Sunday, November 28, 2010

Learning To Drive

In a day or two, the teenager will get his Learner’s Permit. I’ve been anticipating and dreading this day for years. Everything about me is ill suited to teaching someone to drive. Besides being averse to wind, rain and darkness, I don’t like traffic, tunnels or any major thoroughfare on Long Island. With me at the helm, my son will only be able to drive locally, and then only on bright, sunny days. I’m not sure, but I think that may end up being limiting for him.

When I got my Learner’s Permit, my dad was still alive. We had a 1975 beige VW Bug. That’s the car I learned to drive in and my dad nearly disowned me in the process. We lived on top of a mountain, in a town with tiny, Hobbit-like streets. The mountain flanked a lakeside community whose winding roads sometimes bisected the lake – narrow passes with steep banks on either side. No guardrails. Guardrails were for wimps.

At night it was even worse. There were barely any streetlights, so if you didn’t drive with your high beams on, you could easily misjudge one of a hundred hairpin turns and end up in someone’s living room.

One day, early in my education, my dad had me drive up and down the mountain. I had to learn to get our four-speed Beetle going from a complete stop on a hill. He would have me drive halfway up the mountain, stop fully, then start going again. We rolled backwards a lot, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. It was summertime and the trees were green and lush, canopying the road. The VW’s windshield was practically flat; in the front seat, you were nearly on top of it. I didn’t even notice the inchworm because I was concentrating so hard on getting the car going from a dead standstill. And I did get it going – at the exact moment that the inchworm splat against the windshield. It landed right in front of my nose. I screamed. And covered my eyes. And must have taken my feet off the pedals, too, because we started rolling backwards down the hill, and my dad – who never yelled at me or even raised his voice for any reason – had an absolute shit fit right there next to me in the car.

In truth, I’m sure it didn’t go on for very long, but it felt like hours of screaming about never letting go of the wheel and never covering your face and a whole lot of other instruction that would have seemed reasonable and sensible if it weren’t being delivered in such a loud, humorless manner.

“Bugs freak me out,” I reminded him, as if that were a valid and excusable reason to abdicate all control of a moving vehicle. And at the time, to me, it was.

Learning to drive was, for me, this defining moment where I was asked to put aside a lot of childish beliefs and behaviors, and quickly take that first big step toward becoming A Responsible Adult. Beliefs and behaviors that, up until then, defined me. Maybe it was a step I wasn’t so ready to take, letting safety supersede my fear of bugs. Often when we take on a new challenge, there’s a part of ourselves that we need to leave behind.

Just today, I read something in a friend’s Yoga blog about teaching her son to ride a bike. She’d quoted the novelist Sloan Wilson as saying: “The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.”

I didn’t teach either of my kids how to ride a bicycle. I always said it was because I couldn’t run fast enough, and that’s actually true. But I also know deep down that I’m the shaky one in the equation. Or at least “the other shaky one.” The one who worries not only about rain and traffic, but also about what exactly will be left behind. And how that’s going to change things. Who’s never quite sure how to execute this Mother Dance I am continually asked to engage in: that of both holding on and letting go.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Putting The Great Back Into Grateful

This post is running on Patch (click here), but I'm posting it here as well.

Several years ago, I remember showing up for my tennis group on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Someone asked me how my holiday was and without missing a beat I said, “It was awful.” The woman was visibly startled by this, so I qualified it by explaining myself. “It wasn’t that the meal was charred or that anyone had expired at the dinner table,” I told her. “Thanksgiving is just hard for me.” During that moment, I realized something that’s taken me practically forever to understand: when people ask me how something was, they’re mostly just making small talk. They don’t want to know that Thanksgiving represents a lot of sadness for me and in general it’s a day I simply try to endure. If nothing cataclysmic occurred, my proper answer should be, “Great. Yours?”

I made a small promise to myself that I would try to remember this in the future. That instead of being the Queen of Too Much Information, I would answer questions like that politely, and then quickly refocus the conversation onto others.

Soon after that Thanksgiving, my life started to crumble in unexpected ways. Every time I turned around it seemed like another rug was being pulled out from under me. Things went on like this for a few months until I found myself praying not that my life would be what it had been, but simply that I would finally hit the bottom. We all go through periods like this, where, although deep and lonely, we just want arrive at a place where there’s nowhere left to go but up.

I got my wish. I did hit bottom. But getting up was harder than I thought. I was out of balance in every imaginable way and just plain tired. I sought the counsel of an old friend and yoga teacher who I knew once had a similar hole to pull herself out of.

One of her suggestions to me was to get myself a pretty little notebook and to number each page, up to 40. Each day, she told me, write down a few things you’re grateful for.

At first blush, this seemed stupid and useless. I didn’t even want to get up in the morning, no less root around for things to be grateful for. It’s hard to even write that sentence, now. It not only seems so foreign, it seems so arrogant. But because my friend had been there -- to that very low place where you have to rebuild the meaning of your life -- she was able to give me some instructions that really helped. “Some days,” she said, “the only thing I honestly felt was: I am grateful for mint toothpaste. And that was all I wrote.”

That was exactly the example I needed. I needed to be shown that I could discover gratitude amywhere. And if it didn’t feel right or true to be talking about all the things I should feel grateful for, there were a million other places I could look for – or notice – my gratitude.

I’m not going to tell you that suddenly I was able to sit down and rattle off pages and pages of reasons to be grateful. It was actually hard to fill those forty sheets. But at the end, I could tell there’d been a slight shift in my perception. I was at least noticing as many good things as bad. So I got myself another notebook and started the exercise again.

By the next Thanksgiving I had a slightly better attitude. I made a big effort to keep my expectations low to try and avert disappointments. But I also made little efforts along the way to remind myself of things I love, and I tried to focus only on those things throughout the day. I started the day with exercise, even though it made food prep a little more harried. I served Brussels sprouts, even though I don’t consider them “special” – they’re one of my favorites and I eat them all the time. I listened to music while I cooked. We played Apples to Apples after our meal. It wasn’t Norman Rockwell, but it ended up being really quite fun.

I know that Thanksgiving isn’t about the meal, but about taking the time to be grateful for all that we have. But for me, that kind of backfires. It has always ended up being a day that I’ve reflected on my losses – things I once had. Things that if I still had, life would be perfect. Much better for me, is to spend a bit of time every day focusing on what I appreciate, even if it’s only how nice and thin the deli guy slices my cold cuts, or that I can finally serve a game of tennis without double-faulting. It takes a lot of pressure off of Thanksgiving for me when I live like that every day. It brings Thanksgiving back to being just a big ole meal, which is a little more manageable for me.

So that next year, when my tennis friends asked how my Thanksgiving was, I blurted out something I’d never expected would feel so true, “It was actually really great!” I said. “How was yours?”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wet Cow/Dry Cow

Just before tennis yesterday I decided to play some Grateful Dead to settle my mind. I had gotten myself a little worked up about this game for no good reason at all and I don’t know what it is about that music, but it just calms me right down.

This wasn’t a match – it was just my regular Thursday game – although two people were subbing: Debi the Sub, who is from my old, working-person life and whom I’ve recently brought into my tennis web of madness, and Sloane, who used to be in this Thursday group but ditched us this year for better players.

Sloane can be caustic and Debi the Sub can be sensitive and I wanted everyone to be happy, so I was having some pre-game jitters in that way I do when I feel like I need to take care of everyone’s emotional well being. Also, I learned on Wednesday that Laura the Tennis Pro had made the baffling decision to travel home for Thanksgiving next Wednesday, and in so doing cancelled our Wednesday Clinic. So, no clinic next week. No Thursday game because of pesky Thanksgiving. No Friday game because all those women want to spend the day with their families. This was the last time I was going to play for two weeks. As a result, I wanted to play well and leave the game on a high note.

I listened to a few songs from Terrapin Station but still showed up a little frazzled, not even taking the time to tie my shoes before I’d gotten in the car. I laced up, braced up, showed off my new tissues (a gift from Laura the Tennis Pro) which were boldly imprinted – each and every one –with the words You Had Me At Achoo, and stuffed a few tissues into my waistband so when my nose started to run (as it invariably does on Court 5) I would not have to use my shirt sleeve.

I was so pleased with our playing from the very first point. Debi the Sub and I were partners and I felt like we had a good, simpatico thing going on. We were up 5-1 and I was just about to vow to listen to the Grateful Dead every single time I came out to play. But then Sloane and Tracey started getting some games. Several games. And before I knew it we were tied 5-5.

It was warm on Court 5 and we’d already stopped after a few games to take a drink. I would replenish my Achoo tissues. We’d chat a bit. I’m not sure what the score was when we went for that final, fateful water break, but it was after we were all tied up. I had apparently not screwed the top back onto my bottle the time before so when I picked it up the top flew off (which startled me) and I dropped the bottle (which was nearly full) and water (a lot of water) spilled everywhere – all over the little glass table that our waters had been sitting on, all over my warm up shirt and pants that were hanging over the chair back, maybe a bit on my tennis bag, and quite a lot all over the floor. I didn’t act as quickly as I might have – it was, after all, only water. If I’d seen the wet handbag right away I wouldn’t have been so cavalier.

When Tracey reached down to get it, it was the first time I noticed the big water stain on it. Of course, the bag was leather. We all started saying, “Oh no!” and I, of course, was mortified. I think it was Sloane who declared it “ruined,” which was when I chimed in with something completely idiotic.

“It’s going to be okay. Cows get wet all the time and then they dry.” (This is actually the mantra I use when I spill something on our leather sofa.) And it’s true, it does dry. But our leather sofa has kind of a worn-in, distressed look to it. It is not the same effect as this buttery soft leather hobo bag.

Tracey started laughing, but I could tell it was because she really wanted to cry. “You’re not going to believe this, but I just took this bag out of the box for the first time this morning. I’ve never even used it before.”

Ok, now I see what’s happened. It’s not just her handbag I’ve ruined, it’s her brand new handbag. “I’ll buy you a new one,” I blurted out, because I knew that was the right thing to say. I quickly started covering the bag with my Achoo tissues, trying to help the drying process along. Then I got a quick, sick feeling in my gut. “Wait, you probably got this bag from Nordstrom’s,” I said, “not from Payless.”

Tracey was still laughing about cows, but I could tell she was distressed. “I ordered it online,” she said.

“Zappos?” I asked.

“Cole Haan,” she said.

I don’t even know how much a Cole Haan bag is, but I’ll tell you this: once someone told me about what another woman paid for a Fendi bag and I was completely dumbstruck. I don’t even carry a handbag and when I do, it’s from Kohl’s. That’s not because I’m cheap (although I am), it’s because I know that whatever bag I buy is going to fall short in some way. It will be too heavy, or tip over awkwardly in the car. The strap will slide off the shoulder of my favorite coat, or it will be just a little too small to carry a book in. Rather than spend time bemoaning the money I’ve spent on what I thought would be the “perfect” handbag, I get inexpensive bags that I use for special occasions, and the rest of the time I just carry my wallet in my pocket. Before my Fendi education, I thought $200 was a lot for a bag.

Later I found out that Tracey has had the same quest: the hunt for the perfect bag. Although, unlike me, she hadn’t given up. This Cole Haan bag was potentially it. She’d splurged. This was the bag that was going to change her life (as handbags are wont to do).

I spent the day cursing my clumsiness. My forgetfulness around recapping my water. My stupidity around talking about wet cows in the face of tragedy. My ability to wreck damage and destruction every time I leave the house. I cursed the fact that Debi the Sub and I ended up losing 6-8 a set in which we had an early 5-1 lead. And also I cursed the Grateful Dead, who were supposed to bring me good fortune that day, not bad.

In between all that, I went on the Cole Haan website and found the bag (on sale…whew!). I called their customer service department and asked how to antidote a big water mark. The gentleman I spoke to couldn’t have been lovelier, but it was quickly apparent that Cole Haan customers are not typically klutzy, because he had absolutely no experience in dealing with anything like this.

I did a web search, not on Wet Cows/Dry Cows, but on Removing Water Stains From Leather. Fifteen articles came up with the exact same advice (which was, interestingly, sort of based on my “cows dry” theory) and I emailed them all to Tracey.

She wrote me back a note that obviously took her an hour to compose. It was a long, amazing reminiscence of how she had gotten to this bag – the years it had taken her to stop buying cheap bags from which she wasn’t even able to access her ringing cell phone and finally spend some real money on something that would truly make her happy. As I read it, I just felt worse and worse. I knew I was going to be out a couple hundred on the bag – and that it was the right thing to do – but I couldn’t help thinking: Cows Dry.

She ended her note by saying that her family can barely notice the water mark and that if she herself does notice it, it will remind her of how much fun she has playing tennis with me. I don’t even know how someone can get there from where she was. How to go, not from Wet Cow to Dry Cow, but from Wet Cow to I’m Happy To Have The Cow Wet, which is not only the essence of grace, but is surely a Google search that could benefit me a hundred times more than getting in a couple extra games of tennis.

Introducing The Tennis Wench

I'm not sure if this is a good idea or not, but I've started another blog called The Tennis Wench. It's a place where I'm going to keep ALL my tennis posts. I think I'm going to have them here too. I'm trying to figure it all out. But in the meantime, I wanted to tell you about it in case you want to check it. Below is my first post:

I'm Off Today

I play tennis most Fridays. But not today. I'm off the schedule today and already I can feel the crankiness setting in.

I jumped out of bed early hoping to find a message in my inbox that someone is looking for a sub.

I've been known to take a more active role. I've been known to send out an email to every tennis friend I have, telling them which days I'm free to sub that week in case anyone can't make their game. This technique has paid off well. Women will take me up on my offer for (what I consider) outlandish alternatives. They'll skip tennis for a doctor's appointment, or a hair appointment, or for (heaven forbid) work. I almost understand skipping tennis to tend to a sick child, although there are tables and chairs in the lounge...a television...a snack machine...a bathroom. Really, what more are they going to get at home?

This week I didn't send out an availability email. I decided to just let fate take it's course. And I don't mind telling you I don't like where it's gotten me.

There's a certain amount of shame attached to being a tennis wench. And I feel it now, sitting in the middle of my throat. Like a tennis ball.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Pilgrimage to Jericho

No, not that Jericho. The one on Long Island. The teenager had a reunion with his friends from his mountain climbing trip and the event took place in Jericho.

I’ve never been to Jericho, in part because of the Long Island Expressway – a highway whose patrons seems to end up in a complete standstill regularly and for no apparent reason. I pride myself on never driving on Long Island and hoped that this event of the teenager’s would not sully my record. Two days before the gathering, I discovered that the Long Island Railroad was not running any service past Jamaica, Queens all weekend long. My only remaining option was to drive him.

My son had a party back here to attend Saturday evening, so instead of spending my entire Saturday in the car, driving him thither and picking him up six hours hence, I decided to just spend the day in Jericho.

I planned to leave our house at 8 AM Saturday morning, but we didn’t get on the road until close to 8:30. This is because, even though I was up at 6:00, I was wholly incapable of organizing myself for the day. I can’t imagine what I expected from Jericho, but I viewed the day as my being banished to some sort of deserted island, that I suffer greatly if I were left idle and without creature comforts. I had work to do, so I put “library” on my itinerary and packed my laptop. But I also decided I would take a walk, so I wore walking gear and brought my iPod. Then I brought a change of clothes, in case I needed to freshen up.

I brought alternate shoes, in case my feet hurt. A book, in case I finished my work. Several pair of socks in varying thicknesses, in case I wanted to shop for boots. Also, all my notebooks that accumulate all over my desk, so I could organize my to-do lists into one neat place. I brought a bottle of water, a Tupperware container of oatmeal and apples (for breakfast), a granola bar (for lunch) and a separate coat and hat in case the one I was wearing was too warm (or not warm enough) for the library.

I threw an asthma inhaler and a handful of Benadryl in my bag in case my son had a bad reaction to the host’s Collie, but I forgot to give him either. I programmed my Aunt’s number into my cell phone so we could perhaps meet for lunch. I brought another notebook full of column ideas and considered bringing my sewing kit and pile of mending, but was too harried at departure time to collect it.

The back seat of my car was piled high with every imaginable project I could think of to stave off boredom, and once I got there I barely touched any of it. I did go to the library and I did get a lot of work done. But I started my day there with a walk, and simply reveled in how rare it is for me to be someplace unfamiliar. My dad always used to tell us: If you want to learn your way around someplace, walk it. And so I did. First making little concentric circles around blocks so I’d be sure not to lose my way, and eventually branching out to other blocks and relying on my terrible sense of direction and the kindness of strangers to guide me back to my starting point.

I noticed that the sidewalks in Jericho are really well maintained. And nearly everyone has a freestanding basketball hoop at the foot of his or her driveway. Some streets have signage, some don’t. There was not one Halloween decoration up, leading me to believe that either they don’t partake, or they have a communal agreement to pull in all their ghosts and witches immediately after the holiday has passed.

None of these were life-altering revelations, but they were just interesting enough for me to realize that I don’t need to worry so much about how to occupy my waiting time. It’s not like I was spending the day in the Emergency Room or at Jury Duty. There was a whole new town here for me to explore and that brought its own unexpected thrill.

I’m not really adventurous about anything – food, clothing, travel – so it doesn’t take much for me to feel like I’ve conquered something big. I figured out how to access the WiFi in the library – and then taught someone else how. I got myself from the library to a deli and back again on foot. I managed to make it home right on schedule armed only with my wits and my hateful GPS system. Maybe that’s just the nature of Jericho – walls tumbling. My little anti-adventure walls: poof, right down.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Writing Problem

There’s been some weird shit going on here, and I’m not even just talking about perimenopause.

I don’t know whether anyone has noticed, but I hardly post here at all anymore. I’d gotten into a groove of maybe 2-3 posts a week and now I feel like I might do 2-3 per month. I’m not sure exactly why. God knows I still have a lot to say.

Part of it started when I got the Patch column. It’s a little unnerving for me to write for a bigger (read: unknown and potentially scary) audience and I find I need a little time to recuperate. I work on my column on Tuesday. My editor posts it on Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday I attend to all the work I blew off early in the week so I could get my column together. And then I sail into the weekend with the intention of writing next week’s Patch column so I don’t feel so under-the-gun on Tuesday. The weekend comes and goes. Monday needs to be productive in other ways. And then I’m right back where I started on Tuesday. Did you notice? There’s no blog writing in that schedule.

I’ve had other setbacks too. I wrote (what I thought was) a funny, interesting blog post about a month ago, about a woman I know only peripherally. I didn’t use her name, and I didn’t think the piece was at all damning, but I sent it to her before I posted it and she asked me not use it. I found the blogging horse surprisingly difficult to get back onto after that.

Then, a writer-friend asked me to come and speak in her journalism class. She teaches at the local college and often brings in guest speakers so her students can ask questions of and get perspective from people “in the field.” At first I declined. “I don’t really feel qualified to talk to your class. I’m not a journalist,” I wrote to her in an email. She immediately wrote me back that I would be perfect for a lot of reasons and sent me a paragraph of things she hoped I would talk about: “How long does it take you to write a column? Where do you get your ideas? How did your own college experience prepare you for this work?”

Those were all things I could talk about, so I readily accepted and dove into the grueling task of figuring out what I would wear.

A few weeks before I was slated to speak, I was at Back-To-School Night at my younger son’s school. His fifth-grade teacher is passionate about writing and is always the one to volunteer to get additional training and attend educational workshops when the district attempts to better its writing curriculum. She stood in front of a big group of parents (two classes full) and called upon us to volunteer in the classroom. “How many of you in here are writers?” she asked. A ton of hands went up. But mine wasn’t one of them.

I left there a little shaken at my own behavior. I write every single day, I thought. Why can’t I say I’m a writer?

That particular identity-blip (what’s the small, beginning kernel of a crisis called?) catapulted me into the idea of getting an MFA. Maybe if I actually studied writing I would be able to call myself a writer. I started talking to people about it, taking women out to lunch, researching online, getting catalogs. There are a lot of programs to choose from, but they all have one thing in common: They all seem like an enormous amount of work. I would read a description of this or that university’s program and as soon as I came upon the word “rigor” (as in “academic rigor”) my eyes glazed over. I take two spin classes a week. Does that not seem enough rigor for one person’s life?

I haven’t completely abandoned the graduate program idea, but I have cooled on it a bit. I went to my friend’s class and she and her students “interviewed” me. Overall it went ok. (Only one student actually fell asleep.) I heard myself saying things like “I don’t consider myself a good writer as much as a competent writer,” and “I choose subjects I can handle; I’m not really a big thinker.” That’s all true, but it was still troubling to hear it come out of my mouth. I could have just as easily posted a sign on my forehead that said, “I’m a piece of poop.”

One woman asked me how I was able to “write funny,” and I stared at her blankly, wondering if this was the moment that I should recount my countless neuroses and decades of therapy sessions. Do I dare tell her that her chances of “writing funny” are severely limited if she hasn’t grown up fat and insecure? Instead I just said, “Good question. I’m not really sure.” And at that moment, nothing felt more true.

There have been other impediments too, and I think those are perimenopausally induced. Sometimes I just scream at people rather than writing about wishing I could scream at people. Then when I sit down to write, there’s nothing left to say.

Go out more. Stay in more. Read more. Watch more TV. Loosen up. Develop a schedule. I’ve considered all these things. And where I’ve netted out is to just start writing about my writing problem, and see if maybe somehow that might make it go away.