Friday, December 13, 2013

Tips from a Cheese Lady: Having Fun with Fromage this Holiday Season and Beyond

Don't call me an expert. Those people exist but I'm not one of them. I package and sell cheese, but more so I just love it. Nothing unusual about that, most people do. But I also notice that most people stress about cheese on some level, be it the calories, the cost or the pressure to appear urbane. How unfortunate we should fret over something that ought to bring us pleasure. Kinda sounds like the holidays, right?

I say, 'tis the season for chowing on big globs of coagulated milk. Let's have fun with it. The following tips are meant to help you do just that:

Stop trying to make it be good for you Cheese has nutritional value but you can easily find leaner, richer sources of calcium and protein. Goat and sheep milk varieties are better for you only by being kinder than cow to your digestive system. They're still loaded with cholesterol. All cheese worth eating is quite fatty. You could sweat details like, "Is it organic or raw or grass fed or hormone free?" - if that's for ethical or aesthetic reasons, I get it. But if you're banking on those options being substantially healthier, just stop. It's the loveliest indulgence. Why not make the most of it by seeking good flavor instead? As with any food, I recommend avoiding anything highly processed. I know, that stuff also tastes good and it's usually cheaper, too. But I believe the tastier, not-as-bad-for-you cheese is worth the extra cash. Maybe it's better to be frugal by way of abstention. We shouldn't eat too much of this stuff anyway.

Having said that... If you have it, just eat it Don't obsess over preservation. If you need to maintain a big chunk, wax paper and aluminum foil make better long-term wraps than plastic (which suffocates cheese and leads to more rapid molding). If plastic is what you have on hand, wrap it tight. Keep it dry. Don't set it on a wet chopping surface. If you do find mold, cut it away and enjoy the good cheese underneath. Just don't freeze it. That ruins texture and flavor. Besides, you probably have regular access to a grocery store, right? If you can, buy smaller quantities. Or share it. Don't hoard the cheese, it will only lead to sadness. 

Snobs are jerks. Don't be one of them I once attended a cheese-selling class when I worked at Foodie Delight*. They dealt a fab selection, most of it unattainable to me for being in the $30 to $40/lb. range. I was excited but also intimidated. When the manager/teacher asked us to name our favorite cheese, I was too embarrassed to say Cambazola because I'd just seen expert Steven Jenkins trash it in his Cheese Primer. Now I feel silly for being so self-conscious. Screw Jenkins, Cambazola is yummy. True, it's no longer my favorite. I'm less satisfied with a lot of stuff I used to love because I've tried better things. Certainly, if you're so privileged that you get to sample cheese the world over, mainstream fare is gonna suck in comparison. But if stinky, gooey, sweet, crumbly-bits-o-blue laden Cambazola were the best thing around, I'd still be pretty passionate about cheese. And if you serve it at your party, I will be very excited. I will also be excited if you serve Velveeta nacho dip and corn chips.

Guilt-trippers are jerks. Don't be one of them Please don't balk at what your friends pay for quality goods. I can't stand customers who come to the counter just to groan, "Eighteen dollars a pound!" I don't stand in front of the Ferrari dealership and moan, "You want how much for a car?" Nor do I begrudge a Ferrari owner their deep desire for something that matters not to me. My feelings about jewelry and shoes are the same. On the other hand, I think it's totally worth spending ten bucks every once in a while on a memorably delicious cheese I can share with a few friends. And if that helps you feel better about occasionally blowing a small fortune on fromage, you're welcome.
 
I didn't avoid soft or raw milk cheeses during pregnancy and both my daughter and I lived to tell. Preggo ladies, take note - you can get your unpasteurized goods from me. I offer a zero judgement guarantee.

FYI 0.25 lb. yields 1 cup, shredded

Speaking of cooking... Here's my favorite, ridiculously easy recipe for delicious Slow Cooker Mac and Cheese (adapted from Stephanie O'Dea's Make It Fast, Cook It Slow) This is basically a cheesy, carb-y custard and it is divine. Like any great slow cooker recipe it's very low maintenance, but you can't leave it alone all day. You have to stir occasionally and it cooks fast. Make it when you're gonna be around the house anyway; most of that time can be spent doing other things.

A note about the cheeses - I love me some intense, aged cheddars but they don't melt well. I usually get something medium sharp, aged no more than a year (Henning's Mammoth is a great mild-but-flavorful, kid-friendly option). The fontina brings light sweetness and luxurious, gooey texture. 

1/2 lb. fontina, shredded
1/2 lb. young, mild or medium cheddar, shredded
4 cups milk
8oz. (1/2 box) elbow macaroni
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Spray crock pot with oil. Mix milk and egg, then blend in spices. Mix in the cheeses and macaroni. Pour mixture into crock pot. Cover and cook on low 2 to 5 hours or on high 1 to 3 hours, stirring every 30 - 45 minutes. Serves 4 - 6.


*not a real name

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Heeding the Hills

Something strange started happening a few week ago. The hills and valleys of my lovely, leafy neighborhood, augmented by crisp autumn breezes and the grand annual color show, seemed to call, "Run, Tara." I told Dan, "I don't know what's going on, but I feel compelled to start running, like it might be fun." He said, "That's weird," and I agreed. Still the compulsion remained. It was an unprecedented urge, and unlikely to recur if I didn't act.

I've embarked on several neighborhood runs over these past few weeks. For those of you who are runners this is no big deal, but for me it's a revolution. I thought I hated running. Until three years ago, I never ran of my own volition. Treadmill jogging was enjoyable during pregnancy, mainly because I wasn't allowed to over-exert myself and still felt like a badass. Once Bernadette was born, I went back to hating it.

And running in public, where my neighbors could see me all slow, sweaty and sputtering? That fear was the last vestige of grade school gym class anxiety. But something broke in my brain and I just stopped caring about that. Or rather, my yearning for a specific sort of exhilaration overcame concern for what others might think.

So I listened to the hills and valleys, and they were right. I love my runs. They leave me feeling so vital. I usually start by jogging down the steep part of the ridge beside my house, which helps me build momentum for the jog up the side of the mountain. Every course is a little different. The distance and altitude changes depend upon various factors like time, traffic and whether I'm alone or pushing Bernadette in her stroller. I try to make each new journey a little more challenging. Halfway through, I like to reward myself by landing somewhere with a beautiful view (usually at the end of the mountainside lane pictured below). I slow down, catch my breath, let my well-worked lungs enjoy the sweet, piney air. And once I get going again, I don't stop until I get home.

It's a fun way to take in my favorite neighborhood sights - the stately Victorian palaces that line St. Elmo Avenue, the yellow brick Baptist church with the picturesque spire, the row of stubborn, still-leafy pear trees at the center of the valley, the goofy, geriatric Jack Russell terrier down the block. I see it all in such pleasing succession, like a montage - faster than a walk, slower than a drive.

The best part is how I feel at the end. I'm immediately energized and later I'm really, really calm. My breathing is improving so the finish isn't as overwhelming as it was initially. T, my fitness guru, explained it well. "Your blood is pumping and your muscles are moving fast, so your lungs start to think they need to breathe rapidly. But they don't. Eventually, you'll get to the point where you can finish a three mile run and immediately carry on a normal conversation." This recovery check is my favorite measure of progress. How quickly can I return to conversational breathing? I prefer tracking that over time or distance, I guess 'cause I'm a weirdo. But that's just another thing I enjoy about running, the freedom to take whatever course you like. The options are infinite.  

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Internet-Light Brain Diet

I recently decided if I want to improve at writing I must make better use of my time. And when I wondered how I might do that, the answer was immediate. I must spend less time online.

Here's my new approach - I check email as needed. When I'm curious how friends are doing or need to crack wise, I visit social media. When I must answer a random question like, "Who's that guest actor on 'Murder She Wrote'?", I google it. And when I'm done, I put the computer away. I don't wander aimlessly, back and forth, one app to the next, searching for amusement. That was the black hole that sucked so many hours.

To be clear, I'm not vilifying the internet. It's how I keep up with a lot of cool people from my past. It's the medium by which Bernadette's grandparents watch her grow. Facetime, are you kidding me? When I was a little girl, I used to hold a book open on my lap and make believe I was video chatting with friends, like they did on "The Jetsons". I didn't expect that it would actually happen, or that the machine itself would be lighter than a book. Perhaps my favorite feature is that when I'm dead tired and craving Indian food, I can get that grub to my front door and the only human interaction involved is twenty seconds spent with the delivery guy. Thank you, technology!

But just as I cannot indulge in carry-out or human isolation every day, I must limit my internet consumption. And here is the result - not only do I have more time, I'm simply happier. The benefits of my fast speak to the ills of the medium ~

My house has never been so clean The internet is great for stabilizing my nervous energy and isn't as deadly as nicotine. Now that it's presence is reduced, I have to be active. The never-ending laundry pile keeps me busy. I've been cooking more complicated meals, which is fun (the extra dishes less so, blech). I've already planned Thanksgiving dinner and even mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors last week. Honestly, I've become a little obsessive about these chores, but at least I have something to show for it. Eventually, I'll tire of domestic labor and replace some of it with reading and writing. 

If a troll screams in the forest but there's no one there to hear him, he doesn't make a sound I'm thinking of this one guy who's Twitter famous for being a skeevy jerk. He calls himself a feminist but seems to hate women. Some of his enemies have worked very hard to prove this, which means he gets LOTS of attention. Eventually he had a mental breakdown and surrendered his account password to some very concerned friends. And then a month later, he came back under a different account. He tweeted selfies so everyone would know it was actually him and not some imposter. And then he had another mental breakdown, but not before he pissed off a bunch of other people.

I'm not saying that trolls don't matter, that their misdeeds aren't hurtful or that they shouldn't be held accountable. I am saying, thank goodness I never followed that guy. I've had my share of days ruined by trolls and I just don't see any point to that.

Speaking of narcissists... My ego isn't so full of bullshit P90X classes have taught me that an occasional ego beatdown is a very good thing. There's virtue in trying even when you lack aptitude. You develop humility, which opens you up to exploring all sorts of new things. You might even improve at something you thought you did well enough already. 

I feel like social media has the opposite effect of a proper ego beatdown. The more time I invest in Facebook or Twitter, the more attention I get out of it. The more often I update my status, the more "likes" I receive. The more attention I give to friends, the more they return. But I always want more favorites, comments and retweets. And when I don't get the number I expected, I feel a little sad. For what? What have I said or done to warrant any acclaim? When I limit my time with social media, I feel a little lonely at first. But then those red and blue lit flashes of attention mean less to me, and the desire to feel important wanes.

I'm more present for others In Real Life I use the term "IRL" hesitantly because our online lives are very real. I relish a handful of ongoing conversations with a few wonderful people I see once, maybe twice a year. But for those couple people who see me every day, I must refocus attention because I'm already such a space case. Written communication suits me too well because I'm so daydreamy. I think way more than I talk, which is theoretically fine, but not so much when you're dealing with a two year old. They need you to be interactive in the moment. And that's hard enough for me to do without the distracting lure of bright, flashing, nonstop, electric entertainment. Anyway, my daughter been to the playground about four times as often in the last fortnight as in the previous two years put together. My fast is helping me be a more fun and attentive mom.

It isn't as easy to forget my feelings, so I'm less anxious Louis CK touched on this subject in a recent appearance on "Conan". He went on a rant about smart phones, which was definitely more curmudgeonly than the tone I wish to take here. But he shared this wonderful anecdote about listening to a sad Bruce Springsteen song. When he felt himself getting bummed out, his instinct was to seek distraction by texting a bunch of friends. But then he chose to just ride out that bad feeling instead. So he cried, and it was a beautiful moment, and then he felt better.

I'm grateful for that story, because now I pay more attention to unpleasant psychic nudges. For instance, when I read a friend's brash remarks on some social medium and feel irked, instead of swiping to the next app, seeking the next entertainment, I ask myself, "Why does this bother you?" And I ponder that until I figure it out. Maybe I decide to hide or unfollow that friend, or maybe I just shrug my shoulders and say, "Well, that's how they've always been, what's new?" Maybe Bernadette says, "Go outside!" twenty times until I finally hear her and then we head to the playground. And at that point, I'll probably decide to just release that frustration because even if both of these lives are real, the breathing one is where I'd rather invest my concern.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Facebook Notification - Everyone Dislikes Your Disgusting Belly

At age 36, I'm the fittest I've ever been. Mind you, I didn't say "skinniest". I'll put it this way - I still can't do a real push-up yet, but I'm way closer to that goal than I ever was. I owe it all to this P90X class I've been taking off and on for the past 11 months. When I attend diligently and really give it my all these are the benefits I feel most, in order of importance -

1)     A sense of calm and very little desire to smoke cigarettes
2)     I look better than I did before
3)     I don't have to feel guilty about not working out

So, yeah, vanity is almost at the top of the list, but I don't stress the details. I don't know my weight at this moment or how my waistline measurement compares to six months ago. I just know my jeans are looser and that feels great.

But Facebook advertisers won't let me forget my stomach is still a pile of jiggly, flesh covered lard. No doubt, belly fat or lack thereof is a great indicator of progress. I check that flab every time I shower. Yes, I like to see it shrink. Then I cover it up with some flattering threads and move on with my day. "No, wait!" says Facebook. "You need to remember you're disgusting." Apparently, I require that reminder every time I scroll for cat videos or photos of my friend's newborn baby.

I usually keep scrolling - of course I never click - but I don't doubt that that these ads have some subtle psychological effect. Their messages are supposed to resonate deep within my subconscious mind. Maybe I don't feel it until later. Like when I'm premenstrual bloated, laying on the couch, eating chips and dip and I sigh at the sight of a muffin top roll sticking out of my shirt, maybe the Facebook advertisers win. But when I actually stop to look at these ads and really consider what they're saying, my inner wiseass always has a silly response, such as:



WTF is with that mess? I can't post a pic of me breastfeeding my kid, but Diet Tricks can show pubes?! WAIT false alarm. It's just an ill-fitting thong. That gets me every time....



Fatty doesn't get new underwear TIL SHE HITS 25%.
 


You can definitely lose weight quickly AND have kick-ass abs. Price to pay - you become an obsessive selfie-shooting asshole with a dumb iPhone case and nobody likes you.
 


Dr. Oz admires his self-portrait. 


Whatever, my belly is way flatter than that... and I'd trade it in a heartbeat for those boobs. JUST KIDDING I didn't get that ad from Facebook. For some weird old reason I never see it there. Instead, I always see it when I google recipes like this:
 



Fair enough.

  

Thursday, September 19, 2013

My Dirty, Shameful Bias

I have a deep-rooted prejudice toward wealthy people. I don't get them and I usually don't trust them. What is my definition of "wealthy"? Quite simply, it means having/expecting to have lots more money than me. It's all relative and quite subjective, but my class awareness very much colors my perception of others. If you know me personally I've wondered all these things about you:

Did you attend a four year college or university? Is that something everyone in your family just does? Did your parents pay at least half your tuition and expenses?

Did you take piano lessons as a child?

Do you now or have you ever ridden a horse for leisure?

Have you worked in any facet of food service?

Did your parents ever give or buy you a car?

Do you go the doctor any time you feel off?

Was riding the bus ever your only option for getting to work?

Have you ever spent a summer in college either backpacking in Europe or working an unpaid internship?

Are you capable of ordering the most expensive item on the menu without a second thought?

I'm not saying a "yes" or "no" reply to any of these questions will determine whether or not I like you. But I am hyper-aware of how similar or different your answers are from mine. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that most of my intermittent social anxiety stems from feeling out of place around wealthier people. I recently attended a party with lots of other thirties-ish adults, most of whom have salaried jobs, houses and multiple children. I felt so uncomfortable. "Am I not dressed well enough? I bet I'm the only one who works for an hourly wage. But I'm also a part-time stay-at-home mom, so that's kind of bougie enough, right? But I don't take my kid to any activities so now we have nothing to discuss. FUCK, THEY PROBABLY THINK I'M A BAD MOM. But we only have one car and it's tricky. Oh, christ, that lady's wedding ring is probably worth more than our one shitty car. I definitely don't belong here." Sadly, some version of this internal dialog often comes between me and a good time.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that I can sometimes pass for an experienced, third or fourth generation upper middle class person. Perhaps this is because I use the word "perhaps" conversationally. Anyway, when I'm mistaken for a rich person, my knee jerk rage is a bit shocking. I still remember when a snotty goth coworker once made a crack about my assumed "prep school background." Bless his sad little black-clad heart, he didn't know what was coming. "No," I shouted, like a self defense class pupil. "I'm from a factory town and a seven kid family. We had one bathroom. I know all about Kroger Cost Cutter Corn Flakes in the sad yellow box. My public school education blew. Here, look at this fifth grade class photo of me in my brother's hand-me-down sweater, JC Penney eyeglasses, and mullet cut with rusty scissors from the kitchen drawer."

 

I am actually more ashamed of being assumed wealthy than I am of that photo.

My prejudice is problematic for a couple reasons. In truth, I am wealthier than a lot of people... like, most of humanity. Literally. I try very hard to remember that this myopic "us vs. them" viewpoint is practically meaningless on a global scale. It would be different if I still felt the stress of being poor, if I still felt sorry for myself for having less. I actually feel very comfortable with my household income and fortunate for that sense of ease. But this bias is so visceral, so embedded in my subconscious that reasoning it away simply doesn't work. I know it's unhealthy. Whatever, I'm not worried about you, rich person. Especially if you're white, you're gonna be just fine. Please enjoy your privilege. I'm more concerned that this bitterness is bad for me, as bitterness generally is. And the only reason I'm blogging about it is because this sometimes helps me overcome a problem, or at least release some of the burden. And if it doesn't, at least you get to know who I really am.

And truly, some of my favorite people are wealthy. You may be one of them, and that's fine. Just know that if I ever see you treating a service worker disrespectfully, I will secretly decide you're a horrible person.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deluge

In early July, I began a ten week online memoir writing class through Gotham Writer's Workshop. Most of my classmates - many of whom have lived extraordinary lives - came to this course with a specific story to tell. I did not. After all, my life is pretty ordinary. I just figured memoir was the literary genre closest to what I do here* and it seemed an excellent opportunity to sharpen my storytelling ability. I looked forward to reading lectures and writing short weekly assignments. But when it came time to submit a lengthier piece for peer critique, I didn't have a plan.

And then I remembered, "Oh yeah, there's That One Thing." I am vaguely referring to my most traumatic personal experience. The matter is prickly enough that I don't want to discuss it here, not yet anyway. But I've long desired to tell this story and I do intend to publish it. So, kudos to me for taking the balls out approach!

It's been a crushing exercise in self expression. I submitted the first draft four weeks ago. My classmates' comments definitely helped me mold a much better revision, but the sense that I'd misrepresented myself in the initial version still irks me. As a blogger, I've developed a voice that's familiar to my readers. More to the point, pretty much everyone who's read this blog already knows me, or at least something about me. Writing life stories for strangers requires a thorough and articulate self awareness that's quite fucking tricky to learn. I had no idea what a novice I am.

I submitted the second draft on Monday. This is my last chance to get my classmates' feedback, for which I'm dreadfully unready. I'm afraid of being misunderstood again and, at the same time, I don't want this grueling experience to be over. I'm already exhausted from writing the piece itself, which is packed full of sensitive details I've not shared with anyone before. All these weighty feelings seem to devour my energy. And when you add the rest of my course work and the rest of my life to the deluge, I've scarcely any pep for posting on this here blog. 

All of which is to say, I'm still here. Just wanted to let you know what I've been doing.
 



*It's actually quite different, but that's another subject.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"She wears a long fur coat of mink, even in the summertime"

The summer of 1984 was the summeriest of all summers. I distinctly remember that lazy last day of first grade. Thumbing through a copy of Clifford the Big Red Dog, something clicked in my brain and it fully sunk in that mean Mrs. B would never be my teacher again. She was the first grown up I actively disliked. Most of my classmates claimed she was their favorite when we wrote "My Story About Me". But that was dumb because Mrs. D, the kindergarten teacher, was the only other one and she was way nicer. I smirked to myself. It doesn't matter now. First grade with Mrs. B is over. I'm glad I never pretended to like her!

My oldest brother P's high school graduation was that evening. I was geeked to attend commencement but it rained and there wasn't enough room in the gymnasium for everyone's big family. I hung back at the house with the other older kids and my baby brother. While P and my parents were gone, my sisters arranged a dazzling array of snacks usually reserved for Christmas eve and Kentucky Derby day - chips and dip, cold cuts and potato salad, sweet and sour meatballs and loads of cold, refreshing pop. Wow, graduation must be a big deal. I can't believe P is THAT OLD!! 

The following days saw the establishment of our daily television routine. My siblings and I generally agreed that the ten to eleven a.m. hour was locked on TV20's airing of "Gidget" and "The Gong Show". Then it was time for "The Price is Right". The five to six p.m. slot was more debatable, because channel 50's "What's Happening?" block coincided with a music video show on TV20. There was a lot of dial turning during that hour. 

(Later that summer, the "Gong Show" episode of "What's Happening?" blew my mind, and a pop culture nerd was born.)

Most of my '84 summer memories center around music and especially the videos - The Cars' "You Might Think", Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters", Bananarama's "Cruel Summer", Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark", Huey Lewis and the News's "If This is It". We didn't have cable so we didn't have MTV, but we tuned into every music video show on broadcast TV and there were a few. When my sisters and I stayed overnight at my Aunt M's condo one evening, it was a very big deal that she let us watch MTV all night. I remember seeing the video for Dan Hartman's "I Can Dream About You" and thinking, "Why is that white guy pretending this is his song?"

It was the first summer of sleepovers at my best friend E's house. We had such a blast, shoving Doritos and candy in our mouths, building Barbie villages in the basement, seeing if we could stay up late enough to watch the midnight airing of "Bosom Buddies" on channel 50, singing along to the Billy Joel theme song before passing out in our sleeping bags. I'd usually wake up at some point before dawn and stare at the giant furnace with the scary octopus arms, wishing I was home in bed. When I'd awake in the morning, I wasn't afraid anymore. E's house was fun again. 

The coolest sleepover was when she met me at the front door and said there was a surprise in the basement. She took me to the little wood paneled room where her dad kept his shop tools. It was cleaner than usual and there was a small table with two chairs set up in the corner. When we sat down, her older sister J brought us two cups of Tang and a plastic plate topped with saltine crackers and American cheese cut into triangles. "Welcome to my night club!" she announced, then flipped the switch on the overhead light. A bare bulb lamp shone in the corner, where she danced and lip-synched to Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop". We applauded wildly when she finished. She almost started another song, but then she got a phone call and forgot about us. But I never forgot about those ten minutes in the club. At that point in life, it was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to me.

That was the summer of "Purple Rain". One of my favorite childhood memories is sitting on the cool basement floor, playing with my awesome hand-me-down Fisher Price house, hospital and village while listening to "Let's Go Crazy" on the radio. I had two Little People girls with identical brown bobs. One wore orange and the other blue. I decided they were twin sisters in a rock band and named them Wendy and Lisa.

It was an Olympic summer, the one that all those Eastern Bloc nations boycotted. McDonald's ran that disaster scratch off ticket campaign that rewarded you every time the Americans won some event the Russians would normally dominate. We ate so much free McDonald's. For just a small up-front investment, you could keep accumulating winning tickets at every visit. It was the dreamiest racket a seven year old could imagine.

The Tigers dominated baseball. My sister K showed me where I could find their daily ranking in the Detroit Free Press. It was always a big, sparkly 1. And then they won the World Series that fall when I was in the second grade. That was a great school year, my favorite of all. Mrs. K was very nice and quite fond of me in particular. Kids were still sweet at that age and I wasn't wearing glasses yet. When the summer of '85  rolled around, I wasn't so eager for school to end, yet I knew all the fun that awaited me - long days spent playing and watching TV, just like the old days before kindergarten. There would be fun music, sleepovers, baseball and fireworks on the 4th of July. And all those things did happen, but it was never quite so exhilarating as the summer of '84. 

I'm still searching for that ancient sense of newfound pleasure. It's impossible, I know, but I always feel just a smidge of it when I hear Sheila E's "The Glamorous Life". For me, that will always be the summeriest song that ever was.

 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Post Script (My Piece of Shit Neighbor)

A few nights ago, I blogged about the shock of seeing a Nazi flag hanging in my neighbor's bathroom. I've been in a pretty yucky mood ever since, hence this attempt to exorcise some of that disgust.

First, I would like to emphasize that I'd known this guy for all of three hours prior to that discovery. My impression hitherto that moment was rather positive, which made the immediate aftermath all the more confusing. My friend A's Facebook comment on the blog post link pretty perfectly described my reaction. In response to my neighbor calling his Nazi flag a "funny shower curtain", A wrote:

"The 'funny' part of it is baffling to me. I'd imagine most neo-Nazis don't find the swastika funny. Was he just trying to gauge your reaction to see if you're in the club, or is this some sick new depth of southern hipster irony that found the wrong audience? I suspect the former, but it's incredibly depraved either way."

Initially, I also assumed my neighbor must have been assessing my sympathies. And the notion that a white supremacist would ever wonder if I'm "on the team" was perhaps the single most revolting piece of this richly fucked incident. Well, a bit of new information has emerged by way of a friend-of-a-friend. This person (whom I've never met) knows and detests my neighbor despite the fact that many among their music scene peers regard him highly. Her impression, as far as I can make out, is that he embraces offensiveness as a way of being avant garde. So maybe - big, FAT maybe - he's just one of those dudes who likes to get a rise out of people, a.k.a. a troll. As far as my primal sense of safety is concerned, that's a smidge better than living down the block from someone who dreams of human genocide. But as far as his character is concerned, all it really means is that he's a narcissist and a sociopath in addition to being a bigoted piece of shit. Nazi or not, nobody gets a pass on that void of basic human respect.

I'd also like to mention that my piece of shit neighbor is a Philly native and a recent transplant from New York. My guess is that he thinks he can get away with bandying hate symbols "ironically" and passing it off as art in a place like Chattanooga because he assumes the local hipsters are too apathetic, ignorant and/or racist to call him out. But I suppose I'll never know for sure as I have no intention of sharing a civil word with him again. 

Besides, the details matter little. It's pretty simple - fuck that guy, fuck his flag and fuck his idiot friends for associating with such garbage. No gray shades here. It's all chiaroscuro. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Nightmare Friday Night

I kinda wanna throw up all over myself at this moment. So our neighbor (roughly our age, artsy-seeming) invites us to a tiki bar party in his basement. We don't know him at all but it sounds cool so we say "sure". Turns out there's a cover charge and bands all the way from Boston plus exquisite tropical drinks, so we oblige. We have a wonderful time. I mean, the bands are really noisy/electronic-y and really not my thing, but that's cool - they're different and the venue is funky and I'm just excited this is happening down the block from my house. After a few hours of acting the polite audience member during sets and an eager conversationalist in between, I ask the host if I may use his restroom. He directs me to the first floor and notes, "You'll see the funny shower curtain."

When I find the bathroom, I see a bright red curtain emblazoned with a human-sized, stark black swastika. Upon exiting the facilities, I immediately find the host. "Dude, what the fuck is up with your shower curtain?"

He chuckles and pats me on the arm. "I told you it was funny."

I nab Dan, tell him what happened and we bolt. I say to him after we get home, "The only good thing to come from this is that maybe I'll never be shocked by southern racism again," at which point he reminds me, "He's not even from here. It's like he sought the south."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Meeting Mini Me

I just figured out why I've been experiencing a silent, mini-meltdown these past several days. It started Friday when Dan told me Bernadette's day care provider referred to her as being "shy" with other kids. That was the precise moment this black cloud first crossed the sun. I grimaced. "Oh, no. But I don't want her to be like me!" 

That's all she seems to want these days, to be like me. Every other word out of her mouth is "mama". And as I decipher some of her other pronunciations and gestures it seems she's impersonating me. Today we were watching a family photo slideshow on my iPad and I noticed that she no longer squeals loudest in response to her own image. Her greatest delight is in recognizing me. 

Maybe this sounds like fabulous ego fodder, and it kinda is, but the novelty is wearing off and I'm starting to panic. It's too much pressure. I never wanted her to be like me as much as I wanted her to be better than me. And the shyness is the last thing I wished for her to emulate.

Blogging can be such swift, sharp tool of self discovery. It often seems that once I make some pronouncement about myself, I immediately discover it isn't entirely true. Specifically, I've started to wonder if I'm really quite so introverted as I am customarily afraid of other people. There's good reason for me to be that way - I've spent big chunks of my life in the company of mean, unstable people and I'm pretty sensitive to be dealing with that sort of thing. Sequestering myself was how I found calm and maintained my sanity. Good for me that I happened to enjoy spending time alone. But there's no question I've always been shy in addition to being introverted. I'm way more outgoing now than I was as a child, when I could barely look anyone in the eye. I've also gotten pretty good at avoiding assholes, too. Overall I'm proud of my progress, but I must admit I'm not yet the model I wish for my kid. 

I'm really not sure what to do. Fortunately, just prior to hearing someone describe my daughter with the "s-word", I'd already resolved to be a bit more social. A recent solo trip to Michigan reminded me how much I love good conversation with grown-up friends; much as I try to convince myself otherwise, the internet just doesn't provide a suitable substitute. I'm pretty sure I could experience more of that in Chattanooga if I made the effort. And that's fine. But now this other factor is increasing my sense of urgency, leaving me overwhelmed. I hate the idea that my kid could suffer undue loneliness because she's trying so hard to be like me.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Unique Comfort of Not Caring

For someone who regularly broadcasts her neuroses online, I'm a pretty discreet individual. Certain aspects of my personal life have not/will not be discussed by phone, email, Facebook or Twitter, and I'm certainly not going to talk about any of that stuff here. Part of my reserve stems from a deeply ingrained sense of propriety. I'm like big sister Elinor from Sense & Sensibility, really uptight about decorum. But it also comes from a sort of paranoia. You see, getting in trouble is my biggest fear and I've long found keeping quiet the best way to avoid it.

So it wasn't really for myself that I worried in the wake of last week's big news about NSA surveillance, or at least not at first. Nor was I that surprised to learn our government has direct access to just about everyone's phone activity, email and messaging. But once laid before me, the absolute scope of that truth left me astonished. I keep thinking what my friend J said a year ago about being active online in the mid-90s. "Back then I didn't get that the internet is forever." Only in light of this recent news do I begin to grasp the implications of that notion. I think of myself as a generally good person, but what could be said of me based on my digital footprint? For instance, it wouldn't be difficult to deduce some dumb financial decisions I made in the past. And that's just one bad-looking thing. How many steps are you and I from potential character assassination? There's just so much available information about us all.

Too much, right? I mean, who am I but another one of the faceless millions? Besides, I'm lucky because I'm white and somewhat middle class so nobody bugs me. I can just blend in. And I never get in trouble anyway so I'll probably be just fine. Such is my knee-jerk inner dialog when pondering the NSA scandal inevitably leads to silent panic. And yes, there's a very good chance I'll live my whole life without being persecuted on the basis of some misconstrued information from my vast, intricate digital portrait. But that isn't really the point. Clearly, this trove of information is just too damn ripe for misuse. Because I'm a quiet, middle class white person (and not, say, a muslim), I've had the luxury of waiting until now to connect those rather obvious dots. And that's just one small aspect of this enormous debacle, of which I have much to learn. Certainly, choosing to not think about it is a more attractive option. I regularly struggle with that inclination, about so many bad things...

So if you've been thinking this NSA story is no big deal, I'm gonna assume that you haven't given it much consideration. I sympathize with that strategy but still think the matter deserves your attention. On the other hand, if you've thoroughly considered the issue and still find yourself feeling blasé about it, I have to conclude you're a very comfortable person who isn't bothered by any injustice that doesn't impact you directly. And if that is the case, I think you have a really big problem.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Is It a Bump or a Plateau?

Ever since I got pregnant about two and a half years ago, my body has been subject to drastic hormonal shifting. There were the various stages of pregnancy, then childbirth, then nursing and the steady, year-long decline into weaning. If I could count on one thing, it was the sense that none of the symptoms would last for long. Disgust toward poultry in the first trimester gave way to intense beef cravings in the second. Postpartum joint pain faded over the first few months of my newborn daughter's life. When breast milk was her only sustenance and I was a busy, full-time wet nurse, I didn't need exercise, cigarettes or a job to consume my then-nonexistent nervous energy. Once she started eating solid foods, I needed other outlets again.

She fully weaned a couple weeks ago, and even though I breastfed her just once a day for the previous two months, the hormonal impact jarred me. For the first forty eight hours, I felt as if I'd caught a crying virus - sub sneezing fits with random, heartfelt sobbing and that's why my face was so red and splotchy. Thankfully I've moved past that, but now a new batch of bodily oddnesses have caught me off guard. Onions gross me out. Certain cheeses I usually enjoy suddenly taste sour. Perfumes overwhelm me. I'm no longer attracted to Detroit Tigers pitcher Doug Fister. They're little things, yes. But when experienced en masse, they make me feel as if I awoke in a slightly different woman's body. 

And again, I've kinda gotten used to that sense of weirdness, except there are two key, disturbing differences at this point in the journey - 1) I'm not distracted by the daunting prospect of birthing or raising a brand new person; I'm rather well settled in this life which gives me time to think, and 2) Now that I'm at the end of this pregnancy/childbirth/nursing experience I have to wonder, are these changes permanent? Or is there another change in the near future? And which scenario is more discomfiting? I'll just have to wait and see. Having no control is my dual comfort and frustration. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Living in a Material World

For the first time ever, I find myself in a steady, long-term state of financial stability. We have health insurance, ample living space and savings in the bank. We keep plenty of delicious, nourishing food in our kitchen, including at least one but usually three excellent cheeses. We're paying down debt and using credit cards infrequently. The best part of this life is that money worries rarely trouble me. I know plenty of other people raise multiple kids on way less, so as far as I'm concerned, we're loaded. 

But if we lived according to true middle-class standards, we'd be super broke. Fortunately, I don't care that my 2002 Pontiac Sunfire is the last car in the country with manual locks and windows, because it's paid off and it works. The rent on our century old house is way lower than the mortgage we'd pay on a more solid abode in a superior school district, plus we don't bother with the upkeep. I spend zero money on makeup or hair styling products and tend to wear clothes out before I buy more. If this sounds like a boast, it is, but only insofar that I feel blessed for my indifference. Do I think I'm better or cooler than people who are more concerned with looking good and owning high quality stuff? Not really. I actually envy their ability to blend into society. Maybe I worry less about money, but I bet they worry less about sticking out.

Case in point - the yard sale. I hosted my first one this past weekend and I am never doing that again. The sum of money I made did not justify the long, dull hours spent feeling self-conscious about my freaky-deaky image. Here are some choice social interactions from that affair:

- An elderly lady looked at our five tons of baby stuff for sale and said with apparent confusion, "Aren't you going to have more?" Ugh. 

(p.s. I plan to save a lot of money by having just one kid.)

- A nearby neighbor introduced herself then unleashed her two toddler sons upon the merchandise. My organized porch became a playground swept up in a whirlwind. As the older one grabbed at every brightly colored toy, giving me false hopes for a sale, the younger one tore into all the bagged items before turning my coffee cup upside down upon his shirt. His mom was really embarrassed, especially about the puddle on the porch floor. Perennial renter that I am, caring about that didn't even occur to me. I offered a free boy's shirt for him, but she was really fixated on cleaning the puddle, using his coffee-stained top as a mop. Once clean-up ended, she hastily selected a pair of one dollar maternity shorts, explaining, "They just look so comfortable." But then she didn't have a dollar. So I said, "Oh, just come back later," and there was this weird silence. "You can take the shorts with you," I added, but I think she really wanted me to say, "Oh, just take 'em for free." And I almost did, but a little voice in the back of my head said, "Hell no." As I watched her walk away in her neatly pressed Eddie Bauer ensemble, I had to wonder if this whole thing was one of those weird, elaborate, southern lady mind games I just don't get. 

(p.s. I don't host a yard sale so I can overlook one dollar purchases. Almost everything was priced one dollar.)

- While all that was happening, another neighbor showed up with her tot. We've met a couple times. From her, I get a definite "Why are you talking to me?" vibe, which may be  because I always note with great enthusiasm that our daughters were born one day apart at the same hospital (we all cohabited the maternity ward, it's so magical!!!). I thought, maybe this will be our first normal interaction. But no. After chatting with whirlwind mom for a few, she glanced at a couple maternity shirts and said to me, "Well, I'm gonna keep moving." A simple "goodbye" would have sufficed. 

(p.s. I later noticed that those same shirts - which I'd purchased used and wore throughout my pregnancy - both had armpit stains. AWESOME.) 

-  A first-time expectant grandma rifled through a one dollar bag full of baby socks. "Are all these grouped together? Because these are both boy and girl socks." I replied honestly, "Um, yeah, I never really saw the point in discerning between the two, especially when it comes to socks." 

(p.s. ...or pajamas, or shirts, or pants. The conventional girls' color palate is very limited and why shouldn't she get into football and trucks, too? I know this sounds like obnoxious liberal garbage, but really we're just sick of pink and I forget that cross-dressing my kid confuses other people because I'm tired all the time. Besides, I swear boys' socks are cheaper, you get a whole bunch at once!)

In the end, I was pleased with my profit if I only considered the time spent getting ready for the yard sale. My mistake was expecting the experience itself to be a relaxing, book-filled day in the shade instead of a relentless, six hour reminder that I don't understand how other people value material things. And then I remember that I probably look pretty weird, with my old clothes and my one boy-dressed baby girl and my coffee stained front porch. But I still don't care to change any of that, so I'm not going to think about it. Rather, I will return to a state of blissful, distracted indifference and never, EVER do this again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"There ain't no such animal."

Upon sharing with me the legend of Kokomo, Indiana's "Old Ben", my mother-in-law dug up this vintage postcard. It is now my favorite fridge ornament. The inscription on the back reads:

"OLD BEN", WORLD'S LARGEST STEER
HIGHLAND PARK, KOKOMO, INDIANA

At birth, Ben weighed 135 lbs.; 1,800 lbs. at 18 mos.; 4,000 lbs. at the age of 4; and scaled 4,720 lbs. at the time of his death in Feb., 1910. About 8 yrs. old at the time, his height was 6' 4" (at the forequarter), he was 16' 2" long (from tip of tail to end of nose) and his girth was 13' 8".

Ben was raised by Mike and John Murphy on their farm 3 1/2 miles west of Miami, Ind. His sire was a registered Hereford bull and the mother cow a long, rangy, grade shorthorn. Death came at the height of his fame when Ben slipped and fell on some ice, broke his leg and had to be destroyed. The mounted steer was presented to the city of Kokomo by the Murphy brothers in 1919 and placed on display in Highland Park, where it stands as proof to all those who might say, "there ain't no such animal."


Surely Leslie Knope wrote that, am I right?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Riding Rougher Waves

At the beginning of April, I rejoined the P90X class I'd attended in February. It being such a rejuvenating three-hour-a-week beat down, my plan is to keep going forever and ever, amen. I've never felt so fit and I'm definitely seeing results, especially when I look in the general direction of my feet. My biggest challenge is discipline. I've missed several classes, some due to illness and some because I just couldn't get it together that particular morning. Fortunately, the other students are an ongoing inspiration. Those who have stuck with it this whole time are looking extra strong, healthy and hot. I want to be like them.

I'm feeling especially positive about the class since this recent mental breakthrough - the P90X workout totally reminds me of childbirth. Most of the time it's pretty exhausting and painful and there are some moments of excruciating exertion. But then there are the duller, more manageable pains in between, the ones you get on top of and actually savor. Those are your breaks. They're not easy, just easier, and you've got to find them where you can. When we sprint back and forth across the gym, the pivot's the movement that takes the most out of me. Getting past it makes the actual running feel less bad, more do-able. And that's a freaking trip, because I never thought I'd prefer running to any other thing, I hate it so much. In fact, I used to think the only thing worse than running was puking, which I did three times during labor and it was nothing compared to all the other stuff my body was going through at the time... do you see what I'm getting at?

So now that I recognize this ebb-and-flow pain pattern for what is, I'm a little less fearful of going to class. It's funny, one of the main reasons I chose natural childbirth was needing to know I possessed the physical strength. I thought, "If I can do this, I won't ever be afraid of anything at the gym." Well, that hasn't proven true at all and it's just as well. As T the Trainer says, if you want results you should be 40% excited and 60% terrified of working out. When it comes to this gig I'm more 25/75, but I'm improving. Besides, it isn't really about overcoming the fear, it's about developing the tenacity to face it regardless. That's my goal, anyway.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Psychedelic Stuff I've Said to My Kid

Does gnawing on that cow's butt make you feel better?

Peek-a-boo doesn't work with plastic wrap.

Are you brushing my hair with the phone?

Stirring your tea with a dog bone, good plan.

We're going to leave the tilty banana naked.

Mr. Ghost Foot is calling. Would you like to speak to him?

We need a key ring for all your q-tips.

Does this cake belong on your head?

That discount card must be telling some really good jokes.

Whoa, there's a body with a sock, that's so weird... PEEKABOO!

It feels rough, right, like the tiger's tongue?

Oh, so you're eating your jammies because I wouldn't give you more cheese.

Hello. Who's calling? Oh, hey, Bernadette! Lemme see if you're available - Hey, Bernadette, it's you calling. Would you like to speak to yourself?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dusty Mirror

When my daughter knocked a battered old book off the nightstand and I was gathering its unbound pages, I happened upon a couple loose leaves of journal written many years ago. It was everything I could fit on two legal pad pages during an extended train ride from Chicago to Ann Arbor immediately following a blizzard. I didn't have a notebook on me at the time, or perhaps I'd filled the one I'd packed for that New Year's journey, for I hadn't expected to be stranded at my friend's aunt's house for two days. Anyway, it was an illuminating read.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was steadily descending into an era I now consider the absolute nadir of my so-called adulthood. I was in college, barely supporting myself on part-time work and student loans with zero clue about juggling money, classes, my job, leisure time or relationships, nor had I concocted anything nearing a realistic plan for my future. I was drifting toward some very regrettable choices, but again, I didn't know that then.

Upon glancing the date at the top of page one, I cringed. But once started, I couldn't stop reading. It's funny, I've harbored certain vivid memories of that train ride - shivering in my seat, the broken door at the front of our car that would latch only when forcefully shut and the way the snow infiltrated those breezy connectors between cars and gathered in thick ridges along the walls. But in that journal entry, there were memories I'd forgotten - how grateful I was for the hospitality I'd received in Chicago (the primary emotion I recalled prior to reading was sullen impatience), a funny toddler who begged his mother to let him visit a cute eight year old girl at the back of the train, drinking a warm Heineken and being glad it wasn't warm Budweiser. Most surprising was the frank rendering of my feelings toward my new boyfriend. When I recollect the advent of a doomed relationship, I always assume I must have been fooling myself. Turns out, I knew exactly what I was getting into, incompatibilities and all. And when I talked about him being funny and secretly sweet, I remembered why our courtship seemed like a better than bad idea at the time.

I've kept journals on and off (mostly on), for the last twenty years. Save the one lost to a returned rental car during my pregnancy, I believe I've kept them all. I don't document my daily life for posterity. I'm rather frightened of the finished product, especially as it gathers dust and age. Keeping a diary suits me because the process itself is therapeutic. But then I'm left with all these inked up notebooks full of memories I don't remember, packed in boxes, stacked in closets, moved from apartments to houses and across the country. I think of them the same way I consider my childbirth photos - "Ick... I mean, sure, I'll look at those.... someday." Perhaps my densest, most deep-seated fear is that I'll die suddenly, my grieving loved ones will read those tomes and then they'll learn what a grody jerk I really am. A couple months ago, I thought, "I know! I'll organize all my old journals, which will be super fun for me, for real. And then I'll read them chronologically and then I'll burn every one I wrote before Bernadette was born!" It isn't a terrible plan, but maybe the bonfire finale isn't really necessary. We shall see.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Walking in New Orleans

I distinctly recall a moment from the first time I visited my friend S in New York. We'd just exited a subway station in Greenwich Village. As soon as we were able to slow our stride to a chatting pace, I said, "Dude, when we got on that escalator, I totally cut off an 80 year old man. I feel like such an asshole."

S shrugged. "That's just what you gotta do sometimes."

That memory haunted me as I wandered through the French Quarter with a 23 pound baby strapped to my chest. It was Easter weekend, the human throng was thick and I was that 80 year old man - a sluggish, hunkering, non-entity on the losing end of the kill-or-be-killed battle for limited sidewalk space. I often had to step into the street, if I didn't choose to power through with an overstuffed diaper bag hanging at my side. And when I did that, I felt like an asshole but that's just what you gotta do sometimes.

When I first visited New Orleans in 2011, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in the Marigny. In the first twenty four hours, we visited the neighboring dog-friendly gay bar twice. The bears fawned over our beagle and the bartender concocted exquisite virgin Bloody Marys for four months pregnant me. Our five minute walk to the Quarter traversed quiet residential blocks and took us past low-key taverns where the locals would hang. We did our share of the touristy stuff - Decatur Street to Jackson Square and the Cathedral, Cafe Du Monde at 1am. But mainly, we wandered along "our" side of that district. We ventured uptown and to the Bywater by car, as well, packing a great deal into a mere day and a half.

I'm glad that was the nature of my first meeting with the city, because if it resembled our second visit I may have been turned off. Don't get me wrong, I had a blast this time, too. But being stationed on the Central Business District side of the Quarter, steps away from Canal Street, exposed me to the Vegas-y part of New Orleans - the crowds, the cheesy gift shops selling polyester blend short shorts with the words "Who Dat?" emblazoned on the ass, the block long line at Cafe Du Monde at 11am. And this time, the baby was out of my belly, much bigger, and full of opinions.

Generally, her opinion was positive. She didn't appreciate my breakneck speed when I was just trying to get through the human mass. I naturally gravitated as far from the intersection of Canal and Bourbon as my tired legs could reach. By day two, I was weighed down by food exhaustion. I'd eaten like it was Christmas, and was paying for it as I do every Boxing Day. That was a tough walk. The highlight for both of us was day three, Holy Saturday. We left the hotel at 10am. It was perfect spring morning weather. She was well rested and mellow. I made my way up Canal to Burgundy. One quick glance told me what I wanted to see - it was dead. The businesses along that avenue are of a practical, non-touristy nature - hospitality services, an accountant's office, a self-storage place. As we moved further into the Quarter, the scene became more residential. The vibe I got was youthful, uncaring, like Ann Arbor's student ghetto. - pretty but dilapidated houses with ratty couches on the porches. I didn't mind the smell of piss and alcohol. When it occasionally blended with weed smoke odor, I had pleasant memories of Amsterdam.

But it was time to find a little more action. When we rounded the corner of St. Peter, I saw a familiar business district in the distance. The day prior, I'd asked a smart looking Frenchman for directions to a highly touted cafe. "I think it's just around the corner," he said. "But do you want a really good coffee? The best coffee is just down the block." He pointed to a tiny storefront with a line out the door. Bernadette was getting fussy, so I didn't bother. But on this gloriously quiet Saturday morning, when most of the good people seemed to be working off their hangovers elsewhere, I decided to take my chances. We sauntered beneath balconies teeming with freshly watered flowers. The wet street glistened in the pre-noon sunlight and she snuggled against my chest. Our timing was perfect. When we arrived the line was short. I immediately noted and admired the no-frills atmosphere - just a counter, just one chatty barista, just slinging coffee. In another town, I'd have pegged him as a sullen hipster but he seemed rather gregarious. As he foamed the milk for my cappuccino, he said, "I feel so confident today. I'm wearing my bright blue shirt, and check this out." He lifted his ankle above the counter to reveal a matching aquamarine sock. "Now I know why you people feel so good wearing your peasant skirts."

I cracked up. "Yeah, a little bright color in the springtime is very refreshing."

So was that beverage. It was exquisite. B must have absorbed my rush by osmosis. She was perky again. We wandered through an alley and landed in front of the Cathedral, which was also surprisingly quiet. I let her loose in Jackson Square, where she wandered in circles to the soundtrack of a Decatur Street brass band, waving at everyone we encountered. It's really satisfying to see even the most down-on-his-luck looking dude grin and wave back at her. She makes so many people happy. A biker couple were particularly enchanted. The lady said, in regard to Bernadette's army green peacoat, "Wow, I love her jacket!" I thanked her and hustled as my little one picked up speed. Behind me, the biker lady mimicked, "Don't worry, ma! I'm okay. I'm packin' twelve." I googled that and still don't know what it means. I like it, anyway.

As we meandered back to the hotel, I boldly embraced the growing crowd as I knew it would be the last time we'd meet, at least for this visit. It was early still and the mood was bright. Occasionally, gentlemen on the street would smile at me or say, "Hi, Mom!" Some of these men were very attractive. It was one of the first things Dan and I discussed on day one, the general hotness of people in New Orleans. We decided that looking three times constituted "ogling" and occasional ogling was totally acceptable. The funny thing is that most of these people aren't fashion model pretty, the way so many New Yorkers are (nor do they look as if they spent thousands of dollars or thousands of hours at the gym, perfecting that look). It's just a certain sexual confidence that seems inherent to the region. I credit a combination of warm weather, rich food, stunning architecture, dance-y music, a laid back attitude and, yes, trashy fun, "Who Dat?" shorts and all. New Orleans is like a Prince song in the shape of a city. Who wouldn't feel hot there?

We met Dan at our room, right after his last conference session. We partook of the hotel restaurant's breakfast buffet, where I feasted upon a highly civilized combination of matzo bread with lox and greasy bacon. I kept forgetting where I was in relation to home. Could I really be just a seven hour drive away? Is that the short distance between my everyday life and this mecca of sensual pleasure? We left town mid-day, exhausted again, yet somehow refreshed for that mundane, everyday life.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Waxing, Weaning

As I sipped my morning coffee, my sixteen month old daughter nudged my leg and handed me the instructional manual for my breast pump. I don't know how she ever got her hands on it, but like so many innocuous household objects it's become one of her cherished "found" toys. And she wasn't content to have me say, "Thank you," before promptly handing it back. She actually wanted me to read it to her. "Okay," I said as I pulled her to my lap, "here goes-"

"Congratulations on your new Swing breastpump! Swing is small and lightweight, and easy to carry anywhere. Swing is a single electric pump ideal for..."

I paused, expecting her to demand some other form of amusement. She remained still, her eyes fixed upon the page. I continued, describing the various pump features, as well as the scientific basis behind their patented two phase expression technology. Her attention was steady.

Then we got to the diagram - motor unit, body, breast shield, tubing, valve, membrane, etc. That was when she began to lose interest, just as I was overtaken by bittersweet nostalgia. I remembered the first time I assembled the pump, when that diagram overwhelmed my sleep-deprived brain. Everything is new when your only child is seven weeks old because their growth outpaces the establishment of standards. All that change, all at once... it's terrifying. I distinctly recall sitting in the wicker chair across from the Christmas tree, stunned to see the three ounces of milk I'd just expressed, then realizing I hadn't sterilized the equipment as I should have. In other words, I had to dump it. Considering the many pints I've pumped since then it seems silly that I cried, but I felt so incredibly frustrated. Why didn't I read the entire manual first? Or had I? I couldn't remember.

And here I am now, missing that moment. Okay, not exactly. That moment was bad. If there was one constant in her little life, one touchstone to organize those wild, unscheduled days, it was her breastfeeding patterns. When she called, I responded, and my body was always ready. Suddenly, there was this other element. What about those three wasted ounces? Would my breasts be ready the next time? What if they weren't and what if she kept crying and then what??

Turns out, I was ready. She was fine. I learned how to manage the pump and it quickly became my reliable sidekick. Through it, I fully embraced my role as a milk machine. I was good at making baby food! I even researched wet nursing, wondering if I'd missed my calling by a couple hundred years. When I think back on the early months of 2012, it's mostly a nursing blur - feedings punctuated by circular walks around the house and Beatles karaoke, pumping during episodes of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" as she napped in her vibrating chair, eating, drinking water, feeding some more. My life centered around lactation. I don't remember many of the details. Why should I? It was such a simple existence.

It is now a year later. She feeds once in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, too. Approaching the end feels weird, though I'm honestly surprised weaning is even mildly mournful. I never understood when other moms talked about missing it, especially in the beginning when I was feeding her twelve times a day. "This sucks," I thought. "Ha ha. No, really. I'm glad I'm nourishing her and that I have the opportunity to make this the center of my life for six months, but why would anyone long for this? I can't leave her for more than a couple hours. I leak. I have to wear a bra and nursing pads 24/7. There's this mini person appendage stuck to my chest half the day. It's just plain bizarre." Of course it got easier, less demanding. But even now, I wonder if I experience the loss the same way other women do. I agree that the sense of intimacy is like no other human relationship and I'll always cherish that memory. But I enjoy physical autonomy and a quick morning session to her occasional hour long jamborees. It isn't the cuddliness I miss so much, I get that in other ways. And geez, it isn't the hormonal shifts, either. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are like puberty with perspective. It's disturbing enough going through all those emotions without having the rational wherewithal to know such feelings have nothing to do with the external events of your existence.

I suppose I miss nursing for the noble endeavor it was. I've never operated with such a clear purpose or felt more needed. I'm not an especially altruistic person. I enjoy being helpful in little ways, but I don't do much to better the lot of humanity. Given that, it's still crazy to me that for her first half year, my daughter's entire sustenance came from my mammary. I don't intend to have that experience again, but I'm so grateful I had it once. Motherhood seems to be making me a better person. Perhaps that utter submission to her need was part of my improvement.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

My P90Xistence

In a recent blog post about being an introvert, I mentioned a three-day-a-week P90X fitness class I was attending at the time. I wrote about sticking out in that mostly housewife crowd but still managing to find a pleasant bubble of solitude in the far back corner of the gym. I persevered despite my general discomfort with big group dynamics.

But now that my February class is over, I can't deny that the group experience itself benefitted me in my winding road toward a state of better health. Being a reformed gym class loser, the kid who never tried and was always picked last for team sports, I never imagined myself willingly partaking in a communal fitness endeavor. Had I inexhaustible funds at my disposal, I would certainly prefer to hire a personal trainer and have them run me ragged every day instead. Alas, that is not my situation. I have, however, worked with trainers on a very occasional basis, the first of whom was Mr. T (not the one from the A-Team, though I'm sure he'd appreciate the reference). He easily convinced me that taking this course would be a good idea. When I think of him, I'm reminded of Liz Lemon's response to a question about her religion - "I pretty much do whatever Oprah tells me to." T is my fitness Oprah. I trust whatever he says is right and follow his lead. He works his students very hard but he's also a positive, funny, precise communicator who has never once told me how I should eat. He's the best.

I attended his first P90X session in the fall, which was just two days a week at 6am. It was an undeniable ass-kicker, especially because it required a 4:45am alarm. But the February session was much tougher. There were more people, with a dozen regular attendees instead of just two or three. Some of these ladies were mega fit, so naturally T was going to push past their ability. Also, everyone was more awake at 9am. I could immediately see that the bar was set much higher.

This is beside the fact that the P90X system is quite rigorous and always painful by design. It's an ever changing mix of cardio, core and weight training, which prevents you from developing muscle memory. The worst thing about it was that I always felt sore. The best thing about it was that I felt ten times more agile after the first two weeks and I never know what to expect. It would definitely be torture, but there's much to be said for the element of surprise. I didn't know what to dread.

Another weird perk is that it humbles nearly everyone. No matter how fit you are, you probably suck at some aspect of this system. I don't even mean that out of spite. I truly admire the rare individual who can approach every exercise with grace and ease. There's one woman in the class who was such a goddamn powerhouse, I overheard her describe it to a non-attendee as "fun" and not fun like, "Oh my god we just went skydiving and it was so fun!" more like, "Yeah, I ate some cotton candy at the carnival. It was fun." I don't think anything was too tough for her, but that just made her an ideal model. She usually stood in front of me and I always looked to her for some notion of proper form.

But for everyone else, there was some degree of struggle and for most of us it was intense. There's something comforting in hearing five other people grunt "Ugh!" just as you feel your body collapse. We were like war buddies, our bonds forged in battle against our own decrepitude. And BONUS - sometimes, I wasn't even the worst at some exercise. I can't tell you how exciting that was for me. I don't mean that as a dis to the person who struggled more than I did. I'm seriously okay with being the worst all the time, it was just exciting to be in that unexpected place of relative superiority because it has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.

The only activities I passionately hated were sprinting and monkey drills, which are weird, sideways, squatty, jumpy things we would do across the gymnasium floor. While one half of the group did wall sits, the other half did drills. When it was my turn for the latter, I was always last. The wall sitters couldn't quit until I got to the finish line, which made me self conscious and gave me awful flashbacks to elementary school. But there's a big difference between then and now. I actually try now. I don't mind looking like a jackass and I don't think anyone resents my inability. It was a good opportunity to face a neurotic fear.

I've been extremely pleased with the results, though they're difficult to communicate in metrics. I don't pay much attention to my weight. It's somewhat irrelevant when I'm building muscles. I can say my belt is looser. My limbs are stronger. My belly is flatter and I have more energy. My body feels like a tighter, more efficient operation and I love it. This sense of vitality is something I want to feel more, and all the time. But it only comes with hard work.

So that was my February. I'm skipping the March session as my upcoming travel plans make it impractical. Returning to the April class will be the perfect 36th birthday gift to myself. In the meantime, I've implemented a strict five-day-a-week schedule that combines a weight and cardio workout at the gym with core workouts at home. I have to exercise that often to make up for the relative ease of my regimen. With T at the helm, the group environment is inevitably more challenging. I don't yet have the knowledge and discipline to push myself that hard all on my own, but I'm trying to get to that point. I'm excited for this month of solitude because it's good for me. Embracing the benefits of group support was a crucial step in this fitness journey. Taking responsibility for my education and diligence is the next step.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Fighting vainly the old ennui"

Have you ever had one of those terrible stomach flus that knocks you down for the better part of a week and at first you're all like, "Sweet Jeebus, why oh why have you forsaken me? I've been dry heaving for half a day and there's no diarrhea left for my ass to spray, JUST MAKE THIS END!" And then, when the worst is over you practically weep joyful tears over that first glass of water and bit of dry toast you're able to hold down, and then oh, look there's a "Beverly Hills 90210" marathon for the next few hours - life is good, life is great! Then later, when there's no more "90210", no more stuff you can think to look up on the internet and real food just isn't appealing yet, you think, "Damn, I'm bored," but you know you're nowhere near ready to face the world because just getting up to go to the bathroom makes you feel dizzy and weak - you ever have one of those stomach flus?

Extend that experience over several months and that's life with a baby. Granted, the details are different. The initial misery probably doesn't involve much diarrhea or vomiting. Instead it's just a constant panic and confusion plus sleep deprivation. Then, after a few months, you start to get the hang of things and maybe you even sleep for extended periods of time. Shit, when we graduated to just three middle-of-the-night feedings I thought I had it made, so thankful was I for that sense of relief. But then the tedium set in. My daughter is sixteen months old. I've spent most days of the week with her since she was born. This is a mostly ideal arrangement and I feel very fortunate to have this time with her as she grows and flowers so fast but OH MY WORD do I get bored.

Maybe it's our circumstances. We're a one car family so she and I are often at home. We make the most of it. I take her for long walks when it's warm outside. That'll kill a couple hours. I love reading to her, but she's only into that if she's sleepy. Otherwise she plays. I'm pretty bad at pretending to be interested in her toys. Lucky for me, she's very good at amusing herself. She has her barn and her blocks and her scooter. I have my iPad. Now that she's walking and so geeked to explore everything, I'll let her wander around the usually closed off, non-childproof parts of the house. She has so much fun. My only job during that time is keeping her from killing herself, so I follow her, closing doors and presenting distractions as needed. It isn't a taxing task but it's dull, and dullness can take a lot out of me. Sometimes in the afternoon, when my energy is shot, I turn on the TV to mesmerize her while I get chores done, but sometimes I'll just zone out, too. Her favorite shows are "Dragnet" and "The Partridge Family". That's cool. I'd let her watch annoying, "educational" kids' shows if those stations came in on our antenna, but I'm secretly glad they don't. She's a good kid, so I don't need to do much policing. I probably spend 30 minutes average out of every day telling her to not throw her food on the floor, or scream in my face, or try to climb up the bookshelf from the arm of the couch. Nevertheless, by the time Dan gets home I feel so desperate to be alone and away from her, I'll hole myself up in the bedroom for a half hour. I usually emerge in fairly good spirits. That's pretty much my every weekday. It's not bad. It could certainly be way worse. But when friends ask, "What have you been up to?" I simply don't have much to say.

I'm not asking for your sympathy, nor am I asking for your suggestions, either. I accept boredom as an inevitable part of this phase. The most important thing is that she's healthy, developmentally on target and quite sweet and cheerful, so I don't worry about our lifestyle having a negative impact on her. Eventually, I'd like to put her in daycare because I think she'd thrive in that environment. Likewise, I think I'd benefit by returning to some sort of full time paid labor, but for various logistical reasons we're not there yet. I'm doing my best to enjoy our temporal lot, but it's as imperfect as anything. Also, I've never experienced this sort of life before, which might be the reason I feel compelled to describe it. Or maybe it's just to prep you for the next time you see me. If my eyes are glazed over and I don't have much to say for myself, you'll know why.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Feeling a Fraud

Sometimes I feel really unqualified for this mom job. Like, how did I talk my way into this gig? What idiot thought it was a good idea to hire me? Then I remember that I'm self-employed and I can't quit.

I tell myself the same thing that most of my friends would probably say - just look at that kid, she's awesome! And she's so happy. Yesterday, I turned to her and said, "Bernadette, when I see what a fantastic person you are, so beautiful and strong, I feel like I must be doing something right, that I must not be too much of a fuck-up." At that moment, she happened to give me the most disapproving sideways glance and I quickly backtracked, "I mean, that I must not make too many boo boos!"

Note to self - add "stop swearing" to the list of all the things you'll do better tomorrow. For today you are too sleepy, and the basic feeding/diapering/putting to bed/don't let her maim herself upkeep is about all you can manage.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Alone in the Crowd, Again, At Last

On day one of my 9am P90X class, I immediately notice it's a much different scene than the 6am class I took in the fall. There are way more attendees and they're mostly stay-at-home or part-time worker moms like me. That is where my similarity toward the group ends. I'm dressed in bright green, fuzzy sweatpants and a ratty old T-shirt from Foodie Delight, my hair pulled into a floppy, disheveled bun that will only get messier as I jump, lunge and twist. This is just me being myself but I forget what a freak I am until I get into a large group setting. Most of the other ladies wear spandex leggings and actual hairstyles that are probably quite casual by their standards but more labor intensive than anything I ever do. And that's cool. But my profile is just a bit too high and waiting for class to begin is somewhat socially awkward. So I do what I need to do - smile and say "hello" whenever I make eye contact with a classmate and as soon as the instructor arrives, take my place in the far back corner of the gym. From this vantage point, I can observe without being observed. I take a deep breath and exhale. All is well, for I am a contented, self aware introvert and this is how I roll.

I've always been this way. When I was in the fourth grade, I told my best friend that I couldn't hang out on Friday afternoons because that was my "alone time" for reading, writing and drawing architectural floor plans of fantasy homes in which I would have at least six rooms to myself. When I was 28, a coworker asked me to house sit his country home during the holidays, even though he knew I had no car and no driver's license to make use of his vehicle. "Most people would probably get freaked out being there all alone for ten days," he said. "But you seem like kind of a loner and I think you might actually enjoy it." He had an indoor hot tub and a wood burning stove, and he was exactly right.

Though I've always stubbornly sought solitude, I've only recently identified myself by the i-word. In the past year, I've read several online writings from self-proclaimed introverts looking for a little understanding. It started with Jonathon Rauch's 2003 article for The Atlantic "Caring for Your Introvert". I've also enjoyed Sophia Dembling's The Introvert's Corner column at Psychology Today. Most recently, I saw this explanatory cartoon on Facebook, "Dr. Carmella's Guide to Understanding the Introverted". Reading these pieces has helped me understand why I have this need to be by myself, that it's my way of replenishing energy. And, of course, now that I have a baby, alone time is more precious than ever. Having said that, there's a militancy about some of these writings, an antagonism toward extroverts that I find a bit alienating. I love me some extroverts. They take me to fun parties and start conversations with strangers. Sometimes they help me meet cool people. And if I find their scene becomes a bit too much for me, I know I can back off without feeling like I'm ditching my friend. Extroverts can always fend for themselves in a crowd.

A common misconception of introverts is that we don't like people. I love people and I love great conversation. It's just hard for me to converse with more than a few individuals at once. And sometimes I like to witness a discussion without being involved. I love eavesdropping. This is why you may see me at a cafe with a notebook and an iPad, pretending to be engrossed in writing while I'm actually listening to the couple gossiping next to me.

There are just two things I would like my extrovert pals to understand so we can get along better in the future. One, just as the cartoon said, please don't take my introversion personally. I'm not being quiet because I think I'm better than you. Quiet is just the way I am for a good portion of the day. The second thing is, please don't invite me to dinner and then spring a bunch of people I don't know on me. Yes, I do mind that you invited so-and-so, not because they seem like bad people, but because I need to mentally prepare myself for this kind of thing. But I won't actually say that to you in the moment because you put me on the spot and I don't see the point in everyone having a bad time. So I'll muddle through the experience and feel weird about it and then I'll probably make up some excuse for skipping your next dinner invitation. If it's gonna be a group thing, just let me know in advance, and don't flip the script at the last minute. More does not necessarily equal merrier.

Other than that, I'm pretty happy with my mellow bubble. With the help of some very understanding friends and family, I've built a life for myself where I manage to find that energy-building alone time. Nature has played a funny trick on me by making my daughter a far more extroverted personality. I foresee a not-so-distant future in daycare, where she can get her fix of energy-building company. In the meantime, I take her to the YMCA Child Watch every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. Only once has she cried after leaving my arms. Otherwise, she is quickly immersed in another person or thing. The noise of the other children masks my departing footsteps as I head to the gymnasium, find my spot in the far back corner, and quietly grunt my way through another excruciating workout. Alone in the crowd, again, at last.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cost of Being the Lady Boss

I've held several jobs where I was in a position of authority, but it's been a long time. I miss it. Being in charge was great because I love problem-solving challenges and having the latitude to fix stuff that went wrong. I thrive on planning, organizing and working alone, and I find that people in charge get more opportunities to do those things. Managing other people was only satisfying to the extent that it helped me accomplish my goals. I wasn't a power tripper. I generally aimed to be helpful and fair to those who called me "boss".  

Actually, the "being the boss of other people" part of leadership was the area where I struggled most. I'd get really stressed out when I sensed that employees disliked me or thought I was doing a bad job. I'm (unfortunately) extremely perceptive of other people's disapproval. Last time I was a manager, the palpable disdain I felt from employees and colleagues was so overwhelming I would go home and cry every day for two straight weeks until I decided to quit. Honestly, I wasn't great at that job, but it was also a remarkably hostile environment. Even if I'd had a passion and talent for the work itself, I wouldn't have lasted long. But I was so freaked out by that experience and my withering under pressure, I have not pursued a management position since then. That was over five years ago.

For most of the time between then and now, I figured my problem was that I was too concerned with being popular. I always thought it would be easier to be a guy boss because I wouldn't care so much if my employees liked me or not. But now I'm thinking lady bosses automatically have it harder because we are more apt to be disliked. I've seen the way many of my past and present coworkers have treated their female superiors: the eye rolls, the second-guessing, the extra snarky behind-the-back commentary. It comes from both men and women, I'm sad to say. And while their criticism is sometimes deserved (many bosses, male and female, are incompetent, abusive, and/or lazy), it seems disproportionately directed at women in charge. That bugs me, but at least now I'm able to recognize it as an epidemic.

So, I've decided I'm not going to let those old fears prevent me from pursuing any desirable leadership positions in the future. I can't say that employee sexism won't drive me crazy, that it won't make me angry. It just isn't a strong enough deterrent to keep me from doing work I enjoy. Maybe I've reached a place where I'm just less afraid of being angry.

And all those feelings are the reason why this is one of my favorite scenes from anything ever. This occurs after Liz overhears an employee call her a "cunt". After spending a couple days proving that she can be nice, every staff member leaves work early, and she pulls an all-nighter to pick up their slack. In the midst of her toil, she finds inspiration in a 3:30 am rerun of "Designing Women".


Friday, February 1, 2013

Advice I Would Give to My Younger Self

Even when invited, don't get in the middle of other people's drama.

Exercise really does make you feel better. It will replace some of your nervous energy with a calm energy. There are gyms where fat people, the elderly and children work out. Seek that sort of environment.

If the primary reason you like that guy is that you sense he likes you, move on. You're better off alone.

You'll never learn how to drive from your friends. Hire a professional instructor. But, whatever, you don't really need to do that for a long time. You built a car-free life for yourself, enjoy it! Driving to work sucks.

You will eventually quit smoking. In the meantime, don't treat cigarettes as a substitute for food.

You'll regret every meanness you remember. Don't be a jerk and don't befriend one, either. Even if that person is smart, charming or funny, you will reach a point where you simply can't stand their company.

You don't have a kid yet (well done and thank goodness!), or anything nearing that level of responsibility. Don't take stuff so seriously, least of all yourself.

The internet is going to be a much bigger part of your daily life than you can imagine, and not just for email. Don't sweat the mechanics, you'll figure it out. What you should know is that it will provide this outlet where you can write the way you write in your journal but other people can read it. And while that sounds terrifying, you'll find this activity both fun and therapeutic. So keep doing what you're doing writing-wise and don't worry that maybe you should be doing something else.