Choices, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Treat Jar

Comedy

The professor wears plaid clogs.  She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks.  I tell her I like her style.  She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes.  She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes.  The plaid clogs?  Tenure-track shoes.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Full professor, going up next year.”

“Have you scoped out the shoes?”

She shakes her head.  “Oh no, that would jinx it.”  Then she grins.  “Which is a total lie.  There are these boots,” she sort of moans.  “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”

This concept mystifies me.  One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise.  Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton.  Another takes herself on a cruise.  I clap along but something rankles.  We’re dogs now?  We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?

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Fitness, Things I Can

70. Things I Can See: Her Beat, Mine

Two Women Dance

The girl who drove the Volkswagen bus plastered in Dead stickers fell off the face of the earth after graduation. West is what I heard. Community bordering on cult, new name. I pictured her in a homespun dress drawing water from the well for backwoods apostles.

She popped up on Facebook — as we all do — 25 years later. No bonnet, no copper kettle. Her profile shot is blazing female Gumby, bronzed flesh arched in a yoga bridge against the setting sun. The other photos are strappy heels, flashing sequins, rhumba beats and a man in a fedora testing the limits of her psoas muscle by pressing her stretched leg flat against his chest before dropping her into a dip.

Continue reading “70. Things I Can See: Her Beat, Mine”

Career, Things I Can

22. Things I Can Glimpse: The Cathedral

To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it “contaminated time.”

– Hanna Rosin, “You’re Not as Busy as you Say you Are” at Slate.com

I click send on a project that’s consumed most of the morning. Before a sense of pride dares peek up out of the foxhole, another directive slams down from above. In an email, a whole group of colleagues receives word that I will provide them with a collection of updated materials by Monday. I’ve been copied in on this but not otherwise warned. At least seven major deadlines are breathing down my neck, and they all come between now and the start of next week.

Aside from those concrete projects, the inbox is spilling over, three people are waiting for replies to pressing questions, and a series of delicate emails is in the queue. These will undoubtedly trigger frustrated comments and several more rounds of correspondence.

Numb to every bit of it, the only approach is to keep moving. I open the folders and start to plow through the documents.

Then I stop.

What happened to what I just finished? All that work, and that’s it?

Click, then gallop on?

We rush from one demand to the next, never giving ourselves time to pause when one task is complete. Many of us don’t celebrate our significant achievements, let alone our everyday ones. We may mark milestones when large public hoorays are called for — retirement party, anyone? — but in our headlong race forever forward, we fail to keep our eyes open for smaller signposts of success.Hell, this year my birthday came and went all but unacknowledged. It stings if I think about it, but who has time for thinking?

So this time, I stop. Only for a moment, I turn and walk over to my office window. The one small project I completed this morning took quite a bit of creative effort. It was, in fact, a noteworthy application of skills I’ve grown over 4-1/2 years at this job. A small smile warms me. I whisper to my quiet self that I just whipped out a bit of handiwork I couldn’t have conceived of in 2010. That is really something.

Across the hazy March sky and the greening city below, my gaze dips and lifts. The National Cathedral stands on the horizon as it always does. The scaffolding is off the towers. The branches of its neighboring trees are still bare. A little light scratches across the rooftops and then disappears.

Just one small slice of pride.

This is my gift. Overdue, but so very welcome.

Co-Parenting

I Just Called to Say

Today, I call up Tee to thank him for our friendship.

“Last night, I learned all over again that if you look for what’s wrong, you find it,” I say. People defeated by chance are out there bashing their exes as we speak. I have done my share of this. Now it makes me cringe.

Tee and I have something more precious than I ever knew. Some of it is the luck of the draw, and I breathe a sigh of relief for the hand I hold. Some of it, though, is a choice we make every day.

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Career

Happy 100 Days: 35

This morning, the boss-lady walked into my office to wish me a happy birthday. I reciprocated by wrapping her in a giant hug.
 
“Thank you so much,” I said.
 
“For what?” She laughed as she tried not to spill coffee on me.
 
“For being the best supervisor a girl could ask for.”
 
“Oh!”
 
“You help me realize there is no limit to what I can do here. You encourage me to find my way to do great work while giving me room to take care of my family, and you are also just a super nice person who is fun to work with.”
 
She started to tear up. It was really sweet. I told her that I have conversations about work with friends. Every time I mention something about the way my boss has gone to bat for me, given me flexibility in my schedule, or helped me think through a mistake, I watch my friends’ faces fall open in amazement.
 
“What?” I always ask. “What’s the big deal? That’s not normal?” They look at me like I just announced I’m dating Matthew McConaughey.
 
I realize how good I have it. My job keeps getting better. The main reason for that is because I work for a superstar with a big heart.
 
“You’re just really good at what you do,” I said. “I appreciate you making this a great place to work. Thank you.”
 
“It is a great place to work,” she grinned.
 
“So you can’t leave. Ever.”
 
A pause. “Yeah, well.” She took a sip of her coffee. “I am contractually obligated to be here through May 2013.”
 
I’d better make the most of the next six months.
 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 69

Safety. Such a tricky concept. I walk the streets and back greens of these townhouse complexes, asking, Is it a safe neighborhood? That idea is tangled up in so many class and race patterns, I can barely tease out my gut feeling. I never expected to land in the working class as a single parent. Suddenly, I have to face considerations of safety as I weigh affordability, quality of life, resale value and everything else related to buying a home.
 
The prejudices roil under the surface every time I walk through a neighborhood.
 
Is “safe” code for “white”?
 
Yesterday, I zipped out to a townhouse development at the western edge of the county. It sits right up against uber expensive new houses, the cushy county library, a recently built shopping center. It seemed like a lovely location. But when I got out of the car, something didn’t sit right with me. Is it a safe neighborhood? The houses seemed bare faced and a little bedraggled. I noticed men. Lots and lots of men. Most of these guys were white guys. It was early enough in the evening that I was surprised to see so many men home. They were in tank tops, jeans. They smoked. To a man, they walked dogs. One guy had four pit bulls lunging at the end of the leash. Nothing against pit bulls, but four?
 
The demographic was unsettling enough that I barely had to look at the house to know I didn’t want to live there. While I was a little ashamed of my surging prejudice, I was not ashamed enough to reconsider (it didn’t hurt that the house was a junk heap).
 
Today, a townhouse up north listed a little before noon. The asking price is $155,000. This is nearly $90,000 less than most comparably sized townhouses in the county, so up goes the red flag. What could be wrong with this place?
 
Also, what might be right? In a year or three, the new metro line out to Dulles airport will have a station just two miles from this address. Not only will that mean a better commuting option for me, it means the value of this property is going nowhere but skyward.
 
My agent gently suggests I may not be crazy about the neighborhood. She doesn’t say more because she is in a meeting and won’t be free until about 6:30pm. I do a little sleuthing on my own. I know from the map that this is an area some do not consider “safe.” In a different chapter of my life, I would have walked on the other side of the street.
 
That was then.
 
As for now, am I willing to let my biases blind me to a potentially great opportunity? Someone is going to live there, I tell myself. Why not me?
 
Is “safe” code for “middle class”? For “a majority of the people look like me”?
 
By 4:00pm, the selling agent already has an offer. The clock is ticking. I hit the road to go see for myself. I follow the same route I would it if I were to live in this new place so that I can see how much time I will be sitting in my car. I turn off the main road and pass the Turkish restaurant I like (this place would be walking distance from home!) I also pass the Taco Bell, the half-empty clothing store parking garage, and the 7-Eleven. All of these would be between me and the Turkish restaurant.
 
I arrive a little after 4:30. I start to walk. Is it a safe neighborhood? The units are small. All are ground level entries with two stories. The complex is few years older than I am. An elementary school is close enough that I can hear the whistles trilling at soccer practice. Leaves whisk across the green spaces dividing the rows of houses. Kids, kids, kids. Little toddlers wobble on bikes. Small gangs of teenage boys stroll past, chattering with each other. Moms with babies stand in doorways. A group of children on play equipment so close to the unit for sale that I can stand on the doorstep and see the expressions on their faces.
 
I see graffiti on the plastic slide. I see harvest wreaths. I see screens with holes. I see a woman who has pulled a chair out onto her front porch and is reading a book in the afternoon light. I see cars as old as mine sporting plenty of rust. I see the mail carrier walking from door to door with his satchel. I see a man standing on his threshold painting the trim.
 
I greet everyone I pass. I say hello. I ask about the neighborhood. Everyone is smiling, eager to talk, gushing about how much they love it here. Most tell me they own their homes and have for a few years and don’t want to go anywhere else. They say it’s quiet, that it’s great for kids, that the schools are pretty good.
 
I walk more. I see the open back patios cluttered with bicycles, deck furniture, grills. Nothing is fancy. A little of it looks salvaged. Nothing is locked up.
 
Open back patios as far as the eye can see, and nothing is locked up.
 
As an exercise to check my assumptions, I take my cell phone, keys, and wallet, leaving my bag behind. It is 5:30 now and traffic is thick on the outer streets. I walk with my bulging billfold in plain view, my cellphone loose in my grip. I am in a sundress in the unseasonably summery October evening. I am a woman walking alone in the dying light, money and gadgets out for the taking. I stroll past the teens loitering in the 7-Eleven parking lot, the folks hanging out at the bus stop near the parking garage. I walk all the way out to the main road, into the shopping center. I pass the ABC store. More young men on bikes rattle past. I go into the supermarket, buy a few things, and make the whole trek back. How does it feel? Safe? Mostly. No one hassles me, no one offers up more than an assessing gaze.
 
While I wait for my agent, I see other potential buyers come, walk through, leave. A little girl follows me around the neighborhood telling me all about who lives where and what she doesn’t like (she is not allowed to celebrate Halloween, but she may get a pumpkin anyway). People peek out their curtains or even step outside to see what I’m up to, hanging about. They watch the front door of the place with the realty sign. I ask a woman who has come out to look me over if she likes living here. She is holding a baby who grins and lunges for me. We all laugh together. I ask again about how she likes it here, but she does not answer. The little girl who is following me around translates the question into Spanish. The woman lights up. “Aqui? Si! Si!” She offers up a flood of words I can’t translate but still understand. She is happy here. She loves it here.
 
My agent arrives and we walk through. It is tiny inside, but it is not just a unit. It is a home. I love its bright kitchen, its compact three (!) bedrooms, and the gas range. It is old and lived in, but it is light and clean. It has been cared for. The people leaving have not moved out, so I can see how they have filled its closets and arranged their tchotchkes. A flock of angels nests in the spare room. Even with the clutter, I like the feel.
 
My agent and I talk strategy. The seller will see the offers on the table tomorrow night. This place will be under contract less than 48 hours after it listed. The list price is a steal, and she explains that there is no way this house will go for that. It will likely sell for $20,000-25,000 more. I need to consider offering much more than the asking price if I even want to be considered. She shows me the comparable home sales in the neighborhood. Another one with only a whisker more square footage sold for $231,000 a few weeks back.
 
We stand out back in the dimming light. I can still hear the distant hollers from the school ball field. My little six-year-old shadow is still running around without a parent in sight. The South Asian families dressed in gilded layers whose foreheads are anointed red paint stroll between their three different houses. One of the young women waves to me across the green. I ask my agent what her gut feeling is on the neighborhood.
 
“I haven’t sold here in several years,” she says. “At first, I thought you might be disappointed. But I could tell as soon as I pulled in that it’s changed.”
 
“Changed?”
 
“For the better. Definitely.” She nods.
 
We sign a buyer-broker agreement. We make plans to talk in the morning. The fellows whose parking space I have stolen for the afternoon give me a quick honk and then gesture apologetically as I hop in my car to leave. I wave goodbye to the woman with the giggling baby, to the men who have watched from their second floor windows.
 
During the two and a half hours I spend in the neighborhood, the only other white person I see is my real estate agent. It is odd to notice the swirl of feelings about being on the leading edge of gentrification. If I can swing this, I can give my son a home in a real neighborhood with green space, attentive neighbors, room to grow. With a monthly payment that allows for small savings, increasing property value, and walkable commerce, I might actually provide us a decent quality of life while also building a college fund for Bug.
 
Is it a safe neighborhood?
 
Perhaps safe is this: Can we live well here and build a strong foundation?
 
Then hell yes. It is safe.
 

Uncategorized

Reframe

Giovanni and I keep our cameras handy. We want to capture the cool Allegany waters and the dripping tamarack boughs. He turns the lens on me. I cringe. In those frozen moments, I can see how tired my eyes looked. How stained my shirt, how disheveled the campsite, how absent my son. Giovanni laughs and just shakes his head. “You’re beautiful, baby.” He glances at the photo in the camera then grins up me. “That is a good looking woman.”
 
In the archive of forever ago live photographs of the first weeks Bug was home, nursing at my breast. Wedding photos. Christmas pictures with Tee and Bug and me in the Colorado forest, cutting our own scraggly pine. Tired eyes there, too, and bright and distant and everything in between.
 
I ask Giovanni to keep taking photos. I know better than to let vanity scrub history of its texture. Still, it is hard to look at the images of this north country camping trip without feeling a bit of remorse. Where is the open face of a girl with no bitter seed tucked inside her cheek?
 

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you’re composing a picture – the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. – Lee Frost

 
Begin again. Turn the head. Unhitch, release the remains of the gift freely given but poorly maintained. Gone, the days playing in the mountain creek with the tiny minnows flitting past my little boy’s ankles. Gone, too, the tulips curled deep in their bulbs beneath December frost along the hand-made fence. Gone is everything before.
 
Giovanni and I walk on.
 
The residue of a recent conversation with Tee still dusts my skin. We were chatting about their father-son adventures: fishing trips, air show excursions, visiting the tall ships in the Baltimore harbor. Tee is a fun daddy. “I can’t give him the childhood I had,” Tee explained. “So I have to make the best of what is here.” Resignation. A touch of martyrdom. I could almost hear the quiet, cresting cheers at Tee’s strength. The truth is, I listen for them myself when I speak of settling for less in order to provide stability for my son. This is the attitude of survivors.
 
Is that what we are doing? Surviving? If we start with the premise that we are handicapped, then our fortitude is certainly a strength. I hear the father of my son hint at disadvantage, and I think (quietly, because I am learning to hold my tongue), This pulsing place? The nation’s capital? The diversity of experience and background in every neighborhood? The colleges and museums and historic battlefields? The curry and pho? The political stage? The assembled masses? All of this is a shortage?
 
Bug’s childhood is not deficient. He is missing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before Bug believes he lacks the golden ticket if we believe he does. The kid is sharp, but it does not take a sixth sense to sniff out the secret Tee and I both carry: we have fallen short. We have not provided our boy with what he should rightfully have. The odor of failure clings to us both. We do not believe we have done enough, that we give him enough. Something is “supposed” to be better, or more, or different.
 
In another context, Giovanni once suggested that a shift away from wanting and towards appreciating might help us see each other a little better. When we pause to notice the composition of the object before zeroing in on its flaws, something good has room to grow.
 
Where I aim my gaze determines more than a single point of view. Bug will learn to orient his attention by watching the grownups in his life. Do I want to apprentice my son to a taxonomist of shortcomings? It seems a wiser course to teach him to identify the call of a whip-poor-will from its perch on a cedar’s low shoulder.
 

. . . by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it’s possible to create successful compositions every time. – Lee Frost

 
In the snapshot of Bug’s life today, here is what I choose to see:

  • Two homes.
  • A mom and a dad.
  • A lop-eared dog.
  • Woods near his house with pricker bushes and a creek and all kinds of ways to get lost.
  • Public parks, public libraries, and some of the best public schools in the country.
  • Books splitting the frames of shelves in his rooms.
  • Parents who read to him every night.
  • Road trips and campfires.
  • Healthy food in abundance.
  • Quiet time.
  • Neighbor kids who ride bikes up and down the cul-de-sac.
  • Three sets of grandparents who make room for him.
  • A cozy bed.
  • Songs in his repertoire.
  • Questions galore.
  • A floor onto which he can pour his tired body when he wants the world to stop.
  • Dreams about pirate ships.
  • Climber’s legs.
  • Dancer’s feet.
  • Paper and markers, glitter and glue.
  • Wonder.
  • Grit.
  • Anger and sadness and sweet, tender kisses.
  • One bad joke about a duck.

 
Tee says he cannot give Bug the childhood he had. He is more right than he knows. A childhood is not ours to give. In fact, Bug does not have a “childhood” at all. He has a life. His own. This very one.
 
As long as I am living with wishes that things could be more X and less Y, and as long as I carry the burden of loss, then I model for my child the fine art of holding off on joy until real happiness comes along.
 
Begin again. Turn the head.
 
All we need is right here.
 
Circumstances will change, of course. We will seek new doors down corridors we have not yet explored due to blindness, fear, or simple chance. But a belief in adaptation and expansion does not require us to disparage the now. We can love possibility while also wrapping our arms around this very whole moment, draw it close to our hearts, and shiver in awe at the perfect fit. So complete, this day, this configuration of things, this this.
 

The fact is you’ll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you’ll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. – Lee Frost

 
As Giovanni and I walk the trail through the northern woods, I make a promise out loud. When I see a photo, I will find something in it to like. It is a simple act. The practice, I have learned, has a way of revealing the path. In every snapshot, seek something that opens the eyes. Appreciate the image as evidence of riches. Find the pulse. Land the gaze there and call forth the living yes.
 

 
Lee Frost Photography. http://www.leefrost.co.uk/default.asp