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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Grill of My Dreams

We Midwesterners have endured an extraordinarily long, cold, bleak - and did I mention long - winter this year.  So long, that forecasters have now declared that we are having a "compressed" spring which I believe essentially means we are moving straight from winter into summer.  I choose to live here in the heartland and proudly so, so I hate to be one to gripe and complain about the weather. After all, it's part of the deal. And yet, this year it was hard to avoid complaint. Collectively, I think we are officially over it. I know I am.

So it was on the heels of this particularly harsh winter that I declared 2014 would be "The Year of the Patio." I promptly set up a Pinterest board, pinning all kinds of ideas I was sure I would never be able to execute.  I called upon my brother-in-law to help me with my quest to find new patio furniture.  After considerable research on his part (that's how he rolls), we set out for a day-long adventure that resulted in absolute success - at a 20% discount, no less.  (That is also how he rolls.)  I contacted the landscaper and told him to give me something with strong visual appeal and exceedingly low maintenance requirements on my part.  (He delivered on both counts.)  I spent several weeks in search of all of the perfect flower pots and lanterns and doo-dads to give the patio just the right amount of Jen flair.  And today, on this very day, I think my patio has achieved near perfection by my standards.  If we only get 14 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day (a depressing thought if I think about it too much), I am going to enjoy every possible minute I can out there.  Until a mosquito bites me. Then all bets are off.

I am a firm believer that every project in your home needs an inspiration piece. Maybe it's a vase or a framed print or a pillow.  But something must center you and be the guide for your design.  In the case of my patio, it is my grill that takes center stage.  A grill, you ask?  Why yes, a grill.  For I have the most lovely, whimsical, fun, and yet utilitarian grill I have ever seen.  I am not a material girl, and I don't get too excited about "stuff." But I am telling you, I love this grill like it is a person.  I mean, really.  It is a charcoal grill with a propane start.  It has a built-in thermometer gauge.  It has a special side container to hold the charcoal.  It has all the bells and whistles!

In 2005, I moved into this lovely little house of mine and almost immediately started prepping for the party to end all parties - a co-ed wedding shower for my sister and her husband-to-be.  Plans were well underway when my sister emailed me an advertisement for a lime green Weber grill, exclusively available at Crate and Barrel.  Now mind you, I have an affinity for all things lime green and this grill was clearly something special. But as a new homeowner, I took one look at the price tag and could not justify it.  I sent my sister a polite "thanks for the heads up" and assured her it just wasn't in the stars for me at the time.

I love you, grill.
About a week later, my sister's now-husband David and I were out on the town for an evening of fun while my sister was working.  It was a crisp June Friday night, and I remember it quite distinctly because we were at the Lakefront Festival of the Arts.  As we were parting ways, David was kind of fidgety and asked that I call him when I got home safely. Now, he is a thoughtful guy, but even so this was a little out of character.  I shrugged it off and made my way home.  When I got home, it was pitch black and I had to gingerly climb the back stairs and then fumble around for the light switch in the kitchen so I could properly see to set my stuff down.  There - set up right in the middle of my kitchen - was this grill.  I remember first feeling shock and disbelief.  It was singularly the kindest, most thoughtful, most generous thing anyone had ever done for me, before or since.  I actually fell to my knees and cried from sheer gratitude.

That's why I love the spirit of my sister and brother-in-law more than words can really say.  They took one look at this grill and decided I needed it.  It didn't matter that it wasn't Christmas or my birthday.  It didn't matter that it had a $400 price tag.  What mattered was that it is okay to be ridiculously, over-the-top, crazy generous with the people you love every once in a while.  What mattered was that it felt right to do something really, really nice for the sister who had experienced a rough couple of years and was just finding her way out of it.  What mattered was that life is about celebrating, and this grill would be the center of celebrations - large and small - for years to come.

So here it is...my beautiful patio in all its glory, inspired by a grill.  Cocktails and grilled meats, anyone?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dark and Stormy

Every head turned to look as he entered, strode up to the bar and ordered a "Dark and Stormy."  She knew from that moment it was going to be a disaster. 

Patty was sitting at the hotel bar trying to nonchalantly drink her Cosmopolitan, pretending to be engrossed at the content on her smart phone.  It had been a long, lonely, death-by-powerpoint kind of day at the conference she was attending on evidence-based dentistry.  Patty had a strict rule that if her employer was going to send her to a conference, the least she could do was attend every session.  Days like these, her integrity really got in the way of her happiness. 

Patty looked up from her phone to watch the exchange between this man and the bartender.  She assessed the bartender to be equal parts bored and annoyed.  "I've never heard of a Dark and Stormy," he said.  The man didn't just reply, he replied with a sarcastic, sing-songy tone. "Welllll.....first you fill half of the glass with Harp, and the top half of the glass is filled with Guinness."  The bartender sighed and rolled his eyes.  "The rest of the world calls that a Black and Tan."  The man paid no attention to the bartender's snarkiness.  He took a seat right next to Patty and threw down a hundred dollar bill.  Patty assumed, correctly so, that this would only further the bartender's annoyance.    

Patty took another good look at this man.  It was clear that he was arrogant, maybe even the president of his own fan club.  But it wasn't clear if he had the kind of arrogance that was masquerading insecurity, or if it was the kind of arrogance that was just plain arrogance.  He was handsome, but more so from his swagger than good looks.  He was dressed better than most people in a hotel bar should be and smelled vaguely like patchouli.  The man looked at Patty, and gave her a wink and a smile.  "A wink? Are you kidding me?" she thought.  She felt blood rush to her cheeks, and as a reflex she turned back to the content on her phone.  She didn't have the chutzpah to get up and move, although the thought did cross her mind. 

The man was unphased by Patty's indifference and continued on.  "I'm Max," he said, extending his hand to Patty. "That's short for Maximilian."  Patty tried to feign a smile and looked at  his perfectly manicured hand before reluctantly shaking it.  She instinctively knew this man was trouble, but she couldn't get away.  It was as if her feet were made of concrete blocks. 

Max looked Patty up and down in a way that made her simultaneously uncomfortable and secretly delighted.  "You look bored," he said. "Let's spice things up."  Max motioned for Patty to follow him as he made his way to a cocktail table off in the corner. Everything in Patty was screaming, "No, no, no!" but for some reason she didn't hesitate to follow him.  

Max took a sip of his beer and flashed his perfect smile at Patty.  He sorted through the crumpled up change the disinterested bartender had given him and slid a $50 bill toward her.  "I'll give you this $50 bill if you walk over to that lady in the red dress and tell her you like her ear lobes."  Patty had never been presented with such a challenge in her life. She looked at Max quizzically and responded.  "What?  Are you kidding me?  Why on earth would I do that?"  Max smiled and nodded before responding.  "It's fun to mess with people a little bit. No harm in spending our night giving out strange compliments, right?"

Patty felt her heart start to palpitate a little and something came over her.  "Game on," she said, as she stood up and straightened out her plain gray pantsuit. She took a deep breath, tousled her hair and walked right over to the lady in the red dress, who was sitting with a couple of friends.  "Excuse me," Patty quipped, "I know this may sound strange, but I've been noticing you and...I just wanted to say...I think you have really nice ear lobes."  The lady looked a little shocked, and then she and her friends shared a throw-back-your-head kind of laugh.  The lady in the red dress cocked her head, looked at Patty curiously, and said, "Thanks...I think?"

Patty made her way back to Max who was proudly holding up the $50 bill for her to retrieve.  "Good girl," he said. Knowing she had fully earned it, Patty grabbed the $50 bill.  She took her seat and gulped down the remainder of her Cosmopolitan.  She felt a little crazy, and more alive than ever.  

Max and Patty spent the next hour or so presenting each other with compliment challenges.  This little exercise had to be done with a fair amount of discretion, so as to not scare away the patrons or draw the attention of the bartender who was already unimpressed with Max's antics.  Odd compliments were doled out to strangers, one by one.  "I've never seen shoelaces complement shoes so perfectly."  "You kind of smell like cinnamon toast."  "Your hair is the exact same color as my cat."  "The way you drink water reminds me of a swan I once saw in Central Park."  "I like how your eyes don't have any crusty stuff in them."  

Fearing the bartender was onto them, and also a little bored, Max motioned for Patty to follow him out into the hotel lobby.  "Okay," he said.  "Let's make a new plan."  Max surveyed the landscape and pointed in the direction of the Oak Ballroom.  "Look - over there.  It's a banquet.  Let's crash it." 

Patty had been having fun, but she wasn't so sure about this plan.  She hesitated and just as she did, felt a rumble in her tummy.  "Oh, all right," she said.  She and Max walked confidently into the ballroom and got in line for the buffet.  They had no idea what group was meeting. While Patty was doing her best to blend in and hope no one noticed her, Max struck up a conversation with the guy in line behind her.  Patty could not believe this guy.  He was fearless. 

Max and Patty sat down at a table with three older, balding white guys.  Must be an insurance seminar, she thought, as she tried to flash them a little bit of a flirtatious smile to keep them at ease with her presence.  They sat in quiet solitude gorging themselves on prime rib, twice baked potatoes, buttery green beans, salad, rolls and cheesecake.  It was a feast, and Patty had to admit that she was perfectly pleased with it.  Max excused himself from the table and left Patty alone with the three older men inquisitively staring at her.  For the second time in a day, she had to pretend to be intently staring at the content on her phone.  She knew this trick was only going to get her so far.  

Max was gone for an uncomfortable length of time, so Patty also excused herself and made her way out to the lobby. Max was comfortably seated in one of the overstuffed chairs with his feet propped up on the coffee table in front of him.  He looked at her, and then at his watch.  "What took you so long?" he asked playfully.  Patty went over and gave him a little shove.  "I am going to kill you, Max!  Don't do that to me again."  

Max grabbed Patty's hand and walked her right out the doors of the hotel.  They stood just outside the doors and this time Max pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet.  He gave a nod to the Mercedes Benz sitting in the front of the hotel, its owners presumably checking into the hotel. "Looks like the owners left the keys in that car.  I'll give you this $100 bill, if you take that car and move it into a parking spot around the corner."  Patty couldn't explain it, but she wanted to prove to Max she was as fearless as he was.  She gave a quick look around and saw no hotel workers or patrons.  She got in the car and, just as Max had instructed, moved it into a parking spot just around the corner.  As she put the car into park, the door flung open and scared the bejeezus out of poor Patty.  It was just Max, though, and he commanded her. "Get out of the car!  We need to make a run for it!"

Max took long, fast strides and got he and Patty safely back in the hotel through a side door.  They ran up several flights of stairs and stopped to catch their breath at the 4th floor landing.  Breathless, with her heart pounding, Patty could not believe herself.  Here she was, in a city she had never been, with a man she had never known, doing things she would have never thought possible.  In a matter of hours, she could barely recognize the former shadow of herself - a mom, a wife, and a dentist from upstate New York.  Now, she was bordering being a criminal and loving every adrenaline-filled minute of it.  She gave no thought to the chaos that was probably ensuing downstairs as a hotel customer came to believe his car had been stolen.  

Max bargained with Patty.  "Just in case someone saw you, you had better come to my room."  Patty knew he was right, and she knew he was wrong, too.  But if she had any sensibilities left, Patty quickly discarded them and followed suit. She followed Max right into his room, and watched him strip down to his boxer briefs and pour each of them a stiff drink from the mini bar.  It took not a single word, only a nod and a smile, for Max to convince Patty to strip down to her skivvies, too. He took her in his arms and spent the next three hours fulfilling Patty in a way she wasn't sure had been done in the 38 previous years of her life.  Exhilarated and spent, Patty fell asleep nestled in Max's chest. 

When Patty awoke at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, she sat up in a straight panic. The room was dark and she was disoriented.  It took her a moment, but she quickly remembered all of the crazy things she had done the night prior.  She felt next to her in the bed and it was empty.  She got up to turn on the bathroom light, and realized that Max and all of his belongings were gone.  The only remnants left in the room providing evidence of Max's one-time presence were his empty cocktail glass and a used towel on the bathroom floor.  Patty realized she didn't know a single thing about this man who had provided her with the most dangerously delicious night of her life, and now he had left her without a trace. Disheartened, sad and ashamed of her gullible nature, Patty made her way back to her own room.  

Quickly returning to her true form, Patty showered, put on her sensible black slacks and prepared for another day of conference sessions on oral cancer detection and implant prosthetics.  She made her way downstairs and searched high and low for signs of Max, to no avail.  Dutiful as ever, Patty attended each conference session scheduled for the day and even stayed for the closing plenary session.  Each time the door to the conference room opened, her heart raced in anticipation of Max's arrival; each time she was sadly disappointed.

Patty returned to her humble home in upstate New York that night and was warmly welcomed home by her husband and two little girls.  They were accustomed to Patty's predictable ways and never seemed to long for anything more.  In time, Patty found her way back into her regular life and only felt the occasional pang of guilt and loss when Max and his crazy, unpredictable antics would flash through her mind.  

Months later, Patty was making grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on a rainy Saturday afternoon when her smart phone chimed.  She picked up the phone to read the text message before her:  "You stir soup with the precision of an Amish woman making butter."  Patty's heart practically leaped out of her chest.  She looked out the window and saw Max leaned up against his car - the same Mercedes Benz he had convinced Patty to move at the hotel so many months prior.  He gave her a confident, knowing nod and flashed that smile of his that always equated trouble.  She looked back sorrowfully at her husband and children playing Chutes and Ladders in the next room.  Not knowing how he had found her, but knowing she was not capable of making any other choice, Patty walked out the door and smiled back at Max. "The tires on your car are the most perfectly round tires I've ever seen."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Not a Mom

As much as other women identify themselves as Mom, I identify myself as Not a Mom. Lest we forget, Not a Mom is important too.

To be fair, I've had my struggles with my Not a Mom title at times. Throughout my twenties and well into my thirties, I was deeply ambivalent about the prospect of motherhood.  Naturally, there was the subtle but pervasive expectation of those around me.  Practically days following my wedding, inquiries of plans to have children arose.  On top of that, I had coupled myself with someone who was certain he wanted children. Soon after, my friends all started having children.  And while I love children, most especially when they are not mine, I wasn't sure I was equipped to give all of myself - and then some - to another tiny little human being. And you know how they say that not taking action is actually a form of taking action?  I think that's just what I did.  I kept delaying the decision until there was no decision to be made.

I used to spend a lot of time, though, thinking about the prospect of adding children into my life.  I had always thought that if I were going to have children, I would prefer to take on a foster-to-adopt scenario. I guess it appealed to the Social Worker in me.  My thought process was that if I adopted a child who came from some set of terrible circumstances, I could give it an amazing life it probably never would have otherwise had.  Conversely, I thought, if I had my own child, it would come out perfect and all I could do was ruin it. You can see why the only decision I could make about motherhood was to not make one.  It's probably best that things turned out as they did.

But I need to point out that by being Not a Mom, I can make unique contributions to the world.  I am able to work as many long hours and with as much ballsiness as a man, all the while incorporating the softer and more compassionate world view of a woman into my work.  I can grab onto and fiercely protect the image of an independent woman, and furthermore role model this capacity for other women around me who have struggled to find their own way. I am able to fulfill my need to nurture by taking care of animals, my employees, my friends and my family in my own enduring and loving ways.  Because I am Not a Mom, I will always have the time and the resources to spend time with the people who love me and need me the most - even at a moment's notice, and even in some spectacular ways. Last but certainly not least, I will always work the week between Christmas and New Year's, every year, so people with children can be at home with their families (and who, at the end of said week, will admit they couldn't wait to come back to work). You can even count on good old Not a Mom to stay late and finish that important project when you have to leave because little Johnny threw up in gym class.

So for all you moms out there, please know that you have my utmost respect.  You are doing what I am not sure I could ever do.  You are patient, loving, giving teachers of our youth, and your sacrifice is making this world a better place.  As for me, I am on a different path, and I am doing what you probably aren't sure you could ever do.  Today, while you are doted on with flowers, breakfast in bed and hand-made cards, I'm going to spend the day celebrating Not a Mom's Day.  I think I will take a walk by the lake, do a little shopping, see a movie or maybe even take a long, decadent, uninterrupted nap. That's what you get to do when you are Not a Mom.  It's beautiful in its own way.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Baby Carrots and Nail Clippers

A co-worker enters our meeting room where we will take up residence and hash out important matters for the next two hours.  In one hand, she has a bag of peanut M&Ms.  In the other hand, she has a Costco-sized bag of almonds.  Others may see this and immediately think to themselves, "Snacks!  And she plans to share!  It's my lucky day!" I, on the other hand, do not share this joyful sentiment.  Instead, I immediately feel a tightening in my chest and a clenching of my jaw.  I let out what feels like a loud, involuntary sigh, and although I can't see it, I imagine I have a grimace on my face.  I have an immediate and enduring response that I want to flee the situation.  This two hour meeting has just turned into my version of a private hell.

For years I have known that I have a high sensitivity to noise.  It's not just any noise, though.  The noises that are most bothersome to me are those that are subtle and repetitive.  I remember sitting in a room with my boss on a hot, humid August day last summer.  The air conditioning was running full blast - a fact for which we were all thankful. My boss was talking about items of great importance, no doubt.  And all I could hear was the click...click...click...of the blinds hitting against the window pane from the forced air of the air conditioning. I could barely concentrate on what she was saying to me.  It's the kind of thing that most people don't even hear, and yet it is enough to drive me mad.

Then one day a little less than a year ago, I was out to dinner with a friend.  On her own, she brought up her own sensitivity to noise, but she had a name for it:  Misophonia.  She went on to explain that this is a neurological disorder that affects up to 4% of the population, and in literal terms means a hatred of sound. We spent the next hour venting about all the sounds we hate and laughed ourselves silly because anyone listening in our conversation would either think we had lost our marbles or that we were snarky little bitches. I would argue that neither are true; others may say that both are true.  Either way, it was incredibly validating to find one of my people.  I've since found many more - I can spot Misophonia in someone else a mile away.

The unfortunate news is that the only remedy for my problem requires other people to change their behavior. I have learned to just let people at work know about my noise sensitivity and I usually do it with bold, unrelenting humor.  I guess I have this luxury, because I'm the boss. Over time, and enough jokes made about how I will cut a bitch who brings an apple to a meeting, the crunchy food consumption seems to have dwindled in our workplace.  Go figure. Now I need to find a way to deal with all of the pen clickers in the world.

When my fellow Misophonic friend and I got together recently, we made a list of foods that are acceptable in a meeting.  The list included yogurt, applesauce, string cheese, cuties, bananas, and our favorite food of all: "How about if you just eat your fucking snacks when you are by yourself?"

So the next time you are headed to a meeting with a snack in tow, you may want to stop yourself and think about people like me.  While I don't believe there has been a Misophonia legal defense made just yet, I do believe the day will come.  Someone, somewhere, will crinkle a bag, clip their nails, eat some pretzels, slurp some soup or gulp their water in just the wrong way and all hell will break loose.  My advice?  Don't take any chances.  Really.  Please.  On behalf of myself and everyone else with Misophonia, I am begging you. Leave your baby carrots at home.