America’s Next Top Something or Other

I’ve immersed myself this evening in episodes of Friends and America’s Next Top Model. They give me such a giggle!

First, let’s take a look at Friends. I didn’t watch the show in the nineties because I was your typical nineties nonconformist who didn’t believe in stuff like television or fiction or capitalism. Basically, I was an asshole. But now I think Friends is a pretty funny show.

Anyway, on tonight’s rerun of Friends, Rachael turned thirty, and her five peers tried to cheer her up while she wallowed—just a tad—in some self-pity. I hardly remember turning thirty. Maybe it was bittersweet. I don’t know. It was so damn long ago that my only memory of it was opening up a birthday package from my mom in the hall bathroom. I don’t know why I was opening packages in the hall bathroom. I’m not even entirely sure the package was from my mom. Might have been from my ex-boyfriend. That would explain the hall bathroom. In that package was a coffee mug that said “Yikes! 30!” which I still own.

Thirty. Hah hah HAH. Someone seasoned like the administrative assistant at my college who has been there, done that, and dealt with everything from death to illness to job loss and plumbing issues should have sat me down that night and said, “Sugar, you’re only gonna get older and older and OLDER, so open up your eyes right now and take all this in and remember it.” As it is, thirty was just a blip.

Then, there’s ANTM, another show I never watched, not til this season. This season, we got big girls and old girls and hairless girls in the mix. I can’t stop watching. There’s a 42 year-old woman competing this season, and here’s how she deals with the twenty-something hormone drama in the model house in LA: she doesn’t. She keeps her mouth shut, and she stays out of it. Smart woman. That’s my forty-something girl. Tonight, she wore a very stupid outfit to elimination, some gold coverall shorts with a frilly white blouse—very Goldilocks—but I will forgive her for that because she hasn’t modeled since like 1996, and she’s still a little confused and has a tough experience ahead of her.

My forty-something–the only woman on the show who doesn’t make me cringe or giggle with her imaginary insecurities. At our age, the shit that makes us cry isn’t imaginary.

Babies and Grief

OK, my cousin is temporarily staying at her sister’s house where she can play with a baby, and where her puppy can interact with another dog, and where she can be around other people and their normalcy for a time. I’m satisfied that she’s taken care of, at least for a week.

Babies are living antidepressants. The day my Mom died, a ragtag group of people descended on the house. There was my brother, of course, and my aunt and my nieces and my nephew and his wife. And there was the guy who owns the auto body shop down the road, the one who has been friends with the family since he and my brother took auto shop together in high school in the seventies. He’s plowed my parents’ driveway in winter, fixed their cars whenever they hit a deer or a traffic cone on the highway. Sold my oldest brother more refurbished auction cars than I can count on my hands. He’s always been there. And so there he was, at our house on the day my mom died, with his wife and his daughter and his little baby granddaughter.

This guy. This guy is one of those people who doesn’t have the words. He’s kind. He’s affable. He’s witty. But he doesn’t do speeches or drama or serious. A week before my mother died, when I first got to town, I stopped over at his shop to say “hi” like I always do. He just stood there and looked at me. No dumb jokes, no silly banter. I would have found it awkward, except that I’ve known this guy, literally, for as long as I can remember. So we just stood there in his shop for awhile, amid the dirt and oil fumes of gutted cars that brings me back to my childhood, hanging around my brothers while they tried to resurrect vintage Chevy products in our driveway. And then I left. This guy only has one channel—friendly and light. If he can’t be tuned to that channel, he just slips into quiet. And I am grateful for that.

I told my cousin this story. Because sometimes there are no words for tragedy and grief. I’ve told my cousin she’s young, and because she’s young, I’d like to see her feel better, eventually. But I never assured her that it would get better. I never told her to get back out there and start over, or to start dating again. That’s absurd. In the face of grief, you have to choose your words carefully, or just don’t say anything at all, like my brother’s loyal friend, the guy with the auto shop down the road, and the cute grandbaby that he brought to my parents’ house on the day my mother died.

There we were, a distraught family that was feeling some weird kind of relief and release because the suffering was over, at least for Mom.  And then there was this baby, a little thing in a tutu and a bow with big brown eyes, a child who was just beginning to comprehend the world around her. She didn’t know any of the yucky stuff—sadness, grief—she just responded to sounds and lights and color and smiles. Her granddaddy made goofy faces, and she smiled and laughed and shrieked, and he imitated her shrieks. And I enjoyed this baby, and I got FUCKED UP.

Later, after everyone left, my dad said, “I never understood how people could laugh and have fun in the face of tragedy. Now I think I get it. It’s a release.” It’s catharsis. It is. It’s like taking a long hike in the woods. It’s like hanging out with a baby. It’s like being with people who want or need nothing from you. They’re just there, like they’ve always been, with nothing new or profound to say.

My poor cousin. My cousin who gave up everything—her community, her friends, and even her family—to follow this dreamer (or maybe con artist) into the wilderness. She needs something. She needs the guy who owns the auto body shop down the road. She needs community, and she needs a baby. I hope this week she gets it.

 

 

Getting Real–Baltimore, Hon!

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how secretive I thought I needed to be in my “public” blog? In three years, I never said where I was from or where I lived or named names because I thought a confessional type of blog such as this required an element of privacy.

Then I realized that all the people I wanted to protect—my parents, my cousins, my friends—none of them read this. My followers are strangers. They found me on their own because something I said resonated with them. Over the years, I’ve shared this link with family and friends, and by doing so I’ve dared them to read it, and they didn’t. So why should I care anymore about sheltering their feelings or reputations?

The stuff I always wanted to write about was very regional and very personal. Baltimore, my adoptive city, the place where I lived through two marriages and one formative decade, can’t be compared to any other place on this earth. If I want to be real, I can’t be generic. I’m an East Coast blogger living in the Baltimore/DC Metro area and wishing I were back in the Baltimore part of that identification. I live in a safe, clean, and expensive suburb. When I drive to work and back, I cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge between Maryland and Virginia. I can see the Washington Monument through my passenger window.

My hiking partner, the woman I cite in many of my posts, was my downstairs neighbor back in those Baltimore days. She left her keys in the door back in 2003, the day I moved into a studio apartment in the former library of a nineteenth century brownstone. She had left her keys in the door, and I knocked. We’ve been friends ever since. And now, you can’t take the Baltimore out of us.

There’s a whole lot going on in Baltimore these days, stuff that makes the news, stuff that indicates that a white transplant from rural Pennsylvania might not make it there. But I never went to Baltimore to “make it.” “Making it” was never my plan.

Gen Xers–Are We Sages?

My hiking buddy and I spent the early afternoon scrambling along and up and over miles of natural rock formations, pausing along the way to take in some of the most gorgeous views that our part of the U.S.A. can offer. She and I make a great hiking duo. We choose a different trail every time we go out, so we always encounter a surprise or two. The fact that we needed to use our upper bodies to traverse this trail that my app labeled “moderate” was today’s surprise, a moderate surprise as compared to some of the other situations we’ve gotten ourselves into. In the end, though, we always laugh. We laugh at ourselves and whatever behavior the hike inspires in us. And we laugh just to laugh, I think. I love days like today.

I talked to my cousin last night. She’s a mess—walking around in a daze, wearing her dead husband’s clothes and shoes, sleeping with her arms wrapped around his urn. Grief has taken hold of her and isn’t letting go any time soon, especially since she drinks all day. If she were working, which she isn’t due to a ruptured disc or something, I think she’d be a bit more in touch with her surroundings. She might have a chance to break out of the depression spell. As it is, she spends all day, every day, alone with a confused puppy that her husband bought her shortly before he left this earth, and drinking.

What can I do? I’m forty-six. I am also plagued with grief and troubles, but of a different breed. I recently reviewed a series of journal entries from 2012 in which I discuss my struggles with drinking, my worries over my cousin, and my fear that I might lose my father. Six years ago, I was where I am now, except for one difference—I was preparing to lose a parent. Fast forward to now. I’ve lost the parent, just not the parent I expected to lose first. While I circle the wheel of same-old-shit-different year, the unexpecteds sometimes throw me off my course, wake me up. I need that. Who woulda thought Mom would go first? I didn’t, but I was prepared for something big. Ultimately, I was prepared for death. My cousin wasn’t.

My hiking buddy told me that this same-old-shit-different-year scenario that I am stuck in is a result of unwillingness to compromise.

“We wanna be able to drink when we want to drink and eat what we want to eat,” she said, “yet we also want to be svelt and fit.” It just doesn’t add up. We gotta compromise. Then she joked about how we can’t say the word “svelt” without feeling like a Jewish mom: “Oh, she’s so svelt!” And we laughed like we do.

That’s what my cousin doesn’t have anymore—the laughter. She gave her whole self, her whole identity, over to that husband. He, in so many words, told her where to live, who to hang out with, how to behave, and what was funny.

“You got Netflix?” I asked her. “Watch GLOW—great eighties soundtrack. Marc Maron is hysterical. It’s a fun distraction.”

You know what she told me?

“I don’t watch anything anymore that would make us laugh.” US. Us. What does a woman do when there is no more “us”? Is it wrong to think ahead? To sit down with our spouses and hash out life insurance and wills?  Six years ago, I was thinking ahead. I was forty, and my parents were in their seventies, and my husband and I hashed out our wills, and we discussed life insurance, and we discussed moving to a place where my mom could live with us… if the situation required it. Six years ago, I was struggling with my weight and with alcohol, but I was also preparing for this shitstorm that is life after forty. My cousin. She’s gotta get there.

I just don’t know what to say anymore. I wish I had sage answers to life’s questions. Maybe I do, but no one’s asking.

Takes a lot for this to be OVER

Diet Diary 2018 3:

I weighed in this morning. I am bigger than ever. How DOES one who spent her whole life a size six get that big? I know. Booze.

I have a new rule: I am no longer allowed to go to the store. I am adding this rule to the no-cooking-wines-in-the-house rule. Slowly, I will weed out the demons.

I love the store. Going shopping at the grocery store is actually a pastime for me and my father and, once, for my uncle. Our grocery shopping trips, over the years, have become a conversation topic and a place to bond. Our phone calls always end with an assessment of the recipes that we intend to make, maybe some suggestions, and a “let me know how it turns out.” In my geographical region, however, I can’t grocery shop anymore.

My state allows beer and wine sales in any grocery or convenience or drug store or gas station, so—basically—I can’t buy my prescriptions or stop for gas or go grocery shopping without being confronted with aisles and end displays of wines and craft beers.

I love to cook, and I go to the store with pure intentions, but I always end up straying into the booze aisles and sliding my fingers along the bottles, studying the labels, noting alcohol content or vintage or state or country of origin. I spend more time lingering around there than I do in the produce aisle. Booze is so… interesting. Yup. So it is. And that’s why I am going to hand over my shopping lists to my husband. He doesn’t know this yet.

My husband only shops for school lunches, and he doesn’t cook at all. He’s the guy who will bring home flat leaf parsley instead of cilantro when I send him on a mission. Putting him in charge of grocery runs will save us money. He won’t linger. He’ll bring home what he thinks I want, and I’ll cook it, whatever it is. That’s the way it’s gotta be for awhile.

As the first week of January bleeds into the second, I am taking note of every trigger that will keep me here, at my heaviest weight EVER. I need to eliminate those triggers because without them I can eat right. If dieting didn’t mean kicking one of the hardest substances to kick, and if dieting weren’t linked to addiction, I’d have had this down years ago. I’ve read so many health magazines and experimented with so many fitness apps over the years that I can plan and prepare any type of diet without consulting resources or experts—you want high fat, low carb? Got it. Vegan? Sure, I can do that. Paleo? It’s a pain-in-the-ass, but I know what you need to survive. Vegetarian, Vegan, Keto, Paleo, and even poor old dead Atkins—I got it. I know how many Weight Watchers points are assigned to an orange and how many calories and carbs are in a lowfat cheese stick. And I like knowing that stuff.

But it doesn’t help me to spend the whole day monitoring my sugar and sodium consumption just to knock off the remnants of the cooking Marsala after glazing the pork. I can’t pay a fortune to go to some cognitive behavioral rehab resort. I have to make my own limits and establish my own reasoning. This is not over. I am not screwed. And I will not be a size twelve forever.

“Snow days” with the stepmom

I had hit my snooze button twice, downed my first cup of coffee, and woke up the teenager before I was informed by the kids’ mom that school is once again cancelled. Having been a former high school teacher, I’m conditioned—under any kind of weather threat—to wake up naturally at around 5 a.m. and check the district’s website for potential cancellations. I didn’t do this today because, when I last checked the weather, we were expecting warmer temperatures and rain. Not ideal, not ideal enough for ME to postpone my painting and repairing adventure until tomorrow (I really DON’T want to do it!), but ideal enough for buses to operate and for teachers to drive to school.

Well, turns out the temps in the forecast dropped a couple degrees, and that means that the rain which MIGHT fall around 1:00 this afternoon (40% chance), might freeze to the roads. Too many modals in this forecast to cancel school, in my opinion. Then again, I am over 40; I remember the seventies; I grew up in the cold Northeast. While I didn’t walk ten miles to school barefoot in a blizzard (and uphill, to boot), I remember when the snow had accumulated to at least six inches before the district sent us home. And then the school bus slid off the road and got stuck in a ditch…

Before I defeat the point I was about to make with that example, let me stress that sending kids home early because the snow won’t stop falling is a bit more practical than keeping them home all day long because the snow MIGHT fall around the end of the school day. Today, the teenager could have enjoyed some social time, attended his two favorite classes, and eaten lunch before the threat got real. These kids have been out of school since last Wednesday while life goes on for everyone else. There are too many stay-at-homes in this district who can ease the impact of the majority of its kids never going to school.

Ummmm, and I guess I need to admit that I’m one of them.

School cancellations during my college’s winter break mean almost nothing to me. I’m not inconvenienced. In fact, they give me an excuse to put off doing the stuff on my to-do list (like making repairs at the rental property) in exchange for never getting out of my sweatpants or taking a shower. My biggest problem is that I struggle with the compulsion to entertain the kids throughout these long shut-ins. On Friday, while I sat around in my sweatpants, one stay-at-home parent took our sixth-grader bowling with his friends while another took our teenager to the movies and then ice skating. That’s a lot of concentrated time with a bunch of boys with whom none of us, excluding the one stay-at-home dad, have a whole lot in common. I’m sure if the boys were over at their mom’s house, they’d be baking bread or reorganizing the house or inventing their own elaborate games. Their mom is the “Super Mom” (https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Super+Mom).

I’m the stepmom. I just don’t have it in me to orchestrate that kind of frenzied activity.

However, today will be our third day home together, and that excludes this past weekend. I don’t know if I can handle another marathon of Seasons 5, 6, 7, or 8 of The Office. I don’t think I can continue fighting with the little guy to sit quietly for thirty minutes and read a book (always a fight). I’m gonna have to up my game today, or it’s gonna be a long one. Perhaps I will hide the controls to the new gaming system and all of the other electronics and bust out Monopoly. That’ll kill a few hours.

Sigh.

NOTE:  the little guy just woke up.  When I told him school was cancelled, he was pissed.  That’s how long he’s been out of school, long enough to be pissed off that he’s spending one more day at home… or maybe just one more day with his stepmom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GenXers and “Second Acts”

My husband and I made a joint decision to buy rental properties. We already had one, our former home, and we recently purchased another, strictly for renting out. We did a 180, going from hating being landlords (and doing it all wrong) to searching for more properties to buy and researching forms of alternative financing.

I, personally, have always been into real estate—acquiring, holding, flipping, what-have-you. My husband had always treated my obsession with following real estate trends in and around our home as, at best, a distraction that kept me from my real career, at worst, a waste of our time. However, as a former reader and big fan of the now defunct More Magazine, I believed in the “Second Act.” More’s monthly “Second Acts” featured women, all over the age of forty, who transitioned out of their lives-as-they-knew-them and became something new and different. Some women went from homemakers to corporate giants, others abruptly left the corporate world and started small businesses or nonprofits. One woman, whom I remember quite distinctly, left a high-stress, high-paying job and moved to some expansive property in a wild western state and created a rescue farm. 180s, “Second Acts”—they’re the comebacks of disgruntled GenXers. I’ve been dreaming of a 180 since I read my first copy of More Magazine.

All my husband needed to get on board with real estate investment was the right pitch from the right person. That person wasn’t me. It was, ironically, a Millennial. I will hold no grudges, though, since I got what I said I wanted.

After scraping and struggling and acquiring two Masters degrees, moving from venue to venue, I finally found a teaching environment that I truly enjoy, and recently, things started falling into place. I was offered a full-time position, albeit non-tenured. I passed it up. My big plans as the fall began last year to sample a variety of teaching positions while I held my part-time status at my current college until something big came up… well, it came up. And then it went. My choice. I finally got what I SAID I wanted, but all the while, what I really wanted was my second act.

I’m lucky. I’m lucky that my husband has a career that’s too serious to get taken over by today’s bottom line—new, young, and hungry.   You can’t bullshit your way into what my husband does, and freshly-minted graduates are not necessarily the most cost-efficient or valued prospects. My field, on the other hand, is oozing with cronyism and bullshit. It’s time for my 180.

Believe me, I don’t think that real estate investment is going to make us rich, or that it will be easy. At present, our monthly cash flow from rentals is about $100 a month—see, we rented out our former family home to my best friend and her husband with bad credit for a deep discount last year, just because we didn’t want to be landlords anymore, and we knew they’d take care of the property. Our second investment should yield us a $450 cash flow. That’s $550 a month of tax-sheltered income once we find a tenant. That’s what I make, after taxes, hustling part-time in the classroom. And with rental properties, someone else pays down the mortgage. Why not try this out?

I’ve already learned a lot from our mistakes—I know where the unplanned for expenses come from, I know the value of having a contractor’s license, I know that the city where we planned to invest is getting more expensive (taxes are rising, water bills are rising, lead abatement policies are getting much stricter). I know not to rent to friends or family. My best friend threatens to never leave our property. And why should she? She’s got the cheapest rent in town. More airtight leases, better pre-screening practices—I’m learning it all. On Monday, I am going to tackle my first handyman projects by repairing holes in the drywall and the plaster in my friend’s/tenant’s house so that it can pass a lead inspection and become a legal property again, a service that I will charge my tenants for in the future. It’s like getting another degree, but this time it’s hands-on. Lucky me.

Only time will tell if this new path is really a second act, or if it’s just another short-lived distraction. Well, I shouldn’t say “only time,” as if this venture is not an act of free will. It is. And I’m a little scared. Because life gets real when you take ownership of it, and I’ve been in the habit of NOT doing that.

The Bad Choices Flow Chart

My cousin is not handling the sudden death of her husband very well. I should have known. My initial feelings of pity for her, yet quiet relief that the man who controlled her, alienated her from her friends and family, and psychologically abused her, didn’t last too long.

I had always secretly hoped she could free herself from his clutches and go back to being the woman I used to know. That woman wasn’t perfect, and she had a few screws loose, but she could take care of herself. She was a good hustler, once upon a time, and I envied that. My little cousin was the stereotype of the girl who rose from ruin—kicked out of her house at age seventeen, she scraped by on waitressing wages until she taught herself a trade. Then she took it to the next level by doing what Sheryl Sandberg says more women should do in their fields—she applied for a job that was beyond her skill level, and she won it with her confidence, and she figured it out from there. And the rest could have been happy history, except for a glitch that I didn’t clearly recognize as one until it leveled her—alcohol.

Now, before jumping to the conclusion that I think alcohol is a problem in itself, and not a symptom of a deeper issue, I will add a caveat that alcohol was her way of managing whatever it was we couldn’t see. Maybe all of us on the outside couldn’t hear the voices in her head, but we could certainly see with our own eyes what her self-medicating did for her, the flowchart of bad choices. It’s easy to blame the alcohol for that, and for sake of brevity, I will do it.

But back to my original point: my initial reaction to her beloved’s death, a sense of relief that his absence might provide her with an opportunity, faded quickly into fear and helplessness. I haven’t hung out with her in nine years. I haven’t seen her in three or four. I have been absent in her life, at first involuntarily, then it just became the norm, and I made myself stop caring. Right now, I have no power over her reaction to losing the love of her life; and even if I did, I’d be walking on eggshells in my effort to help her regroup. She’s on her own once again, but can she hustle her way back from whence she strayed? I don’t know. All I can do is send weak texts, letting her know I’m around if she needs me. She won’t. I must simply have faith that her mom will help her out of this, go and visit her, keep her from using of those many, many firearms she’s got stashed around her apartment. Damn. Guns, grief, alcohol, and loneliness. Can there be a stronger concoction for disaster?

I want to get in the car and go to her. She’s only a couple of hours away. But my husband and my father fear for my own safety.

“Don’t get sucked into drinking,” said my dad.

“The two of you drinking in a house full of guns… that’s just what we need,” said my husband.

They both have legitimate worries, but I have legitimate worries, too. One of my aunts likes to say that when you love someone, you love them regardless of their behavior, or whether or not they love you. You just love. And that’s true. I know she wouldn’t listen to me—she never did—but maybe she’d just let me sit next to her on the couch. Maybe I wouldn’t be tempted into a few whiskey toasts or some other last hurrah that won’t end well.   But probably I would.

I’m gonna let my brain override my heart on this one and stay the fuck home.

 

2018 Poem #3

A friend of mine turned me on to a great poem, which prompted me to revisit the beauty and mystery of poetry.  I committed myself to writing a poem (no matter how terrible or raw) every day of 2018.  My goal?  I just want to remember how much I love poetry, even if I can’t write it, and I hope that I will–by the end of 2018–be able to capture a true image.  Here’s today’s poem.  I didn’t edit it.  I just want to share:

I’m on the other side of the lens.

Remember graduation? Remember all those people sitting around staring and asking awkward questions about future plans?

Remember I had none?

Remember I didn’t care?

Remember when life was so new, so raw, that beginnings like marriage and babies and buying houses seemed so irrelevant?

I look at that old footage from “my time”— first apartments, baggy overalls, Nirvana—I was so young, and restless, and vulnerable.

Weren’t we all? In the 1960s, the 1970s, my eighties and nineties, weren’t we all a bunch of fumbling fools?

You don’t know what you got til its gone.

I didn’t write that, but someone like me did.

Nostalgia. I have it now.

I have that, and I have wisdom, and I have joy, and I have grief…

lots of grief.

What do we trade for our foolishness? Our youthful, fragile bloom? This.

It only gets… worse?

My younger cousin’s husband died today, three days after she posted a picture on Facebook of the Bulldog puppy he’d bought for her, thanking him for his thoughtfulness, announcing to the Facebook community that he was her whole world. If that was really the case, then my cousin lost her whole world today.

No one was expecting it, especially her.

I’m not saying he was a picture of health—the dude was twenty years older, and he lived like he was forty years younger. He drank day and night, and he cooked rich food dripping with butter and fat. We knew her husband would go much sooner than my cousin did. We just didn’t expect that to happen TODAY.

Isn’t that how life and death seems to work over the age of forty? Nothing is guaranteed anymore.

When we’re young, and we experience unnatural tragedy, we have reasons to howl at the moon and cry “unfair!” Now, we can’t curl up into our grief and question the gods and cry “unfair.” Now, tragedy is as natural as some niece or nephew getting married and having a baby and starting this cycle of life all over again. We live in a world in which the younger generation thrives and our parents’ friends die, and we are in the middle. We’re in a place where our parents’ generation dies, and our friends struggle with crises and life-threatening illnesses and death. Sometimes, in this over 40 reality, our friends’ children commit suicide, or our peers’ lovers die quietly on the couch after refusing to see a doctor about their weird heart palpitations.

Shiiiiit… when I started this blog, this 40s are the new 40s thing, I didn’t know the half of it. I thought I was jaded, but this jaded thing just goes on and on. I guess that’s a lesson I’ll take into my fifties, if I’m lucky enough to get there.