Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

Thoughts about Mental Health and a call for community

 

So…how are you? You doing ok? Hanging in there?

Things are tough right now, aren’t they? Tense. Tiring. Overwhelming. Scary.

The American political climate is beyond divisive at this point; it’s hostile and turbulent. Even the 4th of July felt a little different this year, didn’t it? I look around and it feels like people are having a harder time than usual. I know it to be true because of my job.

Anyway, if you’re reading this– I hope you are doing okay and taking care of yourself.

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I’m late to discuss it, but I’m still feeling sad about Anthony Bourdain’s death. He was more than a chef, a traveler, a reporter, a TV personality, an author– he was a cultural anthropologist–opening windows to worlds most of us will never see. He introduced us not to the fanciest places around the globe, but the authentic spots run by real working people, and he was always a joy and a wonder to watch. He seemed like the kind of person who didn’t waste a second of life, even in the midst of what we can only assume was immeasurable pain.

It’s been interesting how his and Kate Spade’s deaths by suicide have opened up a much-needed conversation about mental health. Anthony Bourdain certainly inspired me to be a bolder traveler, eater and cook, but it’s in my professional work where I’ve felt his greatest impact.

Anthony Bourdain demonstrated a lot of the qualities found in a really good therapist; he was extraordinarily open-minded, completely nonjudgmental, empathic, down-to-earth, respectful of cultural norms and practices, naturally curious and one hell of a good listener. He never pulled away from people who were different than him; he moved toward them, pulled up a stool at the table and said, “Teach me”.

Sharing a meal with someone is an intimate act; it’s a way we connect, bond and share with others. Food, to me, has always felt like a universal love language. No matter where we are or where we grew up, we all have memories associated with food and how it connects to our families, our cultures and ourselves.  And that was always the take-away message I got from Bourdain’s programs. Watching him try exotic international cuisine was intriguing and seductive, but it always seemed like a metaphor for the real point he was trying to make.

We’re all connected.

Sorry if that’s a little woo-woo for ya, but after ten years of community-based social work, I know it in my bones to be true. Over the years I’ve had conversations with hundreds of people who are by nearly every measure different than myself, and the experience has changed my life. There have been people who walked in my office you’d think I’d have nothing in common with– people with cultural or educational or financial backgrounds that are completely opposite of mine, people with histories dealing drugs, or working in sex industries, or gang involvement– and yet–we always ALWAYS find similarities in the ways that we think or feel.

It’s not because I’m some enlightened, revolutionary person who can talk to anyone or just naturally get along with everyone. I’m not and I don’t. It’s because all people fundamentally want the same things out of life– something to do, someone to love, a sense of purpose, a feeling of safety. We’re all so much more similar than we are different. It’s been proven to me literally hundreds and hundreds of times.

In therapy, the connection doesn’t always happen right away. Some people are harder to engage in treatment than others, and like Bourdain, many times my way in has been with food. My friends and family all know I’m obsessed with food, and so do the majority of my clients at this point. If someone is having a particularly difficult time getting started in therapy, I’ll often ask my favorite back-pocket question: “How would you describe dinner at your house growing up?” because it opens up an entire world to discover. Who was at the table? Who was missing? Was there a table? What did your family eat? Who passed down the recipes? What is the culture that influenced the dishes? Who made the meal? Who served it? Was there enough?

Like Bourdain said (in his Parts Unknown episode on Queens)– when someone shows you what they eat, they’re showing you who they are, where they come from, what makes them happy.

Several of my clients shared their feelings about the two suicides in their sessions. One person scheduled an emergency visit because she found them so triggering. Recent violent events and the U.S.’s divisive political climate also have people anxious, disheartened and upset (myself included). One client very articulately expressed his worries for the future– that he’s disturbed by what he described as “a shift away from the community”, that people feel more isolated and alone, and aren’t engaging with one another kindly the way they should.

Then he said something that I think all the time: “People aren’t able to see how connected they really are, so they disconnect out of fear.”

Isn’t that so true?

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I’m trying to find my voice in the bigger conversation about mental health. I’ve seen a ton of posts the last few weeks about reaching out for help, calling suicide-prevention hotlines, finding a psychiatrist or therapist, dropping the stigma and finding mental health services. This will likely not be a huge problem if you have private insurance, but if you don’t– if you have Medicaid or Medicare or will have to cover the costs on a sliding scale–pick up the phone and start dialing because let me tell you, these services are getting harder and harder for people to find, and it scares me. As a mental health professional, I don’t worry as much about stigma limiting people from finding treatment. I worry about the availability of services.

I work in a community mental health clinic and we are packed to the rafters. We have nearly 50 therapists on board, and need way more hands on deck. We do not have enough office space to accommodate our current patients; we often joke about needing to build another floor. The intake line never stops ringing. I have a roster of almost 65 people, frequently do ten sessions a day and am asked every week to squeeze in more. Plenty of clinics have closed (my previous counseling center closed down after 30 years when the building they were in went co-op). Many facilities have wait lists of two weeks, three weeks, a month. Our clinic finds space right away for everyone who calls for an appointment, but our staff is stretched tight. Most skilled therapists eventually go into private practice because you can determine your own pace and the pay is better. A month ago I stepped down from my role as a supervisor because keeping a watchful eye on my own clients while also being peripherally responsible for my seven supervisees’ massive caseloads was truly stressing me out.

We are in the midst of an enormous opioid crisis– people are literally dying trying to manage their pain–but just try to get someone into a detox. There is no “holding a bed” or “making a referral” for that process (not if they have Medicaid, anyway). You send them to the hospital at the crack of dawn because beds are first-come, first-served, and even then, there’s a good chance there isn’t one available. Try again tomorrow!

Hospitals are so full they sometimes release patients who are still manic. If clients relapse or decompensate, I say a prayer and amp up our session visits, knowing it could be months before I can effectively refer them to a higher level of treatment. Many times individuals who require intensive psychiatric care find themselves homeless or in prison. There are not enough long-term psychiatric treatment options available. The biggest psychiatric hospitals in this country are our jails.

And I’m talking about New York City. We have more mental health professionals and more resources than anyone. I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to find services in small towns. It’s not nearly enough. It’s a very, very big problem.

 

Well, super!!! Thanks Jenn, for that uplifting message! Now what are we supposed to do?

 

Here are a few things:

ADVOCATE FOR REFORM: Admittedly, in social work school I was always more interested in clinical practice than policy, but now I see just how critical it is to see things from the macro perspective, not just the micro (I sound soooo social-worky right now)

*Join Mental Health America’s Advocacy Network to receive email alerts about upcoming national campaigns to protect America’s mental health through legislative advocacy.

* Connect with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides mental health support to millions and leads important awareness campaigns like the #StigmaFree pledge and advocacy and lobbying efforts to help promote mental well-being across the nation.

 

GET INFORMED. There are so many amazing resources available on the internet providing coping tools and general information about mental illness.

*The Mighty: The Mighty is a terrific digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities. Their articles are informative and help decrease stigma around physical and mental illnesses.

*Mantherapy: Mantherapy uses a heavy dose of humor to help men learn skills for coping with trauma, depression, anxiety, anger and stress. This is a really wonderful resource.

*Jen_Wellness on Instagram: My grad school bestie has an amaaaaazing instagram account (that all my friends and family are now hooked on) where she shares insightful, helpful and beautifully written posts to help people gain important skills for grounding themselves and coping with life’s stressors. This is an account that should have a million followers.

*Resources when you can’t afford therapy

 

GET INVOLVED. Volunteer. Go to community-based events. So many people are so isolated. Volunteer at a senior center– especially one for LGBT seniors who are less likely to have children. Adopt a veteran, who might be isolated or in a hospital.

 

SEEK OUT COMMUNITY:  The highlight of my week is Wednesday from 12-1pm, when I run a support group for isolated adults. Everyone started out feeling anxious and uncomfortable talking to one another and for months it felt awkward as hell. But nearly three years in, members frequently call the group their “second family”. I try to teach them coping skills, but nowadays they’re too busy telling each other dirty jokes, planning lunch outings and howling with laughter to listen to me. Things get real and completely raw in that room, and I can’t express how powerful it is to watch them support, encourage, amuse and empower one another. People need each other. Check in with your people, meet new people, engage with people.

There’s a new yoga studio in my neighborhood that I keep meaning to check out called the Happie House, where they host free community potluck dinners every Friday night. How cool is that? Wouldn’t it be great if more businesses or even individuals pulled together events like this?

Can’t find it locally? Try checking in with The Big White Wall to connect with others virtually.

 

BE KIND TO EACH OTHER: Give others the benefit of the doubt. Reach out. Call. Hug. Shake hands. Make eye contact. When you’re checking out at the grocery store, take out your headphones and get off your phone, for fuck’s sake. Seems like no big deal, but I think maybe it is. We’re not seeing one another anymore. We’re all here together; let’s act like it.

Wave to your neighbors. Learn the name of the person who sells you your daily coffee.  Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Use your big strong heart to pour love on those around you and I’ll keep trying to do the same.

 

 

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The Problem with Bias

 

Owning a two-family home is a very strange thing. There’s part of your house you never see, that you’re not allowed to enter, like your fancy friend’s piano room where they had all the breakable stuff and white upholstery. When it’s filled with tenants (which we always want it to be!), you wonder how it’s doing. How’s it decorated? Does the radiator make too much noise? Are they happy here? Has anyone punched a hole in the wall recently?

In January, our very first tenants moved out. They were great neighbors and we were sad to see them go. They were a Muslim family who owned hookah bars on a nearby street lined with Middle Eastern businesses. When they signed the lease in 2016, we had no idea the wife was already several months pregnant. I learned that a month or two later when I saw her taking out the trash with unshaven legs and a huge belly. Let’s just be honest– Vin and I were not happy about it.

Anyone who’s ever ridden in an airplane or lived in an apartment has worried about being disrupted by a constantly crying baby. The wife was due in December, so we enjoyed our last wail-free months as though we were expecting a baby of our own. Then the baby came on Christmas Day and was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. His eyelashes curled up to his forehead and his full jet black hair laid across his tiny head like a rug. His parents carried him into the doorway of his first home– our home– and soon after, all (ok, most) of my fears about living below a baby went away. Obviously we heard him crying from time to time, but it didn’t disrupt my life and truthfully, his parents made more noise than he did. On warm evenings when I sat out front,  the older brother or father would sometimes prop the baby in my lap for a few minutes if they were coming in or out. There was something really sweet about having a family living above us. It gave our house warmth, and it made the street feel more neighborhoody. (I know that’s not a real word, but people use it all the time, so I’m taking liberties).

Sometimes I really like being wrong.

When our tenants told us they were leaving for a bigger space, my hope was that another family would occupy the space, or at the very least, another couple. Families and couples tend to plant roots longer than roommates, and we didn’t want to have to continuously look for tenants. There’s only so much touch-up painting I can do before I start to lose my spirits and good humor.

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For three weekends straight, we lined up showings with various pairings of couples, friends and siblings. We met two dancers trying to get their big break in the city and several sets of young lovebirds looking for their first shared apartment. One couple was only weeks away from their wedding; another was nervously expecting their first baby. Their families came from Spain, Serbia, Italy, India, Puerto Rico. One woman was even from Texas. Meeting prospective tenants was fun. It’s really nice to get to know people in your neighborhood without having to leave the house.

My top draft choice was a couple (he Muslim, she Mexican) with a little baby girl named Valentina. They were sweet, kind of quiet, and if I’m being honest, the idea of keeping our famously multicultural neighborhood diverse will always appeal to us in a major way. (*Clearly, we have no control over who actually applies to live here, and choosing or rejecting someone based on their ethnicity is total housing discrimination– just sayin’).

They kept calling us and asking questions; they wanted to know how many other people had inquired about renting the apartment, when the move-in date would be, what the school situation looked like. I was pretty sure we had found our tenants and new neighbors, and felt great relief. But then they ended up getting a place closer to the wife’s job. I was totally bummed. I’d just gotten over my fear of living below a house filled with children, and then none of them apply to live here.

Want to know who did?

THREE different sets of very young, white, male roommates.

I started picturing stacks of empty, grease-stained pizza boxes and dishes piled to the top of an overflowing sink. I thought of the marble floor in the bathroom covered in misdirected pee. I thought of noisy Friday nights with two drunk dudes stumbling up the stairwell that runs over my head. Our old neighbors grilled sheep in our driveway for Eid al Adha; I pictured the new tenants asking to borrow our folding table so they could set it up for beer pong.

I thought back to all the young white dudes I knew in my early 20s. The ones who funneled beer and belched the alphabet. The ones who asked me out and never called again. I’d had some unsavory experiences with young white guys. Never once did I consider the good experiences with young white guys (like, ummm, marrying one?). That’s how bias starts, right?

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Ultimately, we found our tenants– two 23-year-olds straight out of college, just starting their very first jobs in the big city. I was sick with the flu the day they saw the apartment, and had no idea what to expect. On move-in day, two sets of parents pulled up front and helped them move in a few humble pieces of hand-me-down furniture and cheap rugs. It was like day one at the college dorm. I kept expecting someone to drag in a lava lamp or a giant Pulp Fiction poster, but then remembered it was 2018.

After they’d settled in a bit, I went upstairs to introduce myself to our new tenants and their parents.

I saw their faces and my whole attitude switched. They looked so young, like kids. They were born the year I graduated high school. They’ve barely squeaked their way into the millennial generation. Suddenly I found my attitude toward them softening. I felt oddly protective of them, like a big sister or den mother. Once their parents drove away I found myself wanting to make sure they had sufficient blankets and nourishing snacks. As Vin and I ate dinner I wondered if I should ask them to come down and join us. They hadn’t gone out or ordered takeout, and I began to grow concerned. Why had I been so afraid of these two?

They’ve been upstairs for two months, and I have to admit– they are delightful people and fabulous tenants. They are incredibly studious and hard-working, responsible and respectful. They work out at 6am before going to the office and keep their TV at a reasonable volume. They do their partying outside the house. There is no screaming or stomping or yelling happening upstairs. They lock all the doors and separate the trash. On Sundays, they sit out front and read in the sun, just like me. They venmo the rent to us a day before it’s due. Two weeks ago they rang our doorbell and gifted us a bottle of wine to say thank you. I find myself hoping they will sign the lease for another year or two. Everyone warned us about becoming landlords, and how hard it would be to find good tenants. I was really worried that young guys would be a terrible fit, but the truth is, you never really know what people are like until you take the time to know them.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes I really like being wrong.

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In Texas, it’s like borrowing a cup of sugar.

 

Did I ever tell you the story of how my dad met his next door neighbors? It is perhaps the most Texan story of all time. It’s really funny.

My dad lives between Galveston and Houston in a small marina town called Kemah; in the 2010 census the population was 1, 773. There’s a wharf down the road where people park their boats and a line of seafood shops sell fresh flounder and enormous shrimp shaped like bananas. Dad built his house on a large plot of land on the edge of a small lake, a body of water so placid and tranquil it barely ripples, even in a hurricane. Dad’s yard is the perfect place to drink a refreshing cocktail and watch the sun set. Every time I visit I’m reminded how different our lifestyles are.

One day, Dad was doing some work in his yard when a big snake slithered along his path. Now dad has all types of undomesticated animals wander around his area and come through his yard– coyotes howl at night, geese do running leaps across the grass and dozens of turtles line the edge of the lake, their hard shells docked along the shoreline like colossal skipping stones. One time we had to have a bobcat rescued from the top branch of an oak tree. Its eyes were piercing hazel and lined by a rim of bright white fur–gorgeous but terrifying.

Dad also has many domesticated animals, as he and his wife rescue anything with four legs. Most things wouldn’t cause a stir, but snakes could cause major harm to their six dogs and two cats. According to legend (aka: my father’s retelling), he handled seeing the snake in a very brave and masculine way, then ran a few blocks to the house next door to ask for help from his new neighbors. He still hadn’t met them yet.

Dad ran up to their front door which was framed by two box ferns and adorned with a seasonal homemade wreath.

“Hey! I live next door. Do you have a gun I can borrow?” He dropped his hands on his knees as he struggled to catch his breath.

“You don’t have a gun?” the neighbor asked. He wore blue jeans and a belt buckle the size of a salad plate. They called him Longhorn Bob, because he raises longhorns. Years later, at my wedding, he did a bidding call to auction off dances with me and Vin. He also served our friends shots from his best bottle of tequila.

“I don’t have a gun. But I have a snake I need to shoot.” said Dad.

Bob closed the door a bit and whispered to his wife Cindy, a beautiful blonde who rolls 60 enchiladas on Sundays just in case people stop by. “Cindy, this guy says he lives next door and he needs to borrow a gun to shoot a snake. What should I do?”

“How do we know he’s not gonna shoot his wife?” asked Cindy. This was a fair question.

“I don’t understand,” said Bob. “Why doesn’t this guy have a gun?”

When Dad retold the story to me, I laughed at the irony of the situation. My father didn’t seem suspicious because he was holding a gun, he was suspicious for not owning one.

Isn’t that funny?

 

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Good Morning Greece!

 

This morning I woke up in a pension off the main road in Fira, on the island of Santorini in Greece. I didn’t realize I’d booked a hostel until after we’d arrived, and aside from paper-thin towels and a parade of tiny bugs that march up the shower wall, it is actually not a bad place to lay for the night. The bed is firm but forgiving, and there’s a rooftop patio with umbrellas that provide adequate shade from the blazing June sun. In the mornings, between the hours of 08:00 and 10:00, they lay out a meager breakfast spread of weak tea and strong coffee, sliced bread and a buffet of bland, disc-shaped cereals. Greeks are not very big on breakfast–they go heavy for lunch and dinner- but they try to accommodate the people from places where they are. We are from New York City, where Sundays are built around where you go for brunch, so we do that down the street, in an outdoor garden cafe surrounded by huge terracotta planters filled with mint, basil and fragrant thyme.

I’m traveling back home today after our 11-day vacation in Greece, and this was the third place we stayed in, which has made it feel like three separate vacations in one. We spent our first three and a half days in Athens, in a rented flat in the center of hectic, touristy Plaka, where we took selfies in the shadow of the Parthenon and ate baklava in the pouring rain while crouched on flat green cushions on the famous Plaka steps, where locals drink Nescafe in tall, skinny glasses and smoke cigarettes one after another. We walked around and sat for hours in tiny cafes, eating grilled meats and pita and feta until our stomachs bulged, then walked around a few hours more. A seven-hour time difference resulted in restless, fitful sleep so we watched the Before Sunrise series, part one two and three, because they’re my very favorite, but also because there’s no better time or place to watch them than when traveling through Europe with the person you love walking around with.

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Athens cafe

Up next was a quick flight to the dreamy Santorini, where’d we’d booked our first three nights in Oia with its famous blue-domed churches and labrynth of winding cave dwellings built into a steep hill, the village they smartly photograph for all their postcards. On my 40th birthday, I woke up in a cave with cool gray walls, then stepped onto our bone-white patio to face the Aegean Sea. I shared the footpath with donkeys carrying crates of onions and bright red tomatoes on their backs, and drank icy frappes (medium sweet) on balconies that peeked over the spectacular caldera. I crawled down a narrow set of stairs into a little pipsqueak of a bookstore so magical I felt like a child discovering books for the very first time. For dinner, we hiked down 300 wide stone steps to the edge of the sea, where we watched tiny fishing boats and large charters pull up front to catch the famous Oia sunset while we ate a kilo of flounder pulled straight out of the water, flecked with salt before laid to rest on an outdoor grill. As the waiter cleared our plates, a colorful burst of fireworks arm-wrestled the stars and just as a plate of freshly fried loukamades dripping with honey and cream was placed before us, a group of handsome waiters from Athens walked through the winding decks singing Happy Birthday, until they finally reached our table and magically walked right past it, gathering around the girl sitting just behind me. I turned around and wished her a happy day too.

Oia Village Santorini

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Ammoudi Bay Santorini

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And now we’re here in bustling but beautiful Fira, where there are more scooters than cars and tourists than locals. It’s so hot I ran out of clothes, so a few days ago I pretended I was a local girl and washed a few dresses and underthings in my bathroom sink with a bar of soap and hung them to dry. Yesterday we ate gyros for $2.50 and swam in our strangely-shaped pool, which was mostly occupied by 23-year-olds staying from Ohio and Canada, who sleep here in a shared dorm with rickety bunk beds, just the way I did when I first traveled to New York. They are too young to care about sun hats and I don’t even envy their undimpled thighs and unlined foreheads, because I know our food budget for this trip has been much higher than theirs, and at this point in my life, that’s what really matters.

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We went on a few really nice vacations when I was a kid– never internationally– but nice, usually skiing in Colorado or New Mexico. I remember my father made us get up super early so we could make it to the mountain at the exact time the lifts started running, and he’d make us stay all day, until they stopped. Lunch was short, and we were allowed only one quick rest for hot chocolates. As a kid, I never appreciated how hard Dad worked to make those trips happen, that the tedious grind of work makes your time off precious, so he never wanted to waste it. I sure get it now.

Traveling feels like an enormous privilege to me, and when I’m somewhere so far and so different from home, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with humility and gratitude. Whenever I travel, I think of a few 8-year-old kids I taught briefly in the South Bronx, who’d never taken the subway into Manhattan. Manhattan was so far from their reality, they actually thought it was New Jersey. The people who have served us on our trip seem far more deserving of a vacation than I do. When we stayed in Oia, a man carried our bags by throwing one over his shoulder and tucking the other under his arm, then hiked up steep narrow stairwells made of rock and stone with sweat pouring from his forehead. I’ve been in a state of constant awe on this trip, not just with the scenery, but with the people too.

I haven’t been blogging much, but this trip has been filled with delightful little stories which I’ll start sharing more of when I get home. I think I’ll also put together a little tourists’s guide, since there were things that would have been super helpful for me to know before coming that I’d never read online before.

 

Anyway… Kalimera from Greece and wish me luck in my 13-hour travels today! I have loved this trip so much, but I am also ready to be home!

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Almost, Not Quite, Just About 40

I’m going to need to update my sidebar soon. It describes me as a 30-something, and that won’t be true much longer.

The race to 40 is not a race at all, but a slow and steady march toward the other side of youth into a land of eye lift serums, fortified yogurt and yearly mammograms. I finally upgraded my skin care routine, which until recently included drugstore cleanser and a drop of coconut oil. I discovered my upper eyelids were starting to droop at the same time I realized it’s time for nose hair clippers. I walked into Kiehls’ flagship store on 2nd avenue and announced to the first guy I saw, “Help me. I’m turning 40″. His name was Bobby, and his eyes danced as he dreamed of commissions while playing dress up with my face. When the bill came I looked Bobby in the eye and said, “Listen, if in two weeks I don’t look like an eighth grader, I’m coming here and demanding my money back.” He laughed and said, “You’re not turning 40. You’re going to be young forever! You have a young spirit.”

I thought about what Bobby said, about having a young spirit and all, and I decided that he’s wrong.

I don’t have a young spirit. My spirit has no interest in staying up late and playing beer pong. My spirit craves 9pm bedtimes and takes probiotics after every meal. My spirit gets overwhelmed in crowds and shoves two fingers in her ears at rock concerts. I actually have a very old spirit with a good sense of humor and a slight curiosity about the whole thing. The whole thing being…what happens next anyway?

I have a profile on the social networking site Facebook (you too?!) and have been following along as all my friends from high school and college turn “THE BIG 4-0” this year. Some of them threw ’70s or ’80s-themed birthday parties. Two had enormous displays in their front yards, the letters 4 and 0 constructed entirely out of balloons. Most booked sitters and took nice vacations someplace tropical; Hawaii, Jamaica, Miami, Puerto Rico. That’s the route I’m going as well. The tickets are booked and I’m already stocking up on big straw hats, which I plan to wear faithfully in this next chapter of my story.

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It’s been kind of a trip watching my oldest friends hit this age, the one that used to be associated with mid-life crises and tipping  ”over the hill”. I don’t live close to these friends or see them often, so all I get are little snapshots every few months. What I see are tasteful, grown-up houses and kids dressed for the first day of kindergarten or fifth grade, and sometimes even high school. My old friends are running businesses and church fundraisers. They’re PTA moms and soccer dads. A couple have health problems, the kind you only start to develop “after a certain age”. A few are switching gears or completely starting over.

None of this matters because I see them now as I did then.  The people I grew up with will be 16 or 18 or 22 forever, at least to me. True, most of them don’t look too different physically, but more than that–and as corny as it sounds–their spirits really have remained the same.  Situations and lifestyles and faces change, but at the end of the day or the start of a decade, I’m starting to believe youthfulness has a shot at everlasting.

Eh, we’re not really turning 40. We have young spirits. We’re going to be young forever.

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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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Squad Goals

 

There’s a new catchphrase in town, and apparently it’s “squad goals”. Every time I hear it, I swear I age about ten years.

I watched some Grammy red carpet footage a few months back, and half the young correspondents looked at Taylor Swift and her brunette friend, cocked their heads to one side and said simply: “Squad goals.” I scrunched up my face and thought, since when does two people equal a squad? I’ve seen it a few other places around the internet too, mostly at the bottom of Instagram photos where it’s just plates of perfectly poached eggs and rosewater waffles with fresh mint and berries piled on a table with some sunglasses and a tube of Chanel lipstick, which implies there’s a group of cutely dressed girls hovering nearby with camera phones, which is–apparently–the hallmark of super-close girl-friendship.

Maybe I’m an under-achiever, but I have no squad goals. I also have no brunch goals, closet goals, shoe goals, handbag goals, hair goals or nail goals. I used to have ab goals, but then I turned 35 and the whole world went soft so I switched focus to my career, real estate, humanitarian and travel goals, all of which cost a lot more money than nail goals and hair goals, but whatever.

Hey– I like the concept. I get the phrase. Everyone wants solid friendships. Everyone wants to feel like they have a circle of support around them. What I’m talking about is the execution of the word, and the way it’s nearly always attached to some glossy image of a designer-brand life, complete with attractive girlfriends in beautiful clothing and rose-gold flatware at the table. The reason I object to this is because the richest, most meaningful moments ever shared with my girlfriends included crying until snot came out while wearing stretchy pants and flip flops.

The members of my “squad” (I prefer the word “posse” if we have to label ourselves) are almost forty, and there are certain things we no longer give a shit about. It’s a beautiful thing and a wonderful season.

At this stage in my life, most of my friendships are over a decade old and have seen any or all of us through some of life’s biggest changes (cross-country moves, marriages, babies, divorce, loss, financial hardship, gluten intolerance). I think guys are fine, and I enjoy having a husband I also consider my very best friend (awwww, puke), but throughout my life, I’ve always been more of a gal’s girl. I was never ever considered one of the boys. I was very, very lucky to always have lots of good girlfriends, and I cherished their companionship. Boys didn’t get me. The girls always did.

When I moved to New York, I didn’t have any friends here. I didn’t know a single soul. I slowly gathered friendships like flowers until one day I looked up and had an entire bouquet. One of my favorite moments in my adult life was looking down a long wooden table at a dark and very un-trendy Italian restaurant in Queens during my bridal shower. It was overwhelming to realize how many incredible women were sitting there. It was the moment I realized I’d really made a home here.

With my oldest Texas girlfriends, we go months– sometimes years– without seeing one another but when we finally get together it’s like no time has passed. With other friends separated by distance, the internet provides a fun way to keep daily tabs on one another until we meet again. And with my group of girlfriends in New York, the gatherings may not always be frequent, but we always find a way to make up for lost time. We never meet at restaurants–it’s always at each others’ homes–since we usually end up dragging our brunches on till dinnertime.

We set up our email threads weeks in advance with a subject line like “Best Bitches” or “Vagina Day”, because that’s what we call our gatherings. I didn’t say we were elegant. It should be implied at this point that we are fun.

Yesterday was Vagina Day. Diana flew in from Chicago and Tara drove in from Connecticut. Our hostess Aimee wore orthopedic slippers and served tater tot casserole (it was delectable). She also made some tiny quiches that she couldn’t get out of the muffin tin, so she plopped it right on the table and we spooned out eggs with our forks. When deliberating who brought what Diana was quick to write: “You better bring me a fucking bagel” while also offering a box of pastries. Aimee countered that we already had bagels and pie on the menu so maybe pastries would be too much? To which Diana replied: “Fuck that- I’m bringing pastries.” Kerri brought brownies but they had mashed beans and dates in them so technically they were healthy. I’m the trendy food-jerk who brought kale salad and chia seed pudding but never put them on the table. Aubs brought watermelon salad with feta and mint which I’m recreating soon because I’ve recently discovered that mint is basically a weed and since planting my herb garden I basically have it coming out my ears.

There were tears and deep rolling belly laughs and validation out the yin-yang. We talked about our careers and our families and our bodies and our politics. We face-timed Kathy in until she couldn’t take it anymore so she finally drove over. I ate two slices of Tara’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and squirted the canned whipped cream directly in my mouth. Bridget picked me up and dropped me off even though I was completely out of her way and she’d been running around like crazy the day before. That, to me, is a squad goal.

After one of our brunches a few months ago, I got into my husband’s car– exasperated and red-faced from both laughing and crying in equal measure.

“You girls have fun? Did you talk about boys?”

Sure, Vin– we talked about boys.

 

 

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20 Before 40

 

Oh, I am going there.

I used to see all these 30 before 30 lists on peoples’ blogs and I kind of wanted to write one, but since I was 33 by the time I had a blog, I thought I’d missed a window. But now that I’m a year from 40, let’s see if I can inspire myself to get some interesting stuff done. The original title was obviously 40 before 40, but jeez, that’s a lot of stuff to cram in one year.

I’m trying to keep things realistic by setting really attainable goals, not stuff like “build an orphanage in South Africa” or “knit an afghan with my two front teeth”. It’s only a year– stop pressuring me!

Anyway, I guess I’ll check in next June to see how I did on these. Here’s hoping I don’t disappoint my future self. I am almost 40, you know– I’m pretty set in my ways!

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I am posting this picture so you’ll remember who’s writing this thing. But really, I’m posting this picture because my hair looks really good.

 

CAREER:

-Take two continuing education classes/ seminars/ workshops

- Read at least four classic psychology texts

- Take at least two 20-minute breaks during workday to walk around neighborhood. (Put a re-emphasis on my own self-care!)

 

RELATIONSHIPS:

- Host someone for a meal and go out for a walking date with a friend at least 1x per month

- Call/ text/ write/ email my best friends more frequently (1-2 times week)

- Call niece and grandparents at least 1x/ month

- Try a new place with Vinny at least 1x/ every two weeks.

- Write thank you notes promptly.

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I want to be a friend to others the way others have been a friend to me (like my friend Lizzy–who I’ve known for over 30 years!–who just sent me this peace lily as a housewarming present).

 

FINANCES:

- Set new mutually agreed upon savings goal with Vin

- Have a significant amount saved in our “if shit happens” fund for emergency house needs

- Buy fewer things of better quality.

 

EXPLORING:

-Plan a really BIG trip for my 40th (I’m thinking Greece/ Italy)

- Take a day trip out of NYC at least 1x/ every 12 weeks

- Take full advantage of living in the city and go to the following places within the year: Central Park (every season), Coney Island, Governor’s Island, the Highline, Brooklyn Bridge and park, Jones Beach, The Plaza for tea, at least one extravagant dinner, at least one Broadway show

 

HOME:

- Keep home clean and uncluttered without spending every weekend cleaning and de-cluttering. (hints on how to do this gladly accepted)

- Keep plants alive. Say prayers if necessary.

-Decrease waste. Reduce use of toxic chemicals.

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Ever since getting windows, I’ve been obsessed with learning how to take care of houseplants. I’ve killed a few already, but have also brought several back from the dead. Still learning and welcoming tips (Mom says I really do need to talk to them).

 

HEALTH/ WELLNESS:

- Take a meditation/ mindfulness class. (They have them after work by my office for $5! if anyone wants to join me)

- Find some type of exercise I can get excited about. This is my goal every year.

- Start reading on the subway again instead of fiddling with my phone.

 

The Biggie/Bonus Goal:  Finish my book manuscript (it’s been on hiatus for a few months- back to it!)

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Time Marches On (and Pretty Soon You Realize It’s Marching All Over Your Face)

 

When I was 11 or 12, my mom borrowed a book from my friend’s mother. The title was What’s Happening to Me? and it was an illustrated guide to puberty, created to help kids understand the changes happening in their bodies as they got older. I was mortified when she brought it home and told me where she acquired it. Ma? You couldn’t have bought me my own copy? Does Rachel Rosen’s mother really need to know I shave my pits now?

Puberty was just so painful, wasn’t it? Even though literally everyone around me was experiencing the same thing, it felt wholly personal and completely isolating. I tried to hide my new hip-to-waist ratio. Tampons struck terror in me. I used to unhinge my training bra in the back of class and shimmy it out my shirt through the arm hole. I’d shove it in my backpack and forget about it the rest of the day. I had zero interest in boobs or hips or bigger responsibilities.  I’d have stayed ten forever if the universe allowed it. Vin says he was always in a rush to get older; he was curious to know what the next thing was about. I wasn’t curious at all. I was content to stay exactly where I was.

I bring this up because I was 11 or 12 then but I’ll turn 39 tomorrow morning, and I’m not exactly sure what happened to all that time in between. Seems like yesterday my parents dropped me off at summer camp for the first time, but it was 30 years ago. Twenty-two years have passed since I read Chaucer’s Tales in Ms. Vanderpool’s English class. I’m 17 years older than my handful of 22-year-old clients who came to therapy to find their path right after college. I have a stack of bills, a mortgage, and the kinds of bunions that make shoe shopping about as fun as a dental cleaning. I have a couple grey hairs still pretending to be blonde and my 11-year-old niece is now the one in the training bra, at the very start of it all, figuring out what comes next and what’s happening to her now.

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A few days before my birthday each year, Vin will ask: “You’re not going to get weird, are you?” and my reply is usually, “Probably.”

I do get weird around my birthday. I’m a pretty introspective person; I basically view it as an annual check-in, like a gyno visit or a job review. I ask myself, “How am I doing?”, “Are things running ok?”, “What needs improvement?”. I have been historically fearful and generally unenthusiastic about the inevitably natural enterprise of getting older. Yesterday I’d have chosen to stay 38 forever if the universe allowed it.

I’m trying to fight against this mentality by reading up on the tenets of Buddhism. Not so much the stuff about suffering, but the point about not getting yourself too worked up or upset about things that are supposed to happen. Aging is the natural course of life. If you think about the tragedy in Orlando this weekend, you realize that aging in this lifetime is a privilege. The world is fragile. So are we.

I’m not exactly enlightened yet, but I’m trying.

 

A few months ago I was standing in line behind a very elderly woman in the grocery store. Her back was crooked as a question mark, and the speed at which she put her items on the line dramatically changed the pace of it. To my surprise (this is New York after all) no one huffed and puffed behind me, and the checkout clerk made no attempt to help speed her along. We all just slowed down. We adjusted our pace to match hers. Eventually she walked out very, very slowly, a delivery man following a few steps behind, carrying her boxes of bread and milk.

Finally it was my turn to put my items on the scanner.

“We’re all going to get there someday.” said the checker. He had a peaceful look on his face I interpreted as both patient and extremely kind.

“Only if we’re very lucky”, was my reply, and much to my own surprise, I really meant it.

 

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Former birthday introspections:

My, how time marches on. I wrote my very first post on this blog six years ago, the day before my 33rd birthday

Last year, I wrote about being 38 and special:

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