Wednesday, August 31, 2005

College Park, you used to be cool. You used to be real, man. Alario's Pizza, tattoo parlors, liquor stores... Sure, The Fe is still there, but it's flanked by chain stores like Jerry's Subs & Pizza and Linens n' Shit. You sold out, College Park. What a bummer. But I guess if you're going to charge $21K per year for out-of-state tuition, you need some shiny happy retail to offset the crime rate in PG County. "Students, walk to shopping and entertainment!*"
(*not recommended without police escort)

I felt nostalgic passing through the University on the way to my brother's dorm. There was something so freeing about college. All that independence, free time, majestic buildings and vast campus lawns. When I had enough time and the weather was warm, I'd get comfortable under a tree and nap for an hour between classes, or just watch people walk by. In the fall and winter I'd sneak into the practice rooms in the music building and get lost in Chopin until closing time. Not a bill to pay, not a reason to worry, a dozen pianos at my disposal any time of day. Sure, my roommates and I lived in squalor, but it was our squalor. Those roaches were our roaches, the filth was our filth, and we were proud.

And now it's baby brother's turn. All through dinner Mom needled him about his new life away from home. It's killing her that she can't be there to supervise. "What are you eating?" she asked a half dozen times. "Are you getting enough fruit?"

"What about girls? Are there any girls in your dorm who might be potential girlfriends?"

"Yeah, Ma," he said, "Saturday we had a wicked orgy. You shoulda been there."

Oh, stop wincing, she brought it on herself.

Dinner was tasty, but my birthday present was the real treat: I got an iPod! From my Grandma! Which is cool, but also scary because now I have to learn how to use it and the rest of the software that came with my Mac.

Perhaps I'm dating myself here, but it's been a while since I mastered any sort of recreational technology. How long? Think Mario Brothers, before they were Super. Even then I was (pardon the expression) all thumbs.

Not that I'm entirely inept: I spend every day navigating through graphic design programs that most people have never seen. (And by "navigating" I mean "stumbling blindly," but I get the job done.) Technologically (okay, generally) speaking, I've always been a bit of a late bloomer. Blame it on my parents; we were the last to get an answering machine, a microwave, Call Waiting, video games (Colecovision from a garage sale in 1989), cable TV, cellphones, high-speed Internet... My mother's had her answering machine longer than she's had my sister. It records messages clearly enough, but the greeting sounds something like, "You've reassddfhshf lsdfsdhgaskldjghasdfj. Please leave a messadjflkj afsjflksjdf beep."

But I'm not complaining! In the event of a global disaster, my family would be better equipped than most to survive in the wilderness, or at least in a world without... I'm trying to think of a funny example of essential technology here, but the best I can come up with is "all the plug-in things that make us lazy and dumb."

For now, I seem to be the last person in America to welcome an iPod into my life. If you've got tips on how to use it, I'm listening.
Just back from a late and long lunch with co-worker K. Daily Grill on M Street. (No crying.) I think The Powers That Be have been kind to me today, soothing my foul mood with a productive morning of work, a heartwarming e-card from my family in Israel, a phone call from my older baby brother (he moved to Israel last month so I'm really feeling his absence this year -- Be'er Sheva is so much farther away than Boston), and a run-in with an extremely handsome stranger at my favorite lunch place.

Have you ever had a missed connection with someone -- say, you fail to chat up an attractive stranger who smiles at you on the subway, and for the next few weeks you alternately kick yourself and fantasize about the introduction you wish you'd had the chutzpah to make? That's what happened to me a few weeks ago.

I was in line at the sushi bar reaching for some spicy tuna when someone next to me said, "Hey, I wanted that piece!" It's possible he had his heart set on that particular bit of maki, but his tone was more flirting than fighting. I half-glanced at him and snarked back, "It's good to want things." It was the first thing that came to mind, and it was so stupid. Honestly, he made me nervous: There's a big part of me that still feels like a shy, awkward, funny-looking teenager. It's not that I don't know how to talk to men now, just that I get flustered when the flirting takes place under circumstances not of my own creation or control. Again, so stupid. But I am what I am.

I put the lid on my sushi and hustled over to the checkout line, where the guy shuffled in behind me a moment later. I could feel him looking at me. Jesus, he was so cute. I kept my eyes forward. The man at the register took my cash and said, "See you tomorrow!" and I made sure to reply loud enough so Handsome could hear, "Yep, every day!" Three weeks later I still regret not turning around and saying something witty, something goofy, just something. Silly girl!

I conjured up a little fantasy about running into Handsome on my birthday. I'd be wearing a conversation piece, maybe an "It's My Birthday!" pin that would beg the question, "So, how old are you?" I'd feign indignance -- "A lady never tells!" -- then playfully squeeze his arm and say, "Just kidding, I'm 30 today." And then he would tell me I don't look a day over 24, and spirit me away on one of those old-fashioned dates in a restaurant with a smug maitre d' and award-winning Cabernet.

In reality things did not play out exactly that way. But they did play out: When K and I left the office for Daily Grill today we walked down M Street past the same lunch place, and not 20 paces ahead of me I saw Handsome heading inside.

"K," I breathed, "I cannot pass up this opportunity. I need to at least go in and see if he's wearing a wedding ring."

We sauntered in, smooth like British secret agents, grabbed a couple sodas and swooped into the checkout line directly behind Handsome. (No wedding ring, no ring of any kind.) I can't presume to know what he was thinking, but he definitely noticed I was there. I smiled. He smiled. I started talking to K about tonight's BIRTHDAY DINNER, and how I had brought my camera to work intending to record THE FIRST DAY OF MY THIRTIES in pictures but got bored after one photo of the morning bus and lost my momentum. He was listening for sure. He kept glancing at me. After he paid he took his sweet time collecting his things, then moseyed over to the condiments bar and didn't head for the exit until I did.

I think he wanted to talk to me. I hope he did. K noticed that he had a coupon card all the regulars carry, so he's got to be back at my lunch spot soon. K also observed that he probably would have spoken to me if I hadn't been there with a friend. "That's really intimidating for men," she said. "If you see him again and you're alone, you're totally in."

Well I may never see him again, or if I do it might turn out he's not interested. Or gay -- maybe he just likes my accessories... though I doubt a gay man would leave the house in pants that short. (I said he was good looking, not well dressed.) But it's all good, because today's little run-in, however fruitless, totally restored my faith in wishin' and hopin'. Maybe willing a stranger to cross your path can influence your fate -- even in a small way that makes an enormous difference in the rest of your day.
So, yeah, it's my birthday. I figure by now I've milked it for all the attention it's worth, and all that's left to do is be good to myself and try not to have a panic attack today. I started by brewing the fancy special-occasion coffee I keep stashed in my freezer, and sipped it from the brown mug I bought in an Israeli artists' colony ten years ago.

The girls gave me a lovely pink scarf/belt-type thing when I came to work this morning. I'm not quite sure what to do with it -- it's one of those sequined accessories all the kids are wearing these days (couldn't resist one old fart remark) -- but in the last hour it's looked quite fetching draped over my head, wrapped around my wrist and tied casually about my neck.

...and that's all for now. I'll add to this later, after something interesting happens. If I don't get some work done I'm going to get fired. Which would be interesting, but not in a birthday way.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I'm done feeling sorry for myself.

For now, at least.

My friends' love for me is not measured in martinis and beer, on my birthday or any day. And come to think of it, my own worth is not measured in friends. I know a lot of people, I consider many of them friends, but I seldom see any of them more than a few times a year. And that's largely because I'm the one not making an effort. It's such a cruel irony that depressives -- those of us who instinctively push away nine out of ten people who try to get close to us -- are most vulnerable to moments of "nobody-loves-me-I-guess-I'll-go-eat-worms." We truly are our own worst enemies.

Today a friend reminded me that it's not birthdays that reveal your true friends, it's crises. A few years ago I endured one that tested all my friendships, and I must admit that many of them rose above and beyond the call of duty.

It's not about a one-night bar hop; It's about the people who took time out of their busy lives day after day for months on end to hold my hand through a crushing depression, and didn't let go until I could stand up on my own again. Maybe some of them couldn't make it out for one rainy Saturday night. Big deal. They've been there when I really needed them and someday they will be there again. The pity party's over, girl. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tonight I walked into an ice cream shop and bought two quarts of frozen yogurt to keep in my freezer at home.

Should I be offended that they put a spoon in the bag?

in the light of day, it looks much, much worse

Seriously, I am so depressed after last night. Maybe it's just my 30-year-old what-does-it-all-mean / how-did-I-get-here crisis. I feel so disappointed. I blame the Internet.

It's not that my friends don't love me anymore. I know they do. Or they did, when we were all still real to each other.

But here's what: E-mail and Internet have made it so easy to "be in touch" with everyone, at the end of the day we're truly in touch with no one. The effortlessness of digital communication has taken all the value out of human contact. From day to day it's easy to sit at my desk, in the middle of 15 different tasks, and fire off messages to everyone I know and love. "I've got people," I think. "So many friends. How lucky am I?" But no string of e-mails, no matter how heartfelt or witty, can take the place of a long conversation with a friend. It's like the difference between watching a McDonald's commercial and sinking your teeth into a Big Mac. It seems so silly, but I feel I need to be reminded that I'm human; that I'm nourished by contact -- eye, hand, body. Make a mental list of your 10 closest friends: When was the last time you hugged them? When was the last damned time you could look them in the eye and say, "It's really good to see you"?

Our sense of community, that essential thing that feeds us, is spread so thin it's all but gone. If you want proof, take a look at the pictures from my birthday. I invited 16 people; 10 RSVP'd "yes" with enthusiasm; two of those who couldn't make it at the last minute thoughtfully called to tell me so. That leaves eight.

Three people showed up last night, and one of them was me.

Nothing feels real anymore. There is no empathy and no accountability -- among friends or strangers. I'm as guilty as anyone else. And I am so, so sad.

30th Birthday Resolutions:

1. Use the phone.
2. Figure out who my real friends are and schedule face time with them.
3. Get out of the damned house.
4. Talk to strangers.
5. Smile more.
6. Call my Grandma.
7. Don't work so hard.
8. Start showing up for life.

"Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."

I heard that on "Deadwood," though I'm sure it came from somewhere else. And I think it goes double on your birthday.

For a week now I've been publicly (foolishly) talking up my 30th birthday outing. "Booze and bad behavior," I promised my friends. "For one night only, I'm going to party like it's 1996."

Well, tonight I celebrated. I drank too much and ate too much and traipsed around town in a plastic gold tiara and stilleto heels. I flirted with younger men. Most of them thought I was 23. It was a good night. It was...fine.

But tonight was also a turning point. One of those moments when you look up and realize how far you've drifted from wherever you were the last time you took stock of your life. My friends have gotten older, gotten married, had kids. Tonight the people I've known longest, the ones I never get to see, did not celebrate with me. Not even those who said they were coming. One had to go to a funeral. Another has a sick relative. Someone's kid wouldn't go to sleep before 10. Someone else was too fucking lazy. I'm in no position to complain; I've skipped my fair share of bashes and get-togethers for plenty of lame reasons. It's hard to drag yourself out on a rainy night, especially heading downtown from the 'burbs.

Ironically, the girls who spend every day with me were the ones who showed up to spend the evening. They are such stellar people. Maybe it's just the booze talking, but I love those chicks.

AND YET -- since this blog is an honest space -- I have to admit that underneath all the stumbling, flirting and fun I felt quite sad and kind of lonely. It was sort of like falling asleep on the bus and waking up hours later, next to a kind stranger, in another part of town that feels far from home. And then remembering that stranger is your neighbor and that strange place is where you live now. That may not be the best analogy, but I'm drunk and it's the best you're gonna get from me right now.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

I'm not going to post the letter. It was written with such bitterness, months later I can still taste the bile. But I will describe the scene:

J had started up an e-mail ping pong with me a few weeks earlier. At first I responded politely with short answers, but it didn't take long to fall back into the banter that made us fall in love in the first place. This time we were both careful to keep it light; he didn't ask about my love life, I didn't ask about his. I was enjoying it -- in spite of myself and the lingering anger from this relationship that left me with an eating disorder and a shattered soul (not to be too dramatic about it). Communicating with him felt reckless, but curiousity egged me on. What did he want from me now, three years after we'd ended it? Was he being friendly? Was it guilt? Did he want me back?

I waited until we were deep enough in small talk (which had escalated to six or more e-mails sent back and forth each day -- more than just a friendly frequency) that putting him on the spot wouldn't send him running for the hills. "Why are we doing this?" I asked. He bobbed and weaved in classic J style. Said something about making changes in his life, realizing what's really important... he used words like "journey" and "reflection" and the phrase "choosing a direction."

"It's almost as if I've been waking up for so long that I'm just now realizing I'm awake," he wrote. True introspection had never been his thing. Had this 45-year-old Lost Boy decided to grow up and start living? Maybe, finally, I could stop hating myself for accepting him as my first, indelible love. Soothe that anxious part of me that alternately whimpers and rages, "How could you have fallen for someone so unworthy? How do you know you won't make the same mistake again?"

I told J one of the reasons I'd indulged this reconnection was healing: I still had some residual anger, and forgiving him was the only way to let the last of it go.

And then, as if I'd turned on a light, J revealed himself unchanged and said, "I'm not sure how much I think I need to be forgiven."


I could have just let it go there, but he had to go and patronize me:

"If you believe that working through the concept of forgiveness with/for me will enhance your ability to make yourself happy, I will commit to that process."

Anyone who's known me for five minutes or more knows not to talk down to me. It makes me so angry my shoelaces melt. I took two days to cool down and three more to write my response; I'm not sure if it was the finality of it (I avoid bridge burning whenever I can) or the fact that I still love this man that kept me hovering over the "send" button for four days longer. For three years I'd been holding in every unkind word, thinking that as long as I didn't scare skittish J with my anger, the door was still open. It's not that I wanted him back -- in hindsight I saw character flaws I couldn't have lived with long-term -- I just wanted to hear him say that he really had loved me most, that he was sorry and he regretted his choice. Needed to hear it, I thought.

But here's the thing about doors to the past: As long as you stand there holding them open, you can't move on.

So I held my breath, said goodbye, and slammed the door on my first love.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Lately I've been haunted by guilt.

Not your garden variety Jewish guilt, but the kind that comes from deliberately saying hateful things for purely selfish reasons.

The (very) abridged backstory: The most destructive and important relationship of my young life came to an end three years ago. The romance hasn't been rekindled since then, but contact with J has flared up a few times, mostly in an attempt to make peace. The last time we tried it fell to pieces and I finally pulled my fingers out of the dam and let all (well, most) of my pent-up anger wash over us both. And as you might expect, it was cathartic. And as you also might expect, it did not make me feel good or give me the closure I was hoping for.

Every day we're faced with the option to speak our minds or be kind by holding back. (Usually we think of it as "being the bigger person," but half the time it's just being the bigger pussy.) Almost always I choose to say nothing. Example: Not long ago I dated an impotent fetishist who called me "sexually disappointing" when I declined to play his little handcuff game. In the moment I was too stunned to spit back. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't; The guy had insulted me out of embarrasment over his own dysfunction, and no amount of pointing and laughing would have have restored the half-ounce of pride he'd slapped out of my hands. I quietly collected my underpants and went home.

Chalk it up to good manners -- I believe they're defined as behavior intended to make others feel comfortable.

But this one time, with my ex, I took the low road. Not that he didn't deserve it -- J broke me so deeply and accepted so little responsibility, his comeuppance was long overdue. Nonetheless, it was foolish of me to let loose on him and think the guilt wouldn't stick around like gum on my shoe.

I'm tempted to post the last letter I wrote to him in hopes that making it public (to the 2.5 people who may be reading this blog) will lift some of its weight from my heart. You know, like when a kept secret feels like the end of the world until you say it out loud and realize it's not that bad.

Should I? Is this thing on?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

I'm on vacation now. A whole week. I'm hoping to enjoy at least four days before the horrifying reality of what awaits me at the office starts to seep into my consciousness and ruin my trip. But for now, feeling good.

I called my family (on their own vacation at the beach) on my drive up to meet my best friend at Penn State yesterday. My mother kept me alternately entertained and annoyed for about a half hour until I told her my cellphone was running out of juice.

"Okay sweetie, I'll let you go," she said. "Just be safe and keep in touch this week. Have fun. And make good choices."

I chuckled. "Don't worry Mom, I wasn't planning on having any vacation sex this trip. I didn't even pack any condoms."

"Oh!" she giggled uncomfortably. (It's so fun and easy to rattle her.) "That's not what I meant. I was talking about Weight Watchers."

Thanks, Mom. You have fun too. And enjoy your and popcorn and fudge.