Monday, December 31, 2007

Dear 2007,

Wow, it’s been a whole year! I can hardly believe it. It seems like only yesterday that I was down in Santa Cruz with my friends listening to the revelry as the clock struck 2007.

I know we got off to a rocky start: horrible emotional throw-downs with on-again-off-again boyfriends can be like that. And at a Christmas party, no less! (yes, I know technically that was in 2006, but the aftereffects lingered) Well, at least we got that out of the way early, so I could spend most of the year moving on way past that dead-end relationship, like a rocket ship zipping past a minor planet.

So, it could only get better after that. We did a lot of social stuff together, shared a lot of laughter, as well as moodiness and frustration, boredom, depression, you name it. The normal stuff. Through it all, I really just tried to be aware of everything, not get judgmental about myself (or you, though that was harder.) Or I tried to be aware of the judgment, anyway.

I got relatively mobile last January when I finally got my driver’s license 20 years later than most people. That was a few weeks more than one year ago. That was a challenge, something I’ll forever consider one of my major accomplishments. Does that sound pathetic? Well, to me, that was the fruition of all the reading and studying I’d done up to that point about facing your fears. That goddamn lack of a driver’s license had plagued me for all of my adult life. I’d had nightmares for years about driving, and when I would think about driving, I’d hyperventilate. I still can’t believe I did it. And in exactly a year, I can sign up at one of those car share companies! Them and their 2-year driving history requirements (grumble.)

That brings me to relationships, of course. You helped me deepen my relationship with my best friend of 12 years, who helped me and encouraged me to learn to drive. As scary as relating could (and can) be sometimes, you, 2007 finally taught me to sit with that discomfort, to look it straight in the eye. I’m not great at it yet, but it’s like driving: I’m comfortable (somewhat) with the discomfort, and it no longer freaks me out (as much.) Or maybe I just recognize the discomfort and the instinct to freak out and don’t always give in.

There was some small-time travel: down to Santa Cruz in March for some R&R, where I got all misty-eyed when a friend-of-a-friend saw me and seemed genuinely happy to see me. Really, it affected me more than you’d think. It made me realize how I long for that recognition and genuine warmth. And it helped me realize that it’s all around me, too. I just have to practice seeing it.

There were men, lots of men. Not in the nasty way you’re thinking of it, 2007. Just dates, lots of dates; and finally I realized I just can’t do the formal dating thing anymore. As dry as my romantic life has been in this year, I just had to walk away from the internet dating, the speed dating, all of it. If I meet someone, it’s going to be because we connect in our normal lives, doing the things we do anyway.

In the summer, there was New Orleans, helping rebuild (or at least that was why I went. I still don’t know if I helped at all), I remember sitting in the steamy summer morning out in the old playing field of the elementary school where the volunteer camp was, and falling in love with the swamp that pressed up against the chain-link fence. The fluttery feeling in the stomach, the whole bit. Is it possible to fall in love with a place? Maybe I’m just weird.

Anyway, that was a challenging and strange experience, all in all. But probably one of the defining ones of my adult life, and not because of the work I did (although, heck, I can install insulation AND drywall, then mud and patch it and paint. Pretty nice for someone who used to be barely familiar with how to work a hammer!) It was more about the experience of being still in the face of my almost compulsive need to get away from the human race, in a situation where that just was not possible. Difficult would be an understatement. I think I did a pretty good job, too! But we came away from that with a new friend and some good stories.

I guess the theme of our relationship, 2007, has been connecting. Many of my relationships have deepened, some have faded away almost completely; I’ve gotten closer to my dad than I probably ever have been, which is nice, and strange. Since when are parents supposed to be normal people?! In friendships, there’s been some conflict, and I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out the difference between my neuroses and my better instincts. I guess I’ve seen that it’s okay to let some relationships die in the cradle and to concentrate my energies on connections that seem more fruitful.

Oh, and speaking of cradles, 2007, you brought a new baby boy to my family. As someone who has never wanted children, I’ve watched the growth of the two new ones in my immediate family and seen how they change the lives of the people around them. I don’t regret not having kids, and I don’t see my niece and nephew very often, but I understand better the promise that kids represent. I’m fascinated to watch how these two little new people will grow and evolve.

There’s been some death, at the end of our relationship, 2007. That’s been difficult, but the sadness has been tempered with the realization that death finds all of us, sometime. Sometimes I feel very wise, which is funny, because so often I feel like a bumbling fool. But somehow I have a very philosophical view of death, and that feels right and wise to me - it’s sad for the living, yes, but also something else. I don’t know what. Mysterious, maybe?

The deaths, strangely, have made me realize how many truly special people I’m lucky enough to have crossed paths with in my life. You know, those people who shine bright like flames of wisdom and compassion, even in the midst of their own struggles. I don’t know how else to describe it; I see them as flames, actually. But after two of them died, one after a protracted struggle, and one of them suddenly, violently, it made me think of all the others I’ve gotten to know in my life. What a blessing.

Sorry, 2007, this is getting too long. But I just wanted to say that as difficult as some things have been between us, I feel closer to something important after knowing you. Something about just being. Not struggling as much. Being okay just as myself, and letting others be okay being themselves. I know I still have a lot to learn, but as I get to know 2008, I feel confident that I’ll get closer to it.

Thanks, 2007, it’s been nice knowing you!


Friday, December 14, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Going through my mom's photo album several months ago, I came across two photos of myself that I borrowed, scanned, and had printed on photo paper. One of them is on my mantle, and one is on my altar, where I put little trinkets and symbolic objects to remind myself of what's important in life.

One photo is of me as a little girl, probably 2 or 3 years old. I'm naked, leaning over a wading pool, and splashing the water with one hand, with an expression of joyful wonder on my laughing face. I look like I just discovered water and all of its wonders, and my dad, the photographer, captured the spray of water as it hung in mid-air, limned by the same sunlight that made my blond ponytail seem to glow. This photo is there to remind me that I once felt awe and delight in something simple.

The other photo is of me as a teenager, maybe 14 or 15, though it's hard to say. I'm standing in the snow, bundled up in an 80's era snow jacket and white fluffy hat. My gaze is level and direct at the camera, my expression is hard to judge. Not upset, not happy, just direct and calm, but focused. My body is turned slightly to the side, one hip very slightly cocked. I like that photo because I look like I'm ready to take on anything, and that slight swagger makes me smile. I keep that photo because it reminds me that I am - or at least have felt like - a bad-ass; that I can take things on and win.

I don't remember when either photo was taken, but I do remember being a teen up in Tahoe when my family would spend time at our timeshare cabin, and the hours I would spend in the snowy woods, imagining myself the only person in the world, exploring that muting whiteness that muffled all familiar objects so they seemed unrecognizable. My fantasy life was exquisite in those days. I had whole storylines in my head, and inevitably, they would involve me being the brave, whip-smart heroine, riding horses, finding treasure, escaping danger, and even rescuing men in distress (what's the masculine form of the word 'damsel', anyway?)

I remember how effortless it was, walking the woods and lake, exploring the tiny worlds in each pine grove, creeklet, or snowed-over bush. I felt like I was one of the woodland creatures, not a part of the hustling-bustling society of humans. Of course, when I got cold enough, I would wander home, with ice in my hair, grateful for the warmth of the cabin and the good food smells. Happy to look out at the snow from the warm side of the steamed-up windows.

I keep those pictures to remind myself that those younger people are still in here, the one who was overjoyed by water, and the one who explored the winter wonderland as the heroine of her own story.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Be Here. Now!!

Further thoughts on why self-help does not help the self

When I was a kid, maybe 11 or 12, I remember listening as my mom sat on the stairs and talked to her friend on the phone. She was disconsolate, maybe even crying, and I remember very clearly her whispering into the phone: “Is this all there is?” At the time, I didn’t know what that meant, only that my mom was upset and I didn’t know what to do about it. It scared me a little bit, but then she seemed to feel better after that and life went on.

I read a lot about psychology for my job, and also for personal reasons. I bought my first self-help book when I was ten years old, and now I edit self-help books. I’m a curious person and a voracious reader, plus I’ve never been particularly happy, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “figure things out” with respect to how to reach this mythical Shangri-La of happiness, goodness, and contentment, this “Good Life” of which everyone speaks.

Even after 27 years of seeking, and even though I know better by now, I find myself still hoping for some tidbit of wisdom, some new technique, some earth-shattering research to come through and show me how to be a happy, content, connected, laughing, popular person with an actual romantic life, somebody who always says the right thing for the situation, has a beautiful, sparkling home, a perfect garden, and can dance AND cook. Someone who doesn’t overindulge in cocktails, cookies, coffee, or, for that matter, CSI. Someone who meditates, yogas, volunteers, and, as a result, has a great body, great health, and exudes waves of compassion. Somebody who doesn’t get annoyed at people who think they know all the answers, or people who don’t have any answers. You know. The perfect person.

Recently I’ve been toggling back and forth between “self-improvement” blogs, psychology research, and books on Buddhist thought and human consciousness. I’m finding it all extremely frustrating, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why that is.

I’m also just finishing up reading my book club book, The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen, about his trip through Tibet seeking the elusive eponymous beast, not to mention enlightenment. I’m almost at the end, and he’s coming back into civilization, bad-tempered after his blissed-out mountain trek, and feeling bereft at having lost that sense of peace he had reached while wandering the trails of the Himalayas.

As I was reading on the bus this morning, about Matthiessen’s grumpiness and despair after coming off the mountains, I found myself smiling, not because I was enjoying his discomfort, but because THAT’S reality. That grumpiness. That wanting to go back to where you felt safe and at peace. That feeling of disappointment: “ Where did my enlightenment go?” THAT’S what you don’t see in self-help and self-improvement blogs and books, what I’ve been missing in my readings and seekings: the truth that no matter what enlightenment you reach, you still have to come back to life, the muddy slog with the occasional bright moments. And sometimes, it just sucks, and that the suck is as part of life, as valuable and true, as the glorious moments.

Lying in bed this morning, I was musing on whether Wayne Dyer has ever had a job in an office, a 2-hour bus commute, and trouble finding someone to date. Or whether Sharon Salzberg has ever spent hours at work - bored because after nearly 5 years doing the same thing, you just get bored, you know? - clicking through websites killing time before it was time to go home, and feeling guilty for it. Or whether Jack Kornfield ever had anxiety about how to tackle “The STD Talk” with a potential new lover, since potential lovers are so few and far between. Or if any of them ever worried that they were wasting their lives, that they were in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, making a mess of it all. Maybe they have. Or maybe they don’t need to experience those things; maybe bodhisattvas are beyond that. But to the rest of us, that’s the reality.

Peter Matthiessen is upset with himself, in the book, that he can’t keep the feeling of spaciousness that he had in the snow fields of Tibet. He can’t keep it because it’s not reality – or maybe it’s part of reality, but not the whole. He was separated from his life up there, but life is here, inescapable and persistent; sometimes glorious, sometimes awful, and most often just kind of…here.

To answer my mom: Yes, this IS all there is. This waking up in the cold and not wanting to get out of bed, but then feeling transfixed on the walk to work at the clear gladness of the cold sky and the bright birds. This drinking too much coffee and feeling crappy the whole rest of the day, but ummmm…that first sip of warmth and cinnamon. So good! This getting pissed off at a friend who shows up late, and then the gratitude at having a friend who can forgive you some crankiness, as you can forgive her some lateness. This not wanting to take the time to search for coins to give to the panhandler, and the jingle of coins in your pocket that you put there so that the next time someone asks, you DO have some spare change. This being so tired after work that watching TV is the only thing you have energy for, and the purr of the cat as he rests in the crook of your elbow. This not answering peoples’ phone calls because, well, you just don’t feel like talking to them at the moment; and the joy of talking when you DO feel like connecting. This hearing about a friend’s imminent wedding, and feeling a sinking sensation in your chest and a deep sadness; and the way you appreciate the loved ones in your life even more, knowing how rare love is. This wondering if this is all there is; and knowing the answer.

For me, the constant seeking, the constant trying to change, the search to be better, happier, healthier, more content, a better citizen, in these things lies discontentment. I’m tired of feeling like I should be different, like I should change who I am. I’m tired of seeking. I’m tired of people telling me to be less mediocre, be more “in flow”, meditate more, kill your TV, don’t eat meat, do more yoga, try these supplements, they really worked for me!

Life is here. Now. At this computer, in this chair, on the bus, in the stuffy meeting room at work. In meditation and in alpha-wave stupor. In the bars and in yoga studios. We will change our habits, or we won’t, but life doesn’t care. How do I describe the fact that, to me, THAT is comforting? That I don’t have to be perfect? That there is no God or universe or great globe of light judging me for watching a rerun of ‘House’ when I could be calling my friends or volunteering to feed the homeless? Or for drinking my third glass of Prosecco instead of green tea? Or for reading an escapist novel instead of meditating? For me, the challenge is to just be okay with ME. My flawed, non-meditating, frustrated-with-yoga, TV-watching, cocktail-loving self who has a crooked sense of humor and the urge to say inappropriate things. I know this, and yet it’s still so hard to let go of this idea that the next book, the next blog, the next therapy technique, will make me happy and content and fulfilled, and I’ll really have arrived in my life, after 37 years. Finally. And it will all make sense.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Must be the Tryptophan...

This holiday season has, once again, snuck up on me. I spent Thanksgiving Day itself by myself, reading, thinking, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, watching movies and TV. My family decided to have our celebration on Saturday, so my sister and her family could visit her husband’s family on The Day, and I didn’t mind having Turkey Day all to myself. The weather was gorgeous and sunny, and my lawn, finally green after the October rains, needed a haircut badly.

I spent the other days of the long weekend with friends and family, and (gasp!) cooking, which is never my first choice of activities. I woke up late (for me) each day, leisurely made myself coffee and breakfast, read my books, basked in the sun at the kitchen table, listened to music, talked to my cat. Through the weekend, I noticed my moods ebbing and flowing, from irritation to profound peace. I got bored. I got happy. I got annoyed. I felt like fleeing, and I felt a sense of togetherness and love. What an exhausting mishmash.

Most importantly, I noticed how seriously ambivalent I am about my human relationships, and how genuinely happy I am, at times, by myself. It troubles me, that friends’ phone calls and invitations so often feel like an imposition, even though I know they aren’t meant that way. And that this has been true for as long as I can remember.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about why this might be. Is it my feeling of insecurity about my own “okayness”? Is it my lifelong shyness coming out in a new way? Is it fear? Is it depression? And what can I do about it? But this weekend, and for the last month or two, I’ve stopped asking why. I suspect it’s a little bit of everything, but figuring out a reason has stopped being important to me. It’s just how I am.

I care about my friends and family, and I enjoy their company. I usually look forward to getting together with them. But when it comes down to it, other people confuse me. I don’t know how to respond to them. I’m sensitive to their judgments of me – either explicit or implied – and I get resentful when they judge me. I don’t understand their needs or how to meet them without sacrificing my own, though I do try. I don’t understand why they impose their baggage on me. Other people are a mystery to me, at times fascinating, and at times horrifying. I know I’m one of them, I just don’t always understand them.

At one point this weekend, I reflected on the statement that “Everybody likes to feel needed” and I realized: I don’t. I like to feel wanted, but I don’t like to feel needed, at least not for any length of time past the immediate crisis. When I feel like someone needs me (as in: “You’re the only one who can provide this for me”), it makes me want to escape, like I’m being entangled in a sticky web. That can’t be normal, can it? Other people seem to thrive on being needed. It’s why people get married and have kids, and become psychologists and doctors. But I can’t stand being needed, the same way I hate being needy, and though I think I’m pretty good at being there for people in crisis, most neediness just makes me want to run for the hills.

So, this long weekend, I just watched it all. My feeling of being suspended in some kind of honey-colored fog in a world I don’t understand, where my house is my refuge but also sometimes a prison. I watched my reactions when friends called, sometimes wanting to talk, more often not. I watched my self-talk, as I, sometimes literally, tried to decipher my own reactions and to understand theirs, but still often struggling with the feeling that I just didn’t “get it.” I watched myself feeling by turns anxious and curious about a new friendship developing, wanting to run but doing everything I could to make myself stay and face it.

I wonder if other people feel this way: confused often, resentful sometimes, with a small but powerful underground flow of fear and anxiety bubbling away sight unseen, yet still often confident and aware, and yes, even sometimes content. It’s exhausting and I’m not sure there’s a point to it all (much like this post), but it’s something that’s been stewing in my head for awhile. Maybe a lifetime. How to get along in a world I largely don’t understand, with people who by turns delight me and frustrate me, wondering all the time if I’m doing the right thing, and if someday there will turn out to have been a reason for it all.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Happy Halloween! This Halloween, I've noticed of people getting bent out of shape because a lot of women like to dress, as some people put it "like sluts" for the night. Here's a Salon article that talks about this, and on Postsecret this week, there's even a postcard that reads "I don't care if it's Halloween, you still look like a slut."

As one of the women these people are talking about, I feel I must respond. Yes, I am dressing sexually provocatively for Halloween this year. It's even worse than that. Not only am I dressing sexy (or "slutlike", if you will), I'm going one further: I'm dressing as a sexy nun! Holy thigh-high fishnets, batman!

And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

For me Halloween has always been about experimentation. You get to be someone or something you're not. I've worn masks, helped a boyfriend create elaborate multi-armed contraption for a computer virus costume, gone shopping for fake weapons and stuffed animals as a hunter of Beanie Babies, worn doctor scrubs and been mistaken for a real doctor (!), worn a skintight red satin gown and devil horns and danced my ass off to disco tunes with a short guy dressed as a boxer. And this year, my psyche wants to dress as a sexy nun, possibly the one thing that's the LEAST like me, as a non-believer in God with, recently, no sexual libido to speak of.

I admit that the nun part is making me feel a little guilty. I flirted with the idea of wearing the nun veil at the office, but I don't want to offend anyone. My best friend is Catholic. I worry a bit about offending her. But I'm not wearing the sexy nun outfit as a protest against God or the Church, I'm wearing the outfit as a contradiction: nun/slut, virgin/whore. It's fun. And interesting. And possibly even profound, if you think about it too much, which I'm endeavoring not to do.

One of the complaints about what the Salon article calls "Slut-o-Ween" is that it demeans women by encouraging them to become sexual objects. Excuse me, but as any woman with two brain cells to rub together knows: we're constantly being encouraged in this way, every day. It goes beyond cliche in our culture - it's just normal. Every woman's magazine, every ad for beer, cars, clothes, cruise lines, makeup, they all scream "A woman is only as good as she looks!!" That's nothing new, believe me, I've spent a lot of time studying this phenomenon.

So at Halloween, maybe those of us who choose to dress provocatively are finally saying "OK, if that's what you want, that's what you get! Check me in this corset and fishnets, blood-red lipstick and inked eyes, tiny skirt and pushup bra. See if you can handle the sexiness that is me."

As I type this, I'm wearing long stick-on fingernails, something I've never done before. It's hard to type. But I like them. They make me feel sexy. Yes, I understand that long fingernails make it hard for women to do a lot of things with their hands, and that some feminists point to the long-fingernail phenomenon as a way our society keeps women helpless. But sometimes, it's just fun to be different. To wear makeup and long eyelashes. To look in the mirror and be what all those magazines say we should be, even if on one level we know the expectation that we be like this all the time is bullshit.

To paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can't play, I don't want to be part of your revolution. I'm as feminist as I can get, and I believe that playing with the stereotype is actually empowering. Imagine a man looking at the sexy nun, admiring her legs, wanting her, having that tingling sensation in his gut that means some deep, dark, taboo desire has been triggered, finally getting up the courage to talk to her, and realizing she's whipsmart and takes no bullshit, has a smoky laugh, and isn't about to go off in the corner with him to let him play out his lapsed Catholic fantasies unless he's worthwhile getting to know with his clothes on. Isn't that an experiment in empowerment?

You're damn right I'm sexy, and I'm a lot of other things, too. The computer virus (which, by the way, was named after me), hunter, satin devil, and doctor were all parts of my psyche that got to come out and play on other Halloweens. This year, it's the sexy nun, challenging one of the few deep-seated taboos still left: the taboo that says spirituality and sexuality are on opposite ends of the spectrum, and that one is more sacred than the other. I don't believe that, and this Halloween, I aim to prove it.

So if you're out there tonight, look at the sexy ladies and know that what you're seeing is only part of them, but a part that wants to come out and play, at least for one dark night. It's Halloween, after all. It's time to let the skeletons in thongs and 6" stilettos out of the closet.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Does my Ass look Fat in this?

I was sitting in a bar last night with a friend who had just gotten a new haircut and wasn’t sure how she liked it. For the record, I think it’s totally cute and I’m not just saying that. Anyway, a coworker of mine , whose other job is as a hairdresser, sat down next to us, and my friend asked her opinion of the haircut. My coworker immediately launched in with criticisms, pointing out straggly hairs and jagged layering, while I scowled at her from my barstool. It reminded me of an article I read on radical honesty, where the writer experiments with being totally honest, and interviews the proponent of radical honesty ,Brad Blanton. Last week, another young coworker (and yes, both of my coworkers in this scenario are young – she’s in her twenties, he’s still in college) proclaimed that he didn’t understand why people can’t just honestly tell each other when one person wants to leave a conversation. Ironically, only a couple of minutes before, I had been talking to him,(or I should say he had been talking at me) and I had desperately wanted to get out of the conversation. It made me wonder if the people who believe that are the ones who would hear that message the most.

But, I digress. My point is that I think complete honesty is a terrible idea. My friend felt bad about her hair and I had to spend time reassuring her, using the fact that my coworker is a hairdresser as proof that she doesn’t see my friend’s hair the way ordinary people would. What was the purpose of complete honesty, in that case? I suspect it made my coworker feel good, but it made my friend feel bad, and it didn’t result in any improvement of her hair. Granted, my friend shouldn’t have asked if she didn’t want to hear a negative answer, but what’s the harm in saying, “Oh, it looks cute”?

We live in a society with both written and unwritten rules of conduct. These rules are there to allow us to live relatively peaceably together, and most often these rules take into account the fact that we’re human, with human flaws. If everybody were perfectly serene and centered, with no need to defend their egos, radical honestly would make sense. Nobody would get hurt or offended, then. But we are very much NOT like that, and the unwritten rule of the little white lie is meant to protect our soft, squishy human egos from more pummeling than they already get in the world. Even in cases where someone really DOES want to hear the honest truth, it’s important to be careful. Even with friends and intimate partners, a little padding of a hard truth with a positive insight goes a long way in making life nicer for everyone. And I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be so. Yes, I would want someone to tell me if I have spinach in my teeth or if my pants are split in the back, but those truths actually save me from further embarrassment, But do I want a date telling me "I was really bored during our date, I think you're ugly, and I never want to see you ever again?" Hell no. All that would do is make me feel bad for no reason, and I wouldn't want to say it to someone, either. I would feel terrible.

It’s not my job to teach my friend – or anyone else – how to be ego-less. It IS my job to help build positive, supportive relationships with my loved ones. And if I have to tell a small lie or half-truth in order to make a friend feel good about herself, I will, and I hope she would do the same for me. But, I really DO think her haircut looks cute.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Right about now, if the airline is actually running on time, one of the most significant people of my adult life is rising into the atmosphere in a tube of metal and gasoline, en route to his next adventure.

He's moving to Trieste, up in Italy's crotch, to teach english.

I think everyone may have someone like this in their lives, or they will. He was the person who shared (and instigated) the most profound joys as well as the blackest pits of despair for the last 7 years of my life. Sometimes the love I felt for him knew no bounds and no sacrifice was too much, and sometimes - often within the same weekend - my hatred for him was equally vast. I've cried my eyes out over this man and come closer to self-harm than ever before or since, but have also felt in his presence, for the first time, that absolute safety that comes from sharing a soul. It was, shall we say, an intense relationship.

The relationship was conflict-ridden from the start, like nothing I've ever experienced. We fought before we even started dating. We fought the first time we went out. We fought the first time we had sex. We fought the first time we went on a trip together. We fought and fought, and made up, and fought some more, and cried, and laughed, and solved all the world's problems, and had really good sex, and pretended nothing was wrong, and knew everything was wrong, and drank too much, and ran out in the rain and tears, and wrote letters full of pity and wisdom, and came together, and separated, and came together again, and separated again.

We have the best conversations and worst fights of anyone I've ever known, and for seven years we've tried to figure out how to come to a balancing point. We never did, and now he's flown the coop, followed a dream he's had for a very long time, and gone to see if it's true that Italians make good wine and pizza.

I've known for several months that this was his plan. When he first told me, we had just started communicating again after being on radio silence with each other for months. Right before Christmas last year, a last horrible and embarrassing fight, phone calls and letters that spilled out all that nasty stuff that's better left unsaid, like the rotting entrails of a carcass all over my clean kitchen floor. Then, as always, the one phone call - a 3-hour call - and then another a few weeks later - another 3-hour conversation - and then more regular calls, and then the meeting at the public place, with friends, and then the nice dinner, just the two of us, and then.....well, this time it's goodbye.

Of course this time I'd decided not to let him back into my life. We'd done it too many times - said it was over and then woke up in each other's arms. I wasn't going to do it again. I was determined. A call a month seemed OK, but then when I knew he was leaving, I suggested a nice dinner together, and then our mutual friends wanted to see him before he left, so the nice goodbye dinner turned into several get-togethers with friends and two or three meetings between the two of us. If he hadn't been leaving, I doubt I would have said yes to any of it, but because he was, I let him slowly back in, until yesterday morning I woke up and actually felt the loss of it all. This was my friend and enemy, flying away. It changed everything.

I didn't expect the sadness, honestly. Up until yesterday, I was glad he was leaving. Not because I don't value him, but because with him on another continent, I would no longer have to keep myself on alert, wary of any feelings affection, on guard against any movement towards each other. With him in Italy, maybe we can really be friends. But yesterday morning, as I woke up after our very expensive, very nice, very cocktail-laden farewell dinner, I wondered why I felt so low, why depression was percolating in my brain. Then it hit me: I'm going to miss him.

In Eat, Pray,Love, the author writes of soul mates:
"people think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that's what everyone wants, but a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you'll ever meet, because they tear down walls and smack you awake...soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then they leave. And thank God for it.'
I read this yesterday, and it rang in my heart. Yes, that's what he was to me. A soul mate. The one who smacked me upside the head with the fact that I was loveable. Someone who saw the light shining from me that I never could see for myself. Someone who pushed me to my limits and beyond them, in good ways and bad, someone who taught me patience and compassion not because he necessarily embodied those traits, but because it was either go down into the pit of despair, or rise up above it. He gave me wings by pushing me out of the nest, and I...what did I do for him? Who knows, only he can answer that.

I remember the first time I realized I was in love with him. I was pacing in my old apartment, a funky, dark, subterranean place that nevertheless had its charms. I was thinking about this crazy relationship I had found myself in, and noticed this strange, expansive, hot feeling in my chest that felt like it wanted to burst out of there and fly up into the night. I stopped what I was doing, and all of a sudden it dawned on me: this is what love feels like. I once asked him, at the very beginning of our relationship, what it felt like to be in love, and he said "You'll know it when you feel it." He was right. I knew it. And though feeling love for someone isn't the same as being able to be with them, I now know what it feels like to not only be in love, but to love someone unconditionally, without any wish or hope that he be someone he's not. With only the wish and hope that he be happy, wherever he ends up. That's real love. In my sadness that he's gone away, there's also that feeling of hope for him ,that in this next adventure, he'll find that place where he finally feels at home.

This is for JP, wherever you are:
May you by happy
May you be healthy
May you be safe

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Lure of the Open Road

Last weekend, I do what I often do. I went away. By myself. With no specific plan, only a destination in mind. This time, it was the Napa valley. At other times, I've gone up to Guerneville, Truckee, and Seattle, or down to Monterey and Santa Cruz. The summer I graduated from college, I went on a 2-month solo trip to Ireland and England, and last summer I took a 2-week crazy-quilt trip to Charleston, Miami, New Orleans, and Willow Creek, Montana.

I don't know anyone else who routinely just takes off this way, but for me, these adventures are some of the supreme pleasures of my life. There's just something so thrilling about having the time to explore a place, whether new or familiar, and not to have to compromise with anyone else. Not to have to discuss where to eat, which road to take, which hotel to stay in. Not to have to smile when I don't feel like it, or act interested in something I'm not, or share my sensations and thoughts if they aren't ready to be shared. These trips refresh me, make me think, inspire me, and get my creative juices flowing again.

The wanderlust hits me about every couple of months. I feel this need to get out of Dodge, to leave behind the cat, the dirty dishes, the home repairs that need doing, the answering machine, the weedy lawn, and head out on my own. For as long as I can remember, during family road trips, I've gaze longingly at the roads curling up the dusty flanks of hills or disappearing into green forests, wondering where they went, and wanting to follow them. I always wondered what was around that corner or over that ridge. As an adult, I've made it my business to find out.

Until last weekend, I never drove on my wanderings, because I never had my driver's license. That all changed last January, when I finally conquered my driving phobia and got my license, so this last weekend, I actually rented a car. It was a milestone for me, something normal people who've been driving since teenagerhood probably can't really understand. For me, it was a stupendous step, almost as major as graduating from college.

You see, "the freedom of the open road", for me, until this year, always meant buses and trains. The freedom was always limited by public transit schedules and routes. I would sometimes literally spend hours poring over timetables and route maps on the computer, trying to figure out how to get someplace, and sometimes, as last year when I was trying to figure out how to get to Stinson Beach during the off-season, I would just give up, considering it impossible or too difficult to do.

Now, the open road has a different meaning to me. I can take any road! At any time! It's amazing. I'm enjoying the sensation of having a new experience that most people had when they were 15 or 16. I wonder how different it is for me, at 37. Do I appreciate it more than a teenager would? Who knows. All I know is that when I came back unscathed from my trip to the Napa valley, I sat down with my brand spanking new California map and it was like being let into a candy store and being told I could have anything I wanted - well, maybe a liquor store, I'm not that into candy. I could go to Mendocino! Drive up Hwy 1! The Gold Country! Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree! Heck, I could even drive out of state!

Napa valley was gorgeous. I drove along the sun-dappled, windy hwy 128 between Calistoga and Healdsburg, the buttery yellow autumn light made the yellow-green grape leaves seem to glow, and the bronze hills looked soft, like kitten fur. Sometimes, I stopped under the oak trees along the side of the road just to breathe the warm air and listen to the crickets. I walked a bit on the shore of Lake Hennessey. I hiked in Bothe-Napa state park and went up to Coyote Peak, sitting for awhile under the pines and listening to the breeze through the tall branches. I had lunch and a tiny little bottle of wine at Jack London S.P., (pictured above) sitting on a concrete block and admiring the rolling, terraced vineyards. I wandered through Calistoga, St. Helena, Sonoma, and Healdsburg, and stayed the night in H'burg, waking the next morning to find that it had rained in the night. In the morning, I had coffee and fruit in the square, sitting in a patch of sun while glistening leaves fell all around me. It was heaven.

Now my head is full of plans - I want to spend a rainy winter weekend by the ocean somewhere, drinking something warm, curled up in front of a fire after spending the morning walking on the beach. I want to see the desert again, I want to follow rivers, to drive up into the Sacramento Delta that reminds me so much of another, much larger delta. The world has finally become my oyster, and I want to enjoy every bite. It's about time.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Goodbye to All That

I just decided to stop dating. Period. To stop meeting up at restaurants, bars, and cafes with men I've never seen in person before, to stop sitting across from them or next to them with a drink or meal that I don't want while struggling to make small talk and simultaneously doing internal battle with my various judgments, critical thoughts, and neuroses. To stop forcing myself to spend hours with someone when it's clear within the first ten minutes that we have no spark. To stop hoping, as I get ready to go out, that this stranger will be someone I can love, while expecting that he won't be. To stop telling the same stories, answering the same - and hearing myself ask the same - boring questions about work, family, music, movies, travel.

No more reading personals ads, perusing photos of strange men and reading between the lines trying to figure out if we'll click, no more writing my own ad in my head and taking photos of myself with the automatic timer on the camera, striving to look beautiful, no more going to dating events of various stripes - speed, quiz, you name it. No more wondering who should pay the check at dinner and arguing over it, no more awkward hugs at the end of the night when he thinks I'm moving in for a kiss, no more hopeful e-mails and phone calls saying he had a wonderful time but that make my heart sink because now I'm going to have to be a grownup and tell him I'm not interested.

I've finally gotten tired of the excruciating blind dates with perfectly nice men who look like good matches on paper, but who don't excite me in person. I noticed that after these dates, I always get really depressed, and during them I often have to stifle yawns. It's not that these guys are necessarily dull, it's just that we don't have that spark, that energy, that makes it interesting and exciting for us to be together.

Not that I'm giving up on finding someone, but I finally realized that I'm spending way too much time looking. I think I've developed a scarcity complex around relationships. I spend a lot of time worrying that I'll never find anyone. This obsession drains my energy that I could be spending doing the things I want to do: learning Spanish or ballroom dancing, traveling, being with friends I know love me, creating the garden haven I've always wanted, giving back to my community and to the Earth. I still do those things, but it's hard for me to get up the energy to really devote myself to them, because I spend so much time being anxious and worried - often subconsciously - about my lack of a relationship.

I made a list of all the men I've gone on dates with. In the blind date section, I'm up to 30, and I think I missed a few. There are a few under "set ups" and 6 or 7 I first met in person and then went out with once or twice. All in all, I think I'm closing in on 50, and it's finally dawning on me that this dating thing, at least for me, just doesn't work.

For a long time, I've thought it was a flaw in me, this inability to find anyone I want to be with. These guys have been perfectly nice, kind, sweet, hardworking, intelligent, funny, and responsible people, for the most part. I used to come home from dates thinking "What is wrong with me that I never want to see that person again?" But when I reflect on the handful of times I've met a man and felt an instant interest and attraction to him, I know that's what I want, and that I'm not going to settle for less.

I think of this one man, whose name I can't even remember. I had just had another dull date, and my date had abruptly left with half his beer still in his glass. I dejectedly sat down at the bar and ordered another drink, when a guy sat down next to me. He was dressed all in beige, something that doesn't exactly scream "date me!" But for some reason, I was feeling brave or it was just that I no longer cared what people thought of me, and I threw out some non sequitor about Lent. This guy immediately picked it up and responded as if was the most normal thing in the world to start having a conversation about Lent in a bar, and we were on a roll. We talked for two hours, about everything from our names (trying to guess each others') to corn farming (his parents used to grow corn for Orville Redenbacher) and we were in stitches the whole time. He was from Atlanta and was flying back the next morning. But even though I knew I'd never see him again, I went home that night feeling higher than I'd ever felt with drugs. I didn't even drink that much that night. I didn't have to. That's the feeling I want. That brain and heart connection that can never be severed. A meeting of the souls.

When I think of that night, it gives me hope that it can happen again, with someone who actually shares the same zip code (give or take a digit) as me. But I don't think it will happen through dating. I think it will happen through living life. It will happen when I'm going along in my normal life, doing the things that interest me, and I'll meet someone. Probably, it will be someone who I see more than once at some regular gathering, at first not speaking past the occasional hello or small talk, and then talking more and more until we finally begin to notice that spark of interest. By then, we'll know about each other, that we share some of the same interests, we'll already be attracted, and we'll have things to talk about besides the standard "What do you do?" The indefinable energy, the spark, will be there already, and though just because that spark is there doesn't mean a relationship will work out, at least it will be a journey with a spark in it.

Here's an interesting take on the whole dating thing, on

Monday, September 10, 2007

Subtle Seasons

These days the Canada geese
who’ve been making the bay area their home for the last several months are starting to fly. You hear them coming before you see them, from the cacophonous racket they make that sounds, strangely, like autumn. Then they fly past, usually small groups of 7 or 8 geese, making that familiar ‘V’ formation as well as they can, some doing it better than others. The other day, from my office window at work, I saw a small group of geese flying north in a formless jumble “You’re going the wrong way!” I told them, as they honked past. About ten minutes later, forming a more recognizable flight pattern, they returned, flying south. “That’s more like it,” I thought.

In this place, the geese are really the only sign that the season is changing. There are no jewel-like colors of leaves, no sparkling frosty nights. This is California. It’s September, and nobody except, perhaps, in the most northern part of the state, are putting up storm windows, winterizing their motorcycles or power boats, digging in closets for the heavy winter coats and gloves, packing the outdoor plants with straw, getting out the tire chains, anticipating snowfall and black ice. Most of us are going about our normal business, enjoying (or complaining about) the typical late-summer heat, really the only time during the summer that it is consistently hot in the bay area.

In California, we are in, for all intents and purposes (and in spite of the water-guzzling, ever-expanding tumor known as L.A.) a gigantic desert, and I like the subtlety of the season changes for the same reason I love the desert. At a casual glance, the desert seems dead, but the closer you look, the more life you see. In fact, the desert is teeming with life and its tiny dramas, the same way the signs of fall are all around us here, if we take the time to notice them. September; in a month or so, we hope, it might rain (“might” being the operative word) and that’s how we know it’s fall.

East coast transplants love to guffaw about how there are no seasons here, but that’s not true, ours just aren’t as obvious. You have to be alert to notice the first signs of yellow and orange creeping across the leaves of maple, the way the bird songs in the morning seem…different…somehow. Deeper, or more hoarse. The way the summer light has thinned and become watery and the nights smell smokier, like old leaves. The darkness falling earlier, but only slightly at first: ten minutes, then fifteen, then an hour, and finally the way the sky starts to purple at 5:30 and you know winter has finally arrived.

In the summer, around this time, I always anticipate the cold and the dark the way I’d anticipate a warm down comforter and a cup of spicy tea. It feels like comfort, like after an active summer playing outside, it’s time to come inside, curl up, and rest. I think of warm fires, the taste of cinnamon and cloves, the sound of rain against the window. I love the summer, but the fall is welcomed. It’s time to harvest all the lessons of summer, bake them into a pie, and invite family and friends over. Time for the tan to fade, and the sandals to eventually wend their way into the depths of the closet, taken over by boots. Time to watch the dramatic tumble of stormclouds and wait eagerly for that first splash of rain. Time to say goodbye to the loud, honking geese for awhile, and wish them well on their journey.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Smile Imperative

Yesterday morning, as I was walking up the busy street to the train station, a truck driver yelled at me "You don't look very happy today!" I was surprised out of my normal walking (minding my own business, thank you very much)reverie, and smiled at him rather lopsidedly the way you do when someone shouts something at you that you don't immediately process. Afterwards, I felt stupid for smiling at him, the dolt.

All of my life (and the same is true for many women, from what I can tell), I've repeatedly had strange men telling me to smile. I've had "Come on baby, things can't be that bad", "Show me that beautiful smile," "Come on momma, smile for me now," "You'd be beautiful if you smiled," and more variations on the theme than I can even remember. My reaction is almost always the same. Since the comment usually interrupts me from some daydream, I smile slightly at the guy as I become aware that he's saying something to me, but before I register what that something is. By the time I get what he's just said, I've usually passed him, and it's too late to make a biting comment the way I'd so often like to.

What I'd like to say is: "DON'T TELL ME TO SMILE, MOTHERFUCKER!!"

It's a constant mystery to me as to why some men think it's acceptable to demand that a woman put on a facial expression purely to please the man. Because I can't see a woman saying that to a strange man, can you? "Hey buddy, where's that smile?", "Hey guy, you'd be more handsome if you smiled." I'm sorry, but not going to happen. And men certainly are not going to say that to other men. What's with guys who think they have the right to comment on a woman's facial expression?

The funny thing is, that I've noticed that I'm much more likely to get attention from passing men if I look visibly upset than if I'm happy. Last summer, walking tearily through 3 am urine-soaked streets in New Orleans after a stressful, sweaty week, I had more men express concern to me than in all my years of bouncing around happily, grinning, laughing, and dancing. Granted, I didn't trust that any of them had my best interests at heart, but it was nice to feel like someone cared, even if only for a fleeting moment. What is that? On one hand, I'm supposed to be smiling all the time, but on the other hand, I don't get any attention unless I look upset?

It's an old saw, that women are supposed to be happy and content and sexy and virtuous and maternal and glowing and beautiful and all that. We've all heard it before. But it's 2007, man! Haven't times changed at all? Isn't it generally accepted that women have brains and can use them? That we're not just arm-candy anymore?

Some of my guy friends have suggested that these smile guys are trying in their clumsy way to flirt with me. I suppose I can buy that. Men aren't always known for their social prowess. But far from making me interested in talking to the poor uncreative sap, it just makes me want to make some snide comment that'll burn his ears with shame.

One thing I've noticed with chagrin is that after a man requests that I smile, I actually feel self-conscious about my normal resting facial expression. "Do I look too serious?" I ask myself anxiously, "Is that why guys don't seem to want to date me?" I find myself walking around with a strange sort of half-smile expression on my face. Not really a full smile, because that would be weird, but not really my normal expression either, because I was just told that that's not acceptable to men. And when I find myself thinking these things, I want to go find the smile-demander and make a comment on the size of his package. Or something equally as demeaning.

I've recently begun to get interested in why these men say things like this, and one day I'd really like to stop and ask one of them. It's the same feeling I have about those guys who will slow down in their cars as I walk on the sidewalk and ask me if I want a ride. I always want to ask "Does that EVER work?" But since most of the time I'm wandering in my own little cranial world when some genius utters the suggestion that I smile, I've never once been quick-witted enough to stop and talk to him. Right now, I'm working on curbing my Pavlovian impulse to smile automatically at anyone who's blabbing anything at me. Smiling, in some species, is thought to be a sign of deference, of indicating that the smiler is no threat to the smilee, and it's something women habitually do more than men, as if to say "Don't hurt me, big strong he-man!" While I enjoy smiling, and will willingly smile when I think of it, I am most certainly not going to do it on demand. Next time, guys, just try hello.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I just read two posts that made me say "Yes!" (Well, in my head, anyway, since I was browsing at work. No use getting all worked up at work. Ha!)

The first item is from's advice columnist, and has to do with writing. (Here's the full article.) This is in answer to a letter-writer who claims to have lost the desire to write after going through a difficult time that involved other writers. He/she writes "now I find myself associating writing with the sleazy narcissism of those few bad apples". Cary Tennis writes:
Writing is a life-and-death act of consciousness. It must be or we cannot continue. It brings us face-to-face with who we are. Hence the disgust and nausea. Hence the need for compassion. Hence the need for understanding. Hence the need for honesty. And so the cycle goes. Note the above letter writer's use of the word "cycle." Say we write something and as a result we are hurt. We seek to avoid hurt. So we stop writing in order to avoid the hurt. But writing is also a way to heal the hurt. So when we stop writing we fail to heal.

The original letter and the answer made me think about why I write this blog, not knowing if anyone is out there reading besides the few people who have let me know they are. I've gone back and forth about it. Isn't blogging a form of narcissism? Why do I (and millions of other bloggers) assume anyone wants to read about our lives? I've considered deleting this blog at certain low points of my life, thinking that I should concentrate on so-called "serious writing". That is, I think, writing that pays the bills.

But I realize that no matter what, even at the times I say "I'm done with writing. It doesn't make any difference to anyone, or to myself", that I always come back to writing. It's a compulsion; something I do to understand myself. It's a way to make sense of things, to digest things, to put things into perspective. This blog isn't for anyone else; it's for myself. The public nature of this particular medium just provides an extra challenge for me. It makes me write better, think better, and, hopefully, make more sense of out the things I write about because I'm trying, in this writing, to connect my personal experiences and feelings with the experiences of others out there. It's a way for me to make my writing - and my experiences - mean more, be about more than just myself.

At the end of the article, the author writes

Why not be revolutionary and claim the right to exist as we are -- to exist as we have revealed ourselves to be, in all our flawed majesty and brilliant failure? Why not step forward and say yes, this is who I am, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. After all, we must remember that we are not entirely responsible for who we are. We did not create ourselves. We'd like to be better, maybe, but this is who we are. Must we apologize? To whom? To what king? To what judge?

Why not celebrate ourselves instead? For soon we will be gone! Now at least we exist. Our "mere" existence, as far as I can tell, is some kind of miracle.

So writing, even bad writing, becomes an act of revolutionary assertion: I am who I am. Deal with it.

The second item, though gentler, is also about self-acceptance, the kind of radical self-acceptance that's so hard for the human animal to reach.

On his beautiful, minimalist blog, broke writes:
We need to love our thoughts, love our feelings, love ourselves. We need to love all that we are, now - need to love the fact that we don't love ourselves, love the fear, love the doubt, love the hate. We need to love our lives as they are now. To begin by accepting that this is it where 'it' is the fact of our lives now, where 'it' is the fact of ourselves now. Not the life we crave, not the self we desire, but what is now. What is now will include our craving, our restlessness, our dissatisfaction. Love that too, as it is.
Both of these, it seems to me, offer windows into that place within each of us where we are, finally and without guilt or doubt, OK the way we are. The place we're all trying to reach with the therapy and the support groups and the hours-long phone calls with friends and the chemicals (of the prescription and non-prescription variety) and the blogging and the reading of books by self-help gurus, and the yoga and the qi gong, and the herbs and supplements and meditation and acupuncture and acupressure and Reiki and the shopping and home improvement and new relationships ...and...and...and....

The place we all dearly want to return. The home in our hearts. That place at the center of our being where we no longer have to apologize for ourselves - I don't mean apologize for what we've done but apologize for our very SELVES, our very existence. The place that welcomes us in our wholeness, with all the cracks and flaws. The place that is always there, inside us, if we care to sit down and look.

Writing helps me get there, sometimes, even if my inner critic can sometimes be snotty and vicious. At the very least, writing helps me connect to the part of me that wants to be at home there, in the center of things, where I no longer need to be different than I am.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Plant me in the garden
Don’t you let me roam

Cuz love is a feeling like a warm dark stone

- The Be Good Tanyas

The sun is setting, just. Below the sharp edge of inevitable summer fog, it shines white into my window. The month is August, but the cold is biting and the wind sharp. I’m warm with wine and there’s emotion and strings on the stereo, and I’m thinking of someone I love still, but can’t be with. It’s a peculiar sort of bittersweet joy, partly the music, partly the familiar smell of basil on my fingers, partly the wine. He taught me to appreciate music, wine, cities, and the magic of the garden – a city boy who couldn’t help but feel awe in the face of nature.

A year or so ago – last summer, it must have been – we made pesto, partly from basil I grew, partly from storebought plants, because my garden hadn’t yielded enough. He’s compulsive about many things (including alcohol), and making just the perfect pesto was one of them. All I could do was stand by like a surgeon’s assistant, handing him his tools at the right moments while he manipulated the blender the way an experienced sculptor manipulates the carving tools. I froze my portion of the pesto and still have about a third of the container left. I had some last night with a handful of the summer’s first ripe cherry tomatoes and a few fresh basil leaves. It’s good: rich and creamy with the parmesan that precludes the need to add salt, pungent with basil and garlic.

Now, when I see the peppers and the basil growing, I think of him. It’s inevitable, the way smelling the tomato plants makes me think of my mother’s garden when I was growing up. When I buy a pound of jalapeno peppers (as soon as I can make it to a farmer’s market) to pickle, I’ll think of his love for spicy things. I got my appreciation of peppers from him, too.

He used to talk about how his ex-girlfriends had taught him certain things: how to efficiently chop garlic, for instance. I think even the pesto compulsion came out of an old relationship, and now that knowledge, coming as it has from his past, is embedded in my mind, is part of my present and future, and will maybe someday be added to the store of knowledge of a future lover. I’ve often thought that what lovers teach each other is more important than what happens, in the end, to the relationship.

For each of my relationships, even the very short-lived ones, I can think of at least one thing that I know now that I didn’t before the relationship: How to make good pesto, a perfect martini, and appreciate hot peppers, Los Angeles, and psychedelics; the wonders of Fiona Apple, and that in negotiations for money, people respect you more if you set your price high; how to drive a stick shift, write simple HTML code, and where to go to get a drink in Milwaukee; how not to respond when someone just wants to get a rise out of you. These lessons have ingrained themselves into my brain and are a part of me now. I couldn’t imagine not knowing them, and they’re a testament to those people and relationships that have come along in my life.

An acquaintance yesterday commented that even when people leave – a room, a relationship, a town - their energy still lingers in the places they frequented, and it’s the same in our heads: the people who used to take up room inside our brains are still in there, in the knowledge and memories that are intertwined with our experiences of them. It’s comforting for me to remember that, even with all the mistakes I and others have made in relationships, the good things – the reasons we were drawn to each other in the first place – still exist, in a sense. That now when I smell basil or eat peppers, wander through the redwoods, hike a certain trail, or walk down a certain San Francisco street, these benevolent ghosts appreciate those experiences with me. I’m not so alone, after all.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I lay on my back in the San Francisco sun, admiring the creampuff-colored spires of Sts. Peter & Paul Church set against a deep-blue late July sky. The occasional white seagull wheeled elegantly past the spires, and wisps of fog - or was it smoke from the three different booths offering nearly-identical Thai food? - snaked by on the wind. It was the North Beach Jazz Festival, although the music pounding the speakers wasn't jazz (As if you'd expect a guy named 'DJ Tom Thump' to play jazz.)

I always forget how cool - and tourist-laden - North Beach is. The interior away from the main drag of Columbus and Broadway reminds me a bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans - small streets, crammed-together apartment buildings, little shops, quaint architecture in various states of dereliction, and plenty of bars. It's taken me years to get my head around how things are situated in North Beach, although I still wouldn't suggest asking me for directions.

Today, Sunday, I had gone there to meet a group of people who were not where they said they'd be. Since I don't have a cell phone and forgot to bring the number with me anyway, I couldn't find them. So I had a sausage from the one non-Thai food booth and a sangria poured by a man in a Porn Star t-shirt. Socializing attempts that weekend (and the previous one, come to think of it) had basically fallen on their faces. I was alone (surprise), and had hours to kill before dark. I was in North Beach, and I didn't feel like going home in defeat as I had the day before. I also didn't particularly feel like drinking alcohol or coffee, eating anything further, buying expensive trendy clothes, or browsing in City Lights., which is really all North Beach has to offer.

I compromised. I found a bar with a window open to the unseasonally nice July day, ordered a glass of wine, doctored it with ice and water, and sat down in the window to nurse it. As generations of Italians know, having a glass of wine isn't really 'drinking.'

For some reason, there were two watermelon slices sharing that counter with me that were there before I arrived. I didn't dare touch them, just looked at them furtively as I sipped. At one point I saw a lady walk by with a basket of watermelon slices, and she seemed to silently acknowledge those lone slices on the counter beside me, like familiar acquaintances.

The day was quite pleasant, and it was a perfect place for people-watching. I saw tourists, hipsters, drunkards, SUV drivers squeezing their behemoths through the narrow street, musicians, more tourists, more hipsters, and even two horse-drawn carriages. If they had been mules, I would have had full-blown New Orleans deja vu. I could see the top of the Transamerica Pyramid peeking out from behind the quintessential San Francisco-style buildings, and if I leaned out of the window, I could see 580 California Street, with its weird (in its true original meaning) statues of wraiths on all four sides of the roof.

Across the street was a little market, and as I watched, a true San Francisco character came out. He was a skinny middle-aged gentleman, wearing a mismatched blue suit, an old-style blue frilly tuxedo shirt, and a lime-green scarf knotted around his neck. He had a cloud of grey hair standing out all around his head. I laughed at the image, and before I knew it, he had disappeared from my view, and then reappeared opposite me at the window of the bar. He greeted me, introduced himself, and invited me to the bar down the street, where his band was about to go on.

Of course I decided this was the adventure I'd been waiting for, so after about half an hour (can't seem too eager, you know) I headed down to the bar, which is the oldest saloon in San Francisco - all sloping floor, musty wood, a tall, carved, wooden bar from the 1900's, and mirrors. It was a true character's bar. Not a yuppie or hipster in the crowd, but plenty of old hippies and beats, and mainly just a bunch of crusty characters. Ahhhh. At last, I was home.

The frizzy-headed guy was named John, and he very graciously bought me a drink, (And the drinks in this place were cheap, too! if I could only airlift it across the bay to my neck of the woods...) then went off to play the bass in the blues band that was crammed onto the tiny stage in the back of the bar. The guitarist looked disturbingly like William Burroughs, and I realized who the bass player John reminded me of: Mel Brooks!

Around the same time the band started, a guy in the crowd caught my eye. He was tall and his eyes were hidden by shooting glasses. He looked liked Sam Shepard. A few minutes later - what sort of vibes had I been throwing off that day, anyway? - he was behind me and handed me a small charm that was a red-and-green rose in clear plastic. Then he let me try on his glasses, which were very cool, with purplish lenses. After about two minutes of talking to him, I realized that he was absolutely nuttier than a bag of squirrels. Stark raving. His eyes were wacko, and he kept talking about how the charm he had given me would save my life one day. Plus he mumbled a lot about his dead wife and Jesus. Too bad, because he was cute.

The band was very entertaining. William Burroughs roamed around, with some kind of wireless device on his belt that let him wander the bar without being tied down with electrical cords or cables. He went outside, while the two sax players followed him. He sat on the bar. At one point (actually, two points) he got up on the bar and walked the length of it, still playing, then jumped off and did a bit of a Jimi Hendrix lying-on-the-floor bit, still playing.

The drunk fat man next to me gave the girl next to him a $5 bill to put in William Burroughs' proverbial G-string while he was standing above her on the bar, but she was too embarrassed. Later, slurring his words, the man asked me what was really important to me, and at one point an old hippie-type came over to tell me I looked like Sheryl Crow, which is a crock, but still entertaining. I was starting to think young women didn't go into that bar very often. Sam Shepard left, saying something about how he was "too old for this shit," but not before he asked me if I wanted to spend the night at his apartment "just to sleep." I danced a bit, including with an Indian-looking fellow who always seemed about to break into laughter.

The band stopped playing early, about 8:30, and I walked back down to BART, laughing and sort of bemused at the night's events. I'm not even sure why I'm writing this story down, except that I think it's significant, somehow. I wonder if John was supposed to come into my life as some kind of wise, kooky teacher. He had that energy. Or if I'm supposed to realize that among the freaks and outcasts is where I truly belong. Whatever it is, it felt like something out of a movie. one starring Sam Shepard, Mel Brooks, William Burroughs, and Sheryl Crow. Or not.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The First Tomato of Summer

The small bright red globe peeked out from inside its nest of green leaves and vines. The only ripe tomato in a mass of hard green marbles. It winked at me, flirtatiously, and I couldn't resist. I was in my socks, having only gone out to harvest some collard greens for my dinner, but the pull of that tomato overcame my distaste at getting my socks dirty. I gingerly stepped over the collards and snaked my hand into the green bush.

The tomato was tiny and came off without a fuss, and even that much activity left me surrounded in that particular aroma that only a tomato plant's oily, hairy vines can give off. What is that smell, anyway? There's nothing else like it, and in an instant my brain was filled with memories of my mom's tomato garden, of playing in the dirt as a small child, of spending hours building fairy houses and villages out of leaves and rocks and sticks, all but hidden in the undergrowth that was more real to me than the human world. The smell of dirt, flowers, sunlight, and those tomato plants that always grew during the hottest summer months, arching over the rest of the plants, like grand dames of the vegetable patch. Even the green tomato worms we sometimes found on the plants were green and juicy and healthy-looking; everything grew there, as did I.

I popped the tomato into my mouth and there again was that perfect taste of my childhood - impossible to describe well but so eloquent that I need to try: sweet, bursting, with a thin barely-there skin and a slight tartness that tasted like flowers. Perfect.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sometime it hits me. I’ll be going along in my day and I’ll see a happy-looking couple, sometimes a young just-in-love twosome, sometimes an older man and woman holding hands, and I’ll feel a sudden bolt of grief. For all of my testifying that it’s okay to be single, that a woman doesn’t need a man to be complete, that fulfillment can’t be found out there, in any one person or occupation, I can’t help but want to find someone.

Love is one of the most basic human needs, and I have the others: food, shelter, something to do with my hours. I even have love, in the form of family and friends, and I’m forever grateful to have these things. But the love of that one person, a partner to stand next to me, hold my hand, caress my hair, gaze at me with “that look” – you know the one – in his eyes, just hasn’t come to me. And it’s hard to admit even to myself that sometimes, this reality just feels like a punch in the gut.

Yesterday, riding on the bus, it descended on me for no obvious reason, like a gaping wound in my belly. I tried to just sit with it and not tell myself stories about it, the same stories I’ve been telling myself for years: there’s something wrong with you, you’re putting off some kind of bad vibe that you don’t know about, you’re not dressing right or doing your hair, makeups, etc. right, you don’t have that special ‘something’ that men look for in a mate, and on and on.

I’m 37 and I feel, maybe stupidly, like time is running out. Almost everyone around me has someone, even if the relationships aren’t always particularly healthy. I do know the feeling of being in a relationship that you don’t want to be in and can’t seem to get out of, and I know one or two people in my life are embroiled in that drama. When I think about that I think that maybe I should just be glad I don’t have to deal with that side of the coin anymore. Maybe the grass is just always greener.

At one point a few years ago I truly believed that the reason I hadn’t found anyone to be with was because I was meant to put my energy into other things – friends, family, community. That may still be true, if it ever was, but now, I want to put energy into a special relationship. I want kisses and affection. I want sex. I want to lust after someone and have them lust back. I want that kind of familiar laughter that you get sitting in bed with someone on a lazy Sunday morning after making love or just spending the night in each other’s arms.

I’ve dated a lot in the past 10 years and I’ve had a few relationships that have lasted from 5 months to 3 years. It’s old hat by now. But these days, I feel a new desperation creeping in that I don’t like. After one date recently where I really enjoyed being with the guy but wasn’t attracted to him, I obsessed for days over whether or not I was just being too picky. Was I too stuck on looks? Should I be more open-minded and give the older, paunchy, balding guys I seem to attract a chance? But then I thought back to the times I met the men I’ve been with, and even the ones who got away, and how I felt with them: that feeling of energy in my veins, of all my senses alert and aware, of laughter on my lips, of being intellectually and emotionally engaged, of being challenged in a way that felt juicy and ripe. I just knew that something interesting could happen; I didn’t have to think about it or convince myself by listing their positive qualities in my head. That’s what I want to happen again, and whatsmore, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting that.

Most of the time, I feel like I put a good face on it. I get out there and socialize with my friends and family, appreciating the relationships I do have. I'm involved in social groups where I meet new people all the time, yet I'm also content to do things by myself. I've never let my singlehood stop me from doing things I want to do, and heck, I was even featured in the book Quirkyalone. I dabble in online dating, I ask friends to set me up with eligible people, I try to be approachable, positive, and interested in the people I do meet. I'm the poster-child for "doing it right."

But if I’m going to be honest, sometimes I just sit and cry. All the platitudes and advice in the world ( “Get out there and live”, “Don’t concentrate on what you lack,” “You have to kiss a lot of frogs,” “There’s someone out there for you”) can't help when I do all the things I'm supposed to do, and still find that what really gets me excited on Friday evenings is that a TV show I like is on. Sometimes I see myself making yet another plan to get out into the dating pool – a craigslist post, a speed dating-type event, a set-up by a friend – and feel my lips curl into a smirk that says “Oh, yeah, right, THIS is going to work.” And I know that’s the killer right there: the expectation of disappointment. But sometimes that’s about the only feeling I can muster.

My mom once said to me that one thing that impresses her about me is that I never seem to give up. I sure hope that works in this case, that persistence pays off in the end, because sometimes I think stamina is the only thing I bring to this race.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Happiness is Crap

Since my last post, I've been thinking more about this idea of 'happiness.' I’m a self-help professional of a sort (Heh), and I’ve noticed for awhile now that 'happiness' is the new buzzword in self-help. There are zillions of books out there designed to make us happy, present, mindful, and self-aware. Just type ‘Happiness’ into the search engine at I dare you.

The reason for this happiness binge, as far as I can tell, is the new darling of modern psychology, a supposedly new way of looking at human behavior that has been coined “positive psychology.” I’m not going to go into the background of this concept, Google will gladly tell you all you want to know about it. Suffice it to say, though, that positive psych is the science of looking not at what’s wrong with people, but about what’s right with them. Positive psychology experts help their clients and readers discover their strengths rather than study their mistakes.

On the face of it, I agree with this new way of looking at things. Personally, I’m tired of trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. But the explosion of happiness books on the market, all purporting to use positive psychology principles to help their readers become happier people, really bothers me, because having happiness as a life goal is, if you’ll excuse the vulgarity, just so much crap.

Let’s face it: nobody is happy all the time. Life is just not like that. Some experts even say that we’re all born with a happiness baseline that doesn’t change permanently. We go up or down based on life events, but we always return to our baseline, which is different for everyone. Researchers can argue about this all they want, but I suspect that this is true just from personal experience, and it’s why I get so annoyed with all the harping about finding happiness and discovering the path to happiness. Why? Because happiness is fleeting. It’s an emotion, not a way to gauge the quality of our lives. We might be happy for an hour, a day, maybe even a few days at a time, but there will come a time when we aren’t happy. The dinner we ordered will be inedible, our partner will get mad at us, someone will be rude, our car will get a flat tire. That’s just life. Does it mean we’ve failed? That we need to think more positively, meditate more, become more mindful, or volunteer more often? Or does it just mean we’re experiencing a normal life?

Sometimes, I’ll be going along in my day and I’ll notice that I’m thinking judgmental thoughts, or that I’m thinking about something difficult that’s happened, or that I’m pondering why I haven’t reached this or that goal. When that happens, often I feel a twinge of guilt for thinking about something negative. And then when I notice the guilt, most often there’ll be a little cynical voice inside my head that will say, in its best snide, put-upon tone, “Oh, right, I forgot, I’m not supposed to think anything negative.” That’s the voice of sanity.

Just today I read this article in the Huffington Post by Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my favorite muckrakers, about how studies showing that happier people with healthy diets and lots of social support are NOT proven to live longer after a cancer diagnosis than the rest of us. I know I shouldn’t gloat (damn psychology books! Now I can’t even do that!) - and I also realize that the study of studies is basically flawed; you can argue any point based on any result, if you’re talented - but this is something I’ve suspected for a long time: although lifestyle and attitude do have an effect on our health and quality of life (obviously), much of it also has to do with just plain luck of the draw. Our genetics. Our childhood. Who we meet in our lives. Where we grew up. Our socioeconomic status. Whether or not we looked first before attempting to cross the street in front of an out-of-control bus. A lot of it – maybe even most of it – is out of our control.

The same with all this positive thinking/happiness baloney. You can struggle for years to think positively, paste a smile on your face when what you really want to do is make a sarcastic comment, eat nothing but fruits and vegetables and quinoa, meditate until you’re blue in the face, but it’s not going to guarantee you anything. Not a longer life and certainly not a happier one. All it’ll guarantee you is more anxiety when you realize you’re still not what you think of as “happy.” That you still get down, you still feel angry at people who disappoint you, and that you will still age despite the rabbit diet. In short: you don’t have the perfect left, because the perfect life just doesn’t exist (unless you have a lifetime supply of morphine patches and somebody to take care of your high-ass self.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand all those chipper people who float along smiling at everyone and tossing flowers in your path. It’s not real. I’m happy to share peoples’ triumphs and glories. I like it when I or my friends do well, reach a goal, have something to celebrate. But true life isn’t only about those moments. It’s also about the moments when things are hard, you don’t know if you can do it anymore, when you feel lost or cranky or depressed or confused. It’s ALL real. To my mind, happiness shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to live a well-lived life: To have integrity, to embody self-awareness without self-indulgence, to learn everything you can, and to hurt as few creatures as possible. That way, when that bus does come hurtling down on you, you can die knowing that at least you lived. And not wondering why you were never happy.