Cooking With (The Other) Lauren Ziemski

Plantains have been featuring regularly in my life lately. My wedding caterer, who was born in Peru, practically swooned when I mentioned I wanted fried plantains at my wedding. I think he might be more excited to make them than I am to eat them. Well, okay that’s not entirely true. I can’t WAIT to eat plantains, and all the other utterly mouthwatering things he’s thinking of making (think: ceviche, well, really multiple ceviches, fried herbed fish, plantains, beans and rice, hearts of palm salad, and, naturally, a whole roast pig that requires a device to house it called “La Caja China”.

And then, this, yesterday, from the Other Lauren Ziemski! That’s her official name, by the way (as is mine, to her, probably). See that? She’s making plantains! Go, Lauren! (Oh, and can I come over for dinner at your place sometime? I make a mean one-handed caipirinha).

It’s still utterly amazing to me that the Other Lauren Ziemski is as similar to me as she is. The reason she’s making those plantains? She’s celebrating the funding of her construction loan to build on her property in Panama. Panama. One of my favorite places on earth. And she’s making plantains. For God’s sake, Universe. Quit it with the uncanny coincidences already.

Briefly, as I watched her chop up habanero, I conjured up this scene where I bought property really close to hers, and we hired the same contractor to build our houses, and the contractor, seeing two perky blondes with exquisite taste in nail polish color and the SAME NAME on their blueprints would do one of those cartoon-y high-speed double takes and his head would explode off his body a la the drummer from This Is Spinal Tap and then the camera would close in on us taking a gratuitous bite out of an oversized avocado and shrugging innocently, palms turned up, dimples glinting like diamonds. End scene.

This is why I can’t concentrate at work. My head is FULL of crap like this.

Planning a wedding is surreal to me. I’ll have another post on this later, so for now I’m just going to say that directing this massive, unwieldy ship of tasks is not so much daunting as it is… well, surreal. I mean, I just told a man that I’d give him half of my annual salary to make ceviche for 175 people. And he agreed! And he’s going to do so much more than make ceviche! He’s going to direct a team of people to roast a pig and plate it up! And all because I said so! Why does this feel so strange and out of body to me?

Years ago, I worked for a sign company where my job was to order grown men (a good chunk of them ex-military) to cut letters out of sheets of plywood and paint them according to the exacting standards of national retail chain managers. Somehow, that felt more natural to me than planning this wedding does. What that says about my tendencies towards workaholism and the inability to enjoy the creative process is probably loud and clear. I think there’s a self help book around here somewhere for that …

Then again, this is a pretty HUGE life-changing event I’m planning for. I shoudn’t downplay the significance of ordering fish for 175 people. I mean, extracting the letter “T” from a block of wood and shipping it to some facilities manager in Wichita so his Intimate Apparel department is restored to its former grammatical glory is not the same thing as, you know, planning a party around the act of committing your life to another human being for the rest of your life.

There’s the whole issue of what to wear, too. I’m hoping the bridal gown world will be kind to the round of booty, short of legs, and flat of chests. Last night, with teeth gritted, I made my first appointment with a bridal shop in town. I’ve been putting it off because my experience with women in the fashion/aesthetics industry has been, shall we say, less than pleasant. I once had an aesthetician tell me during a routine facial that I had HORRIBLE Rosacea (I am of Eastern European descent. Hot water parboils my face every time I shower, it’s true. But I most definitely do NOT have Rosacea). Were it up to me, I would just send a rubber cast of my body to all the shops in town and say: Here. Fit this. Send me the bill than have to endure hours of pawing through poofy white gowns and being helped in and out of them like medieval royalty.

At least I have an excuse to buy more shoes. And plantains. I love any excuse to buy plantains.

Weekly Roundup of Absolutely Nothing


Yup, I’ve got another sinus infection. Shocking, I know.

I am now quite practiced at being sick. They must be getting used to me at the doctor’s office, too, because when I described my symptoms, the doc didn’t even blink when I mentioned the cooing pigeon noise in my ear. Not even a raised eyebrow! Guess there’s a lot of that going around this year: cooing ear pigeon syndrome.

I spent the entirety of last week on my couch. I watched so much public television, I was staring to feel like I could give a dissertation on the Amish, The nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and French cooking.

So…. what’s with Overboard being on permanent repeat on the in-between channels on network TV? Did the copyrights run out on that movie? Did the station just buy it outright and fire their whole programming staff? I think I’ve managed to watch the entire movie in seven minute increments over the span of three days. This is the measure of how sick I was: instead of pressing a few more buttons on the remote and catching up on some of the greats in the world of cinema, I chose instead to watch Goldie Hawn scrub the same filthy log cabin about a hundred and thirty times to the accompaniment of a tuneless banjo.

A few days ago, while coughing, I found a tiny little spot of blood in my phlegm. It was just a tiny spot, no doubt from all the irritation in my throat from all that lovely post nasal drip and subsequent hacking. For a moment, I thought of changing into an ankle-length flaxen nightgown and throwing myself down on the floor dramatically and coughing some more just to make it worth the while. In the movies, it seems, everyone who ever died in the past died of coughing up blood. And they usually did it while stumbling unsteadily through a doorway and dropping whole urns of milk or wine or something that made an enormous, splashy mess when it hit the deck. Also, it provided a nice backdrop against which our heroine could collapse (eyes open, of course), a dribble of the red stuff leaking from one corner of the mouth. Extra points were awarded in my book for the number of women in linen bonnets and aprons who would first exclaim and then lurch towards our heroine before calling to another woman in a different linen bonnet who would be instructed to fetch the doctor for a bleed with the leeches or a poultice in a filthy rag or something.

I was by myself when I discovered the blood, so I calculated the time it would take to change costumes and the distance to the floor and the arthritis in my knees and decided to just toss my tissue in the trash and finish the laundry. It is entirely possible I have been watching too much Tudors.


I have finally joined the world of the living and regular-bathers and have returned to activities that gave me no pleasure but which make it seem like I have “done something” with my day, things like shopping for shoes and paying library fines for no less than what it would have cost me to order the books online. New.

I read an article in Mother Jones (go ahead. I’ll wait for the Portlandia jokes. No, really. Go ahead. I deserve them) about what it’s like to work in a mega warehouse and to have to pack all those boxes full of vibrators and books and also vibrators and ship them FREE! NEXT DAY! to their recipients. Burdy and I recently signed up for an Amazon Prime account and I’m a little disturbed at how fast stuff gets to our door. (Not as disturbed as I am at having to shop under fluorescent lights and be alternately bombarded with standard retail greetings of good cheer when I arrive and ignored when I want to check out, so there ya go).
I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of privacy lately as it relates to our shopping habits, and especially as it relates to the phones we carry. I’m always amused by the folks who seem to think that privacy still exists in this country. I’ve always thought that so long as you have even as much as a credit card, you’re just a trackable data-generating machine. Of course, the privacy crusaders would probably point to me as Exhibit A for thinking that way. “There used to be a time when privacy existed! And now look! She willingly “likes” ‘Cats Doing Funny Things’ on Facebook for all to see and she doesn’t think twice about it!” It’s true: I am all that is wrong in this country, starting with the fact that I sort of only kind-of believe privacy exists. Privacy is like Santa Claus- amazing when you’re naive enough to think it exists… and when you learn it’s not real, but you understand you’ll still get cool stuff, you’re like, meh, whatever.
To me, my shopping patterns are bizarre and unpredictable. To some machine in a windowless room, they’re probably as predictable as it gets. Let’s see… mid-thirty something American female living in a Northwestern state with the most massage practitioners and cute rubber rain boots per capita… phone records and Google searches reveal she’s been searching for the term “Chondromalacia”… health insurance data reveal that she’s recently visited a physical therapist… If we plug in her age and her salary bracket, recent credit card purchases for organic groceries, cute rubber rainboots, and vitamins, and we gather every other bit of data matching that demographic, we can conclude that, since she was alive and watching Oprah while she was on the air, she will likely ALSO (impulse-)buy a book about CHANGING YOUR LIFE! when she orders that Theraband to do her PT exercises.
I bet they’re just dangling that book over the box waiting for me to press “buy”. See, Privacy-Defenders? I’m as transparent as packing tape. I’d like to think I’m the Snake Eyes of shopping, too, but the awful truth is, I read like a blueprint of a typical overcoming-my-childhood, addicted-t0-shoes health-nut and, since I ordered that book online about JUST LETTING GO OF YOUR PAST TO LIVE YOUR FULLEST LIFE!, I also don’t give a damn.


Last week’s bus ride was an operatic composition. The bass notes were supplied by a large man who sat in the front of the bus in the seats that faced the center aisle. He had his eyes closed and I couldn’t tell if he was snoring or talking, but the noise that came out of him was not unlike that of the monks who can hum two notes at once. This went on the entire length of the bus ride.

On top of that was the conversation of two recently post-pubescent boys who were discussing the merits of Kant, Aristotle and some other philosopher. I didn’t hear the third one because I stopped listening after “Aristotle”. And that’s because he pronounced “Kant” “Kantz.” Plural. It was the audible equivalent of sticking an apostrophe where it has no earthly right to be. I had to restrain myself from interjecting.

Anywho, these two were going at it non stop. And their voices were similar enough, and they talked rapidly enough, that they perfectly complimented Mr. Eyes Closed in his meditative chant/snore. They sounded like a set of piccolos.

On top of this was me, coughing. It was intermittent at first, but then it started to sound intentional. So, I was the accidental rhythm section to this bus-song.

Now, my right ear was all clogged up and I could barely hear out of it. I was starting to think (hallucinations: stage five of the flu) that I had been imbued with a compensating ability to hear (with my left ear) frequencies that no one else could hear. I mean, no one else on the bus seemed to be hearing or enjoying this urban opera but me.

The whole thing seemed less like music and more like noise, however, when the boys started talking about phones.

Boy 1: Have you seen those phones, those big ones, that you can, like, kinda trick people with?

Boy 2: Which ones?

Boy 1: You know. The ones that you can, like, hook up to your real phone. They’re like old fashioned phones? The ones with the curly wire thingee?

Boy 2: Oh, yeah! Those things are so cool. They’re like those phones from the ‘Eighties! I so want one of those!
Alexander Graham Bell and the leagues of people responsible for the evolution of the “curly wire thingee” are turning in their Day-Glo Jams, cuffed blazers, and woven skinny ties right now.

Blame Canada


So, recently Burdy and I started watching the mini-series “The Tudors”. I know, I know, we are SO current with our TV watching. Next up on the list: re-runs of “Benson”. While everyone else is going bonkers over Downton Abbey, we’re finally just watching a show from like five years ago, and a Canadian produced one, no less. I just can’t help it. I am somehow fundamentally wired to pick up on television trends half a decade after their premier. I’m just not the typical “consumer” (I’m retching as I type that). It’s true: it’s me. I’m the one keeping this economy in a recession.

I wasn’t that into it at first, those smashed-flat boobs in those get-ups and all that “all hail the king” crap, but slowly, it started appealing to me. Mostly because once an episode or so, some memory WAAAAY back in my head would fire, and I would suddenly remember some factoid from high school European History and I would turn to Burdy and scream, “Oh, DUDE! That’s THEEEE Ann Boleyn!” And Burdy would stare at me blankly, and I would go back to sitting smugly in my Snuggie and (sorry, there was no way NOT to make that alliteration) and start thinking that maybe I should apply to MENSA because I was a freaking GENIUS at associating fictional mini-series characters with historical figures based on their names.

Anywho, this show should properly be called “MAJESTY, CLAPPING”. Because those two actions, people saying the word “majesty” and politely clapping , DOMINATE the show alongside hours and hours of curtsying. I had no IDEA that courtiers clapped that much. The king pronounces he has a bastard son? Clapping. Someone gets pushed off a horse by a long pointy thing? Clapping. Someone says something clever? Clapping. The king declares war on France? Clapping. I think the casting call must have read something like: “Wanted: extras for period piece. Must be able to endure long hours in corsets must be able to produce consistent clapping for weeks on end. Sorry.” (you know… because it’s Canadian.)

I also went to the dentist last week to have him fix a botched filling- a botched, painful filling I have been living with for nearly two years. (If I told you why, I’d have to include a long rant about health insurance in America, and well, we’re all here to read about the tyranny of a 16th century monarch over a disempowered peasant class, now aren’t we? Hey, wait a minute…) ANYWHO. After a week of watching “The Tudors”, my brain has sort of imprinted with some of the language of the time. Specifically, I can’t stop hearing the word “Majesty”. It’s a funny word, really, not one you hear much in everyday speech. Nowadays, it’s reserved for things like sunsets and cruise boats and purple crayons, but back then, it was what you called royalty. Not “Your Majesty, King Bla Bla Bla”. Nope. Just “Majesty”. Like it was his name or something.

Anywho, my dental hygienist, after she’d prepped the tools for the filling, told me to hang tight, that “Doctor would be right in”. Doctor? I asked. Not “Dr. Friedrich”, my actual dentist’s name? Just “Doctor”, huh? And I thought to myself: in a weird way, this is all sort of fitting, really. Majesty/Doctor is going to pry my teeth apart with some sort of metal spreading device, clamp them into place with another metal device, use a long curved, pointy thing to dig the old filling out, then pack it all back in with some compound. Dentistry seems to be the last place in America where we still address the master and commander by his title alone. Which makes sense, I suppose, since it still sort of feels medieval anyway.


January is finally over. Thank goodness for that. Everyone always presumes that April is the busiest time of year for a bookkeeper, but the truth is that, for a bookkeeper in Washington state, there are WAY more deadlines in January than there are in April. Those same people that are asking me if April is my busiest month are the same people that think they can hand me a rumpled manila envelope full of illegible cash receipts for an eighty cent pack of gum, some dry cleaning, and a seven hundred dollar laptop they may or may not use for business and call it good. This kind of work takes PREPARATION, people. I’m getting ready for April in December. By the time April 15th has rolled around, I’ve already received copies of the filed federal returns back from the CPAs, packed them away in banker’s boxes, and have started making plans to mock your unpreparedness for next year.


The middle of January is usually marked by two things: I get a really bad sinus infection (check) and I turn another year older (check!). All this happens, of course, during the very busiest, most crazy-making, most stressful time of year for me. So, since my birthday usually falls on a workday, and since, right at about that time, I am usually ready to tear my hair out from stress, I take a whole day off and go to the spa and relax. The spa. It feels weird to write that. It’s such a common thing up here in the Woo Woo state, but I don’t know that I will ever really be comfortable admitting I like it so much. When I think back to where I came from, the blue collar, middle class neighborhood I grew up in, and I think about that little girl dreaming about her future, I can’t quite fit “spa experience” into it (but that’s mostly because the biggest dream I could come up with at that terribly anxious age went something like, “Please, God, don’t let World War Three happen in my lifetime. Also, chocolate milk coming out of a faucet in the kitchen would be SO awesome. Amen”.)

Now, the spa up here is not terribly fancy- it’s not some exclusive place for celebrities only. As a matter of fact, it’s run by some pretty down to earth Korean women, and it’s nestled deep in the suburbs. You couldn’t find a shot of wheat grass in the place if you tried. The towels are not 800 count Egyptian combed cotton and the massage practitioners and salt-scrubbers and facials-givers are more Russian boxing trainers than Swedish models. So, it’s not about exclusivity at all. It’s about giving your body a time-honored experience of rest, relaxation, detoxification, and renewal. The spa experience is pretty common in lots of other cultures. I’ve always wondered why North Americans don’t get more with the program. And then I remember: Oh yeah! We hate public nudity. Also, who will buy all the mind altering pharmaceuticals designed for stress reduction if we’re all walking around all steamy and relaxed? That Prozac isn’t going to take itself, duh.

This year, since my birthday fell on a weekend, I didn’t go to the spa. And that meant I didn’t take my annual sojourn into the room heated to 145 degrees and sit for the recommended 10 minutes and meditate on the native-inspired mosaic on the wall and ask the Universe to help me have a meaningful year. In past years, I really looked forward to that ritual. But this year, I almost forgot about it. I felt like I didn’t really need it. This year just felt different. Old anxieties are falling away and room is being made for other things, other things that don’t give me nightmares, keep my adrenal glands pumping 23 hours a day, or keep me awake at night. I feel something akin to relief. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this feeling for my WHOLE life. That whole thing about “really knowing yourself” in your thirties? It’s true. I’m getting much closer to becoming completely and totally unapologetic for everything. And holy crap, it’s about time.

It’s Not Too Late To Post Halloween Pictures, Is it?

You know your life has changed in some profound way when your friends catch you in the most awkward moments of your life and, instead of asking what they can do to help, they say, “This is going on the blog, isn’t it?”. Indeed, friends. It’s all going on the blog.

I know it’s completely awkward to be posting Christmas themed photos this late into the new year, but my resolution (yes, I only made one) is to post a little more frequently. So, here you go. I’m only a week behind.
Most of December can be summed up in pictures. I took quite a few and hope to post them before… Easter.
Highlights of my post-Christmas week include walking through the pouring rain to catch the bus and being told by an exceptionally chipper homeless man, “Keep warm, little girl!”. God bless the hard of sight, for they shall compliment the soggy and wretched.
I made quite a few cookies for the clients this year. I even introduced a new one: the Linzer Tart! Yay! (And there was much rejoicing.)
Throwing Stars.... or Linzer Tart cutouts?
These double as throwing stars. You know. For the ninjas in the ninjabread house. (Thanks to my cousin Sue for that one).
My Fav.  Snowballs
Snowballs might be my favorite.
Linzer Tart Cookies
Ladies and gentlemen, the Linzer Tart Cookies.
Wait. I changed my mind. Thumbprints are my favorite.
A closeup of what love looks like
And here they are, all nestled in their tins. Ready for a long winter’s snacking.
Santa's promise
This is why I am the best bookkeeper. Ever.
Butter Down!
And THIS is what I found on the floor while I was cleaning the kitchen after baking. It was underneath our kitchen stool. I wasn’t quite sure what it was at first. I mean, I’d started out the night with a perfectly clean kitchen, so it must have arrived (erupted? metastasized? been rolled in by prankster mice?) fairly recently. So, I reviewed the events of the past several hours in my head. Let’s see… I’d mixed up the dough in the KitchenAid, baked a few hundred cookies… and now there was this brown mushy blob on the floor. Wait. The KichenAid. There was that mysterious thump after I’d loaded in the metric ton of sugar onto the metric ton of butter and turned my back. Ah, yes. It was all making sense now. I’d put so much butter and sugar in the mixer, it had spun it right out of the bowl. And onto the floor. Where it had sat, somehow, unmolested, for a few hours, while everything baked. It was a pretty decent sized lump, too: almost a half stick of butter. It was all making sense now that the batch had not yielded its intended number of cookies.
I’m sorry for cursing you and your recipe, Betty Crocker. It wasn’t your fault. It was all centripetal force’s fault. And maybe my inability to judge when a bowl is too full. But mostly it was centripetal force’s fault. Yeah. That guy’s a real jerk.

Timing Is Everything

I’m not even sure what I want to say here, so bear with me, okay? By the end of this post, something that resembles a theme should emerge. Then again, I haven’t been having any luck lately with things like “being able to form sentences” and “making sense when I talk”. I would promise you it will all be worth it, but honestly, I can’t even do that right now.

I know that I should write a little every day. Just a little something. Even if it’s something weird I heard on the bus (alright, I could fill volumes with that and really, I think we’ve all heard enough from the delightful people who use public transportation, don’t you?). I get a little anxious and can’t sleep well when I don’t write. So I know what you’re thinking: then just WRITE ALREADY. This isn’t difficult. You just write something down. And then hit “publish”. And then you can sleep at night. I mean, REALLY, kiddo, this isn’t hard.

Except it doesn’t always work. In fact, it almost never works. So, it’s something I need to get better at. I know it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be something. I know it can be done. I know bloggers who do it regularly. They just review their day and then write something. It’s that simple. I used to think that was the most difficult part: being interesting every day of my life. Really, though, the most difficult part is making the time to write. I mean, if you’re lacking for material, for God’s sake, there’s a whole INTERNET out there to be inspired by if nothing cool happened that day. Hey, LoLo! Ever heard of a little thing called GOOGLE, the magical place where you can LITERALLY type the words “SOMETHING INTERESTING” and something interesting will LITERALLY appear? Yeah, well, I’m not so good at making time to do that. That’s really all this non-writing is: one big suckitude at time management.

I’ve been getting better at at least thinking I should blog more. For example, before drifting off to sleep the other day, I thought about the TSA guy who suggested my not wanting to go through the full body x-ray was unpatriotic in some way, and my next thought was: Oh, shoot. I TOTALLY could have written a blog post about that. Damn. That’s another day down the drain. But, hey! At least I got to the step where I thought about writing it down.

I didn’t even come here to write all that stuff up above.

This is what I came to write:

Often when I feel like I am the only one suffering through something, I find out I’m not. All it takes is for me to open my mouth and say “I can’t even believe I am struggling with this, but here it is.” And I lay it out, and it turns out that someone ALWAYS has a corollary to that struggle.

It’s so difficult for me to admit when I’m feeling less than. And not just because I live in a fairly affluent city and I have a job (several in fact) and a loving partner and access to good food and clean water and because what kind of a douche bag complains when 95% of her life is so easy? But it’s all relative, I keep telling myself. Just because you’re not dying in a refugee camp doesn’t mean that your suffering isn’t valid. And the more I talk to people, the more I see that EVERYONE, men and women alike, everyone is keeping it all inside because they don’t want to seem ungrateful, or nit-picky, or like Debbie Downer at the party. Our privilege (at least in North America) as some of the luckiest people on earth and/or our shame about feeling like we’re less than are keeping all of our mouths sealed about what we struggle with and I don’t think it’s healthy. So I’m totally volunteering to be the weirdo at the party. I am, right now, officially standing on the coffee table and motioning to the DJ to turn down the music and I am saying: Hi, my name is Lauren and sometimes I struggle with having so much and still feeling unfulfilled.

I was recently invited to belong to a book club, and when I got to the first meeting, a few of the women (who I have gotten to know on a casual basis over the years) jabbed me in the ribs and asked me in that knowing way if I was “ready” for bookclub. It could get real emotional in there, they warned. COOL, I thought. FINALLY. A place where I could get my cry on. And here in the frozen-hearted Northwest no less! After we DID all get our cry on, I approached one of the women in the kitchen and whispered ,”Why did everyone think this was going to scare me away?” And she said, “Well, you don’t always want to dump all your problems on your girlfriends when you see them, right?” And I just stared at her for a second and said, “WELL THEN I HAVE BEEN DOING IT ALL WRONG because all I DO is dump on my girlfriends. Isn’t that what girlfriends are for!!?”

And were this blog a sitcom, this is the part where I would wink at the audience and say “Am I right, ladies?” and then clink wineglasses with a bunch of women wearing fuzzy-toed high heels and tight fitting rhinestoned t-shirts that said things like “Loves to Shop” and “Diva”.

I just wanted to say to everyone out there who’s holding it in for fear of looking like an idiot in front of their friends: let it go. Just do it. You have permission to come here, at least, and vomit all over the place. I will totally hold your hair back and hand you a warm towel afterwards.

I Have the Knees of An Eighty Year Old

Oh, hi.

I kind of…um… haven’t blogged in a while, huh?

Yeah, about that.

I don’t know how else to say this, but, um, sometimes I get into these “moods”. And I go inside. Like, deep inside. Like, empty, echo-y hallways in an abandoned building deep inside. Like, wrap myself up in blankets and read four hundred books on self-help topics deep inside. Like, carry around a journal at all times because suddenly every weird guy on the bus and every crow on every telephone pole is fodder for what is surely going to become my opus and no one had better interrupt while I’m writing down the color of the sky deep inside.

This always seems to happen around this time of year. A few weeks ago, the weather went from sunny to cool in a heartbeat like it always does here in the Northwest, and just like that- like the flash of a ghost at a window- I turned inward and didn’t feel like talking to anyone anymore. Not even the Internet.

And we’re all familiar with that lovely, vicious cycle, aren’t we? The one where this introspection takes over your whole being and you don’t want to talk for fear you’ll lose out on this awesome opportunity to do some quiet soul searching, but then you wind up isolating yourself a little too much and you get sad because you realize all your friends either hate you or have died in fiery car crashes, and then you realize your tendency to exaggerate is, well, exaggerated when you get like this and that no one, not one person, hates you or has died in a fiery car crash and that they’re probably just busy with their lives, and the reality is that you haven’t done one thing to reach out to them, and then you feel ashamed for over-dramatizing the fact that your friends are just busy with their own lives and that there are people out there with real problems, problems their shitty brain chemistry hasn’t invented out of thin air, so then you don’t talk to anyone for fear you’ll sound like a nutcase for imagining that no one likes you anymore, which makes you isolate yourself even more. Yeah. THAT cycle.

When I feel these dark moods coming on, I usually start swallowing Vitamin D by the fistful and drinking massive amounts of coffee in hopes that sooner or later, some equilibrium will be achieved and I’ll snap out of it. I hold out for the day when I will want to crawl out of my nest of scribbled-on napkins and mugs full of shriveled-up tea bags and piles of books and reading lamps and balled-up tissues and pretend like I haven’t just been living like a rodent hoarder of pens and memoirs about war and death for three months.

Well. Here we are. On the other side of that heinous hill. There is obviously a level, a very real and delicate little red line in my brain, that indicates when I have all the chemicals I need to make rational decisions. And I’m pretty sure that when the level falls below that line, I start doing things like wanting to live in pajamas and never leaving the house and eating malted milk balls for breakfast. And when it’s over that line, well! I can handle anything. I want to talk to people! About real things! And I want to plan my future and travel and clean my house! Rainbows appear as if to say welcome back, my child! I’m not even kidding, y’all. Check THIS shit out:

This is what I saw yesterday on the way to therapy. It’s like the sky was like: I MADE YOU A DOUBLE FUCKING RAINBOW. NOW GET OVER YOURSELF.

And then! This morning I got the results back from the MRI I had on my knee last week. My knee has been bothering me for some time now… like, since I was a teenager and everyone just thought it weird and funny that it sounded like a hundred dried up twigs snapping every time I bent down.

Nothing will kick you right out of a non-posting funk like x-rays of your kneecaps flipping the rest of your body the bird, I tell ya. Apparently, my kneecaps have been “migrating” away from their groove in the rest of my knee joint and that has been causing some massive damage. Oh, and pain. Lots of pain. That twig-snapping noise I’ve been hearing all these years? That was the sound of my patella deteriorating. ISN’T THAT HILARIOUS?

Do you know WHY this news got me out of my non-posting funk? Because the sight of my kneecaps marching off into the sea of black x-ray film like they were pissed-off teenagers just made me laugh. It made me laugh in that defeated “there’s nothing left to do but laugh” kind of way. It made me laugh because it was completely out of my control and there was nothing I could have done to stop them. My scrunched up Eustachian tubes? My poor, overworked adrenal system? That was some serious and worrying shit. This? This was and is just ridiculous. How could I have stage 4 chondromalacia at my age? Well, I was born this way, with knees that don’t track over my shins. I’ve been slowly grinding down the surface of my patella and rubbing away my cartilage my whole life. That pain? That was bone on bone action I was feeling. There’s no cure for this kind of thing. And I will probably need new knees by the time I am 60.

I’m not special. Nearly every human on earth has some form of arthritis. It comes with the territory of standing upright and, for the duration of our lives, balancing the entirety of our body weight on two little bulbs of bone the size and shape of silver dollar pancakes. I just have happened to have discovered my arthritis earlier in my life than most people do because I’ve been experiencing shooting pains in my knees when I work out.

So there you have it. Funk resolved. Brain chemistry out of its bad-poetry-writing dark hole and into are there bone chips floating around my kneecaps? territory. All I can think about when I am walking around town is “scrape scrape scrape scrape”. There’s more patella I am rubbing away. When I’m jumping up and down in Zumba class all I can think is “clap, SLAM!, clap, SLAM!” See ya later, cartilage. It’s the strangest thing in the world to actively know you are aging yourself by simply living. It’s even weirder to think that the act of staying in shape, presumably to prolong my life, is actually taking years off my knees, and therefore my life. Oh, Irony! You big jerk.

My doctor says I have a few options: Cortizone injections (into my joint? Are you serious, doc? Because, um, the average papercut sends me into a low blood pressure tailspin. I don’t want to know what a long needle being dug into my knee is going to do to me). There’s also surgery to snip away the bands of tissue that are working to pull my kneecap away from the rest of the joint and into an adjacent universe. Neither one actually solves the problem of having ground down my kneecaps into three quarters of their former selves or the pain that will cause.

I’m holding out for new knees. I really, really hope that by 2042 science has either a) found a suitable replacement for cartilage or b) my insurance company gives me a pair of kick-ass robot knees and that, when I run and leap over parked cars (which I will be doing NON-STOP, obviously), they make a junh-junh-junh-junh-junh noise so I sound like the Six Million Dollar Man. Except it will be 2042 by then, so maybe I won’t be leaping over parked cars- maybe I will be leaping over the entire Amazon (’cause we’ll have reduced it to four square feet by then- hurray for development!). Or maybe I’ll be leaping over hovercars. Yeah. Hovercars. Because that implies that I’ll also have had my biceps replaced with rocket boosters. Or maybe I’ll run a marathon. Or maybe four marathons, right in a row. Hopefully I’ll have replacement sinuses by then, too, because MAN, am I going to be working the lungs.

Come on, science. Hurry up. Mama needs a new pair of knees.

Your Beautiful Thing Is Now Ready For Download

Know the best part of being alive right this second?

Being able to fall down a rabbit hole in the Internet and finding yourself reading a blog written by a brilliant clothing/jewelry maker on the other side of the world and, in the process, falling deeply, madly in love with a musician you’ve never heard of.

I don’t know what it is about Gotye… but I am smitten. Is it that he sounds like the lovechild of Peter Gabriel and Sting with some Jeff Buckley thrown in for good measure? That his compositions are deliciously layered with other-worldly sounds? That I feel like I am bouncing around inside a gypsy circus tent, a mo-town recording session, a thoroughly modern sampling remix, and a New Orleans style funeral march all within the span of ten songs? That his stuff is vaguely reminiscent of that urgent and heartbroken, dreamy sound of the eighties? I don’t know. But I am under his spell. And, after months and months of being on musical strike, I can’t stop listening.

Thank you to Don at urbandon for originally posting this on his blog.

Why Going To Burning Man is A Lot Like Finding Out You Have A Terminal Illness

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I figure, since I never really posted about Burning Man back when I went, that I should do it now. It’s been two years, for Pete’s sake. I started writing about this experience with a bit of poetic license here. A good chunk of some of my best friends on earth are returning from their annual pilgrimage in the desert right now. So, you know. It’s time.

Our Address

There’s an eency-weency part of me that feels like I’m breaking some kind of code by talking about this almost mythical subculture so frankly… but, so many people asked me what it was like afterward and it bothered me that I couldn’t produce a satisfactory answer. So, in an effort to remedy that, here goes.

There are stages.

Your first awareness that there even are stages is when you finally feel how oppressively hot it is. You look at all the veterans carrying on like it’s perfectly normal to walk around in arid 100-degree heat half-naked in swatches of leather, rubber, and fur, and covered head to toe in dust, and you raise your arms to the sky and you ask the heavens IS EVERYONE HERE RETARDED, OR WHAT?

The next thing that happens is you enter a state of speechless awe. You watch the city getting built. The city. It’s a real city. With lights and running water and roads. And street signs. And cars. And when the lights go down. Christ almighty. It’s like a carnival on acid. Now, I grew up in Northeast New Jersey, the neon capital of the US. I’ve seen my share of things that spin around lit with a thousand and one Christmas lights. Burning Man is an entire 40,000 square feet of carnival. One of the most surreal things you can do is get someplace up high in the middle of it all and just slowly spin around to take it all in. Miles of pulsating lights. And utter and total black darkness. It’s like Candy Cane Lane. To infinity.

So once you get accustomed to the heat, and to the fact that most people around you have the physiques of Greek statues (seriously, where are you people in my everyday life? I wouldn’t mind a little more eye candy during my commute, y’all) and that you might be the only muffin-topped A-cup for 500 miles, you try to find your groove.

The next thing that happens is that you start to get angry. Because you see that in just three days, a city has been built. And no governing body was there to tell it how to do it. No building inspectors (okay, there were some inspectors) trying to shut down your project because you didn’t install a handrail in the bathroom. Somehow, through the mantra of radical self reliance, stuff gets built. The place hums with activity. The generators hum, the music systems hum, the earth just sings. And when it’s all up and running, you get a little angry. You get angry because you think about how the whole earth at this point is just mired in red tape and that’s why our global creativity is so stymied. You think about how much could get done if there weren’t twenty levels of resentful middle-managers in bad ties playing cat and mouse with their underlings. You think about things like economics and health crises and war and you fume inside thinking about things like wasted time and talent.

I thought to myself, my GOD, if we can do this, why are the people of Darfur still living on international aid? If we can do this, why do we have people living in FEMA trailers still in New Orleans? Why, with all this collective ingenuity, can’t we put our heads together and in one WEEK, cross a major crisis off the world’s list of problems? I kept saying over and over in my head: we can solve world hunger. We can solve world hunger. We can solve world hunger. It’s not that hard. We can solve world hunger.

But then acceptance settles in and you start to relax a little. I realized that there needs to be space on this planet for the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. And who the hell was I to judge these people? For all I knew, they WERE solving world hunger in their spare time. And this was their one week off per year, and they were here, using the skills they used every day to solve world hunger to build geodesic domes and tiki bars instead.

I mean, there has to be a little bit of hedonism, right? It can’t be a utilitarian life we lead all the time, right? Not everything has to be number-crunching and problem-solving and self-sacrifice. We can ALSO put our heads together to build something beautiful in the desert just for beauty’s sake. Why can’t we get as much satisfaction in building an irrigation system in a developing country as we do staring up into the bright sun at a gleaming metal sculpture that took just as many people to assemble? Isn’t that community-building at its finest as well?

So, yeah, I calmed down. I saw it for what it was: an impromptu community, a city, built on the principles of do-it-yourselfness beautifully balanced with helping your neighbor out. THAT was a miracle to behold. I can’t say that I have ever experienced anything like that in my life. And I live in a pretty progressive city. But even Seattlites can’t decide to build a monorail or a toll bridge without hostility and legal battles.

One of the most wonderful things about Burning Man was how I ate. Or, how I didn’t eat. Being in 100 degree weather does something very beneficial to this sedentary North American: it makes me totally and completely unapologetically un-hungry. I packed myself a week of gluten free food: GF oatmeal for breakfast, rice crackers and nut butter and dried soup mix for lunch, and then boil-in-bag Indian meals and rice for dinner, a few bags of extruded corn and powdered cheesy goodness, some fruit juice, and some electrolyte tabs. Sure, it wasn’t terribly diverse, and when/if I do it again, I will DEFINITELY ignore all the advice about packing light and not packing perishable things and I will take my foodie ass to the store and stock up on live food. I was warned that fresh fruit would not last long in the desert, so I didn’t bring any. I brought Vitamin C tablets instead. But on the last day, THE LAST DAY OF TEN, UNIMAGINABLY HOT DAYS, I was offered an orange from a neighbor. A real live orange. It was cool to the touch because it had been sitting in a cooler of ice for ten days! The person offering the orange was trying to unload not just the orange but LOTS of other fruit from that cooler because she didn’t want to carry a full cooler back home with her. So, now I know. But, hey, that was the fastest five pounds I have ever dropped. I felt AMAZING in my body, lightweight and not bloated. Heat just relaxed all the muscles in my body. I felt invigorated and relaxed at the same time. I felt strong and fit. All the water I was drinking was helping flush things out, too, I’m sure.

You knew this was going to devolve into talk about my bowels, didn’t you? Of course you did.

Sidebar: One of the funniest things that happened was this: one of my hosts, as we pulled onto the grounds, said, “Ahhhhh, the Port-O-Potties! I never shit so well in my life as I do here!” I could not IMAGINE what the hell he was talking about. Between trying to rest only the most minimal part of ass on the seat and trying to keep my feet planted in the driest part of the floor, I couldn’t fathom being relaxed enough to just let it all go. But, to my great surprise, my friend was right. I, too, was as regular as a Swiss watch for ten days. Ten days of muscle-melting heat, tons of water, exercise, small meals, and NO white food will do wonders for your guts.

It was nice not to have to worry about carrying around a wallet. Or my cell phone. It was nice to think about staying alive in this whole new way. I have NEVER had to worry about dying before. And that was eye-opening. The most risky thing I have really ever done was to hike the very slippery 12-inch-wide steps of Wayhno Picchu 13,000 up feet in the air on a very foggy day. (Okay, I also skydived when I was 19, but even that felt more safe to me than the hike up Wayhno Picchu). For all that risk, though, I never thought about my own death. I had knowledgeable people with me, and I had proper clothing and food and safety gear. If anything was to happen to me, help would be very quick in coming. But Burning Man… this was a whole new thing for me. Death seemed a very distinct reality. Or, given my weak-ass constitution, at least a fainting spell or two, or maybe a helicopter ride to the hospital. I have never, ever had to be responsible for my own life in that way. Sure, no one was going to let me go hungry or wither up like a grape leaf on the desert floor or anything… but it was impressed upon me from the start that I was responsible for staying alive. This was not a co-dependent affair.

And I did okay. I mean, I stayed alive, obviously. But I also cultivated an ENORMOUS appreciation for what it takes to keep us, as humans, alive. I’m talking about the transport of agricultural goods across country lines and indoor plumbing and the relatively recent discovery of germ theory. Honestly. Take a moment and think about what it would be like to have to get every single drop of water you need in a day from a well. A well that’s not near your house.
Think about how much of your day would be spent fetching water.

It was nice to slow down and get back to basics (“basics” including costume changes and shots of vodka at 4 am). It was nice to use a pen and paper instead of a computer to write a letter to Mr. Burdy, which I did every few hours to update him on my experience. It was nice to rise with the sun and to be forced by the boiling temperatures inside my tent to go out and talk to people, to participate in this whole experiment.

And this is how Burning Man is also like having a terminal illness: once you’ve accepted your condition, you have to fully participate in the processing of your condition. If you want to heal yourself, you have to actively engage in healing. If you want to let it consume you, you can do that, too. Participating is very important to the culture of Burning Man. It was repeated over and over again in various online forums, and by my hosts, that I was not allowed to stand on the sidelines. However uncomfortable it was, I needed to let go of my hang-ups and social anxieties and be an active member of the community. This was not a spectator sport. This was not a peep show. This was a place to live for a week, and that meant I had to wash dishes and haul trash and dance and play and celebrate and trudge through windstorms and be filthy like everyone else. This was not a place to go and gawk at the freaks. This was an opportunity to negotiate an existence with perfect strangers in a harsh environment in a loving, fair, and conscientious way.

One thing that emerged from the whole experience was that, no matter where you go, archetypes exist. And whether you are living in a city of 2 million, or forty thousand, there are assholes, and there are saints. There are helpers, there are hinderers. There are people who take and people who give. Okay, the world doesn’t naturally cleave into just two halves, obviously. There is a strata out there: a whole spectrum of folks that make communities come together and work in really almost magical ways. And Burning Man is a microcosm of the macrocosm. One of the (only) things that shocked me was a series of fliers taped up inside the Port-O-Potties. The fliers warned would-be victims that “no means no” and that if anyone had been forced into sex while at Burning Man, there was a resource center in the city for dealing with that. Rape. At Burning Man. It happens. So, it wasn’t all peace and love and daisies. This was the world writ small. There were maybe more furry boots here than in an average random selection of the population, but there were the same percentage of aggressors and helpers and philosophers and doers as there were out there in the “regular” world. And there was something comforting about that.

Before I left home, I spent some time browsing online forums and reading articles written about Burning Man. I wanted to know what to expect before I went. The folks I went with encouraged me to gather as much information as I could so that I wasn’t overwhelmed when I got there. What I found was that written accounts usually fell into two very distinct camps: those written in this distant, vague and spacey way, and those written as warnings to the uninitiated. The vague and spacey recollections, usually peppered with inside terminology like “playa” and “cosmos” and “soul-rending” were clearly aimed at fellow Burners and it had the effect of irritating and isolating those initiates who were just looking for practical advice. And the haters, using these flowery accounts as evidence that the only people who went were burned-out drug users, just got booed off the Internet stage and told by commenters that they clearly “weren’t getting it” and that’s why they’d had a bad time. None of this was particularly helpful. As a matter of fact, all of them, the gripers and the woo-woo folks, did nothing to really explain what to expect. And that’s part of both the mystery and the beauty of Burning Man (and I hereby acknowledge that sentiment probably qualifies me for membership in the spacey-vague camp.) Here’s where the inevitable breakdown occurs: there are words for the physical experience of Burning Man: hot, unforgiving, exhausting, dry, fur-filled, interactive. There are less for the emotional experience of Burning Man.

You can’t really put into words what it feels like to have 40,000 strangers cooperate just because. Our world is so fractured; it’s probably been a long time since anyone’s felt that feeling, if anyone’s ever felt that feeling. There is an energy of intentionality in the air; most people are there to share, to be vulnerable. You feel raw and exposed because you, now, are part of that shared, vulnerable energy, but you also feel safe, like everyone wants to push you to your creative and emotional limit, but they also have your back in case you get scared. It’s a feeling you just don’t experience much outside of a spiritual community.

I think it’s because a big chunk of us, on a daily basis, have only the minimum required of us. Somehow, between the lessons of cooperation taught to us in very early childhood, and our foray into the “real world”, something more base takes over us and we become more animal than spirit. Burning Man calls on you to set aside your animal protectiveness and to exercise that spirit instead.

One of the reasons I love photographing hand-made signs around the world is because our response to our baseness is so raw, powerful and emotive. I love most those signs that imply someone has broken a rule, a rule the sign-maker believes everyone should just KNOW, like “don’t eat your co-workers’ sandwiches out of the office ‘fridge” or “don’t pee in the pool” or “please replace if you’ve just used the last of something”. Our world right now is designed to have us fighting each other in the streets over resources and we’re prone, at the end of the day, to look out for number one and number one only. We’re all vying for the same nut. And on top of it all, this same system of limitations ensures that there isn’t any time or energy to sit, be still, and design a space in which nearly everyone can be provided for without all the squabbling. (I’m headed over the cliff into full-on woo-woo territory, aren’t I?)

If I’m making it sound like Burning Man is this playground rules reductionist experiment, then I’m oversimplifying. Because there are real dangers and real elements to be fought against. Windstorms are no joke. Nor is the heat. Or not bringing enough water. Or not knowing how to say no. But imagine, if you even can, what it would be like to fight the elements all day instead of each other. Would it be a step back in time? Maybe. Would it be relieving to pit myself all day against something that does not have an agenda, like wind direction, instead of my fellow man? You bet it would. And it was.

There is a “gifting economy” at Burning Man and it works in magical ways. When your needs are met (because you have prepared in advance) you can then be pleasantly surprised at anything extra that comes your way. Sometimes that thing is a back rub after a day of hoisting heavy metal. Sometimes it’s a cocktail. And sometimes it’s a sip of water when you need it most, or a needle and thread to hem your costume, or the lending of a headlamp. When you come prepared to take care of yourself and to hand out gifts, everyone benefits. There are no expectations, so there are no disappointments. Anything over and above your basics needs are just bonuses. And imagine a week, instead of letdowns by people being inconsiderate, of bonuses.

Just like any other life-changing event (like dropping acid or going to a tent revival) Burning Man is all about what you bring to it. There’s just no other way to put it. People told me this before I left, but I didn’t quite know what to make of this. I just sort of pocketed the information like the slip of paper from a fortune cookie. I was sure I would take it out and examine it later and have it be applicable only in retrospect. I think, two years later, that wisdom is finally beginning to make sense.

The fur, the tattoos, the overt sexual overtones, the dreaded hair and the Mad-Max get-ups… these were the things that were supposed to shock me into an altered state. They didn’t. I grew up right outside New York City; I saw the players and the set of Burning Man every day of my life. The “look” was nothing new to me; neither was the abundance of art or the number of people or the primitive living conditions.

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The thing that took my breath away was how radically different my experience was once my defenses melted away. Once I removed, piece by piece, my denial, my anger, my resentment. All that was left was joy. And the understanding that I was stronger, and, in some ways, more vulnerable, than I had ever known myself to be.

In the Beginning II

Revision, Revision, Revision

I’m going to try not to make this some lesson-laden post about all the dumb white people problems I’ve been having this week, but honestly. I hope we can still be friends by the end of this post.

A month and a half ago, after my fall, after I came to on that bathroom floor, I was overcome with this HUGE sense of relief. An all consuming, holy crap am I glad to be back, ENORMOUS sense of relief. I mean, it makes sense that one’s being would generate that sensation after one’s being was visiting alternate universes for a few seconds while lying limp on a dusty linoleum floor, but, really. This might have been the most relieved I have ever felt. It was almost like the faint to end all faints- like my body was SO glad to be back it was making promises to never conk out again.

And after that faint, I had this perfectly miraculous 24 hours of feeling calm. I practically FLOATED through my day. Stack of papers on my desk? No problem! Giant to-do list? Done! Voicemails? Returned. Emails? Answered. Laundry? Folded and put away. Nothing was overwhelming. The to-do lists that usually trail out into infinity? I couldn’t see them. Or rather, I was aware of them, but chose to not focus on them. All they could see was the desktop in front of me. I was concentration incarnate. I was all soft edges and confidence. I knew everything would get done in due time. And it did. I had one of the most productive days I can remember.

Zumba class that week? NAILED IT. Normally I am scrambling to keep up, all flailing limbs and sweat dripping into the eyes. But that night, I was a vision of grace. I was one with the music. I pivoted when pivoting was called for. I clapped when clapping was called for. I didn’t miss a single beat, didn’t jump when I was supposed to clap, didn’t step when I was supposed to jump. And I did all this without thinking about it . That anxious feeling of not being able to keep up (which in turn causes me to not be able to keep up, which causes me anxiety about not being able to keep up which causes me not being able to keep up) was somehow gone. And because I didn’t think about keeping up, I DID keep up. My consciousness was outside my body, floating up above it a little. I was relaxed and limber and coordinated. Terri came up to me afterwards, sweaty and tired, hands on hips, and declared that the hardest class she’d ever taken. Terri, who’s been taking the class for almost a year and has practically mastered all the routines. Really, I asked, because I kinda thought that was the BEST I’ve ever done in class.

And then it all went to hell in a handbasket.

All that ease and lightness evaporated. And it was replaced with this harsh self criticism that would not let up until, like, maybe yesterday. Maybe.

Everything I attempted from then on, from having a conversation to sketching a telephone pole, came out all wrong. I was feeling so bad about myself, I had to pull back and make a list of all the things I WAS good at just to remind myself that I wasn’t a total failure of a human being. Good Lord, that’s the saddest sentence I think I’ve ever written.

Anywho. One of the things I came up with on that list to comfort myself was “cooking”. I soothed myself with thoughts of strawberry-mango muffins and broccoli-tofu stir frys. I concentrated on the one place I have never felt out of place or unsure of myself: the kitchen. I’m so comfortable in a kitchen, in fact, that I take quite a few liberties in there. Swapping out ingredients for other, less intestinally-harmful ingredients is my forte. Most of the time it’s because I’m trying to avoid the inevitable unpleasantness that results from too much wheat and dairy in my diet. But, also, I like experimenting. I like seeing how far I can go with those swaps. I like the thrill of throwing a bunch of stuff into a bowl, stirring, and then applying heat and not really knowing how things are going to turn out until minutes before serving it. I’ve been cooking for a very long time and I’m comfortable in an apron. I know, too, from experience, that it’s all a matter of ratios. Somehow, I’ve managed to see the kitchen as just a palette where I can mix up the colors and not have to worry about the outcome. Mac and cheese has morphed from a gas-inducing glue-forming intestinal blockage to a light and easy gluten free, cheese free affair that involves making a roux and turning powder into liquid. I’m a goddamned alchemist for chrissakes. Sure, there are days when not everything turns out golden. There WAS that one time I added a QUARTER CUP of salt to a batch of roasted potatoes because of a typo in the recipe. I understood that a quarter cup of salt is more suited to a bathtub than to a baking sheet, but I still followed the directions religiously. What the hell was I thinking? To be honest, I was thinking about a recipe I’d seen for salt encrusted fish that bakes inside a very salty paste… and I somehow thought this would translate to the veggies. I was wrong. And I served them to very, very dear friends of mine, who, thank god for their Midwestern upbringing, didn’t make a peep even as their eyeballs were drying out and their joints were starting to fuse.

Anywho. The kitchen. I love it in there. It’s a giant playground with the perfect mixture of sharp objects, liquids, powders, malleable soft things and crispy brittle things and I feel like a sculptor in there. I feel utter and complete permission to serve a quivering heap of gelatinous failure because, like haircuts, I see my failures in the kitchen as only temporary. There are plenty more to be had and all are recoverable. I can make a bad meal and, because we live in America, and because we shop at Trader Joe’s, there is always a frozen pizza on hand if I screw up REALLY bad.

But, for whatever reason, I can’t seem to take this permission to fail out into other parts of my life. My baggage as oldest child (among other things) is that perfectionism has been stitched into my personality. If I can’t master something on the first try, I literally break down in tears. I become a veritable Don Fucking Piano and I slam my head down on the keyboard over and over and proclaim I’LL NEVER GET IT RIGHT because that’s what I actually believe.

Thank goodness I live with a man who, as part of his exercise routine, voluntarily wears a humongous pair of multi-layered, heavy, black cotton pants ON TOP OF a heavy cotton gi. Because, if he learns nothing else while he tumbles and rolls and dodges men and women who come at him with the force of a thousand murderous thieves, he surely understands what it is to be hamstrung by our own circumstance. Seriously. You try fending off attackers while wrapped in wet boat sails. I dare you. Also? He learns that we cannot all be masters of our practices at first blush.

As a matter of fact, it is routinely repeated at his dojo that Aikido is a practice– there are bad days and there are good days. And the bad days do not equate to total failure. They are just a temporary pause in awesomeness. And we must accept them as heartily as we accept the good days.

Back when I used to do yoga, I was told the same thing: yoga is a practice. There is no getting it right or wrong. There is only your breath. And you can’t win at breath. Except… I tried. I tried to master breath. And because I couldn’t, I stopped doing it. This is the cycle I get into. I try something. If I appear to be good at it, I stop, satisfied, lest I mess up my perfect 1-in-0 record. If I suck at something, that is proof that I never should have attempted it in the first place.

Sometimes, during Zumba class, I look over at a woman in the mirror and I see the way she moves with short, evenly measured steps and I see symmetry and beauty. And then I look over at myself and I look like a short torsoed, big footed, red faced beast frantically trying to keep up. Like an orangutan trying to pedal an imaginary bicycle with her arms. Or a 130 pound salami trying to outrun a swarm of fire ants. It’s not pretty.

Burdy has been trying to convince me to practice Aikido for exactly this reason: to help me let go of impossible standards and to just let go of outcomes. He thinks it would be good for me if I could learn to love failing as much as I love winning. Outrageous, right? The nerve of that guy. Trying to balance out my manic nature. Ffft. Please.

A few months ago, I decided to subject myself to further torture and self criticism by enrolling in a short-lived drawing class as well. I thought: I’m going to try to let go with this class. I already know I stink at drawing. I’m going to just let that fact lie there and draw in spite of it. I’m going to let go of outcomes and see if, by letting go of outcomes, I can actually produce something worthwhile.

A few weeks ago, we learned about gesture drawing, a freehand style of drawing that’s usually done with a pen and tends to incorporate lots of big, sweeping lines and general outlines. Gesture drawing is usually the type you associate with napkin sketches. Aha! I thought: I’ve got this one down! If I do any kind of drawing at all, it’s this kind! I’m gonna RAWK this session. See that? You see what happened there? Instead of being a little Buddha about the whole thing and not being attached to whether or not I could practice the technique, I immediately went to I’M GONNA DOMINATE YOU IN THE RING, GESTURE DRAWING! RAAAAAAAAWR!

We were told to pick something in our natural environment to practice sketching, which, given the area, includes things like moving cars, stoplights, and dogs being walked. Moving freaking targets, people. I can’t draw something inanimate. How was I supposed to draw leaves rustling in the breeze? I wasn’t. I didn’t. I drew what I thought looked like leaves. The instructor came by every few minutes and critiqued everyone’s drawings. Usually she gave feedback like “I like what you’ve got going on there with the circles”. Or, “Try to lighten up on your pen here; you’ll get better shading if you start light”. She stopped by my drawing and said nothing. Nothing. Just complete and utter pregnant silence. I got the impression it wasn’t a “I’m stunned by the way you’ve managed to capture the movement in these leaves” silence. It was more like, “Wow. That’s… um… maybe if you had….(shuffling, repositioning head) if you could just… (reaching for pen)… let me just… (slowly pulls paper out from underneath elbows, eases paper into nearby trash bin)…. there we go….”. Yeah, so I’m not a good drawer. That much is clear. Or rather (and this is the point of this whole post): I’m not a good drawer RIGHT NOW. This is a process, a journey. Honestly. I hate to be all Ram Fucking Das about this, but it really is all about BE HERE NOW. When I get all harsh with myself I need to remember to stop, look around, and take a breath. And then I need to remember the following:

1.I have a talent (okay, maybe more than one) I am ALREADY proud of. Can’t I be happy with what I already have? Sheesh! How ungrateful!

2.I have nominated myself into this category of Artists, Writers and Musicians, and as a member of said category, I have put it upon myself to be the master of all things creative. When I fail to compose an opera, AND write a novel, AND paint a mural AND whip up a souffle, all in one day, somehow I count this as abject failure.

3. There is more to being creative than just “nailing it”. I mean, sure, it’s nice to have people come up to you and say things like, “Wow, man. When I saw that fried egg and bacon strip you crocheted… I just… I don’t know, man. I just connected with it. It’s like you totally got into my head and made what I was seeing….”. Truly. That kind of stuff makes my day. Digging up our common humanity and putting it up on display is what it’s all about, after all. But, does every attempt have to yield pure artistic gold? Can’t there be room for hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of silt?

But where is that sort of example in my life? No one puts their junk out on display. You don’t go to the museum and see “Picasso: The Shit Years”. You go to see completed works. And sure, usually you can see many iterations on a theme, and it’s pretty obvious, given the volume of his work, that Picasso didn’t just sit down one day and crank out a boatload of instant masterpieces…. but, still. It’s hard (for me, anyway) to remember that this is a PROCESS. Why is this so hard for me to understand?

This week I am going to try to focus on the metamorphosis. I’m going to see the moments in between the idea and the final outcome. There is so much to be gained from seeing the process. It’s part of why I blog. It’s why I read other people’s blogs. It’s why I ask personal, intrusive questions at dinner parties: I want to know about how all of us, the whole human race, gets from point A to point B. I want to know how we get from sorrow to joy and back again. I want to know how we get from tragedy to triumph, from uncomplicated to complicated, from single to married, from student to teacher. All I’ve ever wanted (all of us, really) is to understand how to get from point A to point B.

Sometimes I get scared that I’ll get all the notoriety and fame I long for as a writer and I’ll lose sight of the journey it took to get there and that my writing will be contrite. I’m always afraid of mounting that hurdle of doubt and then not being able to see behind me.

And then I remember that I have a lifetime of neuroses to draw upon for inspiration. A whole lifetime! So, yeah. If there’s one thing I totally, totally win at, it’s being human, and therefore vulnerable. I totally rock at being human.

In Memoriam

It’s been an emotional few days around the Burdy house. I feel like some portal has opened, like the veil between me and the rest of the world is membrane-thin right now and everything is flowing in unchecked.

It started last week with a news report that a cyclist had been killed in a hit and run accident downtown. I heard it on the radio just as I was parking the car to get to my Zumba class. There were no details in the report, just that the driver was in an SUV and the cyclist was dead. Burdy regularly rides his bike to work downtown, so when I heard the report, I froze in fear. I knew that Burdy had probably not been anywhere near that part of downtown, but I still panicked. The minds of the anxious are incredibly over-active in situations like this. One moment I was preparing myself to sweat to dance music. And in the next I was imagining the rest of my life without my best friend.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a freakout session like that. I am trying to be gentle with myself these days, trying not to let the words “freak out” enter my vocabulary because they only serve to downplay how real and paralyzing this anxiety is. I could hardly breathe through my class. At one point, while I was I bent down in a stretch and feeling like I would pass out from the anxiety, I started describing my sneakers to myself (it’s an anti-anxiety technique I recently learned about) and I was able to relax a little. It occurred to me that I was describing my shoe to myself to calm myself down over an accident that probably, in all likelihood, had not happened to my partner. Talk about meta-meta-awareness.
Burdy is still very much alive, thank you.
But I didn’t want to start this post to tell you about my anxiety. Well, sort of, I did. It will all make sense eventually.
Yesterday was the anniversary of Burdy’s dad’s death. I quickly glossed over it in this blog last year when it first happened because there were last minute travel plans to be made and suits to be checked over for stains, and dresses to be dry cleaned. The call came on a glorious summer day. I was just getting home from a jog. I remember how the light outside my apartment had that particular lazy summer end-of-day quality about it, the street noisy with screaming kids and birdsong, the apartment still and warm. I remember thinking how strange and unjust the world felt at that moment. I was relaxed after a run, the sun was still going strong at 7 pm, everything right with the world around me. Three thousand miles away, at exactly the same time, there was upheaval and sorrow and loss. It didn’t make sense that these two moments could coexist in time.
What made the whole thing even more chaotic was that, when he got the call, Burdy was not at home. We were dog-sitting for a friend at the time and staying at her house. We had only just begun the stint and we had to call my friend (who was visiting family in Boston) to tell her we had to leave the house in a few hours to catch a flight back east.
Death, in my family, has always been a weighty, grievous thing. Both my grandmothers died within four months of each other in the same year. Both of these deaths felt premature; my grandmothers were only in their sixties. I felt particularly close to my mom’s mom. Her death was not exactly unexpected (she was in the final throes of battling colon cancer), but it was still shocking.

My earliest memories are of her gingerly lowering herself into the pool, careful not to wet the line above her abdomen where a colostomy bag nestled hidden behind her classy bathing suit. She was always dressed to the nines. She spoke perfect English, but still pronounced certain words with a thick German accent. She sliced the crusty, round loves of Portuguese bread she bought from the Ironbound section of Newark against her body and stubbornly refused to use a cutting board. She introduced me to the heady smell of carrots freshly plucked from the back yard and the addictive properties of tomato gardening. She made a mean goulash. She told me very little about herself, just that she’d had a hard childhood and that I should be grateful for my parents who loved me.

My dad’s mom had a heart attack quite suddenly on a weeknight. Our family was always struggling financially and my dad had to ask for gas money from my baby-sitting fund to get to the hospital. He was agitated and impatient with me when I protested. He didn’t tell me that his mother was dying.

My dad’s mom, in the tradition of my family, was a great storyteller. She had a memory like my dad does; every moment of the day was an opportunity to tell the story of what it was like back when she was a kid. My dad’s mom taught me how to crochet. She had a whole room in her house piled to the ceiling with different colored yarn. She must have loved being near the water like I do because she fell in love with my grandfather at the community pool when they were teenagers.

The year my grandmothers died was also the year my uncle was married. I was only eleven years old, so of course what I remember was how perfectly my hair seemed to react to being blown out by a hairdryer for the first time, and how I got to wear a comb of baby’s breath with my pink dress and matching shoes. Years later, when I asked my mom about what she remembered about that wedding, she said she couldn’t remember much at all because those deaths were still fresh on her mind.

My mom’s dad passed away two months before September 11th. He was a complex man who was also an incredible storyteller. My dad’s dad passed away shortly after I was christened. I never knew him.

At my grandmother’s funeral, it rained. I rode for the first time in the back of a limo. When I stepped from the car, I remember feeling like my mom was Jackie-O, and all eyes were on us, the brave little children, dressed in mourning black and walking like ducklings behind her.

A few months after my grandmothers’ funerals, a friend of the family’s mother passed away. We went as a family to the funeral. I cried and cried then, unable to stop. I surprised even myself. The friend, maybe in grief, maybe because both of us couldn’t understand how I was capable of expressing so much sorrow for a stranger, knelt down beside me and told me “You don’t have to do this. It’s okay”. But I couldn’t stop. That membrane between me and the outside world was thin, then, too, and every death at that age felt personal and devastating.

Somewhere in that same stretch, our neighbor died. He must have been struggling with some kind of illness. His wife, a former NYC Rockette, her feet twisted from years in toe-shoes, ran over to our yard in just her housecoat, yelling over the gate as she ran, “He’s gone! Oh, God! He’s gone!”

So you see, death is a heavy, terrible thing in my family. And this is why Burdy’s dad’s passing was so life-changing for me. And why I still have a lot to learn about living. And why, if I understood more about how to really live, a bicycle accident that didn’t happen to my fiance wouldn’t send me into a anxiety-driven tailspin.

Burdy’s dad, who I called “Poppi”, lived a long life. Burdy details some of it here. His father’s name was Stanley, too. He became a father to Burdy late in his life. He was 55 when his second son was born. His first was born in Ukraine, to his first wife, and he didn’t know she was pregnant at the time. He had to flee his native country, the threat of imprisonment looming large for having deserted the Russian army during the war. He left with the classic immigrant’s fare of two dollars and the shirt on his back, literally. When he got to America, he knew almost no one and he didn’t speak the language. He built himself up from nothing. He worked his way up from lineman to foreman in a factory, impressing his superiors with his quick command of the language and his proclivity for hard work. He smiled a lot. He was a classic charmer; he turned, in his lifetime, bushels and bushels of lemons into gallons and gallons of lemonade.

He was a hard man to get a straight answer out of sometimes. I believe his life necessitated this. He grew up in an era where expressing national pride was dangerous. Hard work was the order of the day and standing out in a crowd was frowned upon. He came of age in a time of great upheaval and change. I mistook his dismissive attitude towards negativity as denial, but I learned over time what a necessary thing that attitude was to his survival, and I learned to appreciate it. Poppi was able to put in its rightful historical place all the events of his life and not hold a grudge. He had a way with a dirty joke and a wink. He was a brilliant chameleon, a true survivor, and a master of adaptation.

I learned a lot from Poppi.

At Poppi’s funeral, there was no carrying on, no rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. It was all very civil and simple and beautiful. This was quite the departure from my childhood funeral experiences. I couldn’t fully comprehend it at the time, so I talked to Burdy about it. “He’s had a very full life, sweets”, he explained to me patiently. And it hit me then: this was the difference. Poppi wasn’t taken in this dramatic “before his time” sort of way like everyone in my life. He lived till he was eighty-eight years old. He needed drugs to keep his heart ticking and his blood thin, but he was still lucid. He still wore a pressed shirt and dress slacks. He made his own breakfast and still sat the bar of the restaurant he owned with his wife. He did not suffer at the end of his life. He was able to reflect on the bounty life had offered him and smile at his luck. He had owned airplanes and luxury cars. He’d bought and sold property. He had managed a restaurant for forty years. He’d traveled. He had gambled and lost and gambled and won. Most importantly, he’d produced three wonderful children, two of whom, at least, I have gotten to know in my lifetime and who carry his same lust for life.

Towards the end of his life, Poppi was on so much medication that it was, even to him, almost comical that it took so much to keep him alive. He would line the dozen or so orange pharmacy bottles up on the kitchen table with his glass of water in the morning and would tell us with a sad smile, as we poked at our eggs and bacon, “It’s nice to get old, but it’s not nice to age”.

Poppi was a man who wasn’t much for the rules. Against his doctor’s orders, and with a wink at the bartender, he’d order a shot glass of wine with his dinner. “Just a little bit of grape juice”, he’d call it, showing us with thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Nothing wrong with that, right?” he’d ask. And there wasn’t. You couldn’t deny the old man his grape juice.

Last night, Burdy and I had a shot of “grape juice” in his honor. We toasted “To Poppi” and downed the wine. There were no tears. Just smiles twisting into puckers as the acidic liquid hit our tongues and smiles again as the warmth settled inside us.