from at least two blocks away. People started moving in, but the house was still in pretty wrecked shape. It always looked like it was in the middle of construction.

To make a long story short, I’ll sum up: He divided his three-family house into 9 separate units, rented them out to way more than nine people, took all their money, and ended up on the 7 o’clock news before finally hunkering down in a jail cell for a few months. Inevitably, the house filled with squatters who sometimes smoked cigarettes in the junky backyard but mostly kept a low profile as they lived in a house without a kitchen or electricity. The front door acquired a big note on the front: VACATE IMMEDIATELY: LIVING HERE IS PERILOUS TO LIFE, but that wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. The night two firetrucks and three police cars parked out front and raided the building was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. The most scandalous thing to ever happen in my childhood neighborhood was when someone tagged “The fuck?” on an offbeat sculpture in the Thompson family’s front yard.

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Now, to our left: The people in the house to the left are actually very nice; it’s just been really difficult to track who actually lives there because there are about 1,000 people on the front porch at all times. It’s unclear if the residents of this house are legal residents of this country. What I do know is that someone in that house is celebrating a birthday, a graduation, a retirement, or a quincinera every single week. Martha Stewart never threw this many parties, and never this festive. Karaoke, strobe lights, dance contests, pinatas– all regular features. This is a house that left their Christmas decorations up for two years straight, so whenever I would give directions to my apartment I’d tell friends to look for the sun-bleached Santa on a choo-choo train and hook a right. The other night I came home from work at 9pm (*NYC man. Don’t do it. They’ll bleed you dry!), and looked to my left to find a woman sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the front porch. I wasn’t sure if she was doing some end-of-summer camping or if they are finally running out of room at the inn.

And then there is our own house. We’ve rented this spot nine years now, and have seen top-floor dwellers come and go. Almost all of the renters have been couples around our age and we were friendly and chatty with almost all of them, save for a few who didn’t stay too long. Over the past year the two apartments above us have each changed hands twice, and Vin and I are getting tired of the old-song-and-dance/getting-to-know-you routine. I have met and spoken with each of the four other people in this house exactly once apiece, and I get the feeling all of them think that is perfectly adequate. We will not be hosting potlucks, they will not be borrowing sugar. As long as everyone puts their recyclables in the correct bin, I don’t really give a flip anymore what anyone does here. We’re not friends, we’re not allies, we’re not compadres. We will definitely not be spending Christmas together.

Several days ago a mound of soil was scooped out of a flower pot and dumped right in the middle of our front porch, blocking the path to the steps.

“Vinny, did you see the dirt on the front porch? What was that about?”. Little did I know, not only had Vinny seen the dirt, he was actually quite offended by its presence.

“Who makes a mess like that and doesn’t clean up after themselves? Who DOES that?”. On the way into the apartment, Vin kicked the dirt mound to the side of the porch, but refused to sweep it up out of principle.

It’s been five days and the soil is still there. We keep stepping around it, waiting for the offending party to clean up their own damn mess.

Vinny’s face glows red every time he steps in the door, unable to believe humans would behave this way. “Are these people savages? Do they really expect someone else to clean up after them?”.

I’m actually starting to think that the people in our house are innocent in this crime. After all, why would someone plop a mound of dirt on their own front porch? Maybe some precocious teen ran up our steps, scooped dirt out of the flower pot and dumped it on our porch for a silly prank. Maybe it was the mailman, bored or frustrated on a random Tuesday, trying to give himself some tension relief before heading home. Or perhaps it was the pergola-loving slumlord from next door. Maybe he’d confused Juliet on her balcony to his right with the blonde girl in her yard to his left. Maybe he’d dumped the soil on the porch as retribution for the verbal assault he encountered on Sunday. Maybe spilling dirt on a neighbor’s porch was his way of acting out. Or maybe he just really likes it natural. Do you understand natural?

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About Jenn.


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Kindly ignore the "food/friends/fun" part on the top of this page. It no longer describes this blog; I just don't know how to change it. Pretend it says something more accurate like "Stories of my Life", or "For a good time, read Jenn". About Me: I'm a 30-something Texan who moved to New York, became a therapist, and married a guy named Vinny from Queens. I delight in observing the world around me, and write about it here.

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