The Wait

Last week, I waited in line for an hour and a half to vote. Normally, I vote on Election Day. Voting early lacks drama and excitement to me. On Election Day, I go to my local senior citizen center. Even though it’s short, there’s usually someone in line I know. We make small talk and we both go vote, the process takes about 20 minutes. When I leave the booth there’s someone else I know and we say something about “civic duty” or “only place you get to see the neighbors,” the November versions of “Hot enough for you?” Then, on the way out, I chat with some residents of the center and I go about my day, with an extra dose of smugness that not only have I done my civic duty and seen friends and neighbors, but I’ve also done a good deed by visiting with the senior citizens.

This year, in 2020, waiting until Election Day did not feel like cheating, it felt like tempting fate. So, a friend and I made plans to meet at Village Hall. On a bright, but cold day, we masked up and waited in line for 90 minutes. We stood several feet apart and caught up with each other. I introduced her to another woman I knew in line. We texted with our teens and husbands. My friend had requested an absentee ballot, but decided to surrender it and vote in person instead. It felt better to her.

The line felt a little cold and a little festive. Not like waiting to buy concert tickets, but not like waiting at the DMV either.

When I arrived at the voting booth, I felt something else.

This was not the excitement of the first time I voted in 1988 (Dukakis). It was not the thrill of the first time I voted for someone who won (1992 Clinton). It was not the hopeful feeling of voting for Obama in 2008 or 2012. It was not the historic feeling of voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Voting for Biden in 2020 felt heavy and important. It felt like a vote that I needed to wait for 90 minutes to cast.

I have seen much longer lines to vote, here and around the world. I know people who have worked much harder to vote. An old friend, a man convicted for a juvenile crime, worked to have his voting rights restored and voted for the first time this year. Waiting for 90 minutes to vote for Joe Biden felt a little like penance, for not doing enough to prevent those lines, for assuming Trump wouldn’t win in 2016, for not doing enough to fight back against the world we’re in.

And now, we wait. We wait to see if our Democracy was saved. We wait to see if there’s any return to normalcy. We wait to see if the Bizzaro World genie can be put back in the bottle. Joe Biden was not my first, or even second, pick for the presidency. But I waited for 90 minutes to vote for him, and I’m glad I did.

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Tab: A Eulogy

This week brought news of the impending death of Tab. If you have never enjoyed a Tab it is hard to explain the cold, bubbly taste, at once both sweet and acrid. Imagine a Coke, with a tablespoon of vinegar thrown in. Take a pink packet of Sweet & Low, mix it with some actual sugar. That is the taste of my childhood.

Today’s “diet” and “lite” drinks all put the sweetness up front. If there is any bitterness it’s in the aftertaste. There was no aftertaste with Tab, the aftertaste WAS the taste. You could sense the saccharine from the first satisfying pop of the pull tab. The appeal wasn’t in the taste, the appeal was that when you drank Tab, you knew you were having an adult drink, and you knew you looked beautiful drinking it.

Tab enjoyed a rare place of honor in my house. My mother did not generally allow junk food. We were a house with carob chips and peanut butter from the “Health Food” store, long before Whole Foods was a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’ eye. At the “Health Food” store you could buy peanut butter ground while you waited, yogurt (still a novelty in 1970s Kentucky), granola, sugarless raisin cookies, and those little Chinese candies wrapped in rice paper that you can also eat. I’m not sure why my mother allowed these candies, my guess is because they were Chinese they counted as a cultural exchange. It’s also possible she believed the rice paper counted as fiber. You could probably also buy some other “herbs” at the “health food” store, but I’m not sure.

As health conscious as she was, my mother was always just a little more weight conscious. Believe me when I tell you that at 80 years old, she has a better figure than you. Hence, the incongruous appearance of those pink cans of Tab under the counter in our kitchen.

Today, I’m not much of a soda drinker. Occasionally on a road trip I’ll have a Diet Dr. Pepper. At Passover I like a Dr. Brown’s Diet Cream Soda. It’s been hard to find Tab in the stores for years and I can’t honestly say I miss drinking it. But somehow, I still miss the idea of it being around. Rest in peace Tab

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A Non-Exact Biography of My Breasts

Childhood

I am six, or maybe seven. We move to a new house and the house next door is a perfect match for ours, right down to the two girls the same age as my sister and I. The main difference is that their house is missing an added sunroom and at their house, the peanut butter does not need to be stirred and the bread is white and squishy. One day, in the bathroom my counterpart says, “Did you know that when you’re a grown up your boobies get big and you get hair, ‘down there.'” I do know and am confused as to how she is just now learning this, but we both agree that we hope that it never happens to us.

In 4th grade, a boy says to me, “You’re a carpenter’s dream, flat as a board and easy to nail.” He must have an older sibling, someone who knows what it means. I do not, but it sticks to me and with me for years.

In 5th grade, my very best friend has breasts and her period. We gather around her for stories about cramps and bras. We finally go to the same school and every time I see a boy in the hall snap her bra strap I am jealous. I am an adult before I know how much she hates being first, how she feels just as out of place for having breasts as I do for being flat.

Middle School

Unlike other girls, I wear a camisole, not a bra. I am met regularly with taunts of “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” as well as “Carpenter’s Dream.” I practice “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” from Judy Blume’s Are You There God It’s Me Margaret religiously. Years later, when I give the book to my daughter to read, that is all I remember of it. I completely forget that most of the book is actually about her struggle with religion, that her lack of breasts and a period are a subplot. My daughter hates the book. “Who sits around talking about their boobs and periods?” She asks me. “Me,” I think. “For years and years, me.” Later still, after I have lost a breast to cancer I will once again do the exercises. This time not to grow my breasts but to try and regain movement in my chest.

High School

Once, a boy I am dating jokingly says something about my small breasts and future children starving. I get out of his car and start to walk home. He comes after me and when we are making out that night he says, “Don’t worry, more than a handful’s a waste.” I continue to date him. I still know him.

There is an older guy, maybe 18 or 19, maybe 20 or 21. He dates an older friend of mine, a girl of 17 or 18 with a perfect figure. I am 14, maybe 15. I cannot explain how or why, but on more than one occasion I find myself alone at my house with him. We make out and he removes my shirt and marvels at the perfection of my small breasts. It does not feel like cheating on my friend, at least to me. Years later they are married, and years after that, they are divorced and when I hear that’s what happened I wonder if her life would have been different if I had told her all those years ago.

The summer after my senior year of high school, when I am 17, I work a telemarketing job with a man in his mid 20s. We begin to see each other, secretly. One night he takes me to a bar where his friend works. His friend pours me a drink and says to the man, “You sir, are a gentleman and a fine judge of horse flesh.” I do not know if I should be pleased or offended. I try to sip my drink without choking.

College

One day, I make a joke about my small chest in front of my boss, a woman 5 or 10 years older than I am, already married and pregnant. Later, she takes me aside and tells me the truth, I am not small chested and I am probably wearing the wrong bra size. I go from an A cup to a C cup overnight. I am stunned to discover that I have breasts.

I do not stop to wonder how I, a girl who values sex above almost all other forms of connection, a girl who sleeps with friends and strangers with no guilt and little discrimination, how I became so disconnected from my body that I never even noticed my own breasts had grown. It is decades before the disconnect occurs to me.

My 20s

Once, when I am about 29, by then a D cup, I am walking to a friend’s house when a truck pulls up beside me. A man leans out the window and yells, “Hey Lady, nice rack!” I tell the story for years. I am amused by the juxtaposition of the polite, almost business-like, “Hey Lady” with “Nice rack.” Sometimes, I tell the story complete with a Jerry Lewis emphasis on “Hey LAAAADY.”

What I never say though is that my eternal, internal 6th grader is still shocked and amazed that anyone is commenting on her chest.

My 30s

The last man I date before I meet my husband hates the way I dress. Everything is too short, too low cut, too tight. Since college I have believed my breasts are my best feature and I dress for them. “Well,” I think, “I guess I’ll have to cover up.” His mother dies and all I can think is that I have to dress carefully for the funeral. I leave town and we try to date long distance, but we eventually break up.

The night I meet my husband we are volunteering at a restaurant that serves the homeless. I am wearing an apron and a hairnet when we first meet. Later, after removing my apron my now-husband tries to secretly look me up and down, but when he comes to my chest he pauses, does a double-take and breaks out into a grin. I still tease him about his lack of subtlety. Had he been a different man, a man capable of hiding his joy at my appearance, a man capable of secretly judging me, we would not be married today.

At my high school reunion I am devastated to have person after person remark that I “look exactly the same.” Either no one remembers how flat I’d been, or no one notices how flat I am not.

35-38

“Well, your nipples are inverted.” The OB/GYN tells me, you might not be able to breastfeed.” I switch to a midwife practice. I breastfeed my babies with almost no issues. I can not pump, but I can nurse.

My 40s

Ironically, my last decade with my breasts is the one decade in which they do not define me. No one pays attention to the rack on a middle age mother, not even the mother herself. If I had known it was our last decade together, perhaps I would have paid more attention.

My 50s

At 50 I am diagnosed with breast cancer. My right breast is removed. The breast surgeon is very happy that she can spare my nipple. The poor, inverted right nipple. She encourages me to have reconstruction, “so you can feel like yourself again.” I think of my children, teenagers already, but still willing to hug me. One still wanting to snuggle against me to read or talk. I want that for them, for me. I cannot bear the idea of their mother’s hug not feeling the same as it always has. I cannot bear the idea of not being a soft place to land. I make the decision with no research.

My left breast is lifted and adjusted to match. As I joke with my friends, “They don’t make implants that look like 50 year old breasts, apparently there’s no market for that.”

Fully dressed, I look great. On a weekend away a woman in a swimming pool hearing that I am a breast cancer survivor stares at me in my halter top swimsuit and gives me a frank appraisal. “Wow, they did an amazing job. I should know, I sell bras.”

But the surgeon is wrong. A year after having my implant, I still do not feel like myself. My right breast is not a breast, it is a bag of fluid shoved under my chest muscle. I cannot move the way I once could. I have left myself vulnerable to Breast Implant Illness and in 10 years I will need to have another surgery to replace the implant. Breast implants are not meant to last a lifetime.

My 60s

I think I have decided. In ten years, when I am 60, I will have my implant removed and will once again be flat, at least on one side. I try to imagine what the middle school or high school girl, so desperate to look an approved way, would think of the decision. In the end though I think of the little girl in the bathroom. She was already myself. She did not need or want breasts. The story of my life will not be the story of my breasts.

 

 

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Your Fall Weather/Fashion Forecast & Horoscope

Aquarius

Someone close to you is sending you mixed signals. You will wear a jacket that is too hot in the sun, but not warm enough in the shade.

Pisces

As a water sign you will remark endlessly on the irony that it is warmer in September than in June, yet the pools close on Labor Day.

Aries

Nothing will change unless you make it change. After two weeks of consistent highs in the 60s, you will put away your summer clothing and take out your winter clothing. Two days later, the temperature will be in the 80s.

Taurus

A lot of your plans are up in the air right now. So are the leaves. You will rake them, only to find them back on your lawn the next day.

Gemini

A mysterious stranger will enter your life. Likewise, you will find that a mysterious moth has eaten a hole in your favorite sweater. You will discover this hole, just over your breast, sometime during your third Zoom call of the day.

Cancer

Flexibility is the key to happiness. Be like the tree that bends and so does not break. Although it is 50 degrees and your family complains, you will continue to insist that no one is allowed to turn on the heat until November 1st.

Leo

Knowing the difference between past and present prevents heartache. Although the woven jacket you bought in Mexico on that one trip in college is in fact the perfect weight for the weather, it still smells like pot and embarrasses your children when you wear it.

Virgo

Life is full of mysteries. Is it too warm for the arms of a crop sweater, or too cold to have a bare stomach? Does anyone over the age of 16 look good in a crop sweater? No really, whose idea were these things?

Libra

There are many opportunities coming your way. These opportunities include zip front hoodies and pull over hoodies.

Scorpio

What stands in the way of you meeting your most important goals? In this case, it’s the fact that all three of your children have outgrown their rain boots over the summer. It is impossible to leave your house.

Sagittarius

Seek and you shall find. As long as what you are seeking is not the new pair of thin gloves you bought on sale at the end of last winter, convinced that they’d be perfect for the Fall.

Capricorn

You have just started a new goal. Also, there are now only four hours of daylight a day, so you will not achieve that goal. Learn to live with disappointment.

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Say You’re Sorry

Yom Kippur is “The Day of Atonement,” the day of saying you’re sorry. The whole week leading up to Yom Kippur we’re supposed to apologize to people we’ve wronged. In Jewish thought, God can’t forgive you for things you do to other people, only they can do that. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins and the sins of our community and we make plans to do better. Then we eat bagels and kugel and drink a Coke.

My Great Uncle Larry, a retired doctor by the time I knew him, always handed me a Coke at Break the Fast. In the old days, Coke had cocaine and was great for getting rid of a post-fasting headache. Even now, the sugar and caffeine works pretty well.

The Coke was always a treat, but the main point of Yom Kippur is the apologizing and atoning. I read a lot of advice columns and there’s a lot of emphasis not on apologizing, but on forgiving. “Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself,” is a commonly used phrase. Forgiving is for your own peace of mind, not the benefit of the person who harmed you.

I’m not great at forgiveness. I hold grudges. I know that forgiveness is important, it’s something I work on regularly. But also, I think we’ve lost a little emphasis on the importance of apologizing. It’s as though we’ve all turned into the kid forced to apologize who asks, “Why should I apologize when I’m not sorry?”  The answer? “Because it makes the world run more smoothly.”

The other day on Facebook (the market square of the Covid era) a woman in a local resale group attempted to sell a throw pillow with a picture of farm animals and the phrase “All Lives Matter” on it.

She was immediately taken to task. Several people gave her the benefit of the doubt and, assuming that she was a nice vegan not a racist bitch, explained to her why the pillow was offensive. A few others assumed (correctly it turns out) that she knew what she was doing and told her off. She held her ground. She gathered supporters. She refused to apologize because she “hadn’t meant harm.” The moderator of the group removed the post and issued a warning about trying to use her group to promote racism.

I remain baffled by the refusal to apologize for causing harm.

If you are walking down the street on your phone and you accidentally step on someone else’s toes, there are a few ways they might respond. They might say, “Excuse me sir, you stepped on my toe.” They might say, “Buddy, watch where you’re going.” They might even say “Hey asshole, get off my foot.” No matter how they respond, most of us would know that we, as the person who stepped on the foot, owed the person an apology. We wouldn’t insist that because we didn’t mean to step on the foot, we shouldn’t apologize and should leave our foot there.

You probably wouldn’t even argue that the person who reacts in pain and surprise and calls you an asshole, doesn’t deserve an apology. You definitely wouldn’t leave your foot there. You’d apologize, you’d move your foot, and hopefully you’d be more careful in the future. All without ever having to whine that “you didn’t mean to hurt the person” or challenging your view of yourself as a good person who doesn’t go around jumping on people’s feet.

Whether by accident or on purpose, when you hurt someone, you apologize. It’s simple, it’s easy, it makes the world run smoother.

The list of sins we confess to on Yom Kippur (known as the Al Chet, no relation to Ben Hecht, the 1940s screenwriter) is famously long and a little ridiculous. We apologize not just for our own sins, but the sins of others as well. It may seem like overkill, but I’m thinking today, we could all use a little practice apologizing.

 

 

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Making the Bed

It took me a long time to start making my bed. As a child, it was not something required in my house. It was something saved for company, summer camp, and my one year of boarding school. In college, making my “bed,” which was really a mattress on the floor, was futile. Later, I only made my bed when I was expecting company, either a party where I would need places to put coats, or one person, where I would want my bedroom to be as inviting as possible.

Then there was the article I read that suggested you shouldn’t make your bed. You should instead let the sun shine on your bare bottom sheet to kill off germs and bed bugs. But about a year ago, recovering from cancer and surgery and managing a temporary single-parent status, I began making my bed.

I used to be a champion sleeper. In college, I could make a pot of coffee, study for a few hours, then go back to bed. But for the past 16 years, since becoming a mother, I no longer sleep. Although my children no longer require nighttime help, I remain awake and ready for the cry of the baby monitor, which is silly since it probably didn’t have batteries even when we still used it.

Now, I fall asleep easily and then wake in the middle of the night. When I was a child I hated going to bed because I was sure everything fun happened when I was asleep and my parents and older sister were still awake. Sometimes it still feels like that when I wake up in the middle of the night, like I am missing something important. Sometimes, it just feels like I have to pee.

I use several pillows to sleep. One for my legs, one for my shoulder, and one for my head. An additional pillow is needed if I want to lie on my back. My husband and I have a constant struggle over blankets and by the morning my bed looks like the scene of a very orderly pillow fight. So, now after the dogs have been out, before I begin work, I turn down the covers and top sheet, smoothing out the bottom sheet. I put all the pillows back in their place. I open the window shades and let the sun in.

When I have erased the restless night before, I do my assigned exercises, willing my body to work the way it once did. Hoping eventually that with enough sun and smoothing, I too can be put back in place.

I now understand the appeal of a made bed. It is like a bowl of fruit on the counter. A promise of something fresh and pretty. A promise of a healthier, more orderly day.

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Remembering Names

If you are in your 50s in the age of Facebook you can probably sort the names of people you went to high school with into four categories. There are your friends, the ones you still talk to and know, the ones who hold all your secrets. A few years ago, one of my best friends from high school and I were on a trip together. I marveled at the way we effortlessly set each other up for punch lines. I wondered why it was so easy, until I remembered that we’d been practicing for 30 years.

The second category are the people you know and liked. You’re happy to check in with them regularly, to see that they’re there in the world. You interact with them more on Facebook than you would if just left to phone calls and visits home. But they do not hold the key to your heart the way the first category of people do.

The third category are the people you look for. These are people you always liked, but didn’t really know, the boy from homeroom who said funny things under his breath, the girl who always had an extra pencil on test days. The boy you wound up in one class with and so you dated sophomore year, but didn’t have any friends in common, so never saw again after that. The girl you went to middle school with and lost track of in high school only to see her on graduation day when you said to each other, “Oh my god, we didn’t think we’d survive 8th grade Spanish, but look, we’re graduating high school now! We should totally get together this summer.” Only of course, you never got together over the summer and you haven’t seen her since, even though you both stayed home for college. Sometimes, you find yourself idly searching Facebook for these names, the barely missing parts of your childhood. If you go to your reunion, you look for them. You hope they are well and that they still make funny comments and carry extra pencils.

The fourth category are the names you don’t even know you remember. You’ll be talking to someone from category one or two and they’ll say “Remember, John Smith (not his real name)?” And you say, “No. Wait, yes. Wasn’t he the guy that fell during that assembly?” Then you laugh and you think, “Wow, how could I have ever forgotten that name?” But still, you don’t look for them on Facebook. Nothing against the John Smiths of the world, but life is busy.

Tonight on Facebook, in a group for alums of my high school, I saw a woman’s death announced. I didn’t recognize the name, but then, I thought I recognized the last name. I checked my yearbook and found a boy with hair piled high in a way that could only happen in a 1986 senior photo. I asked a friend, and she confirmed, this boy had transitioned years before.

Honestly, what I remembered most about this person was the thickness of their Kentucky accent, and a theater teacher desperately trying to get them to change it. I can picture them, but cannot recall a single conversation in detail. They were a fourth category name to me.

But I was intrigued, and so I looked. The woman I found on Facebook was a powerhouse. An activist for trans causes and people living with HIV. A supporter of Black Lives Matter. She posted a picture of Kamala Harris dressed as Wonder Woman. Apparently, Kamala had been her first choice for President. I find myself so sad she won’t get to vote for her for Vice President in November. But, I’m also glad this woman found herself and that she got to live her life in a way that was true.

Yesterday, if you had asked me, “What do you think happened to …” I wouldn’t have been able to offer a guess. Today, I think we’ve lost a great person.

In the past few months, death has been everywhere for me. My brother-in-law died. In six months my husband has lost an aunt, a student, and a co-worker. A woman I considered my 3rd grandmother died, as did the father of an old friend.  Still, I find myself mourning a woman whose name I didn’t even know I knew a few hours ago.

A friend whose parents both died recently said that she misses them every second of every day. Yet this woman is also going on with her life. She is raising her beautiful children, supporting her husband and friends, following her interests. Grief does funny things to time. It causes it to bend and stretch. Grief makes time elastic. So you can miss someone every second of every day, and still have time to laugh at your son’s jokes. You can say goodbye to an 18-year-old boy you once knew and meet a 51-year-old woman and mourn her all in the same few minutes.

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Sunday Morning Photos

When he’s bored with his own phone, my 14-year-old son likes to pick up my phone and go through the photos. My phone is 5 years old, so over a third of his life is stored in it. “You take a lot of random pictures,” he said to me the other day.

He’s right, I do. I know enough professional photographers to know that I’m not good at it, but I like to take photos of weird, or funny, things I see. Sometimes, it’s for social media. But sometimes it’s just for me to look at and think about later. When I think about book ideas, a lot of them are coffee table photo essays. I used to take my phone when I walked the dog. But, like a lot of people, we got a Covid puppy. Unlike our beagle, Sammy, who as my neighbor says isn’t really a dog, just an old man who likes to go out and yell at people, the new girl, Nova, is all dog. She is 41 pounds and 11 months of pure chaos.

You cannot bring a phone when you walk Nova. A moment of distraction could result in a tan and white blur of movement barreling down the street. Nova takes her first walk of the day around 6:30. As a morning person, with zero qualms about leaving the house in my pajamas, it doesn’t really bother me.

One of my favorite times and places is early morning in the French Quarter in New Orleans. The noise of the night before makes the quiet of the morning reverberate so much stronger. I like to see the remains of the previous evening, and the hardworking people beginning their clean up.

My suburb of Oak Park, Illinois is no French Quarter. The quiet is more common and so less remarkable. There are no remnants of a bacchanalia, no Mardi Gras beads or broken glass lying in the gutter. There is no one out cleaning the streets. But still, there are things to see. The other morning, there was a red mop lying in the middle of my closest cross street. I know it probably fell out of a car with cleaning supplies, or a moving truck, but I like to think it was a political statement.

A few blocks away a young boy was in his yard with his younger, and smaller puppy. The boy doesn’t know it, but I know his aunt and uncle in California and have met his parents. When they first moved in they were getting rid of a huge and bizarre piano. Although it looked like it belonged in a saloon, it had probably been in their house since the house was built. When the boy’s aunt asked on social media if anyone in the Chicago area wanted a piano, I said yes. One day the boy’s father brought it over on a fork lift. For years afterwards, whenever we would pass the house on our way to school or the park, I would tell the kids “That’s where our piano used to live.”

I don’t know why I felt the need to remind them of our piano’s origins. But, I like connections. I like that a woman I used to work with in my twenties, is the sister-in-law of a woman in my neighborhood, and that even though my friend lives in California, I wound up with a piano she knew about. I guess I reminded the kids about our piano’s first home because I want them to feel those connections. I think they are the best part of growing up in a small town. The puppies sniffed each other through the fence, and that was a little too exciting for Nova, so then we spent some time calming down.

A few blocks away the street was partially closed off for an experiment in “slow streets.” The idea is that with more people home during Covid, the streets should be safer for bikers and walkers. In the middle of the street was someone’s painting easel and chair. There was nothing on the easel, but in the early morning stillness it felt like an artist had simply been plucked from her work and sent into the ether.

There is a man who lives a block away from us who can often be seen and heard in the evenings practicing his violin in the living room. He is particular about his lawn care. Once, I saw him walk past our house, turn around and pluck a dandelion from our yard and leave it on our sidewalk. On this morning, I saw the man running, shirtless in a plaid skort. I do not know if the skort is important to him and this empty, early morning time is the only time that he feels he can express his true running self. For some reason though, it seems more likely to me that he bought it accidentally, maybe on sale, and simply wears it out of frugal stubbornness.

Occasionally, when my husband and I walk both dogs together and I have Sammy, I bring my phone and take pictures. But, there is something nice about just seeing things as well.

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9:00 AM Leaks

The other day, at about 9:00 am, we discovered a leak in our kitchen sink  and I suddenly realized why I’m so tired. It was not the leak.

One rainy day when I was about 9 my BFF and I were in her mother’s car, on the way somewhere, maybe to a party, maybe Sunday school, maybe just to take me home. I don’t know. When we pulled out of the driveway into the cul-de-sac (a street that still looms large in the memory of anyone who ever lived on or visited Deibel Court), we noticed that the dog had gotten into the the garbage cans and strewn trash across the driveway. Her mother told us to stay in the car. She got out and picked up the trash. I remember thinking then that being an adult meant you had to be the one to get out of the car and pick up the trash in the rain, and that it must suck.

I wasn’t wrong. It as good a definition of being an adult as any. Being an adult means being the one to pick up the trash, even in the rain. Usually. Don’t tell my husband, but one morning about 12 years ago I noticed that the toilet was about to overflow. It was my first day of a new job. I was dressed up and desperate to get out of the house before my babies woke up to complain about me leaving. I noticed that toilet on the brink and I walked out of the bathroom without doing a thing, leaving him to handle the impending doom later. Sometimes, even as an adult, you can let someone else handle the soggy trash.

But not right now. Right now there’s just too much soggy trash. By the time we discovered that the kitchen sink was leaking, I had already spent an hour fixing the Internet. With two adults working and two kids attending high school, all online from home, you cannot leave Internet issues for later. After we fixed the leak, we had 30 minutes to walk the dogs before my husband’s first meeting and the kids’ two-hour lunch break. I had promised my daughter a trip to a recently-discovered juice bar during her break.

This is what it feels like all the time now, in the time of Corona. A constant parade of crises and obligations, but even that isn’t the full reason everything is so exhausting. I think it is the interruptions and the lack of privacy. The interruptions that come from having 4 people and 2 dogs in the same space all the time. Even sitting down to write this at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, I have already been interrupted twice by kids and dogs. When I finish this draft, I will go downstairs for breakfast and … Narrator: She did not finish writing the sentence, let alone the draft.

There was a dog who needed to go out, and a kid who needed to talk about the death of a beloved actor. So, instead of whatever fantasy breakfast I was thinking about before, instead I ate some toast and emptied the dishwasher and talked to my son. Then, my husband and son decided to go fishing, so there were supplies to gather. It is now, once again, 9:00 am and I am once again exhausted.

When the kids were little we used to say being a parent was like the old Army ad, “We do more before 9:00 am then you do all day.” Somehow, Corona has put us back in that place of constant movement and interruption, a place where getting a foothold is impossible. We have also gone back to the days where a child cannot be left alone. Only now, it is that a parent cannot be left alone. There is no errand too mundane for someone to want to join me on it. I am grateful that my teenagers want to be with me, but I have not chosen the radio station in my car since Corona started. In this time of supposed isolation, I am constantly around other people. I have started trying to get in bed at 9:00 pm both because I’m tired, and because that might give me a full hour when someone else’s needs or mood are not part of my calculation.

In literature and songs, 3:00 am is the magic hour. Insomnia happens at 3:00 am, people leave bars and get into trouble at 3:00 am. But now, 9:00 am is the magic time. There is something about having your day go off the rails before it’s truly started. Whatever that thing is, it’s exhausting.

 

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The Smell of Creosote

Desert view with creosote

There was a storm the other day, just a little thunder, wind, and rain here, but farther to the north, it was a storm. When I went outside the next morning it smelled like creosote. More precisely, it smelled like waking up at the hotel I used to manage in Desert Hot Springs, where creosote grew outside my floor-length window. In the desert I never pulled the shade on my window. I liked to fall asleep looking at the lights in the distant city and wake up to the very beginning of the sun.

The other morning, the air smelled like taking my coffee outside and watching the sunrise with a whole desert day ahead of me to fill. A day with a hike to take and laps to swim in a pool I would clean, and rooms to turn over, and strangers to check in and talk to and maybe a drink with the group of women I’d become close to, or a visit from my hush-hush secret lover that even my friends didn’t know about until I was ready to leave. My friends in Desert Hot Springs were a group of women about 10 years older than me. Two of them were married to each other and the other two were single and we drank wine and I tried to figure out if I was like them, if I could make my own life, with no husband or kids, without a “regular” job. If I could live in a strange place and take in the smell of creosote every morning.

I’m sure the smell in Chicago had less to do with the storm and more to do with the destructive fires in California. A force of destruction blowing a little bit of peace for me. I am sad about the fires, but I took my hot water and lemon outside and breathed in as much as I could. By the time I was ready for tea and working, the smell had dissipated. I tried all day to get it back, but couldn’t.

I have lived in a lot of places, but Malawi and Desert Hot Springs, neither of which I lived in for long, remain fixed in my imagination. They are places where I found myself, at least for a time. I lost myself again recently. Maybe it was last year when I lost my breast to cancer, maybe it was years before when my life became consumed by the day to day of kids, husband, dogs, and work. All things I want and love. I’m not sure when I disappeared, but I spend a lot of time trying to find little bits of myself, grasping at them like a half-forgotten smell in the wind.

Online high school started for us last week. It is my son’s freshman year. He has always thought of himself as “a sports guy,” but now, starting high school at 5’2″ and 95 pounds, in a year where the intramurals aren’t happening and only the best of the best are playing any sport, in a town that asks kids to specialize early, he is realizing that maybe he is not a sports guy. He wants to be taller and bigger and be able to be on a team. He knows he is not those things, but he is unsure what he is. He does not want me to tell him that he is smart, funny, and loving, that the debate team would be perfect for him, or that he would get a role if he auditioned for a play. He does not want me to tell him that he is possibly a comedian or a writer.

So I do not. Instead I try to tell him that I know how it feels to not know who you are. I know that feeling of being someone with a missing piece. I felt complete when I gave birth to his sister and to him. Sometimes, when I am talking to one of my kids or helping with homework, I feel complete again. Once, in pre-Covid times, his sister was out for the evening with friends. I had washed her sheets earlier in the day and told her to make her bed. But, it was getting later and so I decided to make the bed for her. He followed me into her room and asked if I liked doing stuff like that. “Yeah,” I answered. “I like knowing that she’ll come in thinking that she has to make her bed but instead it will be all made with nice cold sheets and she can go right to sleep.” “Yeah,” he said. “I get that. I’d like doing that and thinking about that, too.” I felt complete again that night.

But, most of the time, I too wonder what kind of person I am, and what piece of me is missing. I wonder if there is a team for me or if maybe I was meant to be one of those women alone in the desert.

The day after the creosote smell I woke up at 5:00 AM to thunder and lightening, but no rain, and no creosote smell. I will need to keep trying to find my missing pieces.

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