Sunday, December 26, 2021

There's something about wearing matching holiday gnome pajamas

which puts you in just the right, festive mood. Only five of us this year celebrating, but that is one more than last year, so it feels like a win. Last year when there was no vaccine for us and no easily available covid tests and every day was scarier than the day before and there you were, Christmas morning, alone in the kitchen, weeping over Judy Garland's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, where she says something along the lines of someday soon we all will be together but in the mean time we have to muddle through somehow. And we did that, 

muddle through somehow, I mean, and here we are now, in our matching holiday gnome pajamas, vaxxed and boostered and freshly tested, and for today, anyway, negative. That ten minutes though, anxiously eyeing the swab and the lines on the home-testing-kit tray, I am the Schrodinger's Cat of covid, both positive and negative, and how different this week will be if things tip one way or the other. The trick, I think, 

is to stay positive about being negative. Or maybe just let the idea go, once and for all, that we can control anything. For the record, we can't. I am loving these holiday gnome pajamas. For the first time in twenty five years I don't make the Christmas dinner. I don't even help. It's weird. And then it's slightly uncomfortable. And then I let that go too and I enjoy myself immensely. I want to write something funny, 

something moving, something honest, but I can't control my words either. They come or they don't. I wear the holiday gnome pajamas all day, even when I walk the dog around the neighborhood, which is funny, now that I think about it. Later, we face-time with family who can't be with us. Text and send pictures. One of my daughter's gifts is a Polaroid printer. You take a picture on your phone, and print it off on the printer and out comes a Polaroid photo, which we then take a picture of on our phones, which we then send to others. 

It's the five of us, sitting together in our holiday gnome pajamas, one snapshot of time before we stand up and go our separate ways again into the next moment and the next, muddling through somehow, but for now, this moment, we are here on a couch, in a picture, in a photo, on a phone


Sunday, December 19, 2021

We are in that place again

where the virus cases are exploding and the hospitals are at their breaking point and long gone are the days when we would say We're all in this together and Let's flatten the curve. There is no curve. What we have now is a line zooming straight up. At the Starbucks at the end of my street the line 

of cars waiting in the drive thru stretches out into the road and blocks traffic. Blocks me, on my way in to work and I find myself screaming one afternoon through the windshield at the car in front of me who won't move. MOVE, I scream at him. MOVE. Strangely, it helps, the screaming. That, and yoga. Stretches in front of the TV, a ten minute meditation, the happy yoga girl in front of her brick wall and carefully posed plant, her soothing voice telling me to breathe. 

I want to bubble wrap my adult children.

At the library people burst inside frantically looking for covid home testing kits. Sometimes the kits are in. Sometimes they are out. When they are out, I offer to call the county library system to see if they have any. A woman stands in front of my desk, hack-coughing. I'm vaxxed, she tells me. And boostered. Maybe this is a cold? 

Sure, I tell her. It's probably a cold. And all the while I am inching my chair back, internally screaming MOVE. GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME. But on the outside, I smile. I breathe. I tell the woman where she can find a test and she thanks me, more profusely, probably, than I deserve. 

Seriously, though, about the bubble wrap. Do they make it in the size of your adult children? My son and his girlfriend currently #van-life-ing across the country. My daughter and her fiancĂ© braving public transportation and the crowded store where my daughter works, never mind the crazy pro-birther people sporadically picketing outside the building next door, the pizza restaurant which these deluded zealots fervently believe is a front for a child sex ring and so a co-worker has to escort my daughter to her bus stop. 

There is not enough bubble wrap in the world for this kind of world, but on the bright side, I snagged some of those hard-to-find covid tests before we ran out at the library. And as of today, anyway, I can still move. I can scream. I can smile. I can breathe.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Get Back

It's weirdly fascinating watching the new Beatles documentary, all of the hours they spent fooling around, chatting and bickering, trying out new songs, drinking tea, mumbling potential lyrics, sometimes walking out on each other and then walking back in. The creative process, if you're not familiar with it, 

is many parts blather and grinding out the work, with an occasional burst of a perfectly pre-formed melody, and who knows where that magic comes from. Who was it who said, "Invention is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation and 2% butterscotch ripple"? 

Of course, when you're a writer, unlike, apparently, when you are a Beatle, you're entirely alone, and only the blank page or laptop screen in front of you. Willy Wonka, by the way, is the one who said the thing about perspiration and butterscotch ripple. He was so right about those percentages. The other day when I was working the desk at the library, 

a woman circled around the Christmas tree we've set up. She'd just come from our weekly English as a Second Language Conversation Class and seemed curious about the gift tags hanging on the tree, pulling one off and holding it up to me. What is this? she said. 

I explained that every year the library works with a social services agency in town to invite our patrons to purchase something from a child's wish list. A needy child? I said, wondering if I was making sense. For families who can't afford presents? 

Oh, she said. She looked at the tag, and said, What is this? 

Onesie for a 12 month old was written on the tag. 

I started to describe what a onesie is and then did a quick search on the computer and showed the woman the examples on the screen, which immediately made me think of my own children when they were babies, those middle of the night cries on the baby monitor, the bleary-eyed unsnappings and snappings and fumbling for the clean diaper, and thank God 

we could afford to buy baby clothes. But back to the woman, who was nodding seriously at the computer screen. I understand, she said. Thank you. I got teary-eyed watching the Beatles,

Paul McCartney strumming the guitar, muttering nonsense, the music of a familiar song slowly and then all at once taking shape, while the other Beatles yawn and look on and then just as suddenly begin to strum and clap, Get back to where you once belonged, as if they had been there with Paul all along, as if the song was there too and just waiting for all of them to find it. The next day, the woman marched up to the desk, 

holding the onesie still on the store hanger. This? she said to me, and I said, Yes, that's great, perfect, exactly right, thank you so much. She nodded again, that same serious expression on her face that seemed to say I understand. And only later did I wonder what it was that she understood. Who was it who said, "So shines a good deed in a weary world"? 

Oh right. That was Willy Wonka too. Which has nothing to do with the Beatles or bleary-eyed midnight diaper changes or even the creative process really, and look

my page is filled with words now and probably only a fraction of butterscotch ripple, but good enough, I think, for today. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

I was going to say

that every time I paint a room in our new-old house, I hate the people who used to live here. But that sounds harsh and I don't really hate them. First, I don't know them, and all I'm going by to justify my harsh feelings are the people's questionable decorating choices. 

The orange ceiling, for example, in the dining room, the orange paint with glitter added to it, so it took two full coats of primer and two coats of ceiling paint to cover it, and even now, when the light slips through the windows in a certain way, you can see a sparkle.

Okay, that sparkle, I'll admit is kind of lovely. But did I tell you about the hole in the wall in the kitchen? This was left over from an old laundry chute, but the previous owners had blocked the laundry chute and put a shelf in its place and framed it, and now there was a random framed hole with a shelf in the middle of a wall and nothing 

you could really do with that space, and my husband chipped the frame out and pulled out the shelf--the idea being, we'd patch up the hole and have a more useful space and counter area, but when he pulled out the shelf, something plopped onto the counter, a long ago bit of laundry tossed in the chute and caught by the frame--

--a pair of women's underwear--and Oh my God who knows how long that was hiding behind the walls. There are all kinds of surprises when you live in a new-old house. Upstairs on my hands and knees, prepping to paint the hallway, but first, trying to scrub off the yellowed cigarette stains on the walls, noticing every scratch and nick in the previous layers of paint, a square of decades old wallpaper behind a light switch plate, I want to forgive these people

for living in our house, and ask forgiveness too, from the people who will live here after us. I promise we haven't tossed dirty underwear behind the walls or glittered up our paint, but being what we are, human, I mean, we will have committed other decorative sins. Go easy on us. Please. We do the best we can with what we are given. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Every year I forget

there are nearly two sticks of butter in the sweet potato casserole recipe, and every year I say, as I am softening the two sticks of butter, Oh My God, I can't believe there are two sticks of butter in this recipe! And then I make the casserole and it is out-of-this-world delicious and I forget about the butter, because who cares, we only eat this casserole once a year.

It is the same when I am digging the heart and liver and neck and whatever else out of the cavity of the turkey, adding the cup of sugar to the fresh cranberries before they simmer and pop on the stovetop, melting the block of cream cheese I use for the green bean casserole. I make the same meal every year, most of it, if not all of it, by myself, and after thirty years I've gotten the timing down, the order of casserole assemblage, the basting of the turkey, whether we are having 20 people over to our house

or two, 

which is what we are this year. My husband and I discussed it. Maybe just... order out? But then decided against it. Only two of us, but we like the tradition. The butter, the sugar, the heart in the cavity. Some years it might depress me, the small table, the quiet. 

Last year, for example, it was only four of us, our daughter and her boyfriend--now fiancé--and it was nice, of course, but also scary, what with the pandemic and all of that twisted up with fear for the future, the unknown, and where would we all be next year, would we make it through unscathed? Something horrifying last year, the turkey,

this over-priced, farmer's market-ordered, precious, organic thing--when I unwrapped it the night before to prep--was missing both legs and a wing. I had a moment of anger at the farmer's market person, a quick back and forth to let her know, her immediate effusive apology and offer to drive to our house with another turkey, but by then, the anger was gone and now it seemed a silly thing to be angry about. That turkey was gruesome 

and yet... funny, the perfect symbol of how I felt last year about the holiday, about the world. I cooked the legless, one-winged horror show and it was surprisingly tasty. Maybe the best-tasting turkey I've ever made. There are no guarantees about anything. The future, turkeys, what two sticks of butter might do to your arteries, the number of people around your table, where you are now

where you will be next year. 

When my husband and I got married we put a ludicrously expensive formal set of china on our gift registry and somehow managed to get four place settings out of the deal. These are hand-wash-only and gold flecked and ridiculous, and we never use them, but this Thanksgiving, we pulled them down from the high cabinet and dusted them off. The gold flecks will blow up the microwave, 

but the sweet potato casserole looks lovely plopped into the center of our two plates. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Good Soup

So, you know how I keep giving people soup? Well, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea if this soup was actually... good. I mean, the people I've sent it to say that it's good, but maybe they were just being kind? I got into a discussion about this with one of my cousins and she smiled her bright smile and said, Ooh, let me send you some!

Cut to:

The soup came in the mail and it was, in fact, good. I mean everything about this gift was a Gift with a capital G. The soup--chicken noodle--which was very tasty. The rolls and cookies, delicious. A ladle. You get to keep the ladle! And the packaging. I have never seen such cool packaging. I know I sound like I am doing a commercial here or being paid off by the Spoonful of Comfort soup people, but I assure you I am not. Here is the cool thing about the packaging: each individual box is reversible, with an adorable pattern and just waiting for you to reuse for packaging another gift. My husband and I got two complete meals out of the soup and loved the entire experience in a way that I know sounds mildly loony, but there's the truth of it. Thank you, cousin Lindley! 

And speaking of cool gifts, a few weeks ago, my friend Natalie D. Richards had a new book come out and I wanted to give her something fun to commemorate the occasion. Natalie is a New York Times Bestselling author and this is her 8th book, but she still gets a little anxious by the whole thing, the idea of people reading what she's written and all of the publicity stuff you have to do when a book comes out, never mind the fact that she is knee deep in the writing of her ninth book and time is scarce for her, to put it mildly. 

Anyhoo... I was talking about this with my lovely friend LaNesha who works at the library and makes greeting cards as a side business, and she said, What is this book about? And I said, It's about a scavenger hunt that turns deadly. And she said, I bet I can make her a nice card. And I said, okay. 

Well. This card. Oh my God I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it is the most awesome card I have ever seen. Can we even call it a card? No, it is a gift in and of itself. A giftbox, to be specific, that looks exactly like the giftbox that the main character in the scavenger hunt story receives. (Side note, this happens at the beginning of the book when a girl is getting out of the shower and finds a white box with a green bow sitting on her bathroom sink, and who the heck put it there and is potentially creeping around her house?) 

When LaNesha made the card (really, it is more like she built the card) and presented it to me, I was so excited to give it to Natalie that I wanted to race right over to her house at that moment instead of waiting for her book launch day. When I did finally give it to her, of course, she loved it. 

And speaking of loving people's gifts, my husband built me a library and I am over the top in love with it. This is one of those Little Free Libraries that you may have seen set out at people's curbs or in public parks or near schools. How it works is the library steward (as we Little Free Library owners are called) fills the library with books and anyone who is walking by can take one or two or all of them, and they, or other people, can drop books into the library and then take more and it's all just a nice karmic book sharing thing that I love the idea of, but I wasn't sure, exactly, how it would work in practice. 

But let me tell you, it does work beautifully. The first day I filled it with books (these are books I had around the house, books I'd read and was happy to share). I also filled a basket by the front door with more books, assuming I'd have to replenish, but the funny thing is that I haven't had to dip into this backstock at all. The first few days, nearly the entire library collection turned over and it was a new set of books, books I wanted to browse myself. 

And there you have it, another good gift, and isn't it funny how the best good gifts are the ones that truly do keep on giving?

Sunday, November 14, 2021

It's snowing

and I didn't even know it was supposed to snow today. These are big flakes, a thick downpour of them, and so odd-looking against the backdrop of trees, the branches still hanging onto their yellow and orange leaves. Just last week, it seemed, it was summer. The week before that we were moving into spring. Slip back a little further and I am driving through a snowy day like this one, 

a college trip with my son through New England and how excited we both were. This was it, the final moment before he had to turn in his applications and where was he going to choose, or rather, who would choose him, and now that decision, which was mostly out of his hands, would potentially determine the course of his life. 

Most of our decisions aren't so momentous. Or else, how could we stand it? We need a break between Big Things. The quiet ordinariness of the stretch of days, each one the same as the ones that came before. 

The same dog walking routes. The same ingredients in the breakfast smoothie. At the library, checking in books, the same bestsellers being read and returned. The same questions when we answer the phone. Yes, we have Covid tests. No, I'm sorry, we are out of Covid tests. The polite banter at the check-out. With the new patrons. With the regulars. 

Oh, I have to tell you about this darling little boy who has been coming into the library since we opened to the public again back in May. Always, he is sitting quietly in his stroller, looking around curiously and very solemnly. When I give him a sticker, his mom sticks it to his hand and he frowns the same frown as he examines it. Every time it is the same with this adorable little boy. 

Until one day, he's not in the stroller. He's toddling right through the library doors. Another day, he is wearing glasses. His mom asks if we can find some books about other little children who wear glasses, or maybe we have books about animals wearing glasses? We, at the library, are on the case! Meanwhile, the little boy offers his hand and I give him his sticker. We have officially been introduced at this point. I know his name. He knows mine.

My son ended up choosing the college in New England or they chose him or however you want to describe it and he went away and has been living his life apart from us for quite a while now. Funny thing I just now realized: that college trip, that drive through the snow in fall, took place exactly ten years ago. There were other Big Things that happened along the way,

and many many more small ones. I used to get very nostalgic about these things and I would go into a misty-eyed tailspin thinking about it, how my son, for example, was once a little boy who sat in a stroller. He didn't wear glasses, but he did like stickers, and there was this one time when I thought he was taking a nap, but actually, he had crept out of his bedroom and gotten into a box of bandaids and unpeeled every single one of them and attached them over all of the available surfaces of his body, 

which would launch me directly past misty-eyed nostalgia and into full-blown boo-hooing, but now I only smile at the memory. Something not funny about the snow on the college trip: it turned really bad. The trees alongside the road where we were driving, so heavily weighted down by snow covered leaves, began to crack, the branches falling and then the trees themselves, tearing down the powerlines, sending us hurtling into darkness. We barely made it home. But this snow, this day, is not like that at all. 

It swirls from the gray sky, lovely and quiet, slows, and soon stops all together, leaving behind only patches of snow on the leaf strewn lawn.



Sunday, November 7, 2021

Falling back

I am wide awake at 4 AM but I stay in bed until 5, the dog still snoozing peacefully on my husband's side of the bed. He's out of town, visiting with his parents several states away, and I am thinking about the million things I could do with this rare sliver of time alone in the house -- clean up the garden and paint the upstairs hallway and organize my office and make some luscious cream-based soup and and and--  I will probably do none of those things. 

Instead, I read a disturbing book that makes me question everything I thought I knew about my childhood, and I take the dog on a marathon walk. Or rather she takes me. I've discovered the secret to her meandery route. It's not meandery at all. No. Over time, she's learned where all of the free dog treats are in the neighborhood. This is a thing people do around here, set out dog treats and fresh water for dogs. Our dog has learned and remembered these locations, and she's created a route that hits each and every one of them. 

This has nothing to do with anything, but I can't stop mulling over a weird interaction that happened at work the other day, where a patron went off about masks. For the record, employees are required to wear masks at my library, but we merely recommend that patrons wear them. Most do. Some don't. It's rare that anyone says anything about it and we all just go about living our lives and talking about books. But this guy wanted to explain to us why masks were stupid and didn't work and blah blah blah,

and the two of us sitting at the desk just nodded along and blinked at him like, "okay, we hear you," but this response was not the response the guy was looking for apparently, because he raised his voice and kept ranting, informing us that he was a doctor and he felt it was his obligation to bless us with his knowledge, 

Yes, he actually used the words Bless us with his knowledge, and thank God I was wearing a mask because I started chuckling under the material and had to excuse myself to go to the back room, and only later did I think of other possible responses, such as, Can we bless you with our knowledge for a second, sir? Nobody cares about your mask opinion. Plus, you're scaring us. 

But of course I would never say that to him. The guy's a narcissist and narcissists don't like it when you contradict them. It destroys the narrative they have about their own precariously crafted identity and makes them feel uncomfortable to the point of being enraged and who knows how they might react and the next you thing you know, everyone is tiptoeing around the person, like they're a tasmanian devil with the emotional maturity of a three year old, someone you could hate if they weren't such profoundly broken human beings. 

Anyway, that's what the disturbing book I read said about them and I believe it. There was a little girl at the self checkout with her mom while this interaction was taking place and after I came out of the backroom, to the still ranting and raving man who was blessing us all with his knowledge, I watched the mom hustle the kid out the door and how freaked out the little girl was or maybe I am just projecting,

which is another thing I was thinking about at 4 AM going into 5 AM and how dark it is outside, especially now that I-- I mean all of us-- have fallen back. So many hours stretching out into the coming day, and maybe I will make that luscious cream-based soup after all. 

Right after the dog takes me on another meandery treat walk. 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Lately I am trying to break old patterns

For example, I let the dog lead me when we take our walks. I've heard it's a thing you're not supposed to do. You're the human and she's the dog. But I like to see where she wants to go. The usual left when we head out the door, or will she go to the right today? Each intersection is another decision, and who knows which way she'll choose.  

Last weekend I surprised her by not taking her on a walk at all. I woke up after a restless night's sleep, hastily packed, and drove back to the place where I'd grown up. The trip took eleven hours. It was boring and painful on my neck and shoulders and I was listening to an audio book, a mystery about injustice and human frailty, and stuffing my face with gas station snack foods, so I wouldn't have to think too hard about why I was driving alone to the place where I'd grown up. 

A good friend told me once that people go to funerals to commemorate the person who died and to comfort the person's loved ones. I wanted to commemorate the person who died, but I wasn't sure how much comfort I could give to the person's loved ones. 

My goal was get to my hotel before the sun set because I don't like to drive in the dark, but I didn't achieve my goal. The last hour I drove half blinded by headlights and relying entirely on my gps. Even though I grew up there, I don't know the area well. I left when I was eighteen, what I jokingly used to describe as "running away from home." But the truth is, I really did run away from home and it wasn't the first time. 

Something lovely about the person who died is that she took me in one of those times, and no questions asked. Here's a funny story about this person: one time we went sledding when I was home from college on winter break, and we crammed together on the same sled, pushed off at the top of the hill and immediately were hit with so much snow, clumps of it smacking our faces, laughing wildly, snow in our mouths, slamming into a snowbank at the bottom of the hill, still laughing, and laughing more, when she confessed that she'd just peed in her snowpants. 

On the way over to the funeral, I ignored the gps and left the highway to drive past my old house. It looked like any other house in the neighborhood, a nice house, instead of what it actually was, and then it was on to meet up with my relatives, some of whom I hadn't seen in twenty years. They were nice, which is what they actually are, and I don't know when it hit me, at the funeral or somewhere along the drive back to my real home, that I too am a loved one, and I felt comfort. 

I was gone for less than 60 hours, but in that time, the entire book collection of the Little Library in front of our house had turned over, all of the books unfamiliar and interesting and waiting for me to browse them. But first I grabbed the dog's leash and let her lead me where she wanted to go. 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

I keep sending people soup

To friends and family members who are sick. To people grieving over lost loved ones. This is not soup I’ve made myself. It’s called Spoonful of Comfort. I found the place online last year when I was feeling helpless, worrying over a relative who was recovering from surgery alone. What would I do for her if I lived closer and we weren’t in the thick of a global pandemic?

The only thing I could come up with was soup. 

I associate warm foods with caring. Let me bring you a bowl of soup. Let me make you a cup of tea. It goes back to my childhood, visiting my paternal grandmother, who always had soup simmering on the stove or a spaghetti sauce. And my mother's sisters, who had each other over at least once a week for tea and cake. When I was away at college and feeling homesick, I asked an aunt for one of her cake recipes. She paused and then laughed and said the cakes were all box mixes. 

My grandmother's soup did not come from a box. In some ways she was the stereotypical Italian grandmother. Effusive with the hugs. Doting on me when I was in town for a visit. Offering me the soup or a plate of spaghetti. Her apartment was neat as a pin. Actually, she had an obsession with cleanliness. It may have been more than an obsession. When my son was a toddler, I took him back to my hometown to meet my relatives. I called my grandmother to tell her we’d love to stop by, but she said her apartment was too messy. Maybe another time.

There didn't turn out to be another time. She died later that year. I used to wonder if I should've tried harder to change her mind. Was she really choosing the state of her apartment over a visit with a granddaughter and great grandson, briefly in town?  

But this was before I understood anxiety. Not that I fully understand it now, but I know it can lead you to some dark places, and too often, leave you with regret. 

Anxiety runs deep on both sides of my family. But so does the impulse to brew tea and make soup. And I am so very thankful for that. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Anxious People

Sometimes I get to the end of the week and I want to write about the things I've been thinking about over the course of the week, but all of the things are things I'm not sure I should write about. Because they're personal, but also, because they belong, at least partly, to other people. A birthday, a wedding, a rift in a relationship that feels un-mendable, maybe forever this time,

or maybe not. It's hard to tell how much we are capable of forgiving each other. 

In the book Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman, a desperate person tries to rob a bank, and on the run, ends up in the middle of an apartment showing, waving a gun, inadvertently taking the prospective buyers hostage, and it all spirals out of control from there. The bank robber is an idiot, the author tells us on the very first page. And the people in the apartment are all idiots too.  

Okay, the birthday, that I can write about. It's my son's and it's today and of course I'm nostalgically thinking about the day he was born and how crazed with anxiety I was, that weird moment in the hospital when I was dazed with pain and suddenly deciding that maybe I didn't want to Do This anymore--have a baby--and at the same moment, understanding on a visceral level that I didn't have any control over the matter. The baby was coming out whether I wanted him to or not. A good lesson

for the future. Say, for example, today, when he is a grown man and living on the opposite side of the country and off the grid, climbing some mountain, literally, and all my husband and I can do is send him another version of a Please Let Us Know You Are Okay gift-- the last one being a satellite phone and this time, a special radio, specifically an "Emergency Radio Hand Crank Solar Weather Radio NOAA Alert 5000mAh AM/FM/SW Portable Battery Operated Radio 5 Way Powered with LED Flashlight, SOS Alarm, Cellphone Charger for Outdoor Emergency." 

The wedding. Okay the wedding. Which I promise you I am excited about despite the fact 

that our daughter has hired a wedding planner, and everyone knows that we— her father and I— are notorious Do It Yourself-ers, to the point of absurdity sometimes, climbing on the roof to paint the house and unclogging our own drainpipes and dismantling koi ponds. Also, if I am being completely honest with you, and I am, always, being completely honest with you, 

my only model of a wedding planner is Franck in the 1991 movie Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton and Martin Short, and doesn’t my daughter know those wedding planner people are always trying to upcharge you and the next thing you know Franck has rented a flock of swans to scurry around in your backyard? 

(For the record, I have come around to the wedding planner, who is not played by Martin Short and seems very nice and may actually really help with all of our my anxiety.) 

The un-mendable rift I still can't write about and maybe I never will or who knows. The people in the book Anxious People are all anxious about things they can't control and many things they can, but it's hard sometimes to see the difference between the two, especially when it's buried under all of that anxiety.

By the end of the book I was crying and rooting for them, those idiots who don't know they are idiots, those silly humans just doing the best they can. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

How to do nothing

I'm reading a book called How to Do Nothing. It's not really about doing nothing. It's about understanding how we're all being manipulated to click on stuff, buy stuff, tweet stuff, comment on stuff, and be perpetually outraged, terrified, entertained, and distracted by the never-ending scroll of "news" assaulting us from every direction every waking moment of the day.  

I started listening to the book on audio when I was driving to DC to hang out with my daughter and her boyfriend. I was anxious about driving alone for seven hours. I have this thing about traveling alone. It's called: I Don't Want to Travel Alone. I was hoping an audiobook would be soothing and make the time go by faster. 

But this was the wrong book for soothing. I want to tell you the million ways it was un-soothing and how it basically cracked open my brain and made me want to both move to a Henry David Thoreau-like cabin in the woods and at the same time, volunteer to run a booth at the farmer's market in my neighborhood, 

and also fling my phone off a cliff, finish writing my book, deactivate my Facebook account and expand my pollinator garden. Instead, I'm going to tell you two stories. 

Story number one is how I sat down after dinner the other night and jumped on facebook and felt the mental tug of a To-do list in the form of the number of notifications at the top of my screen, and how I started ticking through them, dutifully, the first one being a post from someone I went to high school with about how our school was about to be torn down. 

Immediately, I felt a sadness mixed with nostalgia and a twinge of crappiness, because, honestly, I hated high school and don't really care all that much if the dumb building comes down. Which made me feel guilt. 

A guy I sorta once knew shared a photo of a teacher I sorta remembered but never had as a teacher, and apparently, everyone who was taught by this guy loved him and someone shared how he was a social justice activist and had once been arrested for protesting nuclear war. (My feelings here were surprise, pride--I sorta knew this guy!--more nostalgia about the school coming down and Hey! This teacher even has a Wikipedia page; how cool is that?) 

And then a girl I had once been friends with wrote a snarky comment, something like: Ugh, I liked that teacher. Who knew he was such a leftist? 

Which made me want to comment snarkily back, the words already forming in my mind about who the hell was she and what notable things had she ever done in her life? But I left the comment box uncommented and instead jumped onto her page to unfriend her, because why do I want to be friends with her anyway, but when I pulled up her page, the most recent post was about how her father had just died, and I knew this man,

or had once, many years ago, and he was such a good person, but at the same time, I hadn't talked to him in decades and I didn't really know this girl anymore. Or any of these people. But there I was, heart pounding at my kitchen table, anxious and unsettled, and all of this anxiety and unsettledness happening over the course of only ten minutes, but churning inside of me long after I closed my laptop. 

Story number two is how I spent my day yesterday, moving around in my real life. A lovely three-minute phone conversation with my daughter as she walked to her bus stop about how pretty the colors are that she's picked out for her wedding, and oh my God I'm going to be the mother of a bride! A trip to the farmer's market 

where the guy who sells honey told me the meaning behind the word "beeline" and how you could watch any bee that showed up to feast on your flowers and trace where their hives are and I wanted to rush right home to try this out, but first I had to do a shift at the library 

where I got into a long discussion about various pandemic books with one patron and answered questions from another about Banned Books Week and why are certain books banned and isn't that crazy and what are people afraid of, and helped a man on the computer and helped a woman fax important medical documents, and one by one, every patron who strolled into the library said something about the gorgeous weather we were having, until the end of the day

when it started to rain and a family spilled off the elevator, one of the little kids crying about how his sister had pushed the elevator button and HE had wanted to push it and it was ten minutes before we closed and the weary-looking dad had a catrillion books to check out at the self-check-out and the little kid would not stop wailing and I knew 

that stickers were not going to do the trick, so I walked over to the elevator and asked the crying kid if he would push the button for me. He stopped crying mid-cry and toddled over to the button and pushed it and I thanked him profusely and got into the elevator and rode downstairs and stood alone in the quiet youth section for a minute, feeling silly, but also, 

I've been there, with the crying kid, the cranky, the tired, the bored, the scared, the sad, the angry 

And even though I know that pushing a button rarely if ever solves a problem, I am here to tell you that when you are faced with a situation where it might, why not ask for the push? 

PS: Please read this book: 


Sunday, September 26, 2021

The part where the world is beautiful

He called us a few weeks ago to tell us his secret. He had a ring. He’d bought it a year ago and he’d been hiding it all this time, waiting for just the right moment. He was living in Germany. His girlfriend was living in London. Maybe he thought the summer would be the right moment. There were plans when she finished up her school work to travel together. Maybe Paris? But then the pandemic happened and the plans were put on hold. 

I told them later it was like a scary movie. She was locking down in London, alone, afraid. Her father and I couldn’t get to her and how could she make it home? But what if he took the train from Germany and locked down with her? He had to go soon. There were rumors the borders would close any moment. The day he was traveling, she gave us updates. He’s out of the country. He’s crossing into England. He made it into London. He’s here!

She sent us a funny video. First day of Lockdown, the two of them dancing, singing out, Day One!   

He worked from her apartment and she finished her schooling. He braved the grocery stores. They took daily walks in the park. When she did make it home several months later, he followed soon after, quarantining in our basement. She made the place up nice for him. One night he played his guitar and sang to her from the bottom of the basement stairs while she sat at the top of the stairs, teary-eyed. 

We let him out of the basement and he was in our bubble. We walked the dogs and binge-watched TV shows and one day our daughter bought us all matching llama pajamas and none of us protested. Did I tell you he grew up in France? Did I tell you he is a gourmet cook? Oh my God, the meals we ate! 

We risked our lives moving them into their new apartment and we were back to our quiet house and fending for ourselves with the meals and the llama pajamas. 

And then there was the call about the ring. 

Sometimes, okay, a lot of times, I write about how broken the world is. Maybe I slip in some happy moments about giving children stickers. Also, there are always flowers. But the other day I watched them walking up a sunlit street, hand in hand, smiling so widely at each other, and when she saw her father and me, she skipped toward us before breaking into a run. 

The ring on her finger is beautiful. The world, my dear friends, is too. 


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Brunching while pandemic-ing

A few weeks ago friends invited my husband and me out to brunch. This would be outdoor patio dining, of course, they assured us. 

We're all aware that Covid cases are rising so alarmingly in our area that the mayor had to issue another indoor mask mandate. The hospitals are at capacity again, and everyone I know worries they might become one of the vaccinated breakthrough cases, even though this is supposed to be fairly rare. 

Still, we can almost pretend the world is normal when we're brunching on an outdoor patio. An engagement party at one table. At another, they're celebrating someone's birthday. While I sip my mimosa and eat my eggs benedict, I tell the story of the Starbucks at the end of my street and how I want to go on record that there's going to be a Showdown there any moment. 

The place is a freaking powder keg. 

Every day you can hear the car horns honking. An occasional shout from a rolled down window. It's the poorly designed drive-thru lane, how the cars back up onto my street and into the intersection. This was a major topic of conversation on our neighborhood facebook page even before the pandemic. How could they put a Starbucks there??!! Why do people want to buy overpriced coffee anyway??!! Why don't we support our local coffee shops??!! 

But mid-pandemic the irritation has turned into rage. The perfect storm of bad traffic and the fraying of society's last nerve. Add the caffeine addicts who NEED THEIR COFFEE NOW, and I'm surprised there hasn't already been a serious altercation. 

It occurs to me that this Starbucks has been my way of measuring the real time collapse and adaptation of the world over the past year and a half. During the initial lockdown, the drive-thru stayed open, a beacon of normalcy in the first scary days. But then, in winter, at the height of the crisis, the store was closed. Too many workers sick to keep things running. 

Which brings us to now, where it's very much open and popular, and yet... possibly about to capture the moment we all tip over the edge into some new kind of dystopian nightmare? 

I finished drinking my mimosa and ordered a cup of coffee. I have to tell you that this brunch was the best brunch I have ever experienced in my life. Not the food (although it was tasty) and not the company (although it was lovely) but the exquisite ordinary-ness of it, the kind of thing I lived most of my adult life totally taking for granted.  

Home, and I walked the dog past the Starbucks. There was the usual long line, the cars desperately trying to squeeze their way in, the irritated honks. But also something so comforting and beautiful about the people sitting on the sunny patio. A man tapping away on his laptop. A table of laughing teenagers. A mom pushing by with a baby carriage. The chirpy voice of the Starbucks barista in the drive-thru window saying, 

Have a nice day! 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The book I'm writing is going off the rails

There's a lesson in here about Things Not Going in the Direction You Planned, and how That's Okay, because you're Trusting the Process, and in the end, you'll get a Messy Crappy First Draft, but even if it's messy and crappy, You'll Still Have Something To Work With. 

But I'm a big liar when I say these things. 

What I really want when I write a book is to know where it's going right from the start. Write my words each day and watch the story unfold exactly how I planned it. Make it to the end easily, and all that's left to do is a quick spellcheck before sending it off. 

It never happens this way so I don't know why I'm surprised.

I needed this one to work that way though. The words I write each day feel like the only thing I can control, so when they go off in some weirdo direction I didn't see coming, now what am I supposed to do? 

What I did was I went outside and cut the ivy that was climbing up the house and then I went into the backyard and yanked out weeds. It was a gorgeous day in Columbus Ohio and it was September 11, and I couldn't help thinking about twenty years ago and how gorgeous that day had been at the start of it, driving with my four-year-old daughter to her preschool at 8:45 in the morning, and how later, when I picked her up at noon, all of the moms were standing in an awkward circle, no one chatting with each other how we usually did. 

We swayed awkwardly and looked everywhere but into each other's faces. No phones then, or I'm sure we all would've been pressed to them. Not that it would've been good to have phones, but at least there would have been an excuse for the excruciating silence, the stark and terrifying together-but-aloneness feeling we all were feeling. 

What I was thinking while I weeded the garden was, what if I had reached for the hand of the mom next to me and then she had reached for the hand of the person next to her and we stood in our circle, holding hands, instead of swaying there so painfully alone?

Why did it take me twenty years to think of this idea? I went for a walk. 

And that's when it hit me that maybe my book is not as messed up as I thought. I mean, the world in it is relatively stable and still a place I'd like to visit. The people, the kind of people I like knowing. And when someone wonders if she should reach out and hold another person's hand, I truly believe, this time, she will. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Dispatches from the Pre Post-Pandemic

The other day I was sitting at the library's information desk with a co-worker and we were talking about: is This the End of the World. 

We had to keep breaking up our conversation to help patrons look for their reserve items and someone who needed to use the fax machine and didn't know how to use the fax machine. Also, the phone kept ringing and every other caller wanted to know if we had free Covid tests. We do, we would say when we answered the phone. But they're at our main library location. And hurry, because we keep running out. 

Maybe every generation thinks it's the end of the world, I was saying to my co-worker. He's twenty years younger than I am and just had his first child and he seemed very resigned to the state of the world and I was trying to make him feel better, but then I would have to stop so I could look up if we had a certain book and he would have to stop so he could help someone who lost their library card. 

But look at how things were in like, 1965, for example, I told him. We had political assassinations and the Vietnam War and battles over Civil Rights and--

a man came in who needed help signing onto a computer and somehow he got to talking about how he was a classically trained French chef but his goal in life was to recreate the perfect Coney dog sauce from his childhood and after twelve years of perfecting his recipe, he realized he had done it and now he wanted to open a Coney dog restaurant in town and could I please help him send an email. 

The phone rang. My co-worker had been in eighth grade on 9/11 and his teacher told the class that the school didn't want them to keep the TVs on in the classroom but he was going to because This Was History happening in real time and all of the students needed to watch it. 

And I understand, my co-worker said, because the teacher was right about history, but at the same time, we were in 8th grade and I still remember those people jumping off the buildings. 

Maybe that's when things went off the rails, I said. 9/11. I was thinking of that night and how I stood for a while in my kids' bedrooms, one after the other, my little boy and my little girl, both sleeping peacefully, their rooms dark, and how my heart still hadn't stopped racing since 9:15 am that morning and what world was this that I had brought them into. What world would they grow up in? 

Someone wanted a book recommendation for her grandchild and someone had just signed up for a new library card and someone wanted to pay a fine. But we don't have fines anymore, so please don't worry about it. 

And what about Kent State, I said to my co-worker. That was awful. I mean, can you imagine kids walking to class and getting shot at by National Guardsmen? So, don't you think every generation thinks they're living in the end of the world, but they're not, and then we just go on?

I can see your point, he said. But what about Climate Change?

Oh, well, yeah, Climate Change, I said. 

And then, there's the Pandemic, he said. He moved to take a sip of his water and lowered his mask and I suddenly remembered that he had a moustache. 

It hit me that I was wearing a mask too and neither one of us had seen each other's faces in a year and a half and even though I knew that I had not made him feel better and I was not feeling any better myself, I started laughing. Maybe I laughed too hard, to be honest.   

Then the phone rang. A harried mom came up to the desk and I checked her books out and gave each of her kids a sticker. I wish you could see how cute they were, those little kids, and how happy they were about their stickers. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

We were at a wedding and then there was a funeral

but I didn't go to the funeral. I was still replaying the wedding. Something interesting about my extended family is how we can't all be together for very long without falling apart. Maybe every family is like this. Throw everyone together in a room, add the heightened emotions that go along with weddings (and funerals) and there's bound to be some drama. 

I don't want to write about this drama except for how I learned to cope with it. How I had coped with it in the past was the replaying thing, 

going over every detail of whatever happened in my mind, rehashing it with other people, usually the people who were involved, which all just made it worse, and generally making the people closest to me miserable with the ad nauseum rehashing. I knew I was going to have to stop, so I went back into therapy. 

Something nice about therapy is that you can rehash to your heart's content and the person listening to you has to listen to you because you're paying them, and there's a helpful bonus in the fact that they aren't involved in the drama and can see the idiocy of it all and let you rage and cry forever. Except it's not forever, because therapy sessions only last for an hour. 

I learned some useful tips and tricks when I was going to therapy, like how to notice patterns in relationships and break them (the patterns, not the relationships, although sometimes you have to break those occasionally too) and how to set boundaries and how to let things go that you can't control. 

But the summer of the wedding (and the funeral I didn't go to) the tips and tricks weren't working. Or maybe they were sort of working with my extended family but they weren't working with other things. For example, the world. 

This was sixteen years ago and Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans and I had been watching the news for days and feeling sick about it, the water rising and the people trapped in the convention center and the dead grandmothers left behind on the street corners with notes pinned to their clothes, the stories of white supremacists with guns on bridges threatening the desperate people trying to flee and the doctors in dark sweltering hospitals helping sick people die, the terrified people cutting their way through their rooftops and the president praising the head of FEMA for doing such a great job, other countries around the world looking on in horror at one of our major cities collapsing and promising to send foreign aid to us, 

and I was rehashing all of this with my therapist, raging about it, crying. Maybe it was the residual feelings about the wedding and the funeral. A person had died and I had loved him and I didn't go to his funeral, but it was something more than that, something I couldn't verbalize about families and dysfunction, 

and the word isn't drama, it's tragedy, 

how people who love each other hurt each other over and over again, my family, our country, the world. I didn't know what the therapist was going to say. He usually had all the answers, or at least some advice, a tool I could use, a mantra. Did you see the people wading through the water, I said. This is our country. How is this happening in our country? 

I don't know, he said. He seemed a little flustered by the question. I was flustered that he didn't have the answer. The session was over and I walked out in a daze. I was on the verge of understanding something but I couldn't quite reach it. I barely understand it now. 

It's me, it's you, it's us, each one of us on our own, and at the same time, all of us inextricably connected. What will it take to get us into the room together and keep us there as the world falls apart? 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

At night in the fog

Pre-Covid, when I used to teach writing classes, I liked to include inspiring quotes on my powerpoint slides. The burning question aspiring writers always have is How do I get my book published? But the second question (which, really really really should be the first, I know) is How do I write a book?

There is an actual answer to this question: 

You write it.

But I knew that sounded snippy and dismissive and I was trying to be inspiring. Hence, the quotes: 

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. ― E.L. Doctorow 

Just take it bird by bird. ― Anne Lamott 

The fog one is a nice metaphor because you can picture it when you're at that vague What the hell is going to happen next? stage of your novel, (which, honestly, may be the entire time you're writing it). There's the murkiness in front of the car, and how do you even know the road is still there?

But then, just when you feel like you might hurtle off a cliff, the road appears. Maybe you see a flash of a traffic sign or a tree rising out of the murkiness. Every so often, something bright. The lights from a passing car. The moon poking out behind the clouds. 

The bird quote is the one that usually gets a laugh from the audience. It's from Anne Lamott's extremely helpful writing craft book Bird by Bird, which she starts by telling the story of her younger brother who'd put off a school project until the last minute. The project was something overwhelming like, WRITE A DESCRIPTION OF EVERY BIRD IN THE WORLD. The night before the project was due, the little brother was crying at the kitchen table, his head bowed over his stack of blank pages.

The father came by and patted him on the shoulders and said, "Just take it bird by bird, buddy." 

This was the part in the presentation when I would say: The secret to writing a book is BIC. Put your Butt In the Chair. And I would tell them about the importance of daily word count goals or setting a timer.  And then I'd go into the actual mechanics. How to build a scene and how to add conflict and tension and tips on how to revise. 

But then they'd want to go back to what they really needed to know, which is how to find an agent and what's the secret to getting a movie deal. 

Maybe it's human nature to want to skip over the hard parts, the actual work, to speed through the dark and get home safely and find your award-winning, best-selling novel on the library and bookstore shelves. I know I am mixing metaphors mightily, but maybe we have to stop focusing so hard on the end. 

We are here, 

after all, right now, this moment, fires and viruses burning around us, hurricanes bearing down, the world some days, most days, seemingly spinning out of control. How do we write--how do we live--in the face of all of that? 

Robert Frost famously said, The only way out is through. 

But I wish I could ask him, What if there is no way out? What if there is only Through? And through and through and through. Then, where does that leave us? How do we sit with it, the day's words, an individual bird on a page or singing in the trees, hands gripping our steering wheels as we wait for the road to reveal itself. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Read Watch Grow

This was an awful week. For me. For the country. For the planet. And I don't want to talk about it or think about it or write about it.

Instead, I read a really good book and watched a really good TV show and sat on my front porch a lot and admired the flowers in my hellstrip garden bobbing in the breeze, people strolling past, and occasionally, a dog lifting its leg to pee on the marigolds. I only winced a little. 

What I read: Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

This book caught my interest because it has a weird title and colorful cover and I like John Green books. Green explains in the first chapter that he used to review books for Booklist and then he goes off on a tangent about star ratings and how not-helpful they are. Also, people will rate everything these days. Someone rated a bench in Amsterdam, for example, because it was a prop in the movie The Fault in our Stars. They gave the bench 3 stars and said in the review, "It is a bench." 

Green explains that we're living in the Anthropocene Era, a time that is dominated by humans, and humans lately, aren't doing such a great job. (Green was writing this book at the beginning of the pandemic. He's an anxious person and one of his greatest fears used to be pandemics. At the beginning of the lockdown, which he thought would last a few weeks, he bought 60 cans of Diet Dr Pepper, his favorite drink, and told his brother Hank he was prepared. His brother laughed and said, "For someone who has spent four decades worrying about disease pandemics, you sure don't understand how disease pandemics work.")

The book is a collection of essays on random topics that Green reviews and rates. Canadian geese, the Indianapolis 500, CNN, Piggly Wiggly, Googling Strangers and Auld Lang Syne are just a few. Each essay is short, funny and sometimes not-so-funny, with Green's observations about people and the strange and awful and beautiful things we do. 

There's footnotes and fun facts. And one essay made me burst into tears and feel great love for humanity. I give John Green's Anthropocene Reviewed 5 stars. 

What I watched: Ted Lasso 

This did not seem like a TV show I would like. My daughter told me about it and she said, I know you're thinking you won't like it, Mom, but you will. She was right on both counts. The show is about an American football coach, Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, who gets hired to coach a British football (soccer) team. Ted knows nothing about British football. He's a genuinely nice guy who is in way over his head. Classic fish out of water tale. 

Whenever I read a book or watch a TV show or movie, my brain immediately goes into storytelling mode and I can see the structure behind it. How the characters and plot are set up. What the conflicts are going to be. How the whole thing will probably turn out. Ted Lasso seemed like an easy one. 

But I was wrong on basically everything, and wrong in ways that I love. We know, for example, that there's got to be a reason why Ted was hired to coach a sport he knows nothing about. The answer is clear in episode one. The team owner Rebecca Welton, played by Hannah Waddingham, is recently divorced and bitter. The team was her ex-husband's baby, but now it's hers. What better way to get revenge on the ex than to hire a ding-dong American to destroy what the ex loves? 

My brain immediately imagined the entire series from this point on. Ted would be eager to learn and help and Rebecca would thwart his every move, sabotaging all of his efforts and hurting the team. But this is NOT what happens. Only a few episodes in, I loved Rebecca, who's a much more complicated and multi-layered person than "bitter ex-wife." 

It's the same with all of the characters in this show and all in unexpected ways. Nice guy Ted has some demons, and not the ones you think. There's an arrogant soccer player, the groupie-ish model girlfriend, the old cranky soccer player who should retire but isn't ready to quit playing yet. All of these people turn out to be just as interesting as Ted and Rebecca. 

Now, I've just started watching season two, and have no idea what's going to happen to any of these people but I love it and I love them. I give Ted Lasso 5 stars. 

What I grew: 

Yellow squash and green beans and so many tomatoes that I can't make enough spaghetti sauce and salsas and caprese salads to keep up with them. Basil and ginger (a plant I bought at the farmer's market but now am unclear about when I should harvest it) and ditto, the fennel, which I have never grown before, but it looks so lovely and feathery that I'm not sure I want to pick it at all. 

Black-eyed Susans in the back flower beds and some mystery flower that I planted from seeds my father-in-law gave me, but now it's about to bloom and I had no idea what it was, exactly, that I had planted. A friend took a look and said Datura. Now that I think about it, my father-in-law called them moonflowers, which is one of the common names of Datura. Also, if you want to go down a fun rabbit hole into strange plants, take a look at the Datura entry on Wikipedia. 

(One example: "All species of Datura are poisonous and potentially psychoactive, especially their seeds and flowers, which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, fever, delirium, hallucinations, anticholinergic syndrome, psychosis, and even death if taken internally. Due to their effects and symptoms, they have occasionally been used not only as poisons, but also as hallucinogens by various groups throughout history.") 

Datura. It's gorgeous, but don't smoke it. Unless you want to die. 

Also, cleome and Mexican sunflowers in the hellstrip, the sunflowers now taller than I am and possibly breaking some city ordinance about how high things can grow in front of your house, but I don't care. The people walking by seem to enjoy them and God knows the dogs do.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Stinkhorns in the garden

Virus cases are rising and I have a weird smelly orange fungus growing in my backyard. First thing in the morning I head out into my herb garden how I always do and there it is, poking up between the oregano and the marigolds. It wasn't there yesterday. And now suddenly, boom! the size and shape of a carrot. But if the carrot was playing a part in a horror movie. 

We're back to wearing masks at work. Required for the employees, "recommended" for patrons. We used to say "Masks Appreciated." Do our patrons notice the change of wording? Someone has a fit at the desk, not about masks, but over our refusal to allow her to check out items on another person's library card. She raises her voice and calls someone on her phone and yells about how stupid the library is being. My co-worker talks her down. Crisis, for the moment, averted. But I have to leave the desk, compose myself in the circ room. 

Back in the garden I look up "weird smelly orange tuber fungus" on my phone and find this: 

If it smells like putrid, rotting meat, you're probably dealing with stinkhorn mushrooms.

It's not a big deal, according to the article, won't hurt your other plants or your pets. But you may want to close your windows... 

It does smell bad. Really bad. I am not exaggerating when I say that I feel personally and viscerally attacked by this thing. And what an unwelcome surprise. Only a few weeks ago my husband and I were on vacation with friends. We had one of the best meals of our lives, inside a restaurant, waited on by masked servers. After dinner one of them led us out onto the patio. 

I was so stuffed from the food, I couldn't even think about dessert, but the waitress talked me into an after dinner drink. It tasted like a toasted almond bar. Twinkly lights hung in the trees around the patio. We admired stone hand chairs in the nearby garden. Clinked glasses and dug into the same dessert plates. Maybe we had passed the worst of it, we said to each other. Maybe we made it through to the other side of this plague unscathed. 

The plexiglass partitions came down from around the library desks. At the grocery store you could walk in any direction you wanted in the aisles. But then, just like that, boom! The virus cases in the state doubled. Tripled. Cars line up outside the emergency room drop off as I drive past the hospital on my way to work. 

I'm writing another rom-com, even though I feel the opposite of rom-my and com-my. Still, every day when I descend into the world I created, I can make myself smile. These people love each other, even if they don't know it yet. It's a zany place where they live and there are all kinds of seemingly unsurmountable problems, but nothing that can't be solved over the course of 75,000 words. 

I don't know what to do about the stinkhorn. The article says it may be beneficial to the garden soil. On the other hand, there's the putrid rotting meat smell that attracts flies. This is a no-brainer. I dig it up and bury it in the trash. 

*TRIGGER WARNING (you may not want to look at this stinkhorn)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Where's my fork?

Up the street in my neighborhood they were having an Irish folk band and a food truck. I told my husband we should go. It'll be fun, I said. A chance to meet more of our neighbors. Plus, don't forget the food truck. 

My husband has a Thing about food trucks. The thing is called He Loves Food Trucks. A few years ago we were in a rut and made a plan to do more cultural activities around the city. We visited museums and went on walking tours of historic neighborhoods and strolled around at various festivals. But the real selling point for this plan was the city's annual Food Truck Festival. Did this count as a cultural activity? 

Yes, said my husband. 

It was 90 degrees when we were supposed to leave the house to walk up the street to hear the Irish band. Suddenly, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. I was trying to picture myself sitting with a bunch of strangers and making small talk. For all of my adult life, I've been a fairly decent small-talker, but lately (the pandemic?) my old shy introverted childhood self has reasserted itself. My social skills feel rusty. Do we like Irish folk music? I asked my husband. Do we really want to sit outside in this heat?

He just looked at me. He was already walking out the door. "Food truck," he said over his shoulder.

The band was playing as we approached. People we didn't know had set up lawn chairs all over the green. We had only brought a blanket. We didn't spread it out yet. We headed straight to the food truck. There were only a couple people in line and I felt perked up by my husband's enthusiasm. We could do this! Get some food. Listen to Irish folk music. Mill around with a bunch of strangers. 

I don't know anything about food truck operation. Except what I have learned from watching the cooking competition show Master Chef. But this turns out to be quite a lot, because it quickly became apparent that this truck was not going to be giving us food any time soon. 

First, there was only one guy inside. He was taking orders on a notebook page. He took our order and our money and didn't ask for our names. It'll be about 25 minutes, he told us, and then he went on to the next person in line. He wasn't cooking anything. No one on the green seemed to be eating. How are we going to know when our food is ready? I whispered to my husband. He shrugged, but I could tell he was nervous.  

The Irish band singer was making jokes about the British penal system. More and more people were setting themselves up in their lawn chairs on the green. More and more people were streaming over to order food from the food truck. No food was being prepared. 

The Irish singer was making jokes about the Australian penal system. The music was catchy and people were clapping along. I talked to a lady I recognized and told her haltingly how much I admired her garden. I felt like I was in sixth grade again, stammering to a crush. Meanwhile, my husband was growing hangrier, threatening to order a pizza and have it delivered to our blanket. A lady in the hungry, sweltering crowd volunteered to help the lone guy in the food truck.

Under her management the new system seemed to be: go up and ask for your food and the guy will make it for you now. My husband and I went up to the food truck to participate in this new system. The volunteer lady, no offense, was not a good expediter, struggling to read the guy's writing on his notebook pages. The people waiting were varying degrees of annoyed and amused. 

We were all clearly in the same boat, waiting for our food, hot and sweaty, but not nearly as hot and sweaty as the guy in the food truck and the saintly volunteer lady. 

A woman strode up, clearly teed off. All I ordered was a salad! she said to the volunteer lady. 

Turns out, her salad had been sitting there all along. The lady handed it to the woman and the woman handed it right back. Forget it, she said. I don't want it anymore. 

The volunteer lady looked flustered. We can make you another one, she said. Behind her, the guy manning the food truck, was throwing a salad together, but the woman had already stomped away. The volunteer lady held the new salad out, confused about what to do next. I wanted to tell her that I could give her some good customer service tips from all of my Master Chef viewing. Instead, I took the salad. 

I know where she went, I said. I'll take her the salad. 

I wound through the crowd. The green was filled with people I didn't know. Older couples and young families. Kids running around or strapped to people's chests. The Irish band singer was talking about the penal system in England again. Someone had put up a baby pool with ice and was setting bottles of water into it. 

I found the woman who'd ordered the salad. They made this for you, I said. 

She scowled at me and grumped, But where's my fork? 

Instantly, I was catapulted back to my high school and college and graduate school waitressing days. Back then, I admit my customer service was uneven. I might be nice to you, but if you caught me on a bad day, I might burst into tears or tell you to F off. This was because, back then, I did not know the secret to all customer service interactions. 

The secret is IT'S NOT PERSONAL.  

I started laughing. I couldn't help it. The woman's rudeness was extraordinary, but it was also absurd. I smiled at her and said, Would you like me to get a fork for you? She nodded and off I went back through the crowd. 

One fork, please! I said brightly to the volunteer-not-great-expediter-and-yet-saintly lady. 

I carried the fork back to the scowling woman, who while she did not apologize to me, did say Thank you. Which I took as a win. Maybe we are all a little rusty with our social skills these days. 

When I relayed this story to a friend later, he told me that whenever he's in a situation like this, he wonders if he's involved in some secret psychological experiment and any moment the lights will come on and we'll see the cameras and audience and know that we're being watched and judged on our treatment of our fellow humans. 

It's a fun thought. 

But this was just normal every day life and not an experiment. So I went back through the clapping and chattering crowd, over to the blanket where my husband was unwrapping our food truck items. 

Only one and a half hours after we'd ordered, but the food was delicious and the company was lovely. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

George Washington Bathed Here (or so the sign says)

but I only dip my feet in. Okay, I climb in fully clothed. I don't know what I am thinking. Okay, I do know what I am thinking. It's a joy thing and lately I am trying to do more joy things. Which all lines up perfectly when my husband and I go on vacation to Berkeley Springs, West Virginia with another couple, our longtime friends. 

Those two climbed into the water too. But this was earlier in the day and they were wearing bathing suits. My husband and I chickened out. Later, after a nice dinner and two refreshing grapefruit martinis, we decide when we walk past the healing springs area of the park, we're going in.

We also climb into what basically amounts to a hole in the ground and sink down to our necks. It's really nice. 

Other joy things:

A stroll through all the shops in town and one of them has these Himalayan Sound Bowls and what you do is hold the stick like a pencil and run it around the rim to make a lovely sound, but I can't get it to make the lovely sound. But the shopkeeper is patient with me and tells me to be calm and focus, and sure enough, the sound comes forth, building and building, from outside the bowl and inside, filling up the entire store. 

Later I bring the bowl with me to the springs and call forth the sound there too, feet dangling in the cool water. This is a thing people do in Berkeley Springs. Not the Sound Bowls but the dangling of the feet. There's a canal that cuts through the center of town. Natural mineral springs flow out at 1000 gallons per minute at 74.3 degrees, and over the years, (after George Washington allegedly bathed here) they made multiple bathhouses and spas and a swimming pool and drinking fountains and spigots where you can fill up gallon jugs.

We take a long hike up a mountain and maybe it's drinking all of the healing water, but all of us make it to the top, a steep incline for 1.5 miles and then an equally steep descent. We have been friends with this couple for over twenty years, meeting when we lived (briefly) in the same town and our oldest sons were in pre-school together. This was multiple towns ago but we've kept our friendship going, even as we moved farther away geographically and all the kids grew up. 

This is a testament to my friend Deb, who always reached out over the years and planned outings, and some years, all my husband and I had to do was show up. Which turns out may be the secret behind a friendship that lasts more than twenty years. 

We walk through a tunnel and joke about the light at the end of it. It's a long tunnel and the light at the end doesn't seem to be getting any closer and I try not to have a panic attack in the middle or think about how once we make it through, we will have to turn back around and go through again. It's weirdly exhilarating. 

I can't get enough of this healing water. Why didn't we know about this place when the kids were little? Oh, wouldn't they have loved tromping in the canal. Don't tell any of them but Deb is already planning future outings with the presently non-existent grandchildren.  

We eat delicious meals out each night at various restaurants in town, throwing caution to the wind about indoor dining and the highly contagious Delta Variant and who knows all of these strangers' vaccine statuses.  

We drink a cocktail on the front porch of the house where we're staying and talk about old times and what it was like living through a global pandemic and one night Deb hands out canvases so we can paint something if the inspiration hits us. 

I paint a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know if we have reached it yet, but this day, filled up with mineral water, feet pruny and tingling from multiple danglings, and surrounded by people I love, I'm happy right where I am.