Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

People I really like

 

I like all kinds of people, really, but some — like cream– simply rise to the top. These are the types of people I like the very most.

 

People who understand and apply the phrase “to make a long story short”.

People who don’t have a hard time saying, “You know what? You’re right.” or “I see your point.”

People who enjoy eating and talking about carbs. And coffee. And tacos! Food in general really.

People who ask questions.

People who play fair and share their toys.

People who use the phrase “Pimpin’ ain’t easy” indiscriminately, for example: “I need to head across town to get some corncobs for dinner. Hey, pimpin’ ain’t easy.”

People who use their whole face and a good portion of their body to tell a story.

People whose natural instinct is to treat others with kindness and respect.

People with a signature style, like only and always wearing Hawaiian shirts or the color blue.

People who are quick to give up their seat on the train for the elderly, disabled or pregnant.

People who laugh and smile and don’t take themselves too seriously.

People who aren’t afraid to make mistakes, and acknowledge when they’re wrong.

Anyone over 80.

Anyone under 5.

People who don’t give a fuuuuuuuuuuck.

People who call me miss instead of ma’am. I like them extra when they call me “young lady”.

People who already own or are in the market for a scotty-dog sweater.

People who listen before speaking. People who think before reacting. People who don’t interrupt.

People with unique hobbies like carving soap or collecting old milk bottles (train surfers need not apply).

People with accents indicative of their native region. Any kind will do, but I’ll always prefer British, Australian, Venezuelan, Bronx-born Puerto Rican and East or South African. I have a client from Somalia and every time she speaks it’s like listening to a book on tape I never want to end.

People who put antlers on the roof of their car at Christmastime.

 

 

 

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You are Welcome Here.

There’s a street in Astoria, Queens called Steinway. It’s lined with ethnic restaurants and pizza shops and strange housewares stores that still sell things like window valances and ivory tablecloths that look like gigantic doilies. There’s a Brazilian clothing shop where the mannequins have triple-D breasts, a lingerie store with some very provocative window displays and a bubble-tea parlour named, of all things, Mr. Drink. The travel agencies specialize in one country only– Croatia, Greece, Mexico– and double as translation services. There are boring franchises like Sleepy’s Mattresses and Duane Reade and KFC too, but for the most part, Steinway is for doing business with a local who is more than likely from another country. The whole place looks a bit like Sesame Street, which–perhaps not ironically–is filmed in a studio just around the corner.

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On the far end is a section known as Little Egypt. It’s about a ten-minute walk from my house, but it feels like stepping into another world. There are tiny groceries selling things like sumac, z’aatar and Sebah Baharat (ie: 7 Spices), enormous bottles of tahini and bags and bags of dried nuts, grains and lentils. On the sidewalks, fresh packages of pita breads are stacked on plastic crates like pancakes, while perched in the windowsills, jeweled hookah pipes catch the light like stained glass.

The large Arab population that lives and works around this street dresses in a variety of ways, some in American jeans and t-shirts, but many in modest and traditional clothing; men in long white kaftans and kufis, women in dark abayas, with either a burqa or hijab covering their heads.  This section of town is often referred to as “Hookah row”, as it’s lined with at least a dozen parlours, three of which are co-owned by the Egyptian family renting our upstairs apartment.

Vinny lived on Steinway Street when we first starting dating. He and two friends shared a grungy three-bedroom with wall-to-wall maroon carpeting and a bathroom ceiling so destroyed by moisture bits of it would fall on you while showering. I didn’t really love sleeping in his warm, windowless bedroom but I always looked forward to the next afternoon, when we’d head downstairs to the Lebanese deli on the ground floor. The man behind the counter was always so friendly, and he sold the most incredible hummus in the whole wide world.

A few weekends ago, I was taking a Sunday stroll around the neighborhood. The weather was brisk but sunny, the kind of day that makes it easy to feel really, really alert. I was walking more for leisure than exercise, so I kept peeking around at everything. The big church by my house had just let out its Spanish service (it conducts them in English and Italian too) and throngs of parishioners flocked toward two ladies selling homemade churros and hot chocolate from a giant orange thermos. Further up, a crowd of hungry 20-somethings stood in line for brunch at Queens Comfort, which specializes in things like Breakfast Lasagna Benedict and Oreo Brioche French Toast. And just a minute later, there I was on Steinway, surrounded by Egyptian coffee shops and hookah bars with plush red curtains and a store called Islam Fashion, Inc.

I peeked into the window of a small grocer who sold beautiful things like Moroccan tea glasses and tajines in addition to a huge assortment of imported Middle-Eastern foods. I was just about to continue walking when the store owner popped outside and greeted me on the street. “Hello there,” he said. “Why don’t you come inside? You don’t have to buy anything, I just want you to know you are welcome in my store.”

I walked in and poked around the narrow aisles, smelling bags of cinnamon and turmeric and reminding myself to come back later when I needed to buy a gift. The man approached me again, and handed me the largest date I’d ever seen in my life.

“Try this,” he said. He watched me as I chewed it, genuinely hopeful that I enjoyed eating it as much as he enjoyed giving it to me.

“It’s delicious,” I said. “Thank you so much. I’ll definitely be back.”

I left his store feeling like I lived in the greatest neighborhood in the entire world, but also found myself thinking a lot about what he said to me, “Come inside– you are welcome here”, and wishing we lived in a world where a line like that wasn’t so fraught with complication.

 

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It Ain’t Easy

 

I was at the hair salon Friday night, my neck cramped over the back of a sink while my stylist Suzie talked to her next customer.

“Hey Maggie! Good to see you! Everything is fine?”

“No,” said Maggie flatly.

“Oh, Jesus,” said Suzie. “Well, I don’t want to hear about it.”

It was kind of brilliant, really, not just in terms of quotable dialogue, but because I had never heard a more honest exchange between two people before, at least two people who weren’t related to one another. Maggie wasn’t up for pretending that everything was peachy, and Suzie– by Friday night– was exhausted. She’d been on her feet all week and didn’t have the energy to hear about another customer’s problems. That, or she has a slight impairment in communication skills (which, by the way, is totally plausible as she’d just squealed “Yummy in my tummy!!!” while scrubbing shampoo into my roots. Seriously, she’s pretty weird).

Anyway, back to the point: Every day, in some way, I am reminded that we all have problems, just different ones. At work, for example, I am presented with a new problem approximately every 45 minutes. Work problems. Lack-of-work problems. Crushing grief. Crippling debt. Painful memories. Paralyzing fears. Legal issues, immigration issues, health issues, marriage issues, parenting stress, homelessness, loneliness. We had friends over Saturday night and learned that one of our guests works for a program that helps free women from sex trafficking, which happens right here, all the time, in massage parlors up and down an average street.

“How does this even exist?,” we both kept saying, painfully incredulous but acutely aware that life, as lovely as it can often be, can also be terribly cruel and just really fucking sad. I also can’t help but notice that the people who deserve bad luck the least seem to be dealt one shit sandwich after another, leading me to believe that not only is life really hard, it’s also completely unfair. If this thought has never occurred to you, perhaps you’re not paying close enough attention.

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Want to know the real reason I barely blogged in 2016? I’ll tell you why. Because I had a banner f-ing year, that’s why. A lot of people talked about 2016 being a constant struggle, but I had one of my best years to date. There’s no winning in comedy; when things go that well there’s actually very little for me to write about. But more than that, I didn’t want to appear tone-deaf. I could wax on and on about my current happiness, but eventually I’d want to join the line and punch myself in the face. Things are calm on the home front for me; I have exactly what I need and more than I could want. But I can’t help but be reminded of something my dear old dad–the poet laureate of Kemah, Texas– said to me about a year ago. “I’ve got the world on a string… hope it don’t all turn to shit one day.”

It’s been about 20 years since I’ve had a major wallop that really shook me, and sometimes I wonder if the universe is keeping tabs and knows I’m overdue. I’m pushing 40 and still haven’t experienced a major loss, which means unfortunately, inevitably, I still have much to eventually lose. I shove away these thoughts because they do nothing but waste energy, but they’re there. The world can change on a dime; what I have going for me today can look completely different tomorrow. I try not to dwell in the worry of what I could lose but practice gratitude for what I currently have. I enter my office every day, appreciative for the work. I hug my husband when he walks through the door each night, grateful for his safety. We moved into a home with big windows seven months ago. Every morning since, I have opened my blinds in the morning and said thank you to the sun.

 

On Monday morning I opened up Facebook and read a status that punched me right in the gut. It was terrible news and it made me truly, deeply sad. I welled up while riding the subway and had to take a few laps around my work neighborhood to clear my head before going inside my office. The week was off to a pretty glum start, and I began searching for something, anything to help me see the flip side of the coin, a reminder that life may be tough, but so are we. And then–out of nowhere–there he was, passing me on the left. A well-dressed man in a nice wool coat, beautifully-shined shoes and a full set of kitten-whiskers tattooed across his face. I wanted to kiss him on his black-inked nose, and thank him for reminding me that even though life can be hard and sad and unfair, it can also be so much fun.

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Caution: Objects may be closer than they appear. (Especially if you have big ol’ hips.)

We finally said goodbye to our Christmas tree yesterday, and thank God for that. Vin teared up a little, but I was ready to see it go. The month of December was like one one big reminder that I have child-bearing hips and no spatial awareness. Putting a six-foot tree in our small living room was like trying to park an RV in a two-car garage. It changed the dimensions of our living and walking space in a dramatic way, one that I never quite adjusted to. Every time I tried to make it to the couch I’d brush against the pine and stiff needles scattered like confetti. The ornaments hung on for dear life, waiting for me barrel through the room and hip-check them to the ground. The puffy cotton ones merely braced themselves for impact, like tiny colorful airbags, but the vintage glass balls actually held their breath and quivered. They knew their days were numbered sharing space with me.

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This is a common problem in New York because every place (with the exception of the parks and the libraries) is about four times smaller than it would be in any other city. Restaurants are so tight you could easily go family style with the next table. Coffee shop seating is so limited you usually can’t get a seat until you’re already on your second cup. There’s a famous bakery called Levain that makes the best $4 chocolate chip and walnut cookie on the planet, but to get one you must endure a 15-minute wait on the sidewalk before going down three cramped concrete steps into a dark basement you’ll share with two stools and 20 people. And don’t get me started on grocery stores here. Only one cart can squeeze through the aisles at any given time, and you have to abandon it altogether to acquire certain merchandise. I’ve knocked entire rows of chips off the wall at my local Trade Fair trying to let someone by.

Yesterday we ate at a restaurant so tight I had to remove my winter coat in order to get to my chair without knocking someone out. We were stuffed into a tiny corner of a busy place, and it was one of those game-time decisions when I had to decide whether it was better to give the girls at the next table a view of my butt or a view of my crotch (#team butt). Once seated, I made sure to stay put until my meal was complete and they had already taken off. I used that opportunity to move their table over before shimmying out, and I STILL managed to knock three pieces of silverware off our table. I then went to the bathroom and proceeded to turn on the hand-dryer three times just by being in the room. Still, I am used to this dance; my own bathroom is so tiny that I knock the toilet paper roll off the wall every time I bend down to grab something under the sink.

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(My bedroom in its rawest form. I’ve yet to find bedside tables to fit (currently using plant stands) and I’m terrified to hang anything on my side of the wall that involves glass. Those 2 a.m. pee runs could get dangerous)

It would be easy to blame all this on tight spaces and big hips, but I’m starting to wonder if perhaps there is another problem at play. This morning I managed to get my thumb stuck in the back of my alarm clock while turning it off. It took me about thirty seconds and some soft whimpering to get it out, but I can honestly say I haven’t felt that awake first thing in the morning in a very long time, so that was a pretty good start to the week already. But the real win was walking through the wide aisles of my tree-less living room without brushing anything to the floor.

Thank God it’s Monday.

 

 

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Back in the Saddle

 

The month of December gets mixed reviews from me. On one hand, I do enjoy the general merriment of the month– the family visits, the gradual loosening of my waistband, the nightly twinkle of a million little lights–but I find it so easy to slip out of my healthy routines and fall into benders where I start swigging coffee straight from the pot and eating raw cookie dough for breakfast. I stop using my mornings for exercise and writing and spend hours in an internet wormhole, shifting between recipes and home decorating ideas before devolving into shopping sprees and trash articles about celebrities without their makeup on. But if I’m telling the truth, these habits crept in way before the holidays. Why are bad habits so easy to pick up? And why are Butterfingers so hard to put down?

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The year 2016 was split right in half for me. The first half was about just holding on, keeping up a very strict regimen of fiduciary restraint as we closed on the house and were forced to watch–literally– every dollar we spent. The second half was about becoming comfortable with finally letting go. We’d closed on the house, we no longer had to save for our down payment, and I was ready to drop my shoulders and start the party. By party, I mean ditch all my good habits and spend most of my time shopping for furniture and housewares, occasionally taking a break to swap a recipe or tend a houseplant. We were in a new space, and with the change of scenery I basically abandoned every good routine I’d ever developed. I really slacked on the writing habit I’d developed over the years and used my computer as a shopping mall instead. I quit the gym last January to save cash and haven’t stepped in one since. I started knocking back bread and dairy and desserts like I was 15 and impervious to bloat and stomach cramps. I didn’t go to any medical check-ups last year. As far as lame habits go, mine could certainly be worse, but I’ve definitely reached a tipping point where I need to swing back around and start taking care of myself better.

Anyway, I haven’t blogged in a really long time, so this post is really just a warm-up for me to get my sea legs back. I’m not going to be getting any big laughs or gentle tears out of this post; my only expectation is to finish it. I’ve had a head cold for about two weeks now, and I’ll preemptively blame the pudding-like consistency of my writing on the fogginess it’s provided me. I’d like to say I hit 2017 running, but I’ve actually started considering next Monday the official “official” start of my new year changes. I’ve never understood how to make the holiday/new year switch so seamless when the entire month of December is about attending parties in flannel pjs while eating sticks of butter until the very last day, when we’re abruptly forced to switch from fatty eggnog to sexy champagne and elastic waistbands to snug sequins. By January 1st, the fridge is cleared of the casseroles and figgy pies and filled with plastic bins of spinach and fresh citrus for juicing. It’s all so cliched, isn’t it?

Well, I hate cliches. That’s why I’m still hanging out in my bathrobe, wiping snot from my nose. I’ve still got the Christmas tree up, and the twinkly lights on. Outside my window, I’ve watched several joggers in tight pants and new shoes smugly run by. Maybe next week, I’ll join them.

Just remember: I said maybe.

 

Anyway! Hi again! How are you? How’s your new year started? What are you aiming for or looking forward to in 2017?

 

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When You Dread the Holidays

 

It’s Thanksgiving week, and while the official kickstart of the holiday season invokes a sense of joy and excitement for many, it’s also completely normal to approach the holidays with a sense of dread. As a therapist, I observed some of these feelings kicking in a few weeks ago, just as the stores started playing Rudolph the Red nosed reindeer.

“Oh God, I hate what this time of year does to me.”

“Ugh, the holidays are coming. I wish we could just fast-forward to New Year’s.”

“I feel like hiding out in my room until it’s all over. I really hate the holidays.”

While this season is commercialized as the happiest time of the year, it can also trigger a range of emotions in people including sadness, guilt and anger, particularly if they are already coping with things like loss, family discord, marital troubles, financial problems or loneliness. If you feel sad around the holidays, please know you’re not the only one.

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If you find yourself feeling a sense of dread around the upcoming holidays, try these:

CREATE YOUR OWN TRADITIONS: I started hosting my own Friendsgiving party four years ago as a way to bring my close friends together, but also as a way to gain some control around the holidays. Our group comes together with no expectations other than to enjoy each others’ company and share some good food. No matter what happens throughout the rest of the season, I feel good knowing I had a holiday gathering with the energy, mood and ambiance I wanted it to.

 

FIND SOMETHING THAT GROUNDS YOU: Grounding is a technique that helps keep someone in the present, and can be helpful in managing overwhelming feelings or intense anxiety. Several of my clients have shared that gardening has been an effective tool for helping them stay focused on the present moment, while also teaching them patience and persistence. One of my best friends, Jen (a therapist specializing in trauma) uses baking as a grounding technique. I use cooking as my grounding strategy; something requiring slow, but constant attention– like risotto, with its constant stirring–can be very calming.

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS: If you’re not up to cooking everything from scratch, DON’T. If buying presents for 20 relatives is financially impossible or simply uncomfortable, speak up and figure out another solution. If traveling to three different houses on Thanksgiving Day sounds like a terrible way to spend your day off, try working out a different plan.

 

If your family gathering has you seriously stressed, try these: 

TRAVEL SOLO. No one likes to feel trapped. Travel in your own car so you can bounce whenever you’re ready without having to wait for someone else.

OPT OUT IF NEEDED: If you feel attending a gathering will cause you real damage, decline the invitation.

BRING A BOARD GAME:  I could suggest not talking about politics around the table, but it’s going to be tough this year. The recent election results have caused rancor throughout the nation, and will probably cause discord at your family’s table. I often suggest for clients to bring games to their family gatherings to increase the laughter, and decrease the likelihood of stepping on landmines. But if politics do come up, listen to one another.

 

If you find yourself alone at the holidays, try these:

VOLUNTEER. Doing something for someone else has a great side effect of helping you feel better yourself.

EXERCISE. Plan a long hike, go for an interesting walk or run through an area you’ve never explored before. I’m planning to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on Thanksgiving morning because it’s something I love to do, and being outside makes me feel energized, present, happy and grateful.

START A PROJECT: Engage your mind in something productive that will provide a boost of accomplishment, like finally painting your bedroom a soothing color or putting together those shelves that have been lingering in the corner for months.

 

Anyone else have any helpful tips for managing the holiday blues?

 

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Hard to Swallow

When I was about 25 or 26 I had a co-worker who was around 43 or 44. Her name was Sonya, I adored her, and thusly began calling her Mom. It wasn’t because I viewed her as matronly, it was because she was nurturing and sweet and taught me a lot about growing into my womanhood. She’s also the kind of person who listens more than she talks and has all her values and priorities firmly in check, which are qualities I admire very much. I miss having her in my work life. I don’t have a work mom anymore. My office bestie now works in New Jersey, and for a while I was enjoying rich conversations with my fancy European work uncle, but he retired last week, sold his Hamptons house and moved to the South of France, which makes him far more civilized than any biological uncle I’ve ever had.

Anyway, some conversations with coworkers are more memorable than others, and there’s one talk Sonya and I had that I’ve never forgotten, even these many years later. As someone who likes to be prepared for all situations, I always paid close attention when Sonya spoke of recent shifts in her body, her relationships and her life. She’d describe some of the changes she’d experienced in her 30s and early 40s, and I’d listen with rapt attention, often taking mental notes. One day, over lunch, she said something that really rattled me.

“No cheese on the sandwich for me,” she instructed the man at the deli counter. Then she turned to me and said, “Ever since I turned 35, I haven’t been able to digest dairy.”

It was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard.

I remember thinking at the time Nuh, uh. Not me. I’m gonna be able to eat cheese forever. I’m going to be able to eat EVERYTHING foreverrrrrrrrrr.

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***

Flash-forward 13 years, and I’m crammed in the phlegm-filled lobby of an Ear-Nose-Throat doctor to check out the dry cough that’s kept me up every night for the past three weeks. A cough, I’ve learned, can indicate many different things and I was hopeful that he’d give me an anti-biotic and I’d be back to dreamland in two days.

“Well, the good news is it’s not viral,” said the doctor. Perversely, I had been hoping for something viral so I could walk out of there with an actual remedy. Every other time I’ve gone to a doctor for a cough their instruction was to basically wait it out, giving me the pep talk that “it could be weeks, could be a month.”

“Since you don’t have any other real symptoms, I think it could be acid reflux,” said the doctor. “President Obama has it; it’s very trendy.”

He handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of foods on it, including a cup of coffee, a curvy jalapeno and a big slab of steak. They all had giant black X’s marked through the center of them. It was very aggressive.

“Avoid everything on this list, and see how you feel.” The list included things I ate everyday, multiple times a day, and enjoyed more than the average person. Telling me to avoid caffeine, spicy foods and a spritz of lemon was like asking me to floss my teeth with a sailor’s knot or do a math calculation in my head. The task sounded impossible, and I was bitter that the only prescription I walked out with was “lifestyle change”.

I went home and shared the diagnosis with my husband, a former office pal who is now my head cheerleader. He understood the gravity of the situation immediately and was very supportive.

“That’s bullshit, Jenn! There’s no way that’s right. I’ve known you for 16 years; you’re the best eater I know. That doctor’s a hack. You can digest anything!”.

“I know! Thank you! I mean, what does he want me to do? Never eat a raw onion again? That’s no way to live!”

A week or two later the cough drifted away on its own, and I’ve continued to eat everything I normally do without consequence. I thought fondly of Sonya and sharp cheese and wondered if they’d ever gotten to be together again the way they were before.

***

Last year I interviewed someone to become my graduate intern. She was 26 and could digest anything.

She was a pure delight off the bat. Smart, sensitive, committed and hard-working. I welcomed her aboard on the spot; there was only one condition. She could no longer dye her hair blue.

And then I realized why I no longer have a work mom.

It’s because I am the work mom.

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Hard to Swallow

 

When I was about 25 or 26 I had a co-worker who was around 43 or 44. Her name was Sonya, I adored her, and thusly began calling her Mom. It wasn’t because I viewed her as matronly, it was because she was nurturing and sweet and taught me a lot about growing into my womanhood. She’s also the kind of person who listens more than she talks and has all her values and priorities firmly in check, which are qualities I admire very much. I miss having her in my work life. I don’t have a work mom anymore. My office bestie now works in New Jersey, and for a while I was enjoying rich conversations with my fancy European work uncle, but he retired last week, sold his Hamptons house and moved to the South of France, which makes him far more civilized than any biological uncle I’ve ever had.

Anyway, some conversations with coworkers are more memorable than others, and there’s one talk Sonya and I had that I’ve never forgotten, even these many years later. As someone who likes to be prepared for all situations, I always paid close attention when Sonya spoke of recent shifts in her body, her relationships and her life. She’d describe some of the changes she’d experienced in her 30s and early 40s, and I’d listen with rapt attention, often taking mental notes. One day, over lunch, she said something that really rattled me.

“No cheese on the sandwich for me,” she instructed the man at the deli counter. Then she turned to me and said, “Ever since I turned 35, I haven’t been able to digest dairy.”

It was one of the saddest things I’d ever heard.

I remember thinking at the time Nuh, uh. Not me. I’m gonna be able to eat cheese forever. I’m going to be able to eat EVERYTHING foreverrrrrrrrrr.

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***

Flash-forward 13 years, and I’m crammed in the phlegm-filled lobby of an Ear-Nose-Throat doctor to check out the dry cough that’s kept me up every night for the past three weeks. A cough, I’ve learned, can indicate many different things and I was hopeful that he’d give me an anti-biotic and I’d be back to dreamland in two days.

“Well, the good news is it’s not viral,” said the doctor. Perversely, I had been hoping for something viral so I could walk out of there with an actual remedy. Every other time I’ve gone to a doctor for a cough their instruction was to basically wait it out, giving me the pep talk that “it could be weeks, could be a month.”

“Since you don’t have any other real symptoms, I think it could be acid reflux,” said the doctor.  ”President Obama has it; it’s very trendy.”

He handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of foods on it, including a cup of coffee, a curvy jalapeno and a big slab of steak. They all had giant black X’s marked through the center of them. It was very aggressive.

“Avoid everything on this list, and see how you feel.” The list included things I ate everyday, multiple times a day, and enjoyed more than the average person. Telling me to avoid caffeine, spicy foods and a spritz of lemon was like asking me to floss my teeth with a sailor’s knot or do a math calculation in my head. The task sounded impossible, and I was bitter that the only prescription I walked out with was “lifestyle change”.

I went home and shared the diagnosis with my husband, a former office pal who is now my head cheerleader. He understood the gravity of the situation immediately and was very supportive.

“That’s bullshit, Jenn! There’s no way that’s right. I’ve known you for 16 years; you’re the best eater I know. That doctor’s a hack. You can digest anything!”.

“I know! Thank you! I mean, what does he want me to do? Never eat a raw onion again? That’s no way to live!”

A week or two later the cough drifted away on its own, and I’ve continued to eat everything I normally do without consequence. I thought fondly of Sonya and sharp cheese and wondered if they’d ever gotten to be together again the way they were before.

***

Last year I interviewed someone to become my graduate intern. She was 26 and could digest anything.

She was a pure delight off the bat. Smart, sensitive, committed and hard-working. I welcomed her aboard on the spot; there was only one condition. She could no longer dye her hair blue.

And then I realized why I no longer have a work mom.

It’s because I am the work mom.

 

 

 

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The Day I Got Old-Schooled

 

My throat was scratchy so I ordered peppermint tea with honey and a croissant. Traditional Italian bakeries in Queens are great for hard, dry biscotti or crisp cannoli shells piped with sweetened ricotta or bright rainbow cookies layered with thick chocolate ganache and gooey apricot jam. They’re where you go for a tiny shot of espresso or an enormous loaf of round bread that’s crusty on the outside but kind of stretchy in the center. They’re not typically known for perfectly buttery, flaky croissants or tarty stuff like matcha tea lattes and designer donuts. But it was still morning and I needed something more bread than cake. I couldn’t handle a brittle napoleon; wasn’t ready for a butter cookie with a puddle of raspberry jelly in the center.

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(photo by goosiegirlboutique.com)

I sat outside on a plastic chair, under a long green awning that ran along the sidewalk. I’d passed this place every day for months, always charmed by the people relaxing with coffee at the tables or the many benches on the opposite side of the street, mostly older Italian, Greek and eastern European men congregating with a deck of cards or silently reading the newspaper. It was clearly an established neighborhood joint with a loyal crowd, the kind of place people had built into their daily routines over the years.

I sat, and said hello to the man at the adjoining table. This was the kind of place where you said good morning to the other patrons, not just because we were basically sitting on top of one another, but because that’s just how it was done here. I’d brought my computer–I tend to equate coffee shops with writing time– and plopped it on the table in front of me, but didn’t end up using it until 30 minutes later. Instead I began chatting with my fellow Astorian.

He was retired, and had worked as a flight attendant out of La Guardia for 30 years. Like many people in Astoria, he’d lived in the neighborhood since birth. He liked some of the changes, he said, but most of them he could do without.

Then he started asking me questions. How long had I been in the neighborhood? Did I grow up in Queens? Did I rent or own? What did I do for a living? Do I work in the city? Was my home one or two-family? What are houses going for these days? Who did we rent our upstairs apartment to? Did they work in Manhattan too?

It was an interesting battery of questions, one that made me shift slightly in my chair. As personal as his questions were, there was something very impersonal about the way he fired them at me, like he was a census worker collecting demographics. I felt like he wasn’t really interested in getting to know me as a fellow member of his community; he was mostly interested in taking the temperature of his lifelong neighborhood. I’d lived in Astoria ten years already, but I sensed he viewed me as an interloper of sorts, someone too young to remember the good old days before 30th was lined with frozen yogurt shops and Greek frappes were replaced by almond milk lattes.  I wasn’t his new neighbor; I was another gentrifier mucking around with the look of the place.

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Eventually a few of his friends joined him at his table– a group of presumably retired Italian men– and we stopped chatting. I started tapping on my computer. He finished up his coffee, and walked to throw it away in a garbage can across the street. Before leaving, he stopped back at my table to give me a tip.

“You know, this isn’t a computer place; it’s a social place. You wanna use your computer go to 60 Beans…or Brooklyn.”

“Yeah, she’s kind of weird though,” said one of his friends. “Most of the young ones these days are on the phones, she’s on a computa.”

“Got it,” I said. I felt a little shamed in that moment, like he’d reached out to shake my hand then slapped it with a ruler. But a bigger part of me actually appreciated the heads-up. Like any other place that I visit, I always try to respect the local custom, even if that place is on my street. Actually, especially if that place is on my street.

His friend then started talking to me about computers. “Once you go Mac, you never go back. Am I right, or am I right?” He was smoking a cigarette while balancing on a segway. He’d bought it two weeks earlier for $2,500. Everyone at the cafe was talking to him about it.

“Whatdya think? You want to ride it? If you were ugly, I’d probably charge you for it, but since you’re pretty, I’ll let you go for free.”

I thought for a second, then abandoned my laptop and took him up on his sexist offer. After all, this wasn’t a computer place, it was a social place and what was more social than trusting a stranger to ride your overpriced toy? He ran alongside me as I cruised down my little street, a place I’m still trying to get to know. I rode past Croatian men smoking outside their private club on the sidewalk, past the tiny wine store setting up for a tasting, past a seamstress fixing hems in front of an old foggy window. I rode past modest brick houses attached to one another on both sides with rose bushes and statues of the Virgin Mary in their tiny front yards. I rode by plenty of people– young and old– looking down at their hands, tapping on cell phones.

The irony of what I was writing on my computer that day wasn’t lost on me. It was an essay about my early years in Astoria, how I loved the old-school businesses and residents, that I loved hearing every type of language on each corner, loved the old barber shops and shoe cobblers and European cafes that don’t give a crumb about passing trends. I was writing about how I worried it would all go away, and all we’d be left with is another generic neighborhood without a real sense of community or flavor.

I guess I don’t need to worry about that so much. We’ve got some guys on the block making sure the change isn’t so swift.

 

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God Knew We Liked The Sun

 

Ask anyone what they remember about that day, and nine times out of ten they’ll mention the weather. It was the most glorious September day in New York, sunny and bright tempered by the kind of breeze that lifts the edges of skirts and makes the trees dance.  If it had rained, or been oppressively humid or boomed with thunder, our collective memories would be vastly, metaphorically different. The gorgeous weather on September 11, 2001 was a tiny shot in the arm to help us through the day. God knew we liked the sun.

I’d been living in the New York City area for only two years at the time, and had just turned 24. I lived across the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ with roommates in a 5th floor walk-up where the fire escape attached to my itsy-bitsy bedroom. My room was smaller than both my roommates’ due to budget constraints, but I felt like I’d won the best space because technically mine had a balcony. People in their early 20s are romantically hopeful that way; they can gaze out a window and see a universe of shooting stars and possibilities, fan pillows across a fire escape and dream it’s a private balcony.

At 24, I was almost recklessly optimistic. I’d lived a safe, sheltered, lucky life and I didn’t look at anything or anyone and assume or expect the worst.

In the mornings, I took the long route to the train station, walking along the fringe of Hoboken so I could look across the river at downtown Manhattan. I always felt sort of bowled over in those 20 minutes; my brain was still adjusting to the fact that I lived and worked here, that my commute included a skyline view on one street and an Italian ice if I took another. People always complain about commuting into the city, but it was usually the highlight of my day. I was grateful for it.

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On that particular day, I gave myself plenty of extra time for my morning walk so I could make a lap around Sinatra Park, which juts out right over the Hudson River. As I made my way closer to the park, I saw a small puff of smoke coming from one of the trade towers. A cabbie was parked nearby and staring at it.

“What’s going on? Is the tower on fire?” I asked.

“I was sitting right here and just watched a plane nosedive into the World Trade Center. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

There was no part of me that thought it was intentional. At 24, my thoughts didn’t work that way. So I made my way down to the PATH train and traveled into Manhattan for work, expecting the freak plane accident to be the water cooler talk of the day.

By the time my train arrived at 23rd Street and I emerged from underground, the second tower had already been hit. People were alternatively standing in the middle of the street, staring downtown, or panicked and running as far away from the Flatiron Building as they could. This was before camera phones, before peoples’ first reaction to every event–good or bad– was to stand there and film it.

In the office, we huddled around an old TV in the mailroom, getting a better understanding of what was happening in our skies, at the Pentagon, in our country, 20 blocks away. We paired up and began our journeys back home; all buses and subways in and out of Manhattan had been shut down, so people in Brooklyn and Queens went by foot, while those of us from Jersey would need to cross the water.

It was the first and only time I ever took the ferry. The line coiled for hours until we were finally able to board, hundreds of hot, weary bodies crammed side-by-side on the boat as we drifted past the smoldering site. The ferry dropped me off in Weehawken, the next town over, so we continued to silently walk one by one down the road. My roommate Ashley and I fretted for hours about our other roommate John who worked in Building 7; he was unreachable by phone and hadn’t come home yet. We knew he was okay when we turned on the news and saw him on TV, covered in ash. My mother–who was on vacation abroad at the time–worried that I might be dead, not because I was in New York City, but because I had been set to board a plane from Newark to San Francisco the next morning and she’d gotten the dates messed up, and thought I was on Flight 93.

A friend and I returned to the park that evening with a crowd of dozens, standing across the river, silently watching the towers smoke and burn. We didn’t know what else to do. We didn’t go to work for the rest of the week. No one did. The smell lingered for a month. People covered their mouths with surgical masks. Union Square Park was littered with thousands of handmade signs and posters of people searching for their loved ones, burning candles, the ground pierced with American flags and strewn with yellow flowers. People offered hugs and prayers. The We Heart NYC posters took on new significance, many graffitied with addendums like “More than ever” or a tiny arrow drawn into the center of the heart, “you are here” scribbled in felt pen just above it.

***

My first counseling job in 2008 was on John Street in downtown Manhattan, blocks away from the World Trade Center. Seven years later, we still got referrals from people who lost loved ones in the attacks, downtown business owners who’d gone completely broke after having to close their shops or restaurants, people who lost their apartments, people with unexplainable respiratory illnesses, people having panic attacks, Muslim women who stopped wearing scarves and feared for their safety after having beer bottles thrown at their heads.

Even today, I’ll occasionally do an intake where the person says they’ve “just never been the same” since that day.

 

***

There was a fine dining restaurant called Windows On the World in the north tower. It was all the way up on the 107th floor, and on a clear night you could see all of the bridges to Queens and Brooklyn from there, every light in the Manhattan skyline, every drop of water in the surrounding rivers, but none of the garbage on the sidewalks, none of the dried-out old gum glued to the pavement. It was the glittering view we all know from the movies. The view that makes people travel here from all over the world, hoping to absorb a bit of magic. The dazzling city of dreams you constructed in your head the first time you read The Great Gatsby.

One of my favorite early New York City memories was drinking and dancing one night at the restaurant’s bar, named–  not-so-humbly– The Greatest Bar on Earth. There was a live band playing swing music that night, and a group of dancers turned up wearing A-line skirts and pin-curls, bright red suspenders and glistening saddle shoes. The men tossed the women across the room like ragdolls, and they all looked so happy and free it was impossible to watch them and feel anything but joy.

I refused to get on the dance floor, not from embarrassment but because — like always in New York City–space was finite, and I felt like they deserved the room more than I did. I sat in the corner sipping my $16 cocktail, my heart exploding with gratitude to witness their jubilant innocence and uninhibited glee. I looked out the window and saw a postcard below me. I felt like I was in a movie, or a really vivid dream. Fifteen years later I feel so thankful for this memory because it tempers, just a little bit, some of my other ones.

But still, at the end of the day and like everyone else, I’ll never forget.

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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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