We made it. Good job, house.

It’s approaching six years since we bought our Massachusetts fixer upper. The renovations, repairs, fantasy addition, and landscape design we’d imagined a la HGTV never happened. Hell, I’m still working on painting the kitchen cabinet doors I took off right before we moved in and by “working” I mean I’ve finished painting and put up exactly two. But even though we’ve yet to tackle our old wish list – let alone the growing list of important but unsexy things that have rapidly deteriorated since 2015 like, say, structural supports – I’m ready to celebrate what’s become an annual right of passage now that we’ve made it to March: our house made it through another New England winter. “But shouldn’t you focus on more important things?” you might ask while looking in the rearview mirror at 2020 slowly receding, 2021 still in a blindspot.

Yes, we’re in the midst of a pandemic and have barely left the house for exactly one year. Yes, my spouse is working two jobs from our dining room table. Yes, one child is remote learning via Zoom for five plus hours each day. Yes, my high schooler is in the middle of distance learning high school from her (shared) room. Yes, our tiny dog has developed an expensive and pathological hatred of all delivery trucks (reserving a special loathing for Amazon Prime like the very good dog she is), tearing at the blinds, gnawing at the window sills, and shredding the couch. Yes, I’m managing a level of personal anxiety higher than I’d ever thought possible while also being peri-menopausal so believe me when I say that I’m feeling A LOT ALL THE TIME.

“But shouldn’t you focus on more important things?” you might ask while looking in the review mirror at 2020…

And yes, because of all this, the past year has been unlike any that many of us have ever experienced in terms of loss of life, normalcy, security, democracy, civility, health, education, social interactions, and mental health. It’s been weird AND we’ve personally been lucky. Considering all of this, acknowledging the continued existence of our tiny tent-like* house has taken on new meaning. Because, while it is metaphorically killing us financially and is much more of a liability than an asset, it is our one and only home and a symbol of what we’ve been able to accomplish by following our own decidedly non-traditional path. Most importantly, it did not crumble around us when we needed it the most, and if you are a structural engineer you would understand our relief.

There are new cracks. There are new gaps. The dips in the floor are a little dippier. One window may be a bit lower than it was last year. The siding is squishier than wood should be. The exterior is molting and paint chunks are blowing around the yard like tumbleweeds. The stairs may be moaning. Clearly there’s a lot wrong. But now that I can see spring up ahead, I’m choosing to focus on the positive. We started 2020 with 1,485 square feet and by gum we enter 2021 with about the same.

AT NEARLY 1,500 SQ. FT. THIS CHARMING FARMHOUSE OFFERS 2 BEDROOMS AND BATHROOMS AND FEATURES A DETACHED 2.5 STORY GARAGE/BARN, PRIVATE WELL AND SEPTIC, AND SITS ON 2 ACRES ABUTTING CONSERVATION LAND AND NATURAL HABITATS THAT HOST A PLETHORA OF SPECIES THAT WILL DELIGHT AND AMUSE both inside and out.

Our little house in the forest has been our life raft these past 12 months and has felt just about as fragile: she leaks in the rain, rattles and shakes in the wind, and is always in danger of collapse. But in a plague year full of suffering, loss, fear, and loneliness, never have we needed this house more. And while she’s never aged faster, we’re all still here. Thank you, tiny. We’ll try to make it up to you if you promise to keep the snakes out, especially now that they’ve come to accept snow which seems like a troubling adaptation.


*This description is mine alone as a person who historically vacations in a tent, albeit one found in a drive up campground with electrical outlets, bathrooms and showers, laundry facilities, and other civilized conveniences.

Tom Nook, PsyD

If not for a pandemic, I don’t know if the March 20 release of Animal Crossing New Horizons would have been such an important event for our family. But it was. At least for me: the 50 year old who had never played the game before.

I’m reminded of this every morning I wake up and move to the couch to log in and take my avatar for the first stroll around her Tom Nook-created tropical oasis: crossing over bridges to admire newly blossomed tulips, picking peaches, oranges, and coconuts from trees, collecting giant clams and sand dollars on pristine beaches, netting butterflies, dragonflies, and lady bugs, comfortably socializing with fellow residents or random visitors, digging up fossils for the local museum, and making mental lists of needed infrastructure and landscape improvements.

As with all Animal Crossing dwellings, the structures are bigger on the inside like a Tardis.

And I’m remind of this every night as “Mamamoo” takes her final tour of the island of “Tootsie,” now lit by softly glowing lanterns and moonlight. Aside from the occasional tarantula attack, sitting on a beach-facing bench and gazing up at the stars while listening to the wind and the crashing waves – the beacon of a distant lighthouse peeking into view – proves to be more satisfying than any nightcap or sleeping aid in calming the ever present COVID-19 edge.

Unlike the dwellings, these models are bigger when viewed from a distance.

It’s worth mentioning – for those who don’t know about the game – that you get paid for everything you do whether it’s planting flowers, fishing, catching bugs, or harvesting lumber and fruit. This labor earns you money in the form of “bells” that can be used for your mortgage or infrastructure upgrades, or can be spent in the local shops on a rotating menu of eclectic fashion, housewares and home furnishings, gardening supplies, tools, medicine, and curiosities.

The point of the entire game – at least for me – is very simple: to create an ideal simulation for whatever “ideal” means to you and enjoy the fruits of your labor. The biggest draw right now? Aside from random tarantula attacks after dark and occasional wasp swarms, there is no danger in Animal Crossing. No harm can come to you. Even these venomous attacks – at their worst – simply return you to your doorstep to continue where you left off. You can even make the medicine yourself that brings down the swelling in your face.

Mamamoo hanging out in the house from my daughter’s account.

My kids are amused by my new obsession. Sure, they laughed when I first made my own account for the game. That is, until I started leaving them gifts and paying for the bridges and other accoutrements they’ve grown accustomed to. It turns out they also like to hear island “gossip” about what I’ve been up to in my role of Mamamoo: eccentric tropical socialite with a penchant for gardening, military-inspired outfits, and wigs.

Wig!

With my anxiety spinning out of control and the unexpected arrival of frequent panic attacks, finding something to calm my racing brain is priceless. And it turns out that creating a virtual life on a remote island with endless amounts of resources, friends, beautiful scenery, and without any real danger seems to be just what I need for self-care in this moment. If I could only overcome my arachnophobia, the game would be perfect. Those spiders are worth a fortune on the open market.

Finally paid off the bridge!

K-dramas or bust

My 11 and 14 year old daughters turned me on to Korean dramas back in early January; it was inevitable I suppose given their love of Korean music. Since then – as we navigate this “new normal” we all live in – our family has turned to them for nightly escape, either watching shows on Netflix or Viki (free account).

While the series we’ve watched include comedy, action, mystery, drama, sci-fi, and fantasy, the overarching theme is romance. We swoon nightly and it has helped a lot.

When we’re finally able to resume some semblance of our former lives, figuring out a way to get us to Seoul is item number one on my bucket list. If I’ve learned nothing else since the beginning of 2020, control over our own lives is but an illusion and the best laid plans shouldn’t be too far off.

Abyss

Having possession of an alien artifact will bring you back to life, but in a different body. You will then fall in love.

Legend of the Blue Sea

Do you like action? Romance? History? Mermaids? Comedy? Men’s outerwear? If so, this swoon-worthy fantasy rom/com will check all the boxes. My 14 year old is now a big fan of Lee Minho. Me too.

The Heirs (in US, The Inheritors)

Another Lee Minho indulgence featuring a high school romance across classes.

My Holo Love

A woman’s romance with an AI in the form of a personal hologram. Really.

Strong Woman Do Bong Song

Incredibly silly and weird. But also featuring a psychotic serial killer?

Crash Landing on You

Who knew the N Korea/S Korea conflict could be a vehicle for escapism and romance?

Memories of the Alhambra

A tech CEO discovers he can’t escape an augmented reality game. This series also stars Hyun Bin (from Crash Landing on You).

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo

A delightful series about a female weightlifter who struggles with her love of sport and her desire to be seen as a woman (and what that means).

Itaewon Class

An ex con who tries to make a go of his new pub in a trendy district of Seoul. This is my all time favorite, and was originally a webtoon.

Happy viewing!

Homeschooling: your mileage may vary

This essay was published in the local newspaper on April 1.

Nearly four years ago, I removed my kids from public school and, with the help of an experienced and local homeschooling friend, created an education plan for the following academic year. That summer was spent acquiring textbooks, magazine subscriptions, elementary and middle school math and science curriculum, laboratory equipment, and art and school supplies. I created lesson plans, multidisciplinary projects, a daily schedule and elaborate spreadsheets for tracking assignments, progress and the required days and hours needed in the “classroom” and across subjects. I was ready to homeschool.

The first day of school arrived and we sat down at the kitchen table, excited to see what this new reality would look like. Would it be similar to my friend’s experience? Would it follow the process outlined in any number of homeschooling books? Would it be similar to the kids’ experience in public school? Within an hour it became clear it would be none of those things. Noticing my frustration, my then fourth grader reached across the kitchen table to pat my hand. “You’re doing a great job, mama,” she reassured me. Hours passed and I realized I was sinking. The seventh grader took this opportunity to throw me an anchor. “I’m worried I’m not getting anything out of this,” she said over the din of her sister’s pencil and foot tapping. I excused myself and went upstairs to cry—a habit I’d mostly broken until recent events. Despite planning and best intentions, there was a key ingredient I was still lacking: actual teaching experience.

On the best of days, homeschooling can be exhausting at Fiske Street Preparatory. Even with what I have learned, I’m still battling with my own kids who may not be interested in what we’re doing and are quick to let me know because I’m their mother. Maybe they’re not always able to be independent and I’m now trying to manage two different learners at two very different stages of learning: middle school and high school. Perhaps I’m the one struggling with a concept that I now need to explain to them and in multiple ways. Maybe the dog is barking too much or my spouse decides to work from home in our less than 1,500 square foot house. Maybe I am sick or just having an off day and need a break from being both parent and teacher. Or just maybe we’re in the early stages of a pandemic and under a stay at home advisory and all of the above is happening while I’m also trying to manage the one thing I was not lacking when I began homeschooling: anxiety.

To those local parents and guardians of school-aged children who now suddenly find themselves trying to school from home (while also working there) and are struggling with this new reality? Give yourselves a much-needed break. I will remind you that you did not choose this. Some of you in fact may remember calling me a “saint” when learning that I did choose this, while others confessed, “I could never do that.” A remark often followed by a deep exhale and slight shudder. With teachers from both the Carlisle Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle Regional High School continuing to work remotely to provide your kids with educational opportunities, you should not feel compelled to scour the Internet for homeschooling resources. Let the teachers continue to do the heavy lifting as they follow their curriculum and lesson plans, and just try to support your kids as best you can and in whatever way you can while we all try to maintain some sense of normalcy in a time that feels anything but. 

The biggest mistake I made early on as a homeschooler was trying to mirror public school in our house and thinking it would work. It was all we knew at the time – days split into a series of individual class blocks with set start and stop times, recess and lunch. With a student teacher ratio of 2:1 in our case, learning happens at a very different speed at home. We have the luxury of time when it comes to more complicated subjects or concepts because we are working at our own pace, but can also move quickly through those less challenging. Discovering they could take as much time as needed to really understand something without the pressure of moving on to a new concept because of someone else’s expectation or schedule was game changing for my kids. Discovering who my kids are as individual learners and adapting to that has been my game changer. For the child who likes art, for example, I add art-based components for nearly every subject. For the child who likes music and filming, I ask her to write a song or film a scene based on a historical event or literary scene. 

Adding humor, especially now, has also helped. Three years ago, my kids spent months reading and watching documentaries about the Salem Witch Trials, but it was not until I had them reenact and film a scene from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible that they got excited about it, creating and building historically accurate sets, costumes and accessories while using Littlest Pet Shop figures for the characters. As math word problems increasingly became an issue, we took to creating absurd ones of our own, now known as “Mommy Math.” When writing became a chore, we switched it up a little and began summarizing everything from novels to historical events using six-word stories, with the history of Jamestown forever encapsulated as “Starving. Oh no, not the shoes.” They’ve written ridiculous short stories based on nothing but snippets from out of context conversations they overheard back in the days we went to restaurants. A child who compulsively doodles has treated us with absurd, but scientifically accurate drawings based on our Biology readings. They make silly health-related cartoons and historical and literary memes. I am teaching and they are learning in ways that work for our family.

And yet, I will admit to doing less school now than ever before. We no longer have access to the activities that were a core part of our homeschooling life: art classes, music lessons, sports-related activities, and countless field trips and opportunities to socialize with others in the same physical space. The kids sleep later and finish school before lunch. Learning new concepts seems an impossible feat most days considering all that is happening in the world. Too much has changed. 

I’m taking a bit of a casual approach for the remaining school year, one that I hope will be best for our collective well-being: letting the kids read what they want, while trying to sneak in a required novel here and there. They will continue with a website they started a year ago where they regularly post book, movie, and event reviews because they like doing it and are obsessed with Google Analytics. We are doing a lot more trail walking these days and photographing nature, sometimes using the iNaturalist mobile phone application to identify species. We are reviewing what we have learned in history regarding things like the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and relating them to current events. And we are trying to keep a journal of what is happening as a primary source historical document for our family. 

Otherwise, we are spending our time self-isolating and reassuring our children that we are doing what we can to keep people safe, snuggling on the couch watching movies or deforesting islands in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing as we create our own private oasis, connecting with friends and family online and trying not to control what we cannot. 

Trying something new

Because my spouse and I don’t really go in for Valentine’s Day (except for that one time when he – very out of character – proposed while I was suffering from a horrible steak-induced stomach ache), this year I decided to gift myself something that I’d wanted for a while. So, after weighing the pros and cons of my decision, researching the best place to make the purchase, and setting up and funding the account, I bought it.

At age 50, I finally owned my very first stock.

For one reason or another (mostly a perceived lack of disposable income), I’d never been interested in the stock market. Buying and selling seemed mysterious, intimidating, and confusing. It also seemed dumb. Foolish in the way that gambling is foolish, but with a less seedy reputation – in some circles anyway.

Because I consume a lot of news, I’ve obviously been aware of market trends. And I know that there’s been a lot of cheerleading about the strength of it in part because I’m the person who whispers that the stock market is not the same as the economy and that not every one owns stock. Me, for example.

But then it occurred to me that I’ve spent money on lots of stupid things over my lifetime. Pointless things I can hold in my hand and pointless things that only exist virtually. And if I’ve had money to do that, perhaps I could use money to do this. And so I did.

I’m here to report it actually is as confusing, intimidating, and mysterious as I thought. What I did not anticipate, however, is the addictive nature of it. So much so that I probably shouldn’t ever travel to Las Vegas.

On day one, I owned three shares in one company, discovering I now had something called “position.” This term emboldened me – after obsessively watching the ticker on my phone – to add another share later that day. And then another.

I can compare the feeling of buying stock to the two times I’ve tried dollar slot machines. While I knew I would probably lose it all, it was thrilling while it lasted and the cost of playing felt negligible. When the market finally closed that Friday and I discovered I was only down 10 cents? I felt like a god damn superhero. Better than that, I felt like a real grown up.

My obsession with tech companies suddenly seemed useful.

Donut Wheel, Cupertino, CA near the former headquarters of Apple circa 2008. My obsession with technology is unhealthy in all the ways.

I assumed I was done for the month and would make another small purchase in March, determined to only buy what I liked and used. But then I found myself spending the long weekend reading analyst reports, fine tuning my watch lists, googling terms like “market cap” and “volatility,” and boring my family with a lot of, “Did you know that…?”

They humored me. Mostly.

“How is this different than gambling?” asked my teenager.

“It’s not. But maybe if I make informed choices I won’t lose it all?”

“It’s totally gambling,” tsked my younger daughter.

Yesterday morning when the markets opened, I discovered she wasn’t wrong. By 9:32 I had already bought two more shares of Friday’s company, for a total of seven. At 10:30 I’d buy a single share of second company whose price dwarfed all the other shares combined.

“I think I might have a problem,” I told my husband.

But then I went back to read about volatility. Checked the charts, news, and ratings and felt better about it. I wasn’t taking big risks after all. They were pretty solid tech choices without a lot of drama. By the close of yesterday I was ahead by a medium coffee. Today? Make that three medium lattes.

I’ll probably never have the money or the stomach to invest large amounts and inherit real risk. And I’m limited to stocks that are lower in price per share so I won’t have the volume to see dramatic gains, But I’m enjoying my new hobby and fairly confident I’ll at least break even when all is said and done.

I’m sure I’ll be able to stop at any time.

I still don’t miss you, Facebook

Historically, I work better in small groups. Because I’m not a very social person, I think I was always a little ambivalent about Facebook as a useful service. For many years after opening my account in 2008, I limited it to people I actually had a personal relationship with: family, close friends, close acquaintances, etc.

But then, as designed, it started to creep: friends from the past, acquaintances from the past, and friends of friends from the past. I would add them all, temporarily forgetting why they were no longer part of my life, but rationalizing that I had at some point had a relationship with them. So why not again?

And because I haven’t realized my dream of life as an ornamental hermit, I began adding the new people in my world or just on the periphery of it after moving back to MA. People who I wouldn’t have classified as friends per se, but had enough regular contact with that to reject would have made me feel really awkward.

Upon entering this new phase, something strange began to happen. The posts that used to be for a small group of people close to me, people who already knew me, began to take on a performative tone. I thought too much about what someone might think about what I wrote: Would they still like me? Am I sharing too much too soon? Are they going to make some kind of negative comment?

My Little Pony themed cake decoration, circa 2009. Did I post this? No. But I should have because it’s amazing.

And as I experienced this new self-consciousness around posting to the platform, I also became increasingly aware of how I felt using it, grazing on the personal lives of people, some of which I hardly knew. Actual lives, now reduced to content I scrolled through or blithely “liked.”

Facebook was never about the numbers for me and even at its highest point I don’t recall my account ever having more than 200 or so “friends.” Maybe that’s why as the account began to make me feel uncomfortable, I came upon a temporary and painless solution.

Several times each year, I would cull the list, removing people I hadn’t heard from or had much contact with. Friends and relatives whose political leanings went beyond a simple disagreement and who’d barged into my comments to “educate” me were also removed, beginning with the “Do not try to kill my meeting Madeleine Albright buzz” blitz of 2012.

“Unfriending” was liberating. Watching the number get smaller made me relax and think less about my postings. I returned to being myself, knowing that for the most part, the people still on my list already knew what they were in for. And for the small group of relatively “new” people? Well, they’d figure out who I was sooner or later. No sense in softening the blow.

“A compromised Buddha’s hand,” circa 2012. Did I post this? Absolutely.

For awhile, having a smaller and more personal account was satisfying. But then I started to become more aware of the stickiness of the site itself and how much time I was spending on it. I’m not naive. I always knew I was the product on a service that’s free. It’s just that as the post mortem of the 2016 Presidential Election unfolded, and Facebook’s role in it became clearer, I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it.

It would still take another few years to fully wean myself from the site. I knew that most of the online relationships I had with family and friends would disappear when I stopped using Facebook and that’s probably what gave me the most pause.

I’d go on to deactivate my account several times before inevitable reviving it, excitedly scrolling through all that I’d missed and revisiting my own postings like opening a digital time capsule of my life.

What made me finally want to leave for good? It was the day I decided I’d had enough, chose the delete option instead of deactivate, and discovered that it’s not instantaneous. Instead, I was notified there was a cooling off period before they’d actually delete your account. As if the product is so invaluable they have to protect their users from themselves with a time out. This only made me mash the delete option harder.

How did I keep my resolve after 10 years of regular use and make it through those two weeks?

Well, it turns out Facebook made that really easy too. They referenced the loss of my memories if I deleted my account in several messages during that period. As though my life only existed online, curated by a bunch of nameless engineers in Silicon Valley trying to earn a buck and profited off of by a nitwit on a power trip.

After reading those I knew I’d never go back.

The author in Denmark, 2000. Turns out I have memories pre-Facebook.

It’s been nearly two years since I deleted the account and I’ve never missed it. I will confess that Instagram was a bit harder to get rid of because I really like photography, but once Facebook rebranded it to remind everyone they owned it, I deleted that account as well. WhatsApp went at the same time.

I’ll be honest, maintaining relationships in the real world is much harder than on Facebook. I’ve lost contact with most of my extended family and far flung friends, just like I had before Facebook. Births and deaths happen and I remain unaware, just like I had before Facebook. People move and get new jobs and I know nothing about it, just like I hadn’t before Facebook. For some people this is too much to lose. For me? It’s the way life used to be.

I will thank Facebook for one thing. It’s made me rethink the power dynamic inherent in social networking businesses. Because if it’s that hard to leave, it’s not a place you should be.

I’m still very much online, just not a user of any Facebook services. I’ve decided to reclaim the value of my content by making it mine again. I also rediscovered Twitter about the time I left Facebook, which I find has just the right amount of private-public interactions.

It turns out, if I’m going to post something online, I prefer the company of strangers when it comes to potential negative comments or feedback. If I think of Facebook as a sandbox jam packed with people you kind of know, Twitter by comparison is a public beach where everyone’s shouting into a CB radio at the same time.

At that scale, it’s no longer personal.

Kids, do you know what “triage” means?

It’s never a good sign when you realize that you’re more than halfway through the school year, but you’ve somehow gone off the rails. And you did so awhile back without noticing. Today is February 10, we only have about four months of school left, and I’m finally accepting that we are very behind. As in, “we may be doing school over the summer” behind.

There’s a lot of things to like about homeschooling: making your own hours, curriculum, lesson plans, assignments, projects, areas of study, etc. But there’s also a lot that I wasn’t prepared for when I dove in three years ago: being responsible for putting in the hours, making your own curriculum, lesson plans, assignments, projects and areas of study.

Or the occasions you’re sick and realize there’s no sub coming in to teach.

Or the heat breaks and you need a plumber for several hours, banging away in the basement beneath the kitchen table where you work, the dog barking incessentaly.

Or you have appointments you can only make during school hours.

Or your spouse decides to work from home. And you live in about 1,500 square feet.

Worse yet, is being tired with tired kids in a cozy house on a gray and cold winter day with a comfortable space heater facing couch covered with blankets and a tiny dog. And then you have a series of these days, which are so good and full of time spent together snuggling, laughing, and loving instead of algebra-induced screams or tears.

It’s been a rough winter. We’re facing the fact that our tiny house needs significant repairs that we’re not quite financially prepared to deal with. Our 9 year old Golden died a little over a month ago and we’re still seeing her everywhere in the house like a spirit. And I’m facing some unexpected health problems that some days leave me feeling pretty down.

So I guess I didn’t appreciate that the school-life balance is very hard to keep balanced when school and life happen in the same four walls. Because when things are good, things are very very good. But when things aren’t good? The walls start to close in.

Tomorrow’s another day though. There is that.

Tip your professor

I had a mentor before I even understood what a mentor was. I had a mentor before I even realized I was being mentored. What I did know was there was someone who saw something in me I could no longer see, if I ever had. She dreamed bigger dreams for me than I dreamed for myself. And her unwavering confidence in identifying me as a person with promise eventually made me a believer too.

I was 26 years old when I decided to go back to school. In truth I had decided a few other times over the years. The first time I made it through the registration process before quitting. The second time I made it through the first half of a semester before quitting. In both cases it was for a single class.

This time it would be different I promised myself. I had just returned from a month in Europe and Scandinavia where I’d met up with my best friend so we could travel. She was a Danish student I’d met during her gap year when we were both nannies in Boston. My employers gave me the time off and with $1,000 of borrowed funds and a Eurail pass, she and I met in Copenhagen before heading off to camp in Germany, Spain, and France where I’d discover just how ignorant I was.

“I’m going to go back to school when I get home,” I’d told her. “There’s too much I don’t know.”

And I actually did.

This time I signed up for four classes which met during a confusing combination of days and evenings so that I could continue to work full time and pay my rent. Pell grants, federal loans, and familial gifts paid for tuition and books.

We officially met the second week of classes during Introduction to Sociology. I was sitting in the front row as I typically did, but this time reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison when class began. She looked at me a lot during her lecture and then motioned for me to stay when class concluded.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Uh… what do you mean?” I answered.

“What are you doing here?” she repeated.

“Um… taking classes?”

“Why?” she asked.

“To learn?”

“What’s your plan?” she asked.

“I don’t know. To get enough credits to transfer to a four year school?”

She nodded. “I see something in your eyes. Something different.”

“Okay…” I said.

“I’d like to help you,” she offered. And for some reason I accepted on the spot.

While my brother had little patience for tradition, he did follow a traditional path to higher education. Here, I model the fruit of his labor.

I quit high school when I was a 16 year old sophomore. I had actually stopped going to school the year before when I was a 15 year old sophomore, but through a connection of my father, the clock was reset and I got a do-over in another district that September (one in which we did not live). I lasted two weeks. It would take my parents until October to catch on.

They were not pleased.

It was assumed that my life was essentially over before it had even really begun and nobody believed this more than I did.

That I was in the middle of a major depressive period when I pulled the plug should come as no surprise. Self-sabotage had become my hobby when I failed at suicide and realized I had no immediate plans to try it again, but still needed the suffering.

I don’t remember how I got through the GED process, but I did it almost immediately. Clearly there had still been a spark of hopefulness in there somewhere, but the years of retail, restaurant, and other jobs that followed would eventually smother it. I was just living.

Until I saw more. And wanted more.

I called my dad to tell him I’d signed up for classes.

“You’ve done that before,” he said.

With my professor’s help I made it through a full semester.

I called my dad to tell him I had finished a semester.

With my professor’s help I made it through another semester.

I called my dad to tell him I’d finished another semester and was thinking of finishing college.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

With my professor’s help I finished another semester and was admitted to the honor society. And then I finished another semester. She suggested I look into women’s colleges because they had programs for older students and wrote me letters of recommendation.

I called my dad to tell him I was applying to Smith and Wellesley.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

And so I applied to Smith and Wellesley. And got in.

I called my dad to tell him.

My professor suggested I look at Harvard.

I called my dad to tell him I was applying to Harvard.

I called my brother to tell him I was applying to Harvard because he’d always wanted to go to Harvard.

“So you’ve been secretly smart all these years?” he asked. “If you get in after all the shit you’ve pulled I’m going to kill myself.”

And so I applied to Harvard. And got a really nice letter back explaining that while they believed students weren’t defined by where they went to college and could achieve great things anywhere, I wouldn’t be doing it there.

“Eh. It was worth a shot,” said my mentor. “Their loss.”

“You didn’t have a chance in hell,” said my brother.

I started Wellesley in 1998 at age 28, fully convinced there had been an error that would be discovered at some point. Weeks went by with me convinced I didn’t belong.

My dad arrived bright and early that first parent’s weekend so he could eat breakfast in the dorm before heading over to the campus bookstore to get get a sticker for his car and a sweatshirt for me.

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

“Me neither,” I answered.

Shortly after turning in my first sociology paper on deviance, which focused on Leopold and Loeb, my professor pulled me aside.

“That was really interesting,” she said. “And well written. Tell me about yourself.”

This time I recognized what was happening. My next mentor – and second Sociology professor – would help and encourage me throughout my two years at Wellesley and write me letters of recommendation as graduation approached and I applied to PhD programs at Berkeley, Stanford, and UC Davis. None of their rejection letters approaching the level of Harvard’s.

“Their loss,” she said.

I was 30 when I graduated from college in 2001. The first and only time I’ve graduated from any thing. Attending the ceremony were my parents and my community college mentor.

“I knew you could do it,” she said. “Congratulations.”

It’s been nearly 20 years since that day and we haven’t seen each other since. But last week, after she’d gone through some correspondence and come across an email I sent several years ago thanking her for all she’d done for me while I’d been her student, she sent me an email.

“Is your brain still buzzing?” she wrote. “I hope so and is social justice still a theme?”

I wrote her back and told her about my life and my constantly buzzing brain.

Yesterday she finally replied,

“My experience teaching Community College Students was the most fulling of my several jobs in my career. There is such a wealth of backgrounds and talent in the CC student pool. It is wonderful to know that I was able to have a positive impact on some of my students. 

Your buzzing brain is wonderful – keep at it.”

One burger, carnivorous style (Writing Prompt 1)

Writing Prompt 1:

On a recent trip back from NYC, my 11 year old overheard the following while waiting in line at McDonald’s. “I’ll never look at a burger the same way again since what happened to Peter.” We decided to turn it into a 30 minute writing prompt. Below, is one of my very rare attempt’s at fiction.


It was late and raining hard when Margaret finally cleared traffic and headed into the store for dinner ingredients. After a long day all she had wanted to do was to go home and crawl into bed, but text messages from her hungry kids – and an absence of take out options – found her instead wandering the aisles of the first market she’d found courtesy of a new Waze shortcut.

As she began to realize that nothing was inspiring her, Margaret heard someone’s throat clear.

“Can I help you?” asked the old woman who suddenly appeared from behind a rack of hamburger buns.

“Oh! I didn’t see you there,” said Margaret. “I’m trying to think of something for my kids for dinner and nothing’s coming to mind.”

“I wondered if that was it,” said the women, now smiling and moving from behind the rack to stand closer. “If I could suggest something?”

“Anything,” said Margaret.

“Follow me,” said the old woman, moving surprisingly fast toward the back of the store.

“We’re having a special on ground beef,” she said, motioning toward a brightly lit meat case. “Kids love burgers. At least my greedy boys did.”

“That’s a great idea,” said Margaret. “I’ll take a pound.”

The old woman slid behind the back of the case, placed her hands into clear disposable gloves, and reached inside to grab a pile of meat. She carefully placed it on a scale and then wrapped it in crisp white paper.

“Here you go,” she said. “If you need buns I can show you where they are.”

Margaret placed the meat in her basket and followed her back to where they first met.

After paying and thanking the woman for her help, Margaret ran back out to her car, careful to avoid the large puddles now forming in the dark lot. Once again, Waze found her a shortcut back to home where Margaret began cooking, the sounds of her children fighting and the sizzling meat providing background noise.

“Dinner!” she yelled up the stairs before bringing the food to the table. Peter and Lori pounded down the stairs and sprinted into the kitchen, jostling to be first.

“Burgers!” yelled Peter, greedily grabbing two for his plate.

“Hey!” yelled Lori. “I wanted that one,” she said, pointing at the bigger of the two burgers now on Peter’s plate.

“Got it first,” sneered Peter, looking down at his plate and then back up at his sister who had stopped yelling, her jaw hanging open, eyes still focused on his plate.

“Huh?” said Peter, looking from his sister back to his plate. One of the burgers really was bigger than the other now that he looked at it. And as he continued to look, Peter became aware it was becoming even bigger.

“Mom…” he said in a shaky voice he barely recognized. “What’s happening?”

Margaret, rubbing her eyes with her still greasy hands, slowly looked up at her son before following his worried gaze down toward his plate where something was indeed happening.

The burger, once regular size, was now pulsing as it expanded, tumbling off the sides of Peter’s plate where it pushed against his glass of milk and knocked it over.

“Mom? What’s happening!” screamed Lori, as the burger suddenly launched itself off of the plate entirely, hitting Peter with enough force to splatter grease and sesame seeds across the kitchen wall behind him.

Still in his chair, her brother fell back from the table, clawing at the burger inexplicably latched on to his face. His feet kicked against the chair as he wriggled, his fingers tearing at the bun.

Margaret jumped out of her chair and pushed Lori away from the table. “Run!” she yelled before throwing herself onto the floor next to her son, joining him as they tore away bun in an effort reach the meat.

Peter didn’t make a sound. He couldn’t. While his feet still kicked at the floor and he continued to tear at the bun, his efforts had slowed considerably to the point of appearing in slow motion. The meat had begun to fill his mouth, stifling both his screams and breath.

“What’s happening?!” screamed Lori from the other room.

“Call 9-1-1,” yelled Margaret as she continued to battle with the burger, her hands struggling to grip the meat through the grease. She heard Lori run into the living room for the phone and the buttons being pushed on the cordless.

“Help! We need help!” yelled Lori into the receiver. “We need someone at 43 Cedar Brook. My brother’s being attacked by… by… by… I don’t know by what exactly. Carnivorous meat! Just send help!”

Years later, Margaret would struggle to explain what had happened that night – to friends, family, the community, and even to herself. What she did know is that it hadn’t been a dream. Peter had been attacked. She had tried to save him. The burger, seeming to sense that help was on the way, had ended the attack after Lori’s call, launching itself out of the kitchen window, shattering dishes and glass as it went.

With nothing but grease, sesame seeds, bread crumbs, and shattered glass left behind, the police had initially accused the family of making a false police report, accusing them of staging the scene for fame. They were eventually forced from their home because of the constant and unwanted media attention.

Peter? He’d had never recovered, but because of her company’s excellent health insurance, Margaret had found him a place in a highly recommended institution where hopefully he’d get the lifelong care he now required.

As they started over just the two of them, Margaret thought it time to reclaim some normalcy with a dinner out. She decided on a new restaurant that Waze had suggested during one of its mysterious shortcuts, the labyrinth of meandering side streets she never seemed to be able to recreate on her own.

“What do you feel like?” she asked, now seated and looking over the menu.

Lori’s eyes followed the menu down from appetizers and salads to the entrée selection. As she began to realize that nothing was inspiring her, she heard someone’s throat clear.

“Can I help you?” asked the old woman who suddenly appeared from behind a stack of menus.

Lori jumped and then caught herself. It was just a waitress. “Sorry,” she said self-consciously. “I’m having a hard time deciding.”

“I wondered if that was it,” said the woman now smiling and setting the menus down at the next table before stepping closer. “If I could suggest something?”

“Anything,” said Lori.

“We’re having a special on burgers,” said said. “I’ll warn you that they’re on the big side so the two of you may want to share.”

Lori began trembling. Tears rolled down her face. “I’ll never look at a burger the same way again since what happened to Peter!” she screamed.

Our K-pop life

Now that the kids are getting older, in addition to giving physical presents this past Christmas, I decided to also gift each of them with an experience. And with both of them really into music at the moment – K-pop to be specific – I decided to go with concert tickets.

Three days ago it was Eleanor’s turn to have hers: seeing her favorite group, Stray Kids, perform in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. As she’s only 11, it ended up being a gift for all of us. We got to spend 24 hours in New York City, stay at a great hotel, get in some shopping at Kinokuniya and Line Friends, and connect with our kids around something that’s important to them.

Unfortunately, in my quest to get good seats for her first concert (I’d set a high bar with her older sister), I had to buy two different groups of tickets, which meant my husband and older daughter sat in one location, while Eleanor and I sat near the front. Not only did she sit closer to the performers – a fact I had not fully appreciated until I discovered I forgot ear plugs and realized we were positioned in front of a bank of speakers – the tickets also guaranteed her a VIP experience in the form of a “Hi Touch.”

Note the speakers. The smile returned about 40 minutes into the show once she acclimated to the bass and the screams.

Say “Hi,” don’t touch

When the kids were very small and we lived in norther Colorado, we had a saying in the event they ever encountered a rattlesnake, “Say hi, don’t touch.” It was short, to the point, and understood you would then walk away quickly after the encounter. The K-pop hi-touch is not entirely dissimilar.

After the show ended, those sitting near the stage and with special wristbands were told to stay in their seats while the rest of the theater emptied. About 30 minutes later we began moving toward the lobby entrance in groups of 25.

“Hustle!” yelled a security guard, speed walking up the aisles toward the front as we lumbered behind her, my daughter watching young women apply makeup, perfume, and even one go-getter curling her hair – all while walking. “Think you can keep up?” Eleanor shouted, her hearing still not quite right.

The screaming, which had blissfully subsided following the show, suddenly returned as I realized the performers had exited a side door on their way to the lobby. Eleanor, who hadn’t been sure she really wanted to meet her idols in person, was now fully on board, adjusting her face mask and wiping the sweat off her hands.

“Put your phones away and hold out your right hand to high five!” yelled another security guard, demonstrating the movement.

And then the line was moving. We headed down the aisle, through the lobby doors, and were greeted by a series of security guards dispensing hand sanitizer into our right hands from large pump dispensers.

“Thank god they’re doing this. If I were them I’d bathe in it for something like this,” I said to my daughter. She ignored me and concentrated on rubbing the lotion into her hand.

“Please remove your ring,” one guard said, pointing at my finger as we turned a corner. I fumbled with the engagement ring I now wear on that hand and put it in my pocket, the act suddenly making me realize just how much my life had changed over the past 17 years with my husband and our kids – a real “who would have thought…” moment.

And while I was still pulling my hand free of my jeans, there they were, all eight of them with their perfect hair, skin, and smiles.

“Thank you. Great show.” I said to each of them as I touched their outstretched hands in more of a slide than a slap.

It lasted less than a minute. And my daughter was ecstatic.

“Bang Chan said I was so small!”

“Who?” I asked.

“The leader.”

“Which one was that?”

“The first one…”

“Oh, okay!”

“Lee Know laughed at my cat shirt!”

“Which one was that?”

“The second one…”

“Oh, I remember him!”

Disoriented, we floated out of the theater, down the steps, into a cab, and made our way back to the hotel and into our room to our awaiting family.

“Hold out your right hand” I said to my 14 year old who was drowning her sorrows in a Shake Shack shake, having wanted to meet the group herself and not quite ready to forgive me for not giving up my seat.

“What?” she said.

“Hold out your right hand!” Eleanor and I both yelled, hands outstretched.

She did and we proceeded to wipe it with our right hands.

“Now you’ve touched them too!”

“So, what did you think?” I asked my husband. It had also been his first K-pop show.

“It was really good! And I have a totally new appreciation and understanding for it,” he said, going on to detail his thoughts.

I looked over to the other queen bed as he talked. The sisters were whispering, giggling, nodding, and passing a phone between them as they detailed their concert experience for one another via the Notes app.

It was not for us to hear.

Thank you, BTS

BTS performing at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ on May 19, 2019.
Photo by Karina Coombs

Music has never meant as much to me as it did when I was 14. Even in my 20s when I spent the bulk of my money and evenings watching my favorite bands perform throughout Boston, the connection was muffled. Alone in my room with headphones, record on repeat, and pouring over lyrics while sitting on the floor? That’s where the magic happened. I felt seen for the first time.

So when my favorite band came to Massachusetts and my parents said I was too young to go, my bedroom once again provided escape. The night of the concert arrived, and while my best friend was at the show watching our boys do their thing, I was alone in my room, listening to the saddest music I could find in my parents’ collection to match my mood (Johnny Mathis), and sobbing.

“If I ever have a daughter I swear I will never do this to her,” I told my cat more than once that night.

I finally got to make good on this promise in 2019, when my then 13-year-old daughter mentioned that her favorite group had just announced a new tour.

“We’re going,” I told her before she could even finish talking. “Where are they playing?”

“New Jersey? But tickets are really hard to get.”

“Okay. We’ll figure it out,” I promised. “A four hour drive is nothing to see your favorite group.”

Music as a gateway

I don’t recall my parents ever taking an interest in my music growing up. In fact, until I was around my daughter’s age, my access to popular culture was pretty controlled, including certain radio stations that were considered off limits. But then we got cable TV and I became the first group of teenagers with regular access to MTV. It was a game changer.

Being a Duran Duran fan in a small conservative town in the early 80s was to be ridiculed daily and for years. I was surrounded by a sea of Aerosmith, ACDC, and Van Halen fans whose music was as baffling to me as mine to them. The key difference being they were pretty vocal about it. Thankfully, I had an ally in my best friend. We traded albums, magazines articles, and theories on key lyrics.

My interest in the band led to an increased awareness of the world, which pre-Internet was focused primarily on the import section at the local record store and exotic snacks from a small UK-themed shop in town. I read about Sri Lanka at the library after watching my favorite video, began watching the world news and studying the living room globe, and started to think about a life outside of my town and all its possibilities.

With the fog of adulthood, I was slow to catch on to the growing importance of music in my daughter’s life and what that might mean. She’s a quiet kid who keeps her interests to herself most of the time. In fact, the more important something is to her, the less likely I am to hear about it. And while I knew she was listening to a particular group, I didn’t go out of my way to learn about them them early on because I wanted to respect her space.

Like a vampire waiting for an invitation inside, I finally got mine in 2018 when she asked if we could go to the BTS movie, Burn the Stage. The whole family went to the local AMC and met RM, V, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, and Jungkook. More importantly, I saw her reaction to them and I finally got it.

CDs, posters, YouTube videos, books, and magazines would follow as her interest grew. It didn’t matter at all that the lyrics were in Korean. At first she loved the songs for their sound alone, not understanding the lyrics. But then she’d go online and find translations and ruminate on their meanings, often finding a connection to how she was feeling. She felt seen.

And I felt hopeful.

Changing a life, one song at a time

If you’re not a parent or don’t have a child with anxiety, depression, and/or learning issues, you may not appreciate the change we saw in our daughter between 2018-2019. The kid who dropped out of band in elementary school because she couldn’t figure out how to read sheet music and thought she was stupid began to realize she could “see” music. The kid who’d never taken a piano lesson began to play BTS songs by ear on a keyboard at home, eventually graduating to a piano.

The daughter I didn’t even know could sing, began loudly singing (in both English and Korean somehow) around the house, asking to take voice lessons where she would eventually convince her opera-trained coach into working on a BTS piece. Singing and playing music then led to her teaching herself how to use music production software so that she could make recordings, add layers, and mix and upload covers of her favorites.

My locally focused child began reading about South Korea, its culture and language. My picky eater now wanted to try Korean food (and then Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Indian, etc.). We began shopping at a local Korean market for groceries. Both of my daughters became rabid manga and anime fans and began teaching themselves Korean and Japanese. There are even tearful please for travel abroad (and honest discussions about the prohibitive cost involved) from kids who are deathly afraid of airplanes.

The entire world opened up to my child because of her love of BTS. Of course I was going to drive her to New Jersey to see them.

Making good on that promise

The preparation I undertook to ensure I was ready for the Ticketmaster sale will never be revealed in its entirety because it’s embarrassing. But I will say it generally required the effort of the entire family, multiple training sessions, and drilling into the floor to run an Ethernet cable. In the end, I was successful beyond my wildest dreams: getting two floor seat tickets and the best seats I have ever had for any concert (and cautioning my daughter that it will probably never happen again).

Getting to see my daughter attend her first concert and to see her favorite group is something I’ll never forgot. The tears she shed upon learning she had tickets. The nervous planning for a stadium show of 50,000 plus for a kid who doesn’t like crowds or loud sounds. The sleepless night before the early morning drive from Massachusetts. Our adventures along the Merritt Parkway. Eating bologna sandwiches in a shadeless stadium parking lot on an unseasonably warm spring day. Merch. Hearing the first sounds of the BTS soundcheck floating up and out of the stadium. The wristband placed on her wrist when the gates finally opened. Seeing her seeing them sing and dance in front of her. The fan chant. A flying Jungkook. Confetti cannons. Jimin and V on a bouncy house. Tens of thousands of phones lighting the sky. Fireworks.

She was quiet for it all.

“Did you like it?” I asked as we drove to a local hotel after the show.

“Yes.”

“Did you record much?”

“Some.”

“I didn’t see your phone up that much compared to people around us.”

“No, I wanted to be there. To really be there and take it all in. To remember it in my brain instead of on my phone. You know?”

Yes, I do.

The last email

NOTE: My brother wrote me this email back in 2017 about his relationship with politics and his thoughts on being an expat. He died that November and I only recently rediscovered this and thought it was worth sharing. I miss his thoughts.

___________

much as I hated (and regretted, at the time) my whole experience at Dartmouth, later on I realized that it might have had a silver lining:

it showed me, up-close and early-on, how the warning signs of fascism look – and made me highly motivated to protect myself.

in other words, what I learned at Dartmouth in the 80s was what made me decide to leave the country 20 years later. I’d already “done” politics at college and I’d seen that it was a doomed enterprise – I’d already gone through all the depression and distraction and crying and post-mortems.

at the ripe old age of 22, I’d already become utterly jaded and bitter and cynical about “the system” – after seeing people like Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza up-close and personal – and I knew that “the system” would always be totally corrupt – no matter how much we tried to organize at the “grassroots” level.

my role model was Vladimir Nabokov. I’d discovered that he’d [] had a comfortable upper-class life in Russia before the Bolsheviks took over – and he lost it all when he had to go into exile.

of course, with his considerable gifts as a writer, he could have become an important political voice.

but he didn’t.

somewhere in his memoirs, I remember reading his reasoning about this: he said that it was a conscious decision on his part to not look back. instead of getting sucked into politics, he devoted himself to art. I think the word “Bolshevik” is mentioned exactly one time in all his writings. everything else is butterflies and poetry and sex.

maybe some people will find that frivolous. but it can be a valid approach.

art itself does have a certain value – and it can actually implicitly counteract politics.

it’s a different kind of “fighting” – saying that your opponent is too ugly for you to even look at.

another example:

i remember all the drag queen shows I’d see in New York in the East Village. utterly frivolous stuff all the time, and supposedly utterly apolitical. but if you read between the lines, the whole thing was very political, in at least two ways:

1 – as subtle / indirect / implicit commentary deflating the “patriarchy” and

2 – simply as fun which made you feel stronger to face all the political battles around you

the last time I saw WigStock (the big daytime drag show in the East Village, founded by Lady Bunny), was when Bush had been in office for a while, and he was dragging the country into the Iraq War.

in previous years, WigStock had always been wonderful. but that year, with Bush and Iraq and oppression weighing everyone down, Lady Bunny herself was kinda “down” and political and serious during the show – totally out of character for her.

there was a cloud hanging over everything, and she kept interjecting serious stuff, which was kindof a “drag”.

that year’s “serious” WigStock was really depressing. and it was the last WigStock I went to.

little barometers like that – the “mood” among the drag queens at WigStock during the start of the Iraq War – these were major sociological indicators to me, showing me that the country was drifting into fascism, and that it could make even the drag queens in their high heels lose their footing.

another example:

Russian prison tattoos

I ran across this book on Russian Prison Tattoos once in a New York bookstore, and leafed through it. it really got me thinking, because:

of course, as we know, the USSR was a horrible place, and it was full of political prisoners, whose lives had been ruined

here was this weird undeground art form, “Russian prison tattoos”, where they had found a way to express their suffering and rebellion

we routinely treat such desperate expressions of rebellion in captivity as being somehow instrinsically noble and hence automatically beautiful, but my reflexive aesthetic evaluation of those tattoos was that they actually sucked

i realized that it was in some sense “necessary” to do those tattoos, but they weren’t the “organic” designs of Tahitian tattoos which integrated naturally with the elegant and seductive curves of the body – instead they were text-heavy, graphically clumsy “important” political messages which didn’t adorn but rather further degraded the bodies they were displayed on.

so, protest can seem “cool” – but only at some abstract, intellectual meaning, where we attach meaning to it – and where it can be what we have now come to call “virtue signaling”. but at the concrete level, protest can actually be very ugly.

I also got briefly involved with the Green Party in Brooklyn for a while. I had met one of the organizers who was this really cool woman who owned Eco-Books – where she turned me on to some of my favorite books:

Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual – by Bill Mollison

Coming Home to the Pleistocene – by Paul Shepard

Living Machines – by John Todd

I ended up making a membership database in Microsoft Access to help out the Green Party chapter in Brooklyn, and hung out with some of them a few times going out to cafes.

and they were the most boring people I’d met in New York.

there was probably a kind of “racial” aspect to it for me – I had already gotten my dose of feeling “underground” or “alternative” by basically living with poor black guys all the time. all these ernest white “rebels” I met in the Green Party just did seem much like “rebels” to me after that.

they just seemed like total drips and after a couple times hanging out in cafés with them, that was the end of my association with the Green Party.

oh and by the way, now we see Jill Stein – who is just an irrelevant, ideological hack.

of course, the belief that fighting back is useless (or ugly and damaging in itself) is all just my personal opinion.

I realize that many people believe it’s important to fight back, but my personal opinion – based mainly on my experiences at Dartmouth – is that it doesn’t really lead to the results you want.

there’s simply too many of them, and the amount of effort involved in fighting back is simply overwhelming – and distracting.

I already burned-out, during my college years, before we even had Twitter and Facebook, spending all my time & energy fighting against those proto-fascists.

what i learned from that experience was:

1 – on the rare chance that you manage to “win”, you’ll have wasted so much of your existence dealing with them, that your “win” won’t really be as sweet as you hoped it would be: the struggle itself is such a big distraction, the mere fact of having to get your hands (and your mind) dirty with those people is in itself a kind of “loss”, so by merely having to engage them, you have in some sense “lost”.

this is kinda sorta related to George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant”.

the minute you have to engage in explicit argumentation that “it’s ok to be female / black / gay” – you’ve already lost.

the only approach that actually works is to simply celebrate those things – never “apologize” or even “argue in favor of” them. the minute you’re fighting for those things, you’ve lost – because you’ve accepted “their” framing, that these things are somehow questionable, debatable, something that “could be” fought over.

it would never occur to us to “fight for” food or sex, so in some sense it should also never occur to us to “fight for” people who happen to be female or black or gay. it’s just obvious that those things are all wonderful – by consenting to make them “debatable” we have in some sense already lost the argument – by accepting the “framing” of the fascists that these are legitimate things to “fight about”.

2 – the much more likely outcome is that you will “lose” – not necessarily because there are so many more of them, but rather simply because their goal (destroying things) is always automatically easier than your goal (constructing things) – and because, due to their essential dysfunction, they’re actually always going to be more motivated than you.

ie: “when you’re number two, you have to try harder” – just to be clear, in this context the party that’s number two is them – they’re inferior / defective, and they’re miserable because we’re so fabulous. we’re just going about our business enjoying life – but they’ve been in torment their whole lives, so their motivation for “revenge” (“revenge” for what? for the fact that they’re losers?) is much more powerful than we could ever imagine – the whole thing is so foreign to us.

so, my resolution was:

“I shall turn my back, and that will be my only negation.”

(I think this was a phrase quoted in some book by Roland Barthes – but I’ve since been unable to find it)

how did I put this into practice:

I left

even now, I kick myself for spending so much time online, constantly looking back at the wreckage of “that country”

I’ve been down here for 15 years, and there’s so much that’s beautiful down here that I can easily get involved in – when I remind myself to.

(not that it’s perfect here either – now that the neo-liberals led by Temer and Cunha also staged their little “coup” to get rid of the socialists Lula and Dilma)

but really, the skill which I most need to develop, is:

forgetting

hard to do, but I’m working on it.

there is a tribe of Indians in the Orinoco who have never heard of Washington or New York.

I have no idea what you can do up there. you live there, and you have a husband and two daughters up there.

I wouldn’t be able to handle it. it must really suck, because there doesn’t seem to be any really good options.

i realize that my approach (fleeing, trying not to look back) isn’t [] very practical when you’re in the middle of it all, with all the crap coming at you (and your family) on TV, online, at school / work / in life.

I just see “them” as poison filling the air. i just don’t see how to “fight against” poison without breathing it in.

how can you make the best of it if you’re surrounded by it? I don’t really know.

maybe just try to get the girls involved in anything-but-politics.

treat politics like the filthy cesspool it is – something to be avoided at all costs, too horrifying and ugly to even look at. get them involved in anything else – cooking, pets, music, literature, sports – the beautiful things in life.

we don’t tune the TV (very often) in to watch belching smokestacks / gruesome murders / natural calamities.

so maybe we could just start treating Washington the same way, as simply being too horrific to even look at or talk about in polite company.

living in Massachusetts, what is even the point of teaching the kids about their so-called “civic duty” of voting – when due to the Electoral College, their votes will never even count anyways? (because Massachusetts is already “blue” anyways, so by standing in line and casting yet another vote for the Dems, they’re accomplishing precisely nothing.)

it would be perfectly legitimate to only rarely mention Washington, and always in hushed and worried tones, and say “those are very bad people. they’re theives and murderers. you should always avoid them.” and then get back to baking a quiche or playing the piano or riding a horse with the kids.

kinda the way that black people have been warning their children about cops for years.

xox

The way back

Yesterday, I took my 13 year old daughter to Plymouth for a history visit. The plan to see Plimoth Plantation was mentally scrapped at the halfway point of our 75 minute drive south. After all, we’d been there only a year before and on the same exact day. I know this because I was standing in the dirt, just outside one of the thatched roof homes, the day I got a phone call that my brother had died in a Brazilian hospital room, thousands of miles away.

That the one perfect day in our schedules which could accommodate a field trip happened to fall on this precise date was not lost on anyone, let alone my two kids. In the end, with the younger one under the weather, my teenager took one for the team and encouraged us to go anyway.

“How do you feel if we skip the Plantation today?” I asked when we were in the center of town. “You’ve seen it a lot already. We could look at other stuff.”

“Like what?” she answered, adjusting her headphones.

“I don’t know. You want to see where I grew up? I’ve never showed you that, right?”

“Sure. I’d like that.”

As we continued to drive south for the next 20 minutes, winding through ocean facing streets that I haven’t regularly seen in more than 25 years, but can still follow precisely in my head even when hundreds of miles away, I’d point out historic Plymouth landmarks.

“That house is where I quit piano lessons when the teacher realized I’d been faking and not really reading music.”

“Uh huh…”

“That’s my favorite street and view.”

“Uh huh…”

“That’s one of the sirens that would blare in the event of a nuclear disaster, summoning death.”

“Uh huh… Wait. What?”

“That’s the rock my parents made me swim out to. I was afraid of sharks. I did it for a coloring book. A coloring book!”

“Wait. Didn’t you tell me they found sharks there?”

“Yes! Great Whites! We read about that a few years ago, remember? I texted Mimi to say, ‘I TOLD you there were sharks!’ I never even got that book!”

“Ha. Yeah. Creepy.”

“That’s the convenience store I used to work at where I stole Creamsicles.”

“You did what?”

“I stole Creamsicles. A lot. All the time, actually. Sometimes cigarettes too.”

“Mom!”

“Yeah, I uh… did some things when I was younger…”

At some point the headphones slipped off as we visited my history: I pointed out the house where the lady once threw dead fish at us, insistent that the beach was private property (it wasn’t). I pointed out the Lobster Pound – where we’d buy our fish, lobsters, and steamers, and where my father would tease my mother by parking dangerously close to a dramatic drop off to the ocean (which now includes a death marker for my first crush who was not Sean Cassidy). I pointed out the site of our favorite breakfast place, Jack’s, where I’d happily join my father any chance I got so that I could pine over the grill cook (I did this for too many years). I pointed out the street where I almost got run over on my bike and where I was called an “asshole” by a very frightened adult driver.

“How old were you?” she asked.

“I don’t know… 10 or 11? Definitely pre-helmet days.”

“God…” replied my safety conscious teen, shaking her head.

The landmarks came faster and faster as we began the drive into my neighborhood, the distance between them much shorter than I had remembered from a time when this place had been my entire universe.

“There’s the cranberry bog where I learned to ice skate. I found a giant bullfrog there one night with Amy when we weren’t supposed to be out. There’s my grandfather’s old house. There’s Amy’s house! There’s the yard where that girl punched me in the stomach after I hit her over the head with my baton. This is the street we used to sled down…”

And then we got to the house. It looked so much smaller than I’d remembered, even smaller than when I visited it last year, just a few weeks after Scott died and I’d made the same drive and for the same reason. Even smaller than it had looked the two years before that, just a few days after our dad died and I’d made the same drive and for the same reason.

“That’s the house. Our house.”

She looked at the tiny white house.

“That little window in the middle? The octagon? That was in Scott’s room, in the closet. The room next to it was my parent’s and my room was behind. Those windows? That was the dining room and the windows on the other side was the living room.”

“It’s so small,” she said.

“Yeah, I guess it is, but it doesn’t seem small when I think about it. And it didn’t seem small when we lived there.”

“Was that fence always like that?” she asked, pointing to rotted and falling down sections of a six foot privacy fence that once blocked our yard from the neighbor’s.

“No. It stood tall and was probably almost new when I lived here. Sissy Boo (my cat) used to jump to its top and walk among the peaks.”

We continued driving to the end of the street, landmarks in every direction for the next 100 yards or so before it was time to turn around.

“Are you bored? This isn’t very interesting to you, is it?” I asked.

“No! I like it. It is interesting.”

“Really? Okay, good. I just thought you might like to see where my life started.”

“I do, but I thought it made you sad to come back here.”

“It did. And it still does,” I admitted. “But not today. Today I’m happy to remember it all and see it all. This is the good stuff. And the bad stuff, but mostly good.”

“It’s weird to think that someday I’ll look back on where we live now like this,” she said, looking out the window as we left my past. “Do you think I will?”

“I hope so,” I said. “And I hope it’s good.”

[Photo: Burial Hill, School Street, Plymouth, MA by Karina Coombs]

All the news is too much news

A few days ago I realized it was all getting to be too much. News that is. Actually, to be more specific, news commentary. News I can handle. I follow current political events with major newspapers (both local and national) as well as general business, human interest, education and housing, etc. Local newspapers enrage me the most because they hit so close to home, but I also follow them. I’m what you might call a newsophile.

What was getting too much for me was the endless commentary about national politics. And while I understand that people need to comment and should comment because we need to draw attention to what is going on in our country, I was drowning in a sea of negativity and sorrow because of it. In hindsight, this has been going on since 2016.

Empathy is a double edged sword. It’s good to have it, but it also can eat away at you if you don’t manage it.

The first sign this wasn’t normal was my reaction to the 2016 presidential election. I almost threw up. I sobbed all night long. I’m 48 years old and have never had a reaction like this to anything political. My youngest child woke up to the news and almost threw up, sobbing that we were now on the brink of World War III — an idea that she picked up from some of her classmates that clearly stayed with her. The kids stayed home from school. We were crushed. Again, not normal.

The next day I gave up CNN and haven’t watched it or any other cable news program since. And let me tell you that I never felt any better. Because while I love information, I can’t stand people telling me what I just read or saw as though I could do neither on my own, particularly when it’s “spun.” Spinning the news is a garbage practice. It’s reality distortion without the benefit of a shiny gadget. It doesn’t matter if it’s a take I agree or disagree with. Taking the talking heads and paid contributors out of the equation made the news feel cleaner again. Until it didn’t.

Facebook was the second to go. I didn’t need endless reports about “fake” news stories permeating social media. It was glaringly obvious each time I opened the app. I had grown up with parents telling me that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Turns out that’s a perfect filter through which to read posts. The heavily reported data breach and Facebook’s response to it made me realize I no longer wanted to be their product. The two week “cooling off” period before my account could be permanently deleted cemented my decision. I’ve never looked back.

Instead, Twitter became my go to account and something that I regularly used to keep up with the news post-election. I followed the journalists I respected and admired, the people they followed, the people they followed, and so on. I discovered political scientists and researchers, which led to other writers, speakers, and experts on all matters that interested me. I discovered the account of Chuck Wendig and Darth — the two accounts that have kept me entertained the most (and that I will miss the most). It was wonderful. And highly addictive, even more so than Facebook. Because instead of keeping me connected to my immediate connections, it connected me to the world. I couldn’t get enough. Until I could.

It started gradually. Opening the app began to cause stomach aches. It became less about wanting to know what was happening in the world to an exercise of seeing just how much I could withstand. I lost hours a day scrolling and scrolling and refreshing, reading take after take about various news items. Like, comment, and repeat. For me, it turns out there is such a thing as too much information. Reading a story once or even the same story across different newspapers is one thing. Reading those stories and then the hundreds of takes on those stories that appear within minutes has gotten too much for now.

Twitter is now gone from my phone. I made my last post a few days ago. I’ve forgotten the account password and won’t reset it on my laptop. This story will post there by default, but I won’t be on to see it. I’ve decided to take the summer off, not from news, but from the constant rehashing of news. I’m grateful for the people that keep important stories front and center. They should be. That’s how change happens. But I had to recognize that the change they were causing in me wasn’t healthy. And the last thing I need right now is a pre-existing condition.

I’m still a newsophile, I’m just reverting to analog.

School, revisited

When struggling for things to write about, there’s a topic that’s been off limits. I promised myself when the kids were younger and this site was new that I wouldn’t use their private lives as public content. Here and there I’ve shared some things, but most of the time I’ve kept the details of of their lives offline.

Even when I didn’t know what the focus of this blog would be (and clearly still don’t most of the time), I knew that I didn’t want it to be about them. This post is a little different and sets the stage for other posts that will follow. Because it’s also part of my story, I’ve decided to start writing about our new reality: home school.

Continue reading “School, revisited”

Ghosts of Christmas past

I will admit to being stuck. Stuck in Christmas past, which — grief aside — has always been my “go to” place this time of the year. There’s something about the holiday that brings back vivid memories of childhood, even more so having watched the excitement and joy of my own two daughters that begins roughly an hour after Thanksgiving dinner and concludes (in a bit of a funk) on December 26. I clearly remember those feelings — remarkable when you consider I forget more and more each year.

Continue reading “Ghosts of Christmas past”

A life in 640 words

This past weekend I wrote my brother’s obituary. An obituary that he never would have wanted, but that we needed. This follows the personal tribute I wrote, which was more about what he meant to my life .

Writing is always hard. But writing the summary of someone’s life, particularly when you are dealing with the fact that it’s really ended? That was a new experience.

Continue reading “A life in 640 words”

A little sister’s tribute to her big brother

How do you capture the love you have for someone in words? Really convey what that person has meant to you and your life in all its form and complexities?

Our family is not the traditional family. Somehow over the years we managed to let it fall apart, let the bonds that connected us wither for reasons no longer clear until our most immediate remembrances are decades old. Arguments or conflicts become ghosts, rattling around in our heads.

Time is not kind.

Continue reading “A little sister’s tribute to her big brother”

Newest feature: Local podcast grows, an interview and download at a time

I just realized it’s been four months since I’ve written a feature. Finally over the hump! Phew. And here she is.

I heard a quote on the radio the other day that really resonated with me and properly sums up my writing experience: “I hate to write, but I love having written.”

Thank you to whomever crystalized my process.

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A certain view

Without fail, each time we spend more than a day in another place, I have the desire to move there. The highlight reel: I’ve opined about living in Pacifica and Monterey; Ipswich, Chatham, and Gloucester; Boulder and Nederland; Philadelphia, New York City, and Seattle.

But Maine. That’s where I really sink my teeth in. Trulia and Zillow get involved. As does Ancestry dot com. I look at any semi-coastal property beginning at the state’s mid-section and working my way up. What catches my eye? Something that predates 1880 and is under $300,000, preferably attached to an overgrown field and some decaying outbuildings. And while I don’t have either the money or the carpentry skills, the list of options is satisfyingly long.

After my dad died a few years back, I spent hundreds of hours obsessively tracing his biological lineage using his birth and adoption records, discovering a family I never knew and he never wanted to know. After several generations of Massachusetts ancestors, it brought me back to Maine where they had lived since the mid 1600s. It was there that I found my most satisfying fantasy property: a home that sat on nearly 40 acres at the St. George River and was once owned by a great of some degree.

We took our most recent trip at the beginning of August — our annual pilgrimage to Mt. Dessert Island — and I’m already back at it. I don’t know what it is about Maine — and I don’t put much stock in family lore calling me back — but year after year, something makes me want to go and fix up an old house, write a book, homeschool my kids, and open a little shop.

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12

When I first started this blog and was trying to figure out what I’d fill it with (still working on that), I briefly thought of making it parenting-related since that’s been the major focus of my life for the past 12 years. But then I started thinking that the stories of my kids weren’t really my stories to tell, and I didn’t want to turn our personal moments into content. Today, I’m taking the liberty of sharing one of these personal moments because as much as it is about my child, it’s also about me, her mother.

My oldest child officially turns 12 in a little over an hour. The day’s been spent with the usual birthday festivities: special breakfast, presents, special dinner, more presents, cake, and staying up late. I don’t know why this birthday feels so different to me, but it does. I think I’m hyper aware of how fast time is moving now that we’ve rolled into a second decade together by more than one year. Twelve years is a long time, but as I look back at the tens of thousands of moments I’ve captured on film — as I did today — it all just feels like pages in a flip book.

When my daughter was a newborn, strangers would randomly approach me and caution that time moved very quickly with children. “Enjoy her now. It all goes by so fast.” At the time I knew they were probably right, but now I understand how they were right. I was so focused on what was ahead of us in terms of milestones — things we could leave behind, check off a list, or worry about — or so focused on the daily filler that I lost track of time in the sense of it actually passing.

And now we’re at 12. And she is lovely. And I wish time would cooperate.

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48 hours in NYC

I try not to spend too much time in the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda neighborhood, but sometimes you end up there by accident, before you can roll up the windows, lock the doors, and speed away.

A recent and too short trip to New York City found me there, as family stroll brought us from The Museum of Natural History to the 79th Street Boat Basin and The Boat Basin Cafe.

Cool weather, a cloudy sky, ninja pigeons, cold sangria, heel blisters, and the sonic white noise that can only be found in this city, led to a regret: that I had not found a way to live here earlier in my life.

In hindsight, the easy time would have been in my teens, when money didn’t mean as much as a free pass to Limelight, Danceteria, or the Palladium did, all meals were street food, and a futon was always encouraged (again, my ability to score passes) and available courtesy of my big brother.

My early twenties would have worked too, but by then I was already too caught up in fearing for my future because of past mistakes. And once I had forged ahead to make a “real” life for myself, NYC seemed too risky, too big, and too loud. Now, with a husband, two kids, two dogs, one salary, and a mortgage, it just seems too expensive.

I’m now exploring Plan B: exposing my kids to the city as much as financially possible to plant the seed for their future selves. But I fear the city that I remember — where possibilities seemed endless — no longer exists.

Regrets? I’ve had a couple.

Printed, matted, and framed

I hadn’t stopped to think how big 12″x18″ would really be when I placed a printing order last week for two of my photographs. Now that they are matted and framed, however, I’m pleasantly surprised to see that they’ve taken up the entire gallery wall outside of my studio.

There are probably upwards of 45,000 digital images on my computer. The bulk of them are of my kids, with my first child taking a decided lead. Over her first two years, there are dozen photos taken each day as a testament to her existence. You can almost use them as a sundial.

My second child? Well, she has substantially less and with large gaps during the same time period, but, as I keep my iPhoto contents to myself and will instruct someone to purge the files at the time of my death, that’s nothing she needs to know.

Even though printing is pretty inexpensive these days, I never print photographs unless it’s for a school project or some are sent to grandparents. Mostly, my photos stay in digital form and end up on Facebook or, if they are not of my children, they go on here.

But now that I have this studio and its many walls? I’m slowly making my way through the files and pulling out candidates for printing, just not at this size again.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a way to sell some during Open Studios next month.

Photos (from left to right): Channel marker, Mt. Desert Island, ME | Waters surrounding Mt. Desert Island, ME

Studio 301: An Introduction

In retrospect, it was probably for the best that my laptop’s WiFi connection didn’t work for most of the time I was at the studio on my first day. The absence of Twitter forced me out of my new hidey hole and I slowly discovered the environment of the third floor.

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First stop was the women’s bathroom where I admired the diamond steel plates on the stalls, and the soap collection — some of it handmade by someone in the building I’m guessing. After having moved my meager furniture collection using the person elevator, I finally found the freight version and the Free Cycle.

As I meandered my way back to 301, with its sad gray exterior walls, I found myself wishing I worked with a more tangible medium. One that involved tools you could hold in your hands and that could be looked at while walking by. In other words, one that was easier to see or show off.

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Continue reading “Studio 301: An Introduction”