Thief of Joy

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I was talking with a girlfriend last night about comparison. About all the people living their best lives on social media. Getting engaged in Majorca, sporting klieg light-sized diamonds, wearing bikinis like they were born in them and sipping green juice laced with artisanal vodka.

These are the images that stick in our brains, the ones that make us feel less than. We don’t remember the horrifying stories of couples splintered by addiction, infidelity and ennui. We see the rainbows not the dark nights, because there’s no narrative arc without growth: The hero must return from the wilderness with the groceries, otherwise no narrative.

Here’s the thing: Instagram is a repository of stories. Each one a curated fiction of some kind. That photo of me and Mitch looking so cute making pancakes? For all I remember, we tussled over making them. Or maybe we didn’t. But dang, don’t we look adorable with our heritage-grain flapjacks?

Maybe some of us are more porous than others and given to comparison. When a friend of mine told me years ago that her new boyfriend said, “Being around you is a sexual experience,” I immediately flashed to what Mitch said early in our courtship, “Leslie, you’re OK.” A real Lance Romance, right? That rankled until the aforementioned lust-drunk boyfriend cancelled their wedding two weeks prior. I picked up the wedding dress, already paid for and returned it to the bride, a deflated white balloon.

There have been couples I’ve envied where he’s cheated or she has or both of them have. Where lies have been uncovered, debts revealed or someone walks out after less than a year of marriage.

When we compare, we are telling ourselves toxic lies. We don’t know what’s underneath the pixels on Instagram or behind the public displays of affection at dinner parties, because people and relationships are complex and dynamic. There may be beautiful starts and messy endings or fights and repairs, infidelity and healing and truths finally shared after years in the shadows. We don’t know. And, how can we? It’s challenging enough trying to cipher what’s going on in our own backyards.

I’m writing this mainly for myself, because I’ve been bedeviled by comparing us and them, as if I’m competing for a grade or running a race or trying to get to some ideal endpoint. Yes, good can come from comparison if taken in the spirit of curiosity: Maybe that couple is further down the evolutionary road than we are? Maybe there’s something we can learn from how they do? Maybe it’s OK that we are who and where we are, failing and getting up and relishing the moments when are hearts do open and we’re mingling our souls in those rare moments of grace.

And, about stories, they aren’t over until they’re over. We are in media res until we’re no longer.

My friend whose fiance cancelled their wedding? They did eventually marry. You just never know, do you?

 

 

 

The Dogs of War

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There was Lola, an Australian Shepherd mix, good with cats. Ruby, who is fun and social! Dolly, an extremely sweet Chiweenie. Kira, who is shy at first and looking for her forever home. I have Petfinder bookmarked

I want a dog, badly. So much so, I sometimes fantasize about a black nose and whiskered snout cheek-to-cheek with mine, a small, warm body the little spoon to my big, her paws smelling of salt tucked up in an easy crease, both of us gently snoring. (Perhaps, this is why Mitch doesn’t want a dog: One snoring bitch is enough.)

Where I imagine love and kisses, Mitch sees responsibility. Where I envision puppy cuddles, Mitch sees another item on his heaping pile of duties that weigh on him like chain mail. As much as I yearn to hear the clicking of nails against the wood floors, that’s how much he doesn’t want to be responsible for clipping those nails.

Just when I’m sure he’s a hard “no,” he’ll pet a bouncy lab and a grin as goofy as a squeak toy will spread across his face. Or I’ll instant message the picture of a darling rescue dog, her head tilted just so—I’ve sent hundreds of these--and I can sense from his response—"Oh, she’s really cute” or “Where is she?”--the hesitation, his inherent sweetness fighting against his sternness, his inner babycakes at war with his prickly, alpha crust. Oh, there’s light! It’s googly Mitch I want to take to the shelter.

We grew up so differently. There were always animals in our house, from the 2.5-pound poodle who died of liver failure when I was eight, leaving me sobbing, to the 60-pound boxer who slept in my twin bed with me after I graduated from college, me untethered to any future, the dog, a farting, big-hearted security blanket who loved me like a soul mate as I took halting, graceless steps into adulthood.

Mitch had no pets at home. OK, he had white mice, but that hardly qualifies. He never had a kitty snuggle against him until he spent the night at my apartment and Momcat, rheumy and oozing out of every orifice, slept on his head. He never had hamsters or a lizard or bird or baby ducks or pet frogs. He never had his parents come home from the veterinarian with an empty leash, not until we had to put Jazz down, me holding her, him scream-crying in the corner stunned by grief over this animal, who once peed on him demonstrating who really ran the show.

My cats were non-negotiable, but Momcat died before we moved in together. By her food bowl. So her.

When I discovered her body in the kitchen, I called Mitch.

“How do you know she’s dead?” He asked.

I looked at the phone, thinking, City Boy. “Oh, she’s dead. You need to help me with the remains.”

 “She’s your cat,” he said.

“This is what boyfriends are for!” I said and hung up.

He came over and put Momcat in a shoebox and I took her to the Dumb Friends League to have her cremated. Years later he would build a small, wooden box and place the remains of our Sadie inside and we cried with our neighbors, burying her under the apple tree Mitch had to climb when she strayed into the upper branches.

We’ve had arguments about The Dog and talks and chased our tails. Don’t you want me to be happy? Don’t you think Aquafaba would be a great name for a puppy. Little Aquafaba! How can you be so callous? How can you not see how happy dogs make me? Lord, I’ve even tried “I” statements. “I get really sad when you say I can’t fucking have a dog!”

“Antone,” Mitch tells our orange tabby, “I’m the only thing that stands between you and a dog. It’s you and me against…her.” He casts me a meaningful glance.

Occasionally I fall wildly in love with one of the pups I find on AdoptaPet, usually a small dog with a long snout and big, floppy ears. Lucy, who was part beagle, and despite all my magical thinking, would probably have been a cat chaser. Betty, a dachshund mix, with a face that belonged on a sack of kibble, that’s how cute she was. This past week, Kira, also part beagle, with the visage of an angel in fur.

The times I crave dog most poignantly are the days I hunger for a distraction from a career that’s sputtering, and my aging parents—their waning health a constant hum of pain--and my novel that pushes me flat against the limits of my talent.

A year and a half ago after being worn down by a blitzkrieg of words and tears, Mitch acquiesced to adopting this adorable sweetheart, who was all eyes and ears and soft muzzle. As we prepared to meet her, though, I felt defeated and confused. This wasn’t how I wanted it to go down. A gut reaction, mostly, guilt about upending Antone’s world and Mitch’s, where all responsibility is a 10, whether it’s the electrical bill or moving his newly widowed mother across country, away from the city she enjoyed with his father for nearly 40 years. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring her home.

Sometimes I want the dog simply for the win, or I yearn for the grand gesture, Mitch proving his love with the gift of a pooch, smiley and beribboned. Mostly, though, I want us to want the same thing, for both of us to fall in love with a creature who we can love unabashedly, showing each other our bare open hearts, the hearts that take a lifetime to display. My, how fear hounds our nos and yeses.

“A dog isn’t going to solve all your problems,” he says.

“Or start all of yours.”

 

 

 

 

Uno mas, Tony

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Whenever we watched No Reservations or Parts Unknown, whether Anthony Bourdain was sampling some twee post-modern dish in Spain or eating bugs in Namibia, Mitch said, “I want his job.”

“No, you don’t,” I’d say, killjoy. “You would never eat the pig rectum.”

Year after year, meal after meal, destination after destination, Greece, Pittsburgh, Sri Lanka, Beirut, Senegal, Italy, New Jersey, Argentina and on and on and on. His passport must have looked like a phone book, extra pages to accommodate all the passages he made in and out and back to countries and restaurants and people’s homes to drink, to try grandma’s best showing the respect of an alter boy, her beaming at his compliments, his laughter, real and hearty, having sampled the local fermented beverage maybe one or several too many until this lanky, white, middle-aged American became not just an honored guest but a member of the tribe, a cousin, a landsman, someone they would be happy to welcome back like a long, lost friend.

He was a sensory ambassador, someone who knew deep in his jangling, attenuated bones, that sharing food and the ritual of a meal, however it happens where it happens, could bring people together in profound, heart-felt ways, connections that far surpass diplomatic protocol or the ham-fisted posturing of so many world leaders.

As a writer, Bourdain won the lottery. In the late 1990s, an unsolicited essay he wrote, which pulled back the curtain on restaurant dining, was accepted by The New Yorker. This doesn’t happen. It’s the prince or princess with the glass slipper, a Super Bowl ring, three Michelin stars, The Booker Prize—handed to him and deservedly because what editor could resist: “Good food, good eating is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay. It’s about sodium-loaded pork fat, stinky triple-cream cheeses, the tender thymus glands and distended livers of young animals. It’s about danger—risking the dark, bacterial forces of beef, chicken, cheese, and shellfish.”

Then Kitchen Confidential, the book deal launched by The New Yorker miracle. Then more books. Then television shows and fame and money beyond anything this writer, who’s labored in obscurity for 30 years, could possibly imagine. The food! The 600 thread-count sheets! The fatted calves! Yes, all of that, plus war-torn locales, the witnessing of dire poverty, dislocation from friends and loved ones, a biological clock so fucked up no amount of melatonin could probably touch it.

Bourdain’s death has dealt a body blow to his fans, who loved his cocky bon homie, his zeal for food high and low, his willingness to call bullshit—justified or no—on everything from dietary trends to culinary pretentiousness, his ability to shamble through the world like the class clown who turns out to have pretty good manners and a great mind.

If you’ve fallen down a dark hole or two—Bourdain’s death feels like a shot across the bow, a chilling reminder to take good care. That great mind of his? None of us know the strange and terrible places it took this very special man, who so clearly possessed a tender heart despite the offal he ingested. So many social media posts have talked about getting help as if Bourdain wasn’t getting help. Help, unfortunately, can be a journey, too—a long one--and those dark shadows can loom wide with the specter of permanence.

But states of mind—dark or light—are not destinations, they are the weather, blowing hard and fierce one hour, calm the next, dropping meat-ball size chunks of hail or pitching the sun in a long arc of 72-degree bliss. What causes the weather? Psyche, biochemistry, the stories we tell ourselves, the food we put on our plates? Getting help can help us learn from the storms and see the lashing of the wind for what it is.

“I don’t think it’s the material things that make us happy,” Mitch said, when I compared my own lack of professional success. “I think it’s the little ones.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I keep thinking, if he could have just made it to the next pizza.” And then the next.

 

Identified Flying Objects

When authors peel down the covers of their bedclothes to examine their marriages like Dani Shapiro and Claire Dederer have done recently in Hourglass and Love and Trouble respectively, it’s the writerly equivalent of using a mirror to view what goes down there in that genital netherworld. To scrutinize anything so closely, so near and dear, requires a girding of one’s loins, a willingness to, if not see and tell all, speak the truth about those raw, fleshy bits.

Then why do it? Seriously, what’s the point?

The object of a personal essay or memoir is to render the particular universal. If I’ve thrown a stapler at my husband in a fit of blind rage, chances are someone else has too. If I can tuck that stapler into a larger narrative about developing more equanimity over time...even better, if I can render that soaring office accessory funny, I can show the potential for growth and demonstrate that one flying stapler does not a marriage unmake.

Perhaps you’ve chucked a stapler or two in your time. Maybe you’re rankled by your proclivities for stapler-chucking. Maybe you think it signals the demise of your union and freaks you out that you have been provoked to, yes, violence by your spouse. You might find solace knowing that it’s part of the human condition—granted, not the most mature part but not beyond the realm of what can happen between two people who love each other—to hurl the nearest object.

I didn’t draw blood, by the way.

To be clear, I threw the stapler near him, taking a nice divot out of the wall, which I knew would piss him off. Had I thrown the stapler with the intent to commit bodily harm, that would be a different essay with a different outcome. But in this case, it was a ridiculous fight that got out of hand. As we learned more about our volatile fighting style, Mitch and I have both found ways to keep conflicts on “simmer” not “explode.” In 24 years, there’s happily only been one Office Depot missile.

So here I stand, naked with my stapler, like these other fine writers have done with their own, more lucid stories. To write about marriage in all of its messy, gorgeous dailiness, provides a service. It’s the anti- “When Harry Met Sally” or maybe it’s “When Harry Met Sally II,” 20 years after the honeymoon when Sally gets Botox injections and Harry bitches about the cost all the way to Katz’s Deli, where they start to reminisce about the old days and before you know it they’re holding hands again. It's not happily ever after. But it is one happy moment accruing over time, again and again.

These writers are showing what it’s like to live with and love someone over time. Without the soundtrack, but also without the dour fatalism of Edward Albee or cynicism of HBO. To write about one’s marriage is to help others see theirs more clearly and hopefully with more compassion. For me it’s also a way of feeling around this thing that’s both utterly transparent and unknowable like describing a brick wall from inches away.

Dani Shapiro has said, “Writing Hourglass allowed me to see certain strengths and certain fault lines in my marriage more clearly than I ever had before.  It’s a very interesting exercise to put one’s marriage under a microscope.”

Indeed it is. So we write what we know. We write to help. And we write to understand those dark, mysterious places even a hand mirror can’t illuminate. 

 

 

A Good Day

A friend of mine, worried that her engaged sister and soon-to-be-brother-in-law were arguing, advised her sister that even though the wedding was far along in the planning, she didn’t have to go through with it.

To which I replied, “Sometimes you learn things when you fight.”

The friend in question has a remarkable marriage in which the fights are few and the level of love and compassion between them palpable. Her husband actually gets giddy when she shows him a new pair of shoes.

I can think of many adverbs to describe Mitch's reaction to new footwear but “giddy”? Never giddy. Not ever.

My friend wants her sister to be happy. But what does that mean in the context of marriage? I can be happy, bored, pissed off, exhilarated, kissy, annoyed and rapturous in the space of an afternoon. Reductive descriptors like “happy” and “unhappy” when applied to marriage can send couples scrambling to unravel their unions. Marriage is many shades of grey, like the sky or a dove's feathers.

What if, instead, we saw marriage as a journey, our quirks and personalities sandpaper to the rough edges of our spouses' and there’s to ours? It would mean some days would chafe while other would shine as we recognized a new way in which our partner showed concern or we changed to accommodate their needs.

Early in our marriage when my husband retreated to his basement office after dinner, I would flip out, convinced he was a workaholic, that he wouldn’t be there for me, that I was being ignored. I railed at him, throwing my fears and insecurities like water balloons until he felt like he was drowning, gasping for air as I flooded him with my dark waters.

“I feel suffocated,” he yelled.

“I feel abandoned!”

Eventually I let go with the help of therapy and some white-knuckled evenings with my psyche. I began to knit again and read more. I also noticed that Mitch consciously made time to take walks with me, suggested outings, or explicitly said, “I want us to spend time together this weekend.” The more I noticed, the more I trusted, and the more I trusted, the more I appreciated that he wasn’t abandoning me, but taking care of our joint finances and caring for himself by carving the space he needed to think and just be.

But it took some fights for us to get there. Had we both been more skillful communicators, we might have reached this point less painfully. But there it is--was--our young, silly selves in pitched battle over what most fights are about, fear.

There are outliers like my friend and her husband, who are such congenial, loving couples, that it’s easy for those of us with less patience and stronger tempers to look at our unions and judge them lacking by comparison. How much harder for the sister, whose relationship is undergoing the inevitable paradise-lost period of adjustment to face a sibling, who feels her relationship is unassailable, and confess that her fiancé fights her on home décor or listens poorly or has a stubborn nature, and that they are butting heads like young kids.

We are far from perfect. Mitch has strong ideas about how to do everything from load a dishwasher to compensate a pet sitter. And me? Everything is personal even when it’s not. But when I visit our younger selves in my imagination—and even the lesser selves we continue to burnish today—I try to do so not with blame but with a warm heart that feels like the softest duvet. Then it’s a good day. A very good day.

Grabbed

It’s a week before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump and I am furiously crocheting hot pink pussy hats for the Women’s March in Washington. I’m planning to march locally, but have no idea why except my insides feel like they’ve been Vitamixed.

I ask my sister in law, who is a social justice activist and trainer, why we’re marching. She talks to me about intersectionality and othering and oppression. And I get it. I’ve been othering all over the place—the “thems that voted him in”.

I have vague ideas about protesting sexual violence on college campuses. Having spent the better part of 30 years wandering the greenswards and ivy-covered towers of American academe, I’m aware of how alcohol and hormones and pornography and poor self esteem and freedom and misogyny create this toxic stew that ruins lives.

After The Washington Post released the Access Hollywood video of Donald Trump bragging about his license to grab women’s genitals, my long buried brushes with harassment and assault started following me like a haunt. The boss who gave me a copy of “How to Make Love to a Man” at an office Christmas party. The “friends” who invited me for dinner and assumed I was dessert. The vice chancellor so intent on staring at my chest during a one-on-one, I thought maybe my breakfast ended up on my blouse. “What?!” I said, looking down, as in why-the-hell-are-you-a-married-senior-executive-staring-at-my-tits?

It's not nothing, but I feel my luck like a hashtag.

On a walk I pull Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula” from one of the Little Free Libraries that litter my neighborhood. The subhead reads, “Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” and I remember an NPR piece in which Krakauer, who lives in my state, said he felt compelled to write this book after a family friend was raped by an acquaintance.

The book wrings me out and I begin quoting statistics to my husband at dinner. One in five women in college are sexually assaulted. One in five American women have been raped at one point in their lives. I think about all the dorm rooms I’ve visited in my higher education career, the cinder block walls, the scratched, loftable beds that allow students to bunk above their desks, the tape marks on the walls. I have written countless lines of copy marketing the "freshman experience" and I feel a little sick.

***

In the winter of 1980 on a frigid Sunday morning, I answer the door to my dorm room. I am wearing red fuzzy pajamas that zip up the front. As a resident assistant, I never knew what time of the morning or night I might have to rouse and deal with something. It could be anything. Thousands of dollars of damage due to vandalism or a sick resident. It’s quiet in the hallway. 

A student from my floor is standing in my doorway, her smeared mascara ringing her eyes. “There’s a guy in my room,” she whispers, pointing down the hall. “And I don’t know who it is.”

Her name is Lisa and she’s a heavy partier and I am judgmental in the way you can only be at 20 when it is so clear how one does or does not fuck up one’s life. It looked to me like she was engaged in the former. I asked if they had sex.

She didn’t know.

“Then I suggest, you ask him who he is.” And shut the door.

I tell my husband this story, while continuing to read about the friends who raped friends in Krakauer’s book. “We didn’t have a word for it back then,” I said. “We weren’t trained. Rape was something violent. Not this.” I want to reach back into the past and follow Lisa to her room. To see.

I ask my sister in law whether she wants me to send her a pussy hat, the pink hats everyone was making to support women's rights at the march. I agree to send three.

***

My portfolio is in the crawl space next to large plastic bins of yarn and family photos I need to sort. It’s stuffed with old clippings, copies of magazines I’ve written for, ads, college publications, but the essay I’m looking for isn’t there. And I’m not about to mine the boxes of old work looking for 1,000 words. I look online to see if it was digitized by the Boulder Daily Camera where it was published, but no. Vaporized.

I barely remember some of the pieces I collected into this binder full of the past. But I remember writing that essay as if it were yesterday, sitting on a wooden folding chair and the yellow Formica kitchen table that now lives in the San Francisco townhome of Mitch’s first cousin once removed.

 “The Myth of the Modern Girl” was the result of big heartbreak and a stalled master’s thesis and confusion about how to walk the line between independence, career achievement and love as a tail-end Baby Boomer with the freedom to choose from dozens of lives like cereals in the breakfast aisle. “We are the hapless beneficiaries of the women’s movement,” I wrote. Now what?

Years later I would make a tearful, newly boyfriend-less first cousin once removed, who now lives with my Formica table, her husband and two children, look at me while I tell her she’s not weak for wanting a partner.

“You know that phrase, ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle? That’s bullshit,” I tell her. “People need love. You want love in your life. That doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you anti-feminist. There is nothing wrong with wanting love in your life.”

***

I am watching an Instagram feed explode in righteousness over a feminist post about dating. The post was written in response to a guy’s assertion that women should try to understand how men communicate.

The comments poured in. It was as if Hera had come down from Olympus and discovered Zeus inflagrante delicto with a younger nymph.

There were emojis and “Fuck yeahs” and “amen, sisters.”

One commenter wrote: “I refuse to contort or alter myself to fit a man's expectations and figure the right person is going to love me for me.”

I feel the weight of feminism and the patriarchy and 23 years of marriage and the thousands of tiny commitments kept that add up to a lifetime of trust so that you can hold each other through the death of friends and family and expectations you have for yourself.

I wonder what I’m responding to when I think, “Wow.”

***

On Inauguration Day prior to the march I still don’t really know why I’m going but buy a pair of pink sunglasses with a breast cancer symbol on the temple and a package of big hearts covered in glitter from a Valentine’s Day display at the dollar store. At home I staple the hearts to paint sticks.

Along with 100,000 other Denver women, men and families, I march the next day, wearing a pussy hat and new sunglasses and carrying my heart.