Why My Next Tattoo Would Be An Apology

I should just start every damned entry here with : Wow.  I can’t believe how long it’s been since I last wrote. I am SO sorry.

If I could have a t-shirt made, or maybe a tattoo put on my arm, it would help diffuse a LOT of public awkwardness, especially about this blog.  It would be a handy catch-all tool, y’know? Like, if I ran into someone in the supermarket who wanted to know when I was going to post something else on my blog?  I would just smile and point to my t-shirt. If I received a text from friend who asked, didja get that thing I sent ya? I’d shrug, take picture of the tattoo, and hit “send”. Done.

Procrastination has been the name of my game and I’ve been a champion at it.  I should have a gold medal in putting things off.  Like, every time I think I’m going to finish something, I wonder what’s in the fridge. Oooo! Maybe there’s some peanut butter in there…

Like all procrastinators, I have really, really good excuses.  Like… I’ve been busy! Cleaning my house! And organizing my office!

No, seriously.  You should see my office. It’s friggin’ amazing.

I’ve also been doing this other huge thing.  I’ve been dismantling my empire.  I’ve been making this transition from full time employed bookkeeper to very-part-time-employed bookkeeper and most-of-the-time memoir writer.  See?  That’s something!

This transition… ugh, I can’t even finish that sentence. Okay. Take a breath, Lolo. This TRANSITION has been a challenge.  I am still finding my “groove”, as they say.  I’m used to going non-stop for 14 hours a day. This whole “having time” is a new concept to me.  And, because old habits die hard, I am finding myself wanting to fill my days with anything other than writing.  EVEN THOUGH I FIRED MY CLIENTS SO I COULD WRITE ALL DAY. You would think that after having let go of nearly ALL of my sources of income, and feeling like this book is burning inside me, just dying to get out, I would be at my desk all day and night, neglecting hygiene and regular meals and just cranking out page after page.

The reality is that it’s going to take more than a few weeks to cure 30-something years of living like I’m running from a burning building.  I’m still getting used to the fact that normal, everyday activities are part of the process of writing, as well.  Nearly every writer I have ever read about didn’t spend more than a few hours a day working on their craft.  So, it’s normal to want to clean the office and take care of errands in between bits of writing.  It’s also normal to have this book filling your head for years and then to have a Cindy Brady moment when you sit down to write it.  I’m ON AIR right now, and instead of feeling like a well-prepared game show contestant, I feel pinned down by the weight of my task.  I feel like I can’t even type my own name without wondering if it’s right or true.

Now that I have that other stuff done (have I mentioned how amazing my office looks?), I have nothing left to do but sit here and type, so I need to learn how to break through that paralysis.  In the past, it was my work that kept me both chained up and upright in the face of a task.  It gave me purpose, and it didn’t matter that the purpose was not always fulfilling. Work was my drug, and I was addicted to the productive qualities of it.  Coming down off it and entering this world of much delayed gratification is giving me the shakes.  I still clamor to do something measurably “productive” during the day because, let’s face it, writing a book is a nebulous, possibly pay-off-less endeavor.  Sure, you’ll have plumbed the depth of your soul, and opened yourself up to criticism, and dedicated yourself to a task for a while, but, to quote a line, “Where’s the fucking money, Lebowski?”.  If there’s no cycle of work, get money, spend, and work more, I get fidgety. I start to dwell on the fact that I have become the person I both loathed and envied my whole life: someone who could afford to do nothing but swim around in her own thoughts all day.  My mandate has been: survive.  It is now: just be.  And write a book while you’re at it.

On my bad days, I start to turn book-writing into this luxurious folly designed for fops and layabouts. I start to feel like my connection to everyday people will peel away and, while they’ll be talking about commuting and diaper-changing and all the rest, I’ll have nothing to share but a clean office and a few pages of self-indulgent journaling a day.

See how nasty self-defeating and downright violent my language towards myself is?  Who’s to say I don’t deserve this “time off” from the noisy scramble I designed my life to be?   I’m so accustomed to trading in my time for money; this new thing is downright unnerving. There is comfort and routine in work, and clearly defined expectations.  This?  This is uncharted territory.  This has no map, no end-time in sight.  This is just me desperately flailing around in the water for a very long time until I get a rhythm going.

Then again, on my better days, I feel this sense of right-living, of right-being, like everything and everyone is lining up in such a way as to really make this happen. For example, last week I met with a writing coach.  She was encouraging and tough at the same time.  She was genuinely excited about this book!  And really, the average Joe on the street does NOT curl his lip derisively when I explain that, rather than work for a paycheck, what I do all day is write stuff.  My friends are incredibly supportive.  Everyone is HAPPY for me.  That alone keeps me thinking I have chosen the right path for myself.

I have to remember the path has many unforeseen twists in it. 

A few days ago, my friend Ruth and I sat on the floor of my office and fiddled around with one of my manual typewriters that wouldn’t quite work.  The carriage was sticking in places and part of the ribbon housing was dented and wouldn’t click back into place again.  Ruth and I sat cross-legged on the floor for more than an hour, trouble shooting.  We used an old pair of boxer shorts to dust and polish the thing.  Ruth used brute force to bend the housing back into place.  I typed the alphabet a few times to see how the carriage worked. It was so meditative and enjoyable to use our brains (and not the Internet) to work something out.  Afterward, when Ruth had left for the night, I looked back at the spot on the carpet where we’d sat for an hour.  It had been a while since I’d sat on that floor,or on any floor, really.  My life is spent in chairs, and at desks, and at chores that yield immediate and necessary results: chopping carrots, filing paperwork.  The typewriter repair was an exercise in letting the world go about its merry, digitized, faster-than-light way and about me letting my folly take me where it would.   I tried to remember the last time I’d just a) sat on the floor and b) did something entirely frivolous for hours.  It must have been when I was a kid, engineering some game or vehicle out of cardboard tubes and scrap wood. I nearly cried at the thought of it. Once upon a time, I played for playing’s sake.

I’m cringing a little how fitting this metaphor is, but what if this is not about swimming, but floating instead?  What if I’m struggling to move when what I need to do is be still and enjoy the view?  What if the ease comes when we realize there is nothing to do but stop paddling our arms frantically and let the world we’re in support us?  There is relief in surrender, sure.  But to know that what we need is TO surrender; that is the trick.



Thailand, Day 1

What an inglorious two weeks, huh ?  I had this whole post ready to go, and then Boston happened.  Man.  It hit me hard, in the way that these things do.  I have this hang-up about posting really goofy, possibly frivolous stuff in the midst of national tragedies, and it’s happened twice now in the past year; first with Hurricane Sandy, and now with the Marathon bombing.  I had this post more or less ready to publish , but I felt conflicted about doing it last week.  The sun has been out for TWO WHOLE DAYS here in Seattle, so I’m chalking it up to some kind of “sign” that the air is clear to post slightly neurotic recaps of vacations to hot places. 
I’m back from Thailand!  Thailand? Yes, Thailand!   I went to Thailand for my honeymoon! Your  honeymoon? Yes, my honeymoon!  I went to Thailand for my honeymoon! With no planning and no reservation!  Um, what?  You didn’t plan your honeymoon?  Nope!  I just packed a bag and went!  No reservation!   Like Anthony Bourdain, but with way less leather jackets!
And, of course, I brought back stories. 
I’m going through my journal right now and re-reading some of my notes .  There are two weeks’ worth of restaurant reviews and first impressions and the like, but I’m combing through it for the best parts.  I’ll post a few days’ worth of stuff at a time here on the blog. 
First, though, a little preamble.  I can’t emphasize enough that this is the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t do ONE lick of research beforehand.  Literally.  Like, I didn’t even Google a MAP of the place.  I had a generalidea of where Thailand was in the world, but that was where my education ended.  I bring it up because that lack of information really colored the first part of my trip.  It will probably become obvious here in a minute when I start having anxiety attacks over long pants, but I promise you I eventually relax and eventually ENJOY my honeymoon.  The first few days, though, were fraught with a myriad of concerns, not the least of which was: if Mr Burdy gets swallowed by a narwhal, how will I get home?  (Let’s agree to ignore the obvious lack of narwhals around the Thai peninsula, shall we?) I had a few vivid daydreams involving the Thai authorities asking me questions like: When is your return flight?  Where are you staying tonight?  How do you plan on getting to the southern islands?  Where are your long pants?  And then I broke out in a sweat imagining myself answering each question with a big fat I HAVE NO IDEA.  MY HUSBAND HAS THE iPHONE WITH HIM IN THE NARWHAL.
In all fairness, I knew a *few* things about Thailand before I went.  They were this:
  1.        I knew that it would be a good place to vacation because of the suggestions of friends who had been there years before.
  2.        I knew it would be good and hot and sunny and a welcome relief from the crap weather in Seattle.  Also very, very beautiful.
  3.        I knew it would be “cheap” (It wasn’t. Not the way I thought it would be. More on that later).

It’s worth mentioning I was right in the middle of some massive changes with my professional life when we made the decision to buy the plane tickets.  I spent the weeks leading up the trip preparing my clients for my absence for two weeks, and then writing letters to terminate our professional relationships (more on that later). So, that was my preparation for my work life.  My preparation for the trip included finding out how hot it was in Thailand so I knew how short my shorts would need to be, and visualizing getting five pairs of orthopedic sandals into a carry-on.  Once we were in Thailand, the only information about geography/language/culture I was able to absorb came from what Mr. Burdy was able to look up in the few minutes of free wifi we picked up here and there.   I used a few tattered guidebooks that had been left at the various hotels for help, too. Most of them were already ten to fifteen years old, so the information was not exactly, um, current.  All of them, though, from the Lonely Planet I found in Chiang Mai, to the glossy coffee table book in our hotel in Bangkok, said the same few things, which I took as gospel.
            –“Thailand is a modestly-dressed country.  Leave your spaghetti -strapped tank tops and Daisy Dukes at home. If you’re a woman, consider bringing loose fitting long pants, and something to cover your shoulders with, especially if you think you’re going to want to visit the temples.  There will be signs posted that read: ‘dress appropriately’.  Covering up is not optional; it is mandatory.”   As a North American being constantly pitched to by lingerie companies, celebrities wearing bikinis, tooth whitening manufacturers, diet pill inventors, and makers of uncomfortable, supportless “ballet flats”, my idea of “appropriate” is COMPLETELY skewed.   (I’m looking at you, Victoria’s Secret PINK line). Not that I don’t know what appropriate is… just that it doesn’t even occur to me that perhaps flashing my fleshy white thighs is rude in other places.  Hell, it’s rude here- if only because it’s impolite to flash something that BLINDINGLY BRIGHT at someone’s bare eyeballs (shaking fist at Seattle skyline).  Anywho, the rules in Thailand are this: cover thyself up.   And that was unfortunate because a) I DID want to visit the temples and b) since I knew it was going to be hot, I had packed ONLY tank tops and Daisy Dukes.  Whoops.  To market, to market to buy a fat pair of pants. 

 – “It is considered rude to publicly display affection.  Avoid kissing, or holding hands”.  Um, I’m on my honeymoon, y’all.  I kind of want to touch my husband.  Lucky for Thailand the way Mr. Burdy and I show affection to one another is by fake punching each other in the solar plexus and then dramatically doubling over in slow motion.  PDA problem solved.

 –“DO NOT make any negative comments about the King.  Do not use the feet to touch any images of the King, including currency, which features the King.  If a paper note should fall to the ground, DO NOT retrieve it by using your feet.  Feet are considered the lowest part of the body. Any slander against the king is taken seriously and punished accordingly.”  Whoa, T-land.  I got it.  No smack-talking about the guy in the palace.  I have to admit, this little note scared the ever loving bejeezus out of me. What if I said something slanderous accidentally?  Like what if someone asked me a question with an obvious answer and I was like “Does the King shit in the woods?”  Not that anyone we ran into knew enough English to linguistically spar with me this way, but WHAT IF? So, yeah.  Monarchies.  Weird, right?  Say what you want about the United States,  we still have the right to say all kinds of nasty, nasty things about one another, including the president. In fact,  If you show up to my neighborhood’s post office during an election cycle, you might just run into the LaRouche supporters who hang a 3’ x 4’ poster of Obama sporting Hitler’s mustache off their card table.  So, yeah.  Freedom of speech?  We got that.  I hear it again and again when people come back from travelling: we have not even BEGUN to appreciate our freedom of speech here.  Travel to lots of other places in the world and you’ll soon realize how much we’re allowed to say (and look up on the Internet) here.  Is our republic perfect?  No.  Are there people being hushed up all the time, some even by force? Yes.  Do all of us really feel permission to fully express our views without fear of violent retaliation?  No.  But can we print posters of our democratically elected leaders wearing a former murderous despot’s facial hair and NOT go to prison for it?  Mercifully, confusingly, yes.

“Be sure to bathe.  The Thais consider daily bathing natural and right.  Body odor is considered extremely rude.  If you are backpacking, and plan on making a homestay, or interacting with a family, take care to clean yourself up.  You may think you are doing a good thing by conserving water and living simply, but the Thais appreciate personal cleanliness.” Check and check.  Thailand, you don’t think patchouli is an acceptable substitute for soap?  HEY!  ME NEITHER!  I think we’re gonna get along just fine.  I’m terrified of your king, but we’re obviously on the same page about the smell of unwashed hair.

RULES, people.  There were RULES in Thailand.  And even though I was somewhat unprepared to follow them, at least I knew they existed.   And now that I knew they existed, I had license to freak out about them.
At the top of my Checklist to Experience Paranoia? LANGUAGE.  I’m a big fan of being able to speak at least a few words in another language when traveling.  I think it indicates a genuine willingness to experience a place, and it opens you up to a beautiful kind of vulnerability. There are some things you can ONLY understand about a culture via its language. Also, it’s super annoying to have to keep smiling and pointing to everything.  Asia, in general, as travel destination has terrified me for a long time because all I’ve ever heard is how IMPOSSIBLE it is to learn an Asian language.  There’s not just vocabulary to learn, but intonation as well.  Intonation?  You mean I could be saying “I’d like the fish soup” or “your mother is an orangutan” and the only difference would be that penultimate syllable rising or falling? I’d rather not, thank you.
Lucky for me, most Thais learn English as their second language, and most Thai English is impeccable. It’s slow and thoughtful and deliberate- quite the opposite of what you might expect of people trying to very quickly get a concept across with as few words as possible. This intentionality, this deliberateness is at the heart of the Thai culture as a whole, I would soon learn.  It is not a country of hustle and bustle, as I imagined, but one of calm confidence.  I couldn’t help thinking that this was the result of never really having been colonized.  Their national identity was still intact, unbroken by a colonial power’s command to work harder, go faster, be more. 
Here’s something else I learned within hours of landing in Thailand: food is available at all times of the day.  You want a hot bowl of soup at 2 am?  You got it.  A bag of freshly deep fried and salted taro root at 8 am?  No problem.  Thais love to SNACK.  Did you hear that?  The Thais love to SNACK.  They LOATHE BODY ODOR AND THEY LIKE TO SNACK.  I HAVE FOUND MY PEOPLE.

Here are some notes from my journal:
The sign that “welcomed” us to Thailand as we drove in last night was provided by Sharp Corporation, and it was about the size of a house.  Really, it said: “SHARP” and then, in much smaller letters beneath, it read “Welcome to Thailand”.  I felt a teensy weensy surge of pride knowing “my” country’s ingenuity and cleverness and chutzpah had made its way to this other side of the earth (what they are providing, of course, is questionable.  Goods?  Services?  Landfill?  Billboard pollution?).  And then I got pretty sad thinking that I had just paid a small fortune and sat on a plane for four-fifths of a day to see… stuff I could see in my own country. What have I agreed to in being here? Is everything in Thailand sponsored by an electronics company?
Day 1: Bangkok
Took a tuk-tuk to Wat (“temple”) Sitaram.  Met a lovely man named Tan-An (?) who told us to go to the clothing factory (already scheduled for us on our route per a guy on the street Mr. Burdy “had a good feeling about”.)  Tan-An taught us in five seconds how to be Buddhists.  Or, at least, what to do when we visited the temples: you kneel down, feet tucked under you.  You make a wish.  You say a prayer to Buddha to make it come true for you.  You put your hands together at your heart and you bow three times facing the altar.  That’s it!  He asked us if we were Buddhists.  He seemed surprised that we, as foreigners, were there in the first place.  Mr. Burdy answered, “Well, we’re not not-Buddhists…” Well played, farangi, well played.  What we are, I wanted to tell him, is Jake and Elroy. We are lapsed Catholics on mission to find God.  So yeah, today, we are not not-Buddhists.
We went to the factory and Mr. Burdy ordered five tailored shirts. Strangely, none of the “Thai” shops we went to featuring that “famous” Thai tailoring were run by Thais.  They were run by hip, urban young men from, perhaps, India?  Or points west of Thailand?  Bizarre.  My Seattle sensibilities flared up and I immediately suspected some sort of indentured seamstress operation going on.  After Burdy was done placing his order, the salesman turned his attention to me.  “And for you, Madame? Perhaps a blouse?  We have many materials.  You like cashmere?  Perhaps a wool coat?  Look here.  Very fine quality”. Here he rubs the grey cashmere coat’s lapel between his fingers.   I stood there in my short shorts and tank top, letting the air conditioning do its work on my inflamed, red skin.  I flipped through the catalogue politely, though disinterestedly.  It featured mostly collared dress shirts being modeled by serious looking women in pinstripe pants and expensive watches.  How to explain to this man in very simple English that I’d just fired nearly all my clients and that, when I actually DO go to work, I work in a big open penthouse with a smelly dog, and kayak equipment everywhere, and a dirty sink overflowing with dishes?  Or, that, on other days, I work in a loft with a bunch of dudes in tee-shirts and athletic shoes who eat trail mix and drink out of plastic sports bottles?  “No”, I said smiling graciously.  “I don’t have a… need… to dress up for work. Very casual, I said.  Very casual”. I showed him my palms like “jazz hands” was the international symbol for “I don’t possess the level of maturity required to wear your fancy clothes or the language skills to tell you that in five words or less”. 
Our tuk-tuk driver, a lovely man with the most beautiful light brown eyes I have ever seen,  must have gotten the message that we were not in Thailand to buy suits or silk or rubies as we spent only five minutes exactly in all the places he dropped us.  It was a fine game of bowing and smiling and polite agreement to enter into this ridiculous tourist dance.  He obviously would receive a kickback for dropping us off at the jewelry factory or the suit place, and we would get the cheapest ride of our lives around an enormous city. Fair enough, I suppose.
The jewelry factory was an unexpected stop, but I think we handled it well.  A smartly dressed woman wearing a badge asked a hurried set of questions (Where were we from?! Did we like the heat?!  Did we know Thai rubies are the best in the world?!), then led us into a blinding maze of glass counters.  I looked down at a case. She offered me an elephant-shaped ring in white gold, with a tiny diamond where the eye should be and inset stripes of blue topaz.  I thought that my cockeyed, oversized thrift store sunglasses and my shorts made baggy with sweat would  have tipped our sales lady off that I was more of a found object/knotted rags-jewelry kind of gal.  Still, she gave it her best shot.  After much dramatic lowering of the price (“I discount for you today”  is the working alternate for “hello” to foreigners) and the final offering of $67 for the damned elephant ring, and my polite refusal,  she handed us a coupon for 10% off anything in the souvenir shop and moved on to the next dazzled foreigner.  For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of buying an investment piece of jewelry like Burdy’s dad would have done back in the day, but the whole experience had been one part sensory overload, one part “sell this to foreigners” and one part “ I would never wear a gold elephant-shaped ring in a thousand years”.  I didn’t want to take home a piece I had bought under duress while wearing sunglasses that cost me $1.17.   
I can’t quite shake the annoyance I feel at being judged a consumerist/glutton because of my skin color.  It’s totally fair, of course.  But I am still annoyed.
I can’t quite figure out the garbage situation here.  And most things smell of three things: incense, urine, or fish sauce, and not much else.  For a country offended by lack of personal hygiene, I find it strange that the smell of comfort is rotting fish.  There are civil servants (?) everywhere in Day Glo yellow safety vests, thick denim, and bandannas around their mouths and throats, sweeping the sidewalks with broad and sparse handmade brooms.  They’re just sweeping up the curb, looking like they are wearing homemade Haz-Mat suits.  Just looking at them makes me break out in prickly heat rash.  I have to wonder how dangerous the air/garbage is that they are wearing so much clothing. Most of what they’re sweeping is vegetative, dried leaves and the like.  I haven’t seen anyone hauling away actual garbage yet.  Again, my Seattle sensibilities have me instinctively holding on to all my empty water bottles and cellophane wrappers until I can dispose of them “properly”.  I’ve been separating my garbage into recyclables, compostables, and landfill, but I couldn’t so much as find a single empty can on the street, never mind a color-coded, well-signed triumvirate of waste management.
We went to Wat Pho after another ridiculous trip to a tailor shop where another non-Thai sales clerk pointed out in a glossy-paged book that his store was THE number one tailor shop in Bangkok.  I have no doubt that the authors of the book are also THE number one fabricators of statistics.  And that they are on the same take as our tuk-tuk driver.
In between the Thai clothing factory and Wat Pho, we visited Wat Benchamabophit where we paid 20 baht (about sixty cents) to walk around for few minutes.  We bought a coconut and slurped down the juice in seconds. The heat was merciless. I decided to follow Tan-An’s advice and bow three times and send a prayer to Buddha to ask him to protect my immune system after I watched the coconut vendor hand the same (dunked in dirty water) metal scoop to me as she had just handed to about a dozen other tourists before me…. tourists who’d put the metal scoop into their mouths.  WHAT the hell, Thailand?  Don’t take a bath and you might be frowned upon.  Eat from a dirty spoon, and nobody says a word. (*Follow up note #1: Hey, kids! The metal scoops are designed to JUST scoop the flesh up from the bottom of the coconut!  Use your HANDS to put the flesh in your mouths, NOT the spoon! What?  Really?  Oh, man!  Thanks, helpful Follow Up Note!)

Overheated and sweaty and probably dehydrated, we reached Wat Pho when we thought we were being taken to Wat Pra Kaew.  No matter.  We still had our long pants on.  We saw the enormous reclining Buddha (the soles of his feet inlaid with mother of pearl was magnificent)  but couldn’t take the heat anymore.  We changed into shorts, but we also wanted to see another Buddha so I let a tiny assertive woman in a blue uniform warp me in a scratchy and stained wool skirt and drape a purple wool shawl around my shoulders.  Thank goodness for the guidebooks or I would be confused about being dressed in public by Thailand’s version of the TSA.  Remember: no covering up out of respect, no seeing the Buddha.  Got it? 
The plastic bag situation, as one might expect, is outta control.  Worldwide, the plastic bag is as ubiquitous as oxygen. It’s the only thing you can find on every continent on earth, even ones not inhabited by humans.  Dozens of them clung to the moorings on the river, dried, bleached, thin, and slowly dispersing microscopic fragments into the water.  Note to self: figure out a way to convince the world to STOP using plastic bags in my lifetime.

The boat ride along the river was my favorite part of the day.  The breeze, the splashing, the ice cold beer at noon.  We pulled down a “side street”; a tiny fleet of handmade canoes “parked” under some trees on the banks of the river came to life.  One of them, steered by a young man in a conical hat, approached us, his canoe packed full of cheap trinkets wrapped in cellphone.  Bought a can of beer for the captain, whose swollen bare feet and wide smile made a permanent impression in my memory.  No souvenirs or bamboo carvings, though.  The vendor looked genuinely hurt.  I need to learn the Thai words for “no, but thank you”.
Our hotel room in Bangkok smelled like Chinese food and cigarettes, and the Carl’s Jr. next door only served to substantiate the suspicion that perhaps we had, in our 17-hour flight delirium, accidentally boarded a plane bound for Las Vegas.  The bed in the hotel was rock-hard, some of the lights in the room didn’t work, and the individually wrapped condoms stood at attention right next to the packets of peanuts in the snack bar. If we hadn’t seen the street carts outside piled high with soup, basil sprigs, and fluorescent-lit piles of offal at 2 am, I would have sworn we HAD, in fact, landed in Las Vegas.  I fell into a dreamless sleep that night, and had my first (and possibly most delicious) breakfast of the trip the next morning: a big ol’ bowl of broth and rice, seasoned with those quintessential tiny dried Thai shrimp, and garnished with black pepper and a few green onions.  What the hotel lacked in charm, it more than made up for in the Thai food department.  We skipped the quarter-mile-long buffet of uninspired variations on white bread and eggs and ordered right off the Thai menu.  Unsure of how to handle tipping, we left our server a few coins and expressed our sincere gratitude for her patience with our terrible pronunciation.  She brought her hands together in prayer formation, softened her eyes, bowed slightly, and smiled.  This was our first experience with the wai, which I was to read about later on in the trip, and it was absolutely magical.  The Thai Smile is real, and it is life-changing.   
And that was Day 1, more or less. 
Follow Up Note #2:
4/12/13: I took a really great cooking class last night offered by our local food co-op called “Night Markets of Bangkok”.  It featured some of the food we ate (in Bangkok!  At night! In the market!) and was hosted by Becky Selengut, another Jersey Girl living in the Northwest.  (Sorry if I’ve outed you, Becky).  It was AWESOME to share stories and basically re-live our trip through food.  It was also a great reminder that a draft of this post has been sitting on my laptop for a LONG TIME.  More to come, I promise. 

On Writing

Recently, I had my ass handed to me by my writing group. It was a good thing, this ass-handing.  It didn’t feel quite as nice as being handed a bouquet of roses and a Grammy, but, it was probably more valuable. 
What happened was this: I brought in a VERY rough draft of a book chapter I’d written and I read it aloud to my writing group. I then got some VERY valuable feedback.  Feedback that made me reconsider whether or not I should be calling myself a writer.
The piece I brought to my group was one I’d written a while ago and it was really my first real pass at writing a full chapter of anything. It was a piece about one of my very first clients and how unhealthy our relationship was. I hadn’t quite told enough of the backstory in the piece, and I can see now that it was not so much a chapter in a  book as it was really an angry breakup letter with my client. A breakup letter plus every bitter, snarky last thing I have ever wanted to say to everyone I have felt under-appreciated by in my life.  Ever.  My God, was it awful.   You know how sometimes you think of the MOST clever comebacks five minutes after someone says something inappropriate to you?  Well, imagine a whole five pages of that. With a lot more expletives and nastiness.   Bookended by “once upon a time” and “the end”. 
I don’t know where I got it in my head that I would just sit down, and,  in twelve easy installments, crank out a full length book like it was no big thang, like the book  was a gorgeous butterfly just waiting in the chrysalis of my subconscious, fully formed and perfect. But I did think that, and I brought that first draft to my group thinking I had started my book.  Now the truth of the start sits before me, much more representative in the form of a hairy-knuckled troll, soil-damp and smelly.  This whole writing a book thing is MUCH harder than I thought it would be.  It’s still entirely possible the story is fully formed and beautiful inside me, but I need to contend with the troll first. I HAVE begun to write my book, but it is not the beginning I thought it would be.
I should have tossed that first draft into the “it’s unhealthy for you to have this much pent up rage inside you, so it’s best to just throw this rage-vomit right into the fireplace” file.  But I didn’t.  Anxious to just start the process of airing these stories out, I read the piece to my writing group.  Ah, woooo boy! It was sort of like hearing yourself say something stupid and then watching  yourself  try to recover by saying something even more stupid and then watching helplessly as more and more stupid things just come tumbling out of your mouth.  I couldn’t  stop it.  The train had left the station.  The cow was out of the barn.
Lucky for me, I write with a fantastically honest and supportive group of people and they gave me some very helpful feedback.  They explained that perhaps this piece was better suited for my journal (with a title of “Why I Think So-And-So Is a A Great Big Poopy-Head”) than for general consumption.
I’m learning.  I’m learning so much.
 
I’m learning that the pace of my book-writing progress is aligned with the pace of my life. That’s frustrating because I want it to go much faster.  But the path to the end of a piece is wending and sometimes it doesn’t even involve sitting down in front of a computer and typing.  Sometimes, to get the story out, I need to shop for shoes, or go for a walk, or make a pot of soup from scratch.  I need to acknowledge the path that the words themselves take to get where they need to go.   In my head, at night as I am drifting off to sleep, my book sounds like poetry, like well organized, gorgeous poetry.  And sometimes when I sit down to write, it doesn’t come out that way at all.  It comes out sounding like an upset orangutan wrote it.  It sounds like: “Dumb man say bad things.  Make me mad.  Me hate dumb man.  Me hate job.  Something something something me so much smarter than dumb man something something something dramatic wrap-up.”  After all those years of being jammed up in my heart, the words and the story and the character arc are all trying to get out at the same time, and they’re getting all knotted up and coming out all crooked and one-sided. And that’s frustrating. And, quite frankly, startling.
I am learning the very first draft of a story is like the first pancake.  I have to be willing to throw it out.   I’m only warming up the griddle with that first pancake; it’s not intended for consumption.  That  first pancake is a test:  Is the griddle too hot?  The batter too runny?      
Right now, the words are like fetid water that’s been sitting in a pipe for too long. The story is behind it.  In order to get to the good stuff, I’ve got to let that water run for a few minutes.  That fetid stuff MUST have the opportunity to come out before I put my cup underneath the pipe to catch a bit to drink. If I drink the stuff that comes out first, I’ll find my mouth full of rust and debris.  The story will be brown and bitter and it won’t slake my thirst.  That first run of writing is poison.  It’s all the stuff I’ve wanted to say to everyone who did me wrong.  It’s all the self indulgent bellyaching and why-me sob story I’ve been rehearsing for years. And most important of all:  It’s got nothing to do with the story I want to tell.
I didn’t know this rusty stuff was going to come out when I sat down to write this book.  I mean, I figured the writing would be fierce.  But I didn’t know it would be so mean and entitled and entirely lacking empathy. I thought I was writing this honest and clear emotion that anyone could relate to.  I hadn’t. I’d  written something from the fog of anger, and anger is fleeting.  After the anger, there was nothing else for my readers to hold onto.
Everyone has to start somewhere, I suppose.  My start is SO much more messy than I thought it would be.  I thought I would be sitting all cool in my granny sweater and ironic retro sneakers in a café on Thursday mornings cranking out perfect chapter after perfect chapter.  After all, this story has all been sitting in my veins for years and years.  You would think that something with that much built up pressure would have no problem releasing.  I mean, I’m a volcano, not a constipated rhino for God’s sake.  I think this stuff should be shooting out of my wrists like webbing, like fireworks, like a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.  But it isn’t.  Some days I sit at the machine and I think I’m telling a story.  What I am actually doing is having a one way argument with a computer screen.  I’m “yelling in the basement” as my friend John says.
Last night, I met with my writing group again and I attempted my story one more time.  I wrote for ten minutes without that rage.  I simply said what happened.  And what showed up on that page was the story I wanted to tell: Once upon a time there was a young  woman.  She worked for a man.  She struggled with the work. She left the man.  The end.  It was clean, and it was powerful.  It landed entirely differently than that first piece with my audience.  It offered so much broader a picture, so much more detail for my readers to play with.  
There will be many more weeks, months, even years of yelling in the basement. What  I’m sure of now, after having shared my new piece with my group, that after the yelling, the story will come.  

A Transplant. A Storm. A Way To Help.


You guys, I had this whole piece ready to go about the cereal.  And then Sandy hit.  And I just couldn’t fathom posting a bit about breakfast cereal as a wildly destructive storm was bearing down on the place I was born.  My whole family was in the storm’s path and I was worried for days about them.  They’re all fine now.  They lost power for a few days there, but they were all safe, and their property was not destroyed.  There were others, though, who suffered.  Suffered huge. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.  I couldn’t sit and write about cereal if I tried.
I’ve been working on what I want to say here for days now.  It’s been a crazy two weeks of emotional ups and downs: worry, then relief…endless energy to help, then frustration with red tape… helplessness, and then a renewed sense of urgency and hope … it’s been difficult to distill this down into one piece.
The stories that have been coming out of the New York/New Jersey area have been story enough.  What can I add, really? A firefighter from Breezy Point was called to the scene- HIS OWN HOME- and because the winds were whipping around at 70 mph, he had to just stand there and watch HIS WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD burn to the ground.  A woman’s only two sons were yanked out of her arms by storm surge and carried away by the water.  A woman called a tree-removal company to remove the tree that had fallen on her roof, but the repairmen accidentally cut a power line, triggering an electrical fire, and her whole house burned to the ground in front of her.
Okay, okay. Reality check: there are enormously good things happening, too.  There are people volunteering, and corporations donating money and goods, and millions of dollars being raised for the Red Cross by citizens like you and me all over the country. 
Since the storm, I’ve been using the words there (New Jersey) and here (Seattle) interchangeably.  I’ve mixed up us and them. Tragedy does that to transplants:  it wakes the sleeping giant of our origins.  It confuses the psyche about our sense of place.  I am at once the thing I was and the thing I have become.  I exist in two places at once, emotionally.  I have been straddling my blue collar roots and my white collar future for some time now, even without the hurricane.  Nothing makes this dual existence more crazy-making than watching my childhood stomping grounds being violently dismantled.  
It’s hard not to sound overly dramatic about all this.  I’m trying to keep this all in perspective.  I think the thing that most people from New Jersey can’t get their heads around is this: it happened here, in my state, to us.  I mean, it’s not like New Jersey isn’t familiar with extreme weather. New Jersey was one of the original thirteen colonies, y’all.  It’s been populated by transplanted Europeans for two hundred years.  And it’s a coastal state.  Somehow, in the two hundred or so years it’s been part of a Union, Jerseyans have managed to hold it all together, hurricane season after hurricane season, Nor’easter after Nor’easter.  So the fact that an enormous, iconic roller coaster sits twisted and placid in the Atlantic Ocean, that thousands of pounds of sand have been displaced, that whole cars are falling into sinkholes formed by receding water… it all seems surreal.  Surreal in the way that all disaster in the United States always seems.  I can’t believe this is happening here, my mom saidNot because she doesn’t know how to prepare for a storm.  And not because she doesn’t know what it’s like to recover from one, either.  Not because East Coasters haven’t experienced tragedy or loss in their lives.  Not because we can’t imagine other people’s tragedies. I think it’s because of the scale, the enormity of it.  And because New Jersey, especially, is brimming with people who live there for a taste of hope and the American Dream. This kind of destruction seems wholly incongruent with the regular pace of life there.  When 8.8 million people live elbow to elbow, a particular kind of symbiosis develops, one so tight and complete it seems almost impervious to disruption. I think destruction on this scale is almost too much for the mind to take in at once.  Miles of coastline.  Thousands of homes.  Millions of people.  How does a city like New York not have power?  How can whole towns be wiped off a map in a night? How can a few hundred years of infrastructure be wrecked in a few hours?
If you’re like me, with a sometimes crippling sensitivity to suffering worldwide, you practically go nuts with worry when disasters happen.  You feel EVERY SINGLE ONE of those hearts breaking over their loss.  You feel that Homeric pull towards the place you are from and you want to be there. You want to paddle the canoe, pilot the plain, shovel coal into the furnace of the train, anything to get you to where you need to be to be helpful.  You are fueled by one part adrenaline and one part blind devotion.
I struggle with wanting to wave away this overarching sentimentality. I go to this place of thinking: those are resort towns, built mostly for recreation. And if you’re going to live on the coast, you have to accept a certain level of upheaval by storms.  I mean, if Disneyland goes down, you just build another one, right?  Well, thanks to reality TV and our love of stereotypes, it’s easy for me to believe that the only people who come to the shore are goons and vacationers.  The truth is that people live down there, too, year round.  And those people had modest homes they’d owned for decades, full of family memories and knickknacks.  And those homes were destroyed right alongside the roller coaster and the soft-serve joint.  Those homeowners deserve my sentimentality.  They deserve my help. Loss is loss.
You know who else I’m thinking about right now?  The victims of Hurricane Katrina, and of the earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami in Indonesia.  I’m thinking of everyone who has to rebuild after natural disasters.   I’m wondering about what the transplants of those areas were thinking when they saw the places of their birth come undone.    
Know what else I’ve been thinking about?  Numbers.  I’ve decided that it’s all about the numbers.  We can get through this because the numbers are in our favor. 
I haven’t lived there in more than a decade, but I want to give back.  I think it’s because New Jersey cultivates in its ilk a peculiar mix of pride and revulsion for the place.  We can’t help but agree with an outsider’s classification of the place as aggressive and loud, but we also defend New Jersey’s honor with the fervor of recent converts.  This mix of push and pull- it’s part of an equation, really.  The addition of sudden tragedy to a certain amount of amnesia about the past, over enough time and distance, yields love and concern.
So now it’s a numbers game.  There are, quite literally, millionsof us NOT living in Jersey anymore, but who feel that yank on our heartstrings when anyone mentions the place.  And the numbers game really works in our favor in the wake of a disaster. We have new friends, new communities, whole new cities we can ask for help now.  I’m extremely lucky because I’m in a position to reach out to my community, as I’m sure lots of native Jersey kids are.
In the weeks since the hurricane, I’ve called on my fellow Seattlites to help with relief and the response has been overwhelming – so much so I can hardly keep up.  It’s been a huge lesson for me. Here’s what I now know: when you have a dream, you have to make BIG room in your life for that dream.  Then you have to make EXTRA room in your life for all the people and places that want to prop you up.  Your dream is always bigger than the box you want to keep it in.   
I’m asking anyone who can to donate to the Red Cross.  And if you live in New Jersey, and have the means and the time, consider putting on a pair of work gloves and volunteering to remove debris, or to work at a shelter for a few hours.  Take a moment to consider what it would be like to lose your house and everything in it.  Now imagine doing that in the freezing cold.  With your children in tow. With your neighbors all in the same dire straits.
Consider the hope it would give you to witness the kindness of strangers.  Consider the hope it gives the world to see prodigal sons and daughters returning to restore a sense of place for those still there.  It’s a numbers game.  If each of us with capable hands helps those who are overwhelmed by their circumstances, the world heals.  Not just from hurricanes, but from everything.  We produce one more person, one more family able to empathize, able to help another person, able to help another family.
Think of it.

Byrned

Last week, Mr. Burdy and I went to see the inimitable David Byrne at the 5th Avenue Theater here in Seattle.  The venue is one of my favorites not only because of the grandiose they-don’t-make-’em-like-this-anymore beauty but because of how the seats are arranged. They cascade down from the balcony to the stage at a slight angle so each seat is offset from the one in front of it. This means there’s literally not a bad seat in the house. No one’s head is directly in your line of sight. See that, arena designers and theater owners?  I will gladly pay that “service charge” for the privilege of being able to see past Herman Munster, who, invariably sits RIGHT in front of me at every show.

Anywho, David was amazing.  Annie Clark was a quirky, loud, dissonant and choral counterpart to David Byrne’s contemplative humans-are-odd-birds lyrics and the whole show was a seesaw between a post-modern rock show and classic Byrne tunes.  Hearing those older tunes made me feel sorta bad for the rest of the Talking Heads.  The whole audience stood up and collectively pooped its pants during the first few notes of “This Must Be The Place”, and then again for “Burning Down the House”. I imagine the rest of the Talking Heads have some kind of built-in sonar that makes them cup their ears at cocktail parties and lean into the wind, explaining to their guests in a melancholic tone, “Oh, it’s nothing… Just that… sometimes I can pick up the sound of 20,000 people in another city singing along to ‘Life During Wartime'”.

I wonder if performers who have been playing the same songs for thirty years ever get tired of it.  I’ve seen lots of artists plod through the measures of stuff they’ve been playing for a long time, and it just makes me feel a little sorry for them.  Audiences love that stuff because it calls up for them some part of their adolescence, or some critical happy moment that they get to relive every time they hear it… but for the artists, it’s just a song they wrote a long time ago;  artistically, they’ve probably moved on.  And David Byrne, more than most artists I know, has done artistic loops around the moon.  They guy is prolific and explores so many different themes in his music. He still delivers the older stuff with as much punch and vigor as he did back in the day (dude can still hit all those notes!), but he, especially, is probably solving for x, or mentally organizing his sock drawer while he’s playing, because those songs are rote by now. I imagine he asks himself while he’s playing: “Why do humans fixate on point in time?  And isn’t it fascinating that we have the capacity to strongly equate time with sound?  Oo! I think a few notes on the theramin would work right here!…”

I am VERY grateful to my fellow concert attendees for a) respecting my North American three foot radius of personal space and b) not talking through the show.  There was that brief spot in the middle there where a woman behind me launched into some musical analysis wholly inappropriate in timing, but, I’m pretty sure my very theatrical display of plugging only my left ear with my hand tipped her off.  I’m happy to perform such services for the good of all my fellow concert goers.  Some people just don’t understand the fine art of SHUTTING THE HELL UP.  
Overall, DB fans are a pretty mellow group.  They’re feisty and excited, but just WAY more in possession of their fine motor skills (I’m looking at YOU, Dude Who Spills His Beer Down My Back At Every Outdoor Show).  The last show I saw in a theater was Beirut, and that band’s fans are cut from a different cloth.  The entirety of the show, three guys sat directly (and not at angles) behind us and tossed the terms “fucked up” “so wasted” and “obliterated” around like so much verbal confetti.  Lucky for me, I have the type of hearing loss that drowns out the middle tones of any conversation, so I could only hear those knuckleheads’ running commentary between songs.  During the songs, I just heard mandolin and trumpet music. And during the songs, I made sure to sigh dramatically, stretch my arms out over my head A LOT, and give them laser-eyes.  I should be awarded an honorary Grammy AND an Emmy.

At the Beirut show, I thought about my younger concert-going days, when I was seeing shows as a teenager and wondering what the story was with those reserved “older” people standing at the edge of the crowd with their arms folded across their chests, glowering .  Now I AM that “older” lady standing at the edge of the crowd, trying to enjoy the music and ignore the drunken weaving and bobbing and off-key singing and air punching in front of me. Oh, Time.  You are a sneaky devil, aren’t you?  I have become the thing I never thought I would be. And there you go, Mr. Byrne.  I’ve just written the first lines of your new song for you.  Insert theramin here

Part of A Balanced Breakfast

For weeks now, I have been craving Frankenberry.  Yes, Frankenberry.  The breakfast cereal.
Maybe it’s the crisp air, hinting at the coming Fall weather, which reminds me of the start of school, which makes me think of how I started every single day of my young life: with a medium-sized Corelleware bowl of sugary cereal sluiced with whole milk.
In light of all my recent intestinal struggles, it seems too obvious now, too much of a cosmic joke that I started every day of my life for nearly eighteen years with the very stuff that makes me bloated and miserable now.  As happens with dairy and wheat, my tolerance for it deteriorated over time. As a kid, I don’t remember having issues with food. I don’t even want to thinkabout what would happen if I went to work now with a belly full of cow’s milk and wheat flakes.
Anywho.  Frankenberry.  I’ve been wanting it.  So, on Tuesday, I took a little stroll to my local middle-of-the-road supermarket, just to see if it was still even available.  Buying a box of sugary kids’ cereal in this city is not as easy as it sounds.  For one thing, supermarkets around here carry local brands, and only the basics when it comes to processed food. For another, Frankenberry falls into a category that doesn’t exactly qualify as “basic”…or “food”, for that matter. 
Food shopping is no longer the exercise in instant gratification it once was.  No, no.  Now there are things like price per ounce and high fructose corn syrup to consider. Whereas I once mindlessly flicked boxes of macaroni and cheese and fish-shaped crackers and cans of noodles into my cart, I now pause (in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic, like a good Seattleite) and turn over boxes to read ingredient lists. I inspect cans of tomato sauce for the type of liner being used. I make sure all the food I buy features a picture of kindly looking woman bent over an oven in an apron with a testimonial about how this or that grew out of her desire to “feed her kids the right stuff”.  I buy mostly fresh foods and very little processed food. Now that I am more discerning, or maybe because drinking alcohol out of plastic indicates some kind of “problem” (or else an incurable laziness, neither of which I want to be guilty of) I have trained my eye to look up to the top shelf for everything I buy.
I knew, though, on the way to the grocery store, that I would have to look down there on the bottom shelves for Frankenberry, the Monarch gin of the cereal world.  There are only the most subtle of differences between Fruity Pebbles and and Apple Jax, but it’s someone’s job out there to determine which gets to rub elbows with the boxes containing “healthy foods” like raisins and nuts, and which gets to sit next to the boxes containing Red Dye # 40.  And I judged Frankenberry to be loaded with Red Dye #40, so I scoured the twelve inches above the kickboards for my fix. If that doesn’t speak volumes about the severity of my cravings at that moment, I don’t know what does.
To my amazement, though, it wasn’t there.  In fact, it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves.  The store didn’t carry it. I was disappointed.  I think.  I think I was disappointed, but I was also a little relieved that, in conjunction with inventing shock-absorbing sneakers and bendy toothbrushes, we’d come, as a society, to this place.  This place where we had decided that that much sugar and red food coloring for breakfast was just, well, insane. 
Relieved of my mission, I stood there in the cereal aisle and marveled at the choices still available to me.  The boxes were a little different than I remembered them, but twenty years hadn’t done much to change the overall look of the Trix rabbit or the Lucky Charms leprechaun.  I stood there and considered the strange luck I’d had knowing what all the stuff in front of me tasted like.  When I was growing up, we ate a LOT of sugary cereals.  And over the years we sampled nearly every single one of them, even ones with dubious breakfast connotations like “Ice Cream Cones Cereal” and “Dinersaurs”. Someone in the food lab at Post had figured out that the only difference between my breakfast and a common barnyard animal’s was the application of heated air and the addition of marshmallows and goddamnit if my family didn’t buy it up by the truckload. 
Minus the new and “improved” cereals (chocolate Cheerios, for instance), I could almost taste them each just by looking at them.  (Wow.  What the hell, brain?  Thanks for retaining THAT information.  I’ll never wonder why I can’t remember where my car keys are again. It’s obvious the “texture of Rice Krispies” is taking up too much room up there). Standing there, I could recall the joy of having the roof of my mouth ripped to pieces by the Fiberglass-like Cap’n Crunch.  I knew, as well as the best food scientists, the time in which an Apple Jack would become so waterlogged with milk it would lose its distinct apple-y flavor and become just another flesh colored inner tube of corn.  I knew it only took nine or ten soggy Cheerios in the sink trap to fill the entire first floor of our house with the foul smell of fermented oatbran and sour milk.  I knew that Fruity Pebbles were an epic failure of colorfastness and floatability.  I knew that Lucky Charms were *almost* as good dry as they were with milk.  I knew that the greatest disappointment of my seven year old life, Cookie Crisp- a bowl of cookies and milk for breakfast- was not the genius rogue idea it appeared to be.   I knew that the makers of Kix were the masters of understatement.  If a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch was the Museum Bilbao, then Kix was an Ikea end table: simple, tasteful and perfunctory.
Yes, I knew all this and more. I was raised by a generation perhaps a little too embracing of ready-made foods (and particularly, by a mom, why by child number four, was too exhausted to do much more than huck bowls at us at 7 am and tell us to hurry up and pick out our cereal, for chrissakes).We enjoyed a veritable smorgasbord of puffed corn and oats and wheat for breakfast for many years. It was smart planning on everyone’s part, really.  It saved mom from having to cook every school morning, and it gave us all the feeling, even at seven years old, that we had some say in our otherwise highly routinized day.  Also, it gave my mother a reliable timetable with which to plan her day: We would all be needing naps at precisely 10 am after our 7 am sugar high. 
Despite our having spent our college tuition on Lucky Charms and Trix, there was one cereal that we never did get to try, a cereal I was reminded of as I stood before the pink and green and yellow boxes:  Booberry.  Booberry was the elusive black sheep in the GM triumvirate (or quadrumvirate, depending on whether or not you consider “Fruity Yummy Mummy” a legitimate contender) of horror film-inspired foods.  For the years between 1982 and 1995, I stalked the aisles for Booberry.  Alas, test markets must have proven that kids from the Mid-Atlantic States identified more readily with chocolate and strawberry flavored foods than with blueberry flavored ones.  As a kid, I speculated that somewhere in California or Wisconsin, in a weird Twilight Zone corollary, kids were enjoying great big bowls of Booberry, never having seen a box of this mysterious “Count Chocula”.  Was it a coastal thing, I wondered? My young brain spent hours and hours calculating and re-calculating the possibilities.  Why didn’t we get to see Booberry?  Did our particular mix of Latin American, Caribbean, Western European and African American cultures subconsciously prefer brown and pink cereal?  Was Boo just too cerulean and pastoral for our dirty cityscape?  Was he too aloof, too asexual and lowerlimbless for our particular blend of in-your-face machismo?  Did his association with a uniform, symmetrical fruit offend the constantly shifting border of our pork-chop scented world?  Was he more suited for one of those perfectly square states out west I’d learned about in Geography class?  Or did his taste testers judge him to be too artificially flavored for our discerning seven and eight year old liver-and-onion attuned palettes?
Maybe Boo’s slouchy hat and loud bowtie were a little too country bumpkin for our urban sensibilities.  Maybe his half-mast eyes and his outstretched arms suggested something sinister and distinctly un-child-friendly… Or maybe his freeloader’s smile and gimme-gimme posture rubbed up against our budding ideas about the value of hard work being handed down to us by our immigrant parents. Was he the lazy, good for nothin’, out-of-town cousin to our neurotic, ambitious, salt-of-the-earth kinfolk?   I don’t know.
At least I thought I would never know.
Because then the Internet was invented.
According to my research, General Mills, after enjoying the peak of popularity in the ‘eighties, started limiting the production of the monster cereals to the Halloween season in the early 1990s.  So these days, Booberry is only made in the month of October.  Well then.
I also just found out that Urban Dictionary calls a separate phone used for calling gurls (their spelling, not mine) a “Boo Berry”- as in, a Blackberry used for calling your Boos.  Wow.
Also, Wikipedia would like us all to know there was so much red dye in the original recipe of Frankenberry, kids were experiencing a phenomenon called, ahem, “Frankenberry stool”.
Back at the supermarket, I hadn’t yet learned of Frankenberry stool and I had to pick out something.  I’d been standing there for a full five minutes looking at the boxes and I needed to buy something to satisfy my craving for sweet crunchiness.  I had the usual conversations I have with myself when I have to pick out processed food: how local is it?  Is it organic?  How many baby seal pups were harmed in the making of this food?  Do the chickens have large talons? And suddenly, just like that, gone were my cravings for the good junk.  The guilt had settled in and now I just HAD to pick out something more environmentally and gastro-friendly.  I probably stood there for another five minutes in that damned aisle, scouring the boxes for the least offensive, least artificially flavored cereal.  This is how complicated my life has become. Once upon a time, I wolfed this stuff down without a second thought. Now I have to consider things like diabetes, and genetically modified foods, and pesticides and the fate of the whole fucking polar bear population because WHAT IF I DON’T PICK THE RIGHT ONE AND SOMEONE DIES?
When I first moved to Seattle and admitted that I grew up eating that stuff, my friends recoiled in horror.  Why?  They wanted to know.  Didn’t my mom know about oatmeal? They all studied me with a mix of pity and concern, gently squeezing my biceps and cooing there, there.  You didn’t know any better.  What about eggs and juice? they wanted to know.  What about lentils and rice and sour cream? Lentils and fucking rice? I thought.  For breakfast? WHAT?
What they couldn’t figure out is how I still had all my teeth and why I wasn’t living in a trailer park and tending to four different babies from four different fathers.  Apparently, sugary cereals are NOT the foundation of a good breakfast out here in Sasquatch Territory and people are not shy about telling you so.  It was common knowledge back then that if your breakfast wasn’t packed with whole grains and fiber and sawdust as a kid, you were on a one-way train to the Jerry Springer show by your early twenties.
Now, horrifically, I make those same “Oooooooyou poor thing”faces when I hear about people’s bad eating habits. I’ve learned that rice and lentils are, in fact, a very good breakfast choice.  Oatmeal isn’t just for horses.  And it wouldn’t hurt me to have an egg or two during the week instead of just on Sunday. Yes, the good ol’ Northwest has worked its foodie ways into my bloodstream.  I still crave (and eat, on occasion) Cheez Doodles and Frankenberry, but I also keep my ‘fridge stocked with things like Harissa and Miso paste and organic, fair trade, bird friendly, shade grown, cooperative produced dark chocolate.   That old phrase about how you can take the processed foods out of the girl, but you can’t keep the girl out of the processed foods aisle… so true.  So true.  
I wound up getting a box of Barbara’s Puffin’ Puffs, an innocuous box of chocolate flavored corn balls that featured a  “Hey, dad!” section on the back and directions on how to cut up the empty box so that one could color in the line drawings of the puffins printed on the inside.  Yes, the breakfast cereal of my adult life is a gender-equal, organic, recycled art affair.  No monsters or artificial colors here.  Just friendly seabirds and very calculated doses of all natural cane sugar.  Sigh.
I think the production of the monster cereals is slated to start pretty soon.  Maybe it’s already begun.  Either I imagined it, or I must have actually caught the scent of pulverized blueberry dust in the air. Why else would I be standing in a cereal aisle for ten minutes looking for something I wasn’t even sure General Mills made anymore?  Something in me had woken from a deep slumber and was pulling me out of the house, away from the farmer’s market, and into the cereal aisle.  Or maybe I was just calcium deficient for a few hours there.  Who knows?  Either way, I could just TELL something was afoot. Maybe someone had pulled the ol’ recipe out of the vault, dusted off the Willy Wonka style pulleys and levers, and somewhere, probably in a windowless factory in Cleveland, pulled a rusty steam whistle’s ragged cord, thus signaling the seasonal return of my childhood.
Long may you haunt the cereal aisle, Frankenberry.

In Case of EgoMergency, Break (Hour)Glass

Things hit me in threes and fours, usually. It’s got something to do with synchronicity, I think. These past few weeks, I have felt unmoored, adrift. There have been multiple deaths in my immediate circle lately (will write about that when I have something cohesive to say about it). Ever since the wedding (which I will write about soon, too), I have been feeling uncertain about the direction my life should take. It’s the inevitable fallout, no doubt, of going from planning a very detailed wedding every waking moment of the day to planning… nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Working counts for something, I suppose. But my work has never been the thing that’s defined me, so I’m back to feeling like there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing with my day. That, and the presence of so much death has really got me thinking about how to live more purposefully.

And what does the modern human do in a void of unknowing like this? She compulsively checks Facebook all day long to see if anyone has any great ideas. She checks it before she gets in the shower, and immediately after her shower, just in case anyone has posted anything brilliant or funny or helpful in the last eight minutes. Anything to make her laugh or think as she can’t seem to generate anything amusing or clever herself. She’ll check it after she’s turned the kettle on, and again after she’s let her tea steep the requisite four minutes. She’ll check it in the company of her friends, on the bus, while waiting for the bus, as she fumbles to put away her keys and press the button in the elevator, while she waits at red lights, and while she waits for her computer to boot up.

Eventually she will remember there are other venues for the sort of inspiration she’s looking for, ones that don’t include guilt trips for not re-posting some blurb about cancer or privacy or patriotism. She will explore a few local writing workshops and even consider that gorgeous retreat house out on the islands outside her fair city. Eventually she will remember why she got on Facebook in the first place and she’ll visit the blogs of her accidental mentors to see what they’ve been up to. She’ll read and read and read and she’ll try to find her life reflected back to her in the words of others. She’ll come to find that she’s not the only one who feels bombarded by the amount of information out there in the digital world. She’ll find she’s not the only one who is both overwhelmed and unfulfilled by it. After a spell, she’ll find her mojo coming back to her in small bits. She’ll pry that spider monkey of not-good-enough from her back and post what she’s feeling and not care *too* much if it seems unpolished. She will let her feet drift out in front of her as she clings to doubt with all the might of her upper body. Her knees and ankles will bump up against the moorings in the murky water. She will let go of the catastrophe she’s been hanging on to, and she will allow the promise of weathered wood and firmness somewhere in the grey-green guide the rest of her body to the pier.

And then she will stop referring to herself in the third person.

 *clearing throat dramatically*

The Universe (and the Internet) is REALLY GOOD at reminding me that I am not alone in my search for something more meaningful in my life and the discipline to write for writing’s sake. My friend Amber said it beautifully on her blog: we get greedy for the thumbs-up and the likes and it becomes a drug to be liked. And we get away from why we came to write in the first place.

In my clawing away at the cobwebs, I visited another favorite blogger. Mrs. Kennedy has the inimitable ability to drop a metric ton of knowledge on one’s ass. And drop she did, along with Charlie Kaufmann. And, just like that, things shifted for me. I decided to turn off the Facebook notification ringer on my phone. I decided to look up from my screen and out the window a little more often.

And, because I am human, and because the need to be liked isn’t QUITE out of my system just yet, I’m going to post all the comments I’ve gotten from spammers lately that vaguely resemble compliments but are actually just bait. If I want to believe that these words are the things that goad me on to writerlyness, then I want to read these from time to time and understand how seductive (and utterly silly when coupled with bad grammar) praise is. Feel free, when you’re feeling unmotivated, to come back here and bask in the great warming glow of spammer love. Print these up and hang them up in your office and pretend they’re your book (art/cooking/child rearing/martial arts/woodworking project) reviews from a bunch of enthusiastic critics. Just remember, no matter what you do, no matter how lost you feel, parts of Ukraine, and probably huge swaths of Africa, really think you’re the bees’ knees.

“We cherished your site. Significantly thanks once again. Much obliged.”

“Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very great post.”

“Very amusing thoughts, well told, everything is in its place:0))”

“Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!”

“I must express my passion for your generosity supporting men who actually need guidance on in this subject matter.”

“Very intriguing points you have noted, appreciate this for adding”

“Your site provided us with valuable information to work on.”

“Whoa! This blog looks just like my old one!”

“Your site is really good and the posts are just wonderful. Thank you and keep doing your great work.”

Mrs. Burdy Goes To Vancouver

A few months ago, I went to my very first Seattle Sounders game. I was about to tell you that it was my first ever soccer game, but that wouldn’t have been entirely true.  I have vague recollections of being somewhat interested in the outcome of a World Cup a few years ago, but that memory is also twisted up with memories of drinking copious amounts of beer in a sports bar and yelling at a TV screen, so who knows what I was really interested in?  (Hint: rhymes with “deer”.)
As Mr. Burdy will tell you, I am a strange breed of sports fan.  I didn’t grow up playing sports in school (unless you count being the editor of the literary magazine a “sport”.  Because, if you do, then I totally would have been MVP of writing bad poetry).  Naturally, given my moodier tendencies, I wasn’t much interested in camaraderie or good sportsmanship or any of that sort of team-building crap.  I would have won an Olympic Medal if there was a category for scowling and bookreading and scribbling social commentary into a journal, but, alas, the ancient Greeks had a thing for throwing stuff and running and the like. Also, ours was not a particularly sporty family.  My dad didn’t watch football.  My mom did not drive us around in a minivan to practice soccer.  How I managed to wind up engaged to a man with an active athletic life, I’ll never know.  
My interactions with sporting events are few and far between.  I sometimes forget that sports even exist. I’ve been stuck in miserable traffic in the south of Seattle and have asked aloud if the pope was in town, because why the hell else would everyone be jamming the sidewalks around the bowl-shaped buildings? When I actually do attend sports events, I need to pack distractions like you would for a toddler at a wedding. Here’s the indication that my attention span rivals that of a two year old: I brought my knitting to the last Superbowl I was dragged to.  
I’m not a very good sports fan, either. 
Instead of getting worked up into a scream-y lather over the hometeam, I’m blubbering through the national anthem. I then crumble into a full-on emotional wreck when the players stoically take the lucky dozen or so kids by the hand and walk them out onto field for the opening ceremony.  I’m slapping an open palm on my sternum and wailing, “Oh, the humanity!” and looking for the other criers in the room, but most people have their noses tipped into their beers by then and are avoiding eye contact with me. 
Inevitably, though, something strange happens to me while I’m watching any sports event.  For the first half of any game, I’m generally bored.  My brain is taking in all the noise and the fanfare, the amount of corporate sponsorship and advertising, the nutbags with their faces painted, and the general mania that is game-watching. 
By the second half, though, I am looking up from my book or my needlework every few minutes or so. The action has picked up and I’m actually paying a little bit of attention.  There have been a few near goals, some footwork has been fancy, someone has been subbed in, and the clock is running out. In other words, things are happening. Drama is happening.  And that’s when I get into it.  I start holding my breath during yardage gained.  I start gnawing on my knuckles.  I start making those disappointed “awwwwww” noises when the team I’m supposed to be rooting for has a near miss.
That’s kind of what happened with this game In Vancouver.  The first half was a real snoozer and I wound up drinking an absurd amount of hot tea and making multiple trips to the ladies room.  Only in British Columbia would you not get disapproving looks for drinking hot tea at a sporting event. Thank goodness for that. I didn’t want to drink the stadium beer because a) eight dollars for a baby-sized beer is nuanced and charming for about ten seconds when you’re 21 and never afterward, and b) the beer cups had sippy tops on them and nothing kills a good buzz like SAFETY FIRST, EVERYONE!  Besides which, every dude in the place looked like he was drinking his own urine out of a cup designed for a toddler.  Remember when you could drink beer out of a plastic cup that wasn’t approved by OSHA?  (Oh, man.  See what just happened there?  Social commentary. I just won a silver medal in the “Jaded Stadium Attendee” event). 
In Vancouver, the Seattle fans- the people from the most literate city in the US, the city with the most sensible shoes worn per capita, the epicenter of earth-toned fleece-lined clothes, where everyone looks like he’s going camping every time he leaves the house, where the Almighty Salmon is the subject of every single reusable tote bag and bumper sticker- these fans were a bunch of ANIMALS.  They turned their backs to the Vancouver team during the opening ceremonies and flipped them double birds.  Double.  Birds.  My fellow co-op shopping, recycled-rubber-shoe-wearing egalitarians flipped CANADIANS the double bird. Canadians!  The nicest people in the world. I was so confused. Watching Seattle behave like that was like watching a bunch of librarians take a dump on a kindly senior citizen’s front lawn. It was just bizarre.  
Then it was time to raise the flags and sing the national anthems.  And, true to USA form, The Seattle fans belted it out with all the Roseanne Barr they could muster.  Of course, instead of registering that the singing of the anthems indicated that action was mere seconds away, this sensitive little flower was imagining Francis Scott Key huddled on the deck of a wooden war ship, composing his song while under enemy fire, feeling the concussive explosions overhead and the walls of the ship reverberating with each blast, the sky lighting up, his heart aching for his fallen countrymen… And just as the tears are threatening to spill down my cheeks, the Seattle fans cut in at the end and replaced “the home of the braaaaave”, with the collective dog bark of “SOUN! DERS!”.   
The Canadians sang their national anthem with eyes closed and their hands on their hearts.  They looked downright angelic.  World peace was achieved for three minutes and thirty seconds while the strains of “Oh Canada” reached the heavens. If you need more proof that Canadians may have figured out a thing or two about how to get along with their fellow human beings, watch them sing a song about their country.  Next to the warm glass of milk that is the Canadian national anthem, ours is a rusty cup of whiskey and gunpowder, chased with a dram of whale fat and a lit match.  
The other reason I don’t really do sports watching is because they usually involve stadiums.  And anything that takes place in stadiums these days is littered with a lowest common denominator feel to it that usually leaves me disappointed in humanity.  Within minutes of arriving at the stadium in Vancouver, I’d gone to the restroom and sat down in another woman’s urine. There appears to be an inverse correlation between the size of a place and the care with which people aim their excrement. It’s like everyone’s common decency just goes away in stadiums, at big box stores, and outdoor concerts.  A woman pees all over a toilet seat and thinks, “Meh, someone else will clean this up. I’m gonna go fill up on a sippy cup of beer now.”  This is why I stopped going to stadium events years ago.  That and the smell of ketchup.  Can a smell more embody the fluffy-middled, sweaty enthusiasm of America more than the warm must of vinegar and tomatoes?  I think not. 
I wound up standing next to a guy who, for the second half of the game, directed a stream of LOUD profanity-laced commentary to the umpires.  Interpreting my leaning towards him as interest in what was happening down below (I was actually just trying to get a better signal on my phone so I could check Facebook) he asked me what I thought of the game so far.  Hopped up on black tea and the idea that this would all be over soon, I told him, giddily, that I didn’t really care for soccer and that I was just there because my fiance had brought me.  I didn’t even understand what the hell was going on, I admitted, and wasn’t that just HYSTERICAL?  Dude looked at me like I’d just asked him to sit down on a pee-streaked toilet seat.  I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND soccer?  What the hell was I doing here, then?  Um, I don’t know, sir. Looking up the definition of “conciliatory” on my phone?  

A List of Things My Zumba Class Has Taught Me


1. Things cannot be mastered on the first try. 

I know this sounds like common sense, like something my dad should have pulled me aside and told me over a cold glass of milk and an Oreo when I was eight years old.  But, alas, my parents were perfectionists, too. They didn’t even have a vocabulary to tell their kids fucking up was a normal part of life. Back then, not fucking up was a matter of life and death. At least, that’s what it felt like to my traumatized six-year-old self.  Life back then was a struggle to be the best at everything because being the best ensured you would go to college and not die in the streets like a pauper. And not dying in the streets like a pauper was a driving force in my life for a LONG time.  This is what happens when you grow up in a poor but ambitious family: you are motivated by threats of dying penniless in the streets.  My parents’ nightstands weren’t stacked with books about meditation.  They didn’t have time in the morning to write in their pretty paisley journals about self-forgiveness.  They were busy raising kids, and the only information THEY had was from THEIR parents, and THOSE guys were raised up in an era where you got a steely-eyed stare if you were lucky (and a thwack across the knuckles if you weren’t) for fucking up. Back then, you just pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and carried on.  Generations later, I am administering the ruler to my OWN knuckles every time I screw up.  And screw up I do. I am NOT patient with myself, either. The first time I tried Zumba, I was winded after the SECOND song.  That’s approximately SIX minutes into the routine, y’all, and the routine goes for SIXTY.  I had to sit it out.  I had to lean up against one of those  flesh-colored rubber punching dummies in case I passed out. I drank about a liter of water while sitting there and waited for my vision to come back into focus.  I watched all the other women do the routines with ease.  And I almost cried. CRIED!  Because I didn’t know how to do it.
And here I am, more than a year later, with a pretty good handle on my counts, and my hip shaking, and my footwork.  I’m not gonna lie.  Taking those beginner salsa lessons all those years ago and those Cumbia lessons at hippie college REALLY helped with the footwork.   But the first couple of times at Zumba class, I was as confused as a hippo in a raincoat.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Slowly, over time, I learned the routines.  And the more I learned, the better I got at relaxing.  And the better I got at relaxing, the better I got at learning the routines. Nobody died penniless in the streets at the end of my not knowing the routine.  I’m pretty sure no one gave one shit about me looking stupid, either.  It’s amazing how that whole cycle works.  After the first time I got through all sixty minutes without wanting to throw up, I high-fived myself.  I had just cured three generations of self-abuse by shaking my booty to a Pitbull song.  
2, Time actually has to pass, like for reals, yo, in order for learning to take place.
Things get better with time.  They do.  After a few months of regular Zumba-ing, I could see some definition in my shoulders, in my arms.  After a year (and after cutting gluten out of my diet) my jeans fit me differently.  This is after a year, though.  There were many weeks I took off to travel, to work late, whatever. Dedication to a sport is not really my “thing”.  My interests wane, I get distracted, I don’t fini- OO! LOOK! A BUTTERFLY!

So, yeah.  Patience is not my strong suit.  At least with myself.  Sit me down in front of a 9,000 piece puzzle and it’s a different story.  Patience is something I am still learning:  patience with myself, patience with the length of time a true metamorphosis needs, patience with understanding that some metamorphoses take longer than others… Zumba will change you, but it will take time.  

3. Exercise is addicting.  Pain is real. 
I had a bodyworker take a look at my knees and ask, Okay, so you’re not doing any high impact athletics, are you?  And I was like, No way, man! Unless you count all that bouncing and stomping I do twice a week.  So, yeah, Zumba equals slow murder on my knees.  Lately, I’ve had to come home and ice them.  They burn and sometimes keep me awake at night.  I know there are other things one can do to get in shape, but I think it’s safe to say that I am officially addicted to my workout.  The pain is such a minor price to pay for the reward of feeling good about myself.  And the better I eat, the less pain I have.

You know how some people, when they talk about exercise, get all Tony Robbins on you and they swear YOU’VE JUST GOTTA TRY IT? You know why those people break out in a sweat the second they start talking about weightlifting or Kettlebells?  It’s because they have metric tons of GOOD chemicals surging through their bodies! From exercising! You know what a sneaky bastard the body is?  When you’re already feeling bad about yourself, your body bathes you in these chemicals that make you feel  like one more trip to the snack cabinet isn’t really going to hurt.  And when you work out, your body is all WHOOOOOOO!  Nothing but baked salmon for me, please!  I feel like I’m the king of the world! 

That baked salmon?   That’s where I am right this moment.  The chemical composition of my body has changed.  They don’t talk much about that in all those testimonials for weight lifting machines on the infomercials.  Or, at least, I’ve never understood the positive feedback loop that happens when you exercise. It’s one thing to hear it from the mouths of the muscle-bound crazy-eyed types.  It’s another thing entirely to actually experience it.   I’m saying it here because I think the world needs to know this: your body will reward you with nicey-nice chemicals if you work out regularly.  You will become this rambling idiot that can’t stop talking about the benefits of working out every day.

Now, I certainly don’t want to preach that ignoring pain is good.  Pain is a signal that something ISN’T RIGHT.  (Hey, thanks, arthritis!  You’re awesome!)  But, my pain (and physiology) can be managed.  Don’t ignore your pain.  Don’t let it keep you from getting in shape, either. The more you take care of yourself, the more your pain will lessen.  

4. After mastery comes flair.
That’s right.  Once I had mastered the original moves, it was time to add some LoLo flair to it all.  I can do these tiny moves that make me feel like I’m dancing and not just working out.  Amazing, huh?  I think so.  And so does my instructor, because she asked me to get up there in the front of class and help her out one day.  And it was so fun!  Never mind that I almost snapped my ankle in two that one time because my knees were all “Um… hey, I thought you were going to step righ….. WHOA! WHOA!  What the hell!?”

It’s nice to be able to dance in the front of the gym and provide some inspiration to the women in the back of the gym who are new to Zumba.  I’ve had a handful of women come up to me and say “I dance behind you because I like watching you!  You’re awesome at this!” Some have even mistaken me for a Zumba instructor!  Now that I know what my knees are capable of, I can tweak my workout to give myself maximum benefit with minimal pain.  Sometimes that includes working my ass extra hard to take the strain off my knees.  And sometimes that means my hair defies gravity as I pump my fists into the air above me.  Either way, it’s all about knowing thyself.  And this-self knows that what I lack in jumping ability I can more than make up for in the rump-shaking department.  Which looks awesome from the back of the gym, apparently. 

5. I’ve kicked myself out of the Music Snob Club and it feels good.
If you knew me before I moved to Seattle, you might have thought that the only thing I listened to was sad, sad music. And you might have been right.  This seems impossible given my love of all things soul and funk and electronic now, but back then, when it came to dancing, I was a real wallflower.  An angry, mean wallflower.  Back then, I danced alright, but only to indie stuff.  And by dance I mean I threw all 120 pounds of myself, starting with my knees, hips, elbows, and other sharp parts, into some boys dressed mostly in black with long stringy hair and earrings.  And I bounced up and down and pumped my fist in the air and screamed at the top of my lungs “A mosquito, my libido” and I considered myself part of an elite group of people who actually understood the meaning of those words (I didn’t).  
Nowadays, I am actually a little appalled at how much electronic pop I listen to.  It doesn’t help that I still look like I’m  eighteen, too, so the whole picture of me pumping  my arms out from my chest and scooting all low across a dancefloor looks… well,  I don’t know how it looks.  I hope it DOESN’T look like a petite, sweaty, red-faced woman approaching her cougar years getting WAY TOO excited about Katy Perry’s “Firework”.  Scratch that.  I actually don’t care at all.  And neither does anyone else.   Now isn’t that liberating?  
My CD collection, full of moody tunes and cassette tapes labeled “music to write poetry to” sits in a box in my garage.  I still love The Cure and all that great stuff that I swam around in great pools of melancholia to, but, it also feels pretty nice to smile while listening to music now.  It feels nice to know I can count to four, that I can remember the transitions- no, not just that I can remember them, but that they come to me without thinking.  Holy shit! I memorized something not involving the words “my lonely heart” and “the open road”!  Go me!

6. Don’t judge a Dancer by her pants. You never know who’s wearing a prosthesis under there.
Okay,  I don’t wear a prosthesis.  But I DO get a little structural help in the form of patella bands when I dance.  I strap myself into those things like they’re seat belts in a fighter jet about to leave for a bombing raid. I think I’ve surprised quite a few women in the class who have seen me during my pre-class prep.  “You?” they ask.  “Why do YOU need those things?  You’re so young and healthy looking. What’s wrong?  “Oh, that?”, I say.  “That’s just a little genetic fuck-up that makes me a little unstable in the most important joint in my body.  No biggie.  I just use these thingees I bought at the drug store to make sure my legs don’t shoot out from under me while we’re stretching.  That’s all.” The look in those ladies’ eyes when I reveal that I dance with my little foam and nylon helpers reminds me of something very important: we are all judging each other, all the time. And we have it all wrong, most of the time, so what’s the point?  We presume that a perky smile and a brightly colored workout  shirt means that all is right in the world with a woman.  We presume that a neat pony tail and lean calves means that that woman is the apex of discipline and health.  We presume that no one struggles and that some people are just inherently good at everything. We presume it’s only we who struggle.  We presume so much about each other, and it never serves us. This isn’t something specific to Zumba, of course, but I am never around so many women at  one time as I am in Zumba, and I am reminded at the gym of how very, very hard we are on ourselves and each other. This is what Zumba has taught me: the truth is way more refreshing.  So, listen- let’s call an armistice on all this thinking everyone else is better than us.  Let’s presume that even the best dancers have days when they can’t do their routines without assistance.  Let’s starting peeking underneath everyone’s Capri-length lululemons and realizing that we’re all human underneath there- and that sometimes we need a little help, and that that’s OKAY.  Let’s start approaching each other with our common  frailties and vulnerabilities in mind and stop pasting our expectations of superiority over everyone’s Spandex.

The world is hard enough on us as it is- we don’t need to add to that by thinking that everyone is more perfect than we are. We’re all just fine.  We’re all beautiful.  So, some of us are off by a few beats.  And some of us have a little more weight around our middles. So what?  You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.  Some days I’ll dance up front and show you that one move…and some days you’ll come up from behind and remind me that it’s never too late to make a positive change in my life.  

Zumba, of course, isn’t for everyone.  But it has been amazing for me. And not just in the get-in-shape-after-not-exercising-regularly-for-years kind of way.  You can learn this kind of stuff from any exercise routine, I think.  You just have to show up, day after day, week after week, month after month.  And you have to be willing to make an ass of yourself.  And get sweaty and stinky in front of strangers. The pounds will fall away.  So will your inhibitions. The workout is great.  The things you learn about yourself in the process are greater.

Say Yes To The Mess

It started with Heather at dooce.com announcing her separation from her husband. It knocked us both down, Burdy and I. Them? The people we found online all those years ago, the ones whose relationship we felt was invincible? The ones we found commonality with? The mouthy blonde and the nerdy computer guy? The husband and wife team of blogging and software engineering? The very thing we aspired to? The thing which inspired our daily mantra of: if they can make it work, so can we?

Now they are undone. And it rattled us because, ultimately, other people’s announcements of tragedy come boomeranging back into your face and hit you squarely in the nose. Hard. After you’ve shaken off the cartoon stars circling your head, you begin to ask yourself questions, like: could that happen to us? Are we working hard enough on our relationship? What else could we be doing? Should we be worrying this much? Are we judging this event by thinking that this is some sort of call to action? Are we asking the right questions, even? Is this a matter of strength or fortitude, or just how life sometimes goes?

Can we have a conversation about divorce in this country without getting our knickers in a twist over morality and religion? I mean, let’s face it: divorce can be a life-changing construct that’s not all bad. And thank God we don’t live in a country where we have to legally stay married to someone who beats us or verbally abuses us or worse. Thank gooodness we have the ability to undo our decisions. Because what that really means is that we have the ability, we have the legal right, to change and grow. And sometimes, to facilitate that personal growth, we have to do it apart from the person we agreed to marry. Sometimes we change and grow at a pace faster than our partner, and sometimes that difference in pace is too much for a marriage to bear.
Does that mean that sometimes people use divorce as an out for a difficult situation and skip that personal growth opportunity altogether? Yes. Does this mean every divorce is as convenient and quick as a Kardashian’s? No. Does that mean that, with the right tools, some marriages might not have to end in divorce? Yes. Does that mean that everyone who makes that choice to separate from their partner should be made to feel like they’re part of a “pandemic” of disease sweeping the country? Absolutely not.
And what a double edged sword that choice is, huh? What other institution do we have in this country (besides parenthood, and only sometimes) which mandates that we stay in it, miserable or not? We can leave our jobs, the places we live, and our cable providers. We can change the places we shop, what we buy, and we can sell or donate our belongings when we tire of them. Marriage? We’re married to it. Forever. It doesn’t quite fit the paradigm of the rest of our North American upbringing. It tests, too, the strength of our word, and the promises we make and holy moses, if we can’t honor that word, then what does that say about the ritual of making promises?
I’ve been working on this post for almost two months. I have been reluctant to hit that Publish button because I was looking for some sort of resolution to these feelings, and nothing was coming to me. I knew back in February that I wanted to write about the topic of marriage, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, exactly. The whole thing started with this article I read in the NY Times about a woman whose husband announced one day that he was leaving his wife and his kids. He said he was unhappy. And his wife said: I don’t buy it. What she meant was: she didn’t buy that his unhappiness was permanent. And she basically told her husband: Go, leave. Go do the things you feel like you need to do. We’ll be here when you get back. She was no slave to the institution of marriage. She was not so blinded by her love or in denial about her husband’s odd behavior (yes, there was another woman). She didn’t just sit by the phone while he diddled around. She made a conscious choice not to suffer. Suffering was an option, she said, and she chose not to suffer. I thought it incredibly brave, so enlightened of her to make this choice. She waited- close to a year, as I recall- for him to realize that the sweet young thing he was chasing was only that, and that what he really wanted was a change of pace and not a change of wife or family. And he came back. And the wife took him back.
She chose not to suffer.

I read this piece around Valentine’s Day. It settled down deep inside me and filled in all the holes in my pscyhe where doubt, and issues of fidelity and long term relationships had been hanging around. It sat there for about a week and made me feel like I could overcome anything in my relationship. Suffering in your relationship was a choice, I learned. It was a choice. That’s what my therapist had been telling me. And all the self help books, too.
Maybe it’s because the month of February naturally lends itself to discussions about marriage and love, but this issue of marriage and separation starting showing up everywhere after that article. I checked in with one of my favorite bloggers. She’s very open about her marriage and all its accompanying challenges. She’s open about the complex emotional lives of her kids, too. She’s about as honest as it gets. She featured a link on her blog to another blogger. So I went and read that posting. And that took me to another post by another blogger about marriage.
And it got me thinking.
What these women were writing about, alongside their marriages, was their frustration with fellow bloggers about the way they talk about their marriages. One called a good chunk of the pieces on relationships “fluff pieces”. I certainly didn’t want to write a fluff piece about marriage when I sat down to write this piece. But, blogging is a balancing act, and it’s a tough one. There is more than just my life to consider when I write about marriage. Writing about marriage, or anything for that matter, engages you in a creative process that demands brutal honesty. And that honesty invites another facet of the creative process into your life: learning to live under a microscope. Sometimes I want a break from that scrutiny. Sometimes I want to just write a piece for the express purpose of putting it somewhere outside of my already-crammed-full head. Sometimes I don’t want to write for the purpose of pulling people together and creating a discussion around my issues. Sometimes my writing is catharsis only.
You’d be justified in asking: well, then why don’t you just put it in a journal if all you want is catharsis? Why do you need it to be on the Internet?
I guess I put it here because I believe in the gift of reciprocity. Sometimes I just want to read something online and be soothed, made to feel like I’m not alone. I need the Internet equivalent of a soft baby bunny in my pocket to stroke when I’m feeling alienated and upset. And I want to give someone else out there the thing I have been seeking myself. I’d like to think that, even if I do withhold the more intimate details of my life, people are still getting something out of reading this. My hope is that this blog makes someone else feel a little less neurotic, or, at least, in the good company of other high functioning neurotic types.
In practice, reciprocity is complicated. I have to weigh the pros and cons of being utterly and unapologetically honest because of the characters involved. Right now, my life is necessarily compartmentalized. Is that the best arrangement? Maybe not. But the alternative is to spend a whole lot of energy considering the feelings of others, and dealing with the fallout of offending those feelings and then reconciling them, and explaining and re-explaining my position, and frankly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Anyway, this whole topic of marriage and blogging and how honest we want to be about it is front and center in my life right now. It flies in the face of my “rules” about how much one should talk about their relationship on their blog. One line in one of the blogs stuck me as particularly poignant: bloggers sometimes crank out humurous posts to sidestep the uglier sides of our humanity, but the whole reason we go to blogs in the first place is to read about everyone’s humanity. It’s a huge disservice to bury the truth in humor. It’s true. I’m guilty of writing humorous posts instead of writing about the more indelicate stuff. I say this not in defense but to offer something to the conversation: sometimes we bloggers (of eleven-readers fame) need a break from all this hyper-sensitivity to the world. And I’m very conscious of what one long stream of senstivity without obvious resolution sounds like. It sounds like whining. You could probably say it’s too late for me. For God’s sake, the first post ever on this blog is about not being able to find a decent pair of jeans. (Cue the wah-wah trombone).
What I heard in all those posts by all those women bloggers was a call to tell the truth. So. I’m going to try to answer that call.
And I’ll also tell you why I haven’t written much about the topic of marriage, why even writing about it right now feels a little premature: I don’t know quite how to feel about it. And it scares the crap out of me.
All I have ever wanted is some sort of guide, someone or something to tell me I am doing this right. I want that guide now, as an adult, because I grew up without one. My parents did the best they could with what they had, but they certainly didn’t have Amazon dropping off a dozen books on their doorstep (OVERNIGHT SHIPPING FREE!) about childrearing (not that my parents EVER would have had time to read books on parenting with FOUR kids to raise). And now, as an adult, I am still looking for that instruction manual everywhere I go. When people see me, they see a nose ring and my red shoes, and my pink patchwork handbag and they say, You? A bookkeeper? And I want to grab them by the lapels and hiss into their faces YES, this is my therapy. This is my instruction manual. I can’t afford a full-time therapist, so instead I get paid to work out my issues on people’s ledgers. This is what I do all day: I add numbers and straighten papers because I can’t think of a better way to physically deliver what it is my heart so desires: to have it all add up at the end of the day, for there to be only one way for one and one to equal two. I do what I do because I need just one thing in my life to go from chaos to order. I don’t dabble in advanced math. I am not interested in theories or opinions. I want cold hard facts. I want certainty. Most days I just want the edges of the paper to align and for the stapler to pierce them all perfectly. Because at least I will know that there is always a place in this world for right angles and machines that do the same thing day after day after day. After a lifetime of upset and indecision, this is comforting.
Most days I want that neat and orderly life because the disorder of the world is too much to handle. And some days, I crave that chaos with a junkie’s appetite because it seems so freeing. I’ve not yet found that elusive middle ground. I’m more inclined to think that I am destined to play hopscotch for the rest of my life- one foot in one world for a moment, steadying myself with windmilling arms, and then a quick hop over to the other world, repeated ad infinitum. The trick, maybe, is to stand on one that one foot for long enough to actually enjoy my time in that position, to do something productive with it.

When Burdy and I announced our engagement, my brother asked us a pointed question: why, after so many years together, why now were we getting married? It was a punch to the guts because I didn’t have a ready answer. I could go on about good feelings and age and the silliness in calling a man I’ve lived with for ten years my “boyfriend”, but it was more vague than that. I don’t have a good answer. Or, at least, the answer is more out of reach than I would like it to be right now. It lives in this bowl of feelings that include things like “I can’t imagine my life without him” and “I like making him laugh”. Some days, I’m still not certain that is enough to base a life together on. On other days, it seems like more than enough.

I once had a friend say, regarding my indecision, something along the lines of “Well, I mean, he doesn’t beat you, so that’s a good start”. To which I responded: REALLY? That’s the best we can do as women? We start with “he’s not a hitter” as the baseline for our satisfaction? When I think of how many women in this world ARE being abused, I DO count myself incredibly lucky. But, you see, this is the danger in holding your relationship up to the light of another’s: it’s never a fair comparison.

When the world sees your engagement ring, its face lights up. Giggles ensue. Voices go up an octave. It’s a strange thing to drop your hand from a curious stranger’s and admit things aren’t unicorns and rainbows. It’s a very long story to tell while you’re waiting in line at the supermarket, or waiting for your workout routine to start that yes, you are getting married, and, yes, you love your partner very much, but that lately, it hasn’t been all fireworks. It’s been a long time since the fireworks, in fact.
Being engaged churns up all sorts of stuff about your past, too. When we created our wedding website, I struggled with “our story”. Ours was so, well, young when it began, and fraught with tension. It started up at one of the most tumultuous times in our lives. I was in flux between going back to Weird Hippie School, or joining the work force in our native New Jersey. And somehow, in the midst of all that, we found each other and sculpted a refuge out of our time together. Sometimes the best part of my day was sitting in his parked car and figuring out who could best imitate a parakeet’s call. It’s been fifteen years since those parked car days.
There is no way to describe in ten words or less the arch of a relationship. But this is what I want to tell everyone when they ask about our wedding plans. One moment you’re parking in unfamiliar neighborhood to have impromptu sex in the backseat, and the next you’re calling the man you love a real ass. I used to wonder at how people could call each other such horrible things. Now I sort of know. It’s a slow, almost unmeasurable climb up that hill. There is no visible progression. It’s just that you find yourself at some point furious that you have to ask to have the garbage taken out. And you could no more picture this day fifteen years ago than you could imagine yourself having arthritis at thirty-five when you were seventeen. And yet, here you are: hiring a caterer and picking out a dress and trying to muster up excitement about it when all you’re really thinking about is how easy it was to flip your fiance the bird this morning.
There is lots of debate out there about how much work should go into a marriage before you admit to yourselves that it’s just too much. Here’s an interesting assessment from this writer: it’s all about ratios. What’s your joy to work ratio? 85 to 15 seems to be tolerable. What about those days when you just feel like it’s 20-80?
Do you count the ebb day as evidence that your relationship is in the 20-80 range? Or do you count the 20-80 day as evidence that it’s just an ebb kind of day, or month, or couple of months?
Burdy and I go to couples therapy regularly. We were going once a week when things were really unmanageable. Now we’re down to twice a month. It all started when I started seriously considering whether or not I actually wanted to get married. My head was full of statistics about how marriage, as an institution, works better for men than women… and there was the simple fact that I just never really, truly imagined getting married. I had this idea of a wedding. But not of a marriage. So what the hell was I doing all those years? Just wating for us to get old? I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about the “why”, especially why now? There is still a segment of our population that can’t legally marry (though, in my special state, it is becoming legal. Go, Washington!). Where is the power in a ritual that not everyone can take part in? I’m still trying to figure that out. Most people would know by now. And I might come back to this blog after decades of being happily married, or years of still questioning, and either be horrified that I ever wrote this or find it all endearing and charming that I was ever this full of doubt.
Sometimes I DO just need to write about silly television shows and the antics of the morons on the bus. I do it for my own sake. Because I have a tendency to fixate, full-on obsess about the negative. And I’m also the kind of person who takes in, whole body, the suffering of those around me, real or not. I couldn’t watch TV for a while after “The Wire” because a show about FICTIONAL PEOPLE so wrecked me. The national news, too, does this to me. I can only take so much. It’s not enough to say it gets under my skin. It creeps like a fog inside me, filling the tiniest parts of me. I lose my long-sightedness. Suddenly the whole world exists only on my frontal cortex, and God help me if the last thing that got in there was news from Sudan, or of a father murdering his children in a custody battle. I can’t let it go. Sometimes I just need to lighten it all up for my own sake. To keep myself from descending down into a question-and-answer spiral that goes nowhere. It’s all part of the compartmentalization process.

You know, if you pick up a book, any book, on meditation, you’ll be asked to ask yourself if suffering is just a normal part of life. So why get all bent out of shape about not feeling good for one day or one week or one month when the whole of your life has been pretty good?

There’s this tendency to dismiss our suffering because it doesn’t stand up to things like poverty and war and rape and murder. You think: well, you’ve got a roof over your head and an income and a partner that loves you, so what’s your deal? Just shut the hell up already. The message that comes to me is when I put my doubts up on the scale is: your suffering is so undeserved. And that shuts down the inquiry process that is so necessary when considering a decision like marriage.
And then I go rifling through everything I own about Eastern philosophy, and to this study I heard about years ago about how the Japanese don’t/didn’t really have a word for depression, and that anti-depression medication was having a hard time gaining a foothold in that part of the world. Apparently, ebb and flow is an accepted part of the Japanese life. It isn’t an illness the way we think of it here in North America; it’s actually quite normal to feel sad and conflicted for a spell. The study claimed the Japanese see things on a continuum, and they recognize sadness as a temporary situation, like a kid having a temper tantrum. Seems like, as a culture, they sort of fold their arms across their chest and wait it out. So they also don’t medicate. Pretty interesting, no?
You know the old cartoons where a conflicted character has these conversations with a devil over one shoulder and an angel on the other? Well, I have those same conversations too, only on my right shoulder sits Buddha, and on the other a dark cloud wearing Chuck Taylors. And these two are constantly going at it. Buddha’s perky nipples shake as he giggles at me. He smiles so hard his eyes turn into crescent moons. He tells me to eat that second handful of cheese puffs, to have another drink, to not worry about where my next paycheck will come from, to not get so obsessed about the plight of the polar bear, because, we’ll all die eventually and what’s the point of worrying? You have but one life, he tells me cheerily. Use it well! And the dark cloud nervously pinches my shoulder and says See? I told you. ONE life. It’s not enough. You need more time to figure this all out. And aren’t those cheese puffs going to give you diarhhea later?
So this is what goes through my mind when I think about marriage. This constant tug of war, this not being able to feel anything truly because my intellect is pushing books and papers in the face of my heart and saying things like, “You should be able to overcome these feelings of doubt. This is a choice. This is a choice. We have the evidence right here.”
Somewhere, in the midst of all my wandering the desert in February, I heard this on the radio. And the clouds parted, and I felt like maybe I could do this marriage thing. (Thank you, Mr. Tobolowsky).
I feel like what has been missing from my life is this piece where I see that no one dies and the world doesn’t end if two people don’t understand each other all the time. I’m a child of divorce. A messy, crappy divorce. And it happened during my formative years- when I was trying to establish myself as separate from my parents, when I was just trying to try on the masks of adulthood. And so what my soul learned was that differences are irreconcilable. I learned (wrongly) that the inevitable outcome for two people going through a trying period in their lives was death and destruction and unhappiness. To me, it was the only outcome. That was my experience. It’s what my anxiety-riddled brain took away from the whole affair.
Some days it feels like 20-80 with my fiance. Other times I can’t believe how LUCKY I am that Burdy doesn’t just make popcorn every night just the way I like it, or knows just how I take my coffee, or accepts that I have a tendency to leave seven pairs of shoes in front of the doorway at once, but that he also wants to do this with me, to figure this out, for better or for worse for each of us. On those 20-80 days, I want to run away, I want to be single again. I want to join the circus and live a bohemian’s life and take a million lovers because that seems easier than having to ask Burdy to take the trash out. Or having the hard conversations that couples need to have from time to time.
On the days when it’s more like 80-20 , I can see the great distance between me and that wounded child. I can see how it was natural back then to presume that conflict equaled permanent separation. And I can forgive that wounded child for thinking that. I can forgive her coping mechanisms, and I can let them fall away. I can make room in my life for a new kind of truth, one that is still writing itself into existence.