Gone, But Not Deleted

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If Death participated in social media (and who doesn’t these days?), this week he would be that guy the Facebook algorithm suddenly decides should be every other item in my news feed. I haven’t been able to look anywhere without being made aware of his business.

His larger status updates have been national news, not just my own. America’s most recent shooting spree hit both physically and emotionally close to home for several of my friends here in California. Then there was our annual observance of Memorial Day, during which my family takes an extra pause to thank and remember our own veterans – my grandfather, great uncle, and cousin (only one of whom is still with us).

Death’s more direct involvement in my timeline was to cast me repeatedly in the role of “consoler”. Two different good friends had to put a bittersweet end to their beloved pet’s battle with cancer, and in both cases I was in a position to help out within the next twenty-four hours. It was nice to be able to be there for them – and very nice to come home and find my own two cats as healthy and obnoxious as ever.

But Death’s most personal interaction came at the beginning of the week, in a sneak attack akin to that random mention of a name you thought you’d put behind you. Quite fittingly, he came at me through my very first smart phone. (Yes, I said my first.)

I am what is affectionately known as a “pack rat” and probably more accurately described as a “hoarder in training.” Add my healthy dose of frugality and the result is a person who never stops using something until it has stopped working entirely. No kidding – I still drive the car I bought used fifteen years ago. The point being, I don’t get a new phone very often.

For those of us still stuck in the last technological century, a new phone brings with it the ritual of transferring contacts over from the old one. I have been told that in this age of Androids and Apples, this can happen automatically, but I like the act of doing it manually. Much like the updating of a Christmas card list or the fresh start of a new address book (in the days before cell phones), the task of transferring phone numbers is a great opportunity to reflect and evolve.

Inevitably, there are those number that do not need to be entered into the new phone. Deleting a contact can be a really satisfying act, a kind of spring cleaning for the soul. There are the “Hey, I don’t work for this person anymore” deletions, the “Wow, I haven’t spoken to or seen this person for ages” deletions, the “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” deletions, and of course – there is always at least one – the “I have absolutely no idea who this person is” deletion. With each click of the down arrow as I skip on to the next contact, I can feel myself getting lighter.

And then, suddenly, there is that number I no longer need but wish I did.

On average, I get a new phone every four or five years, so there is always at least one number that has become obsolete. When they sneak up, it is a little punch in the gut, a reminder of grief suffered and survived. With my last phone, it was my grandmother’s number (226-1875), the first time I ever deleted a family member (the other grandparents having been lost before cell phones).

This time, there were three: my childhood home (224-8049), which since my parents’ retirement and relocation is no longer ours, my best friend’s childhood home (420-5286) for the same reason, and my dear friend Jay Leggett. He was my director at the Second City and beyond, my inspiration as a writer, and most importantly a beloved human being. We lost him just six months ago, almost to the day of my contacts transfer.

Staring at that number, knowing I had to let it pass uncopied, was like letting the last physical piece of him go, finally. It hurt – especially because, as technology diminishes our brain power, I know that I do not have that one forever burned in my mind. But I also know that it is important to move forward, to let grief pass; I didn’t copy the number.

Life is for the living, and smart phones are for those who can let go of their Luddite fear of advancement. Since I plan to be a member of the former group for some time, it is about time I became one of the latter as well. Even if it hurts a little. (Now excuse me while I go check Facebook on my phone.)

Think Outside the Box

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[Warning: this is the one where I talk about “naughty bits” using words more direct and mature than “naughty bits”. If you are not comfortable with words that describe female anatomy, I suggest you either stop reading, grow up, or read the chapter in What’s Happening to My Body that lists every possible slang term for girl and boy parts – which my parents had me do when I was ten. Not only will that chapter “get it out of your system,” it is also comedy gold.]

Ever since I lost my virginity on the night of my nineteen-and-a-half birthday (to an uber-polite Canadian – I highly recommend you lose your virginity to one if it isn’t too late), I have known enough to appreciate a man who pays attention to my vagina. However, as any girl who makes it past the first time also knows, there is minimal pleasure to be gained from a lover who becomes singularly focused. My boobs are up here, dude. And so is the rest of me. Take a breath.

As I indulge in too much political news during these days leading up to the midterm elections, I cannot help but notice that the same principle applies to our political leaders. Politicians in general – and conservatives in specific – are way too focused on my vagina and not paying nearly enough attention to the rest of me.

There is all kinds of concern about what can go into my vagina, whether it be a hormonal birth control, no birth control, insurance-covered birth control, or the wand of a vaginal ultrasound device. This may be the “do nothing” Congress, but there is no shortage of state-level attempts – and successes – to legislate that nothing but a fully-gestated product of God-intended reproduction (consensual or otherwise) comes out through my vagina (or that, once out, said reproductive product not be an “anchor baby”). They are even still fighting about who can enjoy my vagina within the bond of legal wedlock.

With Reince Priebus and the Republican Party searching for ways to become more relatable to women, I offer them the same advice I would give to any inexperienced or ineffective lover: try focusing on something else for a while. Women are built with speed bumps for a reason – to slow down the journey from above to below. (Breasts. I was talking about breasts in that last sentence, in case it wasn’t clear.) Take a cue from nature and focus on the whole body.

Care about whether, should my body get sick, I can take it to the doctor without having to declare bankruptcy. Make an effort to ensure that my body can live in a world without rising seas, a dying food chain, or toxic drinking water. Worry about the things that go into my mouth instead of my vagina – like hormone-filled food and added sugar.

Try making sure that when my brain is employed in the workforce, it gets compensated at the same level as a man’s brain – or even just at a livable minimum wage. How about improving the system, so that after I give birth to that God-intended child I can raise it while still pursuing my career (with a partner or without) and educate it in a strong public school system?

All of these things are more important than who or what goes into my vagina. And unlike my personal reproductive choices, they actually require communal dialogue and consensus. So please, all you current and aspiring leaders out there, for the sake of our society and the well-being of every woman, take a step back; see the big picture; think outside my box.

Sons and Mothers (Red Flag Warning)

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Emerson wrote that “men are what their mothers made them.” Unfortunately, there are a few too many men out there whose mothers seem to have been guided by a manual from Ikea. Not everything has come together quite like it was supposed to, and there are a couple of possibly-important pieces lying unused on the floor.

My first experience with a careless craftswoman was in high school. Junior year, I started dating a Sophomore boy who looked like Eddie Furlong from the Terminator movies, which in the early 90’s made him a dreamboat. He was my second boyfriend ever – and my second trombone player. (Brass players have great lips; go kiss one as soon as possible.)

Eddie’s mother did not like the idea of him dating “an older woman” at all. Even though our high-school-band-geek sexuality was at roughly the level of an Archie comic, she was determined to keep him safe from my harlot ways no matter the psychological cost. She made him take his twelve-year-old sister with him wherever possible, including on dates; our friends’ pools and hot tubs suddenly became contagion zones that must never be entered, especially with exposed skin; she even insisted that tickling was a form of physical abuse only practiced by the worst bullies and rapists-in-training.

Eddie and I did not last through my Senior year, and I still feel bad when I think about him. Not because we broke up, but because I worry that he is out there somewhere in a hands-free marriage, unable to fathom the concept of privacy, and too scared to take his family for a swim when it’s hot out. He’s probably still a good kisser, though.

There are other ways for a mother to mess up her creation, and over-working the clay is a major one. In college, I fell in love with a Canadian boy who possessed all of the stereotypical politeness his nationality would imply. His mother, on the other hand, was German, and she exhibited a bit too much of that classic German fastidiousness when it came to her child.

At first, I thought it was really sweet that his favorite sweater (and mine – it was a gorgeous cable-knit fisherman’s sweater) was a handmade original from his mom. When it turned out that most of his sweaters, and shirts, and clothes in general were made by her, it didn’t surprise me because I knew that she owned a sewing shop back in Canada. Making clothes is what she did. Then I found out the true depths of the statement that “most” of his clothes were made by his mother – specifically, I learned that he did not own, and had never owned, a single pair of store-bought underwear.

The fact that I didn’t see a mother making all of her twenty-something son’s underwear (and him being fine with it) as a giant red flag can only be chalked up to the stupidity of being nineteen. A giant red flag it was, nonetheless. This woman was literally and metaphorically so involved in her son’s intimate business that there basically was no independent “him” to speak of. I really shouldn’t have been surprised when he broke up with me the next spring because she didn’t think I was good marriage material. (Again, I was nineteen.) Turns out he did marry his next girlfriend, and I hope his mother makes all of her underwear now too.

Mothers can do damage in so many ways, and it really isn’t fair that we have to deal so much with them in addition to their often jacked-up creations. Being seen as competition is messed up, but so is being overly valued; I have had several mothers who loved and doted on me, and each time it has turned out that their son was kind of an ass. I can only imagine that they knew the end product wasn’t so great, and were desperately trying to distract me in hopes that I wouldn’t notice and leave. But to all the past, present, and potential mothers (like myself), we have to remember: it is a poor craftswoman who blames her tool.

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day!

To Dream the Improbable Dream

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Where exactly is the line between ambition and masochism, and at what point in my life did I cross over it without noticing? On dark days, like when I miss out on a job or can’t afford a ticket to something or am reminded by my body that yet another egg has gone unfertilized, I often ask this question. It started sometime around age 33, probably because once you reach that “I outlived Jesus” moment it is only natural to take a hard look at what you have accomplished so far.

Ambition – n. 1: the desire to achieve a particular end; 2: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.

The only positions of rank I have ever striven for or achieved are that of first lieutenant of the marching band and captain of the high school math team, and I long ago concluded that any level of fame beyond minor name recognition (just enough to get the occasional dinner reservation) would make me miserable. But still, I have always been an ambitious person. Even without Winston Churchill or an Uncle Ben in my life (the guy on the rice box doesn’t count), it was clear to me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in other words, that when your parents give you genetic gifts, you use them.

What I haven’t been able to figure out is the degree to which the obligation to use talent should dictate life decisions. One of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra, actually loved soccer most, but played baseball because he was so good at it and his dad wanted him to. Was that right? It certainly brought a lot of joy to the world – I enjoyed the hell out of his shirtless Sports Illustrated cover photo – but it makes me a little sad to think he didn’t love the game.

In my junior year of college, the campus was abuzz with news of a freshman girl from India who had been recruited by the school in large part because she was six-foot-eight and good at basketball. (How could she not be, at that height?) Upon arrival, she told the college she would not be playing basketball so she could focus on getting the most out of her Harvard education. I found myself in line for milk behind her one day, and as I watched her unfold from the milk dispenser to her full six feet and eight inches, I couldn’t help but think two things: first, that she was the best argument for drinking milk ever made, and second, that she had some impressive nerve to defy the tacit expectations of Harvard (and of nature) to do what she wanted instead. But was she right?

This friction between obligation and desire is universal – just ask Hillary – and will probably never go away. Do I do what I am good at? Do I do what I love? Or do I try to become the first female President because I, unlike most, actually could? My constant fear is that I will choose the wrong side; or worse – that I already have.

My ambition comes from knowing that I am capable of achieving great things, and also from taking pride in that fact. On top of feeling an obligation to use the brain I have been given, I also want to prove to myself, the world, whomever, that I am not wasting my talents or resting on them. Combine this with a few centuries worth of ingrained New England Puritanism, which screams that nothing is of value unless it is difficult, and the result is an ever-climbing standard for “success” that soon resembles a penchant for misery.

Masochism – n. 1: pleasure in being abused or dominated; 2: a taste for suffering.

Despite major guilt, I have somehow managed to let desire do most of the steering in life. In college, I changed my major from Applied Math to English not because I couldn’t make it as a cryptographer, but because there were so many books I wanted to read and discuss. Still, I feel like I gave up somehow. After getting into a few good law schools, I again decided not to go down that road because, while studying law sounded fun, the idea of being a lawyer after (and of accumulating more debt) did not appeal to me. Even though I am now blissfully happy as a writer, there is also an overwhelming sense that I have to make up for what I have given up. But what level of literary success is the equivalent of a career as an NSA code breaker, or a White House speech writer, or a public school teacher (like my parents)? This is how ambition becomes self-flagellation.

To satisfy my ambition and assuage my guilt, I have to achieve something hard. I mean, really hard. How else can I explain my ridiculous life choice? I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a scientist, and instead I have chosen not only to write in the one medium (film) that least values writers, but also in the one genre (comedy) that gets the least respect, and as a member of the gender (female) that is only grudgingly welcome in the boys’ clubhouse. Whose stupid idea was this?

Ambition is great, we should all be striving for something, but the trick, I suppose, is to appreciate the struggle without falling in love with it. When the dream is so ideal as to become nearly impossible, maybe we should worry that we’re in it more for the pride of survival than for the goal. Or not; I have written plenty about how fairy tales are evil because they teach girls to wait for a perfect man (who doesn’t exist), but here I am in my mid-thirties still looking. I like to think of myself as an idealist, but as the Democratic Party has demonstrated time and again, “idealist” is just another way of saying “glutton for punishment”.

On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a multi-million-dollar property, and a woman my age just snagged a ring from George Clooney. Maybe masochism is the way to go after all.