Looking Glass Houses

Standard

There is an old LSAT problem I teach my students, about the paradoxical behavior of suburban birds who flee danger by flying smack into the sides of houses instead of hiding in nearby vegetation. The explanation for all the avian suicide is that the windows in the houses reflect surrounding foliage – so the birds think they are hiding – but that’s not why I like to teach the problem. Mostly, I like to teach it because the image of birds flying head-on into windows makes me giggle (call PETA if you want, but stupidity is funny in every species). Before I go down for schadenfreude, though, let me add that I also love this image as a metaphor; it is a moment to which I think we can all relate.

It is shocking, those moments when you realize that the space you occupy is significantly smaller than you thought it was, and it can happen to us mentally just as much as it can physically. While I have walked into my share of floor-to-ceiling mirrors (I know I am not the only one who wishes they would stop using these to decorate small restaurants and hotel lobbies), the times when I have slammed up against the invisible walls of my own mind have been far more jarring. These mental walls have been on my mind lately because around this time every year I revisit one of my earliest.

This past weekend, we celebrated my parents’ birthdays, one on Saturday then the other on Sunday. Not because I am a Joffrey Baratheon-style child of incestuous twins who refuse to share a party, but because my parents are almost exactly the same age. Nine hours separate their births – though since those nine hours straddle midnight they do have different birth dates. If you don’t think my mom makes the most out of the one calendar day when my dad is technically older than her, then you don’t know women very well. Or marriage.

Adult me knows that this birthday coincidence doesn’t happen very often, but it took many years for younger me to realize that my family’s unique situation had formed an invisible barrier around my perception of reality. Growing up, I assumed that every married or dating couple was the same age, and that I would obviously end up with Leonardo DiCaprio because his birthday is two days after mine (I was willing to overlook the different birth year). My November birthday theory went bust the first time I dated a fellow Scorpio and realized that, if this was the guy for me I should seriously consider being a lesbian, but the second wall is one I walked into many, many times (and still do from time to time). It doesn’t help that my brother chose to marry someone only five days older than he is – give a girl a break!

Those little things that in truth are simply the quirks of our particular circumstance so easily become our expectations for reality without us noticing. My brother and father are both left-handed, and so are the brother and father of my life-long best friend. When our families would eat together we always sat boy-girl-boy-girl, so all the men could cut their meat without anyone getting elbowed. We women were all righties, and boom: another invisible wall boxed me in. Handedness and gender were the same. To this day, I still have to stifle immediate envy when I meet a left-handed girl; I have to remind myself that it does not make her more exotic and tom-boyish than I could ever hope to be. Also, all right-handed boys are not automatically gay (if only it were that easy – high school and college would be far gentler on the hearts of so many young girls…).

Walking head-on into a personal bias always leaves me momentarily stunned, because it forces me to question my perception of the world. But I have run into enough now that I know they are there, and I am always on the lookout for the next one. Some of these invisible mental walls are relatively harmless, like my assumption (until recently) that everyone is as aware of their own heartbeat as I am, but others can be more dangerous – like the idea that everyone has two parents who read to them and love them, or that everyone is born with the tools to learn, or feed themselves, or deal with adversity. Coming to Los Angeles ran me straight into my assumption that people generally mean what they say (that one really hurt), and my belief in the importance of tangible markers for success.

We are the products of our assumptions, and our assumptions reflect our history, which is part of why I love teaching logic so much. The more we start to recognize the many assumptions that block our view, the more we can see those invisible walls and, instead of running into them, start to peek around them. We are Minotaurs, imprisoned in mental mazes of our own making, slowing working our way out from the center. With each new wall we crash into, we get a little closer to escaping the sheltered spaces we have built for ourselves to see the real world outside.

Fortunately for me, I actually am half bull – since I am the child of two Taurus parents. I like to think it gives me a fighting chance. Happy Birthdays, Mom and Dad; thanks for giving me the tools to navigate this labyrinth of life.

Advertisements

Born With a Broken Heart, Part II (Ginger Ail)

Standard

Hello. My name is Kate, and I am an addict. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, but I have owned my addiction for years now and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Experts also say it is important to understand the root cause of your addiction before you can treat it. I have always though it resulted from my first experience with love, back in Kindergarten; my mother thinks the formative event was my open-heart surgery when I was two. If I am right, then I have spent over three decades trying to recapture the superficial magic of a first crush. If she is right, then my problem is merely a savior complex.

Does it really matter, though? Either way, the end result is the same: my abnormal, unhealthy, increasingly destructive addiction to red-headed men.

I hear you scoffing at me, deriding my deviant drug of choice, but this addiction, no matter how irrational, is real. My experimentation with redheads started as soon as I was outside the home, crushing on the one freckle-faced flame head in my elementary school. After my first taste, I continued to send my affections down roads less traveled, favoring the goofy red-haired Mouseketeer instead of traditional cuties like Justin (Timberlake) or Ryan (Gosling). Between the two Coreys, I chose Team Haim, not Feldman.

My experimentation quickly formed a habit, as is the common progression with addiction. When all of my peers tacked posters of Kirk Cameron and Rob Lowe to their walls, I dreamed of dating Seth Green (long before Buffy). I even created a fictional character based on that redhead from the Mickey Mouse Club, and imagined a fantasy world where he lived with an idealized version of me. By high school, I was obsessively giving my heart to the brightest red hair in the room.

Stage three of addiction is when the habit starts to prompt risky behavior and abuse. For me, that was college. My inability to go without a ginger fix led to four years of emotional dysfunction with my Eggplant, and kept me from fully realizing any other, healthier relationships. In later years I went completely irrational, at one point dating two guys and refusing to choose between them even though one was clearly more mature and respectful – simply because the other had such gorgeous copper hair. There was even a time when this kid argued with me about whether half of something was the same as 50% – he took the side against math, and I still didn’t break up with him, because, man, that ginger was tasty. Its hold on me was absolute. When my adoration of carrot-topped actors progressed to a brief but actual crush on Carrot Top, I knew the problem was serious.

But it was too late. My dependency was complete. I needed ginger in my life all the time. The fantasy world I had created around my beloved red Mousketeer took over my dreams – I could not fall asleep without visiting that mythical ginger every night. On several occasions, I tried to convince my brown-haired boyfriend to dye his hair red, or at least copper. Once, my gay best friend (a blonde – I have never been attracted to blondes) dyed his hair red, and I made the picture of him the screen saver on my computer!

Things were out of control. My best friend married a copper-top, and I wrote a whole movie about it. I spent a week doing research on redheads in history, then composed a poem titled, “A Taste for Ginger.” In class, I openly doted over my red-haired students, in flagrant violation of both classroom ethics and common-sense age restrictions. Ron Weasley became my ideal man.

Any one of these shameful acts could have been my rock bottom – a couple of them certainly should have been – but my deviance knew no bounds. I kept sinking, self-respect a thing of the past.

My first major wake-up call came when I agreed to date a boy with bright red hair who I knew to be an immature pot head. He asked me out via text message two minutes after finishing a two-hour stint in the same room with me – a deal breaker for any healthy person – and then he called me a tease to my face on our second date because I didn’t sleep with him. Did I slap him in the face as he so rightly deserved? No; I was actually sad to see him go. All of my judgment and standards were lost, and yet, there was still farther to fall.

Absolute rock bottom came – as so many rock bottoms do – at a wedding. When I found myself in a hotel bathroom stall with a boy I had already dated and dismissed, someone I knew to be disrespectful (not to mention ten years my junior), just because he was a delicious six-foot-two drink of ginger water? That was when I finally felt the cold, hard stone beneath my face.

Recovery in the years since has been slow and unsteady. I was okay for a while after the wedding, fueled more by a renewed sense of shame than a desire to kick my ginger habit. But there are still so many temptations out there! Donal Logue and Louis C.K. certainly don’t make things easier, and even though Alan Tudyk hasn’t had red hair since Firefly, I still have to go see any movie he is in – even if it’s a piece of crap like Transformers 3.

Last year, I relapsed completely. I found myself on a date with an adorable ginger depressive, simultaneously flirting with our hunky red-haired bartender, and trying to figure out how to convince both of them to make out with me. Then, when J.K. Rowling wrote in an online interview that Hermione Weasly (neė Granger) would have been better off with Harry Potter, I cursed her name and nearly broke my computer monitor. Clearly, my taste for ginger isn’t going anywhere.

For what it’s worth, I do think my mother is right about the root cause of my addiction. Our concept of beauty is largely a product of the influential people and experiences of our childhood, and having a red-haired heart surgeon save your life at age two certainly must leave an impression. It makes sense that, ever since, my heart has been searching for another redhead to make it whole.

I am an addict, and I always will be. After more than thirty years chasing the sweet taste of ginger, I have come to accept my fate. Still, I believe it can get better. While I may never kick this orangutan off my back, I can try what every addict knows is the next best thing: replace this addiction with a new one. So look out, all you Jewish men out there; this shiksa goddess needs some sugar.

The Babysitter Clubbing

Standard

Let me begin by stating clearly: I have great respect for nannies. Being “Aunt Katie” for the last ten years has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I love kids in general – I love their creativity, curiosity, innocence, and ability to get away with a level of bluntness that only ever seems to get me dis-invited from things… Kids are great; but I don’t love any kid enough to spend all day with him unless he shares some of my DNA, which brings us back to my first point: I have deep respect for nannies. Still, I am not one.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a complete breakdown. It was short – only about twenty minutes – but what it lacked in quantity it more than made up in quality. We’re talking full-on sobbing: curled up in a ball, tears streaming down, actual vocalized wails. My poor cat didn’t know whether she wanted more to comfort me or run from all the noise and convulsing, so she just kept walking in circles halfway between me and the door. Claire Danes, queen of the ugly cry, would have been proud.

Why was I reduced – albeit briefly – to such a sniveling pile of saline and mucus? Because I am not a nanny.

Earlier that day, I had swallowed my pride and reached out to a hundred or so friends and contacts for help. Times have been a little tough as I have been caught in this weird career vortex where one work source is fading out and another (better) one is perpetually delayed in its fruition. It was time to give the coffers a boost, so I spread the word about resuming my freelance editing work and asked for help with any leads. It is never easy for the overly prideful to admit she needs help, but even though it stung my ego to ask, much like after ripping off a Band-Aid I felt better once I had done it. I even managed to temper my embarrassment with a little pride that I hadn’t let pride get in my way. Have I mentioned that pride is my sin of choice?

Most of the responses I got back were along the lines of, “I will spread the word,” and, “I can’t help but I can buy you a drink!” A few people actually had leads – names of writers looking to self-publish a book or organizations in need of some proofreading or writing. Almost everyone I contacted responded to me in one of four ways: with loving support, respectful encouragement, professional engagement, or a complete lack of acknowledgment of my email (the most common, of course). On the up side, the experience confirmed that there are clearly some great people who make up my community of peers. On the down side, notice that I used the word “almost”.

One person called me right away, eager to help, and cheerfully offered to connect me with her writer friend, not for a specific editing job, not for any lead, but so I could move into his house for a week and take care of his kids while he was out of town. He needed a nanny, and it dissolved me to tears.

Look, I know it is dumb that I lost it just because of one misguided attempt to be helpful. My friend was clearly acting in good faith, with the best of intentions, and in the moment I was mortified that her kindness was met with such a negative reaction. Was this just my pride rearing its ugly head again? Was this the moment my tragic flaw would cause me to starve to death on a diet of principle? I felt guilty that this poor woman left the conversation feeling like she had insulted me (I am not proud of my reaction). But then, after all the gasping and sniveling subsided, I had a moment of clarity. The thing is, she did insult me.

I had sent out a professional missive, asking in a professional manner for assistance furthering my career as a professional writer and editor. This career is something I have tended, nurtured, and toiled over for more than a decade. It is not a fad; it is not a phase; it is not a hobby. Maybe if she had couched the offer, more like, “I know it’s not what you’re looking for, but in case it’s a matter of just really needing some money right now, I do know someone who needs someone…” Maybe then I wouldn’t have reacted so violently. But in jumping right in with, “Great news! Here’s some babysitting,” she not only assumed my goal was just to make money, but also completely denied the validity of my career.

Again, I know she didn’t mean to insult me, but then again, it is also not the first time something like this has happened to me. It is not even the first time it has happened with this particular person. For the entirety of my professional life, I have had to deal with supposedly nurturing people – friends, instructors, my former manager even – who respond to any request for help advancing my career with suggestions of assistant work and child care. They simply do not respect me as a writer. (I won’t even get into how none of them would respond to a man seeking career advancement with similar suggestions, unless that man were seeking a career as a “manny”.)

I have no idea if this form of disrespect happens more often because I am a woman – it probably does a little, but not nearly as much as would be trendy. I don’t know if it happens because my profession is a creative one, or because I look younger than I actually am (thanks again, Mom and Dad, for the great genes). I don’t know if it happens because of some vibe I am putting out there, some lack of seriousness, though in case it is I will do all I can in the future to act more like I mean it. What I do know is that, to quote one of my favorite songs (“Let Go” by Frou Frou), there really is “beauty in the breakdown.” Because in having such a completely, inappropriately hysterical reaction to my poor friend’s phone call, at least I know now that I take myself seriously. Everyone else can catch up in their own time.

Of Bikes and Men

Standard

After accidentally destroying a mouse nest in 1785, the poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” In case we weren’t fully convinced of just how awry things can go, John Steinbeck hammered the point home 150 years later with the most beautiful exercise in soul-crushing devastation ever written. (It is brilliant and inspiring, but I will never bring myself to read Of Mice and Men a second time – much like Death of a Salesman, Native Son, and Al Gore’s speech conceding the 2000 Presidential election.)

On Sunday, the universe made sure I understood how agley things aft gang with a comedy of errors so stupid I actually stopped at one point to check for a live studio audience hiding in the bushes. They weren’t there, but the laugh track in my head was pretty loud. Since comedy equals tragedy plus the time it takes for the pain killers to kick in, I thought I’d share my story.

It started with a plan – a rare plan for me, to do Sunday right and thus do very little. The new eggplant in my life is a big Game of Thrones fan, and in anticipation of the season 4 premiere, we have been attempting to binge-watch seasons 2 and 3 (a re-watch for him, the first pass for me). This eggplant – let’s call him Hodor – has a sweet entertainment setup, so we do these GOT marathons at his place. So this Sunday, that was the plan: breakfast, GOT, lunch, maybe a hike, more GOT, dinner, then the season 4 premiere.

At 9-ish, my phone rings. I ignore it, because it is out of reach on a Sunday morning and I am not about to start my day. By 10-ish, I am emotionally prepared to face the world, and also ready to face some breakfast. What harm could there be in checking a voicemail from my dear friend Peter first? Turns out it wasn’t from my dear friend Peter – it was from his friend saying Peter had been in a biking accident, and could I please call back right away. Panic. Guilt. No more lazy Sunday.

Peter is going to be fine, it turns out, but he is in the hospital for tests and needs his insurance information sent over. Since I am also his neighbor and the keeper of the spare keys, I am the perfect person to solve this problem. Except I am not at home; I am across town. A logistical monkey wrench, but not insurmountable. It’s an hour round trip, tops.

In my head I am hearing my favorite Simpsons clip, from Treehouse of Horror III, where Homer is sold cursed frogurt. Peter was in an accident (ooh, that’s bad); he is going to be fine (that’s good!); but he needs you to get dressed and head across town (that’s bad); though it should only delay your plans by an hour (that’s good!). Hodor and I resolve to delay breakfast while I run home, and as I hug him for his understanding, that’s when my back muscles go into complete spasm. (Can I go now?)

Twenty minutes of deep breathing and tentative stretching later, I am able to get up off the floor, get into some real clothes, and make it to my car for the drive home. The entire left side of my back is still in knots, making left-hand turns really unpleasant; suddenly, everywhere I need to go is to the left. As I whine pathetically, “It hurts when I steer,” I hear my grandmother’s voice reply, “Then don’t do that.” If only.

While driving is painful, and getting in and out of the car even more so, I resolve to pull an L.A. Story and drive the three blocks from my house to Peter’s once I have retrieved the keys, because walking is the worst action of all. This, of course, is the moment my plans get run over by a bicycle for the second time that day.

Wilshire Blvd., the main drag that runs roughly a mile north of my house, turns out to be closed down for CicLAvia – the event four days a year when bikes take over the city. Closing Wilshire to cars is bad for traffic, but not being able to cross Wilshire for several miles in either direction is catastrophic. I’m all for green transportation and a healthier lifestyle, but at this point I am ready to tattoo “fuck bicycles” across my forehead.

Making one last eye-watering left turn, I ditch the car as close to Wilshire as I can and set out to cover the last mile to my house on foot. Thank goodness Hodor had convinced me not to run this “quick little errand” in my pajamas – it would have been less effective to curse the happy biking families if they were laughing at me.

Since my iPod is with all my hiking stuff back at Hodor’s, I entertain myself during the walk by singing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” from Book of Mormon. On repeat. By the time I hobble to my house, grab Peter’s keys and a sun hat (because the sunscreen is also back with my hiking stuff), and drag my hunchback-ass up the hill to his house, poor Peter has been waiting well over two hours for his insurance information. My not-so-intelligent phone manages to take a decent photo of his card after three tries, and the hospital finally has what it needs. Huzzah.

I still have to walk Peter’s dog, who, instead of pooping, seems determined to make me limbo under every low-hanging tree she can find, but eventually I get her back inside, where I “borrow” some of Peter’s ibuprofen as my reward. Sweet, sweet drugs. Back down the hill at my house, I scarf down a “breakfast” of toast, grab a heating pad and a screw-this-I-earned-it bottle of champagne, and carry them in a shopping bag hugged to my chest – the only position that doesn’t completely exacerbate my back. It is well after 1pm by now, so I start the long walk back to my car, shuffling along like a bag lady in the heat of the LA afternoon. Looks like I got some exercise in after all!

Even though the knot in my back got ambitious during the return drive and seized the muscles on the right side as well, the rest of the day went much better than the morning. Hodor declared it a day (well, a half-day) of pampering, and we did manage to finish Game of Thrones season 3 before the premiere. As a bonus, the haze of Advil and champagne made the red wedding far less upsetting than it could have been.

One last thing: a couple of episodes into our afternoon binge, Hodor’s overhead light fixture – completely unprompted by man or earthquake – fell from the ceiling, shattering glass all over his table and computer. Which just serves as more proof that you probably shouldn’t try to make plans with me in the near future. There is a good chance you will end up having to take me down to the river to tell me about the rabbits one last time…

April Fool

Standard

The month of April during my sophomore year of college was dubbed by my roommate, “The Month of Doom.” In those few weeks, several major relationships within the Harvard Band came crashing down, and she noted that a similar string of breakups had occurred in April of our freshman year, too. Snuggled comfortably in the warmth of her new relationship, she simply shrugged and noted that there “must be something in the air.” Since one of those relationships that had so recently disintegrated was mine, and since the observation was essentially her only response to my devastation, I didn’t appreciate the sentiment all that much. Looking back, though, she was completely right.

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. – T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

April is many things – including National Poetry Month – but at its heart it is a month of transition and change; it is a month when things end, and other things begin. Historically, it has seen the start of the American Revolution, the first shots of the American Civil War, the first Olympics in over1500 years, and the first space shuttle mission. It has seen endings such as the last shots of the Civil War, the official end to slavery (with the Civil Rights Bill of 1866), the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the spiritual end to apartheid with the election of Nelson Mandela. As for transition, it has brought us several events that have literally shaken us to the core, including the explosion aboard Apollo 13, the sinking of the Titanic, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. April is also the birth and death month of one William Shakespeare.

Oh, how this spring of love resembleth

The uncertain glory of an April Day;

Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,

And by and by a cloud takes all away. – William Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona

Is it any wonder that so many relationships burst forth and die in this tumultuous spring month? That April back in sophomore year saw the end of my relationship with my first love. But the April before it had brought our first date: a romantic walk on a perfect spring night, a pause on a bridge spanning the Charles River, a lunar eclipse and a fumbling first kiss.

The April winds are magical,

And thrill out tuneful frames;

The garden walks are passional,

To bachelors and dames – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “April”

It was April again a couple of years later when I ventured to England to visit my star-crossed soul mate. We spent a week wandering through gardens, exploring museums, getting lost on beaches and in woods, and sharing long nights of conversation in cramped single beds. He met his wife the day after I left, and our relationship was really never close again, but I wouldn’t give up that week for all the happiness in the world. To me, at the time, it was all the happiness in the world.

April comes in like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. – Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Spring”

A few Aprils after that, I entered my first (and so far only) boyfriend cohabitation. Sure, part of the reason I agreed to the scenario was because I *knew* I would never marry him in the long run (that made it safe, you see, because I was too young to be heading down that road), but that doesn’t mean we weren’t excited and a little giddy at the idea of playing house for the first time. That, and saving major bank on the shared rent.

April is a promise that May is bound to keep. – Hal Borland (New York Times editorialist)

Then again, our giddiness at living together also didn’t stop him from deciding only two months later to pack it in and move back to the other side of the country. It took him a full year to leave, but I came away with the rent-controlled apartment. Totally worth it.

April, April,

Laugh thy girlish laughter,

Then, the moment after,

Weep thy girlish tears. – Sir William Watson, “April”

Nowadays, the month of April brings the Coachella music festival, which for me will forever be associated with saying goodbye to my second great love. One April, around the time Gnarls Barkley was a more familiar name than CeeLo Green, I realized I was in love with him and he realized he wasn’t with me. He went off to the desert swearing we would always be friends, and as far as our friendship is concerned, he never came back.

The sun was warm, but the wind was chill,

You know how it is with an April day – Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

More recently, in an April only a couple of years ago, I had finally defrosted my heart and opened it again. I started the month by seeing my last serious boyfriend off on his three-week European adventure (an assignment for work). We vowed to Skype every couple of days; he took me on video tours of his London neighborhood; I tucked a few romantic notes into his luggage to be discovered over time (a practice that had become our custom). But through it all, I could tell that he was growing distant, the solo trip rekindling his wanderlust and loner spirit. The omens of that April fulfilled their promise when he returned in May. We were all over by the end of June.

Sweet April showers

Do bring May flowers – Thomas Tusser, “500 Points of Good Husbandry”

The important thing to remember is that endings are also the prologues to beginnings. The sad spring showers DO feed the growing flowers, and every one of my tumultuous Aprils have carried me forward to some other new adventure. I have no idea what this April will bring; I would rather it be the start of something than the end – unless it is the end of something bad. We have already had two pretty big earthquakes in March, so I really hope it isn’t another one of those. But no matter what, I hope that I will dive in with abandon, as I have so many Aprils in the past. Because in the end…

…the first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year. – Mark Twain

I will always be an April fool.