Happiest Season?

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Happiest Season is not a rom-com. It is a horror movie that many of us LGBTQ+ folx have lived. Let me preface by saying I have waited all year for this movie. I love a rom-com, I have different standards for queer content, and I once spent 13 total net hours investigating the love affair between Kristen Stewart and Nikki Reed on the Twilight set. (Watch the behind-the-scenes videos from the cast Vogue shoot and tell me to my face I’m wrong.) I am married to someone who will watch/read any and all queer content. Said wife is also a TV guru to the point that my knowledge has pivoted from, “I don’t own a TV” to “David Boreanaz’s latest CBS show features Megan from Mad Men, who was in that Léa Pool lesbian boarding-school movie with Piber Perabo where one of them turns into a hawk in the end.”

That is to say: I know Mainstream American media. I understand that Clea Duvall’s directorial debut in a major box-office film about two women in love is a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but these are the crumbs we are given. I can just see a cis-het studio exec marking up the script with “looks great, but let’s set this scene IN A LITERAL CLOSET HAHA SEE WHAT I DID THERE?”

I was destined to enjoy this movie as much as I planned to pick it apart. Because that is the privilege of seeing someone whose life resembles yours (however slight) on screen. You get to dissect it. My biggest disappointment is that this is a movie about coming to terms with being gay. It’s not about a gay person who is just a person with a sprinkling of jokes a la “Lesbian wedding? Chicken breasts!” circa Monica from Friends. This is a story where the character arc is centered around being gay. Gayness is the defining characteristic. This is the Nancy Meyer’s movie I needed in 1999, though the kitchen needs a major update before it could be considered caucacity canon.

So let us recap. There’s Harper and Abby, chemistry-less lovebirds living in domestic bliss in Pittsburgh. In this world made of steel/made of stone, they are a “perfect couple,” per friend of the couple, John (Daniel Levy). Until the tall one invites KStew to her family’s Christmas and oops, she forgot to mention that she never came out to her parents and her whole life is a lie.

They almost don’t go to Christmas, but Harper insists she will tell her parents after Christmas, because as I have learned from being an outside Christmas observer (Jewish), Christmas is not a time to be yourself. We are left to watch Abby, the orphan roommate who cannot operate a Roomba, sleep in the servant’s quarters where Harper’s homophobic monster parents store their craft supplies. Dad is a city councilman and there’s a lot riding on his potential road to mayor of a city likely located in Indiana. There’s a Christmas party with potential political donors where Harper ignores Abby and haha, the ex-boyfriend shows up, as does the secret high school girlfriend, Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza, who has never looked better). Tale as old as time!

Let’s take a minute to discuss secret gay high school girlfriends. I never had a secret high school girlfriend, but oh to dream! No, it’s terrible and painful and awful, say my friends, the queer chorus. Tell that to 15-year old me unwrapping a “G Love and Special Sauce” CD from my 6-foot four dreamboat boyfriend and thinking, “If only you were the star of the women’s basketball team.”

Back to Harper, Abby, and that black suit with the lace camisole Abby wears to the Christmas party where she is ignored by her own girlfriend. That suit, juxtaposed with Harper’s ability to not even steal a kiss, is a testament to the depth of her self-hatred. Fortunately, out lesbian Riley is there to make a vague reference to her former secret relationship with Harper. Here is where the sparks fly, which might be the gayest thing about this movie: Your ex-girlfriend and your current girlfriend get along better than the two of you. Riley is a resident at John’s Hopkins, which completely relates to everything else in this paragraph, because we need more gay doctors.

After many cameos, including Ana Gasteyer throwing us her best Jennifer Coolidge, we end up at bar called Fratty’s. This is where Clea Duvall gives us that nod you give to other lesbians when you pass on the street. Fratty’s is A Straight Bar. How I have so badly wanted to be attracted to the guys at Fratty’s. Or wanted to want to be at Fratty’s. We watch Harper ignore Abby yet again. We roll our eyes and say, “leave this closet case!” We ask Siri: Is Clea Duvall an orphan? (She is not.)

The story turns around when the parents find out that Harper is gay, Harper’s sister (Alison Brie) is getting divorced and Harper’s comedic-relief sister (the brilliant Mary Holland) feels invisible. Then Dad gives us the biggest secret of all: He spent all the family money! The moral of the story: I can forgive you for being gay if you can forgive me for making us poor! Flash forward to happy-times epilogue.

Coming out stories are painful. Sometimes hiding ourselves makes us awful. The queer chorus told me that Harper and Abby’s entire relationship isn’t invalidated by one bad weekend and one bad decision. My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t want another movie about coming out. I wanted the first major box-office Christmas movie about a queer couple to be post-queer. It’s a tall order. I enjoyed this movie and I will watch it again. Without pausing it 45 times to talk about past trauma of loving someone who wasn’t ready or telling our families.

The glimmer of hope in Happiest Season is what I imagine is the voice of Clea Duvall vis-a-vis John. He brings up the patriarchy when KStew wants to ask for her would-be father-in-law’s marital blessing. “I’m not shaming you. I just think you should feel bad about your choices and yourself,” he says at to Kristen Stewart when she makes excuses for Harper. (By the way, Alison, if you are reading this, you should absolutely get that haircut.)

There have been multiple think pieces written about the alternate ending in which KStew ends up with Aubrey Plaza, and they live that baller Dr. and Dr. life. I have held off on reading them until I put my own feelings into words.

If Abby and Riley had ended up together, two women who know what they want and don’t hide it, this would have been a different movie. (See aforementioned PhD-MD life.) It’s hard to choke down Kristen Stewart settling for this after she and Robert Pattinson showed us that true love knows no species. I demand justice for Riley. Yet if this movie is relegated to queer canon, the sequel can only end in a girlfriend-swap and a vampire.

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Mitch.

The last piece I wrote was your eulogy. I stopped writing when I got too sad. I used to write about my father’s death until I fell in love with a girl who said, “I don’t do dead parents.” So I stopped doing dead parents because I wanted her to love me more than I wanted to love the broken parts of myself.

But sad is not a broken part of me.

I keep your eulogy printed in Times New Roman in the hatch drawer of my desk. It’s just as ragged as the day I unfolded it from my black dress pocket. It was 90 degrees, how can we hold the whole service graveside, they said, but your parents insisted. And I understood then but didn’t have the words. That walls would have constricted our sadness, that we needed space to pour out and break like the clouds on a late summer Maryland day. We swelled in the humidity, in our shock, on the blacktop in that backyard on Main Street where we spent many a debaucherous night in 1999. At the shiva, at the memorial, at the afterparty and the after-after party because we had all come to town for a wedding. We had nowhere to go, nowhere to put this shellshock.

Your laughter was infectious. I have never loved to make anyone laugh more. Big belly gulps of air until we cried and we didn’t even know it wouldn’t last that long. Twenty-two years isn’t enough. Love never used to feel like enough, but I’ve learned to savor it, to suck the marrow out. Otherwise, it will slip away, it will burn out and we are left with nostalgia. And I cannot live backwards.

And we said we would be better after you were gone, we said we would bridge the space between our zip codes and I swore I would answer. Until I saw your father’s name on my screen and I couldn’t, and I couldn’t write to your fiancée and I couldn’t talk about it. (I still don’t. Talk about it.) You would always answer, I talked to you every day for years.

Grief is the blank space, the this number has been disconnected, it peppers the air that we will one day become.

It was May and I was walking to the subway, headphones on, volume up. And there was your fiancée on the screen. You were getting married in 4 days. She was calling about dresses, she was calling about dinner, she was calling about rehearsal. I fumbled to switch the audio back to my phone SORRY, GIVE ME A MINUTE. She was calling to tell me to call everyone because Mitch didn’t wake up, Mitch died and I had never heard a more sick joke. But when I called back, she wasn’t laughing. I dropped on the curb of Court Street at 8:30 in the morning and the primordial sound I made came from the place inside me that only breaks in case of emergency. People stared at the contents of my backpack that had spilled onto the sidewalk. The landscaper asked if I was OK, a woman with a stroller made a U-turn to me and I didn’t move. Not until a small figure with kind eyes emerged from urgent care and handed me a tissue. She put her hand on top of my hand and prayed to Jesus to keep me safe and I stood up, walked to school, and gave a group presentation on maternal morbidity.

We drove South that night, the sky bruised purple and orange, to the tomb that is my childhood home. The house my mother will not leave. It is a ghost town. She has filled it with her colorful photographs of flowers and bees and I can still hear my father’s keys hitting the counter when he got home long after we were in bed. I felt my stare harden as we wound up the hill next to the field and the community garden and the old white country house that tells us we haven’t gone too far.

Pulling up this hill is the same road I used to climb in my beige Toyota Camry singing at the top of my lungs, come on fucker, don’t be shy. Driving dad’s Explorer to the high school parking lot to practice parallel parking. I have been in the city so long that I forget how much of 16 happens in a car.

At 16 we drove around just to listen to Method Man. We drove with nowhere to go, we crashed your neighbors’ parties, you snuck us into Merriweather Post Pavilion. You hit on my friends. We danced our faces off. I came out to you and I wasn’t scared. You didn’t care. We tried to walk through the drive-through and failed. We drained our parents’ vodka bottles and filled them with water. We ate bad suburban Chinese food. We smoked Parliament Lights inside the Silver Diner before it was banned. I threw a party when my parents were away. My dad found a lingering cigar wrapper. I blamed you. I didn’t get in trouble. You played with the paper mache fruit in my kitchen. My dad came home and watched Seinfeld with us. We were camp counselors at rival establishments. We wrote letters, you wrote me raps. You and the girl who would officiate your funeral sent my brother an 8-page letter written in marker. You wore big chains and sideways visors and I laughed at you until my sides hurt. Everyone loved you. We got high in my parents’ basement. Your brother got weird. You got a girlfriend. To raise money for breast cancer, you ate a stick of butter in under a minute. You went away to college. We texted three word-messages on our flip phones. You came back. I didn’t know who I was. You came to see me in “The Vagina Monologues.” I got weird. I got a girlfriend. We stopped talking every day. You quit smoking. My father died. Your father called. I packed your letters when I moved to New York. My entire apartment fit into one of your bathrooms in Baltimore. You said the three best inventions in life were: air conditioning, iPhone, birth control. I quit my job. You got promoted. You met the love of your life. You roasted a Turducken, you pickled everything. You officiated my wedding. I went to grad school for the second time. We put your Save the Date on our fridge, we shopped for silver dresses. The phone rang.

I keep my sad wrapped in velvet. It’s easier to be angry, to burn red, run hot. That is something we humans understand. But I’m not angry. You know this. I see you everywhere. I stopped calling your phone. Part of me knows you are watching. Part of me laughs at the myths we create to beat on. That I have to let your light live, even if I don’t forgive you for leaving. You would tell me to let it go. We would fall down laughing and I’d remember you left this earth better than you found it.

Trauma and Tramps in Nursing Education

She wouldn’t leave the hotel room without her stone. The lucky one that her best friend found in New Zealand, a small piece of the other side of the earth. There were ten legs standing in the doorway, two walkie-talkies, one stretcher, one AED, five watches ticking, two security guards waiting to disable the keycard to the room, three EMTs ready to make a phone call. There was one story on repeat told to each person who entered, and whispers as I left to look on the mahogany desk under a pile of drink glasses, reading glasses, faded jeans, and concert programs. I handed her the stone. She got on the stretcher.

She won’t remember.

hand over mouth

There were two nurses and one aide, a gaggle of doctors and screaming from the other side of the ER. Pupils dilated, round, equal, and reactive to light, eyes puffy, skin clammy and cold and red around the eyes, pulse tachy at 110, respirations brady at 9, blood pressure 110/89.

Patient’s friend reports she vomited three times but patient cannot remember.

Patient’s friend reports patient got lost halfway through the show, but patient cannot remember.

Nurse asks about the bruises on patient’s arms, but patient cannot remember. Patient’s friend wasn’t there.

Patient looks like she has been crying, wears a hospital gown over jeans and her sweatshirt pulled on only over her arms. Patient does not remove shoes.

old school nurse“Don’t look like a tramp,” said our nursing professor last week. That was the conclusion of the 20-minute lecture on how to dress professionally as a home-health nurse. Which came after the explicit instructions to not wear mini skirts and let your “nasty bits” show, nor to wear high heels in case you had to run. It was confusing, as no one tells women not to wear high heels, but they expect you to learn how to run in them.

Nursing faculty believe in words like “professional.” They use them loosely.

They talk about how to maintain a sterile field and appropriate use of silence and how to talk to people who don’t speak your language. They tell you that babies cannot vocalize, but we still know to hold them and feed them and speak in a soothing voice. They say to apply the same logic to all patients.

They teach you about critical thinking and therapeutic communication and how to educate a patient with asthma about smoking cessation without sounding judgmental.

They do not talk much about trauma.

charcoal-pillsThey do not teach you how to use nonjudgmental language when asking how many drinks she has had. In a field dominated by women, they do not emphasize how one in every six American women will be the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. That if we count our female friends on all our fingers and toes, count our female patients on all our fingers and toes, three are survivors of sexual violence.

They do not teach you how to avoid trigger words or how to speak with a victim. How to avoid telling her that you don’t believe her, that she is just drunk or crazy or irresponsible. That she dresses like a tramp.

They do not teach you how to tell someone that there is no commercial test to detect GHB or how language can be incriminating.

They teach you about disease processes, about non-pharmacological interventions for pain, about screening and prevention, and eating right. They teach you how to care for the whole person, how to advocate, how to make decisions to the best of your ability, at the bedside, in the home, on the street. How to assess.

How to recognize in that instant, amidst five Adam’s apples and two batons, two notepads, and ten utility boots, that finding one stone may be the most powerful care you can provide.

My Country Tis of Cheese

Of all the domestic issues the presidential candidates debated last night, the one that evokes the most passion within me continues to be avoided: If we want to achieve success as a nation, we need to work on our branding. Starting with cheese.

America, you are better than American cheese. In fact, I hate your cheese. It’s not actually cheese at all.

A look at all the processed cheese that is killing you.

This cheese is killing me.

While my distaste for the plastic-wrapped “single” cheese product dates back to my discovery of actual cheese, my recent fury is inspired by a string of breakfast-sandwich mishappenings.

New York City is the mecca of sandwich. Our delis promise succulent possibilities between two slices of bread or halves of the bagel. In all their griddle glory, breakfast sandwiches are an NYC morning comfort food. Even Our Lady of Domesticity Martha Stewart shares a recipe on her website for a “New York Deli-Style” sandwich.

The infamous “egg and cheese” – or “bacon, egg, and cheese” if you swing that way – is a simple art consisting of two components: 1) the namesake or soul of the sandwich, egg and cheese 2) a main carbohydrate group in which to envelope said inners – bread, roll, or bagel. On special occasions, there are enough free seconds in the morning commute to request the addition of a plant-derived element, like tomato, onion, or avocado (the latter being saved for fancy days).

organic cheese product package

Look closer: “Organic American Singles” or “Pasteurized Cheese Product”

While I’d estimate myself to be a bi-monthly breakfast sandwichier (pronounced “sand-wi-shay”), I have learned that local sandwich artists consider egg and cheese to contain American not-cheese by default.

“I am programmed to specify my cheese to avoid such an incident,” says fellow New Yorker Emily, who rates her sandwich knowledge in the top 1 percent.

Since Kraft Singles and the like are not legally allowed to be called “cheese,” I question how establishments get away with serving them on a product called “egg and cheese.” Just look at the packaging – nowhere does it say “cheese.” It has to be sold as “cheese product,” even if it’s claiming to be organic.

After two sandwiches at two separate locations were served to me with American cheese, despite my overemphasis on the word “cheddar,” I put on my thinking cap. Maybe if I asked for a differently colored cheese, they wouldn’t make the same mistake. That theory proved wrong when provolone turned up as a greasy, melty blob atop my egg that New Yorker Jessica calls “a disturbing shade somewhere between orange and salmon-colored.”

If I get a sandwich with American cheese, I won’t eat it. This is where I draw the line. How can I eat something that’s distinguishable from its packaging only by color?

I’m not alone in my thinking, as a school in Tucson caught onto this sentiment in 2010 upon banning American cheese.

To prove that American cheese is a devilish substance that is slowly killing us all (and to validate my feelings), I conducted a focus group, interviewing a select group of omnivorous friends. Members of this group hailed from such varying locales as: Jackson, Tennessee; Columbia, Maryland; St. Ignace, Michigan; and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. All now live in major cities.

I went into this exercise expecting feedback like “it reminds me of my childhood.” After all, it wasn’t uncommon to open a fridge in my grade-school days and see that shiny red, white and blue logo adorning the bottom shelf. Everyone I knew ate low-fat Kraft Singles as children. And margarine. Before we realized that food-like substances and hydrogenation were the enemy, we steered clear of saturated fat.

I’m proud to say that my friends have embraced whole foods. Interviewee Mitch replied to my inquiry: “This might be the greatest email anyone has ever sent me. My bathroom book is the Cheese Lover’s Companion.”

Mitch noted: “I hate Kraft Singles.” When asked to describe the cheese, he claimed, “American cheese is made of the convoluted beliefs of the Midwest.”

But even Midwestern-raised Emily concurred that American cheese is “not real food.”

Bay-Area resident Shannon is a native of Tennessee, where Velveeta flows like water – but she turns her nose up at calling it “cheese.” “It is the equivalent of calling Cool Whip the same thing as whipped cream, which could not be further from the truth.”

The truth is that consumers continue to buy legally regulated not-cheese, often because it’s what the government provides. Perhaps therein lies the real problem, which is a whooooole other story. I urge us all to band together as a country and just say “no” to American cheese.

Homage.

I never write anymore. I feel like the fun got sucked out of writing around 2008. It was the place I went to escape my head, to let the thoughts pour out of me, like the result of taking a wrench to a fire hydrant in the city heat. The mad rush of jumbled words begging to be released. One day it stopped being fun. I sat down, grazed the keys and felt sadness echoing against my bones.

What would it be like if we all stopped doing things that weren’t fun? I imagine 20% of our lives is fun, if we are lucky.

I don’t know that writing was ever fun. It was more of a compulsion. It was the problem and the solution. I’d go into my own dark place and ache and drip words and sometimes hate what was on the page.

Then I tried to impose structure on myself – I was going to WRITE. I was going to write with PURPOSE and have things to say, neat little essays with clear sentiment, SMART and WITTY. I had so much anxiety over trying to BE all these things that I just stopped.

So here I am, thoughts in tow. The sadness still lingers, but it’s not just mine.  It’s my friends’ parents who keep dying, the juxtaposition of leaving a rehearsal dinner to drive someone I love upstate to identify her father’s body. Sometimes I don’t know how we beat on.

I take comfort in simplicity, in the make-believe, in the ever-evolving adaptations of this life.

My friend, who lives with my brother, said we should see the film adaptation of our favorite book. He bought me a copy for my birthday or my going away party in 2003 when I left for Australia. He inscribed it: “For hours of high schools sadness.”

If you don’t know what high school sadness is, then we probably aren’t friends. Except for my girlfriend, who was popular, who was crowned homecoming queen – excuse me – court warming queen, which I’m told is different. She has a collection of tiaras (she was also Miss St. Ignace, which she claims was a scholarship pageant, but I have seen “Toddlers and Tiaras,” and I know what it means to win a crown). I begged her to try them on when we were in her childhood house this summer. She laughed. I guess they didn’t go with her tie.

She’s not home now. She’s working, because she finally got The Job. I’m supposed to be writing the essay that will lead to The School that will get me The Job, but the words never flow when I want them to.

My friend does not understand my incessant worrying. He responded to a neurotic rant with beautiful prose, because he is disgustingly talented (which I wholeheartedly mean, despite my recent efforts to rid my vocabulary of adverbs):

“Not to always try to be the sunshine of optimism to your cloud of stress, but we’re young, we live in the best city in the world and we’ve got people around that care about us. And most importantly, we are infinite.”

I suppose we are only as infinite as we feel. Which is an homage to the aforementioned “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” which the New Yorker says is lovely, so it must be true.

I’m going to close my eyes and not worry about the image that will accompany this post and imagine that all the potential energy in the world lives beneath my fingertips. I won’t focus on the sad. I will focus on what comes of it. Like the moment when I said to my brother, “do you ever look at the cat and convince yourself for a second that it’s Dad?” And instead of the look I expected, he didn’t miss a beat and said, “I know exactly what you mean.”

I know exactly what I mean.

On the Liberal Arts and Parachutes, Part I

Expecting a 17-year old to choose a life path is like asking a third-grader to create a financial portfolio for 2021. Sure, there are the occasional kids who are wired with pragmatism and wisdom beyond their years. But for the most part, these developing minds aren’t any more equipped to predict their future desires than they are to sign a debt-inducing promissory note that will haunt them for years down the road.

But four years of college is the American way for the middle class. Unlike my grandparents, who came to this country after the Holocaust without a penny to their name, I grew up in a house where going to college wasn’t an option; it was the next step after high school. This was a stark contrast from my father’s life, which, as a first-generation American, did not entail such a definitive path. Instead of hitting the books, he worked. Back in the olden days of the 1960s, college wasn’t a necessary or assumed step. So he forewent higher education in search of work – selling shoes, managing restaurants and eventually to owning a small retail business.

It was this business that put me through school in the hopes that I would make a better, easier (presumably white-collar) life for myself. I was lucky. I grew up watching my father leave before the sun came up to commute into the city and arrive home far past my bedtime. Education was supposed to be my ticket to avoiding this.

My parents weren’t thrilled at my choice to get an English degree, or later, a master’s in creative writing that I have come to deem my “master of arts and crafts.” What they fail to tell you as a wide-eyed teenager is that a liberal arts degree, though useful for developing critical thinking skills and expanding one’s mind, does nothing to prepare a student for the Real World. I didn’t know that English was the color of my parachute; but 17-year old me would not be caught dead getting a business degree. I was a writer. I was going to make documentaries and save the world and rawr riot grrrrrl.

English majors are a special breed. The English building at my school was at the South Pole of campus, a solid 35-minute walk from my dorm. I traipsed across the grassy pathways and found myself in front of an entrance that reeked of Marlboro Lights, t-shirts commemorating The Cure and the occasional Renaissance-inspired ensemble. Inside, we discussed worn novels with tiny notes inscribed on the edges and listened to each other wax philosophical on post-modernism and the Southern Gothic. I found solace in the rants of my classmates about why Hemingway was actually a feminist, even when I knew it was nothing more than marijuana-induced, masturbatory, right-brain dribble. We were THINKERS. The world was our oyster, its pages lined with all that we needed to know.

Imagine my surprise when I started working as a corporate proposal writer two weeks after graduation. Oh, the horror of cubicles and phrases like “value-added” and the sad little brown-bag lunches that my coworkers ate at their desks. Learning the cold, hard truth that my ability to excel in British Literature did not matter when it came to “impacting change.” Or that people would cringe when I responded to the obligatory “were you in any clubs in school” with “I produced the Vagina Monologues.” (Corporate America did not like to be reminded that it had genitalia.)

Why did the sales team, comprised mostly of men of a certain age with a fondness for arena rock, think that I could staple copies any better than the rest of them? And for the sake of all things holy, DID NO ONE HERE CARE ABOUT THE EGREGIOUS USE OF THE SEQUENTIAL COMMA?

The answer to all of these questions, I learned, was that I was in the Real World. Where absolutely nothing I had learned in the past four years could be applied to the actual work I was doing. Sure, I could dot I’s and cross T’s. My saving grace was having worked for my school newspaper, where I learned how to “thrive in a deadline-driven environment,” a phrase gleaned directly from my current resume.

My parents were thrilled I had acquired a job so quickly. Even though I hated every second of it. “Stick with it,” they said. “You are one of the lucky ones.”

That’s exactly what I did for the next 7.5 years – I stuck with the idea that I was an English major, and I was supposed to be dotting I’s and crossing T’s. I could always try to make it as a Writer, but that didn’t involve health insurance. And not having health insurance meant that I was asking to get hit by a bus, a fear my Jewish mother instilled in me early on. My string of writing jobs in various capacities did afford me some good times and better friends; my  stint at a small advertising agency was one of my favorite jobs to-date. But eventually I moved away and desk life began to wear on me. Writing for pay in a windowless office on someone else’s schedule was sucking the fun out of…writing for fun. And writing jobs in New York – corporate, university, nonprofit – are a breed of their own. I will happily work as a freelance writer any day – but the thought of going back to full-time desk life is enough to propel me through a drastic career change.

As I sit here on my second-to-last day of desk life, I am pushing away the fear of embarking upon an adventure into the sciences – to what will eventually be nursing. Seeing as how I took one biology class in four years of college, this shift is nothing if not drastic. But it is necessary. Rawr grrrrl power.

Law and Disorder

Dear citizens of New York City, you can all rest assured tonight knowing that your tax dollars are being put to good use. In order to keep potential evil-doers away from children, the city is now giving court summons to anyone seen in a playground without a child. And instead of letting said offenders pay a fine, they are required to go to court and use the city’s resources for hours on end, only to pay a $25 fine and leave.

I lived in Baltimore for three years, and let me tell you – for a place that inspired “The Wire,” (which, yes, is an accurate depiction*) its Department of Parking is nestled on the efficiency scale between the near-infinite-yet-brisk-line at any NYC Whole Foods and a German-engineered automobile. In other words, a city whose law enforcement can’t control its homicide rate invests a suspicious amount of resources in ensuring your car will be egregiously ticketed and/or towed if you are nine seconds late to feed your meter/move your vehicle.

Such backwards practices manifest themselves differently in New York, where I was issued a court summons at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon for sitting in a playground without a minor present. In New York, there is a difference between a park and a playground, the latter being a location that only welcomes those over 18 when accompanied by those under 18. In other words, if you are looking for a green space to eat your lunch after being trapped in a windowless office, you’re safer loitering outside a business next to a pan-handler. Then again, I’m not a lawyer, so don’t quote me.

I’m all about protecting the children. But the fact that I was accosted in the middle of the afternoon by two police officers who pulled me and a five-foot tall college student who was waiting in the park to meet her client, a nine-year old boy with autism, is not helping anyone. There was a regulation we were not aware of, and while it seems ridiculous, I understand. We were not given a warning, despite being confused as to why we were in trouble – we were simply written up a court summons and told that we had to appear.

Perhaps the two officers had nothing better to do, like catch an actual criminal? I mean, didn’t they realize that I had to use a whole personal day to go to court? GOSH.

The night before my court date, I spent a long time picking out my most Mature and Responsible-Looking Outfit. I pondered such questions as: Can I bring a gym bag to court? Is there a coat check? If I was already going to be downtown, I’d want to get a workout in.

When I got in line, I was appalled to see that out of the thirtysome people waiting outside – including those who failed to put their dogs on leashes, jaywalkers and those in parks after sunset – I was overdressed. Well, me and the Young Republican standing behind me, both of us schvitzing in our suit jackets.

I spent three hours waiting in awful florescent lighting, only to approach the judge’s bench and be told that I could plead guilty and pay a $25 fine.

“What does pleading guilty mean? Will I have a record?” I asked the judge, a dead-ringer for Colonel Sanders.

“Oh of course not,” he replied, laughing (laughing? In court?). “It’s not a criminal offense. You could plead guilty and still run for Senate.”

So, the city needs money and the police officers have to fill their ticket quota. Fine. But why not just give out a ticket, let “offenders’ plead guilty by mail and send in a check? I don’t think the streets are any safer, and I can’t imagine how many resources were wasted on this.

On the plus side, I made a friend – we’ll call him Jim – who asked what I was doing in court. I told him I was in a park without a child. “But you’re a woman,” he said. “I know, right?” I replied, totally getting where he was coming from. (Of all times to be given an equal opportunity, couldn’t the fact that having a vagina makes me less likely to steal a child work for me JUST THIS ONCE?) Jim wore a stained, oversized t-shirt and a pair of pants big enough for a family of four. He was contesting a ticket for possessing an open container – but like me, he was “targeted and set up.” Before we parted ways, I wanted to tell him that maybe it would be in his best interest to remove his backwards baseball hat. Then again, I’m not a lawyer, so I kept it to myself.

*I have never seen “The Wire,” but this lie is much more of a crowd-pleaser.

Happy Three-Year Anniversary, New York

Dear New York,

We’ve had a rough go. Over the course of the last 1,095 days, I have threatened to leave you for temperate climates, cities with symmetry, and nature that wasn’t imported.

You beat me down. I didn’t think I would make it through my first winter. Windy and gray, I trudged through the subway, the bottoms of my pants sagging from the wet ground, collecting all the particles of whoever came before me. It was musty and foggy, a mix of cold bodies seeking refuge in humid train cars. I couldn’t remember what streets the express train skipped. I had no connotations attached to uptown and downtown. I couldn’t carry my groceries.brooklyn

The subway, a maze of lines and colors, gritty and raw like a person born inside-out. You can see all the passageways and arteries bustling with people, hear the bongos and lonely poets begging for change. How many people are below ground at any given moment? We are living half in and half out of daylight.

I moved here with no job, no plans. We couldn’t fit the couches through the door. The cats hated each other. There was no air conditioning. I merged two friends from different phases of my life into a three-bedroom apartment further off the F-train than I would have liked. It was hot. You feel everything more here – distance, weather, weight, because you walk it, you are in it, you carry it.

It was the year of my sad, barely 18 months since my father died. Prior to moving, I was a full-time graduate student, a full-time copywriter, and a prospective law student. I would come home from work, piece together my graduate thesis and study for the LSAT. I didn’t have time to breathe. I didn’t want to.

What ensued was a year and a half of chaos. Isolation. I had been go, go, going for so long, fueled by what lay ahead, entropy, and Lexapro. If I hadn’t kept my gaze affixed on the horizon, I would have drowned. I didn’t need the now. I didn’t tread water. I paddled faster and faster and faster and hoped the shoreline would appear.

They say the first year after someone dies is the hardest. (It’s not.) The first year is raw. People call more often, send cards, ask how you are doing. Talk about it. They are delicate. And then life beats on and the pain becomes an ache beneath your chest. The skin grows back. It looks better. (It’s not.)

The layers of the city seem endless. You can keep going down deeper and deeper into the subway tunnels, the August heat so thick you can see it. Sometimes you are three, four levels down – no one tells you how far, but you find yourself climbing for what seems like hours to emerge. I imagined these were the layers of sadness. I tried to go further to the heart of it, get to the source. There was the “I,” the “you,” the lack of time. Loss was a silhouette next to the shape of missing.

They say life is short, but we only seem to remember when we are happy.

I am water. I am weightless. I am falling.

It is the second year that stings the most. The truth is an anchor. The mail is less frequent, you learn to check the “deceased” box at the doctor, and the questions stop coming. They say “passed,” you say “dead.” Semantics don’t matter. I packed my bags, set the compass north with a brick on the accelerator, and scattered my heart across state lines like ashes. I was reckless with my feelings, with the feelings of my friends. I was angry.

I want to say that New York saved me, but it was me who saved me. I was a displaced person, having never left my home state for two degrees and two big-girl jobs. But it wasn’t home anymore. My limbs had grown too long and heavy for its shelter. I scratched at my sleeves and rolled them up further and my arms got cold.

New York didn’t confine me. It allowed me to fall apart. They say we are a heartless, angst-ridden people. I say we talk louder, walk faster, and need each other more.

You learn how to make a home out of tiny spaces, you keep these things with you. You partake in one of the most juxtaposed class divides in the world. But the difference is, you have made this choice. This is not the easy way. It’s how we want it.

We live next door to artists and millionaires, widows who’ve laid claim to the neighborhood decades before their fingertips yellowed and wrinkled from the Camels. Families just beginning, middle-aged lovers beginning again.

Our lives are nothing like our neighbors’.

We are on the front line. We are ready. We never go home. The city is our structure, its streets are our living rooms. We consolidate. We need things less and people more.

I learned to lean. To say, “I can’t.” To be underemployed and complain about it, to be unemployed and not complain about it. We learn to speak in many tongues, we cannot avoid people unlike ourselves. (We learn that we really aren’t all that different.)

I love this city. I breathe it. I stare at the skyline from my apartment, cluttered with photo frames, mix-matched furniture, massive bookshelves, a TV set presumably older than me that I still don’t understand how to work. There is no such thing as storage, no privacy. We spill out of closets and windows, off balconies and into the small, green spaces.

My friends elsewhere are buying houses and making investments. I am investing in my Tuesday evening. I always carry a pair of sensible shoes and a toothbrush.

I walk home with my keys laced between my fingers.

I am ready to see it. To accept that if I walk around with my fists up, I’ll miss the sun. Suffocate from the synthetic skin of my boxing gloves, only to realize I missed the day waiting in the ring for an opponent.

I love this city, but more importantly, I love how I have come to love it. I stayed because I didn’t know where else to go. Sometimes we must sit with the uncomfortableness until it becomes home. I’ve always planned for the future or dwelled on the past. I want it to be 1998, I want it to be 2003. I miss my first love, I miss my old jeans, I miss the sound of my father’s keys hitting the counter at night.

I have learned to forgive myself, because the city will not. Other people might not. It doesn’t matter. It is noise.

Respectfully yours,

L

She’s crafty: The road to minimalism and budgetry

I am not what you would call “thrifty.” While I love a good bargain as much as the next brokester, I can’t part with free-range eggs, perfume, or herbal teas with positive affirmations and Chinese proverbs.

Even Sarah Palin can't ruin an uplifting tea bag.

After getting laid off in August, I’ve been forced to reevaluate more than just my budget. I’ve never made that much money as a writer, but I did have perks like health insurance, subsidized transportation, and ample vacation time. And when this gets taken away all of a sudden, you have to make choices.

As the cold, Northeast winter plows through the city, I find myself more content to stay inside my apartment and avoid what some people call “the outside world.” This has been a conscious effort to slow down, eat less restaurant food, and learn to enjoy the stillness of being alone. I’m cooking like a fiend, I vowed to use the National Book Award winners from 1964-present as my reading list, and I am learning to cherish solitude more than I had thought. It has helped cut down on my spending, largely unnecessary odds and ends like bottled water, meals on-the-go, and impulsive buys in the checkout line.

I’m getting better at carrying around snacks and not being lured by sale signs and coupons that teach us to spend more. It’s ingrained in our culture to spend. We associate possessions with actual human emotions–which is exactly the excuse I have been using for years.

And then I think of the New York Times article I read last summer that has yet to leave my head. It illustrated the link between (or lack thereof) having possessions and happiness. The piece highlighted a California couple who left their 9-5 jobs, sold most of their worldly goods, and downsized to a Portland, OR studio. In the end, the Mrs. was happier not being bound to Cubicle Land all day and the Mr. could pursue a PhD full-time. The concept that money can’t buy you happiness has become an even stronger mantra in this rugged economy, and I welcome the success stories:

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it…

Having recently downsized to smaller living quarters myself, I admired this exercise in minimalism. I dropped off an embarrassing number of trash bags of clothing and goods to Goodwill. At first the thought of parting with so much baggage–literally–was terrifying to my sentimental soul. I’ll save an unwearable, pit-stained t-shirt from 8th grade if it reminds me of the third time I played mini-golf. But as I piled my goods high, it began to feel liberating. I had to stop myself from purging so much that I’d need to replace essential pieces.

I’m slowly learning that my belongings are just “things.” And “money is only paper,” as my father used to say. It’s sometimes hard to remember this whilst gasping aloud at the electric bill–TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS?!–but it’s important to try.

As a friend recently told me, “you have a roof over your head, food in your fridge, and friends who love you. You’re fine.” Ain’t that the truth.

All of this extra time to think and explore other options–like freelance copy writing and magazine writing–has been an enriching experience. I am happier now carving out my own career path than I was before, tied to a job that paid the bills but didn’t fit me.

There are also some pointers, noted below, that I would like to share with the budget-conscious.

Tiny Changes! Big Differences!

No cheese

No cheddar is better.

Stop buying cheese. And all the vegans exhale a collective “duh.” My brother recently said he will know he made it when he stops looking at the price of a nice chunk of Manchego. As much as I flirt with veganism and tolerate lactose as well as the eyeballs tolerate direct sunlight, dairy is delicious and expensive. (Also, vegans are ruining my baking, and so help me Mother Earth if I ever make a cake with margarine again.)

Samples are your friend. I love Sephora almost as much as I love dogs in Snuggies. And while I used to be liberal about buying make-up as needed, I realized I can just pop into the closest Sephora before a night out. Or to give myself a hair and face tune-up when I’m on the run and my locks are flat. And there’s Sephora, like a oasis of sparkles in a desert of concrete, just waiting for me to come and sample its dry shampoo and lip gloss.

Now that I think about this, I am getting over mono…Investigate.

Sell your stuff on Ebay. It’s hard to break out of the laziness of not caring enough to post it on eBay. But my two dear friends have recently become moguls from selling their abundance of 80s cartoon paraphernalia like the He-Man and She-Ra action figures, et al. I promise you that someone out there wants your Sega Game Gear. I can only hope said person also wants my size 12 boots.

Blow this. A roll of toilet paper at the bodega is way less than a pack of tissues. Your nose will never know the difference. But make sure you bring your messenger bag to house the roll.

Exchange magazines. Get your timely news from the interweb and read your friends’ hand-me-downs for leisure reading. No one will judge you too harshly if you’re a month behind on “Garden and Gun.” Bambi’s mom will thank you.

Memory

I have been here before.

You were just learning how to walk, you wobbled around in the unfinished basement of a model home, glass bottle in hand. Everyone used glass back then. After the fall, Mom switched to plastic, and it wasn’t until years later that we’d learn what seemed softer was more harmful. Then you were crying, the realtor was next to Mom, who was on the floor, there was blood and we were driving and I was sad for you. I didn’t like it when you cried. I remember the waiting room in flashes, I remember I wasn’t scared. Dad was there. Mom was there. Dad gave me M&Ms, you came out with a bandage on your face. They said you would be fine.

Dad was there.

My phone rings. I am at brunch with Debra, we talk about boys and girls, or men and women, I can’t keep track. I feel 12 on some days, 19 on most — it’s my default age. Probably because my mother told me she cried when she turned 20. My creative writing teacher said, “if we really peaked in college, life would be depressing.”

You send a text message to say you’re in the hospital. You are coherent enough to type, you know your name, “I’m just really banged up. Be ready.”

There are no questions. We pay the bill.

I don’t cry when I see your bruised face or your toes hanging off the edge of the hospital bed. Dad had the same problem, and he was a good six inches taller. I don’t cry when you tell me you can’t remember what happened, or when I see dried tears mixed with blood in the outer crevice of your eye, or even when I see how much you look like him lying down. It had been so long.

You aren’t in the pediatric ward.

The florescent lights are so familiar, they make everyone look sterile and anonymous, they even the playing field.

Mom said riding the bike was dangerous, you said millions of people do it every day.

I think about the hazards of being alive, how even the air can hurt us. We have no choice but to inhale, we do this knowingly.

I think about how we bother to love, how we trade an unknown number of years of lovely for an unknown number of years of lonely, how we say we’ll take it all, when it comes with a price. Hearts break like collar bones and facial bones and teeth when they hit pavement. Respirators keep us breathing and promises keep us going if they’re true (but we won’t stop making them either way).

Then there are four of us. Debra, me, Cousin Jordan, who is visiting, and you. Debra finds a nurse to dress your wounds, Jordan makes phone calls. This is what family looks like, I think. This is how it evolves, shifts, we become separated by geography and the tenses in which we exist.

I take a picture of your face, it is fine on one side and battered on the left. “I’m Harvey Dent,” you say. We use my phone to make a video of you as the villain from Batman and Debra is horrified and Jordan is horrified. There are seven police officers in plain view, and we are the only ones laughing. I know it simultaneously hurts your insides and feels good to laugh. “This is what happens when someone dies,” we say, trying to make light of stiff hospital beds and intermittent beeping. “But no one is dying,” they say. And we know it is just for us, we don’t have to explain, it doesn’t matter.

And earlier that day I was with Jordan, we were talking like grown-ups do. We never talked like this, about the things that matter, women dating women and what it means to date to the dismay of the family. He told me how his parents don’t like his sister’s non-Jewish boyfriend and I said, “my mother gave up on religion when gender became an issue.”

And I don’t know what it takes to not care about these things. What it takes to see the weight of our impact, glass shards and potholes, gaps in the places we thought we could love.

In the moment of impact, he saw you heading for the pothole, he reached down and cushioned your fall, gently turned your neck to the side, it was the best he could do. He blew as hard as he could to divert the wind and all the tiny dust in the air pushed itself one way so your left side absorbed the force.

He steered your mind somewhere peaceful so the memory is a five-second flash of sun/officer/ambulance/”I can move my limbs”/hospital.

I start crying on the way home when there is nothing to say, when you realize it is 9:00 p.m. and you haven’t seen the outside since 2:00. It is dark and the day went somewhere, but you aren’t sure where. You exhale a quiet, “thank you” and I remember we are breathing.