The shallow end

shallow woman with great hair“I still can’t wear mascara” she tells her friend. She is in tailored pants, a fitted T shirt hugging her curves with toned tan arms holding her 1/2 caf skinny latte. She has chunky jewelry, brand named sandals and professionally colored blond hair. “You look great.” her friend tells her, truthfully. “People are going to look at me and be like, what is up with her.” I guess because of the mascara. I am listening to her and wondering ‘what is up with her.’

My ginger peach tea is ready at the drinks bar and I stumble out between the tables to get it.

Passing the steel and wood standing work space (outlets, outlets) another 40 something pair of women have their heads close together. “I want to just smell it.” says the one wearing Lululemon with an invisible elastic holding back loose dark curls. “I know. Isn’t it incredible.” Unlike certain CEOs these women are ‘leaning in’ over a gourmet pop tart. “It’s my daily sin. I would NEVER tell my kids about it.” They laugh, sharing a moment of how unbelievable it would be to let their kids know that they eat baked goods. EVERY DAY. At least one of them does.

I wonder for the 10,000th time how we got here. How we worry about mascara and carbs. How we pass on the messages to our kids, while hiding our own “sins.” Why we spend time and money erasing lines and dark spots, poking at sagging skin, smoothing creams and potions on our faces, buying six pairs of white jeans until we find one that lifts our ass just right. Maybe we won’t be able to sit comfortably in those jeans, or stand comfortable in those shoes. But look at our legs. Don’t they look long and lean? Media. Social expectations.

I have a diet too. I call it a food revolution with my boys so they don’t think of it as restrictive. I am cutting way back on carbs. No sinful Popsters for me. Despite my efforts to frame my eating habits as a positive for myself and my kids (more energy, stable blood sugar, less stomach pain) we all call the days with fries and pies a “cheat” day. I am a cheater when I eat food off of the list. A big, fat, cheater.

My motivation for the food revolution is primarily for health reasons. But despite my clog wearing, cut off jean sporting, make up free appearance there is vanity in my decision to diet as well. Or at least the hope to re-claim vanity. Perhaps I have turned my low fashion life into my signature because I don’t have a real shot at shining. The closest I come to polish is my Polish background. I imagine myself 40 pounds lighter. Then perhaps I will wear mascara and blow dry my hair.

Across the coffee shop I see two women embracing. I know one of them. She is gorgeous and also grounded. She is engaged in her work, juggles kids, and always has a smile. She is an excellent example of someone who seems to ride the roller coaster of expectations without puking over the edge. As they hug her friend holds her at arms length and tells her “you look adorable.” “I’ve had this forever” she replies, pulling her dress out at the skirt to look at the pattern. As she turns to me I see that even she is wearing mascara.

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 8.43.42 AMNext to me I tune back in to the original pair of women. Slowly the words filter in. They are talking about funerals and failed surgeries. They are talking of lost loves and grieving children. They are talking about a young woman who has lost a battle and the family shattered behind them. The one with the bare eyes says she has been asked to give a eulogy. All of a sudden “I still can’t wear mascara” seems less like a symptom of pink eye the virus and more like the result of pink eyes from crying.

Once again the tiniest tidbit of conversation has sent me spiraling in the wrong direction. “People are going to wonder what is up with me” was not a statement about appearance. It was about grief, and the most fundamental of human realities. These past 15 minutes as I looked around the coffee shop at blond bob after blond bob I was judging simply on appearance. Which is exactly the practice that perpetuates the problem.

It is what is inside the skin that is the story.

Do you have a story about re-thinking a snap judgement? How do you make sure you concentrate on the book not the cover?


Why I was a cheating cheater

It’s easy enough to blame my affair on my dead dad.

The Husband

My husband and I met at Brown University. J was tall and golden and tanned. I imagined myself with someone dark and nebbish. He was a swimmer who wrote passionate stories and grew his own pot. My imaginary partner and I would sit to avoid our four left feet and stay out of trouble doing a crossword. My future husband would never be satisfied by such a simple grid. He created his own world snowboarding out of bounds, losing himself in atonal guitar, and populating imaginary universes with violent aliens. He represented infinite possibility. I was just trying to keep my grades up.

I grew up an hour from Providence so it was easy to take him home to show him off. My father was an artist who ate steaks and listened to sports radio. He worked for himself whenever he wanted. He even hired someone to take out the garbage. My boyfriend saw first hand that a life without rules was possible. I was both happy and wary when they started spending time together in my father’s studio.

The Problems

After graduation J didn’t look for a job. My father had taught him what he always knew…that he was too good for the grind. He worked for my father two afternoons a week. The rest of the time he was out on bike rides or listening to jam music too stoned to speak. He embraced a life apart, fueled and funded by my father. I thought space from my father and a fresh start might help us both. We moved to Vermont but took all of our baggage with us.

After my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer he pressured me formalize my relationship. Unlike many parents he didn’t exert his will through advice or pleas. Instead he covered up our problems and bound J and I together. When we moved to Vermont he built a studio for J so he could continue “working” for him. He insisted that I put J on the deed of house that I bought, tying us together legally before we even talked about marriage.

The Wedding

Just as my relationship had lost all of its luster we got married. I knew. I knew at the time that my answer was “I don’t” not “I do.” Still I went through with it. My father needed to know that I was settled before he could let go. I figured the gift to my dad was worth another year or two of a lonely life. We had a tented dinner on the lawn of our lovely lake front house. I didn’t dance. When J and I got back to our hotel room we fell asleep side by side without touching. I dreamed of rowing away, our little lake the mouth to a much larger body of water. One that I navigated alone.

We drove back to Vermont in  grey mist, which never really lifted.

The Affair

In the end I wasn’t brave enough to do anything alone. The next Golden Boy was the catalyst I needed to leave my marriage. The object of my lust was also unhappily married. He was a slightly grown up frat boy who laughed and teased in a way my haughty husband never would. It started the evening the two couples sat on the couch watching Jerry Maguire. The other woman’s husband had his dog at his feet. His hand was entwined in long fur. He stroked the dog gently at first then with more force. With each escalation of affection he caught my eye. It was strange but effective foreplay.

Like most cheaters I began to collect ammunition against my husband. He didn’t have a job, he smoked pot daily, he took himself too seriously, I hadn’t had an orgasm with him in months. The list was nothing compared to the big transgression. My father, his champion and patron lay dying three hours away and he never went with me to visit. I was commuting weekly between work and graduate school making the drive to sit by my father’s bedside. My husband stayed away because my father had taught him that that opting out was an option.

The Exits

In the end I left J before my father died. I hadn’t lasted six months in our marriage. My father was ill enough then that he never knew that his matchmaking had failed. I moved out through freezing rain and on that one day J was the partner that I hoped for. He bought me a tea pot with two handmade mugs for my new apartment. He wanted to move me in, but instead the other man helped me get settled. My apartment was on a river with a rushing waterfall. After sending them both away I sat in front of the window and watched the icy rain pour into the water.

On Valentines day I spent another secret evening with the other man in my apartment. When the phone rang at 11:42 I knew my father had died. I sat on the scratchy carpet listening to the river rush outside. My tears flowed just as quickly. I felt a face against my back and  arms that held me as I wept. For a few tortured months we stuck out the affair. We tried to turn it into a public relationship to justify our infidelity to the world. Yet the best of what we had was ours alone. I helped him out of a low point of his life and he held my hand as I climbed out of the murky waters of the death of my father and my relationship.

The Lesson

It might be easy to blame my affair on my father, but it is not fair. I chose a partner for me who couldn’t be my partner. My dad followed my lead, helping us to settle down in a way that was purely settling. At the time I felt shame over the fact that I wasn’t strong enough to stay single, and even more misery that I needed to cheat to be free. Over the years the shame has stilled. The rapids have slowed, allowing me to climb to shore on the other side on my own. 

Eventually I made it onto higher ground. Looking back at the wreckage of lost loves I realized could learn to navigate. [Tweet theme=”basic-white”]You need to exit to exist. [/Tweet]


It turns out I have confused some folks with this post. The affair that I am writing about happened in 2000. The husband I cheated on was not Steve. Steve and I have an incredible relationship brought to us in part by my past mess.Couple cheating

Heavy Petting

What kind of a person gives away her dog? The one she raised from a pup, who rode in the car with his arm on her shoulder like a giant canine parrot. The one who covered her face with kisses. The one who she insisted didn’t smell like dog.

Me, I guess.

I also gave away a peeing cat…but that is another story.

Buckley, named for Jeff of the soulful voice and youthful drowning, was my second attempt to get a guy.

The first was building a bar, but it turns out the guys you meet at 1am on a Wednesday aren’t the type you want to have kids with.  So I decided to get a dog and head to the dog park at the exact time that someone with a day job would be there.

Our dogs fell in love first. Then Steve and I did. Finally we began to love one another’s dogs. For a while we were a happy fuzzy family.

Buckley earned the nickname of “fun police.” If Steve and I laughed too loudly, brought home a balloon (don’t tease…balloons are very uplifting), danced, sang, or jumped Buckley barked and barked…and barked. Although he wanted us to sit still and shut up HE wanted to fun and frolic. He would submarine his nose in the snow, hinge with pleasure at a greeting and jump and twirl in the air when he ran towards Steve’s (I mean our) Saint Bernard.

Then came the boys. They were 17 months apart. From the time they were old enough to move they were like puppies themselves, tumbling and tangled, shrieking and swinging, dancing and rolling balls. Buckley wanted none of that. It was his job to keep those kids still and he was a dedicated worker. The real problem was the birthday parties. Do you know what is a main feature of birthday parties? Balloons. Do you know how long and hard a dog needs to bark at the balloons to protect his family? Days. Exhausting.

So after a bit we began to dog share. We had a single friend who spent time outdoors and worked in a dog friendly office. It started with dog sitting and stretched to a week at a time. Then we went to a week on and a week off. Finally he was coming to us just for a visit. He would hinge and wag with pleasure as soon as he turned to our street, but then again he did the same when he went to his other house. I waffled between feeling leaden with guilt and able to rationalize our arrangement.

Eventually our friend was no longer single. Then he called to say he was moving to NYC. I had my heart in my throat wondering which way this would go. Would he want to take Buckley or leave him? With a thud of guilt and grief I realized I wanted him to go. This turned out to be a good thing, because that is what our friend wanted as well.

After a few years Buckley’s family of three returned and my guilt had faded. He was loved. He was loving.

Today I got the text I have been dreading for 13 years. Buckley is in surgery. It doesn’t look good. Steve happens to be back in Vermont. Hopefully he will visit my, his, our dog and not have to say goodbye.

We already did that…and it was for the best that time. My dear Buckley, thank you for being my family and giving me my family, thank you for moving on with grace and brining love to Erik and Kortnee, and here is hoping wherever you wake up there will be lots of fun to police.

Erik and Buckly
Erik and Buckly


Level Failed, try again.

When my dad switched from living to dying my mother took up solitaire.

As soon as there were computers she spent her life at them, writing books, preparing syllabuses, whatever else tenured professors at ivy league schools do. She was happy there, creating, editing, annotating. The super speedy click of her long polished fingernails on the keyboard was the constant, comforting sound track of my childhood.

In one of his last acts of rebellion in the not long enough life of a rebel my dad had refused to die in his bed in his room, instead he co opted the three room suite of kitchen, family room, breakfast room and spent December and January there receiving some visitors, talking some nonsense and smelling worse and worse.

He didn’t like light so we had the shades closed against the sun and its reflection on the lake. So my mother’s laptop added a bluish cast to the room as she flew through piles of cards.

I could always tell if she wanted me to sit and stay by what she did with the laptop screen. Tilted halfway to keep the game active was my yellow light, shut with a click meant come on in, and there were a few times when she didn’t look up, the clicking coming from the draw piles, rather than her full on typing mode.

She was in survival mode, not creative.

(For those of you without kids age 6-14 that is a minecraft reference.)

My father was the last person to have big expectations for me. He asked for what he wanted. Often forcefully. Despite the fact that I lived 3 hours a way, was tending to a failing marraige, was in graduate school, and working he expected me to be by his bedside always.

I tried. I drove back and forth and only got in one accident. I was really no where during that time. But that was fine with him. If I couldnt be sentinal at least I couldn’t be engaged anywhere else.

If this makes him seem selfish, it should, he was, and also generous and loving with me. He had the gift of shining an intense bright light on whomever he attended to. At times (many) this light was the light of inquistion. Equally as common was ridicule. The last alternative was the light of life, reserved for people who surprised and interested him. So I became one of those.

So my mom took a semester off of work, I checked out of my life, and my dad became more of himself. Like they say about money and drunk people imminent death tends to make you more you.

Then it stopped. He got sicker and there was just solitaire. I couldn’t regale them with conversation about being a newly wed. My husbands drug use and my affair were topics too taboo even for me. (Then.)

But we were in survival mode. At least the rest of us.

My father died on Valentine’s day 2000. I was not home with my husband, nor was I by his side. I had moved into a crappy little apartment. Perhaps my penance for the affair, and heard the news over the phone. I remember the feel of the carpet on my knees. I had no furniture in the apartment, and I looked out the large window at the rushing river  and tried to feel my father.

This is the moment that I will know. A skeptic by nature and nurture I opened up to the possibility of him still being out there, expecting things of me.

But there was nothing. His light was gone, and the darkness felt absolute.

Then the arms of the other man, kneeling beside me on the floor, hugging my frozen self into him. And this is why I struggle not to judge anyone. I was a cheating cheater and so was he and in this exact moment he was the most and only person who could take me away from the life that I had already chosen to leave. Like a catalyst for an inevitable reaction, I know. KNOW. I wouldn’t have made it through that time. So in the midst of universally accepted bad behavior, and grief like I have never known I decided that I now had to expect things of myself. Shit.

I wanted to write about technology. My meditative/medicative obsession with candy crush. Level failed, try again. I was going to tie in Minecraft, and my mothers solitaire. This other stuff came out though. I guess it was time.

I forgive myself for cheating. I would do it again in that exact situation. But now is not then, and I am not her anymore.

I share this with you as a glimpse into how perfect moments can be contained inside layers of crappy choices and situations, and probably the opposite. Road to hell and all.

Lets judge each other a little less right now.

And just as importantly lets judge ourselves as little as possible.

Level failed, try again.




The Other Side

Standing beside my scorching hot mini van I squint at my friend as he lifts his hand. “See you on the other side,” he says as a farewell.

He means, I assume, the other side of his birthday, my move, something literal. But given the news of the morning, and my 5 week “Fringe” marathon a small piece of me wonders.

The text came on my drive in to town. “Did you hear about D? Died at 51 of a heart attack, working out.” No. I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t really liked him much. He and I were both brusque, opinionated, hurried, in our shared post. He was much better versed in the field, and I respected his immense knowledge. He was a bit authoritarian which was probably what rubbed me the wrong way. I imagine if I had known him in another context I would have had entirely different feelings. As it was he was chair of a board that I sat on…and as such was someone I was forced to rebel against…as is my nature. What he was most of all though, was ALIVE. He was IN IT. Whatever it was. I never saw him shrug his shoulders and say…”either way, it doesn’t really matter.”  It all mattered to him, and both the fact and the manner in which he chaired our board showed it. I was glad to have been able to sit by his side for two years.

A second text, from a friend often on the road says: “Home for 2 days, my son changed, weird.” Again, I can only suppose his meaning, but this boy is growing up, arriving in this world. Here from the other side.

One arriving, one departing.

I wonder about the other side of grief. What is it? Gratitude?

I am feeling gratitude. And hot. I am also feeling hot. Already the big meta thoughts are drifting away to the minutae. What to eat. How to get my kids to pick up their socks. How to get my kids to SEE their socks in order to pick them up. How incredibly mushy graham crackers get in the humidity.  The details of life on this side.

Thank you D for your passion, and your hearty laugh. Thank you for the time that you offered your community from what you did not know would be a too short life. Here’s to hoping there is an other side.



Time’s up.

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-10-37-53-amLeo arrives from the beach with a flopping minnow in his palms. Quickly he fills a bowl with fresh water and watches him die.

I am irrationally upset by this. I was beginning to post about life and death, then got a natural example. Leo is headed to the bay now to retrieve salt water to revive the dead fish. That will likely not go well. He is sure “porky” is still alive. I don’t know how long minnows live. Perhaps this death was not premature.

For most of the year our family is slotted in to our elementary school life. I see 30-50 somethings plus 0-12 somethings. Steve sees a broader age range of engineers at IBM. From what I can tell they don’t talk about health, aging and life stages, just test phases, and bizarre alphanumeric codes.

In the summer we host open house parties in Vermont with neighbors, friends, and visiting families. I see grandmas with toddlers, new boats for empty nesters, pregnant bellies. While we are in Truro we see my mom’s friends. They are approaching retirement. They are blowing past retirement. A strange concept for another era. What would retirement mean? Wondering about how to fill their days, where to live, whether to smooth their foreheads.

Leo is sitting outside with his dead minnow in a bucket singing to him. My mom is walking restlessly around the room tidying coffee mugs. Visiting friends are packing to leave. Oliver is dropping toast crumbs. A regular vacation morning.

Somewhere a family friend’s son deals with the sores of chemo recently ended. My 2nd cousin lies in a coma with brain stem involvement, my mother in law wakes up still a widow a year after Steve’s dad’s death. My uncle raises funds for a grief center in CO to make something of the death of his younger son.

Leo is at my elbow now. Asking. “What if he’s not dead?” He is still in the age of magic. Where fish come back to life. Recently we discussed our summer plans. “What day are we going to see Crawford?” he asked. “Wait.” he said “I don’t even really understand my days of the week, so I don’t know why I asked that.” In and out he goes. Between knowing what tomorrow brings and knowing what tomorrow is.

At the end of his life my father had so much morphine that space and time became elastic again. Early on  he would ask, what day, what time? Trying to get his bearings…then not. At the end he remained in that world, stacking blocks of stone to remake himself, re sculpt himself whole, minutes and hours, nights, and days indistinguishable. For my too mom it became impossible to look ahead, predict anything. We imagined bringing his hospital bed with us to the cape that summer. Parked in the middle of the open space. He hadn’t had anything to eat in some number of days, the cape was months away, and still it seemed he would live forever, in this interior world of indeterminate time.

It is like that for Leo still. “I have been waiting 27 and one half days to go to the pond.” He pleads this morning. What he means is a while. I can translate. “Ollie will die before me.” He tells me. “I will always be younger than him, but he will die before me and then I won’t be younger.” I answer that it is likely. That we don’t know exactly when our time is up, but if everyone followed exactly the averages Oliver will die 17 months before him. Excluding eating habits, smoking habits, interest in motorcycles, exposure to toxins, and unpredictable encounters with drunk drivers. I don’t say that last part.

He doesn’t even know when Wednesday is.



Who we are

As I type this my dog (originally Steve’s now after 8 years together I call her mine) barks LOUDLY in the background. The next door neighbors, still in Florida for the winter have their gardeners working up a storm. Sarah thinks they don’t belong. She thinks their machines don’t belong. She is probably right on some cosmic level, why do we build machines to tame lawns? In any case…it is who she is. She objects to the unexpected. For hours.

I’ve never been particularly interested in the weather, I prefer small talk to revolve around food or TV, but I am forced to chime in, because today it is snowing on April 21sit at the same time that my neighbors aerate and mulch. Its hard to feel self pity though, we chose to live here. Snowing in late April, what would we do if the mud never froze over during this weird not spring of ours. It is part of the Vermont identity.

Eleven years ago my father died. Before his first battle with cancer being his daughter was part of my identity. He was incredible, fierce in the least Tyra Banks way possible. He raged over indiscretions perceived and actual, he saw beauty in trees, he ate a limited menu of 6 foods, and was functionally illiterate. He provoked my friends into humorous and dreadful conversations, about spiders, architecture, whether the 14 year old’s life had beauty in it. He asked why they would ever want to go to college, if they had tried “magic mushrooms” and downgraded the full length of the Long Trail to “a nice walk.” Perhaps that’s why I don’t talk about weather. Every topic on earth was on limits for him. Doting daughter of the artist/provocateur. It was who I was.

After his diagnosis I became at least partially the daughter of a dying dad. In a way he was well equipped for dying. He rarely took into account other’s opinions or feelings, so it was not an adjustment at all for him to make demands from doctors and caregivers, and carefully outline his last meal, special trips, and determine what discourse would happen at the table.

His long death was what you might imagine (or if you are lucky, not) with skeletal physique, difficulty swallowing, dillerium. On his part and ours…after six months in and out of consciousness on a hospital bed in our living room, my mother and I started making summer plans in January. How to transport the bed to the cape. Time of day, month and year all became a swirling blur. Perhaps he would be with us in this altered state forever. Demanding caring, occupying our thoughts. Challenging us. It was who he was.

Born 29 years and 1 day after his dad our now six year old has usurped his fathers birthday. It is alright Steve reassures us. And it is. Some people still celebrate Steve. His parents drove in from Michigan like they do every year to mark the birthdays. Generous with their presence and presents the packages took many trips to bring in from the car. Everything is carefully selected to cater to what the recipient is interested in. Start wars legos, craft beer books, Redwings Jerseys. No enrichment gifts here. They want each present to bring joy. It is who they are.

Steve’s family is generous, polite, and cautious. They stand in stark contrast to my father (and me if I am honest) other people’s desires and opinions trump their own. When it is just the five of them together with no outsider to tip the scale they go round in circles trying to select  a meal for dinner, looking to get it just right for everyone. No one is more solicitous than Grandpa, who gives up his seat, his coat, his plate of food to anyone who so much as glances at him. It has always struck me as inefficient, this desire to please. Although why efficiency matters I can’t really explain. Part of who my mom is. But that is another post.

Just one week after their birthday visit we got a call that Grandpa was in the hospital. From asymptomatic he appeared to be in liver failure. Steve flew home to them and met his siblings. Three days later the worst possible news. Untreatable, aggressive non differentiated pancreatic cancer. From apparent health to weeks from death in 5 days. 62, and just beginning to talk about his wife’s retirement so they can spend more time on the road driving the rhombus from Michigan to Vermont, to Atlanta to Florida. Those Midwesterners, always in the car. Driving distances that make east coasters call up their Kayak app is part of who they are.

Steve is investigating oncological protocols. He is juggling doctors and lawyers, flight schedules, insurance paperwork, advance directives and powers of attorney. He is calm and collected. It is, of course, who he is.

His sister is emotional. Expressive, connected. The youngest child, the only daughter.

His brother is trying to read his father’s mind, understand what it feels like to be some handful of days from death, as if deep empathy lessens the burden. The middle son, the one to find balance.

His mother is optimistic, imagining incorrect diagnoses, successful experimental treatment, carefully compartmentalizing the pain to be a smiling face. Living a bit outside of the real world, in this totally unreal situation is not so far from who she is in the regular world. Well respected and efficient at work, she is the object of Grandpa’s love and care for 35 years.

What do I wish for them? For us all? Perhaps a little of each other.

For Steve to let it all fly apart, to really feel like his sister.  For Grandpa to listen to his own desires, like my dad could do every day of his life, and feel liberated to make demands. For Grandma to take the slice of this pain that she can, and dole it out slowly over the next decade,  managing the project of living alone capably as she learns she can. For his brother and sister to share Chris’ balance, and Val’s connectedness and for them all to be a family for this last little bit.

Then the real pain starts.

Death is intimate. It changes our relationships. It changes what we know we are capable of. It changes for a while our perspective about everything on earth. After we emerge from the care of the dying, more fragile than we were when we went into that other world of changed time and space we are a bit scrambled up. We are raw, and feeling, and disconnected and interconnected.

We are not who we were.

But in my experience, we are someone better.