Angels Landing

Image courtesy of Chris Giard

One of my favorite things about hiking is it provides me with endless metaphors for life. The most common one I think of is when you’re hiking a mountain, and you feel like you’re in the final turn, but it turns out there are several more switchbacks to traverse. It’s that feeling that you’re never really done and you never really “get it” – you’re constantly learning and climbing, for better or for worse. Or when you find yourself looking at the trail in front of you and forget to look at the view around you. Or when you’ve overcommitted to a trail, and you realize the only way to get to the end is to just put one foot in front of the other over and over again.

For no less than a year, I’ve been struggling with depression. It crept up on me, and I believed that it was mostly situational. I did a major move and dealt with job layoffs which are two huge stressors to experience on their own, never mind together. I often think of mood as having a baseline with peaks and dips. When I was in college, my baseline was the lowest it’s ever been – it was a struggle to get up most mornings. A few years ago, my baseline was the highest it’s ever been – I was truly happy and felt mostly complete. Since that height, my baseline has dipped lower and lower. A few events happened that helped it sink – I had a little bit of a health scare, my dad died, my best friend became very ill, a close friendship ended, and then of course, the ordeal with the layoff.  Great things happened in that timeframe as well, but these events made me think my sad mood was just situational and if I could only get through them I’d be fine again.

Things are situationally really good right now. I finally put some of my music out there, I have a phenomenal work-from-home gig, I have the flexibility in my schedule to make time to enjoy life. Yet… I feel sad and incredibly isolated. Not in the work-from-home isolated way, but in the “something is wrong with me, I can’t talk to anyone about it and why can’t I just feel and act like a normal person?!?” way. I have good days, and I have down days. My down days aren’t like they were in college, thankfully – I get very sad and feel a mixture of hopelessness and worthlessness, but I can still get out of bed. I also am mostly able to recognize when this sadness is trying to seduce me, and I make a point to go outside and look at the water or explore the city. Distractions and changes of scenery are exceptionally helpful. But that sadness and isolation still lingers on some level.

I was recently thinking about my “Reach Out” post and how many wonderful people I have in my life. I thought, “hmm, maybe I can reach out to my friends about this.” I walked it through my mind, because of course I could do this. There are a ton of loving people around me, and I know I have their support. As I walked through the scenario in my mind, I realized that it is a pointless endeavor. What happens after you tell people you are struggling with depression? What fairy dust can they possibly throw on you to make it go away? A memory of one of my hiking experiences popped into my mind as I thought it through:

Several years ago, Chris and I were hiking on the Angels Landing Trail at Zion National Park. It is not a trail for the faint of heart or the out-of-shape. Most of the 2.4 mile trek is at a 30% incline, and towards the end of the hike, you deal with narrow walkways with steep drop offs. I’m not too bad with heights, but I have my limits. There was this one stretch where they bolted a metal chain into rock, and you had to hold onto it while you stepped up and down onto rocks and outcroppings. Beyond those rocks was a steep slope and then a 3,000 foot drop off. I initially crossed it and felt exceptionally uneasy. I told Chris I couldn’t complete the hike, as I knew the final leg contained a very narrow walkway with a sheer drop on either side. I knew I’d be too shaky to do it. We decided to turn around. Chris went first and I started to follow him. Going back was even harder – there were parts where I had to lower my foot behind me to find a rock to rest on. At one point, I couldn’t feel where the rock was, and I began to panic. I started to hyperventilate and my limbs felt like jello. My hands shook, I started to cry. There was nothing Chris could do other than watch me and try to calm me down.

There was a moment as that all was happening where the thought entered my mind – I have to do this on my own. No one can help me – I have to calm down and get across. I knew only I could get myself out of this situation. I took a few deep breaths. Okay…okay…okay…I can do this. I can do this. I lowered my foot and trusted Chris when he said the rock was right there. I did it again and again until I made it to the clearing on the other side. Of course, when I got there, I cried and hugged Chris to release all of that anxiety, but the important part is, I got myself through it.

This memory popped into my head, because it is very much like being depressed and getting through depression. You can have support around you and waiting for you on the other side, but in the end, you’re the only one who can take each blind step forward. You’re the only one who can calm yourself down or get yourself out of bed in the morning, putting one foot in front of the other. You’re the only one who can communicate to a therapist, and you’re the only one who can allow yourself to get better. It’s not a single choice – it’s a series of choices. It’s that constant pushing to get better when that warm, heavy blanket of depression is weighing you down and tempting you. It’s resisting the temptation often no matter how tired you are or how much bullshit is thrown at you, because eventually it’s going to get a little better, in time potentially a lot better. I don’t want to cling to the side of a rock, isolated and sobbing. I need to move my feet.

To my friends – if I seem a little distant or sad or off, I’m still on the side of that cliff, but I have to believe I’ll get past it. I know you’re there waiting for me at the clearing, and I’m going to get to you. The first blind step behind me is just centimeters from my toes…

Does He Like You? A Junior High Guide

[Note: While I'm pulling my hair out house-hunting, long-distance romancing and dealing with the other wonderful blessings befallen on me at this joyous time, enjoy this older favorite, originally published on August 28, 2011]

Let’s face it; dating is never easy.  The first lesson we Virgins to Life all learn, thanks to Head & Shoulders commercials, is you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  When we’re in junior high, we begin to not only become aware of the opposite sex, but we learn there is a delicate protocol one must follow so that first impression isn’t ruined by tomfoolery.  Armed with considerable peer research and an unfortunately high level of personal expertise in the gangly/flat-chested/awkward teen phase, I compiled this standardized guide to finding out and acting on the most important question you will face in your life: Does he like you?

Now, you may think this has a simple course of action.  Your instinct may be asking him for his phone number.  DO NOT DO THIS.  While there is the possibility you may actually get his phone number, this breach in protocol is far more likely to shift the universe out of your favor.  Seas will rise, volcanos will erupt, he will laugh at you and his friends will start a rumor that you are a slut.  If your name starts with an “S” or can even loosely rhyme with a body part, your chance of failure is exponentially worse.  And that will be the end of it.  Do you want that?  Look, I’m going to tell it to you straight: if you fail, you will never kiss that boy you like, let alone marry him.  And you know what?  Junior high school rumors are just like your “permanent record” – they will follow you through college.  You can’t escape them.   So, on to:

Step One: Identification of your crush

The Guy probably said a funny joke to you.  You realize he is kind of cute and seems sweet.  His eyes are kind of dreamy.  Good.  That’s a crush.  On to the next step.

Step Two: Is he looking at you?

So when you’re sitting there in class, look at him.  Is he looking at you?  No?  Well, keep looking.  Is he looking at you yet?  Not yet?  Well keep at it, sister!  Ooo!  Ooo!   He looked!  Now look away quickly.  QUICKLY! For God’s sake, don’t hold his gaze!   Look bored.  Ok.  Now look casually back at him…is he looking at you?  Repeat this process as needed until you are satisfied that yes, he looks at you on occasion.

Step Three:  Determining Astrological Compatibility

The next step is to find out his sign.  This can be pretty tricky, but through proper reconnaissance it isn’t too daunting.  The most common way to get it is to talk about birthdays or astrological signs with a group of people near him, and a trusted confidant can ask him on your behalf.

Once you have secured his birth date, consult the Bible for Teen Girls: “Love Signs” by Linda Goodman.  Yes, your hippie, ceramic-making aunt probably owned this book at some point, but despite the groovy 70s prose, it is quite useful for determining compatibility.  Proof?  It told me I was not compatible with River Phoenix, Brett Michaels, or the drummer from Stryper.  I was heartbroken at the time, but look at me now – was it not correct?  “Love Signs” saved me from a yellow and black attack.

Step 4:  Tarot Cards

So you’ve already dipped a toe into the dark side by messing with Astrology.  Why not dip the whole foot in and try out Tarot Cards?  Yeah, people say you’re summoning the devil, but like, you’re doing it for love.  That can’t be bad.  Plus, you listen to Stryper, so that has to off-set some of that evil, right?  Buy the deck, hide it from mom and dad and get to work!   Go on, shuffle them, cut them, lay them out…

The Death card.  Well… death doesn’t mean death.  It means…rebirth?  The end to something?  It could mean that he’s in a bad relationship and it’s coming to an end.  And you could help pick up the pieces.  Aww.  See?  Ok, keep on flipping.  Okay, yeah.  The Tower looks pretty scary.  But see, this is all about interpretation: maybe those people falling out of the tower represent falling…in love?  Next card.  Oh.  The Devil.  Well… that’s…it could mean… okay, let’s move on to the next thing, shall we?

Step 5: Ouija Boards

Yes, I know you heard that this is also a tool of the devil, but if it were, why would Parker Brothers make one?  Are the makers of Monopoly and Aggravation devil-worshippers?  If they are, why are they so successful?  Huh?  Go ahead, ask the Ouija Board if the Guy likes you.  NO, DON’T DO IT ALONE! HAVE YOU NOT SEEN “WITCHBOARD?!”  Oh, you haven’t?  Okay, go watch “Witchboard.”  If nothing else, it will teach you how to properly say Ouija.  I’ll wait here until you are done.

Okay, okay, calm down.  That didn’t end well, did it?  Yes, I know Patch died and the lady from the Whitesnake videos got all crazy, but she’s all right now, isn’t she?

 

Oh, um.  Yeah.  Okay, we are damaging your chances here with all the dabbling in the Dark Arts; let’s do an emergency next step to undo the bad luck we created from having you ask lesser demons if a boy likes you:

Step 6: Listen to Stryper Music and Throw Away Your Motley Crue Tapes

This is true: reading Stryper lyrics is just like reading a prayer.  It makes the Devil go back to Hell.  No, you don’t have to dress in yellow and black until God forgives you.  To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure where that whole thing came from.  Yes, I read the bible verse they put on their logo.  No, the yellow and black thing doesn’t make any more sense.  Just go with it.  Read their lyrics.  Feel better?  Ready to get see if he likes you?  Okay.  Let’s continue:

Step 7: Is he still looking at you?

Does he still occasionally look at you?  Do you casually avert his gaze?  Good.  You’re learning!  On to step 8.

Step 8:  The Amway Approach

This step is really tricky, because you need to have a few confidantes you can trust, and in the world of junior high girls, the odds are against you.  So here’s what you do: have a friend tell another friend that they heard he likes you.  That friend tells a friend, and that friend tells a friend, and it keeps on going until it gets to him, and you can find out if he laughs at the rumor, or is cool with it.  This works best when there is a long line of friends telling friends before it gets to him.  If you have too few, then it’s obvious you started this yourself.  If you have too many, then you risk becoming the class joke.

What?  He actually seems interested in you?  Congratulations!  On to step 9.

Step 9: OMG He likes you.

He likes you.  Oh my God.  His friend told you so.  His friend just walked right up to you and sweetly told you that the guy likes you.  Yes, the friend was really cute about it…he did look kind of shy.  But, hey, your guy likes you!  You’ve achieved success!

Step 10:  His friend is kind of cute.

Yes, he made a really funny joke about how the guy likes you.  Yes, he is good-looking and has chocolaty-brown hair.  But let’s talk about the next step here; the guy likes you, we still have work to do, we…

Step 11:  His friend seems really sweet.  The Guy is kind of a dork, actually.

You think so?  But why did you like him in the first place?  Oh, you feel a special connection to the friend because he talked to you.  You’ve gotten to know him, and now you really like him?  But you spoke to him once… ok… fine…

Step 12:  Is he looking at you?

The Ways I’d Show My Parents

As kids, there is nothing we want more than to taste sweet, sweet revenge when we don’t get our way.  As for me, I was a 7 year-old Count of Monte Cristo – when someone wronged me, I had an overly elaborate plan to get back at them.  I knew it would take time to really blossom, but oh, the payoff would be mine.  MINE I TELL YOU!

There were certain things I would do whenever my mother said “no” or yelled at me for something:

1. Stomp and Slam  
I learned this one from my teenage sisters.  Our rooms were on the third floor of the house, which made for exceptionally dramatic exits.  If the argument took place on the main floor, it would end with someone yelling “FINE!”, then STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP-STOMP SLAM!  And our doors were perfect for slamming – they were made of cheap paneling and had zero weight or drag to them.  They echoed when you slammed them, and were perfectly aerodynamic for the angry daughter.  A basement rage was the best, because it was basically Stomp and Slam in two acts.  And you had to slam the door harder, so mom and dad could hear it.

2. Hiding and/or Never.Talking.Ever.Again.
Stomp and Slam, though therapeutic, was not incredibly effective for me.  I suspect because my parents went through it many times before with my sisters.

When you are 7 or so, you think that hiding or never talking is the cruelest thing you can do to your parents, because you believe you are the center of their universe.  In reality, they are just thankful you are off quietly doing something without them for a period of time.  This makes stewing in the laundry hamper for two hours way less satisfying, let me tell you.

The one exception to this is when I freaked the shit out of my family by hiding.  Let this be known as the Last Time I Did This:

My family was a big fan of hand-me-downs.  If the item lasted, the clothing would be passed from my cousin Cathy, to my sister Chrissy, to my other sister Melissa, to my cousin Susie and finally to me.  That was generally okay, despite looking like a fashion pariah.  The Cardinal Sin was when boy clothing was thrown into the mix – one time I received a shirt in the hand-me-down bag that was clearly a boy’s shirt, and clearly belonged to one of my male cousins.  I absolutely did not want to dress like a boy any day, especially not the day celebrating our independence.  I cried and squirmed as my mom forced me to wear it.  I could not be seen wearing this ugly pale yellow boy’s shirt, so I decided to show them – I hid behind my dad’s Mustang in the garage.

About 15 minutes or so after guests arrived, I suddenly hear someone say, “Where’s Anne-Marie?” (they actually used my childhood nickname which I will NEVER EVER REVEAL TO YOU because of its 70s-sounding disco-style embarrassment).  Someone said, “I don’t know.  Anne-Marie!?” And people began calling my name.  I sat there thinking, yes, motherfuckers! This is what you get for putting me in a boy’s shirt!  Someone walked into the garage and I held my breath like I was Linda Hamilton and they were the Terminator.  They walked out and I felt like I was home free.

Then people started freaking out.

They split up and tried searching the neighborhood and asking neighbors if they saw me.   Through a window in the garage, I saw someone walking up our driveway, desperately calling my name.  It was the first time in my life I thought, shit just got real.  I thought about calling back and ending the search, but realized I’d get in trouble.  I didn’t exactly have a plan B, or even a next step, which is typical of all of my revenge plots as a child. I just sat there, wondering how the hell I was going to get out of this one.  I couldn’t sneak out – they had someone stationed right at our patio.

Finally, my dad wandered into the garage.  Dads somehow know these things…as I heard his footsteps approach, I played possum and pretended to be asleep.  He “woke” me up, and I feigned grogginess telling him I was sleeping.  He picked me up and called off the search.  I started crying because I in part felt shitty for scaring everyone, and I still had to face the world in my ugly yellow boy shirt.  Everyone “awwwed.”  I was such a shit.  I never had to wear that damned shirt again, though.

3. Running Away
Since Hiding was removed from my wheelhouse, I had to turn to actually running away.  I pretty much cover this here.

4. Flushing the toilet over and over
When all else fails, get them on their cheapest utility bill.  At least I think that was my reasoning – I remember being really angry and thinking, I’ll show them! and flushing the damn toilet repeatedly.  But this was no big-city toilet – we lived in the ‘burbs of Connecticut – you had to wait forever for the tank to fill.  To reenact:

I am so mad at them! How dare they tell me I can’t play outside! I’ll show them!

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh(3 minutes later)shhhhht.

Pause.

ANARCHY!

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh(3 minutes later)shhhhht.

Pause.

This is getting boring.

Voice from other side of door: “Anne-Marie, are you okay in there?”

“Yeah, mom.”

Grrrr.

Flushhhh…..
shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Oh, forget it.

 

The Queens of the In Crowd

*Names with an asterisk have been changed

Our bus rolled up to the campgrounds, and we all filed out of the bus in the most angsty teenager way possible.  Too cool for school, too cool for nature.  I looked around.  For one week, I’d be stuck in the middle of the woods with a bunch of kids I tried to avoid every day.  Great.

They had let us know ahead of time that there would be two cabins per gender, and we got to pick our bunkmate.  I shared a bunk with my best friend Rachel, who gave me the top bunk.  That’s a good friend, because everyone knows the top bunk is the shit. We crossed our fingers hoping we’d get to bunk with our friends Jenique and Kelly, but we wound up being placed in a cabin with some of the Queens of the In Crowd and girls from some school in Vermont.

When dinnertime came, the teachers and counselors called us up to the common area.  We entered in, selecting our seats at long tables.  The counselor-type people explained the rules of Nature’s Classroom.  For example, we couldn’t add sugar to anything, because they wanted to torture us.  They also made a big deal of ort.  Per Merriam-Webster, ort is a morsel (or morsels) of leftover food.  They told us that all of the ort we left on our plates would be weighed, then placed in a trough and given to the pigs.  Even though it likely made the pigs happy, ort was a bad word; it was waste.  It was evidence of our spoiled culture of over-consumption.
During the ort speech, I looked over to watch one of my teachers, Mr. Leed*, standing alongside the counselor-type people at Nature’s Classroom.  I knew he was totally eating this up, leaving no ort behind.  If he had his way, he’d live at Nature’s Classroom and never leave.  Mr. Leed was an ex-hippie who often would break from his teaching to yell at us for being so spoiled and horrible.  A lot of what he said was true, but the lectures would get tiring and somewhat insulting to some of us who weren’t wealthy.  He’d go off on a rant that usually started off with, “you all go home to your four televisions and three VCRs…” Rachel would literally plug her ears.  He would often ask to see a show of hands for those of us who had cable or more than one television, then berate us for being so over-privileged – as if everyone who raised their hand told the truth.  There were a lot of well-off kids in our school, and your family’s perceived lack of wealth could be used against you.  In Nature’s Classroom, however, we were all equals – until we decided we were better than the kids from Vermont.

After eating and braving through a gaggle of 13 year-old girls trying to shower with a limited hot water supply, Rachel and I arrived back in our cabin.  The Vermont Girls were on one side of the cabin, and the Queens of the In Crowd were on the other.  There was a lot of whispering and sneering.  One of the Queens who usually looked me over as if I wore a dirty potato sack gave us a catty smile and waved us over to the group.  “Hey guys, come over here!”  We walked towards the circle, and they filled us in on the atrocities the Vermont Girls had committed in the short amount of time it took us to take a shower.  “They looked at us and rolled their eyes!” One said.  “I tried to talk to one of them and they were all like, ‘ugh’” Said another, mimicking extreme snootiness.  Even though a little voice in my head was warning me that these girls were up to no good, the larger voice in my head thought, “the popular girls are talking to us; This is our chance to get ‘in’ and be perceived as normal! Maybe they’re not so bad!” So I widened my eyes, and replied with astonishment.  “Oh, my God; Really?? How rude!”  The battle lines were drawn.

We all side-eyed each other until the lights went out.  Once it was dark, the nastiness began.  It started with whispering, chatting and giggling even though we were supposed to go to sleep.  The chaperone in the room was a teacher from the Vermont school, so clearly she was the enemy.  When the Vermont Girls would giggle, one of our girls would giggle back loudly, mocking them.  One Queen threw something over to their side of the cabin.  This went on for a couple of hours, despite being yelled at by the chaperone several times.

The next morning, I felt bad.  I’ve had my moments of nastiness before, believe me – but I did not want to be a Mean Girl.  I just wanted to have a lot of friends, and I felt pretty horrible that I stepped on a couple of seemingly nice strangers to try to get there.  Rachel engaged in this activity the least, because she was an awesome person.  She listened to the Queens and smiled, but she never engaged in cattiness.  I, on the other hand, laughed at the jabs, and woke up knowing I was a jerk.  Why did we attack these girls?

As we began to assemble for a very important and educational class on bubble-making, two of the Vermont Girls walked up to me.  “Why is everyone being so mean to us? We didn’t do anything.”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. I think we thought that you were being mean to us? It’s really stupid, isn’t it?”  Yes. I appointed myself Ambassador of the In Crowd.

A couple of Queens walked up to join us.  Before you know it, everyone was laughing and chirping, and everyone suddenly acted as if we were all the bestest of friends.  A détente had been reached.

Once Nutmegger v. Green Mountaineer was settled, we had other moments of drama to contend with.  As usual, the sub-group I was placed in for a number of activities was punished for being horrible human beings.  The worst punishment occurred during a nature walk while it was raining.  The counselor had it with people acting up, and she made us get in a “human knot” to get us to work better as a team.  We were drenched, annoyed, and weren’t allowed to head back for dinner until we could get out of the human knot.  My aversion to any and all team-building activities can be traced directly back to this moment.

The majority of activities we had to do were your typical summer camp activities; we had nature walks, put on a talent show, and had an archaeology dig where we excavated a mud-caked can of Schlitz and a cigarette butt.  The highlight of the activities was learning how to sign to the song “The Rose,” which we all showed off and performed for our classmates.  This appealed to many of us, because every young girl wants to learn sign language and/or Braille after reading a book on Helen Keller or watching Mary go blind on Little House on the Prairie.

As Nature’s Classroom progressed, the mood deteriorated.  Rachel and I got snippy with each other because quite frankly, I was a bitch.  Jenique and Kelly were getting irritated as bunkmates because Kelly had to crack every last joint in her body before she went to sleep each night.  It rained too much, and the shower situation was on the verge of creating an all-out pimp-slapdown.  Then there was the ort.  Oh, yes, that freaking ort.

After a meal on one of our last days, the counselors stood in the front of the commons area looking devastated.  Mr. Leed was slowly morphing into the Incredible Hippie Hulk.  A Sadface Counselor made the announcement – the ort weighed in at a whopping 10 pounds.  Our waste was the size of a large baby; a large, granola-crusted, raisin-eyed, sugarless baby.  According to them, this was unprecedented in the history of Nature’s Classroom.  Sadface Counselor looked like we just sacrificed a baby polar bear before her eyes.  Mr. Leed, ever the bastion of self-restraint, couldn’t hold back his wrath for another second.  He tore into his most impassioned “6 televisions, 4 VCRs” speech yet, craftily working in global hunger and the destruction of mankind, attributing all impending evil in the world to my selfish, wasteful, ortful generation.  We were evil.  We were horrible, evil children with too many VCRs!  It was one of those rage-induced speeches where the room is so awkwardly quiet at the end, your Asshole Brain wants you to say something incredibly inappropriate and sarcastic just to see if the screamer completely loses their shit and starts flipping tables or throwing chairs.  Even in my preadolescent angst, a.k.a. the Golden Age of Asshole Brain, I valued my life enough to remain quiet and pretended to look shamed and mournful.  It’s not that Mr. Leed was completely wrong in his message; it’s just that it’s inappropriate to blame an entire group for things a few people do.  Or conversely, blame a few people for the ills of their entire generation.  You’d think an ex-hippie would get that.

On the last night of Nature’s Classroom, as usual Vermont hung out on their side, and we hung out on our side.  Despite the giggly détente earlier in the week, the damage was done.  We sat on a Queen’s bed and talked about things.  We sang “Kokomo,” and told secrets.  We talked about the boys we had a crush on.  They prodded Rachel and me for our crushes – Rachel never gave in, but of course, I did.  I’ve always said that I was a naïve kid; if you told me you’d keep a secret, I’d believe you.  I felt like I bonded with the Queens; I didn’t think we’d all exchange phone numbers and become besties, but I figured I talked enough with them to earn “fellow breathing human” status.

The morning after Ortgate, we were all overly conscious of what was on our plates.  No one wanted to be yelled at for 20 minutes again.  A couple of the Vermont girls sat across from Rachel and me and we chatted over breakfast.  We talked about music, and one of the girls said her two favorite bands were The Cars and Van Halen – my two favorite bands, both decidedly “uncool” in my junior high (it was Van Hagar era, mind you).  As we talked, I realized that I really blew an opportunity to get to know a very nice person who shared my interests.  I was the worst kind of Mean Girl – I was a follower.

At the end of the meal, Mr. Leed had the look of supreme self-satisfaction.  The counselors stood up to make a joyful announcement:  We hardly left ANY ort, and it weighed in at an unprecedented low number.  Do you ever feel this sort of thing is planned? Anyway, I guess the pigs starved.  Yay, nature!

We said goodbye to the Vermont Girls, who were probably (and rightfully) thinking, “whatever, bitches,” and hopped on the bus to go home.  As we pulled away from Nature’s Classroom and made our way back home, our lives slowly morphed into the people we were prior to the trip.  We turned on 7 of our 8 televisions, kicked 3 of our 4 VCRs, took long, hot showers, and still had occasional food fights in the cafeteria.  I apparently put my dirty potato sack back on as we all went our separate ways and fell back into the cliques we were meant to be in.  I’d say I was disappointed, but it didn’t really bother me.  Everything I really wanted in friendship I found in Rachel and my other friends, and I didn’t have to laugh at other people to stay in their good graces.  So, I accepted my potato sack status, shrugged my shoulders, and learned that some people just won’t accept you as you are; and you know what? That’s their problem.  I was lucky to have friends that did, and truthfully I didn’t want it any other way.

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When a Grandma Isn’t of the Cookie-Baking Variety

Despite not growing up in a religious household, I was a pretty spiritual kid.  I was baptized as a Catholic, and that was the only time I was in a church until I was 15.  I’ve always had an odd relationship with Christianity.  I was out of the traditional fold of religion, but tended to be very religious and spiritual nonetheless.  As a child, I wanted to be in that fold.  When my grandmother lived with us, there was a period of time where I would hold a “Sunday Service” in her room.  I’d bring my stuffed animals into her room to act as parishioners, we’d sing a few hymns from my grandma’s hymnbook (“Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were my favorites, likely due to Little House on the Prairie), and I’d read a random bible entry.  My grandma got a kick out of it.

Grammy Gene was an interesting part of my memory.  She lived with us from when I was in Kindergarten until some time in second grade.  As an adult, I have snapshot memories of her.  After my grandfather died, our family offered to care for her and we all moved to a more accommodating house closer to where my father worked.  She had two rooms in the house, even though she never spent time in her second room.  She had MS and stayed in bed all day.  She’d use a walker to get up and go to the bathroom.  Before she lifted herself up from her bed,  she would often curse her legs, slapping them to the point where they would bruise.  She could be what my adult mind would define as “histrionic,” and she could be very nasty to people, however I had a pretty good relationship with her as a child.  She’d happily tell me we were both Pisces, and I think she saw a connection from that.  When I told her about a parrot that had a black tongue, she told me it must be a liar.  I’d spend a lot of time hanging out in her bedroom with her, watching TV shows on her Zenith.  Occasionally, we’d watch the 700 Club together.  There would be a segment where they’d tell everyone to hold hands and pray.  I’d place my stuffed animals in a circle and have them all hold paws as we prayed for something I didn’t understand.  I could never put my finger on it, but the 700 Club scared the crap out of me.  The praying part was the only part that didn’t seem scary.

Grammy Gene had a kind of mystical belief in Jesus.  Next to her nightstand, she had metropolis of pill bottles on a tray table – fat bottles, thin bottles, tall bottles and short bottles.  Some of the pills were pretty colors.  Some I never saw her take, but they sat there like trophies, souvenirs of every ailment that ravaged her body over the decade.  Among Pill City there was one resident that didn’t fit in – a relic that looked a little like a pearl.  One day she showed me the relic and told me it had a piece of the cross in it (or Jesus’s hair? I can’t remember).  She said whenever she had an important prayer for Jesus, she would hold it tight in her hand and pray.

“When your dad had to kick the winning field goal against Villanova, I held this tight and prayed hard to Jesus. He made it!”

Wow, I thought.  That is some powerful stuff right there.  My greedy little mind thought of all the stuff that could swing my way with that relic. The Power!

When Grammy looked away, I grabbed the relic and held it tight in my hands.  I closed my eyes and prayed in my mind.  Dear Jesus, how are you doing?  How’s your dad? Please bring me a pony and a…

“PUT THAT DOWN!” She hissed at me.  Apparently, the relic had limited juju, and she didn’t want me to steal it from her.  The Pisces blood only goes so far, I guess.  And for the record, all childhood prayers to Jesus from me involved buttering him up, then asking him for something as if he were Santa.

Things deteriorated over time with her living with us – I don’t remember the specific circumstances, but it wasn’t as much fun hanging out in her room over time.  She was unpredictable, like a game of Perfection where you know everything is going to blow up on you at any moment.  As a kid, I didn’t understand it; I was always sensitive to people yelling at me or around me, and I decided to hide away in other parts of the house.  I stopped having my church services with her, which I think disappointed her.  In part, I could never find a good story to read for “service” – I’d hit the begats and even the stuffed animals seemed to nod off.  Also, her unpredictability scared me. My entire family struggled with her – she was mean, demanding, thankless, and a hundred other things my childhood brain couldn’t comprehend.

When my mother told me Grammy Gene was going to move out of our house and into a place where people could take good care of her, I was both sad and relieved.  It was an odd combination of feelings to have at such a young age.  I loved her and I feared her.  She was at times grandmotherly, other times so full of anger.  I don’t really remember the day she left.  I wish I remembered it a little better, because it was the last time I saw her or spoke to her.

As a grew older, I’d wonder about her.  There were a few times I was tempted to write her a letter, but never did.  As you can imagine from the circumstances, there was a huge rift between her and my family that I still don’t know the specifics of.  It seemed like she had rifts with everyone in her life – she didn’t speak to my dad’s sister, either.  I didn’t know if she would even want to hear from me.  I couldn’t decide if it would be better to communicate or to remain a memory.  Typical for me in adolescence, my indecision made the decision for me.

When I was in high school, our phone rang off the hook in the middle of the night.  I finally answered, and someone asked to speak to my dad.  I told them he was sleeping, and they told me to wake him up.  I knocked on my parents door, and let my father know someone was on the phone for him, and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  It turns out it was my father’s uncle, calling to tell my dad that my grandmother passed away an hour or two earlier.  I had an odd feeling of guilt.  I thought of our little Sunday services and what I learned about being what people call a “Good Christian” – a version I most certainly did not learn from the 700 Club. I realized that my fear of her unpredictability was selfish.  I regretted not writing a letter to her. While I have no doubt my family was justified in never speaking to her again, and it was apparently mutual, I personally never had that justification; I was a kid, and somehow others’ experiences with her became the expectation for what my experience would likely be.  It was very likely for history to repeat itself, but I’m disappointed in for not developing my own experience to judge from.

As an adult, this is a theme that has lingered with me.  I think about that regret when I am tempted to pass judgment on people.  I do my best to reserve judgement until I’ve established my own relationship with someone and I try to keep an open mind when a negative person from my past reappears. Judgement can be very tempting, because it functions as a protective shield.  There are times I fail at suppressing it, which disappoints me; thanks to my experience with my grandmother, I at least try hard.

Todd and Margo, Round 22

[Note: because I believe in fair and balanced reporting, you will note that I allowed the husband to respond to my accusations in brackets].

In the 16 years we’ve been together, Chris and I have seldom had an all-out argument.  In fact, I can only think of two times in our relationship where we really argued over something to where we were truly angry at each other for more than 15 minutes.  Instead of fighting, we occasionally bicker. We are very, very good at bickering. I’d go as far as saying if bickering were an Olympic event, we’d be the Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh of the sport. If part of the event involved Chris telling me what to do while I’m driving, it would be a record-setting moment.

This past Friday, I came home to a very sick dog.  Her stomach was upset and she had a couple of different kinds of accidents on the carpet.  I began the cleaning process as I called my vet.  Chris came home when I was in the middle of this.  He stood at the edge of the family room and stared at me as I cleaned. [Chris: This is a very skewed perspective on reality.  I was attempting (multiple times) to ask her who she was talking to, but she repeatedly gave me a dour look, turned around, and walked away.  A-M: Note that his description does not include picking up a towel…]  Because cleaning poop and vomit off a carpet is not my favorite thing in the world, I was feeling a grumpy and admittedly passive-aggressive.    When one of us gets this way, we instantly turn into Todd and Margo from Christmas Vacation.  I’m not proud.  After I got off the phone, I looked at him standing there and grumbled, “Can you help, please?”

“What can I do?”

“Start cleaning up the poop and the vomit over there, while I take care of this part of it.  Can you look and see if we have carpet cleaner?”

He came back a few minutes later with a spray bottle of something and started spraying all of the stains.  He then went into the kitchen.  Looking at the sprayed stains, I asked, “So, what are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.”

I said something particularly sarcastic, like “Can you not read a bottle?”

He growled back at me, “I don’t have it!”

“You just had it, where did you put it?”

“I don’t know!!”

Keep in mind, this is my recollection of the events.  I’m sure I was much bitchier and less clear on what I needed.  Maybe. [Chris: Definitely]

We looked at the instructions.  Wait a few minutes, scrub, blot clean.  Repeat as needed.  After approximately one minute of scrub-blotting, we had a divergence in problem-solving methods.  I mentioned prior to scrubbing if we couldn’t remove the stains, we’d have to replace the carpet sooner than we anticipated.  Chris latched onto this concept as he scrubbed his little silver dollar-sized poop stain, and I was trying to remove a map of the Polynesian islands off of our carpet.  [Chris: The area she was looking on did in fact look like the Polynesian islands, but I wasn’t working on something the size of a silver dollar.  It was closer in size to a saucer plate (A-M: for a doll), though interesting it did remind me of the shape of Hawaii]  He abandoned Easter Island and came back a few minutes later.  As I’m on my knees scrubbing,  I see a yellow tape measure jut out in front of me. “Let’s see…” he said, in that controlled, super volcano beneath a calm forest kind of way I find particularly unsettling. I continued to scrub, silently watching him as he measured out dimensions.  He noticed me looking at him and stated simply, “if it’s under x dollars, we’re getting a new floor.” [Chris: Fixed the newel post]

I looked at what was left to clean and sighed.  “I’ll finish cleaning.  I don’t think it’s going to stain.” He continued to research flooring as I scrubbed.  My thoughts stewed a bit during this time.  Why do I always wind up cleaning up?  We clearly had two different approaches to solving a problem; mine was totally right.

He came back to give me a cost on the new floor.  I shook my head.  “I’ve almost got it out. Don’t worry about it.”

I finished cleaning and went on my computer.  He came back and looked in the kitchen.  Because he can’t read my mind to know I’ve been stewing for several minutes, he asked innocently “What are we doing for dinner?”

I growled at him again, a lightning rod for passive-aggressiveness.  “I would like to sit down for a few minutes before I make you your dinner!”

He put his hands up, exasperated. “I wasn’t telling you to make me dinner, I was asking what you wanted to do for dinner!”

“Rar!” (I don’t remember what I actually said, but it really was just the equivalent of “rar!”).

We ate our dinner, and went about our separate ways for the night.  As I worked on my laptop, Chris walked up to me and asked casually, “Don’t ask why, but how would you go about cutting a circular hole in carpet?”

I looked up suspiciously.  “Why?

“It doesn’t matter; how would you do it?”

I told him I had no idea how one would go about cutting a hole in carpet.  A few minutes later, he came back.  “I’ll be back in a few; I need to get a drill that can drill into cement so I can bolt my safe down.”

My eyes narrowed.  He quietly left the house, returning a while later armed with an impact drill.  Upon hearing the first headache-inducing WHIIIRRRRRRRATATATATATATATATATATAT, I decided to retreat to my office/reading room (aka the Woman Cave) with a glass of Malbec, headphones, and my laptop.  As I sat down on my ottoman, I spilled some of the Malbec on my floor, thankfully avoiding my ottoman.  “Shit,” I grumbled as I got back up to grab paper towels and wipe the wine off the Pergo flooring.  As I started wiping and inspecting the ottoman to make sure I didn’t spill anything on it, I heard him call for me.  “Hon? Get me a sznaaaawh.”  Chris has a tendency to call out to me and or talk to me at the worst possible time, and/or when I’m at the opposite end of the house and can’t hear him clearly.  I called back.  “I’m busy!”   Since I didn’t hear him move from his office, after cleaning up the wine, I walked over to him.  His head was in the safe, fully engaged in his new project.  “Do you still need something?”

“Yes.”

“A saw, you said?”

“No, a straw.”

“A straw?  Like, a drinking straw?”

“Yes.”

Why a straw? [Chris: OK, it didn’t have to be a straw.  It could have a been a small stick, or a very long toothpick.  It just had to be something small enough to easily make sure the holes in the safe were lined up with the holes in the foundation so I could thread the lag bolts correctly] Why must he drill holes into our foundation?  Why can’t he use this energy to clean poop off the carpet?  I had no more questions I felt like asking.  I handed him a drinking straw, chugged my glass of wine, and found my happy place watching Beastie Boys videos on You Tube in the Woman Cave.  As the WHIIRRRRRATATATATATAT started up again, I turned up the volume to “Body Movin’” and found joy in Ad-Rock/MCA sword-fighting over fondue.

In this long, long relationship we’ve had, there are a few things we’ve learned about handling these Todd-and-Margo moments.  Our first effort is usually to attempt to diffuse the situation with humor, specifically by quoting “And why is the floor all wet, Todd?” If the other responds “I don’t KNOW, Margo!” We know we are in a good place.  If humor isn’t employed, the next step is to attempt to communicate what specifically is bothering us.  Barring that? Just let the bickering happen, give yourselves a 15-20 minute separation that involves something enjoyable (like watching Beastie videos, or installing a freaking safe [Chris: Not necessarily enjoyable, but absolutely necessary to protect our data and valuables from thieving alien mutant zombies][<—geek. -A-M]), do your best to avoid further aggravation (for example, using an impact drill after a bickerfest is generally ill-advised), and let time sort out the little things. Because despite poop-cleaning and impact drilling? This is still a pretty good thing. Plus? If you were alone, you’d have no one to argue over stupid little things with.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tales of an Almost Runaway

I was very young when I first wanted to run away.

When I was two or three, my mom bought me a black raspberry ice cream cone at Friendly’s while she chatted with one of her friends for lunch.  The ice cream was delicious and the prettiest color of purple I had seen.  I joyfully ate the treat while my mom and her friend talked grown up stuff that was of no concern to me.  Once ice cream time was over, we walked out of the restaurant and the most id, primitive thought entered my little mind – what would happen if I ran?  I was right beside my mother as she was chatting her goodbyes to her friend.  She wasn’t holding my hand – she had no reason to distrust me.  Until now, muahahaha.

Without any further thought I ran with all my might down a pathway.  I heard my mother call after me, and I began to laugh.  I did it! I did it! I had no idea where I’d go, but it would be new and fun and different.  It felt like I ran a block, but in reality I probably ran about 15 feet.  My mom’s friend jumped out in front of me.  I hit the brakes and turned in the other direction, only to find my mother standing over me, her arms extended.  Trapped! I sighed, and my mother scooped me up.  She was more amused than angry, surprisingly.  Knowing what a wuss I was as a kid, I probably cried when I realized my plan was foiled, however I don’t remember that part of it.

This is the earliest memory I can recall of my desire to run away.  From that point on, as I went from toddler to child, I fantasized about all the adventures I could have if only I could cross the street. Whenever a flood warning came on the television, I would excitedly go to my playroom in the basement to make an ark for myself and my stuffed animals.  I’d string together a bunch of cardboard boxes and milk crates to make my boat, placing only my most beloved and trusted confidants in the same box as me – Fifi the cat, Ricky the raccoon and Herman the monkey.  After Fifi’s frequent weddings and divorces to both Ricky and Herman, one would think this would be a bad living arrangement for a long journey to the unknown, but I understood relationships about as much as I understood buoyant materials.

As I built my ark, I would imagine it being lifted by the flood waters, carrying me and my animals away to some place I had never been before.  Maybe they would take me across the Sound to New York! It seemed so exciting.  Much to my disappointment, the floods never came and my cardboard boat would never be tested on the rough seas.

Once I got past my ark stage, I entered the runaway stage.  Around the same time I read about dinosaurs and outer space, I began to look at things differently.  I suddenly became aware that the universe was large but my world was small.  When my family would go to visit relatives, we’d hop on the Merrit Parkway and I’d look out the car window longingly.  I’d see the endless forests and wonder if anyone would ever find you if you hid in them.  I’d see cliff-like hills carved out by dynamite to make room for the freeway, and I wanted to jump out and climb them like a jungle gym.  Hills and mountains begged to be traversed.  I wanted to take roads to their end.  I wanted to see the larger universe.

When I felt like I had to get out and find those hills to climb, I would grab a baby blanket to put my things in and tie it to the end of an aluminum curtain rod – only in middle class Connecticut would a hobo purse be constructed in this way.  I’d take my favorite Underroos our of my dresser, grab socks and a shirt, a few stuffed animals, and I’d prepare two butter sandwiches for my journey.  Sometimes, my mother would ask me what I was doing.  I’d tell her I was running away, and she’d give a disinterested “okay,” puff on her cigarette and return to reading her book.  You could say I did this sort of thing fairly often.

I’d start packing my blanket with all of these items and quickly realize very few things fit in a hobo purse, and I wouldn’t use a bigger blanket because well, that would look stupid, wouldn’t it?  Ultimately, my plan would end with me staring at a pile of junk atop my blanket while eating both butter sandwiches in one sitting.

As I got older, my runaway plans became grand and wonderful.  My friend Jenique always seemed to be my partner in crime around this time.  Our adventurous spirits were temporarily satisfied by cutting through people’s yards to get to each other’s houses; we’d climb fences, fight our way through pricker bushes, and stealthily avoid getting caught by the homeowners (most of the time).  Soon, the adventure became routine, and it only made sense that we’d want to run away.  We both wanted to see that world that existed across the street and wanted to live by our own rules.  We decided it would be ideal to live in a forest somewhere far away, eating berries, mushrooms and fish.  We’d get a tent and make it our home, live off the land and be free.  Probably thanks to Mork and Mindy, I decided our magical location would be Boulder, Colorado.  When I pulled up the entry for Colorado in my family’s 1967 Encyclopedia Americana, the map of Colorado looked like there was a huge forest around Boulder, and it was also near the mountains! You can’t beat that.

We looked at JC Penney catalogs and decided what kind of tent we wanted.  We decided to create a runaway fund and went around the neighborhood trying to sell my father’s old books.  Being seasoned lying liars, we claimed we were girl scouts trying to raise money for our troop. No one bought the story or our old, musty books.  We had a plan for how to get to Boulder – her parents had an old, beat up Porsche that sat on the curb next to her house.  They weren’t using it – we’d just take it and go! Never mind we obviously couldn’t drive, wouldn’t pass for a legal driving age, and I think the Porsche had a bees’ nest in it…when you’re young you don’t think of logistics or obstacles; you are simply certain you can make it so.

As I grew up, my runaway fantasies mostly subsided, replaced by more practical adventures and grown-up responsibilities.  I’d have a spark here and there – like when I stood on the western side of Hanalei Bay on Kauai’i.  I watched ten-foot waves crash onto the shore’s soft sand, and I thought for a moment that I would love to live on this isolated stretch of the island in a little hut surrounded by mango and avocado trees, walking barefoot and allowing the crashing waves to sing me to sleep every night.  Grown-up reality set in when I recognized a tiny hut on Hanalei Bay costs at least twice as much as my current home, and my romantic runaway fantasy didn’t include working an 8 to 5 for a living.

Despite that realization, it occurred to me that the world offers so much more than what we allow ourselves to have.  As kids,we want to have it all simply because it’s there.  As teenagers, we want it because someone said we couldn’t have it.  As adults, well, we get so caught up in our lives we don’t even see that it’s there anymore.

We don’t need to be beach bums in Hanalei Bay to live our adventure – there are still forests to explore and mountains to climb in our backyard.  We may have forgotten they were there, but they’ve been waiting for our arrival since we were children.

The next time you’re driving somewhere and an old road captures your attention, or you see a field of daisies or dandelions, and that little voice in you that tells you “explore”? Allow that voice to be heard and be the adventurer you dreamed of being for just a few minutes of your life – it’s okay to be a kid sometimes.

Venice, Tainted

A few years ago, Chris and I took our first overseas trip to Italy.  I prepared for months for it – not only did I learn some basic Italian, I learned about their culture so I knew what to expect and how to be respectful.  Mealtimes in Italy are a different experience than in the States – you can expect to spend significantly longer in a restaurant, with a more relaxed style of service and multiple courses to enjoy.  For an eat-while-standing-over-the-sink girl like myself, this was an adjustment, but I appreciated the change.  They are also generally set on their offerings – when you order a meal, there isn’t a whole lot of off the menu customization.

On one of the last days of our trip, we were in Venice, and sat down for lunch at a trattoria.  I became increasingly sick from my traditional Vacation Sinus Infection, and looked forward to relaxing outside and enjoying some Venetian cuisine.  A cruise ship docked in the port for the day bringing with it a grumpy couple who sat down next to us a few minutes after we placed our order.  The man frowned and grumbled at the menu, “where’s the pizza?”  The woman scanned her own menu, clearly irritated.  “We’re in Italy – where’s their pizza?”  My husband Chris helpfully pointed out where it was located on the menu.  The man glared at the pizza section, never looking up to acknowledge Chris’ existence, never mind his helpfulness.  “Where are their toppings? I want a pepperoni pizza!”

I took a sip of my wine and took a breath, hoping the combination of wine and Acti-Due (an Italian version of Sudafed) would slide me into a blissful coma.  I hate conflict and sensed these people were going to be a problem.  Chris remained friendly and gregarious, because he is nicer than I am.  “I don’t think they have pepperoni here.  And it’s a little different in Italy – they list what types of pizza they have and you order from one of those selections.  There aren’t topping choices the way you see at home.”

“Well, that’s silly,” the woman sighed.  “We want a pepperoni pizza.”

Chris shrugged his shoulders.  The man looked up from his menu for a second to look around.  He growled, “Where’s the waiter?  It’s been five minutes,” and stuck his nose back in his menu.

While I silently prayed for them to leave and ruin someone else’s lunch, Chris kept a friendly, disarming demeanor.  “Service takes a while everywhere in Italy…”

The man kept his eyes on his menu and actually waved off Chris.  It was the “talk to the hand” for dusty old taint hairs, apparently.  As Grumpy Old Taint (a.k.a. G.O.T.) did it, the woman started chatting with Chris, and it appeared neither even noticed the rude gesture.  They made small talk about where the couple was from, and she discussed their current travels.  Surprise, surprise: every country they visited had rude people, and guess what?  They hated everything and everyone.  I seriously would love to see a Frommer-style guide from this Debbie Downer: “Explore Italy! These Spaghetti-Slurping Assholes Don’t Even Have Pizza!”

G.O.T. abruptly stood up and started flailing his arms as if he were cast out to sea and trying to get the coast guard’s attention.  “We need SERVICE! Where’s a WAITER?”

Debbie Downer looked up at her useless taint-hair of a husband.  “Charles, the people here are so rude! When are we going to get a pizza?”

Chris looked at me, his eyes saying, Can you believe these people?

I looked at him, my eyes saying, you’re the one who is still talking to them, motherfucker… although I think he interpreted my glance as I know, right?? I really hoped the restaurant knew we weren’t with the Mr. and Mrs. Taint – I didn’t want a loogie in my lunch…

A waiter arrived at their table.  G.O.T. was a man who knew what he wanted – you’ve got to give him that.  And he wanted PIZZA! PEPPERONI PIZZA! The waiter tried explaining they didn’t have pepperoni.  Debbie Downer was not pleased.  “How could you not have pepperoni?”  She passive-aggressively sighed and bargained to customize a pizza based off of the ingredients they did have available that didn’t sound too “weird” or “unpleasant.”  I think they stuck with cheese.

The waiter looked uncomfortable with each question he asked.  “Would you like soup with your-“

“WE JUST WANT PIZZA! RAWR!”

Our food arrived and I asked for the check, so I could get the hell away from these horrible people as soon as I was done eating.  Debbie Downer continued to talk to Chris, and I remained as cordial as I could – unlike G.O.T., even if I don’t like someone I’m going to at least be polite, because I’m not that brand of asshole.

As Debbie Downer talked and complained, G.O.T. snorted and grunted.  I ate my meal.  What brings people to this point?  What lives did these two people live that turned every vacation they ever had into a nightmare?  And why did they keep on doing it if they hated it so much?  They were fortunate enough to travel overseas and see beautiful things they’ve never seen before.  Palaces, weird birds… the most amazing art and architecture in the world! Mr. and Mrs. Taint were very lucky to be in the situation they were in, but they entered into it with the expectation of being disappointed.  Paradoxically, having the expectation of disappointment never disappoints.

I remembered a quote from a former manager I had at a retail gig in college.  She wisely and simply stated, “you just can’t make some people happy, because they are at their happiest when they are miserable.”  Exhibit A and B: sitting next to me in a Venice trattoria.

Chris and I ate our food quickly; even he was tiring of their behavior.  The waiter brought back our change, G.O.T. roared “WHERE’S OUR PIZZA?”

Chris and I stood up to leave.  Through a forced smile, I said “enjoy the rest of your cruise!”

Debbie Downer gave a “thank you” in a way that told us she didn’t comprehend what “enjoy” meant.  Judging by the pizza-deprived caveman she married, I don’t think she ever knew the meaning of the word.

Mr. Taint said something that I could only make out as a “Bah! Grumblesmut!” to bid us adieu.  I never wanted to beat someone so senselessly with a pizza pan as bad as I did at that moment.

Chris muttered as we walked away, “so that’s what they mean by ‘ugly Americans.’”

“I have a favor to ask you.”

“What’s that?”

I stopped him and grabbed his shoulders to look him squarely in the eye.  “If I ever turn into that?  Fucking shoot me.”

We continued walking.  “Same here.”

“Agreed.”

 

Delicious-looking pizza photo taken by Celeste C.  Thanks, Celeste!

A Ghost in the Corporate Machine

I stared at the tiny little pill of salvation in my hand.  My 70-hour-a-week job had me exceptionally stressed out to the point where it kept me up at night.  I needed something other than a stiff drink to help me get some sleep so I could at least get 6 hours of sleep in a night.  Six hours.  That’s all I wanted.  I wanted to remember what that felt like.

Prior to holding that Miracle Pill, the commercials on television taunted me.  The pretty Lunesta butterfly would float in and save people from insomnia.  I’d get jealous and resentful of snoring people on NyQuil commercials.  Everyone looked so rested and peaceful, and here I was, mentally going over checklists and tasks to delegate for hours on end.  I’d lie there thinking of not only plan Bs, but I had to come up with plan Cs and Ds.   I had to account for the frequent database timeouts and crashes we’d experience or the paperwork that didn’t get to us in time.  My team was pushed to the limit – they averaged around 60 hours a week for over a year, and there was no sign of letting up despite a handful of pipe dream promises.  I was in my first management role, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.  I wanted to show the higher-ups how committed I was to making the company successful.  I wanted my team to like me and want to work for me.  I believed that a true leader had to work harder than anyone working under them.  Getting people to put in the kind of overtime required for an extended period of time is a tall order, and I felt like I had to pull out all the stops to keep the gears in this impossible machine moving.

The commercials for prescription sleeping aids were designed for people like me, and the side effects didn’t sound so bad: habit-forming, don’t drive a vehicle within eight hours of taking it, blah blah blah – that’s standard with any drug, right?  I knew from other people that one of the sleeping aids caused them to sleep eat – in their sleep, they’d walk to their kitchen and eat an entire jar of Fluff.  I knew Chris wouldn’t let me do that, so I felt pretty good.   Plus, Chris took Ambien for a couple of nights following his eye surgery and he slept like a rock.  I hoped to achieve similar results, and requested Ambien from my doctor.

My doctor sighed at my request.  I think he heard similar requests all too often from his patients.  “I’ll give you about a week’s worth; this is not something you want to take long-term.  If you continue to have sleep problems, we’ll need to find another way to address them – lifestyle changes.  These pills don’t cure insomnia; they can provide a temporary relief at best and can mask the deeper issues keeping you up at night.”  He explained his concerns about the dangers of the new crop of sleeping pills as he filled out the prescription.  On one hand, I’ve always appreciated that my doctor wasn’t a pill-pusher; on the other hand, my grumpy, sleep-deprived mind just heard, “yadda yadda yadda here’s your prescription.”  I didn’t want to hear that being a workaholic was going to kill me, and no commercial butterfly was going to carry me away from that shit.

I read the instructions that came with the prescription and took it right before I went to bed.  I lay in bed, waiting for Ambien to take me into dreamland.  It took longer than I expected or hoped, and I still found myself clock-watching.  Right before I nodded off, I looked at the clock and the 7 puckered.  Huh.

The next evening, I didn’t want to wait as long for the Ambien to take effect, so I decided to take it a little earlier, I’d clean up around the house and go to bed when I started to feel tired.  So, after cleaning for fifteen to twenty minutes, I realized I didn’t feel sleepy at all.  I decided the best thing to do would be to just lie in bed, turn out the lights, and again wait for the Ambien to take over.

Chris and I lay in bed, and I stared intently at the ugly floral-patterned curtains in our bedroom.  Woah.  Finally, I spoke to Chris.  “You know, there’s one thing I’ll say about this Ambien; it really messes with your mind.”

Chris turned slightly to me.  “How so?”

“Well? Right now? Our curtains are a forest.”

“What??”

Our hideous, 80s-era curtains that came with the house morphed into a beautiful, mossy green forest.  So pristine and ethereal!  Pretty forest, you’re teasing me with your beauty, but I know if I go for a stroll, I’ll only wind up with glass shards in my arms. Yes, I knew I was hallucinating, but for the virgin to life who never took a hallucinogen before, this was kind of awesome.  This was a journey, and who better to share this experience with than Chris?  It was of extreme importance I tell him every last detail.  He wanted nothing more than to go to sleep.

After telling him all about the curtain forest, I paused for a few minutes.  I stared at our ceiling fan.  It resembled… a seal?  A sealHello, Mr. Seal!  I smiled at it.  I had a new friend!  And I knew his story.  Oh, he didn’t speak or anything, but I had a soul connection with the fan.  I just knew.  I had to share his supreme wisdom and kindness with Chris.  “The ceiling fan thinks it’s protecting us from the forest; it doesn’t know that the forest is good.”

“Go to sleep.”

“I like the ceiling fan.”

“Shut up.”

Pause.  I turned to my side and stared at the digital clock.  “Hee-hee…”

“Grrr….”

Pause.  “Hee-heeee!”

What are you doing?”

He turned over to see me patting the alarm clock and poking my fingers at the display.  He just didn’t get it, man.  I giggled.  “The numbers are dancing! They’re moving around.  It’s so cool!”  Every time I poked the 9, it scrunched up like the Pillsbury Doughboy. “Hee-hee!”  Poke.  “Hee-hee!”

“Close your eyes and you won’t see anything anymore.”

“But I want to see it.”

“Go to bed.”

My entire bedroom was a Wonderland.  Forget the curtain, the clock and the fan, I just knew that there were all sorts of exciting things waiting for me in every corner of the room.  I pounced on top of Chris.  “WHATS ON UR SIDE OF THE BED?”

“Gahhh, Go to sleep! Shut up!!”

He was such a killjoy.  This was an experience of a lifetime, and I had only taken up an hour or so of his time.  Forget him; I had my new friend the ceiling fan to keep me company; I didn’t need him! And I just know that if the ceiling fan got to know the forest, he would like it, and we could all be friendz.  And we’d all watch the dancing numberzandlaughandhahaPillsburyDoughboySaladUnicorns!

ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

I opened my eyes and looked around the room.

The ceiling fan was a ceiling fan.

The ugly curtains were just ugly curtains.

The clock read 3:14 a.m.  Three hours passed.  The numbers weren’t dancing.

3:14 a.m.

I’m wide awake.

I’m wide awake, and I have to be up in two hours.

Fuck.

I gave myself another hour, and decided to continue with my daily tradition of logging into VPN to get work done prior to going into the office.  When I got into work at my normal time and while our computers gave us our morning ODBC Timeout Greeting, I shared my Ambien story with a couple of them.  “Wow,” one girl laughed.  “People pay a lot of money to get drugs that do that…” We chuckled, but I felt off.  Simple decisions suddenly seemed complicated, like a tangle of knots where you can’t find the first to undo.  My clarity was needed to go to plan Bs and Cs as databases timed out, angry clients called in, paperwork was MIA, and gossip was its usual disruptive self.  Answers usually came to me, yet this time I couldn’t untangle the knots to get to them.  It may have been the Ambien, it may have been the lack of sleep – whatever it was, my day became far more complicated than usual.

In all the tangles, I could hear my doctor’s sage words weaving through.  “Lifestyle changes…the deeper issues keeping you up at night…” I looked around at my team. I spent many 12-hour days with them.  How many waking hours did I see my husband?  Could I even say “hours,” let alone “hour?”  I looked at my computer with it’s stupid hourglass floating in the middle of the screen waiting to reach its inevitable conclusion of “ODBC Timeout Error.” God forbid I selected the wrong thing to filter.  I saw my boss, who a few months prior, threatened to cut off my VPN access if I didn’t take a weekend off.  Bless her heart for that.  It occurred to me that my pristine forest – my hallucination – was the only serene thing I experienced in months.

I looked beyond our area to the window offices and realized something I never really thought about before – no one gave a shit, and no one would ever give a shit.  We were the machine that worked – we weren’t people.  I was part of it – I became nothing more than a gear that turned and turned with its teeth slowly being stripped of definition and function with each revolution.  In that tangled moment, it occurred to me I was a lousy supervisor.  I wasn’t leading – I was operating a perpetual motion machine. I wanted to be everything to everyone, yet I was a nobody helping no one.  In a moment where my little answers were tangled, the largest one finally revealed itself to me.

I went home that night – late, as usual.  I put the Ambien away in the medicine cabinet.  Even though I enjoyed good times with the forest and the ceiling fan, I knew my doctor was right – this was no solution.  I needed a clear mind to untangle the knots.  I needed to find the most responsible way to exit the machine and become human again.

Admitting failure is one of the toughest things we must undergo in life, even when protected by the calming fog of a legalized hallucinogen.  I’d lie if I said I didn’t continue trying to please everyone at that job – I did it every single day until my exit strategy was complete.  I wanted to fix my failure yet I didn’t have the perspective needed to get it right.  With perspective, I learned a huge lesson from that job:  I had to set boundaries for myself.  The stress I felt was the stress I put on myself.  The boundaries I set as a result are the boundaries I have to this day, and I’m happier for it.  I’m a better manager because of it.  I have clarity, and I actually come up with solutions – real solutions, not Band-Aids and Silly Putty.  If something doesn’t get done despite our best efforts, I’m not putting in a bunch of 60-hour workweeks to make it happen.  Sometimes you need to let things fail to expose the weakness of the structure they are built on.  It’s better to show a few fissures early on, than to try and hide them until the entire foundation collapses in on itself.

I learned success isn’t found in our paycheck amounts or promotions received.  Success is found in honoring those boundaries we set for ourselves – when we are true to our morals and ethics, honor our happiness, and put the needs of ourselves and those we love first, we are successful.  At the end of the day, when we have nothing more than a pay stub and a business card to define who we are, we really are nothing more than a gear in a machine.  The sleeping pills we take, the bottles of wine we drink only allow us a moment to forget how much more we can be.

Maybe that’s what my doctor was trying to tell me when he handed me that week-long prescription.

Up In Liquid Smoke

[Note: This is a revamp of a post on my old blog, and contains the lamest graphic on my site.  

Warning: I curse! Surprise, I know.]

Do you think there is anyone out there who really enjoys Valentine’s Day?  Just about everyone I know laments the day.  As an adult, if you are alone, you lament not sharing it with someone special; if you are with someone, you lament how romantic your significant other used to be; If you are with a bunch of people, you lament that you can’t keep the secret going for much longer.

As a person who is married, it all just seems so overrated.  Chris and I are far bigger on our anniversary, so V-Day is basically pointless. On occasion however, one of us will make the effort to do something.  For Valentine’s Day 2006, Chris’ effort was to make dinner for the two of us.  I’m the primary cook in the relationship, so this was a nice thing for him to do.  I wasn’t sure what he would make, but I suggested something noodles, because he’s rather good with the noodles.  The story of V-Day Dinner 2006 is one that neatly summarizes our relationship and my neuroses.

Before I left for work, Chris called me and asked me to get a couple of items at the store.  There were a couple of staples, like milk and cereal, but he also asked me to get an item called Liquid Smoke.  “Liquid Smoke?”

“Yup.”

“What does it look like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okaaay…where do I find it?”

“Probably where spices and oils are.”

“…Liquid Smoke.”

“Yup.”

How would I find this thing?  Was it in an aerosol can? Was it like dry ice?  What the hell was it?  On my way home, I stopped at the supermarket to pick up the items.  I walked up and down the spice and oils aisle – twice – and as I expected, no product jumped out at me screaming “Liquid Smoke.”  I stood there for a minute, realizing that I’m going to have to ask the customer service desk for help with this one.  If you know me well, you know that I have an aversion to asking for help.  It’s a combination of my social anxiety and not wanting their inability to be helpful frustrate me.  It’s a strange aversion.  In this case, I figured Chris needed this Liquid Smoke, so I was the Good Wife, went up to the counter, and sheepishly asked them if they had Liquid Smoke.  The lady smiled and looked at me.  “Liquid Smoke?”

“Yeah.”

“What does it look like?”

“I don’t know, my husband asked me to get it.”

“Where did he tell you to look for it?”

“Spices or Oils.”

“…Liquid Smoke.”

“Yeah.”

She looked at a computer and frowned.  “I don’t think we have anything like that here; what’s he using it for?”

“He isn’t telling me anything about it, just to pick it up for him.”

Her face lit up and she smiled.  “Ahhh! Maybe he has a surprise waiting for you, and he made it up to keep you at the store longer.”

A light turned on in my head.  “Could be…” and I walked away from the counter.  I decided to try the spices/oils area one more time.  As I searched the shelves, the wheels in my head began to turn.  This is a dramatization of my thought process from this point until I got home:

Liquid Smoke.  Could Chris really do something like that?  He is kind of tricky, but if this really exists, I’ll feel bad if I don’t find it.  What would it look like?  Wait a minute.  What was that joke the pizza place played on his brother?  Didn’t they tell him to go find Liquid Smoke as a joke?  Oh my God, that’s it!  If I fall for the same joke his brother fell for, I’m going to be really pissed.  Aww, Chris.  What a great husband.  I wonder what he’s planning for me?  How long is he expecting me to spend here?  He probably figured I didn’t ask for help, so he’s going to expect me to get home a little later.  He’s likely assuming I’m just wandering the aisles, crying and frustrated.  Oh crap, I don’t have anything for him! What am I going to do?  There was V-Day stuff at the front of the store…. this is all picked-over garbage!  Reese’s peanut butter cups in a heart? Are you kidding me? He can get those anywhere.  A balloon? That’s cheesy.  Maybe a stuffed animal…are there polar bears?  No polar bears?!? How can you have Valentine’s Day without some cute little polar bear holding an f-ing heart?  This is crap!  I suck at being a wife.  Maybe the candy aisle has something… he’s dieting, I can’t get him a mongo box of chocolates…maybe something small.  Cherries!  He loves chocolate-covered cherries!  There we go.  What?? No cherries?  Are you kidding me?!?  That is a standard confection!  There are the truffles…but he doesn’t like truffles.  I like truffles.  I don’t want to get him something that I’m just going to wind up eating, how selfish is that?  Here we go! Andes candies!  He loves these!  When we used to go to Olive Garden, he always said how much he liked the Andes candies.  Yeah!  That’s sensitive!  Good thinking!  This box is small and stupid.  He’s planning this great thing for me and I’m just giving him Andes candies??  Maybe I’ll look around a little more.  There’s a giant card with a puppy on it.  That’s cute – he loves dogs.  What the hell is is going to do with a three-foot card?  Let’s revisit the balloon idea.  These balloons suck! What time is it, anyway?  It’s getting late, damn it, I’ve been here long enough.  I better get in line…Tic-Tacs! He loves orange Tic-Tacs.  I’ll grab a couple.  He’s planning this grand thing, and I’m giving him Andes Candies and a fucking Tic-Tac.  I suck as a wife.  Should I have grabbed the giant puppy card?  Too late, she’s scanning my stuff.  Yeah, thanks, whatever… what’s that guy doing in a tuxedo at the door?  Yeah, sure I’ll have a free Hershey’s Kiss, thank you…chocolate…yummmmm… wait a minute.  Did that guy even work at the store?  What if he’s some psycho freak who poisons women by posing as an employee handing out free samples?  Asshole.   Oh well, it was good, so it probably wasn’t poisonous.  Well, maybe if I do get poisoned, Chris will forget my insensitivity.  Almost home…if I drive real slow by the front window, maybe I can get a peek of the big plan…nothing.  I can’t see anything except for the dog’s head.  Walking up to the front door…slowly grabbing my keys and making noise so he will know I’m here…there he is! “Hi, Honey!”

He looks at my bag.  “Hi.  Did you find it?”

“It was real?”

“Yup.”

“Really?”

“Yeah…I saw it on Bobby Flay.”

Damn it!  I tossed the bag on the counter. “Happy Valentine’s Day.  Here’s a fucking Tic-Tac.”

[Note: we have since purchased and used Liquid Smoke a couple of times, and I see it everywhere I go]