Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tales from the Driver's Seat

Starting this post with a huge THANK YOU to everyone who reached out to me after reading my last post honoring my friend Robbie.  I received many messages from people near and far, friends near and dear, as well as people who know me but didn't have the good fortune to know Robbie and people who loved Robbie but don't know me.  It was an outpouring of love that I didn't expect at all, and it was so helpful through such a difficult time.

In the wake of this, I've strengthened my resolve in a couple of areas.  First, experiencing loss to such a degree made me realize that time is my most precious asset and getting upset over stupid shit is a waste of it.  Work hassles, the he said/she said of interpersonal politics, the dumbshittery that befalls everyone who leaves the house on a regular basis, sorry, you're so five minutes ago.  It was a great run, 47 years of getting bent out of shape over minutia, but it's over.  I get a moment to stew over someone taking up the whole moving walkway in the airport when I'm clearly in a hurry or putting onions on my sandwich when I asked nicely to have them left off, or irritating comments brought to my attention by the magic of social media, then I'm REQUIRED to get on with my life.  This also includes not getting swept up in other people's long winded bitchfests as well.

In a related "How DO you want to spend your one wild and precious life?" decision, I've vowed to no longer deal with people who don't treat me with respect.  This may sound like a big fat DUH, but it's tricky stuff sometimes.  I can't control my co-workers or the general public at work, but I get financially compensated to put up with trying personalities in that arena.  Every other aspect of my life, I get a choice.  I've spent the last year living with two incredibly supportive roommates, and dating a guy who is both emotionally generous and intellectually challenging, and I do creative work with people who really value my contributions.  This circle of people have shown me the power of being surrounded by folks that believe in you can make you believe in yourself, and when that kicks in, ALL THINGS ARE MOTHER FUCKING POSSIBLE.  I'll remain forever open to new friends that have similar standards on how people are to be treated, but everyone else, please meet with the curb.  The amount of jerks I've had to run through to get to this golden circle could fill a football field, but that was a small price to pay.  My current motto is "If you lay down with dicks, you get dick on you," and I can assure you that 2014 will be 100% DICK FREE.

On a lighter note, here's a little something from last night's Story Club South Side.  The challenge was to write a tale involving events that happened between the last Story Club on October 15th and the show last night.  This is not anything I would have written about without a prompt, but I'm glad I did.  It was hard to admit that my fear of the car is that debilitating, but doing hard stuff is good for you.

More soon, lots of great things coming up on the horizon.  Going to Italy in March to eat pasta and talk shop with Wally Lamb.  Hey, I told you all things were possible.  I ain't playing.

Hugs to all of you who visit this space.  Mere words will never express how much I appreciate you.

“Aren’t you nervous about meeting Chuck’s mother?” everyone kept asking me.  “Not at all,” I’d reply.  Chuck and I have been seeing each other almost a year, and although I haven’t met a special someone’s mother in almost two decades, I’ve got my mom pleasing moves down.  It’s basic stuff, really, moms just want you to be on time and look presentable, they want you to listen more than you talk, they want you to nod knowingly and agree with them, even when you don’t, and they want you to eat anything they offer and tell them that it’s delicious.  Anyone can do that for an afternoon, particularly if it’s someone else’s mother.  “Piece of cake,” I tell everyone.  I don’t mention my real concern, which is the road trip.

Chuck’s mother lives about two and half hours away in South Wayne, Wisconsin, a short drive from where we’ll be staying in New Glarus.  Two and half hours is a snappy little day trip, and I like to get out of town, especially to places that have some kitsch appeal.  A weekend in “America’s Little Switzerland” sounded like a perfect romp, except that we will have to drive to get there.  When I say “we”, I mean Chuck.  Chuck will be driving, and I will quietly be having a nervous breakdown, because I have a paralyzing fear of being in the car.

I am zero fun when I ride shotgun.  I’m the passenger that’s constantly flinching and gasping and putting on the imaginary brakes on my side of the car.  I get that panicky look, a look that I’m familiar with as I work on an airplane.  Almost every day someone comes to me with that same wild eyed face and tells me that they are afraid to fly.  I often say to these pale, panicky folks white knuckling it through turbulence, “I get where you’re at, really.  I’m afraid of the car,” which doesn’t make them feel any better, it just makes them confused.  

I once had a perfectly normal relationship with the automobile, owning one for most of my adult life.  I used to love road trips…for me they meant eating beef jerky while listening to carefully prepared mix tapes and enjoying meandering conversations about the meaning of life while mocking rural America’s hyper Christian road signs.  The trouble all started with an accident I was involved about nine years ago, when I was T-boned in the driver’s side of my Toyota pickup truck by a girl high on meth in an SUV going 50 mph, an accident where I crawled out the passenger side door covered in safety glass pellets, miraculously without a scratch.  When the insurance totaled out a truck I was trying to sell anyway, I wrote the whole thing off as a lucky break.  But it awakened a piece of my brain that never existed before, a piece that began to envision phantom cars coming at me out of nowhere when I started to drive again.  I knew it was stupid and ridiculous, but no part of my rational brain could make it stop.  I began to drive less and less, eventually selling my car when I moved to Chicago four years ago.   I live close enough to the airport to walk to work and I could take the train everywhere else, it didn’t make sense for me to have a car here.  But fear loves it when you give in, it just settles in that space in your brain and gets all comfortable and starts spreading itself around.  Pretty soon I not only didn’t want to be behind the wheel, I wasn’t comfortable being in the car at all.  The phantom cars started coming out to play when other people were driving. I can usually keep it under wraps for short hops around town, but I knew several hours on the freeway would bring out the hallucinating, flinching, fake breaking weirdo worst in me.  I tell myself to pull it together for the next three hours as I see Chuck pull up in front of my house.  Just pretend that you’re like other people, I tell myself, just pretend that you are normal.

When Chuck arrives half an hour later than originally planned, I know that he will on edge.  He is generally very organized and punctual.  He is upset when he pulls up; his head is still wrapped up in work, it took him longer than he had anticipated to pick up the rental car, his mother has called him several times to check to see if we have started driving yet.  Now I really need to keep my anxiety under wraps, because there’s not enough room in any car for accommodate two people freaking out inside of it.  Chuck tells me he is worried about me meeting his mother, and I ask him, “Why?  What could go wrong?”  He replies, “I don’t know.  I just keep thinking that something will.”  I know that he is concerned that the distance between Chicago and South Wayne, Wisconsin, population 489, is more than 150 miles, that it possibly another world away, a chasm that perhaps we won’t be able to traverse as a team.  Small town life doesn’t worry me, but I’m at one with his apprehension as I stare at the navigational program on my iPhone, noting that we must take the exit on to 290 off of 55 in 8.2 miles, now 8 miles, now 7.8, now 7.7, now 7.6.  I do not take my eyes off the screen, as that will bring me back to the reality of being in the car.  Just be like other people, I tell myself.  You can do this.  

I tell Chuck everything will be fine with his mother, even if the worst possible thing imaginable happens, it will all still be fine.  He doesn’t seem convinced, but his stress eases as we eventually find our way out of the city, while my tension remains fairly constant.  I’ve had to go to the bathroom since shortly after we started driving, but I say nothing as I worry I might not be able to get back in the car if we pull over.  I finally have to concede that casting a pall on a road trip with an anxiety attack is probably trumped by wetting your pants in a rental car.  I take some deep breaths after we leave the rest stop and attempt to mentally reset myself.  We’re only an hour or so away, but the Friday afternoon traffic combined with some construction has stretched the trip out to over four hours, which is the longest I’ve been in a car in a very long time.   I’ve told Chuck about the accident and I’ve admitted to having mixed feelings about being the car and he’s a safe and conservative driver, but as all of my fears are stupid and irrational, none of this bring me any peace.  Eventually there are rolling hills and the vivid colors of the trees changing in fall; beautiful scenery that I focus on intently to distance myself from being in a rolling prison of my own design.

Once we get there, I feel fine.  The weekend is chock full of small town Wisconsin wonderful; farmers selling honey crisp apples, fancy cheese curds with jalapeno dipping sauce, petting a goat named Gus while we play miniature golf, and a trip to the New Glarus Brewery to fill our trunk with the coveted local beer.  On Saturday afternoon, I meet Chuck’s mother and she is kind and lovely.  She listens more than she talks and she smiles agreeably at what everyone else has to say.  She serves us strawberry shortcake, and I tell her that it’s delicious, and it really is.  

Towards the end of the visit, Chuck goes to get her a bottle of fancy beer from the car, and she tells me, “I really like you, and I don’t like most people.”  I tell her I intend to take good care of Chuck, because, again, I know how to please a mom.  She replies, “It’s much more important to me that he takes good care of you,” which seals the deal on a highly satisfying mom meeting.  Through all of this, I haven’t thought once about the ride home, I’ve just allowed myself to really enjoy what’s happening.  On Sunday as Chuck begins to pack up the car and he’s as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him, that space in my brain that is all about seizing up and making my life miserable begins to tingle and stretch its legs.  Perhaps I’m all aglow from fancy cheese curds and craft beer and thoughtful moms, but I tell that space that on this particularly perfect Sunday, that I am not having it.   I don’t have to pretend to be normal, to pretend to be like other people, I just need to remember that I’m a girl who’s not afraid to fly, who’s not afraid to meet a mom, who’s not afraid to tell a bunch of strangers what totally scares the shit out of her. I tell that warped chunk of my mental real estate that no matter what happens in the car on the way home, that it will all be fine.  As we drive along highway 90, I look out the window at the passing trees and their changing leaves, and Chuck and I talk about life and we listen to carefully chosen songs and we eat beef jerky, just like I did when I was a normal person.  As we make our way back into the city and the cars and big trucks on 55 begin to whiz by us, I close my eyes and make peace with taking my foot off the imaginary brake pedal.  

Two days after this lovely weekend, I go out to run errands with my friend Anna in my roommate’s car.  Anna is tight on time, she has a flight to catch in an hour.  As we pull into the Costco parking space, she checks her watch and asks, “You okay with dropping me off at the airport and then getting the car back home?”  Keep in mind, she’s asking me to drive the car for about 10 minutes, maybe a little over a mile.  I give her a slack jawed expression as my mind races.  “Is she insane?” I think to myself.  “She knows that I got up at 4 am and I worked all day and it’s pouring rain and the airport is filled with hostile travelers and crazy cab drivers!  Conditions could not be worse for me to actually DRIVE a car today!”  But what comes out of my mouth is what any normal person would say.  I say, “Yeah, of course, sure.”

At the departure drop off at Midway, I slide behind the wheel.  “You gonna be okay?”  Anna asks.  I nod hesitantly as I smile and wave goodbye. I wait for my stomach to drop, for my heart to pound, for my hands to clench the wheel in a death grip.  But it doesn’t happen.  I put on my turn signal and ease my way into the processional of cabs trying to get back to the freeway.  I actually try to conjure up the worst possible thing that could ever happen, like an airplane falling out of the sky onto me and the Cicero bus next to me full of south siders minding their own business and the whole thing just seems so crazy and improbable, so very far away.  As I put on the brakes at a four way stop a few blocks from my house, I look left, and then right, then left again, feeling relief that there are no cars to consider, either real or imagined.   I hit the gas pedal, sensing only the rain pounding on the roof, the melodic sound of the windshield wipers going back and forth, and the satisfaction of being back in the driver’s seat.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


My friend Robbie would have turned 37 today.  He passed away in an accident on the 29th of August of this year.  

To date, I have lost my father, both sets of grandparents, and a handful of fairly close friends.  As I’ve gotten older, losing people has happened with more regularity; it has always seemed like a sad but inevitable part of life.  I lost a childhood friend and a cherished co-worker most recently, and I was fortunate enough to be able to write about both of them in this space.  Writing about Desiree and Michele took some of the edge off of my helplessness in trying to cope with the fact that two young, vibrant people would lose their lives too soon to cancer.

None of this prepared me for how I would feel after losing Robbie.  

I could tell you about how I met Robbie and his partner, Jason when I first started flying out of Chicago in 2005.  How elated I was to start hanging out with them as without hilarious gays, I am nothing.  About how we ate our way around Chicago, and other cities when we worked together.  About how we enjoyed all kinds of libations, which always led to us having the most amazing conversations.  About relationships, about work, about politics, about music, about everything.  I could tell you about sleepovers and birthday parties and concerts and weddings and movie dates and karaoke and Dance Dance Revolution and yoga and how we regularly had more fun than people should be allowed to have.  How Robbie and Jason have been immensely supportive of my artistic endeavors around town, how I always looked forward to the next time we could spend time together, no matter what was on the agenda.  How Robbie always brought a mix of sweet, snarky, thoughtful, hilarious, and sad to everything that he touched in perfect proportions.    But if you knew Robbie, you have your own magnificent stories.  If you didn’t know him, I guess you just had to be there.

I could tell you about how sad that I am that I can’t tell Robbie on this birthday that I love him more than I love Jason, which I joked about every year.  Or recently when I found out Fiona Apple was coming to Chicago this month, that I reached for my phone to text Robbie to see if he might want to go for a birthday night out.  Or when I saw a story about Gwenyth Paltrow being a complete a-hole, that I couldn’t wait to send it to Robbie and proclaim, “SEE!  THIS is why you’re not allowed to like her!”  It was probably almost a minute before it hit me that I couldn’t do these things.  Or that I recently tore apart my basement looking for a cartoon that Robbie drew of me on a cocktail napkin that was on my refrigerator in my last apartment, a napkin that I know that I would never throw away.  I could tell you about how my whole body physically aches sometimes from being heartbroken over not being able to see him.

But I don’t want to spend Robbie’s birthday dwelling on that.  I just keep coming back to this one trip two years ago that the three of us worked together…possibly one of the silliest ones of my career.  Jason, Robbie, and I worked one leg into LaGuardia, overnighted there,and worked one leg back to Chicago bright and early the next day. 

E and the boys take to the sky

It’s the kind of trip you do when you just get stuck with it, if the scheduling wheel of fortune doesn’t offer you something that’s a more productive use of your time.  When we hit town, we opted to get a cab instead of taking the subway to the Doughnut Plant on the Lower East Side as we were already delayed because of weather and we wanted to start enjoying our brief stint in the city.   We proceeded to spend $40 on doughnuts, then we wandered around looking at Big Apple crazy, then we took a cab back to the hotel as we just couldn’t bear to sit on the subway after stuffing our faces and walking around.  We kept pointing out our folly, how ridiculous it was that we spent more money than we made working the trip on cabs and doughnuts.   I had just put the Old Camera app on my phone, so we had to commemorate our ridiculousness in sepia tone splendor.

I didn’t grasp then how blessed I was to be on such a goofy adventure.  I do now.

The last time I saw Robbie was at the end of July, seeing Heart at Ravinia, a beautiful ampitheater north of Chicago.  He greeted me as he always did, with a big hug and kiss.  We listened to the Wilson sisters tear through some classics, enjoyed some great summer weather with friends, food, wine, and jibber jabber.  Robbie and I had some time to chat alone, where we decided to both sit in a friend’s camping chair together, which was oodles of hilarity until we broke the arm off of it.   When we went our separate ways, we hugged and swore we would put together a slumber party plan soon.

One of the main things that gives me peace, that keeps me from losing my shit on the regular over all of this, is that the house of our friendship was in order.  There was no question how we felt, there was nothing I wished I’d said or that I hadn’t said; there was simply unwavering support and adoration and love.  We were always honest with one another.  It was perfectly fine to be tired, or pissed off, or bummed out, or confused, as long as it was genuine.  We just accepted each other as is, without question.  

When I feel overcome with sadness, which is a daily occurrence, I take solace in the fact that having his love in my life for eight years was an amazing gift.  He taught me so much about acceptance, about kindness, about friendship.  At his memorial, I was comforted by seeing so many people who felt the same way about him, an army of people who knew exactly how special he was.  The harshest blow I’ve been dealt in this life was made much more bearable with the help of true friends, who are the family that we choose.  

“To live on in hearts we leave behind is not to die,” wrote Scottish poet Thomas Campbell.  Robbie lives on in everyone who ever loved him….when we eat fried chicken, when we drink bourbon, when we hear Tori Amos, when we finish a race, when we change the lyrics to songs to make people laugh, when we see Susan Sarandon, whose Arandon is truly the greatest Arandon around.  We carry our memories of Robbie forever, and mine will always be sweeter than a bag of big city doughnuts.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Works About The Work

I find it hard to believe that another year has passed since I wrote about my interaction with a security guard at the World Trade Center in commemoration of the eleventh anniversary of September 11th.  In that post I attempted to make the point that small encounters can make a difference as I still think of that man every year, now eighteen years after making his brief acquaintance.  I tread lightly in these sort of discussions, as I’ve always believed that if you need a national tragedy to remind you to hug your children or be nice to your neighbor or what have you, that you may indeed be a clueless putz.

I did report to my sky office today.  As usual, the airplane was relatively empty.  People were especially kind, a plethora of “please” and “thank you” and copious eye contact.  Every day that I go to work I come into contact with people in all different states of mind; to come across someone crying their eyes out is almost as common as someone laughing or staring blankly out the window.  My standard operating procedure when faced with a weepy passenger is to go get them a box of tissues, ask them if they need anything, often suggesting a cocktail or a glass of water, which I get for them immediately.  I try to check back later and see how things are going, but mostly I attend to the needs of the other forty odd people I’m typically responsible for and then bury myself in a New Yorker.  This is usually combined with my signature “How soon until we get there?” face, as if the highlight of my day could possibly be eating cold nachos out of a styrofoam box on a Holiday Inn mattress and watching Cold Case Files.  AS IF.   This year on September 11th, I’m going to admit that as well as I talk the talk, I’m not always walking the walk.  The Kleenex and cocktail response, although passably hospitable, could stand an upgrade.

I know this because this last Friday, the passenger sobbing inconsolably in 18F was me.  I was returning home from my friend’s memorial service outside Los Angeles, which was a beautiful, albeit melancholy, affair.  I was surrounded by supportive friends, I met many lovely people, and I was immensely glad that I went.  But I was overcome as soon as we took off out of LAX; by stress, by grief, by exhaustion.  But also by gratitude for all the people who did not know my friend who had passed away, people whose job it is every day to facilitate people’s worst days, people who have chosen careers built around being compassionate.  As I discussed them with my roommate, I kept emphasizing to her that those people are doing some of the most important work there is to do in this world, that their kindness had made such a difference on an occasion that was so important to everyone involved.  

About halfway through the flight, I managed to pull myself together and I realized that I also have one of those jobs, should I choose to look it that way.  Then I wondered, if I had been working and seen me sobbing in 18F, what would I have done?  The Kleenex, the cocktail, the New Yorker?  I was fortunate that I had my roommate there to comfort me on the flight, after leaving a group of truly lovely people, heading towards my home to the waiting arms of more concerned folks.  But I could have easily been all alone.  I’d like to think I’d have had more to offer than the mandatory minimum amount of caring.

As an example of a flight attendant getting it right in the meaningful work realm, a handful of years ago I was flying with my friend Blain on Thanksgiving.  It was the usual scene, a plane packed full of amateur travelers in colorful sweaters off to see their loved ones.  Blain made an announcement on landing that there was a serviceman onboard who was on leave from Iraq to spend the holiday with his family who was seated in the last row, and could everyone just remain seated when we got to the gate so he could deplane first and meet them?  I told Blain he was wasting his breath, that enough people weren’t listening or didn’t care about anyone else’s holiday plans that our military guy would still be stuck waiting to get off.  When we got to the gate, not only did everyone remain still as he made his way up the aisle with his backpack, but they cheered with reckless abandon.  One holiday sweater clad soccer mom towards the front of the plane was so overcome with emotion that she threw her arms around the soldier and hugged him as if both their lives depended on it.  Many people wiped away tears as he made his exit and thanked us for making his speedy departure happen.  The solider was visibly moved, but the collective joy was the wonderful surprise.  I was never so happy to be wrong about humanity.

My work is not the dispensing of Cokes and peanuts.  My work is not debating with Businessman Bob about why he needs turn his Kindle off.  The former is mechanics, the latter is an obstacle.  To some degree the most important element of my work is being prepared for emergencies, but thankfully thus far they have been few and far between.  I used to really look for opportunities to be helpful, but the mechanics and the obstacles have dulled my edge in that department.  I’m renewing my efforts to keep my eyes open to find the real work in my work, recognizing that all the goodwill I have put out in the past keeps coming back to me tenfold.

This poem by our former poet laureate, Philip Levine, never fails to move me.  Although I have never waited in the rain for auto assembly line work in Detroit, I feel like it captures what I’m trying to say.  Also a reminder that finely crafted creative work can bridge the gap between individual experiences and universal emotions.  That's always what I strive to do with my writing, my work that is also my bliss.

What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to   
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How the Sweet Science Unleashed My Secret Sporty Spice

“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It's the same thing, fear, but it's what you do with it that matters,” said famed boxing coach Cus D’amato.  I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic as I entered the IFC gym looking to hire a boxing coach.  I chose Freddie Cuevas before meeting him as he was billed as being big on fighting philosophy as well as form.  Freddie retired from boxing professionally in 2006 after putting in eleven years as a popular Chicago middleweight fighter.  I hired him not for his record, which was certainly respectable, but because he is a boxing coach for thinkers.  I was counting on my brain to overcome my physical limitations, as I am far from sporty.  I felt that boxing might be the best crash course on fine tuning my concentration and my coordination, two areas that have kept me out of sports generally. My aversion to fitness started early; I forged notes from my mother to excuse myself from P.E. class as I couldn’t bear to be the last person picked for every team.  I’ve always been that person in aerobics class that’s facing the wrong direction, while practicing yoga I’m always struggling with the right side when everyone else is effortlessly doing the left side.  In dance classes advertised as “There’s no wrong way to do this”, teachers have proclaimed after seeing my attempts, “Except maybe that way.” Eventually I took up running as it was something I could do alone, free of being judged on my performance.  But I became determined to find a sport that worked for me, and if that sport involved hitting things, I was all for it.  While wrapping my hands at our first session, Freddie asked me a reasonable question.  “Why boxing?”  I joked that it was because I’m Irish and I don’t play well with others.  I went on to explain that some of my interest came from family tradition.  My grandfather was a professional boxing referee, I grew up watching all the men in my family glove up and hit the heavy bag.  We watched fights on television with great regularity, there were many discussions of technique and strategy as we watched the likes of Muhammed Ali, Leon Spinks and Joe Frazier.  I was seven years old when my extended family gathered excitedly around the television to see my grandfather in action, moderating the heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Ken Norton.  Foreman knocked Norton out shortly into the second round so my grandfather’s time in the spotlight wasn’t lengthy, but it was memorable.  

Gramps Jimmy Rondeau officiating at the 1946 Golden Gloves

The IFC gym itself was not like the other slick places I’d gone to work out in the past.  It is a simple two room space with a standard ring in the front, heavy bags and speed bags in the rear, as well as two treadmills, a bike, some kettle balls and a few basic weight lifting machines.  The walls are adorned with photos and clippings of the employees doing what they know best: fighting. There is no air conditioning.  There is no juice bar.  They are often blasting hard rock or rap, or if Freddie has his way, salsa.  It’s all about function, no fancy stuff.  It’s not a health club, a spa, a studio, or a dojo.  It’s a straight up boxing gym.

Freddie with today's motivational message

Freddie started by teaching me the four basic punches: the jab, the cross, the hook, and the upper cut. Our subsequent workouts have varied a little but generally we do something close to the following program each time we meet. After a brief warm up of windmilling my arms, doing jumping jacks followed by squats, I do two rounds of shadowboxing.  This warms up not only my core and my shoulders, but my comfort level with looking stupid.  I find it hard not to feel self conscious as I’m throwing punches into the air in a boxing ring in clear view of passersby on a busy street in Chicago.  After my ego and my arms are ready to go, Freddie puts on mitts to field my punches as we do three rounds of different punch combinations that he dictates. 

I then move to the heavy bag for two rounds of punch combinations of my own choosing.  Then to the speed bag for two rounds, which is a nice relief to have something that’s less about punching and more about hand/eye coordination. 


Then there’s two rounds of jumping rope, a round of chasing mitts, (remember Rocky chasing the chicken? It’s the same principle, working on speed and agility, but with Freddie throwing mitts around the room and me retrieving them like a dog)

and three different kinds of sit ups, a minute of plank pose

and we’re DONE.  All rounds of every exercise are three minutes, just like boxing rounds in a standard match.  Every round of exercise is capped off with fifteen jumping jacks and ten squats as well, just to keep it moving. 

After being a runner for several years I was in fairly decent shape when I took on the boxing regime, so my stamina wasn’t an issue.  But my coordination problems made learning the punch combinations challenging, and jumping rope was an aggravating impossibility at first.  It was six minutes of pure frustration, punctuated by whipping my legs with the jumprope, further cementing my anxiety and disappointment with myself.  A majority of fitness instructors I’d had in the past would take to barking instructions on how to do things the right way at me, to no avail. I’d just shut down after getting yelled at.  I started noticing that when I would make mistakes while working with Freddie, he would simply stop me, and we’d do it over.  He wouldn’t sigh or make any sort of face indicating displeasure or exasperation or comment in anyway that was negative.  We’d just stop and do it over, however many times it took until I did it correctly.  Freddie also gave my mind a work out, discussing how the better boxer is not the tougher one, but the smarter one.  I found the mix of strategy and footwork to be akin to playing chess while dancing, with the mind and body finding harmony working together in unison.  After much practice, I started picking up the punching combinations more easily, which Freddie always took note of and commented on positively.  In my early struggles with the jumprope, he would tell me repeatedly in a calm voice, “You control the rope, you control your legs.  You just have to get those two things to work together."  And slowly but surely, those things did start working together. I now can jump rope fairly smoothly for much of the six minutes, and I whip myself with the jumprope much less now.  

I love it when a plan comes together

My love of boxing got a serious boost during a recent trip to Louisville, when I visited the Muhammad Ali Center.  Ali was not only an amazing athlete, but an artist, an activist, and a philanthropist. Wise and courageous (and so PRETTY!), the man continues to be an inspiration.  
A sports star that's truly worthy of hero worship, a man who taught me that there ain't nothing wrong with going down, it's when you stay down that you run into trouble.

So I opted not to get discouraged, even on days when the gym just beat the shit out of me, instead of the other way around.  At no point have I felt judged by Freddie, or anyone else in the gym for that matter.  I often get high fives and words of encouragement from the other staff and sometimes the other patrons of the gym.  Freddie trains many women who fight as amateurs, who are strong and beautiful and awe inspiring to watch as they spar with men who are much bigger than they are.  Again, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog. 

A couple of months into the training, I noticed that not only were the exercises much easier to perform, but my confidence while tackling new exercises was enhanced. Freddie taught me not only how to be a boxer, but how to be a teacher. I’m sure I won’t ever be skilled enough to fight someone else in any official capacity, but I fought my fear of all things athletic and emerged victorious.  I think Cus D’amato would approve.

Photo credits:  Gym photos by Jill Howe, Ali Center photos by Chuck Sudo.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Amazing Grace

About a year into my re-entry back into single life after getting out of a fourteen year relationship, I had a pretty minimal understanding of the dating scene.  As luck would have it, the work wheel of fortune presented me with a co-worker that taught me a thing or two about love.  As the world is small and I want to protect her privacy, I will give her a pseudonym that represents what she is to me: Grace.   Grace and I immediately hit it off in a way that happens not so often, like we were old friends after talking just a few hours.  When she asked me about my love life, I told her about the garden of crazy that I had been tending.  I explained that I had been seeing a guy in rural Wisconsin who was handsome and baked me pies and played the piano for me, but he just didn’t want to ever leave that world to do anything else and the commute to see him had worn me out.

“Nope,” Grace said decidedly.  “What else?”

Let’s see.   I also had a guy who I’d been emailing with that was an amazing writer, a sensitive soul, and a lovely poet.  Trouble was he just didn’t want to meet me in person.  

“Nope,” she said.  “What else?”

Hmm.  That had been enough to keep me busy.  I mean, they both certainly had some promise, right?


I was taken aback by her matter of fact response.  How could she be so sure after my thumbnail sketch of what was going on?

Grace said in a quiet but firm voice, “Eileen, I’ll tell you what.  I was never the popular girl in school, I didn’t get asked out on a ton of dates.  I met my husband in college, and after a brief conversation, he asked me for my number.  He told me he’d call me at 2 o’clock the next day.  The next day, he called me at 2, and he’s never let me down since.”

I looked at her, bewildered.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.  “We don’t always agree.  We’ve certainly had arguments and bumps in the road.  But he’s always done what he said he was going to do.  We’re a team, and I trust that I can count on him.”

She’d been married awhile.   They had two young children together, and with his two children from a prior marriage, they had a lovely family.  

She expounded, “You shouldn’t accept anything less than that, Eileen.  These guys you’re talking to are already letting you down, and they don’t even know you.”  I had to agree.  

We talked some more about her marriage, about life, about literature.  We discussed Michael Chabon, a favorite author of mine, and she mentioned that he and his wife Ayelet Waldman spoke publicly about putting their love for one another on a higher priority than their love for their children.  Ayelet took it in the shorts in the media for these beliefs, she was crucified by the Oprah generation, HOW DARE SHE NOT LOVE HER CHILDREN ABOVE ALL ELSE?  Ayelet explained that she believed her children were better off by understanding that they were not the center of the universe, instead reaping the rewards of being raised by two equal, loving partners who placed great importance on their romantic connection.  Grace felt that way about her husband, and that philosophy made sense to me. Grace left me with a copy of Chabon’s “Manhood For Amateurs”, his first foray in personal essay writing, which gave me much to think about in terms of what it means to be a man.   I loved the book, and I loved Grace.  Inside the book was a kind note that said lots of wonderful things, including, “You deserve the best in everything and that is what I wish for you.”

I told the story of what Grace had taught me to so many people.  It gave me something to work with.  It was a succinct but powerful textbook on relationship expectation.  It gave me a love model, something my life was lacking.  Every time I got involved with anyone, I heard her words in my head and I tried to act accordingly.

And with that, as is often the way with my job, I didn’t see Grace again for a handful of years.  

She reappeared on my Facebook feed not long ago, in a new location.  Smiling, in pictures with her younger children.  I thought to myself, it’s so good to see her again, even if only in a virtual setting, but something felt off.

Rumors started to circulate, whispers on the work wind.  That Grace had separated from her husband.  As the universe has been known to give you what you need through the art of serendipity, Grace appeared on a flight that I was working.  The odds of this happening were pretty slim, except that when it’s important, stars align to give you some answers.  She looked lovely, like she hadn’t aged a day.  Totally together on the surface, she shared with me that she had separated from her husband because not only had he been unfaithful to her, but he had been living a double life.  With another woman, in another world that she was completely unaware of.  She said to me, “You know when you hear those stories about men having two lives and you think the wife must be an idiot….I had no idea.  NO IDEA.”  She quickly made arrangements to share custody of her children, she took her savings and staked a claim in another city.  “I took my babies and ran.  It was the only plan that I could come up with to save my family,” she told me.  I listened to her in disbelief.  I could not fathom how anyone in their right mind could treat such a wonderful woman so poorly, how anyone could sleep at night leading a duplicitous existence, how anyone who had children could act so selfishly.  And speaking of selfish, I WAS PISSED OFF THAT THIS MOTHER FUCKER HAD BLOWN APART MY LOVE MODEL.  I had told so many people that story, I had invested so much of myself in believing what she had told me.  AND NOW IT WAS ALL LIES….FUCK. IT. ALL.

Grace had lent me the Chabon book years before, I subsequently lent it to a guy I had been seeing.  I broke up with him after a rocky year, but we were trying to maintain a friendship.  The last time I saw him, I spotted the book on his coffee table and I slipped it into my purse, knowing that he would never read it.  He insisted that he still wanted the book, and oh please, could I just give him a bit more time to read it.  Sure, I said, leaving the book on his kitchen counter.  I never heard from him again.  I begged, I pleaded with him to give me closure, I told him that it was fine if he didn’t want to see me anymore, in fact,  it was for the best.  But not like this.  I called, I texted, I emailed.  No answer.  One of the last transmissions on my end was boiled down to basics.  “I no longer want to talk.  I just want my book back.”   It had so much sentimental value, and in light of what happened to the woman who gave it to me, I felt despondent over the whole deal.  

I finally gave up hope of ever getting the book back. Then something really obvious finally sunk in, that the book was replaceable.  I was clinging so tightly to what I didn’t have, in material terms, the book, in emotional terms, the love model, that I lost sight of what I still had that was truly meaningful.  THE NOTE.  And my love model wasn’t broken, I just needed to see that it had been rewritten.  Grace had given me a new love template, one on how to love yourself.   Not to get all Whitney Houston on your ass (too soon?), but it really is the greatest love of all.  You can’t love anyone else the right way until you know how to treat yourself with respect….it sets the bar for what you deserve, like being surrounded by those who want you to have the best of everything.  

(Dramatic hoodie and romp with Henry Miller sold separately)

“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”  Anais Nin reminds me that you must always remain in motion, even if it means giving up ideas you feel are part of your DNA.  And to do so with grace is to wholeheartedly embrace being alive.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Introvert ALERT!

Another magical thing that happened at the dune shack came in the form of a book that Jill brought with her.  That book was Susan Cain’s Quiet:  The Power of Introverts In A World That Won’t Stop Talking.  I picked it up with idle curiosity, I’ve always known that I’m an extrovert.  I mean, I’m a people person.  I do customer service for a living.  When I took the Myers Briggs test years ago, I was a solid ESFJ.  That’s a fancy clinical acronym for CAREGIVER.  But I was in a dune shack with writer’s block.  I would have read a week old Cleveland Plain Dealer if it had been what was in front of me.  In the beginning of the book, there is a quiz.  I heart quizzes, and although I knew the results, I took it anyway.

20 Questions, followed by my honest answers.

1. I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.  I DO.  Like when people say, “The more the merrier,” I want to shoot them.  More is not more for me.  I thought this was because I’m an asshole.
2. I often prefer to express myself in writing.  Well, I’d say the fact that I’m writing this blog and not out with you right now chatting makes this a BIG FAT YES.
3. I enjoy solitude.  I DO.  My job involves so much noise and people two inches from my face commenting on every bit of minutia that goes on while they wait in line for the bathroom, I really, really enjoy being alone.  I thought this was because I’m an asshole.
4. I seem to care about wealth, fame, and status less than my peers.  I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW BIG OF A YES THIS IS.  I work enough to pay my bills and have a good time, but I own nothing of any material value, which is the way I like it.  I certainly need attention and approval to some degree from the people closest to me, but again, more is not more in this realm.  My dopamine races when people like a particularly flattering shot of my dopey face via social media, as I am human.  But I harbor no delusions of grandeur.
5. I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in-depth about topics that matter to me.  HOLY BALLS IS THIS AN AFFIRMATIVE.  I know that small talk is where big talk begins, not many can just dive into meaningful conversation without the warm up of jabbing about the weather and such.  After twelve years of being in a pressurized tube full of small talk,  I’ve taken to answering questions about the weather with remarks like, “Does it matter?  We’re going anyway.”  Okay, that one's really just me being an asshole.
6. People tell me that I'm a good listener.  I am.  I like to learn, and I do not learn when I’m talking.  Everything that comes out of my mouth, I already know.  I enjoy listening.  See, I’m not a complete asshole.
7. I'm not a big risk-taker.  This one is tricky.  I’m fine with telling very personal things to large crowds of strangers, yet driving my roommate’s car four blocks to the airport causes me to have a panic attack.  I am less nervous about skydiving than I am about holding your newborn baby.  This a mixed bag, so I’ll say PASS on this one.
8. I enjoy work that allows me to "dive in" with few interruptions.  Yep.   When I am on track, God help you if you try to derail me.  Prepare to witness me involuntarily eye rolling.
9. I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.  YES.  Again, more is not more.  
10. People describe me as "soft-spoken" or "mellow."  Hmm.  Maybe?  I was recently described as “reserved and slightly withdrawn”.  Sometimes I’m kind of a bag of hot air, but generally I think this fits.
11. I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it's finished.  DEFINITELY.  I will proofread this stupid blog post 97 times before I post it, then 97 more times after I post it, changing stuff no one will ever notice or care about.
12. I dislike conflict.  Are there people who enjoy conflict?  They are definitely not invited to my birthday party.  YES.
13. I do my best work on my own.  I’d say mostly yes, but I appreciate collaboration.  After I’ve done the work to the best of my ability (see #11), I'm happy to work with others.
14. I tend to think before I speakI try to.  When I don’t, I’m generally sorry.
15. I feel drained after being out and about, even if I've enjoyed myself.  100% YES.  I thought this was because I’m old, and quite possibly an asshole.
16. I often let calls go through to voice-mail.  I’m still surprised there are people who use the phone to CALL people and that people answer.  But yes, even if I love you dearly, even if I’m expecting you to call, I sometimes stare at the phone ringing and think....I. Just. Can’t. Do. It.  I’ll call you back in 5 minutes.  Or 5 hours.  Or tomorrow.  It's not personal.  I just can't deal.
17. If I had to choose, I'd prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.  DEFINITELY.  I get a strange thrill when people cancel plans.  It’s like I get to steal back time.  I chalked this up to being old, with a hint of being an asshole.
18. I don't enjoy multi-tasking.  I’m okay with it if it goes well, but generally it doesn’t.  And just because I can pour a Coke and talk to you about the weather doesn’t mean I love doing it.
19. I can concentrate easily.  Nope.  Squirrel!
20. In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.  Yes.  I’d rather soak in information than be so focused on what I should bring to the table that I stop listening entirely.  
So, in review, out of 20 questions, a vast majority of these I answered with a resounding yes, which indicates being an introvert.  I retook the Myers Briggs test and wound up being an ISFJ this time.  I’ve gained some relief with the notion that being an introvert doesn’t make me a better or worse person than when I thought I was an extrovert, just more self aware.  I’m more understanding of my social limitations now that I get who I am and how I operate.  I'm content to live in a comfortable spot somewhere between caregiver and asshole.  It seems pretty late in the game to get this realization, but I am also new to being really honest about myself.  I’m reminded of Miles Davis’ fine quote, ““Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
Some thoughts on how to get along with yourself and others, regardless of your acronym.  More soon.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Shawshack Redemption

Last month, as previously mentioned in this space, my friend Jill and I went to a dune shack on Cape Cod.  In theory, we went there to write.  The romantic notion behind the dune shack is that you go there to practice your art, with such practice made easier by the fact that you are stripped of distractions, like electricity, the internet, and phone service.  You trade in all your technological mod cons for the bare basics:  pumping water, making fires, wandering the shore watching for whales.  This simple existence motivated the likes of Norman Mailer, Eugene O’Neill, and Jackson Pollack.  Armed with a box of Palomino Blackwing pencils and two blank composition books, I was pretty stoked to get busy.  I’d had no time to write at home, so with a completely blank schedule and the spirit of goddamned Eugene O’Neill, I was sure to be unstoppable.

Who was I fucking kidding?

Full disclosure of factoids that were out to get me: 

 1) I’ve had plenty of time to write, honestly, I just hadn’t been doing it.  Mostly because when I do write, it’s 96% garbage.  If I added up all the time I wasted on Facebook and devoted it to writing pure crap with a 4% rate of return, I probably still would have enough decent material to put together a book.  I just haven’t done the work.  I have no deadlines, therefore I have no discipline.

2) The dune shack was a forty minute walk from Provincetown, which is like dying and going to Ultra Cute Ice Cream and Pizza For Every Meal Vacation Wonderland By The Sea Super Gay Heaven.  And I heart sweet, creamy, delicious, beautiful gay distractions.

3) My concentration, of late, has been completely fucked.  I’ve given up on trying to read anything longer than a magazine article as it’s an exercise in futility.  I have a handful of stalled projects that consist of notes on my phone or two shitty sentences.  The last few things I’ve had to present to the world were written long ago, and the work I’ve done editing them comes with a heaping side of This Used To Be Effortless For You, Now It’s a Sisaphusian Boulder Hell Bent On Flattening Your Ass.

We spent a day or so getting accustomed to shack life, doing chores, trying to make things hospitable.  Surely the muse would appear after communing with seals, a night of drunkenly reading Salinger aloud by the fire,

after a stroll on Eugene O’Neill Way?  No?  Okay, fuck it, we’re going with the Anne Lamott theory that one is not blocked, one is empty.  Time to go fill up on something to write about.  We’d already had an amazing first day on the Cape, when we met Maggie, a friend of a friend. It was like we’d known her all our lives after an hour.  She took us to watch surfers on Coast Guard beach and to get groceries; she was our partner in crime for a night of fried seafood, cocktails, and clove cigarettes in the center of town.  It was like being in high school again, without all that pesky teenage angst.

Over the next few broody dune shack days, I wrote one story that was clogging up my head about a messy relationship I was once in.  Fifteen pages of pure crap, but I was sure it was what was standing between me and writing up a storm.  Hmmm.  Nope.  

Divine intervention hit once again with the introduction of Katie and Shannon, who were mentioned here before.  Katie and Shannon wandering by our shack on Thursday morning just seemed like a random act of pure awesome.  The four of us immediately struck conversation gold, having a wonderful afternoon on our deck playing games.  Then the ladies invited us to join them in Provincetown for their last vacation night, and off we went. 

There were mojitos and shots of Bulliet Rye with adorable gay bartenders,

 and Italian food and restaurant owners named Muffin and crashing of lesbian bachelorette parties and cold beer in wedding coozies and lovely ladies hanging upside down from the ceiling,

and waking up hungover in a beautiful bed and breakfast with new friends who offered us a shower after we hadn’t had one in five days, which we declined (still trying wrap my head around that decision).  Jill and I walked back to the shack through the dunes, and although I was dehydrated and unwashed and tired and still waiting for the muse, I had to admit it was more fun than a person should be allowed to have by law.

With the time on the cape coming to a close, I made peace with the writer’s block.  If I wasn't going WRITE a book, I would at least READ one.  Reading is fundamental, right?

I brought This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.  It’s a collection of short stories, so it wasn’t so daunting to test my concentration skills out on it.  It’s the third book featuring the same protagonist, Yunior, so there was an element of coming into something already in progress as I began the book.  It’s also misogynist in tone, rife with Spanish, which I found maddening as I was left to guess the definitions based on the context, and deeply set in a world I couldn't relate to.   That said, I absolutely loved the book with every piece of my being.  So raw, so honest, so heartfelt, so lovely.  There were many mentions of his struggles with writing that I swore were placed there just to make me feel better.  I finished the book, feeling so satisfied with the notion that even though I hadn’t done what I thought I might do, I did what felt right.  Like sitting around eating trail mix in my underwear.  

And then we got stuck all night in the Boston airport with a box of Boston creme donuts after not showering for a week, which was a hilariously discordant coda.  But that’s another story.

Upon arriving home, I felt a subtle shift in attitude.  I started having ideas of things to write about.  I started writing this blog again.  I rewrote an old story and did it at an open mic.  Getting back into writing was much like pumping water from the dune shack well, you had to pour water into it to get the flow started.  I guess I just needed to focus less on immediate water output and more on priming the pump.  
(Water pumping deftly modeled by the glorious Jill Howe, who took many of these photos)

I’ll leave you with a delightful poem that will stick with me from the trip, printed on our lovely lady bachelorette friends' wedding coozies.  

Here’s to the girl who wears the red shoes
She smokes all my cigarettes and drinks all my booze
She ain't no cherry, but that ain't no sin
'Cuz she still has the box that the cherry came in


I started writing for an online magazine called Nvate recently, and I have a bunch of plans over the summer that mostly involve hanging out with kids and trying to teach them stuff.  No doubt it will be interesting.  More soon.