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Flaneur Therapy in the Big City

This city is my therapy. And I love therapy. Sitting in a room and talking about all the feels and the mental stuffs can be really magical. And so is roaming around on foot with music poking rhythmically at my ear follicles. Or whatever all that anatomical business is called.

I can’t decide whether I have a low threshold for overwhelm. I know so many people knocking it out of the park, busy as all get-out, running all over the planet like mad men. It feels like I work quite a bit, but I’m not certain whether I really work any more than anyone else. I also find myself having a healthy amount of time lounging around the house playing with cars and blocks and Tupperware containers and reading “Olivia” with our toddler. My life is a busy juggle, but I don’t know, I manage to figure out adult alone down-time when I need it.

A lot of it is possible, due to my husband. I don’t often rhapsodize of his greatness because I don’t want to be “that couple”. He really does help me find a satisfactory quantity of independence. I hope that all doesn’t sound too vomit-worthy. Over-the-top smoochiness on the regular for all the interwebs to see isn’t always my intent. You guys already know we’re an item.

Anyhoots. This time of the year gets pretty hairy. My therapy practice tends to pick up right after Thanksgiving. And I’m also working in lots of churches for Advent and Christmas and soon after, when my colleagues finally get to see their own families. I do manage to get a few hours to myself here or there every week or two, but especially when my body feels like it needs more significant relaxation, I wake up almost every morning thinking of New York.

The city has always been a fantasy for me. An escape from reality. Even when I worked here. And I say “here” and not “there” because I am here, right now. I always bring my laptop and hole up in a cafe for as many hours as my bladder can hold at one sitting to tinker around with my various writing projects. Plus with this crap-for-brains short attention span, it’s hard for me to do much of anything for more than a couple hours at a time. (Why I’ll never run a marathon, reason #3216.)

A trip into NYC is a little more logistically complicated since we moved further west of the city a few years ago so it involves a higher level of planning and time. But the night before, I decide what I’m going to read, how heavy my bag will be, whether all my electronics are charged and ensuring I have a phone charger.

A relaxing trip, for me, involves lots of walking before the writing. I may walk for up to two hours in the beginning, aimlessly, listening to music. I don’t always have a plan of where I’m going. Sometimes, the night before, like last night, I had some idea of wanting Indian food. There’s a place I once ate in up in Morningside Heights, but I’m not sure it’s there anymore. And I spent an inordinate amount of time on The Google, wracking my brain for the name or even what street it was on. I also typically avoid the subway or cabs on these journeys and I have to decide whether I’m up for the time involved in walking certain distances.

Walking first was the plan today. It’s chilly, but tolerable if you’re dressed for it. As a fan of police shows, I felt right at home seeing a guy in handcuffs getting escorted to a waiting NYPD vehicle as soon as I emerged from Penn Station. I turned up my music and walked.

Just like when I begin meditating, I slowly enter a trance, albeit a self-aware one. I have a healthy understanding of my surroundings, such that I’m always mindful of being the target of a shady criminal. I think pilots call it “situational awareness”. Someone calls it something like that. Today I chuckled, remembering my father saying to me once, when I called him on my lunch hour sitting in Bryant Park, “Don’t you ever worry about someone stabbing you in the back?” And then I wondered if he meant that literally or figuratively, but perhaps that’s a story for another day. A reading from the Book of George.

I’ve always loved cities. But I’ve mostly lived just on the periphery of them. There are lots of reasons for that, including possibly the desire for a city to always remain magical for me. That perhaps if I were to live there, it would lose its shimmer. I’ve also lived in enough apartments and listened to enough people snoring and coughing that I certainly don’t chomp at the bit to spend three grand a month living in a shoebox to listen to a neighbor urinating in the middle of the night.

I also have a mixed relationship with driving. I don’t hate it. Traffic isn’t my favorite, but the solitude of being in a car or having a private conversation or singing my crappy tunes or rapping is something I’d miss if I lived in a city.

It’s the holidays and even early in the morning, the tourists are out. I don’t completely avoid them. New York City is a place where thousands of people see it for the first time every single day. I love to see their wonder. I was once like them, too. I feel like I still am, after living over the river – and points further and further west – for over eighteen years. I love watching their smiles, pointing, and how they try not to look like tourists. How their eyes travel upwards, to see the buildings touch the sky.

I walk and walk and watch. And listen. The languages of a hundred nations commingling as we together pass through intersections.

This city saves my life every time. It’s been saving it since I arrived so long ago. These are the streets where I’ve worked out my grief, my failures, my career dissatisfaction, my failed relationships. Days when I’ve gotten really bad news or suffered a loss. Miles and miles of questions asked and problems solved and resolved and everything in between.

These are also the streets that have helped center my dreams and desires. The streets where I figured out what’s best for me. And what don’t work for me: CUBICLES AND FORTY-HOUR WORKWEEKS! And PowerPoint. And wearing a lanyard with a laminated picture of myself on a noose around my neck; please…don’t misunderstand me. If this is your life and you love it, I love you for it. But it took me decades to realize I don’t completely play well with others.

And I’m going to bring in the nausea-induction one more time and mention that I also learned on these streets that I had a fellow flaneur in the man who became my spouse. We carried on an email relationship for a short while before we met and I recall one day, walking all over Manhattan, bantering like crazy with this guy. He was regaling me with stories about flood data in the English countryside and some guy he grew up with that they called Dave Clark Bar while I concealed from him that I worked at a church and gave him various clues to try and figure out where someone would work that there would be various robes and drapey sorts of garments worn.  I was that dumb-dumb, furiously typing my most eloquent puns and cliches into my circa 2009 pink Blackberry. And doing it all with a silly grin on my face.

Early in our relationship, I traveled alone to Paris and it wasn’t until then that I knew that flaneuring was a thing for them. I spent hours roaming des rues (see how sophisticated I am? I used Google Translate to remember how to say “the streets” in French), listening to an MP3 player of music he gave me before I left. We do The Flaneur with our own Jersey flair. It’s significantly faster than the French, but we share a healthy distrust of scammers. (Unlike Paris, no one approaches you in New York asking you if you’ve “just dropped this gold ring”.)

At a certain time of day during these treks, I feel a little twinge of loneliness. I like being alone, but I also love sharing everything I see. I’m making a mental note of people and things I see.

So it’s probably about time to seek out some lunch. I’ve had sat in this place for a couple of hours. Chit-chatted with some people who weren’t from around here. Worked on a little writing. And thought about how much I love it here.  I’m at the corner of a complicated intersection near Lincoln Center so I have my choice of about seven streets to walk down. It’s time for some more Jersey-flavored flaneur therapy.

Our Refrigerated Summer

It’s probably been some time that my age has characterized me as a dinosaur to younger people.  My upbringing contained such absurdities as rotary telephones, no use of seat belts, copious amounts of sugar, breads, and fatty meats, and a television set that not only lacked a remote, but it had a record player and an 8-track player built into it.

During our vacation to the Outer Banks, we took an early-morning walk and heard a symphony of various insects, whirring and buzzing.  It catapulted me back forty years to the memory of what summer sounded like to me.

We lived in a house without an air conditioner.  Can you believe it?

Well, I should say, we did not get an air conditioner until I was maybe twelve years old and it resided downstairs in the back corner window of the family room where we hardly ever went.  Funny side story…the foundation of this part of the house was built into a side of a small hill and once when we had a tornado warning, in the early afternoon while Bonanza was on, my mother whisked us down into a closet until it passed.  So it wasn’t even necessarily a hot part of the house so why they decided to put the window unit down there, I’ll never know.

This is all sort of off the top of my head and the only panel of experts I can summon on vacation at the moment is my husband.  (I’m currently taking a break from using my telephone – not the rotary one with the twisted-up cord; I actually am addicted to my iPhone – and also on very limited bursts of time on the internet.)  He’s somewhat older than I am, but he concurred that his youth didn’t include use of an air conditioner.

Because we survived summer with the windows open as well as a few fans in the house – into which we sometimes inserted pieces of paper to see if we could slice them and also derived great joy of the distorted sounds our voices became when we sang or talked into them – I heard every sound of summer.

I love being outdoors, but I’m not much of a nature buff.  Even as a child, I somehow lacked the curiosity about what this bird was called or what that insect sounded like.  So I can’t even tell you who the buzzing and whirring belonged to.  I sort of just thought they were tree frogs and/or various varieties of insects, many of them tapping away their own sort of sultry rhythm.

Of course, there were the other sounds:  those of kids playing outside, cars rolling down our street, an occasional lawn mower, or the filter from our neighbors’ swimming pool.  But I realize that the soundtrack of my summer was always this hum of nature-y things that lived in the birch trees and weeds that dotted the culm bank across the street from our house.  (Culm bank, you ask?  It’s short-hand in the coal mining areas for waste product from the mines.  I mean, there’s probably a lot more to the definition, but I’ve already established that I’m not much of a scientist.)

Without a summer of windows open, one where a cool breeze is flowing 24/7 through our place, we are deprived from all of those sounds.  Even sitting here, where we are currently staying, I can hear those outdoor sounds, but they’re through the filter of the hum of central air.  It sort of feels like being confined to a comfortable refrigerator.

Now that I’ve established that I have been missing being lulled to sleep by these outside sounds, maybe I’ll make more of an effort to sleep with the windows open.  If I can convince my husband to join me in this endeavor…

Perfectionist Tendencies

A few years ago, I began a meditation practice. Whatever I do is not super-fancy and I can’t exactly even identify what sort of meditation I do. I was inspired to begin when I read Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. What I love about his book is that he’s a skeptical sort of sarcastic guy and I can relate to that. My meditation practice has ebbed and flowed over the years and I can say that I’ve seen a great deal of payoff from it. I love meditation so much that when I’m not able to do it, I yearn for it, almost like being hungry. That sounds so dumb, but I love it like food.

But the point of this post isn’t necessarily about meditation. It’s about perfection.

I listen to podcasts when I have long drives to make, which is fairly frequent due to my work as a freelance church organist. Playing on weekends or for funerals during the week, I can drive upwards of 100 miles in one day. Dan Harris’ podcast is one of my favorites for many reasons. He has a great speaking voice, is a generous interviewer, and has a way of getting people to speak about all sorts of things. I also always have various news crushes (Dan is on ABC, though I rarely see him.) and he is among the select few I adore. This afternoon, I listened to an episode where he interviews his wife, Bianca, who plays a role in Dan’s new book because of her own circuitous journey into a meditation practice.

Why her interview struck me so much is that she identified herself as having “perfectionist tendencies”. Here is a woman, likely younger than me, who has a successful career as a doctor and has been served well, in some ways, by being a perfectionist.

I have a mixed relationship with being perfect. It played a big role in my early childhood when I was recognized for academic stuff that my peers weren’t yet doing. Spelling unusually large words in first grade. Playing Mass on a large pipe organ without an adult present with me by sixth grade. Eventually, my behavior normalized and there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about it.

I knew being perfect – playing all the right notes and getting really good grades – was my ticket out of a town where I never felt like I fit in.

By the time I got to high school, anything resembling perfection was impossible. A great deal of instability in my family interfered with my ability to do much of anything. I learned shame very quickly and that has been very hard to shake. Shame for not having a seemingly functional life. Shame for all sorts of dirty secrets I was pretty sure that other girls my age weren’t keeping. I knew I had to keep on a brave face, keep showing up at school (even though by senior year, I was a chronic school-skipper, forging excuses and disguising my voice when the school called to ask where I was), even though I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers. Peers who seemed to have a much smoother life than I did with parents who cared about their day, or came to see your shitty concerts or school plays without telling you how terribly boring they are.

Sometime during my college career, I realized I was not perfect. It’s not something I gave up on due to a revelation or sense of enlightenment. I’m ambivalent about perfection: I want to be someone who cares about perfection; or do I? I gave up because I don’t feel capable of it. I often have an expectation that I can’t hit the mark and I’m simply not going to necessarily excel. I know exactly how that sounds, having been through my own therapy as well as working with clients on this issue. It’s not easy to concisely talk about or write about in a way that still allows me a small modicum of privacy surrounding it. I had very little support or encouragement growing up, other than the amazing teachers in my life and they probably didn’t realize how troubled my life really was. It’s humbling to be in touch with a number of them now as an adult and more fully share with them how important they were to me. More than they ever knew they were.

Maybe perfection itself really isn’t that important because it’s not humanly possible. There’s a lot of “messy” in my life. Complicated relationships with my family, questions I have about what I’m doing with my life, pressures both from within and outside about becoming a parent at an advanced age, working two busy jobs (as the owner of my own private psychotherapy practice and as a freelance church organist) that, to many people, seem like “fun” and not actually a very busy work schedule, and coordinating child care with a husband whose work also has its own demands. Life seems like it’s in free-fall all the time. Even typing all that feels like a whole load of crazy. And much of the time, I am fine with that and I am proud of my life, especially in all the crazy ways I got here. But occasionally, when someone makes a remark about how the pressures in my life are no different from anyone else, it makes me want to curl up into a ball and call it a day.

What I know about myself is I’m not someone who thrives in chaos. I think most people do not, but many people like to think they do…and they let everyone know it. I can stew in my juices a little and beat myself up about why I’m not Dr. Bianca Harris, a successful doctor in the big city I still dream of calling home someday. Of course I have larger dreams that I am also working behind the scenes to achieve and hope I can bring them to fruition.

Sometimes it’s very easy for me to say that somehow I’m “less than” because I’m not a doctor or a career woman or a world traveler or a skinny person or whatever garbage other women think has value. But if I just take the time, and slow down the tape, I can look at my life and say that I arrived here by sheer tenacity and belief in myself that, for me, I do not function in structure or in cubicles and I fought for years to escape both. This year will signal a full decade not answering someone’s phone or managing someone’s calendar. Now I’m in a position to need someone to help me manage my own life.

I don’t know how to wrap this up. Just to say, I guess, that I think all of us have a mixed relationship with our desire and ability to be perfect. And being imperfect doesn’t make us “less than”, it makes us human.

It’s Not Like I’m Dying or Anything

I make a terrible sick person. I’m not demanding or too complaining, at least that’s never been revealed to me. When I don’t feel well, I try to be chipper and make light of it.

So how does this make me terrible? Well, terrible in the sense that it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to get me to not go to work. Not that I’m such an ardent warrior about my work, believe me. I’m not Mrs. Career Woman who has something to prove that I can’t bear to be away from my work for a day. What I mean is that when I start getting sick, I ask myself, “am I sick enough to take a day off?”

I rarely get sick. I just told someone this the other day and boom, the next day, I had a sore throat. But honestly, I can go an entire year without a cold or stomach virus or whatever. My running joke, “thank God for immune systems” is due to the fact that I don’t use hand sanitizer, I’m not a germaphobe, and I have no problem being around sick people. I think I’ve just built up a tolerance. Even in years I worked in hospital and medical settings, the only time I had what may have been the dreaded flu, it was during an outbreak that was so widespread that the hospital I worked in was temporarily closed. That was twelve years ago. Oh, and the only time I’ve had a flu shot was during pregnancy.

My father had also never been sick. Sure, he had a sniffle here or there and that was pretty much it. I don’t know if they still make it, but periodically he’d take a Dristan for “sinus”, as people of a certain age say. He worked at the same office for nearly thirty-five years and didn’t need to call out sick until he was in his mid-sixties. I vaguely remember some sort of inner ear infection that caused him dizziness once, but it was probably over forty years ago by now. Even while my father was in assisted living and in a nursing home, he never picked up any sort of ailment that was going around.

Now that I’m a parent, I’m told, that will change, and I will be sick all the time. Which is what led me to get a cold of sorts this week. While I was singing at a funeral on Friday morning, I had gotten a cough toward the end of Mass, but thought nothing of it. Late that night, my friend asked me to sing for her at a Saturday Mass as they were stranded in another state due to inclement weather that messed up all the flights. It felt like I was getting a sore throat, but I denied it.

Oh, it’s just a tickle in my throat, I said, which is how these things always begin with me. It’s never, holy cow, my throat is on fire [which it was], let me ask my friend to find someone else to sing on Saturday. It’s always I’M FINE I’M FINE I’M FINE. And yes, to prove that I was fine, I went to the gym and ran for an hour because it’s the beginning of the year and I have resolutions and all. By the end of the Mass on Saturday evening, my throat felt like I had swallowed broken glass and I’m quite certain my voice sounded like Weezy Jefferson. The lady who told me my singing was “lovely” after Mass was just being polite. I’m sure of it.

Driving home, en route to pick up something for dinner at the store, I sneezed at least twenty times in a row. Denial. But what was I going to do? I had to play a Mass on Sunday morning and it’s not like I can just “call off” like people with normal jobs do. So I did something uncharacteristic of me: I went to bed and woke up and took some generic Day-quil. I think so little of my ability to get sick, I don’t even buy the brand-name stuff. Add to that, it must have been in our closet for a number of years because it’s just about to expire.

I felt good enough to get through it and then went home. After a few hours, I went back out to do grocery shopping for the week, and I forget what else I did. I was having a lot of symptoms that people get when they have colds: runny nose, congestion, feelings of maybe a fever, cough. All that fun stuff.

But even when I got up this morning, feeling worse than I did yesterday, I had to go to work in the afternoon. I’m also moving into a new office space and needed to make some phone calls. Coughing into the phone didn’t convince me that I’m sick. I’m still not super convinced, but I’m getting there. I had a number of clients scheduled, but because I canceled some due to the weather last week, I couldn’t not see them again this week. So I powered through and did two sessions and canceled everyone else.

And I feel incredibly guilty. I convince myself most of the time that being sick is in my head. I can appreciate when other people are sick and give others the benefit of the doubt when they are not feeling well. But I am my own worst enemy. Did I earn the right to stay home today? Even while I was seeing the two clients, I was conversing with myself, wait, could I have probably been fine enough to see the people I canceled? What’s wrong with me that I can’t sit here just because I have a cold? Rather than acknowledge that maybe staying home and watching TV might be something that could help me heal, I’d rather beat myself up and say maybe I’m just lazy.

I’m pretty self-aware and have processed a great deal of how my upbringing has influenced the adult I’ve become. I don’t have many recollections of being made to feel guilty for being sick. Was my sickness underestimated by people at times, yeah maybe. And perhaps that’s why I have a very strong denial system in place when I’m not feeling well. I can’t admit to myself that I’m sick because, on the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m dying or anything. I hope that when I am dying, I can maintain the same attitude.

So, this didn’t need to be as long as it was. And maybe it should just be in my journal. But heck, I guess it’s better that I’m home, putting my germy fingers all over my computer instead of coughing germs into my clients’ faces.

A generic New Year’s way-too-long message. Because everyone else is doing it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Since I gave birth to my first child in 2017, I have posted just once. Stories of all sorts that I’d love to share are always swirling in my mind. But I never seem to get them down on paper. My husband is way better at doing this sort of stuff and even as we speak, he is writing a post for his own blog.

I have tons and tons of excuses – or maybe not excuses, but more explanations as to why I don’t post as frequently as I could. I should be doing more professional writing for the website for my psychotherapy practice. In the last year that I have been a one-man-band in my own practice, I’ve learned more about websites and SEO (yawn) and marketing and even I’m getting drowsy typing out some of the business-y things that go into being a solo act. So sometimes when I think of things to share here, I sort of sigh and say, well, maybe the time would be better spent putting together something for that other website.

Then there’s also the creative block sort of business that I deal with that seems to be getting harder and harder to get over. One of my favorite books of all time is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s hard as hell, both in terms of commitment (if you do it the way its intended), but also in facing some of the emotional brick walls that we all face when we know we have some creative stuff inside us and it just won’t come out. I’ve been a life-long journal-keeper and try to write everyday. I’ve maintained that practice within a few days of having our child and I continue to do so as often as I can.

But I struggle with the desire to be more creative and have been battling with a memoir for a number of years now. I have a story inside myself and in various notebooks and Word documents on my computer. I don’t know if it means anything, but a few instructors have encouraged me to put a proposal together in some classes I’ve taken. But you know what? I am scared shitless. When I express my frustration that I’m struggling writing, well-meaning friends use the demands of motherhood as an excuse, that I should give myself a break, that I’m managing my practice as well as continuing to play organ all over the place on weekends, blah blah blah.

On the surface, those things are all true. And for normal people who know their boundaries and limitations, they’d say, OK, let’s come back to it when we have a little more time. But I feel like I just cannot let it go. I dream about this story and I mull over the arc when I’m out running or going about my day-to-day activities or when I hear a song on the radio. So what am I supposed to do? Whether I were writing a symphony or painting something or writing a book, I think I’d be equally scared of emotionally revealing myself on a grander scale. In my close relationships with people, I am reasonably comfortable with vulnerability, but the what-if machine really does kick in and nail my motivation down as if it were an errant nail in a board.

I think a lot of creative and often super-talented people have all sorts of creative works in their homes. Painted canvasses stuffed in closets, notebooks hidden away in boxes, hard drives full of music. Stuff that’s just tucked away for fear of being seen. I feel it, too.

I’m sort of rambling here. Today I joined a Facebook group whose intent is to coach participants to write 500 words per day. So while I’m a day late hopping on the bandwagon, I ran extra hard today and jumped on board. Not unlike the video for “Say, Say, Say” when Michael Jackson hopped in the back of the wagon every time the townsfolk knew he and the McCartneys were snake oil sales-people. What the video has to do with the song, I’ll never know. And what this video has to do with me jumping on to a 500-word-a-day writing habit, also remains a pretty slippery association. I’m hoping to apply the 500 words daily to this story I’ve been writing, but if not that, to hopefully stir up the creative juices to do more blog posts either here or on my website or whatever else comes out of me. It sometimes feels like an exorcism and we all know from the movie that that is sometimes not a pretty picture either.

If I didn’t have to get myself to the office today, maybe I’d write 1,000 words to make up for the day. Even in my rambling, I’m sort of shocked already that I’ve written over 900 words so maybe I really could belly up to the bar and say something meaningful (don’t hold your breath!).

I do have a few topics on my mind for this blog that are posts for another time. Things about stuff. How’s that for vague? Like even stupid stuff I experience every once in a while. Exhibit A: Over the summer I thought of writing about the nice man who was riding his bike on the trail in the opposite direction while I was running. And I kept running even though I was tired and wanted to stop and didn’t want him to see that I was a wussy and needed to take a breather. So I kept running to save face and after he passed me, waved and said “nice job”, because I was running uphill and still had a ton of baby weight clinging to my frame, I ran 50 more feet and nearly fell flat on my face when I tripped on an exposed tree root. See, stupid stuff like that. It’s what the internet is yearning for. Everybody else does it; why can’t I? It’s not unlike my lifelong struggle to learn the guitar. Probably the easiest instrument on the face of the earth to play and while I can play a few other instruments reasonably well, the guitar seems way over my head.

So I don’t know what the point of this whole thing is. I haven’t decided whether to even share a link to this blog post because WTF is it really saying anyway? I should pull the plug on it because I need to get showered up and leave in 30 minutes to get to my office. It’s not good form for a client to beat you to the office. Heh heh.

Here’s to a more expressive and creative new year! And with that, I sign off. My 500-word goal became over 1100 words.

Stewing in My Frugal Juices

quarter

Let’s get the awkwardness out of the way.  As you can see, it’s been awhile since I’ve been here.  Various things in life have interfered with my ability to think up new and imaginative things worthy of a blog post here.  That being said, in my professional life, I’ve begun another website with a blog and much of my energy goes into thinking up new and imaginative things to post there!  There’s also a bunch of performance anxiety that goes into the work-related blog posts, especially the ones that are often scrutinized by fellow professionals or potential clients.  For example, I just posted one yesterday that has the same amount of words as this one…except it took me four days to write it, due to all the hemming and hawing and worrying about how it turned out.

I’m going to cut the excuses and post something very quick that I witnessed yesterday.

At our local grocery store, you have to put a quarter into a little mechanism to get a shopping cart.  The carts are chained together and once you put the quarter in, it releases the chain.  You then go and do your shopping and when you’re done, you return the cart to the corral, stick the chain into the mechanism and your quarter pops back out.

As I was leaving the store yesterday, I saw a man who was parked in the closest handicapped space to the door making his way to return his cart.  I saw him as I was exiting and, most of the time, I would have offered to return the cart (and retrieve his quarter) for him so that he didn’t have to walk all the way to the corral and back to his car.  But here’s my lame excuse:  I was pushing my own cart and after having had a baby a few weeks ago, I’m still in a fair amount of pain myself from a couple of old busted-up discs in my back.  My limping was about the same as the man’s.  So I had hoped that another customer in our nice town would come by to help him out.

A man in his early 20s came by and offered to take the cart off his hands.  But here’s why I have not been able to stop thinking about it.  That’s exactly what he said, “Can I take the cart off your hands?”  The young man was going to simply take the cart, not return it to fetch the guy’s quarter.

I sat in my car for a few moments wondering about the quarter.  The elderly gentleman put a quarter in to get his cart and he was leaving Shop-Rite twenty-five cents lighter.  Was the young man dodging the need to part with his own quarter, even though he would have gotten it back in the end?  Is he also of that generation of which I am a part who has zero coinage on them at any given time and he used his sweet-talking ways to bilk the man from his quarter because he simply didn’t have one?

What does it say about me that I am so concerned about the twenty-five cents?  I do lean toward the frugal end of the spectrum, but does this indicate that I am a massive cheapo that is going to waste precious energy worrying about a quarter?  Am I also wondering whether the man who is down twenty-five cents left the store equally peeved about his lost quarter?

It’s possible that I am making a bigger deal about this than I should, right?

This song is about…

On a recent episode of “All Songs Considered”, Bob and Robin introduced a song by a group they have been fawning over for some time. “This song is about dementia,” one of the hosts said. Oh, I thought, this is something I’ve got to hear, I thought sarcastically.

I’ve never been a fan of songs about things. Certainly, some of my more high-minded friends have criticized my poor musical taste so perhaps my intellect prevents me from fully connecting with songs about things. When you go a concert, the second the performer says, “this song is about…” I know it’s time for me to hit the ladies’ room.

Part of me is embarrassed to admit this way of thinking. I propagate this image of myself as some sort of creative type, but I can never wrap my head around the need to preface a song or most other art forms with “this song is about…” Maybe my taste tends to lean toward art/music that speaks for itself from a deep emotional state. Or even a pop music sort of superficial place.

I was out on a walk when I heard the song that was about dementia. Rather than following my instinct to shut it off, I told myself to open my mind instead. On a personal note, my father was diagnosed with dementia six or seven years ago. After trial and error through different levels of independent living, I had to place him in a nursing home because I am unable to meet his needs. While he knows who I am, he knows very little about me. He either doesn’t remember stuff (he has not understood that he is in New Jersey all these years) or it possibly falls into his lifelong pattern of not being interested enough to pay attention to anything that happens in my life. So because of my complicated lifelong relationship with him, feeling nostalgic for some long departed devotion for him gets pretty muddled.

I considered why this group opted to write a song about dementia. The hosts needed to explain that it is written in the perspective of the person with dementia and they posited that the individual was yearning for their old life. It required too much backstory and I grew bored by it all. The thought of spending my money to purchase a song like this is the last thing I want to do. Songs about causes – or progressive illnesses – have limited usage. If you have people over, do you want to put the dementia song in a playlist for your guests? Is this something you’d enjoy singing along with as you’re stuck in traffic during your commute? As a business owner, would you play this on the sound system for your customers?

As most artists, this group wants to make a living doing their art. Maybe they are hoping to get some recognition from the dementia community or, heck, even get a write-up in the AARP magazine.

But for me, I’m not interested in schtick. Here’s to tunes that make me tap my toes or sway or dance around life. Or at least make traffic more tolerable.

Call Me Irresponsible

Very few people are perfect, not even those who broadcast that they have no biases of any kind. I’ll bet that a fair amount of those sorts of folks say incredibly rude and hurtful things about some other group. I believe, though, that our entire character cannot be boiled down based on one Facebook comment or tweet. Because so many things breeze through our news feed, it’s become easier in our busy lives to say “that guy’s a racist” or “look at that bigot” or “she’s fat.”

A few days ago, news reports buzzed across the internet of a controversial picture of Michael Buble, taken in Miami by his wife. He was posing off to the side, looking directly at the camera. Left of center, a young woman appeared to be ordering at a counter and we only see her from behind. Buble uploaded the photo to Instagram, accompanied by a handful of hashtags that included the following: #myhumps, #babygotback, #hungryshorts. Probably out of fear of being perceived as rude, his final hashtag was #beautifulbum.

As I’ve babbled on through nearly every blog post, I have body image issues. Most people do, even if they won’t admit it. A lot of people say that they don’t care about what other people think, but I bet if anyone took a picture of your ass, mocked you, and then it spread all over the internet, you probably would be mortified. I know I would be. In the last few days, I’ve wondered who this woman is. Was she upset that Buble took her photo and shared it without her knowledge? That it wasn’t just Michael Buble commenting on her rear – it was also his wife; she took the picture! Would it have made a difference to her if he had said something flattering?

Because I usually give people the benefit of the doubt on social media, I thought a little bit about Michael Buble. His celebrity gives him a little more leeway in some respects, but it could also potentially backfire, too. I’ve never been a huge fan of his necessarily, but from now on, I will always associate his poor judgment to upload that picture with his name.

In the interest of full disclosure, I made a not-so-nice comment on a friend’s picture the day after the Buble picture made the rounds. A very nice friend of mine snapped a photo of a man wearing a woman’s bikini and carrying a purse in Times Square. “Did he just come from WalMart?” I wrote, calling out the well-known site, PeopleofWalmart.com. The moment I hit ‘post’, I regretted what I said. The image of Michael Buble’s goofy face, mocking a young woman’s behind, flashed into my head. I realized I was no better.

I could have removed the comment. In the world we now occupy, where every word that comes forth from our fingertips is parsed and weighed for its degree of sensitivity, some people would excoriate me for being a horrible person. They might state that this is my opportunity to model proper internet etiquette by stating that I erred in my judgment and I would be removing my comment. I believe this would imply that I thought they were jerks and that I was also a jerk for having made a WalMart comment to begin with.

This led me to consider the type of guy my friend is. We are acquaintances, but I know he is active in his church and community, is successful in his career, and has a wonderful family. Dare I consider the possibility that he might be a horrible human being for sharing this picture? If so, who would I be to point my finger in the face of the comments and sanctimoniously elevate myself on some Zuckerbergian pedestal?

With the venomous tone that social media has taken in its effort to be the arbiter of righting every perceived wrong in the world, so much of the fun seems to have been let out of my use of social media. Every status update, uploaded photo, and comment goes through my internal screen, considering whether I might upset anyone. Will atheists be irked by my references to my Catholic faith? Will people in unhappy relationships be angry that my husband and I appear to like each other? Is someone’s blood pressure rising that I don’t really see the allure of Trader Joe’s? Or Joe Biden?

After deliberating for a couple of days, I opted not to delete my comment. It does not condense my entire humanity and what I stand for. The fast pace of social media has shaped a belief that an entire dossier on someone’s psyche can be developed, based on whether she clicked a thumbs-up button.

Michael Buble has brought joy to millions of people all over the world with his music. He seems like a nice and respectable guy and covers lots of Frank Sinatra’s songs including “Call Me Irresponsible”. So if you’re going to call Michael “irresponsible” for using poor judgment on social media, you’ll have to call me that, too.

You’re Never Too Old to Set New Goals

Yesterday, I ran my longest race – the 10K Cherry Blossom Run in Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ.  I kept the tunes flowing to drown out the sound of my labored breathing and the strikes of superstar runners all around me.  I kept cranking up the volume as I heard the cheers at the finish line growing closer.  I knew it was there in the distance, but if I focused on it, I feared the road would feel much longer.  I don’t usually have that eye-of-the-tiger, “you got this” mentality.

Intellectually, I know I can do this, but during the race, I started to fray at the edges.  By the fourth mile, the weight of my legs felt heavier with every step.  On a quick walk break, I texted Sam that I was “losing it” and was “delirious”, which was so misspelled that auto-correct didn’t even bother.  How the hell does Dean Karnazes do 100-mile marathons?  Boy, the Cathedral bells sound beautiful this morning!  Is that a dead skunk I smell?  Sam had crossed the finish line before me and came to cheer me on.  I kept my head down as we ran together the last quarter-mile.  I squeezed my eyeballs hard to restrain the tears.  When I saw that my finish time was better than I expected, I bawled.  Sobbing and shuffling across the finish line, I sniffled with tears of pride as I thanked the nice lady who gave me a medal.

As I’ve grown older, it’s been harder to accomplish goals.  Adult responsibilities vie for our time as we battle decades of intrusive self-talk.  Sometimes, I’ve decided giving up is easier than combatting the yelling in my head.  But lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic about the upcoming anniversary of an accomplishment.

During my freshman year of college, a family hardship forced me to leave school unexpectedly.  It felt like the world collapsed on me.  After the initial shock, I refused to roll into a ball, even though attending community college often made me want to.  My dream was to leave the town I grew up in and get a college education, even though I would be the first in my family to complete one.  It took me over two years of letters (the kind you write on paper, slip into an envelope, and drop into a blue box with an eagle on it) and telephone calls to figure out how I was going to get into a college I could pay for on my own.  At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I was at the mercy of using what is now called a land-line which was frequently out of service due to my mother’s difficulty keeping up with her bills.  During those periods, I’d stockpile pocketsful of change and walk to the convenience store at the corner to call admissions, financial aid, and the registrar at the University of Pittsburgh, all while cars idled behind me in the parking lot.

Soon after my twenty-first birthday, I rented a 20-foot U-Haul truck with my car on a trailer behind, and drove six hours, alone, out to Pittsburgh to the roach-infested efficiency apartment I rented from a lady who had lipstick on her teeth.  At first I didn’t know a soul until I connected with a friend from high school who was also a Pitt student.  It took me two hard years to finish my degree there.  Without support from my family, most days felt like a struggle.  For a long time, I drowned in self-pity.  It felt like students all around me spent their days playing Frisbee on campus, studying abroad, and going to parties, all while their parents kept their money flowing.

So when I recently decided to move my career in a different direction, I set a new goal.  On Sunday, May 3rd, I will run my first half-marathon in Pittsburgh, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of my graduation.

I will celebrate those years of struggle.  I will celebrate every cockroach in my apartment.  And every day that I had to work with a lecherous guy who made comments about my appearance.  And every time I chuckled seeing Handyman Joe Negri from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood walking through the music building.  And every time the bus downtown made the turn that showed the spectacular Pittsburgh skyline and I felt so blessed to be working toward something I so desperately wanted.

Some people achieve enormous goals, but accomplishing a degree from the University of Pittsburgh felt like climbing a mountain at times.  I’m sure parts of the half-marathon are going to feel that way, too.  I will call on that focused and fearless young woman I once was to mute the volume on my inner critic.  I can guarantee that I could probably fill all three of those Pittsburgh rivers with tears of joy when I cross the finish line.

…So Can You!

The concept of self-help has played a role in my life since adolescence.  It appeals to the seeker side of me that is always looking for hope and is also bound up in a complicated web with my spirituality and faith life.  It has its flaky side for sure, but I’ve always approached it with a healthy attitude of skepticism.  A fair amount of what comes down the pike as self-help often only benefits the bank account of the pusher.

I’m not sure that I want to reveal myself as a fan of Oprah, per se, but I do watch shows on her network.  My DVR records Super Soul Sunday because I enjoy the discussion of faith, creativity, and how people overcome obstacles.  I will admit that the Oprah Cheese Factor turns me off – like at the end of the opening credits, she holds up a mug and says “get your chai on”, which is a plug for her Starbucks tea line.  Oh, and if her guest says something she deems profound, she will call it a “tweetable moment” and say “tweet tweet”.  Sigh.  I am a dork for continuing to watch this show.  However, she has had some wonderful guests on like Brene Brown, Steven Pressfield, and Diana Nyad.

I am cynical about empires of indoctrination like the one Oprah helms.  Her reach is so powerful that her company commands $375 for a weekend pass to attend workshops and events presented by gurus who claim to help you “Live Your Best Life”.  Having been exposed to a fair amount of content by many of these people, I am well acquainted with their tone of “If I can do it, so can you!”

Oprah-Car-Giveaway-4

So often, these stories involve light-bulb moments where the protagonist has a revelation that includes one of these possible scenarios:

  • A marriage falls apart/family problems emerge due to over-work
  • Near-death experience or loss of a loved one
  • A non-life-threatening tragedy, like a fire or when health has limited one’s abilities to continue living life as usual
  • Some sort of mistake that has repercussions on one’s relationships

As a result, they can no longer keep going in the way they have been for the last several years.

As a consumer of Oprah culture, I’ve asked myself how much impact this content has had on keeping my own life on track.  I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and have gone through some times that, frankly, I can’t believe I’ve emerged from.  I, too, have had a light-bulb moment in the last several months that shares similarities with some of these stories.  While rowing a boat for the first time in my life on my honeymoon, I realized I had missed out on valuable time with my loved ones due to a rigid work schedule.

The difference with my own “Aha moment”, as Oprah would call it, is that I’m not like these folks who appear on TV, blathering about how wonderful life is, now that I’ve had this moment.  I have no book deal, product line, or anything of the sort to promote.  Every one of these guests is there to hawk something.  These folks might allude to things “being hard”, but it’s a safe bet that none of them were exactly a paycheck away from homelessness when they had their moment.  People who work themselves to death at the expense of their families can probably afford to scale back…sell off a vacation home, nix the weekly family ski trips, or get rid of the BMW and drive a Honda instead.  For most normal people juggling their jobs and families, suffering through ongoing rate hikes on their rent, transportation, or health insurance while not getting raises, just picking up and changing it Oprah-guru-style probably feels pretty impossible.

I suppose the allure of watching these stories isn’t much different from the appetite millions of us have for diet books.  Or reality shows.  Or lottery tickets.  Maybe we want to keep hope alive that these relatable people on TV are just like us.  After all, if they can do it, so can you!