Monday, April 18, 2016

I Don't Post On My Blog Because I'm My Own Worst Critic.

Are you your own worst critic? Does it affect your writing?

My post about this topic is being featured on BlogHer today ... come on over and visit, and join the conversation about strategies for overcoming your inner critic!

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Bridgetender

At the far end of edge of a bridge spanning the Delaware River between New Hope and Lambertville sits in a booth that is just large enough, perhaps, for two chairs.  Sometimes, crossing the bridge on foot, I've peeked in the window, wondering what it's like to sit there in the same spot for hours day in and day out, watching the river pass, watching the people pass, confined to a space just slightly larger than your body.

Today, I heard an interview with a woman who left an office job where she worked for 14 years, realizing that if her life ended suddenly, she didn't want to have woken up that morning not wanting to go to work.  The job she took: tending a bridge.

"The pay was terrible, the benefits worse," she confessed.  But what she loved about the job were the intangible benefits: the cultivation of vigilance, patience, and attention.  She became accustomed to the rhythm of the days and the seasons, seeing the same joggers and fishermen, people she knew intimately, despite their complete anonymity. She would overhear people's lives: the marriage proposals, the arguments, the deep conversations unaware of an observer.  It made her appreciate the world in a way she'd never done before.  Her pictures are astonishingly beautiful.


I wonder how many bridgetenders are left, now that so many of them are automated, or built to accommodate larger boats, or don't open at all, because they no longer get that kind of water traffic. It seems like the sort of vocation that you don't see much any more.  Which is sort of sad, given how important that role of watcher can be.

Some days, I'm a bridgetender, too.  Though I'm plenty busy, at work, the students move past me through the semesters and the seasons that I feel more keenly towards the end of the year, when final exams and graduation looms; my job is to make sure that they can get to the other side safely, that the obstacles in their way are removed (or at least that they have some means of getting past), that they have someone watching over them, someone they might not even notice.  I overhear private moments, the kinds of things people say when they cross a bridge, when they think their voices will be carried away by the wind and the current.
                               
Maybe it's not so bad, the sitting still.

What bridges do you tend?  Would you be a bridgetender if you had a chance? Who are the tenders of your bridges?
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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Legacies (with Soda Bread)

My first apartment in New Jersey, after I returned from the West Coast, was at the back end of a long, two story half-empty building, where the only other tenants on my floor (or so it seemed to me) were an older woman named Marcia and an older man named Harry.

Harry lived next door to me, and he hadn't been well past mid-life, I would have said he was having a midlife crisis.  He drove a red sportscar and had a bleach-blonde older girlfriend.  I didn't see much of him, beyond his comings and goings.  I may or may not have heard him (and his girlfriend) at night.

Marcia lived across the hall from me, in an apartment that always seemed to be full of steam.  Our building was perpetually cold (because our landlord was a miserly SOB, earning tax credits for his empty apartments, despite our super's best efforts to make the place liveable), and so Marcia would boil great pots of water on her stove, heating her cramped space as best she could, covering herself with hand-crocheted blankets in the most raucous of colors.  When I knocked at her door, I knew that I'd be in for an hour long conversation, and that she would implore me (in a way that was impossible to refuse: "Jus-tin," she would call) to come, to sit, and to eat: small hard blueberry muffins, or dry crumbly cookies, or something that her son had brought, which was "too much" for her.

Marcia was a Holocaust survivor.  Her sister was her only surviving relative from her childhood, and lived in Brazil; sometimes when I went to visit, as I often did on the weekends or after work, I would find her laboring over her letters, or talking a million miles an hour in Hebrew, long distance.  She never told me her story, though she alluded to it; she didn't want to talk about it, she said, because it was too sad for me.  (She eventually published a memoir, here, which I discovered just this week.) I never understood what she meant by that, but I told her it was OK, and that I loved her, and that I was glad I lived there with her, grateful for her friendship. On rare occasions, wiping away her tears, she would confide to me she thought she was spared for Ora, her granddaughter, to leave her legacy with her.

I dated my husband when I lived there, and when we got engaged, she was one of the first people we told.  I remember her blessing us, and trembling with joy, and telling me how sad she was that I would be leaving, but what a happy life we would have together.  One day she called us in, presenting us with a wedding present: a silver serving plate, embossed in great detail with grapes and leaves and vines. She told us that it was symbolic; that in Jewish weddings the secret to happiness is in the blessings over the wine.

We visited her occasionally those first few years; she left our complex not long after I did, when her son, finally taking issue with the lack of heat and other creature comforts, decided to buy a condominium for her with a scenic view of the park that boundaried the nearby river.  I loved seeing her in her new place, with the same crocheted blankets flung over the backs of furniture.  She still fed us cookies and fruit and tea.  But after my son was born, we slowly lost touch.

We don't have much in the way of fancy serving ware, but every once in a while, we use Marcia's plate for a special occasion, usually to serve bread, wrapped in a cloth napkin; every time, I remember her blessings.

I took Marcia's plate out of the cabinet last week, thinking that I'd put it in the bin to bring over to the new house, and decided to polish it up a bit first.  I hadn't realized that it had so tarnished over the years that the spaces between the details were outlined in black; S. and I both thought it had been that way always.  I scrubbed and scrubbed with polish and paper towel; we tried a soft-bristled toothbrush to get the polish in between the cracks; S. tried submerging it with aluminum foil in a baking soda solution.  I've spent hours on the project, and though in some spots it now gleams, still, the more I polish it, the more I see the tarnish left where I have more work to do.  Marcia, reminding us not to put her away for too long this time, to keep our blessings more visible.

Legacies are complicated things.  We never know what kind of impressions we'll leave behind.  But I hope that I'll leave blessings and pieces of myself that are as stubborn and beautiful as Marcia's are, even now.

Soda Bread
A friend shared this recipe, and refers to it as "Mother Hudak's" Soda Bread.  I don't know who Mother Hudak is, but I'm glad that she's left me this piece of herself, whoever she is.  Though it's from a very different tradition, it's actually not all that different from something we might have been served at Marcia's over tea.

2 c flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ c sugar
1 c raisins
1 egg
1 c sour cream
¼ c milk

Preheat oven to 350, and prepare a baking pan by greasing it or lining it with parchment.

Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl with a whisk.  Add raisins to mixture.

Beat egg and make a hole in center of mixture – add beaten egg, and mix well with a fork.

Cream together and add to bread mixture the sour cream and milk. Fold dough together gently using a spatula.

Dump the dough from the bowl onto the pan and shape into a loaf; bake for 35 minutes to an hour depending on how crusty you like it.  When crust looks brown and done, it’s likely not baked thoroughly inside.  You'll likely want to cover the bread with aluminum foil on top and continue baking for ~ 15 more minutes.
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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Four Hours Out of the Cloud

I was just updating my phone.

You know how it is.  You reach a point at which you're tired of "ignore" and "remind me later" and you go ahead and bite the bullet because you have power and wifi and a little time on your hands, because you're reading your email on a desktop to which your phone is connected.

At least, that's how it was for me.  Pedestrian update.  So imagine my surprise when I looked down to see my phone stuck on a screen with the iTunes logo that wouldn't go away no matter how many times I restarted, and looked up at my computer, where a pop up window implored me to restore my iPhone to factory settings.  After wrestling with it for a while, not feeling ready to dump everything and start from my last cloud backup (Mel is right: go do your backups. Of everything), it was time to leave work.

Without a functioning phone.

It's one thing to take a voluntary break from the grid, to step away for a few hours or days, to be in control of the drug.  But to have the plug pulled by someone other than you, and to not know whether you'll get your data back, or when: that's a different experience altogether.

I drove home in silence, feeling an overwhelming urge to call someone, which was most likely the result of not being able to do so.  I waited for the phone to buzz, telling me I had new email from my students during the pre-dinner rush, but of course, it didn't.  I worried that my husband would text me that he'd been in some terrible car crash with the kids, and I wouldn't know.  I worried that a student would try to reach me, and would get only voice mail, which I'd never hear.

An hour later, after I'd hastily crammed some tacos into my mouth and kissed my family hello and goodbye, I was on my way to the Apple store.  This is madness, I thought.  How did I become so reliant on my phone?

Because I don't spend much time in the Apple store, I didn't know that one needs an appointment to get a seat at the Genius Bar.  I confided to the friendly-looking gentleman with a clipboard that my students have my number, and that they use it for emergencies (which is a slight exaggeration, but also completely plausible).  Taking pity on me, he sat me at what I called, in conversation with the grandmother sitting next to me, "the second-class Intelligensia bar."  He plugged me in, started me up, and did what I probably could have done at work, had I had time to do so: rebuild my phone from the Cloud (did I mention that you should go make your backups?  Make your backups).

My table-mates and I talked about raising young people in the digital age ("it's how I keep track of my 14 year old granddaughter that I adopted; I know everything about her," confided the woman to my right), about the attachment we have to our devices, both for work reasons and personal ones ("this is where all the things I really care about live," said the older woman to my left, "the pictures, the texts, the things nobody but me cares about.").  We talked about feeling disempowered, disconnected without our devices (without having control over the disconnection).  It was a delightful way to spend an hour with strangers I would have never met, except that karma took my phone away.

I was back in business by 9 p.m., four and a half hours after I lost connectivity to the mobile universe. Everything was just as I'd left it, nothing had blown up.  I hugged the guy who helped us, who blushed sheepishly.  I told him I'd hate to deal with people like me all day, in store so loud you can't hear yourself think.

And I drove home in silence, without feeling the need to call a soul.

Have you ever lost connectivity for an extended period of time, for reasons beyond your control?  What was the experience like?
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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Karma

When we moved into our current house, more than ten years ago, my aunt from Maine bought us a bouy bell.  It was a cool gift, a deep, clangy chime that reminded me of summers in Kennebunk Beach when I was growing up.  We hung it from the barn, over our garden, for a while, until it fell (did it fall?), and moved into the barn, where it accumulated wasp nests and rust.

We don't have much we don't need, but we are systematically ridding ourselves of the few things we own that fall into that category.  I'd taken out the bell, thinking that perhaps I'd move it, when I realized I didn't much like the sound of it after all.  Too clangy.  Might piss off the neighbors.

I've sold some things online, but mostly I've Freecycled things, hoping that they find another home and new life.  Sometimes I wonder about Freecyclers, hoping that they don't just go try to sell my stuff on eBay, dumpster diving like the big white truck that drives slowly up and down the streets of town on the night before garbage day.

I decided to Freecycle the bell, hoping for the best.  I got a lot of responses soon after I'd posted it; the chime is, after all, still working just fine, and it's a $70 item.  I looked at the list of willing takers, wondering if I'd made the right choice, reassuring myself that no, I didn't need the bell, and that the right thing to do was to give it away to someone who would love it.

But because of my ongoing misgivings about the intentions of people who pick things up for free, I decided to Google the people in line.

(I have mad Googling skillz.  I am not ashamed to own this; I could probably make money as a Google-stalking-private-detective.  My real gain from years of doctoral studies.)

Some of the people claimed ties to Maine, or to Kennebunkport, telling me that the bell would feed their nostalgia.  Some people told me where the bell would live.  The first person to respond hadn't said much, though, and I was hesitant to let him claim it.

Turns out he is trying to bring new life to a theater in a town I used to frequent, where flooding had completely wiped out local businesses, and an immigrant community had moved in, just barely making ends meet.  He staged a production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and was working on "Assassins," to debut in May.

I wrote back to him, telling him where he could pick up the bell, and asking whether he was indeed the same person I'd found.  He affirmed, delighted that I'd found him (surprisingly not creeped out at all, which most sane people should be, I guess).  We had a brief correspondence about pickup arrangements, and some time this afternoon, the bell disappeared from my driveway.

In my inbox: a short note, thanking me again, and offering me two comped tickets to "Assassins" in May.

Which, though perhaps a more short-lived pleasure, I think I'll enjoy a whole lot more than the bell.  I'm glad it found a new home, for both of our sakes.

Have you ever Freecycled something?  Or picked up something free?  Or participated in a parallel economic system that seems to work better than you'd expect it to?
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Help

From a young age, my daughter has insisted: I want to do it myself.

My son, somewhat less adept at expressing himself, despite impressive verbal skills, also demonstrates stubborn self-reliance.

I've encouraged this independence; it's in our best interest to raise children to be self-sufficient, to be people who can make themselves a meal, put clothes in the laundry, wash dishes, eventually go to work take care of themselves, making a contribution to the world.

But I worry, sometimes, about tempering the message.  About teaching them about accepting help, or even better, seeking it out on their own terms, making help part of what it means to be independent.

In case it's not obvious, I am terrible at asking for help.  I like doing things my way, having control. I have a plan, and I carry it out.  It took me months before I finally called a therapist to get help for what, by that point, was crushing depression and anxiety.

The irony, of course, is that this is what I do all day long: connect students with help, get them to consider help, help them to accept help.  Hypocrisy at its best.

S. has been traveling again, and the child care situation is, as usual, challenging.  While I pay for care from 6:30 (for I.) or 7:30 (for N.) until 6:00 (for N.) or 6:30 (for I.), it's simply not enough when I need to drive from work to get them, not really great to leave early four days in a row during one of the busiest times of the year.

I have called people to help me pick up the kids quite a bit over the past two years now.  It doesn't get easier.  Sometimes I start with my mother, who sometimes says things like "it will be difficult because I'm supposed to get the bagels for book group" (which drives me bananas; I'd rather she tell me she just doesn't want to do it).  Sometimes I start with a stay at home dad friend who I am convinced is a superhero in disguise.  Sometimes I ask our friend down the block, who tells me how much she likes helping us, though she has two small children of her own and a traveling husband to contend with, too.

The other day, my colleague (whom I like a lot, and who I find generally quite kind and considerate) commented to me that he raised a child without the help of any grandparents.  I felt embarrassed at my neediness, at first, and then a little upset: how could he compare his situation with mine?  Good for him for not needing help.  Did he spend $40K/year in child care, which still didn't cover enough hours in the week?  Did his colleagues encourage him to take flex time, but then also send the message that presence after hours was actually important after all? Did his spouse travel for days at a time each month?  The answer to all of these questions, of course, is no.

I worry, when we move, that I'll lose this village, that I won't know how to make friends again, that they won't want to be friends, that I'll forget how to ask for help, a skill and a grace that has taken me so long to learn.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Original Post

For Lease, reads the sign in the window, in bold sans serif font above the large white phone number of some commercial real estate company.

But who would lease the post office, I wonder?

It was enough of a surprise when our post office downtown decided that it was going to subdivide, keeping only half of its current building, closing the other half and selling it.  They installed a door where a large pane window used to be on the front of the building, poured a concrete walkway that zigzagged unnecessarily across the lawn, and tacked up a laminated reminder on the old door that "patrons should please use the front entrance."  As if there were now any other.




But when the second post office down the street from where I work closed, too, making me wonder whether they'd preserve the mural I'd studied so often, standing in line, I felt a pang of anxiety.  What did it mean, the closing of the post office?

Turns out that post office is going to become a brewpub.  Though at least they're preserving the mural.

When I was much younger, I used to write letters.  I had (still have) a wax seal with my first initial, and wax that I'd melt letting the whole stick catch fire momentarily as it dropped across the seal.  I sent small packages with bracelets, coupons, all sorts of things.  I wrote away for free stuff, enclosing self-addressed stamped envelopes that would come back to be with pamphlets and maps and plastic. I loved, and still love, the inky, papery smell of the post office.  It's the same no matter where I go, no matter which town I'm in.

I guess Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram have replaced the post office.  I hope the brewpub gathers friends just as paper letters once connected us.  Maybe Jeff Bezos' drones will fulfill my need for mystery packages.  Somehow, though, I feel like I'm being robbed of something magical.
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