Category Archives: Goals

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I

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My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.

Girls Growing Up

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Dear diary.

Dear diary.

If it weren’t a sin to make additions to the Bible, I’d probably implore the folks at Zondervan to include a verse that reads something like: Woe unto the adult woman who happens upon her junior high diaries and reads them, for she will be sorely mortified.

 

I found the red calico receptacle of my seventh-through-twelfth-grade thoughts on the bookshelves while I was back home in Indiana babysitting Mac the Wonder Scottie. I tucked it into my suitcase before I returned to Seattle, anxious to see what messages I had had for Future Beth. Because I had no such biblical warning and because I was a bookish girl who was overly concerned with grades and my future, I assumed that I would discover raw genius on the pages. I also suspected that early 1980s Beth had a clearer perspective on who her essential self was before she was shaped and twisted by the outside world. I settled in to read these nuggets of teen wisdom with anticipation.

 

Sadly, what I discovered was that aside from having truly atrocious handwriting, the only thing in my head was apparently boys. Pages and pages about my feelings for and the merits of this boy or that boy. Boys whose names no longer can bring an image to my mind. Boys I barely knew. Boys who likely didn’t know me at all. Sentence after sentence of heartfelt evaluation of the various boys in my school, in my youth group, boys I had known for all of 15 minutes when we were visiting family friends out of town. I had a vivid and completely imaginary romance with a mortician’s son from one of those trips. In one entry, I marveled that I had not gotten depressed when Mom and I went to the wedding of “S”—“S” was the son of a friend of my mothers who was about six years my senior and with whom I had never once had a single conversation. It is a mystery as to why it seemed likely his nuptials would have made me blue.

 

It was hard not to be retroactively disappointed in myself. Z suggested I should be kinder to the younger Beth because she was just behaving age appropriately, but it took me a good two days to get over the shock of realizing that I hadn’t been some writerly savant. I was no Anne Frank. No junior Virginia Woolf. No teenage girl Pepys. I sure wasn’t writing pages about my career dreams or my hopes (outside of boys) for the future, which disturbs me greatly because I know in 7th and 8th grade I was obsessed with getting a 4.0 GPA, I learned to play string bass because the orchestra had no bass player, I took piano lessons, played a flute, loved art, read, thought regularly about college, and wanted to know everything about the world and the people in it. But none of that is recorded. No one would ever know from the evidence before them in the red calico journal that I had a brain in my head or aspirations beyond convincing the boy I liked to like me back instead of hitting me on the arm so hard I’d have bruises.

 

(What was that about? Who was I then that I’d let a guy sock me in the arm and not flatten him. I blame his dreamy blue eyes but am thankful that after about three weeks of the daily arm slug, I determined that he “wasn’t really the guy for me.” Ya think?)

 

The whole time I was reading my journal, I kept texting my oldest friend, Leibovitz, to tell her what 1980something me was concerned about, what she’d been up to, who was annoying us in 7th grade.

 

“You just danced with J.T!” I’d text, to which she would reply, “Oh, don’t remind me.”

 

Possibly, my texts were annoying. Her oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school but I was so immersed into the early 1980s–wondering if I’d be more appealing to the boy of the week if I asked for a pair of Bass Weejuns for Christmas—that I couldn’t even fathom a Little Leibovitz existed at all, let alone talk coherently about her high school graduation. It was as if the last thirty odd years never happened (and it may explain why this weekend I bought a pair of Tom Mcan tasseled mocs for $12.99 on a K-mart clearance rack even though, my mother pointed out, I made fun of her for wearing the same in 1998). I did not need a DeLorean to go back to the future; I was wedged in it.

 

Plus, I admit, I did not like the way Little Leibovitz had recently made me feel ancient. While I’d been home, I took her out to dinner—something I did more regularly when she and her sister were little and I was still living in Indiana. She’s beautiful and seems supremely confident in ways I could not have mustered at her age (or now). Maybe she doesn’t feel like she has the world on a string, but it seems like she does. We chatted about school and her summer and college plans. After we were finished eating, I offered to take her out for dessert or to the mall or something. She shook her head and said no thanks, and then it hit me: Little Leibovitz had been humoring me. She didn’t need me to drive her around town: she has her own car, a rich collection of friends, a busy social life. My offering of taco chips and boring old-people questions about her future plans was not the draw it might have been a decade ago.

 

The thought of her in a cap and gown made me feel old and I wanted to keep on feeling like I’d just seen Urban Cowboy for the first time. (One advantage to not having children of your own is that you can more easily live with the delusion that you are ageless.)

 

A few days after reading my journals, I started reframing what I’d read there. Yes, I did talk obsessively about boys, but on a second thought, it was not random, mindless chatter. I was analyzing and evaluating them like I was a detective or a zoologist: what were the subject’s good qualities? Bad qualities? Did those qualities mesh with mine? What was the likelihood of our future contentment? I was picky and dis-inclined to flirt. As my detecting progressed, I moved more quickly reached the “not the guy for me” evaluation and moved on. I seemed to know exactly the sort of person I wanted in my life and I was willing to wait for him. Which is a good thing since it took Z a few plane rides and three decades to arrive on the scene.

 

If I had the superpower of time travel, I’d put a Post-It in that diary for 12-year-old Beth to read that said something like, “Honey, calm down. It’s going to be a few years before you find the right one. Why not jot down some current events while you wait?”

 

 

I'm certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

I’m certain my dog-eared copy of _The Preppy Handbook_ did not allow for shoes from K-mart.

 

 

Flashback Friday: Bridget Jones in Middle Earth

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

[I’m finding this installment from yesteryear absent a lot of details re: the hows and whys of love. Keep in mind, 2006 Beth had no idea how this story would play out and feared she’d jinx it by oversharing.]

On the way home from Seattle, I started channeling Bridget Jones. It was the only way I could process what had taken place in the previous 24 hours. My Bridget Jones voice went something like this:
Hooray! Am walking through airport, talking on cell phone to actual boyfriend in manner of normal person. Have become person typically despised by solo, singleton travelers—standing still on moveable sidewalk thingy blocking passage to others because so busy talking to boyfriend about important boyfriend things like where his pictures have been hung and what he had for lunch and how my flight was. Hooray. Am part of couple. No longer destined to be spinster, eaten by own dogs. Joy!

Boyfriend? you ask. Yes. It sounds strange to me as well.

In light of my previous post, I don’t really expect you to believe me when I say I wasn’t looking for love. It’s true, but if I were you, I wouldn’t believe me. I’d given up on this man. When I met Z five years ago I drove straight to my oldest friend’s house and said, “I just met the man I’m going to marry.” I meant it, sincerely, though it was a statement I knew I could revoke later when I found out he was gay, had a secret wife in Zimbabwe, or was an axe murderer. But for the record, those words did come out of my mouth the night I met him at a faculty party and thus began a five year journey of love and heartache, 99% of which took place only in my own head and in late night phone calls to friends who care about me and didn’t want to see me miserable. If I’d taken the advice in that awful He’s Just Not That Into You book, I wouldn’t have been walking thru the airport, talking on the cell. To my boyfriend.

It is true I shaved my legs and moisturized before I went to visit him. I bought new underwear. So an argument could be made that I knew, but I did not know anything. I told people at home I was going to Seattle to seduce him, but there was no chance of it happening and my friends knew it. I have the seduction skills of an otter, and I have been making the same claims for the five years I’ve known him with no headway. He was a fortress; my love crashed against his foundations without making so much as a chink. He would remain on his egg crate mattress in the living room. The end.

Only, maybe not. It turns out my ridiculous, ill-advised love and devotion to a man who showed no signs of any interest beyond friendship was wearing away his resolve. It turns out I’m now in a relationship. It turns out I have everything I’ve wanted.

I am happy. I couldn’t be happier. I had, however, forgotten about how approximately three minutes after a man confesses his feelings for you, girl brain kicks in. Girl brain has made it impossible for me to really enjoy my happiness. I can’t concentrate on teaching or grading or committee work. My mother tells me stories and I hear the capital letter at the beginning of the opening sentence and the period at the end of the final one, and that’s it. Meanwhile, Z is in his office, plugging away at work, functioning like a grown-up person, and I have become Sibyl, with at least five distinct personalities, two of whom are normal, functioning adult women and three of whom are different variations on the most anxiety-ridden girlies in all of Christendom.

One minute I am Realistic Feminist Woman (“This is good. Let’s see what happens!”). The next minute I am High School Chick who, in lieu of planning her prom, has turned to thinking about what dishes she and the object of her desire might eat off of one day in some shared living space. [FYI, brightly colored Fiestaware.] Three minutes in I am Anxious Lady (“Why hasn’t he called? Has he been hit by a car or mugged? He’s all alone in Seattle! How will the medical authorities know to call me and tell me his fate?”), and then from there it is an easy slide into Catastrophe Girl (“That’s it! He’s changed his mind! He’s decided he made a horrible mistake,”), and with a little luck, I waft into my Faithful self, who sings two or three choruses of “It is Well with My Soul” and who, for fifteen minute increments, can actually think about other things like the war and whether she should worry about the trans fat in crackers because she believes so completely in this new thing.

But it is hard. There are grooves of disappointment etched so deeply in my brain from previous experience that I am waiting to hear the thud of the other shoe dropping. The long distance nature of this relationship contributes to this. Is he coming here for Thanksgiving? Is he annoyed that I left two personal item thingies in his very orderly, minimalist apartment? Did he wake up Monday and see all the other, hotter women who might have been available to him if only he weren’t tied to me, the Old Ball and Chain? When I suggested a January visit was he just being polite when he said it sounded like a good idea?

On at least six separate occasions I have nearly called him and told him I need more feedback, more reassurance, more love. Despite the fact that a week and a half ago I was a semi-confident creature who was not dependent on anyone else for happiness or sense of self, I now feel like Gollum in Lord of the Rings. I feel greedy and like a bottomless pit of need. I have no doubt that Z can sense me, standing in the dark, rubbing my slimy hands together, and saying, “Precious….”

How sexy is that? I suppose if Z were one of those Lord of the Rings nuts, it might be kind of a turn on, and if the other shoe does drop (please God, no), then perhaps I can find a Middle Earth dating service and search for a man who finds Gollum dead sexy.

This is a sad state of affairs when you begin your blog with Bridget Jones and end it with Gollum . I need to re-channel Bridget. She’s surely not too far out of reach.

Am happy in manner of happy, confident person. Have found perfect love with handsome, international man of mystery. Will be ravished by him soon.

Yes, that’s better.

Precious.

 

Flashback Friday: The Rules of Engagement

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Monday, October 16, 2006

[It’s worth noting that when this entry was written my life was about to change in a big, surprising Zimbabwean way in less than ten days. Tune in next Friday for more in the saga of Z and Beth’s Love: The Early Years.]

I’ve been thinking about the rules of attracting a mate lately. You know the ones. Some are probably holdovers from the days of courtly love. I’m talking about the ones no one really teaches us, but we can quote them more quickly and accurately than we can the First Amendment or the Ten Commandments. (Pick your politics.) They are:

1) Love comes when you least expect it.
2) Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
3) You must love yourself before love will find you.
4) Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?

There are variations of the above but all fit comfortably in one of the four above groups. For instance, if you’ve read enough self-help books or watched movies like Runaway Bride, you’ll recognize a combination of one and three. That is, you might love someone, but until you quit being devoted to your idea of love of them and learn to make hideous lampshade art on your own like Julia Roberts almost always does in whatever movie she is in, you will not find true love. A variation of four that I prefer because I am mildly lactose intolerant is that you must withhold your love if you expect the object of your affection to return your warm feelings.

I’ve followed most of these rules, off and on, with some regularity, and I can’t say that any of them work. For me. That’s fine. Single is okay, so don’t think this is a blog of self-pity. It is not. For instance, I had a flash last night of all the horrible décor I’d be forced to live with if some of my former loves had come to a point of cohabitation: dogs playing poker, posters of Johnny Cash, farm implements as art, eagle blankets as window treatments….

It annoys me when people explain their newly found love by relying on these platitudes, usually because they are not true. You cannot believe anyone who says they weren’t looking for or expecting love. They were. Okay. They were. We all are. If you are between the ages of 12 and dead and you spend more than 15 minutes a day watching television or listening to non-talk radio, then you are expecting at some time to be “surprised” by love. If you weren’t expecting to be surprised by love, you wouldn’t have the good underwear and you would never shave your legs. Don’t kid yourself and don’t try to kid me. You might not have been expecting it today between 12:00 and 12:15, but you were expecting it eventually.

What annoys me even more than this, though, is when someone willingly breaks one of these rules and finds true love in spite of the rule breakage. For instance, I know a woman who loved a man who did not love her back, even though they had a steamy sex life. By all accounting with Price Waterhouse, this relationship was doomed, she was being used, he would never respect her, and thus she would never win his love, no matter what acrobatics were involved. It’s the cautionary tale every young girl hears from her mother or Sunday school teacher. Yet after a year of this FREE and FLAGRANT milk giving, the guy realized he loved her and couldn’t live without her. They are now married and have matching tattoos celebrating their love.

When you have been a rule follower your whole life, this is one of the jaggedest little pills to have to swallow: rule breakers win; rule breakers do not necessarily go straight to hell. (Though this is a young marriage, and so the verdict is still out on that one. Hell has many manifestations.)
What is the MOST annoying, however, is when someone willfully breaks the rules but presents her story of love as if she were adhering to the above. Recently, my mother befriended the wife of the first boy I loved, grades K thru 3. He was cute, smart, skilled at kickball, and was regularly awarded the title of “Good Citizen.” His wife (an excellent and good person by all accounts) tells the story of how she was not interested in dating anyone and told the friends who set her up with him that she wasn’t. She told him she wasn’t interested in him repeatedly on that first non-date, and three days later she moved in with him and they’ve been blissfully happy ever since. She followed those rules of courtly love and rejected him multiple times, but still, she went on the non-date. Still, she answered the phone after the non-date when he was calling to tell her he wanted to see her again. And when, later that same night, he drove through the country looking for her house so he could kiss her soundly and show her that there was something between them, she told him where to find her driveway.

So, at cocktail parties, she can tell people that she wasn’t looking for love and in fact discouraged love, but even so, she gave it directions.

My luck with absence making the heart grow fonder has been no better. It can make the heart grow fonder, but only in people who weren’t into you enough in the first place to realize they should stay put. Them joining the military and then realizing they really miss you is not really a testament to how lovable you are so much as it is a testament to how miserable it is in a desert. Or Duluth. People have had good, long marriages based on this absent, fond heart mythology, so perhaps I should not judge it so harshly. But I do, primarily because I am the kind of person who feels that the separation by just a two- mile stretch of road is too great. I do not need to go to Duluth to realize I am in love.

Also, statistically speaking, what absence does is make people unfaithful. They’re lonely, Van Morrison gets played on the jukebox, and they bump up against another lonely some body.

Am I too cynical? Bitter? Frustrated? A case could be built for any of these. But I don’t think so. I’m just wondering, that’s all. How is it that other people know when to follow the rules, when to break them, when to break them but pretend they didn’t? How is that whatever I do seems like exactly the wrong thing to do, but then if I switch to the exact opposite tactic, it immediately seems like the inferior one?

These are rhetorical questions, you understand. I’m beginning to suspect the truth is that no one knows anything, and the platitudes we rely on and untruths we tell are simply needed because it is an unbearable thought that our lives and loves are a crapshoot, that it is, at it’s very basest level, just an issue of timing: who was available at 12:15 on a Monday afternoon.

No, this version is even less satisfying than the lies. I find myself once again in the precarious position of needing to quote Fleetwood Mac: Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.

 

 

Grab the Badges and Run

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I didn’t enjoy much about Girl Scouts. I liked the idea of the organization, the wholesome history of it, the biography of founder Juliette Gordon Lowe, the goodness implicit with being a Girl Scout, the uniform, the abstract idea of community. But in truth, I was too independent to function happily in a group. I found the other scouts and scout leaders to be “not my kind of people,” I looked bad in that shade of green and always felt as if parts of me were going to come bursting out of the buttons. I might have still been a girl when I was in Girl Scouts, but my body was a few years ahead of itself, so I looked like someone dressing up for Halloween more than a legitimate ten year old.

 

I never felt legitimate.

 

Frankly, I hated the outdoors, which might make one question why I had chosen this extracurricular activity for myself. Let me tell you: I was a badge whore. I loved the badge guidebook. I loved ticking items off the badge to-do list and earning yet another badge for my sash. My troop leader, an odd bird with old-timey glasses (now trendy again), told us once about a girl who had earned all of the badges. My troop leader felt it was ridiculous because it didn’t really demonstrate dedication to a single particular area and she felt the time it would take to earn those badges could be better spent living a life, but I thought the notion of earning all the badges was the equivalent of becoming Miss Teen USA. I wanted them all myself even though there were ones I never could have earned because they involved sports or extended camping or being gregarious.

 

Even then I was desperate to be a well-rounded person, though in my mind, well-rounded meant “knowledge about X” and not “experience doing X”, a problem I’ve continued to have into adulthood.

 

Oh, how I coveted those green, quarter-sized badges with activities embroidered on them that symbolized some possible accomplishment. In my thirties, I found my sash and badge book and was bitter that I couldn’t keep adding to the list as an adult. (I could easily earn a photography badge now for instance—I own multiple cameras and have an Instagram account.) Just by looking at the badges I had acquired in the late 1970s, I could see that I was preparing myself for a certain kind of life that hasn’t yet panned out. For instance, I have two different cooking-type badges even though I spend every night waiting for Z to serve me my supper like I’m some sort of princess. (The one time I tried to make him pancakes, they rolled right off of our new griddle and onto the floor. He’s the cook in the house.) Despite having a sewing badge, it was my mother who always sewed the badges onto my sash. She just did it so much better than I could, and I wanted it to look good.

 

We would occasionally get patches for something like the Spring Fling that we were supposed to put on the back of our sashes, but I wasn’t interested in patches. Anyone could get handed one of those who spent a Saturday attending some stupid gathering of Girl Scouts. To my mind, they just took up space where earned badges should go.

 

Aside from the badges, I also loved the system and symbolism in scouting. I loved that there was an actual guide about how to live your life well. And I remember in detail watching a Brownie ceremony when they got twirled around and had to look into a mirror before they “flew up” to junior scouts. I hadn’t been a Brownie, and I was bitter that I was now too old for the full experience. After being a junior scout, I wanted to be a cadet and then a senior scout, but even in my deluded, badge-lust state, I knew I wouldn’t last that long. Five days at Camp Wapi Kamigi nearly killed me. Beyond my dislike of camping, though, was my dislike of socializing with strangers, and even with people who I knew marginally. I loathed it.

 

One of my great early joys was an overnight (with mothers), and the next morning Mom nor I could face the idea of an entire day spent putting on stupid skits or talking about ways to increase troop revenue. I feigned a stomachache as soon as we woke up, and the two of us zipped down the tree-lined canopy of the camp like bandits, giddy with our own escape. On the way home, we stopped at McDonald’s and got Egg McMuffins and a cinnamon Danish, and if you asked, I could describe, bite for delicious bite. It all tasted like freedom.

 

And as a side note, this is one of the things I love most about the childhood I got to have: I had a cool mother who knew who I was and what was and wasn’t important. Spending a tedious afternoon with those earnest Girl Scouts and their earnest mothers was not going to make me a better person. It was not going to build character. It was just going to make me (us) really miserable.

 

I wish I’d known then about personality types. About introverts and extraverts and INFPs and the Enneagram and how kids from single parent homes maybe saw things differently than “normal” kids. I wish I could have realized that this day of declared independence with Mom was the right path for me and the other days—of which there were so many more—when I tried to contort myself into a box someone else had created for me were the anomalies.

 

I wish I’d known it was okay to hate schilling Girl Scout cookies. That as an adult I’d make a pledge that my children (imaginary) would never sell anything for any organization until they were adults and could make decisions on their own about how they felt about capitalism. (My imaginary children are very gifted in the arts, but they do not have the skill set to understand things like political theories or when they and their band uniforms are being used to make money for larger corporations.) My face still turns red when I remember asking my paternal grandparents to buy a Girl Scout calendar from me. I knew they didn’t want one. They traveled the country in a tiny Airstream trailer that lacked excess wall space, plus even if there were calendar room, why would two retirees want to spend an entire year looking at photos of girls they were not related to doing activities that the Girl Scout they were related to hated doing? Still, I asked. I had to sell some calendars. So I asked them, as well as my maternal grandparents who I had fewer qualms about asking because I knew they would just fork over the $5 and wouldn’t expect me to really demonstrate any marketing prowess. God bless them for that.

 

I suspect children inherently know what is right and what isn’t right for them, but grown-ups are forever trying to get them to do the thing that is counter to their own sense of rightness: eat the vegetables, talk to certain safe strangers, play the sport, the instrument, the party piece… Some kids try to be good and acquiesce. Some stick to their stubborn guns. I always felt caught in the middle. It was constantly a war inside me, wanting to give the adults what they wanted all the while telling them I had drawn a line in the sand that I wouldn’t cross: no broccoli, no camp-outs, no making friends with a girl who was acting a fool.

 

I’m still not sure which side won the war. I’m note even sure if the war is over. Maybe to be human is to house these warring factions inside yourself. Or maybe that is just what it is to be Beth.

 

I need to look at those badges I earned and see if they add up to me. Was I true to myself and the things I was interested in in 1977 or was I grasping at straws, at badges, at showing others I was a Renaissance girl? What I’m curious about now, as I remake my life is this: do I know who I am—as well as I think I knew myself then—and can I shape this second half into what I want? Should I try harder to put that cooking badge to use and give Z a night off?

 

Is there a badge for this kind of mid-life inquiry? There should be.

 

 

Flashback Friday: Little Brownstone on the Prairie

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[Oh, the irony of this post from eight years ago, particularly when bumped against the one from earlier this week.]

 15 July 2006

Last night I was feeling “troubled” about my silly life as I went to sleep, which is a fairly frequent occurrence. Usually the troubledness has to do with my age, my living situation, my marriage/partner/dating and motherhood status. Other things get factored in based on the latest magazine article I’ve read or Dateline exclusive I’ve watched. Last night, after messing with a picture shelf my mother and I were hanging above my desk and trying to figure out which of my 20 works of art I was going to hang on the little hunk of wall that is left in my room, I was feeling particularly freaky. I have friends who are bitter because their houses aren’t brand new and don’t have granite countertops or swimming pools or room for a home office, but all of them have managed to get more than four walls to hang things on.

 

This isn’t about some people being luckier or having more than me. I know if I wanted to make it a priority I could maybe get myself eight walls, so I’m not talking about jealousy here. If I wanted to give up the frequent flying and the handmade furniture and the Sundance catalog jewelry, I could buy a little house and hopefully have enough money left over to pay a boy (preferably a shirtless one) to come and do things for me like hang picture shelves. I could.

Anyhow, I woke up this morning, looked at all my stuffed-full bookshelves and realized, I’m living in a brownstone circa 1945. I always imagined living a writer’s life in a big city where I couldn’t afford anything but a bedsit so all of my worldly possessions would be in the one room, and for reasons that are unclear, I always imagined doing this in the post war era. And now I realize that’s what I’ve got. Only without the city, without radiators (thank you, Jesus), without loud neighbors, and without a book contract. I AM Helene Hanff. I am whatever the bookish sister’s name was in My Sister Eileen. I just can’t go walk my dog in Central Park (partly because I don’t have my own dog), and I still have not developed a taste for coffee and cigarettes, both of which figure prominently into my 1945 brownstone fantasy.

Also, in this fantasy, I have a throaty laugh and I know how to dance.

I really am amazed by people who figure out how to settle into a place. At almost 40, I’m still trying on locations for size. For instance, I now know I do not want to live in Aspen, even if I do become a billionaire. In fact, you can scratch ‘anywhere in Colorado’ and ‘the Rockies’ right off the list of possibilities. It’s gorgeous there. The quality of life is good. I understand the fervor of John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, but it is not my place in this world. There is too much sun and too many people happy to be outdoors, risking their lives on guardrail-less roads, in treacherous rapids, and while battling wildfires.

While I was at Aspen Summer Words, my friend Heather drove me up Independence Pass so I could see the Continental Divide. On the way up I told her how beautiful the landscape was and she said, “I know. When I see these mountains my heart just opens right up.” My heart wasn’t opening–not for those mountains–but I liked the emotion with which she spoke. It’s how I feel about the West of Ireland, Chicago, East Tennessee, London. There are places you belong and places you don’t belong and I live in fear that I’ll accidentally end up in a place where I don’t belong, where my heart not only won’t open up but instead will seize because of the ugliness or inhospitably of the people or landscape. For instance, the two hours I was waiting for my return flight from Phoenix, I kept thinking, “This is a dead place. People aren’t supposed to live here.” Yet people do. And some people love it. My grandparents loved it. But they sure didn’t pass those genes down to me. (Nor the genes that would make camping seem like a good idea, for that matter. Nor the ones that would make me good with money or able to cook.)

When I figure out how to get myself to 1940s Manhattan, I’ll let you know.

A Cure for the Simple Life

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When we got engaged, we looked at two-bedroom rentals within walking distance of campus because we needed more space than Z’s little 1920s one-bedroom apartment offered. With his three pieces of Craig’s List furniture and five batik wall hangings from Zimbabwe, the place looked spacious, but I come with a certain amount of baggage. I wasn’t prepared to begin a new life in a new city without my precious things: Amish-built furniture, objet d’art, childhood sock monkey, a herd of bulky Irish sweaters (too hot to wear in Seattle, fyi, but I like having them available should the weather take a turn), and the cloud of paper that follows me wherever I go, like Pig Pen’s dust. If we had stuffed all of my things into his apartment, we would have instantly been candidates for Hoarders: Newlywed Edition.

 

I loved Z’s apartment. Loved the woodwork and the big bank of windows overlooking a shady tree, how it felt to live smack in the middle of things, but most importantly, I loved its oldness, its crookedness, its sense of history. I imagined a bevy of nurses living here in the 1930s, walking to work at one of the many hospitals here on First Hill. I imagined what it might have been like for them to look out our windows and down to Elliott Bay, a sight we can’t see now because of a high rise full of partying youth that sits between us and the ferry-laden waters. It seemed like a simpler time, and I liked being in Z’s apartment pretending we would be living a simpler life together.

 

Neither of us are that strong at math, but when the apartment across the hall from his became available, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was cheaper to rent an entire bonus apartment in an old building whose only modern conveniences are electricity and running water than it was to rent one of those new, two-bedroom places with leather furniture and cappuccino machines in the lobby, triple-paned glass, walk-in closets, dishwashers, and personal washer-dryers that aren’t shared by the building’s inhabitants in a basement that some days smells like Satan’s backside. We decided immediately that the apartment across the hall would be a writing studio for me, a place to keep our newly acquired Kitchen-Aid mixer for our “baking center” (a use that had “failure” written on it before I ever tried my first batch of cookies—I’m not that strong a measurer, and it turns out a ring on a finger does not instantly make a woman domestically inclined), and guest quarters should family or friends decide to trek across the globe to see us. My only concern was that should Immigration Services ever get wind of our two-apartment lifestyle, they might make assumptions about our marriage that are untrue. (Though if they stopped by for tea and saw how often the bonus apartment is used as a storage facility, then they would believe! It is often nearly uninhabitable because of picnic gear, off-season clothing, stacks of finished books waiting to find homes, half-finished craft projects, and the other detritus of our life together. Plus Hudge parks her bike there when she rides over for a visit.)

 

The problem with having two living spaces separated by two locked doors is that often I simply forget to go to the other space. The apartment where we live our lives is like a Nest of Inertia, and I often find it nearly impossible to lift myself off the sofa and walk across the hall to write at my desk, as if there are 100 lb. weights holding me down. I have this idea in mind that if those locks did not exist, I would wake up every morning and skip across the hall, plop down at my desk, and write for a giddy eight hours before skipping back “home” to greet Z when he returns at the end of the day. Instead, I think about going to the studio. I think about the light I love and how much I want to be there at the desk, and still, I sit under the weight of the identical apartment that feels more like home. It seems lonelier in the studio that has less of Z in it, which makes no sense. Both apartments are empty—Z is at work. What’s more, I LOVE my writing space. I feel like myself—my pre-married self, my childhood self, the self I was before I was born—when I am at this desk, yet too many days I deny myself the joy of being here and instead curl up in a ball on my corner in the Nest of Inertia and write. Or worse, I don’t write and instead just think about writing and hate myself a little. Or even worse still, I don’t write, don’t think about writing, and instead, invent things to do that have nothing to do with writing at all, like reorganizing the cutlery drawer.

 

There is no time I like my writing studio more than when we have a house guest who takes up residence in it and so being in it to write is no longer a viable option for me. My brain becomes electric with ideas. My fingers physically ache to be on a keyboard that is sitting on my desk. The books that surround the desk suddenly feel like all the books I should be reading right this minute. I’m very nearly jealous of our guests because they “get” to live in a space that I have access to  every other day of my life but too often ignore. Their presence, perhaps, frees it from being a lonely place where I am meant to face myself on the page every day and suddenly becomes a vacation getaway, where my ideas suddenly seem 100% more creative. The guests sit on the sofa, and I sit in my desk chair, spinning around while we talk, noticing things on which my eyes would not even land if this were one of my solitary writing days.

 

Last week Belle was here, and we spent time in my studio talking about her latest poetry manuscript and the pile of papers I’m trying to turn into a memoir if only the fog would clear in my brain. While we talked, I spun and scanned like a cheeky six year old sitting in Daddy’s Office Chair, feet off the floor, twirling. The chair would slow and I’d zero in on a particular book I felt a need to steal away from Belle’s domain and drag back to my lair across the hall. One such book was one I bought exactly 24 hours after declaring to Z that I would never, with God as my witness, buy another self-help book again. It is called Simple Steps, and promises on the cover that in ten simple weeks you can gain complete control over your life. It joins a host of other books that promise peace of mind to the Highly Sensitive INFP #4 Child of Divorce who is also an Anxiety-Ridden, Meditative, Mystic Disorganized Writer with big plans to start and maintain an illustrated journal. But this one—only TEN weeks to a healthy, more organized, thinner, stronger, de-cluttered, spiritual lifestyle?–who wouldn’t want that?

 

I remember when I bought the book three years ago, Z just shook his head in amusement. Not only was I already back-peddling on my no-more-self-help-books proclamation, but we’d just gotten married and while Z knows I’m not perfect, he really does not understand why I’m constantly trying to change these inherent parts of my personality. I’ll never be particularly tidy. I’m never going to be the housekeeper my mother is. I’m always going to nod off when I try to meditate. Why can’t I just accept myself the way he does?

 

Who knows. Each self-help book is like a little bundle of hope about the person I could become.

 

Had I been alone in the studio when I re-found this as yet un-read book, what would have happened is I would have started another journal with the plan of changing my life. I would have spent the first week following the authors’ simple steps (Week #1: drink 64 ounces of water a day, walk 20 minutes a day, save $2 a day, and clean out a drawer a week, preferably at a time of day when you are hungriest so you won’t eat anything). Before the day was out, I would have felt exhausted and defeated by this simple list, probably while I was drinking a Coke, and sitting amidst the contents of a half-decluttered drawer.

 

But because Belle was here as witness—and because Belle is wise and knew from the title that this was not a good book for me—it became, instead, a hoot. I skimmed each chapter and would shout out the requirements of each of the remaining nine weeks of the “simple” program, and we’d poke fun at the ideas and howl. Each week added on another list of behaviors and activities to include with the previous weeks’ activities: keep a food journal, do isometric exercises as well as your walk, add another 20 minutes to your walk, work on your posture, do yoga, fix everything broken in your house, redecorate your house with stenciling, quit eating carbs, stretch, clean out your pantry. And my favorite after all of these activities, as if I’d have the energy or inclination: daily serenity time. When I closed the back cover, it was clear that the amount of pharmaceutical assistance I would need to accomplish all of these activities would be toxic, and I’m not convinced I would have had any time left over to bathe daily despite the section on cleansing routine and dental hygiene.

 

Simple my ass.

 

But, it has made my life in this set of little 1920s apartments seem a lot less complicated. Belle has gone home, sadly, but the studio is mine again. Week One: skip across the hall, unlock the door, write.

 

And P.S., other ways I’ve simplified my life include putting Simple Steps on the pile of books heading to Goodwill next time we rent a car.

 

 

 

 

Flashback Friday: Bridget Jones Has a Baby (and I Feel Fine)

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[Since this was written eight years ago, some attitudes have changed. Also, Helen Fielding has given us an installment wherein Bridget Jones becomes a mother, and from all reports, it isn’t pretty. I’ve refused to read it because I prefer the Bridget Jones of my late youth.]

Monday, May 29, 2006

It’s Memorial Day and I’m tired of thinking about the war dead, the high cost of crappy plastic cemetery flowers, and why it is everyone else I know has cookouts but I mostly have bowls of Fruit Loops.
So let’s talk about babies. It seems timely. The media can finally quit telling us that Baby Jolie-Pitt is about to be born, has been born, has been given the name of a Golden Retriever, has been made an honorary Namibian princess, etc. (The downside, of course, is that we’ll be back on Britney-watch.)

Also, in other celebrity baby news, it seems Helen Fielding, the author of _Bridget Jones’s Diary_, has just had her second child at 48. I like this story because it gives me almost a decade to  keep motherhood on the table. I keep a list of “older” mothers just in case–at some later date–I need a role model.

That said, today I visited a friend who recently had her first baby. A little over a year ago the two of us got together for the ballet and dinner, where she confessed that she was thinking of having a baby but she really wasn’t sure she wanted to, had never wanted kids, had never seen herself as a mother, etc. (I encouraged her, for the record. It seems like a thing you are supposed to do if you can.) Then about three weeks later she wrote that she was pregnant and so she guessed the decision had been made. Before Baby, we met in bars and talked about men and what we wanted to do with our lives. Today we met at Bob Evans. On the surface, she looked as fresh and well-organized as she always has, but something was off. She seemed scattered and a little unsure of herself. She kept apologizing. She confessed that she knows nothing about babies and so still has no idea if he is exceptional or below average in what he does, though what he does mostly is chew things and smile. She said that while she used to think about climbing the corporate ladder, she now suddenly wants a job where she can work less than 40 hours a week and wear comfortable shoes. I felt both sorry for her and a wickedly envious. There’s this cocoon around a mother and a new baby that third parties  can’t quite penetrate.

She’s younger than I am and I (being so very old and so very jaded) have lived through several of these get-togethers in the first six months of Baby’s life and it is wrist-slittingly tedious while the two of you try to re-navigate your friendship since you are no longer in the same boat…or floating on the same body of water. I’m sympathetic to how hard this transition must be for the parents. In fact, on a couple of occasions with close friends, I’ve enjoyed watching the transformation and hearing about the feeding schedule and quality of diaper contents and the features on the Bebecar Stroller (which costs more than my first vehicle) and how really, you just can’t be a GOOD parent without a Diaper Genie. I take mental notes so I can have rational discussions about things I know nothing about with whomever has the next baby. And maybe I take notes in case my ovaries are as hearty as Helen Fielding’s. Maybe.

I’ve always wanted to be one of those cool single people who “understands” the trials and tribulations of marriage and a childless one who totally “gets” what it is to be a mother, so admitting any of this is like blowing my own cover, but here it is: when friends have babies it totally sucks. At least it does in the early days because suddenly the glow of the spotlight shining on the baby is just wide enough to shine a bit on you and expose something you’ve never known before about your own life, which is this: it is silly and insignificant. I want to be clear: this has nothing to do with the mothers’ attitude. For instance, my friend today generously praised my writing and asked several questions about my life, but then when I went to tell her, the baby would coo or shake his stuffed cow and we would both stop mid-sentence and grin at him like a couple of idiots. She asked what I’d been up to, and nothing I’ve been up to seemed noteworthy. Perhaps if I was making scientific discoveries or brokering peace in the Middle East I wouldn’t feel this way, but mainly what I’ve been doing is eating Fruit Loops on Memorial Day and that hardly qualifies as news. I’ve been to Ireland. I’ve taught some classes. I’ve flirted with some men. But how can we discuss that when she so recently brought new life into the world and here it is sitting before us, filling its diaper?

We gave up after awhile. We made faces and weird sounds at the baby and assured each other regularly that he really is the most beautiful, smartest, and most cheerful baby ever. When I pulled away, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, his mother looked pained at the thought of the hour long drive she had in front of her.

I cranked up the Pearl Jam in my own car where there were no little eardrums to worry about, which is another kind of satisfying.

Getting in on the Ground Floor

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"Love & Loss," Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

“Love & Loss,” Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle

On the flight to Indiana, the woman sitting next to me asked me to watch a video about a company she works for because she felt like it could change my life. She was young, friendly, dressed to the nines, and I liked her watch, so I agreed. The product itself was intriguing—it was some sort of natural compound that has been scientifically proven (and even talked about on a network investigative news show) to improve health and longevity—but the point of the video was not to sell me the product so much as to sell me the company. Just as my brain was thinking, This is a pyramid scheme, the video said yes, this could be called a pyramid scheme, but then insisted that all business is a pyramid scheme with a CEO at the top raking in the big money and the peons at the ground floor doing the grunt work, and it was said so enthusiastically that I was momentarily forced to believe it was true and that I should get in on the ground floor. Everything is a pyramid scheme. Pyramids are awesome! Fortunately, my better sense prevailed (around the time Donny Osmond appeared on screen, though he was looking remarkably well-preserved) and I was able to muster up the courage to tell her I wasn’t interested. Pyramid schemes only work if you get in on the ground floor, and it was pretty clear to me that this pyramid was already 3/4 built.

She turned her attention to the guy sitting next to her. I spent the remainder of the flight bouncing between pity for a woman gullible enough to believe she’s going to become independently wealthy shilling snake oil, and pity for myself because I never can wholeheartedly buy in to a cause or a product or a belief system. I might attend services, but I never drink the Kool-Aid, and while some might say this is smart, what it really means is that I’m riddled with doubt on a lot of levels.

 

On the return flight to Seattle, I was relieved not to be sitting next to someone trying to sell me something. My seatmate looked like a high school senior and was expressing annoyance that the fleece she’d ordered hadn’t arrived in time for her trip. She told me she would be spending the next two weekends with friends, hiking around the Pacific Northwest, and during the week she’d be at a conference. She looked like maybe she was a dolphin trainer or something, so I was surprised when she told me she had an MBA from Carnegie-Mellon, lived in D.C., and did something that sounded vaguely important and international. I’d love to tell you what her job was, but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. She was speaking clearly and wasn’t using polysyllabic jargon, but the words that she strung together made no sense to me, and what’s more, I couldn’t get my brain to shut off while she was talking. Instead, inside my head was a roar, This is just a girl and she knows more about the world than you do. This girl is going places. This girl has a plan for her life.

 

She told me about this artist community in Mexico where she’d done an internship and where a lot of Americans emigrate, and my brain roared, This girl knows about a place you should know about but don’t. I asked where she’d done her undergraduate work, and it was a college that I’d considered for about 15 minutes when I was 15 before I knew about things like “out of state tuition”. I asked how she liked it, why she chose it, and she explained that she’d picked it solely because of its excellent intern program in D.C. because she knew she was interested in international business and the nation’s capitol would be a good place to do that. My brain roared, When you were thinking about that college, it was only because you liked the way the campus looked in the brochure photos. What’s wrong with you?

 

 

She wasn’t intimidating. She didn’t seem particularly wise. She asked me if I thought it was crazy that she’d come to Seattle without a raincoat or an umbrella. (Answer: duh, yes.) She was just a person, young enough to be my daughter probably, but full of information about the world that I don’t have. I was relieved when she plugged in her earphones  and started watching the in-flight movie, which was Spiderman, if for no other reason than so my brain would quit roaring at me.

 

It was a weird way to bookend my trip home. I went in feeling smarter than the posh, pyramid sales person, and I left feeling old and dumb (and pessimistic about a stranger’s choice of outerwear for nine days in the Pacific Northwest). As I walk around Seattle, where the average age is something like 30, I’m feeling past my prime and not nearly clever enough. I’m going to have to spend this first week back in the city Googling things like “Gen X” and “generational beliefs” and “multiple intelligences” and figuring out all the ways I’ve still got it going on.

 

Hopefully, after the research is in, I won’t come to the conclusion that I made an error in not signing up for a new career with Donnie Osmond and the anti-aging pyramid sales woman.

Flashback Friday: The Cheerleader and the Bookworm

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

 

Once a month when the bill is due, I go to the gym. I can’t say it does much for muscle tone or weight loss, but I am dedicated even though I don’t see results. Once a month. Like clock work. I go to the gym at 10:00. This is the perfect time to go because the only people who are there are usually older people who have either had strokes and are rehabilitating or older people who are healthy and trying to ward off the strokes. Nobody is there who looks like they’ll be on the next series of Real World in other words. There is no spandex or neon. The older people don’t really work the machines right. They do things in a lopsided fashion. I say this not to make fun of them but to point out that in order for me to feel good about the hour I sometimes spend in a gym requires me to be surrounded by people bent over with osteoporosis and propping themselves up with canes. I am not what you would call a natural.

When I was in high school, I was one of those girls who always had her nose stuck in a book and who was always the last one in from the mile run around the track in gym class. Because there were no books involved with gym, I considered it a waste of my time. I didn’t particularly like my body (though I would certainly like to have access to that version of myself again) and so tended towards maximum coverage in oversized Amy Grant sweatshirts and army jackets. Gay men loved me. Boys who read The Lord of the Rings found me a worthy enough companion.

On the other end of the mind/body spectrum was a girl, let’s call her Trixie, who wore her parachute pants so tight that little was left to the imagination. She was spoiled and cute with a horrible reputation though I was never clear if it was warranted or created by jealous girls and hopeful boys. She was just someone in general math and English classes whose wardrobe and body were enviable, who had gone out with a lot of different guys, and who had a contagious laugh. Also, she was a cheerleader.

Yesterday when I got the gym, there on the steppy-uppy machine I haven’t the stamina to use, was not one of the geriatric regulars, but Trixie, chewing gum, reading a celebrity gossip magazine, and talking to a trainer. She saw me and greeted me warmly, as she always does though we were never friends, and we talked about school and old acquaintances and life. She was sheepish because the last time I saw her was at a restaurant where her eleven-year-old son announced across the aisle separating us that she’d been married and divorced twice and that he and his brother had different fathers. This announcement caused her to clam up and me to eat the rest of my deep friend dinner in uncomfortable silence.

At the gym, we were able to laugh this off. Obviously, this is her domain. She effortlessly talked to me as she climbed an invisible K-2 while I huffed and puffed on the 0% incline of the treadmill. She told me how good her boys are—how they are so much better than she was. She said she wished I had a kid that would spill MY secrets to her in restaurants, and it struck me how sad it is that we humans go through our lives worrying about what other people think of us. Trixie thinks I sit in judgment of her because she’s been married twice, didn’t go to college, and knew how to have a good time. Meanwhile, I think Trixie is judging the size of my treadmilling backside, judging me for my lack of mate or children, and poverty of fashionable workout clothes.

Why do we torture ourselves this way? I allowed myself about 120 seconds of masochism (Why don’t I go to the gym more so I too can speak without huffing and puffing? Why don’t I wear something more attractive than my relaxi pants and “Guinness is Good for You” T-shirt?) and then forced myself to focus on her and what she is: a thing of beauty. Not just because she is firm or tan or has long blond hair or looks ten years younger than I do, but because she still cracks her gum and giggles and tells you she likes your shoes instead of mentioning how you look fatter or older or more single than you did in 1985.

As we were getting ready to leave, the trainer she had been talking to earlier was rubbing a kink out of her back. In six years of semi-irregular gym attendance, no trainer has bothered to smile at me let alone rub a kink out of any of my muscles, but here was Trixie, getting a post-workout backrub and telling the trainer that she thought perhaps she was so tense because she hadn’t had sex for so long.

Gum crack. Gigggle.