Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

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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A Face Made for Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Can I draw you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Developing Self-Discipline

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this, this is the discipline.

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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You Can’t Go Home Again

 

Hoboken was the first place I lived when I moved to the New York City area. It’s a teeny little town–only one square mile–on the other side of the Hudson River. To you non-NYC folk, this means that Hoboken is in New Jersey which means my Queens-born husband has a tendency to stick his nose up in its general direction. I’ve hinted during our house-hunt that I’d be open to buying in Hoboken. Vin has been less enthusiastic about the idea. (I believe the phrase he used was “over my dead body”, which means there’s still a 50% chance of me moving there.)

Anyway, it’s set up like this: Once you get off the train that connects the city to Hoboken, you walk along the waterfront, where you get some really killer views of lower Manhattan. The next street is all gorgeous old brownstones, the kind that give you chest pains and make you reconsider a career in finance. The street after that is almost 100% bars, restaurants and tiny boutiques. The rest of the town is mostly tree-lined and residential. It’s a nice-looking place.

hoboken waterfront frank sinatra park

But Hoboken is a chicken wing town. What I mean is, any town with a superfluous amount of beer and chicken wing specials on any given weeknight is a very young town. If you live in Hoboken, chances are you are either very old and Italian, around 29 1/2 with a yuppie spouse and a fat little baby, or fresh out of a dorm room. It’s very well known as a recent-post-grad haven. You can’t throw a rock in Hoboken without hitting someone between the ages of 22 and 25.

I don’t remember how I heard about Hoboken, but I found my first roommates there via craigslist, which in 1999 was still pretty new and considered an excellent way to get yourself murdered. I responded to an ad for an “open house” to find a third roommate for a place on 8th and Willow, and showed up drenched in sweat at the tail end of July with about 25 other girls in their early 20s. We were all trying to win favor with the two lucky lease-bearers, two 24-year-old girls offering an incredibly small, windowless bedroom to the person least likely to stab them in their sleep.  The bedroom for rent was right in the middle of the apartment, dark and tiny, with a door that swung into the room instead of out into the hallway, so that every time you tried to leave you’d have to wedge yourself through the narrow slot between your twin-sized bed and the wall. But at $550, it was a steal. I got the final rose that day and moved in three weeks later, a bold move on my roommates’ end since I was broke and unemployed with no prospects on the horizon. 

At 22, Hoboken was like heaven. I’d never lived in walking distance of anything before, so having groceries and cocktails and tampons only a block away was very liberating. I’d temp and job-hunt in the cit during the day, then at night I’d put on cute outfits and lip gloss and try to meet new friends., either in Hoboken or back in Manhattan. The local restaurants and bars were packed with people my own age, so it felt like college got extended by a year or two. There was a dance club two blocks away and I liked to wear really tight pants and make out with relatively attractive strangers there. We lived next door to a greasy Chinese takeout restaurant, which I believed was the greatest gift God had ever given me. I lived on egg rolls and ambition. They were good times.

For the past 14 years, I have looked back on those early Hoboken days with great fondness and affection. So on occasion, I like to call up my friend Kim– who lives in New Jersey– to see if she’ll grab dinner or drinks with me in my old stomping grounds. I hadn’t been there on a Friday night in a while, but it’s safe to say that Hoboken Friday Night hasn’t changed a bit.

But holy shit… I sure have.

I chose a restaurant that was Mexican/Japanese fusion, meaning I could have chips and guac as an appetizer and sushi as the main event which is basically my idea of a perfect evening. We sat in a precious little backyard with Christmas lights strung up through trees. I had a strawberry- jalapeño margarita to whet my appetite, and excitement began to build around the “Guacamole Trio” we ordered.

guacamole and chips

When it arrived I was disturbed to discover that they had topped three tiny bowls of fairly decent guacamole with ill-advised toppings– a heavy dose of cotija cheese (bland at best, but not completely mad at it), a smattering of diced pineapple (eh…okay, but I prefer mango), and a handful of soft, buttery-yellow corn kernels straight out of a can (OFF WITH THEIR HEADS). Not only were we in New Jersey, world-renowned for their delectably sweet farm-fresh corn, but we were also smack dab in the middle of summer produce season, putting fresh corn at a cost of like, I don’t know, two cents an ear? Haven’t they seen all the documentaries? Corn is the cheapest food product in the freaking world. Plus, who puts corn in their guacamole anyway? It was like a crime against delicious appetizers. And New Jersey farmers. And Mexico! (And Japan, by proxy). 

After our meal, I suggested we go to a rooftop bar around the corner where I’ve oft romanticized one luxurious night I had as a plump-faced 23-year-old, getting smashed with girlfriends while admiring the New York City skyline. At 38, the first stop in the bar is naturally the restroom, a petite space with a meager line and an impudent little patron using one of two narrow stalls as her personal phone booth while young girls with tanned skin and short skirts waited patiently outside the door for their turn to empty their aching bladders, filled to the brim with cheap beer and sparkling wine. When it was finally my turn at bat, I tried to imbue my flush with disapproval, holding the lever down slightly longer than necessary to discursively coax the birdy from her perch. She remained undeterred, so I soaped and rinsed my hands, then made a second attempt at eviction by giving myself the most thorough electric hand-dry of the 21st century. (*as this post goes live, it’s now three days later, and she is still in the stall screaming: “No…I’m at City Something…I can’t remember what it’s called…whatever, it’s on 14th Street, use google maps”.) Eventually I surrendered and dragged Kim upstairs to the roof top deck, where I hoped to enjoy a cocktail (I was imagining gin or vodka, infused with cucumber and fragrant fresh herbs), a great skyline view, and most importantly, a chair.

The space was 1,000 times smaller and less appealing than I remembered it, with a huge crowd of recent college grads all standing and packed tightly around three large TVs, sloshing beer and blowing smoke up each others’ nostrils. I grimaced at Kim–who at almost 30 is my very youngest friend–and said, “Girl, no. I can’t do this. Can we go find some ice cream or something?”

FullSizeRender-4

My second Hoboken home was on the top floor of this five-story walk-up building. My butt was a work of art.

So we walked back down the main street littered with bars and restaurants and eventually landed on a crepe place.  I ordered a simple crepe with lemon and sugar and a vanilla latte. We took a seat out on the sidewalk so we could enjoy the nice summer breeze and the sweet spicy fragrance of buffalo sauce tickling the air. When our desserts arrived, I took one look at my little glass mug and immediately recognized my “latte” as Maxwell House International Cafe Style Beverage Mix, that aluminum box of chalky powder one keeps in his or her desk drawer for emergency purposes only. My eggy crepe had been mopped with a sugary, lemon-flavored goo which stuck like gum to the roof of my mouth and made me long for Paris, or at the very least, the charming bistro in my neighborhood where crisp, delicate, lace-like crepes are spun from organic buckwheat flour before a gauzy sprinkle of powdered sugar and the gentlest squeeze of bright lemon fall upon them like light summer rain.

I looked around at the passerby–clean-cut bros in button-down shirts and packs of nubile young women in summer dresses and high heels, full of life and excitement and enough energy to yank them back into the city they had just returned from after a full day of work. The girls were prepared to walk blocks and blocks to the train in those heels, and they were flaunting the types of hairstyles that looked freshly blown. It all just looked like so much effort. Did I really do all that? Was this really my life at one time? My God, it seems like so long ago.

It was an interesting moment for me, for not only was I confronted with the fact I was now a crotchety old fart, but somewhere along the way I’d also become incredibly snobby. Where was the cooly unconcerned 22-year-old of yore, chatting with strangers and living life with unrestrained joie de vivre? Whatever happened to that young girl in tight pants making out with strangers and scarfing $2 egg rolls after a night at the club? Maybe she is gone forever, and all that’s left is a straight-laced working stiff with a love for quality food and sensible footwear. Perhaps this is just the course life follows, a few buoyant years of chirpy, non-chalantness before pining for watering holes where one can enjoy meaningful conversation, adequate seating and corn-free guacamole.

Or maybe that 22-year-girl is still there; she’s just trapped between her twin bed and a narrow wall in a tiny house on Willow Street, on the other side of the river. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you’re gonna spew, spew into this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I should talk to my therapist about this.

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What it’s like to be a therapist.

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

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

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

what it's like to be a therapist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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