Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

Never Give a Hoarder a Cupcake

 

We got excited about a two-family house on a quiet, tree-lined street off of Ditmars and decided to check it out. A crowd had already gathered on the sidewalk, and a hulking Greek agent stood on the front steps with his hands on his hips like the Jolly Green Giant, waiting to show us his plentiful crop. Ho-ho-ho, seller’s market.

As we approached, the realtor said to Vin:  “Didn’t I sell you a vape last week, man?” The realtor must have confused him with some other long-haired guy in the neighborhood, because the only thing Vin ever smoked was a box of eclairs.

“Uhmmmm, noooo. Do I just look like the kind of guy who would buy a vape?” Vin asked. This was off to an excellent, super professional start.

We chatted a little bit about what we were looking for and where we currently lived. When I told him the cross streets of our current apartment, the realtor mentioned that his doctor’s office was on the next corner.

“That’s where I go to deal with my emotions,” he said flatly. Oddly enough, the next thing out of his mouth was, “So what do you do?”

“I help people manage their emotions,” I replied.

“Oh, I was just kidding about that last part. I don’t need to work through my emotions. I don’t have any.”

for sale

This was not the house we saw or the realtor we spoke to. I’m sure Anthony has emotions.

 

He took us quickly through the first floor apartment and down to the basement, which was bursting at the quickly fraying seams and stuffed from floor to ceiling with several decades’ worth of crap.

Suddenly, out of nowhere a man appeared from behind the boxes, like he’d just parted the dank and dusty sea and entered the promise land. His large belly sunk like a boulder beneath his tight white undershirt and his hair had not been combed. Like the real estate agent, his attention went immediately to Vin.

“Are you in the military?” he asked my husband, who at the time was wearing blue jeans, a surf t-shirt and a glorious mane of long brown hair.

I made a grab for the bulk of his hair and asked, ‘Does this guy look like he’s in the military?”

I regretted my sarcasm immediately when the realtor introduced him as the owner. Everyone knows you’re supposed to sweet-talk the owners if you want to close the deal. A friend told me she wrote a lovely letter to the owner of the house she wanted to buy, and it paid off royally. Damnit, I knew I should have baked something.

I quickly changed my tune and told him what a nice big house he had. The room smelled of mildew and general wetness, and the ceiling was about five inches above my head and ten minutes away from giving up all hope. I put a smile on my face and silently prayed that an avalanche of knick-knacks and old newspapers could hold on upstairs for one more day, or at least until we’d left the basement.

We were then lead back upstairs to check out the first level apartment, which in essence didn’t look so bad. A few nice windows, decent width, wood floors I could actually see. There were a few other real estate agents in the room, one of whom gave us an innocuous warning before heading up another set of stairs to see the second apartment.

“There’s a woman who lives up there. She was the owner’s mother’s best friend. She worked many years as a school teacher, so you may see some lesson plans on the wall.”

“Great,” I say. “Maybe I’ll learn something.”

We began the climb, and immediately understood that he had completely undersold the situation, especially to someone in the mental health profession. This apartment was a case study in hoarding. I was–of course—fascinated, but also claustrophobic and sweating bullets. We were on the third floor, surrounded by a half dozen people and 35 years of clutter, and there was no fan or A.C.

We were walking through what the literature refers to as “goat paths”, narrow strips of clear area, surrounded on all sides by piles and piles of stuff.  Every centimeter of wall space was covered with something– a picture, a receipt from 1990, a newspaper clipping, a note, an index card, a journal entry scribbled in Greek or Spanish. The ground was so completely covered there was no way of determining if the floors were tile, carpet, parquet, or stained with the blood of a thousand men. There could have been meat buried in the floorboards for all we knew.

The current tenant was standing in the kitchen by the stove, wearing an old housedress and sponge curlers in her hair. She was very sweet and asked me if I spoke Greek, or Latin, or Spanish or something other than English. I hate disappointing people. Especially teachers.

We thanked her for allowing us into her home, and made the walk back downstairs, wiping the sweat from our foreheads with the backs of our hands. On the way down, I thought to myself:  Whatever happened to home staging? Is that still a thing, or is it just not a thing in New York City?

“Listen,” I said to the realtors, who were hanging out in the living room. “How are they going to get all of this stuff out of here? You know you can’t just go in there and throw it all away, right?” Anyone who’s seen the show Hoarders knows that, but I wasn’t sure if they’d seen the program or not.  If they had, they probably would have hired a specialist to come in here before they invited the neighborhood to walk in and inspect the house.

“Oh no, it’s no problem. She’s moving back to Greece, so we’re just going to take it all down and ship it to her country.” This plan did not sound likely to me at all.

“You’re really going to take down a million little pieces of paper and ship them to Greece? I don’t know about that…I think you’re going to have to call a professional therapeutic team in here to work with her.”

One time, I gave a client with a hoarding issue a cupcake for his birthday. He was very touched by the gesture and looked at it wistfully before speaking.

“You recognize I’m never going to eat this, right?” He was going to keep the cupcake on a nice plate in his fridge and look at it every so often. It was a gift, and therefore had meaning and significance. I wondered how many “cupcakes” this woman had been given over the years.

I looked around the house one last time before parting. It had good bones, some nice solid woodwork, and was on a beautiful street. But I was standing on land that was about to become a battlefield, as the current dwellers were about to go head to head with a group of eager real estate agents who were probably going to rush them and their stuff out of this house as quickly as possible. This was New York City, where time is of the essence.

And because there must be a moral to every story, like the teacher upstairs I too want to post some lessons on my wall. I’m leaving them here, in the hopes that someone may learn something.

1. Never put an offer on a home where you cannot see the floor. 2. Do not involve yourself with a real estate agent who claims to have no emotions. And above all, unless they are very, very hungry, never give a hoarder a cupcake.

cupcakes

 

 

 

 

 

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This is Marriage (2)

 

Sometimes, when walking to dinner in our neighborhood together, I like to imagine we are Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, two young, alluring people with sharp tongues and bright ideas who spend hours just walking around and talking about the greatest things in life– philosophy, passion, love, sex, books, travel, food. We wander slowly, treading carefully down cobble stone streets, using our hands to fill out our sentences. We ping-pong ideas off one another, and almost never run out of things to say. It’s easier to picture us like this when we’re strolling by tiny sidewalk cafes and charming fruit stands because our town in Queens looks vaguely European that way. It becomes a challenge when passing Dunkin’ Donuts or the auto body shop just off the feeder road.

These have been my favorite moments of the last 14 years, the length of time it’s taken us to go from coworkers to friends to partners to spouses. We started our walks on lunch breaks, two kids fairly low on the totem pole escaping their cubicles to go play outside. We’d walk all the way down from 23rd to 14th Street, pointing out women we knew were models and artfully dodging people from Greenpeace or Planned Parenthood asking for money or overpriced midtown salons trying to sell us a full day of beauty. We’d grab a bowl of noodles, plop ourselves on a park bench in Union Square and watch the world go by.

We never go out to lunch together now. Instead, I pack sensible combinations of protein, carbs and fat in our small shared kitchen and send you out into the world with a bag full of Tupperware. Now we take walks in search of brunch and dinner and always ice cream. And even if the meal isn’t memorable, the walk usually is because the setting keeps changing, but you are my constant. I get to admire your profile and you always hold my hand. Palm folded into palm– never fingers intertwined–because according to you, lacing fingers is for teenagers and puppy love and we are beyond all that.

When we first started dating we’d have 5-hour phone marathons where we’d yammer on and on about everything under the sun until we both passed out from exhaustion. A friend of yours said talking like that would never last, and he was right. There isn’t much to catch each other up on now; we share a home and a life, and as a result, our anecdotes.

Sometimes it feels like we’re going to run out of new things to say, and then one of us tells a story the other one has never heard before, and we both feel giddy with excitement. You’ll tell me about the kid who grew up on your block or the time you tried to impress a girl by speaking your shared native language, or I’ll share a memory that involved falling down or running into things when I wasn’t paying attention.

I’ll remind myself to be a better wife and a kinder person and encourage you to keep talking about what it is you do for a living, which, on a cognitive level is difficult for me to understand.

I’ll think about how lucky I am to create more history with someone as funny and sweet as you, and you’ll look at me with your head cocked slightly to the right with the corners of your mouth turned up and paint the words I love you with the curves of your face.

Last night when we walked to dinner we talked about growing older, not just the physical act of it, but what it must feel like to look in the mirror and see a wise old face that doesn’t quite match up with the young, dumb fool you feel like on the inside. We talked about Facebook and social media, and the kids who are growing up on it, and how one day they’ll be able to look back at nearly every day of their childhood and catch a glimpse of it, like one of those flip books where you turn the pages a mile a minute so it looks like the change happened while you blinked. Then I asked if you thought my feet were getting fat. There is room for all of it.

I doubt the way we talk to each other is anything extraordinary, but sometimes it feels that way. I doubt I love my husband more than anyone else loves theirs, but sometimes I think that I might. Sometimes it feels like we’re two characters in a movie, swapping thoughts and ideas and stories and there is something really romantic about all of it. Sometimes I think I should stop to write it all down, that these everyday conversations with my husband are not banal or mundane, but poignant and memorable.

And then it occurs to me that the two of us are probably not extraordinary at all, that this must be what everyone thinks after having a really good talk with someone they love.

marriage

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If you’re gonna spew, spew into this

A therapist’s office is supposed to promote relaxation. We paint the room in soft, soothing colors and turn on lamps instead of overhead lights. Some buy fresh flowers once a week (not me, I’ve got a house to buy) while others invest in fine leather sofas or beautiful, non-threatening artwork. You want to create an atmosphere that feels safe, calm and serene.

That is exponentially harder to do once someone has barfed all over it.

Due to difficulty finding childcare, several of my clients occasionally bring their small children into sessions. It is painfully boring for them as I have nothing in there that could entertain a child, so I usually just ply them with office letterhead and a red pen and tell them to draw their mother a picture. One day, a cute kindergartner came in with his mom. She was wise enough to supply him with an iPad, so we could talk and he could remain occupied.

His mother and I were in the middle of a very serious discussion when all of the sudden, without warning or fanfare, the little boy stood up, turned to face my big leather chair and puked up his entire homeroom all over it. It happened on a Friday, and if you went to elementary school in the United States during this century, you know that means pizza day. My pale green office was suddenly awash with pink.

I’m guessing mothers are accustomed to acts of violent and spontaneous barfing from time to time, but as a non-mother, this child’s sudden volcanic ejection caught me completely off guard. It was alarming to be in the position of having vomit on the chair, the rug and the floor and I looked longingly at the sink bizarrely placed in the corner of my office. It finally had an opportunity to serve a purpose, and the moment was completely wasted.

Once someone has puked in a therapy office, there is no more talk–there is only action–so I was more than pleased to be the professional person who needed to quickly flee the room in order to obtain enough paper towels to remove this incident from my chair, my rug, and my short-term memory.

I ran down to the basement. There were enough boxes of Kleenex to get a theater full of women through a Sunday matinee of Beaches, and not a single roll of paper towel to be found. I made a quick call to the janitor (clean up on aisle 9!) while discreetly asking people if they were hoarding towels in their offices. Finally the psychiatrist gave up his sad little roll, and I brought it upstairs.

The mother was on her hands and knees, furiously mopping off her kids’ backpack and my furniture with whatever errant cloth she could find. Meanwhile, the kid looked completely non-plussed and was back to playing with the ipad in another chair. He was smiling broadly and his little legs swung back and forth without a care. He looked like he was ready for his Friday night to get underway, maybe hit up an arcade or a G-rated flick on the way home. He wasn’t even crying. I cry every time I puke. It’s just so…upsetting.

I began to long for my own childhood. A simpler time when someone else was there to kiss my boo-boos, wipe away tears, undo my mistakes, and clean up my barf.

Maybe I should talk to my therapist about this.

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Health Freaks

 

When you live in a neighborhood like ours, you begin to recognize people on the street because you see them everyday. There is one teeny-tiny lady I pass frequently who’s around 4’8″, weighs under 100 pounds and appears about two coughs away from dying. She might only be 45 years old, but she looks like every old Italian or Greek widow ever portrayed in cinema, and always seems to be wearing a roomy black shift dress that billows away from her gaunt, withering frame like a Hefty bag.

On Friday morning, she sat hunched over the bench outside my local bakery, the one that smells like meat at 8 a.m. because the owner of the bbq joint two doors down smokes brisket in their kitchen. She had on big dark sunglasses and round-toed orthopedic shoes that made her spindly legs look like toothpicks stuck into cocktail wieners. She had a cigarette in each of her hands, taking one last puff from the right one before using it to light the left. She looked like someone who had long ago thrown up both arms and exclaimed “Well! I’ve had a good run! Fuck all!”, and seeing her chain-smoking at eight in the morning made me want to hop on a treadmill, munch on an apple, chug a gallon of water and floss my teeth all at the same time. I felt a sense of urgency in my life, a pressing need to straighten up and fly right, and so before heading into work, I decided to buy a green drink.

I walked into a chain shop called Juice Press, where the girl behind the counter looked like Denise Huxtable after dropping out of Hillman and turning hippie. My jaw dropped when I saw the price list, and I almost told the chalkboard menu to go fuck itself for featuring a $15 smoothie. I don’t care if you’re blending gold chips or crack rocks into it, there is never any excuse for selling a booze-free drink for over ten bucks. If I’m gonna spend $15 on a meal, it better be in solid form and include a large piece of chicken.

So I walked down the street to a coffee shop that also makes juices and smoothies for under eight bucks. I make smoothies all the time at home, usually putting a mix of baby spinach and fresh mint in them which creates a nice subtle nutrient boost without the bitterness of other greens. This place didn’t use any spinach– just kale– so I went ahead and ordered the classic, a mix of kale and banana and berries and just a splash of apple juice. It looked like sea algae, had the mouthfeel of peat moss and tasted like apple-infused garbage. It began the separation process immediately, the fiber from the greens segregating itself from the liquid like it was insulted to share the same cup.

canyoustayfordinner.com

(Image from canyoustayfordinner.com)

The barista had some extra kale smoothie left in the blender, and offered to give me the excess.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” I said, and encouraged him to drink it himself or give it to someone else behind the bar. Nobody wanted it of course, so I was left with more smoothie than I knew what to do with. I tossed back the excess like a shot of tequila, and instantly knew that drinking a whole cup of this stuff would be like trying to finish one of those ropes courses, where you have push through the pain to get to the glory.

I brought it to work, where it sat on my desk taunting me with its healing powers: I AM YOUR ONLY HOPE. DRINK ME NOW OR DECAY PREMATURELY LATER.  I shook it to make it all one color and texture again, then took another sip, this one even grosser than the first because the chill was wearing off. The only thing saving this smoothie was its frosty temperature and the longer I postponed the inevitable, the more lukewarm and the less palatable it got. It was thick and mealy, like trying to suck applesauce out of a straw.

A milkshake would have been gone in three minutes, tops, but this thing followed me around for hours. It came with me to chat with a coworker. We went outside for a breath of fresh air. It followed me upstairs to a staff meeting and plopped itself on the long conference table, squaring off against a big glass bowl of fun-sized Milky Ways. Halfway through the meeting I picked it up and took a big gulp in my effort to be rid of it, and made the puckered, horrified face I usually reserve for people who feel nothing when they hear the first few bars of Don’t Stop Believin’. My colleague across from me shook his head and smirked, not just because of my complete lack of poker face, but because he knew he had a big ham sandwich waiting for him on his desk downstairs.

At this point, the smoothie was nothing more than a prop. I had no intention of drinking it anymore, but I felt guilty throwing pricy food away. It hung around the rest of the day on my desk, a paragon of health maintenance and self-care.

Eventually a client wrinkled her nose and asked, “Jennifer, what is that?”

“Oh, it’s just a smoothie. There are greens in in, which explains the color.” I tried not to dissuade anyone from trying a green smoothie and seeing how they like it. In my line of work it’s important for people to learn how to make healthy decisions for themselves.

 

That night, Vinny and I had our usual Friday night summit of where to go out for dinner. We toyed with a few lighter options, but eventually settled on sharing a big plate of fried chicken at the new place down the street, promptly followed by a walk to the frozen yogurt place where I topped my Nutella-flavored treat with crushed Butterfingers and joy. Vin piled his with rainbow cookies, smashed oreos, and a river of hot fudge.

We’ve had a good run.

 

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A Day in the Life: Saturday in the City

 

7am: My brain says water, but my heart yells coffee.

7-9: Writing at my little rolling desk I’ve set in the yard for the summer. Every morning I go out back with my laptop, a towel on my head and pajamas on. I’ve imagined Hemingway in a similar setup. Every great writer gets his start in drawstring pants.

9: Vinny’s home!! Away in Sacramento for work all week, my long-haired love has just arrived home from his red-eye flight. He looks a hot, tired mess, but I am in no position to judge. We both slept terribly last night and I’ve got circles the size of beanbags under my eyes right now.

9:15: We are never up this early together, so we make the most of it and drive into brunch at a trendy spot in Soho where the food is highly instagrammable. The place is teeny-tiny, and elbows are flying everywhere as people steal their shakshuka’s soul with iPhone cameras. I spot a few couples eating their food in complete silence across from one another, clicking through their phones the whole time. Sign of the times, or sign of the end?

11:00: By the time we’re done eating the line to get in is down the block. It is composed almost entirely of 20-something Caucasian women in small dresses and denim cut-offs. I am waiting for someone to aim the phone down at the gutter beside them, which is teeming with filthy water that looks like diseased swamp and smells like old donkey. #nycsummer

12:00: We still have an hour on the meter, so we pop in a few stores on Broadway. First is Club Monaco where I want everything, followed by Uniqlo where I want nothing, and finally my old favorite Pearl River Mart which is a huge Chinese emporium that sells everything from kimonos and dragon heads to soy sauce and gag gifts. The selection was scarce as they’re going out of business later this year when the rent goes up to $500K a month because life is unfair and New York City is a cruel, heartless, son of a b.

12:30: We drive home, taking a shortcut through Williamsburg which is full of bars and warehouses and artisanal cookie flavors like black pepper and tattooed people pushing Maclaren strollers with little babies wearing flower crowns. Out the window I spot a guy with a pompadour, the kind of mustache that requires wax and rolled denim overalls. I find myself confused because his top half says vintage parisian carnival worker while his bottom half should be in central Idaho digging up potatoes. Still, I’m in a 15-year old Honda with hair that hasn’t smelled shampoo in three days and plastic sandals I pulled out of a convenience store bin, so I’m in no position to judge.

12:35: We are both exhausted, and Vin almost falls asleep at a red light. I punch him in the shoulder and scream WAKE UP so we can make it home not dead.

1-2: Vin and I nap like sunburned children after a day at the pool. The air is warm but the sheets are cool and we drift into a state of almost narcotic bliss. Eating a heavy brunch and falling asleep reminds me of my Texas summer camp, where they’d sedate us with chicken fried steak and cream gravy at 12 noon on a 100-degree day, then send us back to our bunks to pass out for the next two hours. When we woke up, we’d pull out stickers and notecards and write letters home to our BFFs and mothers. Vin is still asleep, so instead I’ll write a letter to you.

Dear Nice Internet Friends,

Hi! How are you? How’s your summer going? What’s the weather like where you are? Is it humid? How’s your hair?

New York is fun but smells terrible. Restaurants stack black garbage bags like pyramids on the sidewalk and then the sun microwaves the old lettuce and banana peels inside them until we all start gagging and praying for trash day. On the upside, most people skip town on the weekends so things are less crowded and there are more ice cream shops than grocery stores here so dinner’s been fun lately.

My husband’s starting to talk in his sleep, so I’ve gotta go eavesdrop. He just mumbled, “oh, you looked so cute this week”, and I’m very suspicious of where his subconscious is going with this because his body was in Sacramento all week. Anyway, he’s probably talking about his cell phone, so I’m not too concerned.

LYLAS,

Jenn 

2:20-3: I hang in the backyard, daydreaming, zoning out, scanning the sky for answers to life’s biggest questions. When will I make my first million? Which borough does God prefer, and should we start looking for real estate there? Why do birds suddenly appear every time Vin is near? Who put the ram in the ramma-lamma-ding-dong? What happens to Tony at the end of the Sopranos?

3:00-5:00: Neighbors begin stirring in their own yards. To my right, the dirtbag who went to jail for turning his 2-family house into 9 illegally rented apartments is banging around the yard, trying to fix it up. On the porch above him, two shirtless guys grill chicken while singing show tunes. Across the way, a mother yells at her children and blasts Celine Dion so loud folks back in Canada can hear, and to my left, I peek over and notice they have unwisely painted the interior of their entire fence a heinous baby blue so it now looks like a nursery school playground in Miami. And then my favorite backyard character steps out on his deck across from my yard, the old Italian man who is always feeding the birds, who waves back at me with two hands.

5:00-6:00: Shower and get ready for night out. Heading to the BBQ/bourbon place down the street. I’ve commissioned a small group of friends to join us out tonight.

6:30-12:00 midnight: This is great. I love hanging out with my friends. They are nice and so funny. They all get an A+. The setting also ranks a high A, the drinks a B (fairly watered-down) and the BBQ, in my opinion, ranks a B- (tender, but criminally under-seasoned).

12:30: It’s Saturday night so my brain says party, but my heart says pillowcase.

12:45: The air is warm, but the sheets are cool, and I drift off into a state of almost narcotic bliss. Some people drool when they’re this tired, but I’m in no position to judge. I’m drooling too.

 

 

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38 Special

 

At the end of the week, I’ll turn 38. I remember when my parents were 38. I was in junior high. They were in the suburbs.

I’ve been on a quest lately to not think too hard or long about what it means to quickly approach an age that ends in zero and rhymes with Lordy. I’ve forbidden myself from trying to tailor my life’s choices to some kind of pre-ordained timeline because literally nothing I’ve ever pictured myself doing has been completed by the age I expected to, and it’s all worked out just fine. I have no intentions of reading or writing a blog post titled “The 38 things you need to get done by age 38″. I’ll do things on my own watch, thank-you-very-much, and I’m guessing you will too.

I’m not going to take cheap shots at my new age with self-deprecation and tired rants about ticking clocks. I’m not going to congratulate myself for how much I’ve figured out (girl, please) or chide myself for not having everything my childhood self would have anticipated my 38-year-old self to have by now. I’m not going to hyperbolize by spending too much time addressing the subtle lines framing my mouth, the extra fold of skin above my eyes or the elegant bunions on my feet. I’m not going to insult 38 by making it sound old when it simply isn’t. I’m also not going to lie and say that my brain functions much differently than it did when I was 22, because unfortunately (fortunately?) it doesn’t.

me in centrla park

I’m not going to generalize too much because 38 probably looks different on me than it does (or will, or did…) on you. I don’t know what 38 looks like to you. But this is what it looks and feels like for me.

Thirty eight is 25 years of wearing makeup and still not understanding how to apply eye liner so it doesn’t smudge all over my face. It’s searching high and low for the magical concealer that will erase the purple beneath my eyes without creasing at the corners of them. It’s wearing clothes that fit the season and my body type, and almost never the latest trend. It’s being in good physical health, and never taking that fact for granted. It’s putting on a wide-brimmed hat and looking exactly like my mother.

Thirty-eight is not fully understanding why, but finding a small, peculiar thrill in menial tasks like refilling soap dispensers and throwing out an old sponge in exchange for a new one. It’s opening the fridge and feeling gratitude for its fullness. It’s appreciating that I’m not living paycheck to paycheck anymore, that we’re actually doing all right, that we’ve hit a smooth spot in the road where we can just cruise for a while. It’s feeling like we’re not just two kids trying to figure it out anymore, but two smart, capable grown-ups who are making plans and getting things done.

Thirty-eight is right in the thick of it, job-wise. It’s working hard and taking pride in getting up each morning knowing I have somewhere to be, and something to do. It’s living within our means and saving for our future; skipping the labels and status symbols because no one really cares what we can and can’t afford, anyway. It’s tightening the belt in a million ways while saving room in the budget for good bread from the bakery and Sunday brunch with fancy lattes, because life’s too short to be joyless, and weekends are too precious to waste on sad oatmeal and drip coffee.

good coffee

Thirty-eight is having more friends who are parents than friends who are not. It’s loving their childrens’ laughter and big hugs and silly songs, but also feeling excited to go home to my quiet apartment, just my husband and me. It’s seeing friends far less often, but treasuring time with them even more. It’s sifting out who and what’s important, and adjusting plans accordingly. It’s fewer acquaintances, deeper connections, richer conversations. It’s being more comfortable saying no. It’s giving up on the idea of pleasing everybody and making good on the promise to always be true to myself.

Thirty-eight is fewer people calling me kiddo, and more and more addressing me as ma’am. It’s being practically invisible to 20-something boys and a sweet juicy peach to divorced 53-year-old men. It’s identifying with the parents in sitcoms instead of the kids. It’s getting excited over things like fancy vegetable peelers and front-loading washers and dryers. It’s passing groups of teenagers on the street and thinking, “Was I ever that loud?”. It’s spending Friday nights at home and feeling completely satisfied.

Thirty-eight is one month away from my 20th high school reunion in Texas. It’s not dieting or working out like crazy to prepare for it, but shopping for a nice dress that fits me well and is impervious to pit stains. It’s hoping they have fried shrimp and name tags because fried shrimp are delicious and I’ve forgotten a whole lot of names. It’s getting excited to reconnect with my first girlfriends, the ones I met in pre-school who’ve grown up to live with their families in beautiful houses but who live on in my mind as pretty 16-year-olds leaning against their first car on 103rd Street. It’s thinking about how simple things were then, but also reflecting on how pretty great things are now.

Thirty-eight isn’t the beginning, and it hopefully isn’t anywhere near the end, and there’s no way to measure if it’s hovering around the middle. It’s having some things set in stone and others completely up in the air. It’s lingering a little too long in the station between comfortable security and total freedom, and being caught in a weird head space of wanting to tuck roots underground while still fantasizing about running away to a muggy tropical island or a village in the south of France.

Thirty-eight is being curious about my future but constantly homesick for my past, being ready to peek behind the curtain to reveal what comes next while wishing I could yank back the trembling hands of that eternally ticking clock, so I could start at the very beginning and do it all over again.

cute me and vinny

 

 

 

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What it’s like to be a therapist.

This year, more than any other, I’m working with a lot of clients who are grieving. I have two clients who’ve lost husbands this year, and one who’s lost a child. They are some of the toughest sessions to get through, because their pain is tangible.

In seven years, I can remember exactly three times that I cried in session. Not a big cry– I’ve never done that with someone else in the room– but a tiny pinprick in the corner of the eye, the kind another person would never notice.

Actors are trained to cry on command, but therapists are expected to do the opposite. We need to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations, because the last thing our clients need to worry about is whether  or not we’re okay. I mean, would you feel comfortable if you caught your therapist choking back sobs while you spoke? Probably not.

what it's like to be a therapist

It’s not stoicism that lets us do this, it’s repetition. Anybody can get used to anything, as long as they repeat it often enough. How do doctors perform surgery? How do soldiers shoot a gun? How does my brother–a child abuse prosecutor– look at evidence for his cases and still get to sleep at night?

These days I rarely cry when something is sad, and it sometimes makes me feel like a human totem pole–hard and wooden. I obviously have capacity for empathy (if I didn’t have that, I’d be very worried indeed), but it’s extremely rare for me to get teary-eyed when something is sad. Professional hazard, I guess.

I cry very easily, however, when something is emotionally moving. Wedding vows. Someone offering their seat on the subway to a stranger. Small children or old couples holding hands. The ukulele version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Last week a high school friend posted a video on her Facebook wall of her 8 or 9 year old daughter opening an email announcing she’d made an elite soccer team. The little girl lost her mind and was literally overwhelmed with joy, crying and exclaiming “I made it! I made it! Mommy, I MADE it!” before crumpling in a ball on the kitchen floor. Hot, happy tears streamed down my face. I watched it four times.

Sometimes it feels really weird to cry so easily at some things but withhold that normal emotional response from so many other experiences.

But last week I read Sheryl Sandburg’s post about losing her husband suddenly, and it absolutely gutted me. I read it traveling home on the subway after having spent a long day in my office, a dark little room where I hear people describe grief like hers every single day.

I read that post and cried, because it was sad and painful to read. I cried the kind of tears other people were likely to notice, and had to use the back of my hand to wipe them from my cheeks.

And it’s a strange comfort to know I can still do that.

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What Happens Next… After Five Years of Blogging.

 

My grandparents often send me clippings from their local newspaper.  Usually, it’s recipes from the HEB store or articles mentioning Croatia, where my husband’s family is from. Years ago, my grandmother sent me a big feature article from Austin Monthly, with a tiny note attached.

“Dear Jennifer”, wrote my grandmother. She has always been the official correspondent from Grandparent HQ. “This gal was featured in the Austin newspaper in a big article about how she got a book deal from starting this thing called a web-log. Maybe you should do one. Maybe you could get a book deal too.”

My grandparents have always been some of my biggest fans, and have even created a binder where they keep things I’ve written through the years. I’ve leafed through the binder to find articles I wrote as a journalism student, stories from a now defunct website I used to write for, and papers I drafted in high school. They’ve even kept emails they thought I composed particularly well.

“Oh, but you wrote it so nice it sounded like a real story!” Grandma would reply, when asked why she printed and saved an email I sent her in 2001. ”I showed it to some of my friends. They enjoyed it too.” My body of work is already quite well known by every golfer and Lutheran in Marble Falls, Texas.

So I checked out the blog. It was Stephanie Klein’s Greek Tragedy– the OG of the blog world, back when it was full of personal stories and free from copious advertising. She was a terrific writer– sharp and honest with a strong, original voice. Some of my initial thoughts were “Damn, this girl has amazing hair”, “This chick has quite the mouth on her”, and “Huh. Maybe I should start a blog. Maybe I could get a book deal too!”.

Now this would be an amazing place to say… and I did it! Dear Readers, after five years of your loyalty I am proud to say I have finally landed a real-live-book deal! Grandma’s plan worked!!”

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Well that day ain’t here yet, but I will tell you that I’ve been working harder to hasten its arrival. I’ve been writing a book. Yes! A real, live book! Can I tell you what a pretentious A-hole I feel like writing that? Who isn’t writing a book? I’m sure half the Kardashians have written  a book. Snooki has a book. If they can do it, why can’t I?

If you’ve been reading for a while (and bless you for that, really) you’ll have noticed that this blog has gone through many iterations over the past five years of me tending it. It started as a fun way to document things I was doing around the city. I posted lots of pictures and recipes and scattered some stories in between. I spent a lot of time on here, and really enjoyed the creative outlet after work. But I could never keep up with 3 or 4 posts a week coupled with my job and personal life, and the only thing I’ve ever really been consistent with is my complete and utter inconsistency. I don’t make a lot of apologies for it because this blog is not my occupation, and I never want writing to feel like another obligation. I’ve taken long breaks and short breaks. Some months I posted every week, some months went by without posting at all.

I have done an absolutely terrible job at promoting this site, and the numbers show. I paid 50 bucks for a sponsorship ad once, gained about three followers, and never went down that road again. I feel like a jerk spreading my stuff on Facebook and twitter, which I’m not even convinced helps anyway. If I get one new bloglovin’ follower every other month, I’m thrilled. A lot of people say that content is king, but I respectfully disagree. It takes a lot more than original content to make yourself noticeable on the internet. I’m sure I could have paid a designer to make my site look more professional, paid more attention to learning about SEO, or spent more of my day commenting on other blogs in order to create a bigger community here, but with a (sometimes draining) full time job and a small budget, I just never took the time.

Time! There is never enough time!

I don’t know how other bloggers do it- I really don’t. I’ve done a lot of evaluating and rejiggering to find out where my time is best invested, and have made adjustments accordingly. I don’t post a lot of pictures anymore, because with my limited back-end knowledge and utter lack of technical prowess, uploading, editing and arranging pictures in a post added at least an hour to the process. There are pages on this site that have been “under construction” for two or three years, and the truth is, they will probably remain that way. I’ve chosen to concentrate my energy on my writing, and the other stuff is just not that important to me. I don’t really feel like spending time tweeting and retweeting either. I find social media a big enough time-suck as it is.

I kind of gave up on the idea of this becoming a popular blog long ago. My posts do not go viral, they are not the type that get “pinned”, and I will never be recognized on the street.  Isn’t that a trip? I have seen “famous” bloggers around the city, and completely recognize them. I’ve seen “Love, Taza” pushing her baby carriage through the Upper West Side; I’ve seen women I follow on Instagram hanging out on the Highline or Bryant Park. One time I even saw Stephanie Klein buying cheese at Central Market in Austin and had a completely embarrassing fan-girl moment. Anyway, I don’t think it’s in the cards for me to become one of those recognizable bloggers. Fine by me.

In many ways, I am glad to be an “under-the-radar” blog, because it’s allowed me to write without a lot of outside influence or pressure. I have not been subject to the criticism or scrutiny that bigger blogs have. To my knowledge, I don’t have many “haters”, but instead have a smart and thoughtful cheering section who encourages me to share my pieces more often. I haven’t had to adjust my content to fit some larger standard because I simply don’t care about fitting one. As a result, I’ve been able to write what I want to write without worrying too much if it will appeal to a mass circulation. Most importantly, checking in here on a semi-regular basis has really, really helped me establish my writing voice. I feel like I’ve developed a very specific writing style that sounds like “me” at this point, and if I’d been writing for a really large group of people, it’s possible I might have derailed from it.

A week or two ago, Vin was scrolling through my Instagram feed, and happened upon a really sweet comment from a reader, urging me to “Write a book already!”.

“Isn’t it weird?” he asked. “Complete strangers are able to follow you and read your posts?”

I was surprised by his reaction, because getting complete strangers to read my posts has been the whole point of having these social media accounts, and a blog. “Of course it’s not weird! When complete strangers tell me to write a book, it’s the most encouraging thing in the world!”.

Seriously, it is. Please never underestimate the impact of your kindness. When you say “You should write a book!” to someone who has always dreamed of writing a book, you are doing many things at once–you’re making her day, you’re quelling her insecurities, and you’re lighting a big bonfire under her butt.  At least that’s what many of you–family, friends, and far-flung readers alike–have done for me. Your notes of encouragement have meant more to me than I could begin to describe. They make me feel like my thoughts matter.

As such, I have been writing here less, and trying to write this beast of a book more. If it shapes up the way it looks in my head, it will be a collection of short personal essays, filled with stories I’ve never shared on the blog before. Right now all the essays are still in the phase Anne Lamont refers to as “the shitty first draft”, but I plan to go back and gussy them up later. I hope they will strike a balance between funny and sweet, and remain consistent with the voice I think I have begun to develop here, on this little web-log that came about after my grandmother sent me a clipping from the newspaper.

If you know any literary agents who are partial to non-fiction and personal essays, feel free to slip them my number. There’s a $20 bill with your name on it if you do. I figure that’s a better investment at this point than a sponsorship ad.

And if (I mean whenwhen!) I ever do finish this next writing project, I already know when and where I’d like to schedule my first stop on the book tour. Pencil me in for springtime in Marble Falls, just after the bluebonnets have made their brilliant debut. I’ll be parked at a skirted table in front of the Lutheran church, where I’ve already established a loyal and supportive fan base.

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All the Things a New Yorker Thinks After a Weekend in Connecticut

 

New York City can be a bit of an asshole sometimes, in every way possible. It’s too crowded, too dirty, too stinky, too aggressive, too fast, and on top of all that, really expensive. After a while, you start to wonder if you’re becoming a bit of an asshole yourself. Am I too loud? Too aggressive? Too pushy? Too impatient? Did the stink rub off on me?

When that feeling comes over us, Vin and I know it’s time to get out of town for a day or two. And when we do, we like to check ourselves in at a bed and breakfast. Hotel rooms remind me of apartments, and I already live in one of those. But B&Bs are real, grown-up houses with wooden shutters and knick-knacks and windows and elbow space. You sleep in a big room filled with books and plants and a nice person who knows how to make good coffee serves you frittata and scones fresh from the oven in the morning. B&Bs are wonderful, and I’m always surprised when people say they’d feel uncomfortable in one.

So we booked a room in a place called Henrietta House in Ashford, Connecticut and drove out Friday night after work. The traffic was, predictably, an asshole. Starting Memorial Day weekend and stretching into the summer, most people get the same idea as us and head as far away from the city as possible.

We clarified prior to leaving the city that our itinerary was to do nothing, and that’s exactly what we did. We sat on the back porch, napped, read, played guitar, stepped over chickens, and ate delicious food. The air was cool, and we slept like logs under a big puffy cloud of a blanket. Parking was easy so we went in and out as we pleased. The most strenuous thing we did was a very light, short hike.

We were in Connecticut, birthplace of lyme disease, so we navigated the trail with the precision of tightrope walkers, trying not to brush into anything suspect. When we stumbled on a tiny bridge crossing over a lovely little stream, I urged Vinny to sit down, close his eyes, and participate in a mindfulness exercise with me. I crossed my legs, one over the other like a pretzel, shut my eyes and drew in a deep breath. I concentrated on my breathing–in and out, in and out–and tried to focus on nothing but the movement of my diaphragm and the calming trickle of the stream below us.

I finally opened my eyes and glanced to my right, expecting to see Vin in full lotus, floating off on some higher plane into a state of zen. Instead, I found him playing Clash of Clans on his dumb phone.

“Vinny! Mindfulness!” I yelled. Because everyone knows the way to get your husband to feel more relaxed is to nag him into a meditative trance.

So he powered off his phone and we both shut our eyes. It’s lovely when you find someone you can share silence with.

“I can’t believe this babbling brook doesn’t make you have to pee.” he said. That boy talks too much.

“It does. Let’s go. Mindfulness over.” Sometimes I shudder to think of everything I might accomplish in this life if I didn’t have a bladder the size of a walnut.

***

The next morning we shared breakfast with the owner Marian and her assistant Jasmine, two women I found myself relating to in very different ways. Jasmine had already moved around quite a bit at 26, and geeked out over things like good cheese and coffee, just like me. And the inn’s owner Marian was a fellow Texas gal and UT alum, who’d also found herself out on the East Coast years ago. She was great fun to talk to–well-traveled, well-read, opinionated, bold–and I found myself comparing her to many of the smart, sassy Texan women I’ve known through the years, many of whom I’m lucky enough to share a bloodline with. She has this great old house with deep brick fireplaces and wide-planked wooden floors. She travels, and fills her home with beautiful, special things. She gardens. She loves cooking, and cares deeply about fresh, real food. She has big glass jars of flour and sugar on her kitchen counter where she rolls out buttery scones and homemade pie crust. She belongs to a memoir writing club.

She is living my Act IV.

I’m still not exactly sure which act I’m in at the moment (the latter part of Act II, maybe?) but one day I will outgrow it, of that I am certain. One day I will grow tired of city life, of crowded subway cars and overpriced cereal boxes, and I will want to chuck it all and head out to the country. It doesn’t actually have to be the country either, just some place with slower speeds, cleaner air and better customer service.  I used to picture my Act IV as a summer camp owner, but in recent years “Bed and Breakfast owner” sounds much more appealing because, as my grandpa says, kids can really “clutter up a place”. Clearly, I’m not rushing to get to my Act IV- I still have a few other things to tackle first. All I’m saying is I can see retirement in the horizon, and I think I’m going to be really good at it.

After we said our goodbyes to Marian and Jasmine, it was time to drive to our friends’ Tara and Evan’s house in another part of Connecticut, closer to the city. They were hosting a “porch party” to celebrate the completion of the new front addition to their house. Their home is already very beautiful and surrounded on all sides by lush trees and piles of soft grass. Their new porch is long and deep, wide enough to fit a big wooden table and all of our friends’ running children. When I walked up to their house, I was immediately reminded of the wide wooden porch that stretched across the main buildings at my childhood summer camp, where I’d sit on a rickety bench with a cabinmate, swinging our legs back and forth, trying to catch the ice cream before it melted into sticky rivers between our fingers.

I don’t know how to explain what I felt at that moment. It wasn’t envy; I’m happy for my friends, and I have no qualms about inviting myself over to sit in front of their house and lick ice cream off my hand. I guess what I felt was…confused. Conflicted. Reflective. Vinny and I have been spending all this time researching very specific types of housing in the New York area, but are we making the right choices? Are we looking in the right direction? Is spending all this money on a house in the city the way to go? Are our priorities all screwed up? Am I closer to Act IV than I’ve realized?

The next morning I woke up in a FOUL mood. I’m not a particularly moody person, so when a nasty one comes on it is swift, merciless, and I’m embarrassed to say–very, very unattractive. This one was accompanied by sniveling and pouting and not-hormonally-induced crying. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off; I felt cranky and unhappy to be back in my small Astoria apartment. I had tasted a different life– a life where you shoo chickens instead of people off your back steps, where people are rarely in a rush, where the color green is not the exception but the rule– and I was having trouble finding the advantage of my living situation over that one. It felt like my apartment’s walls were closing in on me, making it difficult to breathe.

“What are we doooooooiiiiiiiiiing?” I cried to Vin. Poor guy had just woken up, and the first thing he had to listen to on his day off was my moaning. “This place is crazy. It’s crazy!”"There’s no physical beauuuuuutttttyyyyyyyyy here. It’s ridiculous to pay so much to get so little!” Sometimes New York City is the asshole. Sometimes I am.

To his credit, Vin navigates these moments like a pro. He is calm and patient with me. He’s a great listener. He lets me vent without letting me get myself too worked up. He’d make an amazing therapist actually.

After a good cry, I suggested we go for a walk down the street. It was Memorial Day, and there was a street fair right on our block. I needed New York to dazzle me that day, and I didn’t feel like going far to get it.

New York City’s summer street fairs are the same every time, and they pop up almost every weekend in different neighborhoods. It’s always the same vendors selling bizarre, random junk like $5 handbags, makeup samples, cheap bras and magnets. The humid air makes your shirt stick to your back, and is laden with the smell of sausage and peppers, fried zeppolis, and various meats-on-a-stick. There are bouncy houses and rides for the kids, boardwalk games, and live demonstrations from the Sham-Wow guy. I never buy or eat anything (unless Dough donuts show up–then I can’t resist), but I always walk through when I see a fair. The street fairs are synonymous with summer in New York City, and I’ve been here long enough to feel nostalgic about them.

By the time we reached the end of the street, I felt better. I needed a reminder of why this place is special and interesting, and why Act IV is still a few scenes away. I looked back down the street and smiled at the kids swinging hula hips around their waists, at the plumes of smoke from the barbecue pits, and the beautiful diversity of the people in my neighborhood. Then I looked down, and realized my fly had been open the entire walk. It was a sign from the universe, telling me to lighten up.

 ***

Last week I was chatting with a gentleman who told me how much he looks forward to seeing the pots of tulips on Park Avenue every spring. He goes for morning walks with a pair of scissors so he can bring them home and admire their beauty.

I thought that was a pretty crummy thing to do. Nothing beautiful or special is without sacrifice, and if you want flowers in your home, you should turn over your cash and buy them or turn over the soil and plant them, not steal them from a community flowerpot. And if you’re not able to bring them home, all you have to do is lace up your shoes and go visit them more often.

The natural beauty is there. You just have to walk a little further to see it.

 

 

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On Being an Introvert

 

I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs tests at least 10 times over the past 10 years, always thinking I can somehow outsmart the test and end up with a different result. Nope. Every time, same one.

INFJ. Introversion. Intuition. Feeling. Judging. Apparently it’s the most rare of all personality types, with only 1% of the population testing this particular combination. It’s the one area in my life where I actually feel exotic.

The first times I took the test, I was sure I must have done something wrong. The introverted part of the equation really threw me off because I always considered myself a pretty outgoing person. I was confused. But I can be so chatty! I love throwing parties! I’m not meek or shy! But the more I really learned about what it means to be an introvert, the more I understood that the test was bang on.

Introversion is not about being shy, and extraversion is not about being gregarious. It’s about energy, and where you draw it from. Extroverts gain the most energy from being with others; introverts from within. If you haven’t read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I definitely recommend it, especially if you other introverted types want to feel very understood.

The following is a passage from the book, but if someone ever asked me for a soundbite on how to best describe myself, this would basically be it:

Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

This is me to the letter. In addition, there are other qualities inhabited by INFJs that really describe me as well– perfectionism, overly sensitive to criticism, prone to burnout. I also carry a lot of guilt with me for not keeping up with old friends as well as I should. Talking on the phone has never been one of my favored activities.

When I was a kid, I attended a lot of slumber parties. I would have a great time at them, doing the typical girl things–braiding hair, making Rice Krispies treats, prank-calling boys–but there would always come a point in the evening when I would retreat in a corner and start reading magazines (as an adult, it’s cookbooks:). In college, I loved hanging out with my roommates and going to parties but I also spent a whole lot of time driving through town alone to clear my thoughts. Sometimes I would park my car and sit on the side of a hill for hours to write or think. Being alone wasn’t something that bothered me or made me feel lonely; it was something that nourished and refreshed me, as long as it was in the right doses.

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(Vin caught me taking a break from the party at a friend’s cabin)

My social engine is in very good working condition, but it peters out after four to six hours of activity. I’m not someone who needs or wants constant social plans. I’ve never partied till I dropped. I party till about 11 or 12 (max), so I can make sure and get enough rest so I can wake up early and have my precious alone time. I realize this makes me sound about as fun as a night of staying in and doing taxes. And yes–for the curious– the idea of having someone around ALL THE TIME (ahem, like a baby) is very frightening for someone who cherishes solitary time the way that I do.

I’ve learned to accept that I may never be considered the life of the party, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like going to them!  In fact, Friday night I was so desperate to be sociable that I practically begged my coworker and her boyfriend to go out with me after work.  We had drinks and dinner and dessert and talked to junkies in Tomkins Square Park. I got the social interaction that I craved and then I was ready to go home and hang out with myself. At 8:45.

Like many introverts, I spend a lot of time in my own head and tend to consider my thoughts one of my better companions. It is no coincidence that my personality type and a lifelong love for writing go hand in hand. My career choice as a therapist makes a whole lot of sense in that context too.  One-on-one interactions tend to be my favorite, and if a group is any larger than six, my voice may be the one you hear the least often. I’m not always a quiet or reserved person, but I sure can be. I absolutely hate to yell over other people. I hate to yell, period. If a situation requires yelling in order to be heard, I’d rather sit and listen. Or leave the room.

When I was 25, I made an attempt to teach 3rd grade in the South Bronx. It was a very unfortunate circumstance that the particular school where I taught was incredibly poorly run, with very little support from the administration, veteran teachers, and parents. A disproportionate amount of the students had significant behavioral issues, and I spent more time each day breaking up fights than I did teaching anything. After so many times sending kids to his office, the principal finally suggested I begin shutting my door and yelling at the students to improve classroom management.

You can imagine how well that went.

I couldn’t sleep. I barely ate. I cried every Sunday night. I dropped 15 pounds in less than three months. I was miserable, a nervous wreck. I was working against my natural disposition, my temperament, and my core self. I quit the day before Thanksgiving break. (that’s where the N for Intuition part comes in–when you know something is off, you just know). Still, that job taught me a lot. Working with large groups and being the focus of attention in a room? No thanks. Not for me. Pulling someone aside and talking to them one on one? Much better. My failure as a teacher was my inspiration to become a therapist, and even though there are stressful days in my current occupation, there has never been a day– not one– that stressed me out like teaching did. Play to your strengths! (PS: There might not be another group of people in the world I respect more than teachers.)

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(See? Introverts can have fun too! Here I am…puttin’ my back into it.)

Anyway, enough talking about myself.

I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.

 

Have you taken the Myers-Briggs Test? Are you an introvert or an extrovert, or a little bit of both? I’m very curious…please share!

 

 

 

 

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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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