Wednesday, June 29, 2005

the good life

For two years after college I rented an apartment in The Gables, a cheaply-constructed condo community where budding yuppies come to breed. The Gables is famous for its pool: Throughout the summer young singles gather there like mosquitoes in a birdbath. A few swim laps, but mostly they wade. In the shallow end.

That the entire Gables neighborhood is painted in shades of beige is a perfect metaphor -- or a beacon of warning, depending how you see it -- for the homogeneous hell that lies within.

At the time I was living the prescribed life of a young Potomac Jew. It never occurred to me to question my fate; In a year or so I'd meet a Jewish doctor/lawyer/consultant and float down the aisle in big cupcake of a dress, the kind inspired by Disney and stitched by Vera Wang. My hus-bot would buy us a big new house with lots of chain stores nearby, and fill it with overstuffed furniture, overindulged children, and the spoils of our extravagant wedding registry. I would quit my joyous career to spend afternoons steering a stroller around Nordstrom and lunching with other women my age and their matching babies. This is what I would do because it's what I'd been made for. It's what we were all made for. Like cows for milk, or horses for glue. We were the Stepfordsteins.

A few years went by. I went on dozens of dates with nice-enough men. Some of them really wanted to get married, and if I'd let them into my heart even a little bit they might have wanted to marry me. I kept working, wondering when I'd get to stop but secretly hoping I'd never have to. First I learned to live alone. Then I learned to be alone. I read more. Wrote more. Made more music. I sampled just enough indepdendent joy to make me restless for more... But still I dated and waited, and the beige life did not come.

Then I met John and we fell in love. I wasted no time plugging his likeness into my little template of life: He was older than I'd planned -- older and more Catholic -- but I loved him and our children would be smart. They might even have a shot at being tall.

I waited. I prayed. I loved him as hard as I could. And when it eventually fell apart, I crumbled with it. Turned out that was just what I needed: My entire sense of self had imploded, and once the dust settled I could see, finally, why my suburban fairy tale wasn't coming true: It was my worst nightmare. Beige wasn't a life, it was a lobotomy. All these years I'd been tripping over myself to step around it. Now I was free to build a newer, stronger, truer self from the pieces John had left behind.

Once I realized what I didn't want, I was free to dream up a future that's uniquely mine: Confident, independent children who bear my grandparents' names and the qualities that made me love them (like my Nana Millie, who was beautiful and laughed all the time, and my Grampa Ben, who always survived); a bright home with an old soul; a textured community; hundreds of pageworn books that my kids will devour in secret corners; creative, nourishing work; enduring health; inexhaustible love; and a perfectly imperfect partner whose misshapen pieces fit my own puzzled person. All this and a stack of wild cards, because the best thing about it all is that I have no idea what's really coming.

So give me colors. Lots of them. All of them - except beige. Beige is not my hue.

Monday, June 27, 2005

nothing doing

As a child I was blessed with good health. I didn't have any problems with hayfever or asthma and I was athletically capable, if not inclined. So in the summer months there was nothing keeping me indoors except the blanket of melancholy that had weighed me down as long as I could remember. It kept me strangely warm in fall and winter, but during the summer it was suffocating. For years my mother shamed me for being miserable when I shied away from social attention, and lazy when I declined to play outside. Eventually, through a college psych class, I learned that I was simply depressed. But that's another story for another time.

Most people felt sorry for the indoor kids, the ones who were allergic to "outside." Those pasty children spent their summers in writing workshops and chess camps, watching from the window while the rest of us leapt through sprinklers on the lawn. The insiders did not suffer wet bathing suit wedgies or fear drowning at the hands of rowdy boys in the pool. From the outside they had no discernable social structure. Nobody was cool, no one was an outcast. Everyone was a nerd, plain and true. Oh, how I envied those indoor kids.

Sometimes I would use invented symptoms, like wheezing or blurry vision, to leverage my argument that I'd be better off spending the summer inside. I even wore a pair of my father's old glasses for an entire week, convincing no one but myself that tree pollen was destroying my eyes. I'm not sure if my hypochondria was an attempt to hide from the world or attract attention -- I was too young to recognize either of those needs or the difference between them. But I knew I was unhappy. As much as I loved sunshine, I was uncomfortable in my damp swimsuit, uncomfortable in my skin, and desperate to hide among the books, art projects and TV shows that were my most steadfast, comforting friends.

Now that I'm an adult, technology and an apartment in the city let me have my cake and eat it too: I can listen to NPR while I walk to Georgetown; I grab a sketchbook and set up camp under a tree in Dupont Circle; my computer travels with me to Great Falls where I can write, read, listen and watch to my heart's content. Of course, sometimes I just don't feel like going anywhere. Those are the days when I most enjoy being a grownup: My time and my plans are mine to do with as I please, even when I'm most pleased by nothing at all.

family circus

This weekend my father, my youngest brother and I flew to Boston to help my other brother move back home before he ships off to med school. All his belongings are now stuffed into my parents' basement. And I mean all of them -- the kid wouldn't even throw out half a jar of mustard. (I guess he's man after my Grandpa's heart.)

As usual, our time together yielded some mildly amusing moments:

1. on the way to the airport: My mother came along for the ride and became nearly hysterical when I turned on the stereo and started up the audiobook she had left in the CD player. "Don't listen to that!" she shouted. "Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!"

We asked her why. Never good at thinking on her feet, Mom lied the way a child does, betraying her own secret before anyone had a chance to get really suspicious.

"I just...It's just something I'm listening to. And I don't want the kids to hear it."

Yeah, like we were going to let that go. I found the CD jacket on the floor by my feet. Once I'd stopped laughing I read the title out loud:

"Words of Silk by Sandra Brown.

"Laney McLeod's life changes the minute she finds herself stuck in a high-rise elevator in Manhattan. Fighting her rising panic, she relies on a handsome stranger to help overcome her claustrophobia. The man, Deke Sargent, is just as attracted to this beautiful and vulnerable woman as she is to him..."

It gets worse from there. Suffice it to say, there's passion, there's pain, there's an illegitimate baby... Also recommended were other Sandra Brown titles including "White Hot," "Breath of Scandal," and "Slow Heat in Heaven."

There was laughter and pointing. My mother, a woman of infinite pride and not a lick of shame, actually turned red and went eight whole seconds without speaking. She says the book is entertaining. I think it's a cry for help, and the fact that she has enough time on her hands to drive around all day listening to bodice rippers is both the source and a symptom of her problem.

2. on the plane: I opened my backpack to look for a pen. Baby brother, only 17 and unschooled in the ways of women, mistook my baggie of tampons for Polly-O String Cheese and asked me to share the wealth.

3. back at my parents' house Sunday night: Mom was foolishly trying to drain liquid from a meatloaf by tipping it over the sink. She dropped it and the whole thing crumbled and fell out of the dish. The fact that she'd be serving dropped meatloaf didn't faze her, she was only worried that my father would walk in and catch her repaving his dinner. He loves to say "I told you so," whether he witnessed the stupid act or only heard about it later.

Mom sent my brother to run interference. I rinsed out the sink while she mushed the meat back together and laid a fresh layer of ketchup on top.

"Shit," she muttered. "God dammit. You're probably going to use this to blackmail me like you always do."

This is not true. I have never blackmailed my mother, and believe me, I've busted her doing so many dumb things, I could be living in a much larger condo. It's not even that I catch her in the act, she just can't keep a secret. She once got two tickets in one traffic stop: One for speeding, and another for not wearing her seatbelt. That's the sort of thing I would have kept to myself. If Sergeant SafetyDad ever found out he would never, ever, ever let it go. But my mother told me about it. Then she got so freaked out after spilling the beans she took me shopping to shut me up.

If only she could bribe herself, her secrets might stand a chance.

Friday, June 24, 2005

use both hands

A lot of the advice my mother has given me over the years has turned out less than sound: Suggestions like "You should wear more red," "Just cut off the mold and eat it anyway," and "Why don't you have sex already? I don't know what you're waiting for!" were, as it turned out, made on a whim, and with my best interest at heart - but not necessarily in mind.

But I sure wish I'd taken her more literally when she told me to "use both hands." This is what she would say to my siblings and me when we drank from grownup cups too large for our little fingers. "Use both hands, Danielle. You're going to spill that lemonade."

In 1977, neither of us could have known I'd spend the better part of my adult life in front of a computer, pushing a little plastic mouse with my right hand. I'm a graphic designer: It's one of those cool creative jobs that requires me to sit for hours developing logos, ad campaigns and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Last winter, when I felt some pain in my right shoulder, I got a little concerned. Last month, when my shoulders looked uneven while I was lifting weights at the gym, I started to pay attention to my posture and ask my brother (a physical therapist) for advice. Last week, when my right elbow began to ache, I decided it was time to go left.

So now I'm mousing southpaw style. It was slow going the first few days, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. You'd think that after 22 years of piano my left hand would be primed and ready for action, but really she's always been a passive player. Like the shy younger sister, she does her job without much fanfare. She raises the curtain, paints the scenery, dances in the background... But my right hand, she's the one who steals the show.

Louise and Baby June. My left and my right.

Maybe I'll start practicing some Bach, and that Chopin nocturne with the really tough left-hand line. Try typing with one hand for a while. Slice my bananas from the other side. Left hand has to step it up before right hand quits showbiz altogether.

Sing out, Louise. This is your time to shine.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

rev it up

Whenever my Dad drives my car he pauses in the driveway for a moment and revs the engine up really high. As a young driver, before I knew just what kind of licking an '85 Volkswagen could take, his little ritual would freak me out something fierce. Surely the transmission would break free and shoot through the passenger seat! Crushing my legs to a bloody pulp! How painful! How gruesome! How would I get a date to prom!

The first time my father put pedal to metal in my Cabriolet, I shrieked like a mother who’d caught someone pinching her baby just to make it cry.

“What are you doing?!” I wailed.

“Relax,” he said, “I’m cleaning the spark plugs.”

And you know what? Call me suggestible, but I could swear it ran a little smoother after that.

So this morning, in the calm that followed yesterday's office-wide storm (everyone was screaming and crying for various reasons, must be a full moon), I thought of those spark plugs and realized that sometimes we need to rev up and freak out for a moment. Just put your foot down and roar. A little nervous breakdown can really cleanse the system.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

special gifts

My mother has always been a lousy gift-giver. It's sort of a narcissistic disability: She's so embedded in her egocentric little world, she cannot choose a gift based on anything but what strikes her fancy at the time.

Over the years I've grinned through a handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff with dead, staring eyes (scarring to a seven-year-old); purple velour knickers and matching vest (humiliating to a nine-year-old); scrunchees found in parking lots (ew); "cow jumping over the moon" pajamas (for my 27th birthday); a generous check earmarked for a "singles vacation" with daily reminders to "look into that cruise, my friend's niece met her husband there"... and many, many, many more things that nobody who has ever met me would think to buy. My mother is generous, but not terribly thoughtful.

Maybe that's why I've become so good at giving presents. For every birthday and holiday on my calendar I spend weeks considering, then hunting down, the perfect item to suit my brother's hobby, my sister's hair color, my best friend's style, my uncle's taste in music. If it can't be bought I'll make it myself. Anything to avoid that glance, right before the "Thank you," that cries, "Do you even know me?"

But my mother: She likes cats. So if she spots a kitty-themed beach towel in the window at Loehmann's, that's what I'm getting for my birthday. Never mind that I haven't seen the ocean in five years.

This week, my mother's legacy lives on.

Exhibit A: My parents' vacation to Seattle.

(Spoiled brat disclaimer: Yes, it was very nice of my mother to think of me while on vacation, and one should always appreciate a gift, no matter how out of style or off the mark.)

But this one was a doozy: A tiny silver-framed picture of a cat, with the phrase "Life is Good" printed in pink under its tiny paw. On the back was some inane affirmation about love or happiness or something. Oh -- and did I mention it was a necklace?

I don't mean to be ungrateful. Really, my parents are so very giving. But this is an item that screams "spinster cat lady." And it's not the sort of thing I can keep on a shelf and hide when I've got company. I'm supposed to wear it. In public. Gentlemen, I ask you: If a blind date was sporting this around her neck, would you ask her out again? I've disowned friends for less.

Exhibit B: Father's Day.

My father is a practical man who likes practical gifts: Tools, electronics, hand cream... stuff he needs but is too busy to buy for himself. Stuff he'll use.

Like clothing, which my mother has always bought for him, whether it's a gift or just something he needs. This is their system: He cleans, she cooks; he earns, she spends; he does the taxes, she picks out his clothes. But as my mother ages, her taste (like her personality) is sometimes prone to absurd, inappropriate outbursts: green eyeshadow; nylon jogging suits; a Batman-size wool cape the color of a peacock's ass.

This Father's Day my dad was presented with a bag of polo shirts. (TJMaxx price tags still attached. Why pretend?) He pulled them out one by one. Navy blue, very nice. Brown with white stripes, lovely. Khaki, excellent choice. And then, almost in slow motion, a shirt the color of radioactive orange sherbet rose from that shopping bag. My brother and I clung to each other and shielded our eyes. Dad stifled a laugh.

"What?!" my mother huffed. "I love that color!"

Exactly.

A blind pimp wouldn't have picked that shirt for my father. And not just because it fell off of the "Miami Vice" wardrobe truck on the way to the dump. My father is a handsome man, but at the height of summer he's maybe a half shade darker than an albino, and balding and skinny to boot. In that polo shirt, in that hue, he would look like E.T. cruising a Chelsea nightclub in 1983. (Collar...up.)

But Dad rescued Mom like he always does. "I think this will go nicely with my khaki pants," he said, and kissed her sweetly on the cheek.

I should be so lucky to marry a liar like that.

Monday, June 13, 2005

feeling at home

I'm staying at my parents' house while they're on vacation in Seattle this week. I grew up here, so there's not much unfamiliar to me except the layout of the new kitchen. (It only took me 13 minutes to locate the sandwich baggies.)

The house is large but not cavernous, warm, with a big buttery sofa and a 54-inch TV. It should be the most comfortable place in the world to me. But...it's not. Spending a week here feels like staying in a hotel: It's well-appointed, it has everything I need...but none of it is my stuff.

I've been living alone in various one-bedroom apartments for more than five years now. My place has my shampoo, my water pressure, my lighting, my towels, my toilet, my clothes, my milk, my favorite cereals, my favorite bowl. And all of it is just a few paces away. Arm's reach, really. I am at home there. Maybe too comfortable. When does a single person become so embedded in her routine that she can no longer let another person in? I'm out of sorts with a houseguest sleeping on my couch! How will I ever be able to co-habitate with a significant other? The funny thing is, motherhood -- the thing that terrifies me most -- is probably the only thing that will force me out of my neuroses (or force my neuroses out of me). I mean, you can't throw your kids out of the house for staining the sofa or leaving a ziploc bag half open.

But I digress.

I'm a little thrown by my discomfort in what I've always considered "my house." The space is not conducive to multi-tasking: If I'm peeing in the powder room and suddenly remember that I need to plug my computer into the charger upstairs, I have to walk so far from task A to task B that I get sidetracked halfway through -- say, I spot the empty cat bowl and veer off to fill it -- and task B (and C and D and E) is forgotten until that moment right before I fall asleep, when it's too late to do anything but stay up another 30 minutes fretting about it. In my apartment, the toilet and the computer are less than two dozen paces apart. Not much room for distraction there.

In my parents' house, the towels smell musty like the linen closet and the kitchen counters have crumbs that aren't mine. The toilets are too low. The spoons don't feel the same in my mouth when I eat my breakfast cereal. There are bugs here that wander in from the woods behind the house. I hate bugs, that's why I live on the 10th floor. And as for sleep...the mattress, the night light and the temperature are all unfamiliar, and that makes my sleeping self quite tense. I went one night -- ONE NIGHT -- without my mouth guard, and I ground my teeth so hard I chipped a molar.

But then, breaking my routine for a few days is like splashing cold water on my face. It really wakes me up. Reminds me to keep trying new stuff -- maybe I should keep a box of Cap'n Crunch in my own pantry. Or get cable TV. Or hang out with my sister more. When I go home on Friday night I will look at my apartment with new eyes, notice the scuff on the wall and the paint cans in the corner I've trained myself not to see. Maybe I'll tackle that home improvement to-do list and clean the place up a bit. I don't want to get too comfortable in my own life.

Friday, June 10, 2005

This Star Wars sendup is rather funny, at least for us fuddy duddies who were around when rollerskates were in and George Lucas had talent.

It's a promo for some organic foods association that re-enacts the original (episode three) Star Wars with characters like "Cuke Skywalker," "Chewbroccoli" and "Tofu D2." Let's call it vegemation. It's so... I dunno... I keep thinking "cheesy" or "corny"... I can't find an adjective that doesn't subject us all to an awful pun.

I haven't posted much on this blog yet -- the writing may pick up once I get a bag to carry my (fabulous new) laptop to various coffeeshops and parks around town. And I haven't told anyone about it. Because... honestly, I'm trying to be totally candid and personal in here, and I'm not sure I want anyone to know (a) some bad stuff I've done/choices I've made, and (b) just how fucking crazy I really am. Not like fun crazy, but neurotic crazy. Then again, my best friends know I'm nuts and they're still my best friends. Love me or leave me, right?

In other news, I just refinanced my condo, 5.375% for 30 years. This is impressive because refinancing requires me to do not one, but THREE things at which I am typically an utter failure: decision-making; trusting strangers; and math. But I understand I got a very good rate, so good that I would be a fool to ever sell this place because I'll never get a better loan and my next place will likely cost two or three times as much as this one. Now it's time to tackle my home improvement to-do list, I'm going to be there for a while. I'd like one of those big-ass refrigerators with a bottom drawer freezer so I don't have to stand on my toes digging for frozen broccoli, or bust up my collarbone when a salmon fillet slides out.