It’s Marvelous to Be Alive in This Time and Place

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It’s worth fighting through the inertia.

True as that may be, my self-pity disagrees. In its defense of digging a deeper rabbit hole, it would rather filibuster than concede. Its zealotry twists the mere suggestion of celebration into an offense against reason.

Birthday? Bah. What would you be celebrating anyway? Your troubled finances? The end of your relationship? The last dozen fights with Bug, an anemic field of job prospects, your dearest friends in crisis?

The silk-throated devil reminds me that I’m stretched too thin as it is. “Tired” is no longer an adequate descriptor for the perpetual state in which I exist. Wouldn’t you rather just rest, read, heal? Wouldn’t your time be better spent re-tooling your resume?

And:

Once you’ve had 40-something of them, birthdays just become days. Throwing yourself a party at this stage is both tacky and desperate.

No parties. No people. No no no.

But also yes. Because every reason to skip out on pleasure is a dolled-up version of submission. In fact, the more convincing the justification for staying low, the more I should suspect — and upend — its dominance. A toxic mood relishes its alpha dog position, growing in power unless I subvert it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a simple and ingenious approach to this. Just choose the opposite.

To break this feedback loop, we need to engage in a behavior inconsistent to the emotion we’re trying to manage. This is a technique called opposite-to-emotion behavior. To do this, identify the emotion (sadness), identify the mood-dependent behavior (inaction/isolation), then do the opposite of that.


Opposite to Emotion Behavior from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A snap, right? Take the stairs. Don the cape. Put a friggin foot on the gas and go. Even when it seems like the most useless act in the world. Especially then.

So, snarling and irate and certain the endeavor will fail, I hurl a few names at Evite.

Fixing a time and place leads to tidying, menus, asking for help. I cobble together activities. I send personal invitations to a new neighbor and to old family friends going through a tough time. My mother gets on board — bless that lady — and then I am dashing around, slapping on lipstick and jamming in earrings as the first guests knock on the door.

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As with so many actions, motion generates momentum. It’s almost irrelevant the direction of travel. Any push will do.

The friends arrive. More follow. They hug and meet and hoot and gossip. They bring wine, sweets, kids, dogs. A few play along with my contrived icebreaker activity, milling around five zones of the house where markers and paper on the wall invite joyful thinking about our community and our time together here.

As with so many choices, intention determines outcome. It’s almost irrelevant the details of the text. Any welcome will do.

Earlier in the day, Tee whisked Bug off to a college basketball game. Halfway through the party, he’s dropping the kiddo off. When half-ass planning this whole shindig, I’d been wearing armor of thorns and stink. My invite list failed to catch half the people I love. I’d also been too tight-hearted to ask Tee if he’d like to come. If I have to throw this stupid party, I don’t want my ex husband here. My birthday. My party.

Mine mine mine.

Then my son walks through the door and the room erupts in a cheer. Bug’s face lights up and he skips into the Studio 54 buzz and music and sparkle. Tee is already backing out, saying good night. “Come in,” I say. “Eat. Have a beer.”

“I’ve got a lot of school work still to do. . .”

I gesture wide. “There’s hot cider, Moroccan veggie stew.”

“Okay, just for a minute.” He steps inside and stays for an hour.

Tee is still there when my loved ones gather in a circle around the room. Everyone speaks out loud their wishes for the year ahead as well as their thanks for the right-here-and-now. My mom. The junior-high pals. The Zumba instructors who’ve become sisters. The new neighbor, the writing group fellow, all these the people who just happen to be my people. Even Tee shares how happy he is that we are parenting together as friends and that our son is thriving. Words upon words brushed with almost-tears and lots of chuckles weave their light web around the room.

Bug and the neighbor’s son, chasing down dogs who are chasing down crumbs, dart through the throng decked out in sunglasses and bandit masks, mercifully demolishing our grownup drift towards solemnity.

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It’s an extraordinary and dizzying experience to stand inside the metaphor of a circle of love manifesting in real life.

That incessant need to be on, to get things right and be just so, has slunk off into some forgotten corner. In my home with these dear ones, I feel at ease. It is as if I really am — for the moment — okay as me. Clumsy, gushing, nerdy, cutting, tempestuous, so-very-lucky me. . . just a gal entering her 43rd year in the happy company of her tribe.

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(And, as I remind several perplexed friends and my son: Yes, a 42nd birthday is the beginning of a 43rd year, because math, people).

As the music starts up again, the circle dissolves and takes on new shapes. Small pockets of conversation dot the room. People who just met giggle like old friends, a baby is passed to a new set of arms, men talk coaching and gals talk travel. Folks who haven’t seen each other in years cover lost ground. The first roots take hold under nascent relationships.

Orientation determines truth. I tilt my head and the whole thing resolves into sharp-edged clarity. Throwing oneself a party is also giving a party. A birthday is just another day, yes. It is also a gift, a perfect excuse to open a door and invite a fledgling community to weave itself into being. This circle is so much more than mine. It holds my son, parents, neighbors, and all the friends who show up with attention, voice, and story.

My girlfriend says that each year is “a free vacation around the sun.” Even so, it can also feel like an extended solo trip. It can take a few revolutions (or a few dozen) before it becomes clear that we have always been in this together.

This time I can see how many are at the helm, how strong the crew, how wide open the skies.

 
 

Sugar Spun

Chef and Chicken

When you peel a peach, there’s a color right beneath the peach skin that’s hidden except for that very moment. It’s like there are all these little secrets moments in kitchen, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re missing so much in life.

“In the Kitchen with Ruth Reichl,” New York Times, September 15, 2015

Safeway, as it happens, stocks every color of Jello except blue. The big package I bought earlier at Target should have been enough but half of it ended up on the wrong side of the saran wrap and the rest of it on the floor. The last thing I want to do is visit yet another store. As I stand here in the baking aisle, the kitchen’s engine idles. I can feel its thrum as it waits for my return.

I toss the unflavored Knox into my basket and hold out hope that I can find my stash of food coloring from last year.

Unpacking my groceries at home, I root around in the back of the cabinet and unearth the stained box. I’m relieved to discover the blue tube has a few drops left in it. This leaves me now with the small issue of taste — something I had rather avoided dealing with at the store. Continue reading “Sugar Spun”

98. Things I Can Follow: His Opening Play

ice bridge card
Three triangles adorn his shirt, each framing a fairy wizard holding a sword of light. He passes behind the man carrying in a cardboard box of 20 chicken nuggets and a tub of soda. Bellies and waifs, long necks and hoodies, scruff and Adams apples. One wears a cowboy hat, several slouch under baseball caps, one comes banging in through the glass door in a full-length black trench coat.

At first the chatter deafens as it ricochets off linoleum and drywall. Cards are shuffling and chairs are scraping and players peer over shoulders at plastic-sheathed pages in stacks of three-ring binders.

“You don’t want your Shambling to run into a Foul-Tongue.”

“I got a foil ruler. I hope someone finds a way for that card to be good.”

The one with tight curls and meaty limbs is in charge. He strides through the pack, surprisingly nimble for a man so large. His orders boom out and the chatter quiets. “Modern and Standard, you’re at tables 1-12. Your pairings are posted by the thermostat.” A stir, a rush. The rest jostle for space by the door. Backpacks droop from shoulders. Darting eyes, laughing eyes, eyes that focus entirely in the fan of cards in hand. Playing mats unfurl — rubber-backed masterpieces painted with purple volcanoes or lush forests or distant flashing battles.

“Draft, you are at tables 13 up to 25. You have 50 minutes to build a 40-card deck.” Groans, chuckles. They rip open the mylar sleeves, they peer in and assess options. The room is now murmur and hush.

My boy with his surfer hair is focused with an intensity I only see when he’s facing a screen. This child can barely sit still for homework without slumping into an Oscar-worthy posture of exhaustion. Now he is perched on the lip of his chair, silent and poised for action.

When something is hard, he whines and pouts. “It’s so boring.” Then he gives up. When a new skill is just beyond his reach, he says, “I don’t like it.” Then gives up. The suggestion of a new project — “Hey, let’s go to Michael’s and get that cool glass etching kit we saw at the party!” — leads him first to take measure of the gap between what he knows and the work required. The shortest span is a bridge too far.

He gives up.

Then we are here, and everything I thought I knew about my kid’s relationship with motivation turns inside-out.

An hour passes. Then another 30 minutes. And another.

Bug only just learned about Magic the Gathering from other 8-year-old boys at camp this summer. I bought him his first cards a few weeks ago. He plays a bit with kids at school, but they make up their own game. To do otherwise is daunting. The beginner rule book for simple play contains passages like this:
 

An enchantment represents a stable magical manifestation. This means two things: you can cast one only at the time you could cast a sorcery, and after you cast one, you’ll put it on the table in front of you, near your lands. . . Some enchantments are Auras. An Aura enters the battlefield attached to a permanent and affects that permanent while it’s on the battlefield. If the enchanted permanent leaves the battlefield, the Aura is put into its owner’s graveyard.

These “basic” rules cover 36 pages. The more comprehensive guide runs to 207.

I mill around in the shop next door to the gaming annex. So many people have turned out that they’ve set up yet another long table in the middle of the store. Through their turns, the players mutter and evaluate.

“Demon’s grasp, killed the first three preachers.”

“Amaria? You’re running something new in Modern? I didn’t realize.”

“I ran Squadron Hawk for a while.”

The volume begins to rise. People razz each other, knock back Mountain Dew, stomp in out of the rainy night.

“I have too many spells in my deck!”

“And I’m all like, ‘fuck that guy.'”

“Hey, language!”

“Yeah, language, dude.”

“Sorry. Hey I’m zombie-ing my way out the door.”

It’s nearing 11pm. We’ve been here since 7:20. I walk back into the annex with the firm intention of gathering Bug up and hustling him out. It’s hours past his bedtime, and tomorrow is going to be a battle. He is seated across from a guy that looks like half the engineering undergrads at my university. “I don’t know,” the young man says, spreading his hands wide with a smirk and a shrug. “What are you gonna play?”

“Oh yeah,” laughs Bug. “It’s my turn.”

Next to him, the pink-haired player — one of only three women out of the 70 attendees — glances over and grins at my boy. She is looking up a rule, tracing her chrome-tipped finger across the face of her phone.

Bug slaps a card face-up on the table. He and his opponent lean in to study it. The man rolls a many-sided die and it tumbles across the padded mat.

I take a seat nearby and start sketching in my journal.

Beyond the rudimentary components of the cards and their procedures, the game’s Multiverse involves a level of intricacy that would make Tolkein proud.
 

The Blind Eternities are a chaotic, logic-defying place of quasi-existence filled with raw potential called Æther. Only Planeswalkers can survive there, and only for a limited time. Mortal beings without the Planeswalker spark are soon destroyed by raw entropy and uncontained mana that suffuses the Blind Eternities.

It’s some heady stuff. The minimum recommended age is 13.

Yet here is my boy, just days before his 9th birthday, stepping over the border into this labyrinthine world. He peers out across that canyon between what he knows and the skills required.

He takes its measure.

He decides.

One knot, one board, one play at a time, he begins building his bridge. 

Approaching Exit 40

Taste it.
Say it.
Shed it.
Ask.
Draw breath.
Push past.
Tell him.
Move.
Sow song.
See blue.
Lean in.
Roll.
Use ink.
Don’t explain.
Wear scars.
Morph.
Crack open.
Look though.
Give praise.
Hear.
Go easy.
Go deep.
Go all in.
Pause.
Hold tight.
Shake loose.
Give over.
Soar.
Wake up.
Look up.
Lighten up.
Fall.
Start here.
Be this.
Fill now.
Burn.
 

She Would Have Been

Mary Frances
teary eyed still
smiling while
wringing her hands,
a half laugh
blushing
the quiver of her chin.

She would have been
shuffling in the house
slippers, her bird-boned
legs a dampered clapper
inside a bell of ruby velour
shushing the floor
and swaying her towards
Eddie Arnold
who croons from the bedside
table to fold
her in sleep.

She would have been
dusting powder
soft folds below her arms,
whispering powder
blue vein into crepe
chiffon before putting on
her lips. She would have been
calling me
Sugar.

Sugar, come over here.
Let me have a look at you.

Her hands
both

busy laying out the satin slip to wear
to her grave
and open
to me. Always opening,
she would have been
102, teary eyes still
like a mouth
turning up
for a kiss.
 

Piece of Cake

Is there nobility in poverty? That’s probably a stretch. At a minimum there is resourcefulness, and that can look like creativity or innovation. Or something. Please indulge me. If I don’t get to live at leisure, at least I can feel virtuous.
 
The co-worker whose birthday unluckily follows mine has been subject to my noble projects since we started working together. She will enjoy the delight of yet another DIY disaster tomorrow.
 
In our office, we take turns celebrating birthdays by each taking responsibility for cake, card, and scheduling for the next person in line. The beautiful, polished team-mate whose January birthday I plan also had the poor luck to draw me as her secret Santa at the holiday exchange. She ended up with a home-made bookmark and a second hand cookbook in December. Now she gets to smile politely at whatever I manage to glom together in my kitchen tonight.
 
I just can’t abide dropping $20 on the designer cupcakes. How could I possibly justify that to myself given our increased payroll deduction and my impending (inshallah) mortgage payment? Even with the time store-bought pastries would save, I can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, a gal has to spend money on all sorts of things she can’t do herself, like root canals and oil changes (and perhaps she’ll get around to tackling the latter sooner or later), so there is no earthly reason to short the kid’s college fund on something so easy. Baking? Come on. Piece of. . .
 
Okay. Last year, Beautiful Team-Mate mentioned that she likes plain-Jane yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She is an easy-going Midwestern gal who likes just about everyone and whose smile makes the boys swoon, in no small part because she has no earthly idea of her effect on them. She would never ask for anything fancy, so yellow-with-chocolate she had last year.
 
So, today on my lunch break, I schlep it over to the supermarket and buy exactly one yellow cake mix (the one with Box Top for Education for Bug’s school, of course. Ten cents right there!) I don’t start on the project until nearly 9:00pm, given bath, bedtime reading, lunch-making, dishwashing, and generally lugging around the weight of the world. When I begin, I realize I have no concept how to proceed. I mean, I want to do something special, right? Something more than yellow-with-chocolate, because. . . Why? I don’t know. Because she’s nice and she deserves a little effort? Because this is my playtime? Because I can?
 
Because it’s just really fun to learn something new?
 
While the oven preheats, I poke around the kitchen. All these things I never notice appear in the nooks and crannies, items that go bad or go stale, that we forget we bought in a moment of inspiration. Unopened sour cream. A whole cabinet full of liquor. Powdered sugar, gelatins, puddings and extracts. Nuts, chips, candies and sugars. Oh! And already on the shelf? A yellow cake mix just sitting there. I could have saved $1.29!
 
I visit a website called Yummly and type in “sour cream cake mix kahlua.” A bunch of recipes pop up. This one for mocha cake is the one I follow. More or less. I mean, who knows why — no one in this house eats pudding or even likes it — but I happen to have a box of chocolate pudding on hand. Not vanilla. Also, coffee crystals seem like a good idea, and anyway, it just play. Glop, glop. An extra egg. Who knew you could just pour alcohol right into the batter? And what’s with the pudding? Crack, whip, scrape. The whole blorp of sour cream. A little extra sugar. A few more chocolate chips? I hope the small ones are little enough not to sink. Beat, fold, pour.
 
An hour later, the faint aroma of liqueur and scorched chocolate drifts into the upstairs bedrooms. The concoction comes out of the oven looking nothing like mama’s yellow birthday cake. It is crinkled and singed and lop-sided. There is a good chance it won’t make it out in one piece. It actually looks a little tubercular, all wrinkly taupe and sunk in its fluted tube.
 
On the stove waiting for morning is a double boiler at the ready. Poised nearby are chocolate squares, butter, powdered sugar, and the bottle of kahlua with its lid already loose. Mocha glaze may be a bit ambitious for 6:30 am, but the gal’s got to try to save this poor wretch. Where first aid and a transfusion fail, try chocolate. And a hit on the flask.
 
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a deadline is the ultimate inspiration. If disaster awaits on the other side of the bundt pan, there is always that extra Betty Crocker mix waiting patiently on the pantry shelf. It only takes about 30 minutes in a 9×13 sheet pan, and I can pick up a can of chocolate frosting at the supermarket on my lunch break. I think those go for about $1.49. Beautiful Team-Mate may have her simple, happy cake after all. Even then, I can say, “I made it with my own hands just for you.” Bug’s college fund is safe (for now). I even have an idea of how to use all that old rum and Bailey’s taking up precious space in my dining room.
 
Tomorrow at 3:00 in the conference room, a dozen of us will get our sugar kick one way or another. I can bask in the glow of my secret treasure, that proud nobility of knowing I swung it all — creativity, learning, play, and even, yes, cake — for the price of a loaf of bread.
 
A loaf of bread on sale.
 

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.