Double

** On the left: What Russ and I snowboarded.

**On the right: What everyone else did, and what Russ tried yesterday.

Today is our Anniversary. We were married January 18, 2019 at the tail end of the longest government shutdown in American history. Looking back now, the shutdown was just a prep for the real fallout, little more than a year later. Lots of people were out of work then too, standing in pantry lines, and nothing of significance was open—not the fun stuff, like museums, and not the necessary stuff, like the DMV, or say, a courthouse. 

The Mayor approved a temporary permit for weddings, the day before we were supposed to get married in the courthouse, that had been closed for the previous four weeks. They didn’t return our fees already paid, but we managed to marry, on our set date, in an administrative office designated to handle these things until the shutdown ceased. 

There was no Honeymoon, only a quick weekend to Wintergreen for snowboarding. The condo we rented was borderline offensive. We were afraid to sit on the couch, or use the utensils in the kitchen. The lines for the lifts looped back and forth like paper clips lined up next to each other. We stood for a bit, but after not moving a fraction in time, we bailed. I hadn’t been back to Wintergreen since my college days and I decided then, tarnishing the good memories I had by creating vastly underwhelming ones, was a terrible idea.

Russ and I love to snowboard. It’s sort of our thing. The first time we went was in Riodoso, NM. The second time was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Then we went back to New Hampshire again, then to the Poconos, and now, for our Honeymoon, Jackson, Wyoming. 

This is my fifth time snowboarding in four years. Every time I strap my board on  the first day, I am consumed by nerves. This time was no different. But it only takes a couple runs to find the door to my groove. Facing the mountain today, I had my first hard fall. I fell backwards and landed on my ass so hard, the force continued down my spine, slamming the back of my head against the ground, on its way out the tips of my roots. My doubt, doorman to my fear, echoed its mantra: “I told you so, Grasshopper.” But I agreed with it, taking the air out of its sails and shutting it up, so I could carry on.

Russ is a really good snowboarder. Actually, he’s good at any sport he chooses to play. That’s just how it is for him. Yesterday, our first day on the mountain, he decided he was done warming up, and headed to the bigger runs. He walked over to the first lift, the tallest one, and it said “Experts Only.” 

He thought that was bullshit, but the mountain was straight up, or more importantly, the run went straight down. I said, “Mmm, how about this other one?” It didn’t go up quite as far. We walked over only to see the same sign: “Experts Only.”

“That’s just some bullshit they post so they don’t get sued!”

I disagreed, but wished him well.

See you at the bottom, Sweetie.

I watched his chair make its way into the trees and I lost sight of Russ. 

I looked, and watched, and waited.

I looked, I watched, and I waited some more. 

I kept waiting. 

I looked around because I thought he might come out on the other end of the mountain. 

I called his cell.

No answer. 

I walked to the other side of the mountain to see what I could see.

I called him again. 

No answer.

I waited ten more minutes and called him again.

No answer.

It took the full hour, but then I was in full panic mode. I considered who it was I should notify to go look for him.

Wouldn’t other skiers stop if they saw a crumpled body off to the side?

Or were they going too fast?

I was twirling around, trying to decide who I should approach for help, when off in the distance I thought maybe I glimpsed the shadow of Russ, walking toward my side of the mountain, carrying his snowboard.  

Can I really see “his walk” from this far away?

Well…he’s walking…so that’s good.

Sure enough, it was Russ. 

The run was long and narrow, and he ended up walking down most of the way, which took most of an hour, and he wasn’t carrying his cell phone. My relief seeing him safe was palpable. We were both exhausted—me from worrying and Russ from trekking on foot down the mountain for an hour.

I squeezed him hard, sighing relief.

 I said, “This almost turned out to be the worst Honeyversary ever!!

He laughed. 

“I know, right?!”

That was yesterday, but today was a different day.  The snowboarding was fantastic. We stayed on the little hill, practicing, and I finally learned how to turn the front edge of my board into the mountain. Now I can ride both the front and the back of my board. Just like that, my skill set doubled, which is one of the perks of being a beginner again!

Tomorrow, Russ and I are going to Jackson Hole to snowboard. They have a few more greens to explore, and a gondola all the way to the top of the mountain. Tonight, we are wrapping up our anniversary with dinner at Merry Piglets, Jackson’s oldest Mexican food restaurant, because besides snowboarding, we share a love of good margaritas. 

Our Honeyversary started a little shaky, but our anniversary was a blast. That sums up our marriage pretty well. After all, you can’t bake a cake without breaking a couple of eggs first.

Love, Absurdity, and Rock Bottom

Photo: Goats make everything better.

(Pictured is the small herd of assorted animals at the Inn At Little Washington.)

SWOONING

Preface: It’s hard to believe I didn’t own a TV, for almost ten years, not all that long ago.

Johnny Rose: Apparently there’s a lice outbreak in your class. 

Alexis Rose: Ewww. It’s probably Kelsey. She’s such a horse girl. 

Johnny Rose: Honestly, Alexis, if you don’t like the way somebody looks….

Alexis Rose: Dad, that is so mean! She doesn’t look like a horse. She just talks about them a lot…and smells a bit.

(Shitt’s Creek. Season 3, Episode 1)

It took a few episodes to get into Shitt’s Creek, but now I can’t turn it off. Daniel Levy shot to the top of my list of people I would love to meet one day. He is a co-creator, writer, director, and producer of the show and one of its main stars. How does anyone wear that many hats…so well?? He makes me laugh out loud every single episode and I am so grateful for that. He created one of the most epic scenes in television history when his character David Rose lip-synced Tina Turner’s “The Best” to his partner. It’s right up there with John Cusack holding the boombox over his head blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything or Hugh Grant dancing to The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” in Love Actually. It left me swooning, my heart full, and so in love with love. 

Russ and I just started Designated Survivor on Netflix as well, which is good, but a little surreal. The dystopian DC landscape the producers imagined in 2016 feels as if it’s growing some roots here in 2021 (especially after this Wednesday in the District). I learned a new term on the show—“classic post-disaster acceleration,” when “traumatic events [tend to] make people reevaluate their lives—babies, marriage, divorce.” “It happened after 911,” says the Chief-of-Staff, Aaron Shores, citing proof of its validity. Scott Galloway has  called the coronavirus an accelerant from the very beginning. In his latest book, Post Corona, he says, “The pandemic’s primary effect has been to accelerate dynamics already present in society….Take any trend—social, business, or personal—and fast-forward ten years” (p. xvi-xvii). 

What has the coronavirus accelerated for you, or brought to the forefront of your mind?

FANTASYLAND

Russ and I had a dinner reservation at the Inn at Little Washington Wednesday night to celebrate his birthday the previous day. It took six months to secure a reservation. We like to visit annually, but didn’t make it last year. As we packed our bags that afternoon, hell erupted in the Capitol, and the city was enveloped in chaos and danger. Russ and I rushed to get in the car, only to hit the the tunnel where traffic sat jammed across four lanes like a pack of impatient hounds, nipping at each other’s heels before the hunt starts. Drivers were gunning their gas pedals, only to slam on the brakes, yelling unintelligibly at unidentified perpetrators of unknown accusations. I kept thinking to myself, “I will be so fucking pissed if this is where it all ends for us…in a dirty tunnel…surrounded by a bunch of crazies, armed with two tons of moving steel.”

Luckily, we continued crawling through the tunnel to the other side. The traffic lightened considerably and we made it to Washington, VA in good time. We booked a room there for the first time. The Mayor had instituted a 6 pm curfew and we decided driving back into the city late at night wasn’t the best idea. 

As we pulled into the Inn, two valets greeted us, and ushered us inside, sans bags. We were met by the warmth of the crackling fire, as they handed us a sparkling “Welcome” cocktail—champagne infused with a homemade basil/citrus syrup. The taste was refreshingly sweet, with the mild earthiness of basil. We were instantly transported into another dimension of peace and tranquility, far from the city we left behind.

The Inn is preceded only by its platinum reputation curated across the last four decades. The food is exquisite, delicious, and beautiful. Each dish is its own work of art, every detail perfect, from the combination of flavors to the aesthetics of presentation. But dining at the Inn isn’t just about the food. It’s the entire experience from start to finish. It’s the beautifully appointed rooms and the stellar service. It’s Cameron Smith, the Inn’s cheese specialist, known as the “Cheez-Whiz.” Cameron’s puns roll off his tongue as he pushes the mooing cheese-dispensing cow, Faira, through the dining room, both hilarious and absurd.

It’s the Inn’s sommelier with her intimate knowledge of each wine. It’s the round, scalloped, glass bottle with the corked stopper sitting on the side table in our room—a complimentary digestiv, accompanied with short-stem boutique glasses and a pair of sugar cookies shaped like a dog bone. It’s the French doors leading to our balcony, furnished like a comfortable porch in Nantucket, to the sound of falling water in the fountain across the street. I’ve only scratched the surface of the entire experience while simultaneously belittling it, my modest use of language failing to capture its essence with words. You have to experience the Inn for yourself to truly understand it. 

COMPLEXITY

We woke Thursday morning to a crisp, clear day in Washington (VA). After breakfast I sat on the balcony and read the complimentary newspaper. The flags on the railing rippled in the breeze, the only sound to be heard. I couldn’t help but consider how diametrically opposed the atmosphere was between the two Washingtons. The differences presented clearly showcased one of the biggest issues Americans face: growing income inequality, leading to a caste-system society. 

How did we get here?

I have a good idea, but that’s another conversation for another day. There is no need to add to the volatility that already prevails. Suffice it to say, January 6th was a horrible day for the United States. Have we finally hit rock bottom? I sure hope so. Rock bottom contains the silver lining of transforming into a platform to push off from, should we choose, and repair our failings as a society. 

When I haven’t been watching Netflix in my free time, I’ve been reading a lot. My writing hasn’t been going well. For the past several weeks, I’ve come away from my desk feeling like a beginner learning to sit the trot for the first time—battered and bruised, sore, scratching my head, wondering if the “fun” I signed-up for was, in fact, fraudulent advertising. The latest book I completed is Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain. 

The author, neurologist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Behaviour of a complex system [our brain] is more than the sum of its parts…When existing brain parts become more flexible, the result is much more complexity than we get by accumulating new parts…[and] more complexity may make it more resilient to injury.”

Humans have complex brain systems. Are we employing any of the myriad of capabilities our brains provide us right now? Using brains as a metaphor for the macrocosm of life, isn’t society’s role to be greater than the sum of its parts? Isn’t this where we derive our strength? Through our flexibility and cooperation?

Isn’t this how we generate our resilience as a country?

I admit, I am one to easily succumb to the fallacy of oversimplification. I’m not alone in wanting the world to make sense, to understand it, and to solve its complex problems, using finely-tuned heuristics to spearhead my own personal mission in this world. But even a naive perspective can pay dividends, and gain traction, if it spurs deliberate action towards a greater good. I think it’s fair to say, it’s time for all of us to get started.

The First Step

It was evening by the time we pulled out of the dealership. Mom let me drive her brand-new car home, heralding in a new era to our parent/adult-child relationship. Cars, like the rest of technology, have become more complex in the innovation age. Her new model does not have a gear shift. Rather, gears are changed by clicking different buttons, almost like an extension of the dashboard. It will take some time for my mom to adjust to all the new bells and whistles her “computer on wheels” contains. 

As we pulled into the traffic on the interstate Mom said, “Jenn, I just don’t want you worrying about me and your dad so much. We’re really doing fine.” 

I chuckled. “Yeah, I know. But isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black, Mom?

I could feel her smile cut the darkness in the passenger seat next to me. 

Well, “ she said. “I worry about you a lot less now than I used to!”

I threw my head back and laughed.

Well, I guess the tables have turned then, haven’t they?! I worry about you more now than I used to!”

We both laughed at the irony of trading places.

My parents are fortunate to still live independently, in the same house they’ve lived in for the last 38 years, but the benefits they’ve long enjoyed are beginning to be constrained by the inherent burden of doing so. Keeping the inverse correlation of burden vs. benefits in the green zone requires planning ahead, initiative and followthrough, and these days, an uncomfortable level of risk. That said, I was glad to spend the holidays with my family and end the year surrounded by so much love, cheer, and funny stories.

A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction. 

—Kurt Vonnegut

While I adhere to the journey of self-motivation and improvement, the pandemic surely crushed my fallacy of annual resolutions. Last year, I employed Stoicism into my personal philosophy at the start. I planned to abstain from a bad habit or a cheap “crutch” every month. I succeeded with no coffee in January, failed miserably with no sugar in February (the seed of self-loathing taking root), and was well on my way to a successful no alcohol in March when Mother Nature clothes-lined us all, a sudden, colossal apparition, the hard ground stinging our bruised asses and leaving our vision crossed. Russ shook a perfect Cosmo into fruition every evening after that. I was certain to raise my frosted glass by the stem, and toast the fecklessness of my brutally exsanguinated resolutions, as I opened my gullet wide to the “pink juice,” like a baleen whale hoovering krill for the first time. (If you are a horse person, the pun will not be lost on you).

The death of resolutions aside, it wasn’t until I woke-up on my 40th birthday (almost a decade ago) the ideation of reflection weaselled itself into the crevice of my consciousness like a tiny serpent that found the only warm spot between the chill of boulders ensconced tightly in my cerebrum. These thoughts were completely uninvited, mind you, so intent was my focus until then on what was yet to come. Possibility, potential, is much more seductive than its withered counterpart, reality, when compiled on paper, sometimes appears bleak.

These days, I’ve learned hindsight is a powerful feature, augmenting past experiences, most especially the painful ones that poke through the thread of your trousers like a sprig of thorns, leaving splotches of red ink behind. My path in this world so far has been anything but linear. I wish I could admit to a personal operating system of “Never in doubt, but often wrong,” but often I was in serious doubt, as well as often being wrong.

Dr. Mike Ryan (WHO) said, “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.” Paralysis of Analysis is a real affliction. This crossroad lured me more than once, like catnip to a cat, but with a lot less fun. It ensnared me, this mental toggling between all the roads, with a lot of energy expended, and many times, no decision made (which, of course, is its own decision, by default). No one wants to knowingly take the wrong path, or even the lesser path of what’s on offer. Everyone wants to choose the best option, setting themselves up for ultimate success. But what does one do when all the roads appear looking like ribbed mongrels with tangled coats?

If I have a single epiphany worth imparting to those facing these same existential questions, as they surface over their lives, I would suggest what they envision before them isn’t always complete in totality. Sometimes you can’t see all of the options, the opportunities, or even the pitfalls. The web of our individual possibilities, good and bad, aren’t always visible to our myopic eye. But despite life’s ambiguity, I implore those catatonic with uncertainty to make a move. In Three Day Eventing, “moving their feet” was the answer to many of the challenges we faced as riders and competitors of the horses we rode. Just like a boxer, success depends on the ability to keep moving. The boxer that plants his or her feet is the boxer rendered horizontal and unconscious. Sports are such a great metaphor for life, but despite my immersion in a sport as a professional for two decades, it’s wasn’t always easy to apply it to the bigger questions confronting my life outside of horses.

Last year was tumultuous. If you’re in between jobs, in between careers, in between your identity or knowing who you truly are, or aspire to be, keep moving your feet, even if you’re unsure if the choice you made is the right thing. Making a choice–whether it’s a step backwards or sideways or forward–creates brand-new roads we can’t possibly see until we go along on our way. We are all co-creators of our own future, but cannibalised uncertainty, fear, can asphyxiate our agency of ourselves.

I swore I would not succumb to soft platitudes in my writing because I detest when others do, but this blog is soggy with that spongecake. However, for the first time in my life, I feel a certain peace, a certain confidence, I’ve never experienced. It has been quite the trek to get here, and not without a lot of scrapes and scars along the way. This is the price of admission to an interesting life. (‘Interesting’ being a completely ambiguous word for you to take however you’d like.)

A good friend said to me many years ago, “Expectations diminish joy.” While I might have understood this truth intellectually, it was much harder to reconcile emotionally, whether it pertained to my expectations of myself or others, or around my expectations of life’s situations, benchmarks and milestones, usually found unmet. Only now have I’ve finally let go of the handlebars, and learned to pedal with my feet, down whatever road I choose to take, and no matter where it leads.

This year, as the smoke begins to clear, as our freedom to move where we like begins to rebound, I hope those that need to hear it, will take heart, and move in any direction, because the first step is the most powerful one of them all.

Thanks to my sister for sharing this passage below.

“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.
Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.
Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.
Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.
When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.
No rhetoric, no tremolos,
no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.
And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.
Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.

So throw away your baggage and go forward.
There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,
trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.
That’s why you must walk so lightly.
Lightly my darling,
on tiptoes and no luggage,
not even a sponge bag,
completely unencumbered.”

-Aldous Huxley

Christmas Story of 2020

Oh my God, did that just really happen? 

I turned in my seat, facing them. One was poised behind the wheel, adjusting her seat, the whirr of buttons starting and stopping, the chair moving forward, then back, the seat-back like an ocean’s wave, finally landing upright like a throne. My mother is small after all, and car seats tend to swallow her whole. Her friend had slid comfortably behind her, already buckled-in. She was ready for our adventure. 

I stared at them, lips pursed, waiting for their answer. My face held together by the smirk, I tapped my fingers on the console impatiently.

Ok, I said. Three women…walk into a car dealership…and they just hand them the keys??

My voice went higher.

….and wave good-bye??

No one spoke. Then, like a pack of hyenas, we threw our heads back, cackling in unison, as Mom shifted into  reverse.

Her friend leaned in conspiratorially.

This sounds like the start of an exciting new novel!

We howled even louder. 

The novel goes like this:

Three women walk into a car dealership. 

Like a couple of magpies, the two matriarchs’ eyes glaze over at all the shiny objects in the showroom. They disperse out of sight, like ants on a mission. 

Looking around,  attempting some semblance of authority and organisation in the situation, I see a young gentleman headed my way.

Can I help you, he asked?

Umm, yes. We need to test drive some cars. 

Umm, we?

He looked around. 

I spotted Louise. She was adjusting the driver’s seat in an SUV, while Thelma, my mother, was circling a different model across the room, peeping through every window like a petty thief. 

I held my arms up like an air traffic controller would, pointing at them at opposite ends.  

Those two ladies would like to test drive some cars today.

Ok, then. I’ll start lining them up, and let you know when I’m ready. 

I saw him bring the first car around. I gathered up Louise first, then Thelma. We walked outside and the two ladies buzzed around the car. We opened all the doors, tested out the hatchback, and tried out every seat, deciding who would drive first. The salesman knelt down behind the car during all of this, and hung the dealer’s plate, brandishing an electric screwdriver. Standing back up, he brushed the dust from his pants.

The keys are in it.

We stopped what we were doing and looked at this baby-faced giant of a man-boy.

Ahh, okkkk. Great. 

He put his hand up to wave and headed back indoors. 

Without a word, we loaded up in the car.

Mom, Thelma, was trying to locate the key on the fob, and where it would insert in relation to the wheel, when either might be located. Louise was buckling up in the back, and I sat in the front, still in disbelief. 

Finally, I asked, “Sooooo. Did anyone ask you for identification?”

They looked up, looked at each other, and shook their heads.

We covered our mouths, giggling.

And just like that, the truth of Thelma and Louise is revealed in due time to the rest of the world. It started with a tiny mishap, at a glossy car dealership, in the middle of Houston, Texas, when baby-faced Hunter Rogers, born long after the legend of Thelma and Louise graced the papers, handed the two outlaws keys with no questions asked (or paperwork signed).

It was a test drive gone amuck. 

The truth is, Louise didn’t actually drive off the cliff all those years ago. Instead, Thelma and Louise have been in-hiding since those fortuitous (they think) events of their past. It was easy for them to disappear in all of the dark, hot corners Texas is known for. Quietly, together they’ve raised Thelma’s illegitimate daughter, Branjelina, from that one-night stand in the hotel, with the super-hot cowboy hitchhiker-man. Now, three decades later, they’ve decided to re-emerge, with a new plan in their hand, for the last great road-trip adventure of their lives. 

First stop, buy a car.  But this time Branjelina, the young voice of reason, is adamant Thelma and Louise have a car with every safety feature. She insists on a car with airbags on every side, lane departure notification, and automatic brakes, for the times they might get too close to an object in front of them, moving, alive, or not, or perhaps, for those times when the road runs out before them. Branjelina has given the two wild birds mostly a free rein, with the exception of buying a convertible.

The three ladies wave to Hunter Rogers, who is watching them through the glass of the showroom, eating his homemade ham sandwich with pickles and mustard on cheap white bread, his favorite, as they head west on I-45.

The baby-faced car salesman would go on to be interviewed by all the major networks, resulting in a national bestseller, his first and only one.

Joking and juicy novel aside, Mom and her friend did let slip their plan to drive to the west coast together, as soon as it was feasible. My ears perked a little at this revelation. I said them:

It’s a fine line between art imitating life, and life imitating art, isn’t it?

Car shopping with Thelma and Louise felt the way it must when a parent straps a helmet and pads on their kid, and sends them on their way atop a bike or pony. They must pat them on the back, telling them to have fun, before turning and clutching their rosary beads (or flask) to their chests, pleading to the powers above.

The tables were definitely turned.

When we got home that evening, I couldn’t wait to tell Dad about our ridiculous day.

They didn’t ask us for shit, Dad! Nothing!!

He was nonplussed.  

“Well, it’s not like they didn’t have your car there.”

I wracked my brain.

Umm, you mean the one that is worth about $1500??

I rolled my eyes.

They’d just look in your car and know who you were.

 I furrowed by brow. 

I suppose if the information is correct, which is a pretty big assumption from someone driving a beater, that could be stolen, and who just drove off with your brand-new SUV. 

Whether my dad and I agreed on the severity of the lack of protocol, needless to say, I’m pretty sure that’s not how dealerships do things. At least, the next one that afternoon didn’t. The salesman immediately made a copy of their licenses, and before we had even opened the doors of our test drive, the guy had jumped into the backseat and buckled up. 

He was not about to cut Thelma and Louise, and Branjelina, loose.

Before we even arrived home to relive our adventures car shopping with Dad, I fished Mom’s phone out of her purse sitting between us in her car.

Who are you calling?

Hello? Ahh, yes…I’d like to order a pitcher of premium margaritas, to go please…Umm, sure. Could we get an order of queso to go as well?…Yes, thank you. That’s it. Ok great, we’ll be there in fifteen minutes.

Mom rolled her eyes and groaned. This was the second night of salty tortilla chips, hot cheese, and margaritas from Chachi’s. The night I arrived to Houston, we picked up fajitas to go. Chachis always has it ready  when you arrive. It sits in a big white shopping bag on the bar with your name on it. Always at the top of your order is a brown paper bag, like the kind I used to carry my lunch in to school, but much bigger. They fill it with the hot tortilla chips that are complimentary when dining in. It’s now part of their take-out service. 

This is my favourite part. That brown paper bag, warm in my hands, the paper mottled with freckles of grease, signals comfort, home, and deliciousness, especially when tied together by the swish of tequila and sweet and sour syrup.  Their premium margaritas punch well above their weight-class, and are served in tall white styrofoam cups with a straw, looking not unlike a Sonic milkshake to-go.

Washing the hot chips down with my margarita, I thought how ironic it was I loved food served from paper, whether it was greasy chips out of a brownbag in Texas, or fried cod and chips soaked in vinegar, cradled in an Irish newspaper, or a big salty pretzel with a line of mustard across the top in New York City, held at the bottom by the small white napkin covering your thumb and forefinger. All of it is a banquet in my opinion, or maybe I’m just easily swept up by the idiosyncratic traditions of every town, like a true tourist. No matter the decades passed, the grease-soaked paper brings as much bliss as if it’s the first time I’ve tried it.

When we weren’t eating chips and drinking margaritas this week, we’ve been getting ready for Christmas. My number one job when I arrive back at my parent’s house is cleaning. Ove the years, the house has settled, spreading wider, just like the rest of us, and requires more upkeep, just like the rest of us. Taking care of it is a lot of work for my parents and the load seems to quadruple every year, much like inflation. Everything becomes harder, more expensive, and takes longer to complete (human or house).

With COVID, adding a cleaning service has been out of the question. I attack as much of it as I can while here, from vacuuming, washing sheets and slip covers, scrubbing the inside of the fridge, taking the recycling down to the mailbox, putting air in the tires, washing dishes, emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, the list goes on. Just about all of this falls to my mom, so it’s important she gets as much a break as I can convince her to enjoy while I’m here.

We have completed the big errands. The groceries are retrieved, and the trip to Spec’s is complete. Mom’s friend dropped off her homemade pound cake for Christmas Eve dessert, and the two brown-butter coconut-chess pies from Livin’ The Pie Lifeare resting in the freezer after their continental flight.

We are setting up two tables in adjoining rooms, plus there is plenty of seating in corners and along the walls for everyone to stay spread out. This Christmas will feel like a bohemian potluck compared to its usual formal sit-down dinner, but it doesn’t matter, because in the end, it’s only the people who really do. 

I am more grateful than ever these days. The clarity bestowed by a serial, silent killer, as its parting gift. I’m more hopeful than ever about our future on this planet. Some of my friends shake their heads and remind me ‘The Age of Aquarius’ is not coming. But I tell everyone the same thing:

In order to bake a cake, you first have to make a mess. 

We might still be in the wreaking havoc, destroying-the-kitchen stage, but a beautiful cake is in the works.

From the fire, a phoenix rises, and takes flight.

This pandemic is a crisis ripe with opportunity. We shouldn’t waste any of it. It’s a great time to reevaluate our own humanity and its relationship with others. In short, it’s a great time to think of someone besides yourself. It’s a great time to do something for someone you may not know, someone who may not look like you, have the same history or upbringing as you, or have identical values and believe the same things you do. Right now is a great time to say to someone else:

I see you. I acknowledge you. I might not understand you, or agree with you, but you matter, regardless. It’s okay. We are all in this together.

____________________________________________________

These are some of my favourite organisations. Consider these, and others in your area, for end of the year contributions. They all need our help, especially this year.

Happy holidays and peace and love to everyone.

  1. www.mealsonwheelsamerica.org

2. www.thrivedc.org

3. www.capitalareafoodbank.org

4. https://www.grayfaceacres.org

5. https://halliehill.com

6. https://www.nokidhungry.org

7. https://www.missiondc.org

8. www.casaruby.org

9. https://www.salvationarmy.org

Blood is Money

A simple definition of business could be any type of organised system in which revenue exceeds expenses. In other words, when you measure the profits against the costs, the end result is earnings. This versus the antithesis known as debt. Sounds simple, but anyone who owns a business is familiar with the convoluted chasm that exists between those two polarities.

I had my own business before I intended, or realised, it was in fact a business. Necessity is the mother of invention and I needed money.  I began accepting rides on horses belonging to others. I’d ride anything available. When I accumulated enough rides daily, it evolved naturally into a proprietorship. 

Starting out, I traveled to four different barns everyday. The track was my first stop. I’d arrive in the dark and ride 6 or 7 head. On the way back to my barn, I’d stop along the way at two neighbouring farms. One was home to a middle-aged thoroughbred mare who hadn’t had a job since arriving home from the track several years prior. When I jumped her for the first time, her exciting career as a jumper burst forth before my eyes. But I quickly sighed. Resignation singed at the crevices of my heart, for I understood it would never come to fruition. (As suspected, I plead my case to the owner who smiled, nodded, and carried on.)

The other farm was home to two fox hunters. One an absolute stalwart, the best of the best, and the other bay gelding was fresh from Ireland. That in itself should tell you everything you need to know about him. He was the kind of Irish that was pretty, reluctant to hack yonder, and chuffed at every opportunity to smear me against bark.

By noon I’d have ridden ten horses. Arriving at my barn after that, I’d muck eight stalls, and finish my day riding my two aspiring event horses. Eventually, another barn recruited me to ride an assortment of horses-young stock, fox hunters, those rehabilitating from injury, or horses for sale. It wasn’t as many rides as the track offered, but the variety was great, and they paid twice per head.

I followed the money.

After my first year “in business,” I engaged the local accountant to prepare my taxes. By my estimation (using my dutifully logged roster in my check-book), I surmised I shouldn’t, wouldn’t, owe any taxes. How could I when all I managed to eek out, after expenses, was less than $10,000 in profit? That money is what paid my rent, food, and health insurance.

I’m sure the expression on my face registered poignant when she held out her hand and said, “That’ll be $700, please.” Plus $50 for her services. Stuttering, I composed myself, and questioned her math. How was it even possible? And the fact was, I didn’t have it handy. This was the moment I learned the nebulous chasm, between the post of revenue and the pillar of expenses, existed the quagmire called “hand-to-mouth.”

Standing in the accountant’s doorway, I weighed my choice in life, the biggest and most influential one so far as a young adult. For the first time, I wondered whether my well-devised strategy for guaranteed success—working harder than everyone else, riding as many horses as I could get my hands on, with the most minimal of living expenses—was actually going to float, because it surely didn’t feel like it as I forked over a check void of consumption. (I would go on to have this same thought every year at tax time for the next fifteen years.)

There is nothing more foreshadowing than writing a fraudulent check to Uncle Sam the first time you pay taxes as an adult. 

This is the plight and incongruity of small business. The goal, to make the most profit possible, while simultaneously tallying every expense, legit or not, in order for the bottom line to reach as close to zero as possible, so the tax liability follows suit. This is the tacking, sawtoothed edge of capitalism (competition) and socialism (regulation), the handsaw buttressed against the soft innards of every entrepreneur, masquerading as a promise at times, otherwise as a warning. This blade made me its bitch, slapping me hard across the face.

As much as running my own business happened by default rather than by design, an ember still burned deep, drowning any caution and common sense. It was inextinguishable, this desire, like a restless blackhole, the endless suck of bottomless determination to be the best rider I possibly could. 

I dug in, leasing a barn. Twelve paid board, seven of those I rode daily, and I competed as many as three in one-day events, all of this solo. I was the business owner, the rider, the trainer, the groom, the stall mucker, the vet tech, the transporter, and the competitor. This experience, and the lesson it held, was not lost on me: When you are your own boss, you are not only the CEO, but the CBW (Chief Bottle Washer) and everything that stretches in between the mucky gamut.

I learned quickly boarding was a losing proposition. They would be consigned to training board or they were out. This postulation is widely accepted within the industry, and for good reason, the lesson for me being some money was better than no money (an empty stall), but more money was exponentially better than some. Compounding is a fiduciary phenomenon, even when it comes to chump change. Nimble, it also lent stickiness to my business, the parts held together loosely in the web it spun. My business began to grow some legs. (I can’t help but envision Deadpool sitting on the couch in his Crocs. This analogy is, unfortunately, a snug fit.)

Since more was better, I expanded to 24 horses in training, and hired two employees to accomodate the load. It was still a blast, made better with company, but the physics of business taught me another important lesson: When profits compound, so does the workload, and more worrisome, so do the expenses, almost entirely unilaterally. Not that I didn’t expect some of that, but as fast as it came in, even the more of it, the faster it went out (also, more of it.) The equation I hoped to improve by having more didn’t change in any significant way.

My business had baby legs, but unlike Deadpool, it seemed incapable of growing adult ones. 

Later, as better horses showed up, I shrunk everything down to four paying horses and teaching 25 lessons or so a week with one employee. I had two horses competing advanced after a ten-year hiatus highlighted with average horses. Sometimes that’s how long you must be patient in order for the golden goose to show up under your shed-row. It was the best of times and the hardest of times.

My next business lesson: Advanced horses take two or three times as long in man-power hours daily than lower-level eventers or young horses. In other words, advanced horses are a losing business proposition. By the time you ship to a gallop, ship home, ice them while they wear their magnetic blanket, get them massaged, or hack them for an hour before they do dressage, or drag them to a jumping lesson, drag them home, put them back in ice with their magnetic blanket, and hit repeat every week, you’ve lost money on horses whose owner’s are paying top dollar for the services provided. Having advanced horses was the goal of my entire career, but when they arrived, the experience was definitely bittersweet.

At this time, I didn’t have a single horse bill of my own. I had good owners and good sponsors. I did own a horse, JB Star, but JB didn’t just have one sponsor. He had two. A thin-skinned thoroughbred with a bejewelled handbag of idiosyncrasies he carried with him at all times, it was a lot of work, and expense, to keep JB placid and happy. JB was administered a tube of Gastroguard everyday, sometimes one at morning and one at night at the events, to keep his aura serendipitous. Sound excessive? JB’s formula for success was carefully devised through experience over time. When I found what worked, I stuck with it, and did not deviate, despite what a vet might whisper in my ear (“Ulcerguard is just as good.” I can tell you it’s not, not for every horse anyway, and as a good owner, it is your job to know which category your horse fits, and to advocate for him as such, doing what is in his best interest, and only that). 

At this time, the expenses I was responsible for were minimal. I rented a room in a friend’s house for $600/month; paid an employee $450/week; rented her a room elsewhere for approximately the same amount of rent; paid for four stalls at $250/each per month; paid for the grain, hay, shavings, tack and equipment (even though I had a sponsor to help offset some of it), paid for my health insurance; and paid the truck and trailer insurance and its maintenance.

Yet, my rent check still bounced regularly. 

My past career is branded with incredible hard work and sacrifice, streaked with moments of luck. This did not differentiate me in any way from the other diehard professionals fulfilling their own journey. Perspective is the lingering gift on offer after the storm has passed. It was only as I pulled my shingle down did I realise my “success” was no more than a series of lucky breaks that occurred at the beginning of my career, providing momentum in the right direction at an opportune time.

The first barn I leased charged me well below market rate for rent. They did all the repairs and mowing necessary, and sold the hay they cut on site for $2.50 a bale. If they had cared to charge me appropriately, I’d have been out of business before I purchased the first pitchfork. Unfortunately, still wet behind the ears like a newborn puppy, my misinformed ego took this lucky break as a product of my inborn success. It believed working my ass off was indeed…working. 

I had many epiphanies, after I left the horses, which is probably by nature’s design (otherwise we would never try or risk anything as humans). First, by all accounts, on paper, I never should have “made it” as a rider. I didn’t have the credentials, the pedigree, nor the backing or support to do so. This is a massive generalisation, but persons with these characteristics, bound together by their overflowing love of the horse, usually land in groom’s positions. I should have pursued grooming in the landscape of horses, but like a stubborn weed, I clawed through the crevices with what little ingredients I did have, determined to learn to ride well. 

This epiphany is not meant to incite grooms. For such an indispensible role within a stable, you often don’t get paid enough, and sometimes do not receive the respect you deserve, for all the gifts you bring to the owners, the riders, and most especially, the horses. I just didn’t have my sights set on this, and it never occurred to me that my work ethic couldn’t override the operational and logistical barriers I faced, entering the industry as the person I was. 

Another epiphany I learned upon retirement was the quality of horses I had at the end of my career were what I needed in the beginning. This is just a fact. Even if you’re riding a sewing machine trot, if it jumps all the big jumps, it comes with a certain amount of quality that’s necessary to train your muscle memory at that higher level. You can envision riding well at Advanced all you want, but the experience that sticks, good and bad, happens in the irons. Those horses did eventually land in my barn through the generosity of owners, and they could even trot a little by then, but I was creating all this new muscle memory at the advanced level, at the end of my career, instead of the beginning. 

I simply ran out of time. 

Looking back, I wish I had been kinder to myself. In the same way I viewed my luck as nothing more than my hard work paying off, I also discounted the role luck played in my peer’s careers, believing they were much more successful due to their talent and skill. Some definitely were better, but it was easy to convince myself I was a failure when I gave everything I had to my mission, making huge sacrifices such as ending my marriage, friendships, and holidays with family, but I still wasn’t good enough to really compete against “the big boys.”  

The fact is, some people are born with more luck, also known as privilege. I don’t begrudge this reality, but regret wielding it against myself like a club, beating my self-esteem and worth into a bloody pulp. In my mind it translated to not only were they better riders, but they were just better in general. They were better at business, relationships, and life. They were playing the hell out of their hand just like I was, but the foreboding sense they were all doing it a lot better, made me go home at the end of the day wanting to chew my leg off, breaking free of the snare that staked me in place. 

All this aside, I didn’t need perspective to know I was incredibly lucky to choose the challenges I faced. I signed up for it and brought it onto myself. This is entirely different than unexpected challenges thrust upon you. Those can conspire to feel like a life of dodging bullets from out of nowhere, such as facing food insecurity, the unexpected chronic health issue, or the inability to educate your way into a better life. 

But I did live at the nexus between the two, and it was cause for considerable amounts of stress, but not before the worst day in my brief life. I haven’t written about the loss of JB because I really don’t have the words, or the emotional bandwidth, even now, to share it with others. What I do want to share is the irony, after a career steeped in debt and scarcity, is the financial security I have in my life now, ten years later, is due to JB. 

Blood money. 

Being that I owned nothing of value back then, except for this incredible athlete someone gave to me out of their field, I insured JB. This was the second part of his sponsorship as a competing athlete. I couldn’t afford to pay his insurance myself. A wonderful woman pledged her support to my riding, offering to cover expenses for equipment and anything pertaining to my competitive riding kit. This wasn’t nothing by any means, but I asked if she would consider covering the cost of his health and mortality insurance instead. She said yes. 

In October of 2010, I was left shellshocked, with a huge hole in my heart, and in my barn, holding the most money I ever had in the palm of my hand. Not having any idea what to do with it, I sought advice from the father of a friend. He asked me how much I had. Throwing his head back, he snorted at the number. With a smirk he said, “Ohhh, that’s not enough money for anyone to handle…not anyone I know anyway. I don’t know what to tell you to do.” 

He shrugged his shoulders and turned away, signalling the conversation was over. Shame poured over me. I was so embarrassed. It was the most money I had ever seen in my entire life, a low six-figures, that belonged to me, and I was still a joke, an ignorant fool, not good enough, even then.

Today, I’d still call that a lot of money, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, but by Middleburg standards, it was apparently laughable. Thanks to the advice from a couple of friends, as well as educating myself, compounding is no longer the tail that wags the dog that it was in my business. Now that bitch pulls its own weight in my harness.

It has taken a long time to stop squabbling with the chip on my shoulder. I had to wear myself down to a nub before I could understand weaponising my strength and fighting back weren’t truly resilience. Compassion and acceptance are what lead to critical breakthroughs. I granted it to the horses without a thought, sometimes to other people (albeit judiciously), and now, at times, finally to myself. 

Even as I’m writing this, I question why. What is the point? What am I hoping to accomplish? To convey? It’s all water under the bridge after all. But I think it can take a while to reconcile the choppy parts of your past, the painful parts. I hope someone reads this and takes away the fact they are good enough, and they aren’t a failure, because they haven’t amassed the same accomplishments, at the same rate, as their peers. You have to own what you bring to the table, but don’t let your shortcomings destroy your sense of self. If hearing this brings a sigh of relief to just one person, then this post is worth the words recorded. 

One more thing.

It’s ten years later, and I’d still trade it all for JB. 

xx

IoT- The Irony of Things

“The computer is incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Man is unbelievably slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. The marriage of the two is a challenge and opportunity beyond imagination.”

― Stuart G. Walesh

Elon Musk was right. Humans are already cyborgs (Sway podcast, 9/28/20). Yesterday, sitting at my desk, my right hand conversed with a chat-box on my desktop, my lefthand typed into a chat-box on my laptop, and my cell phone lay poised between the two, googling information between spurts of chat-box conversation. I came home incredulous.

I said to Russ, “You just wouldn’t have believed it! How crazy is that?

Cutting him off I added, “I was like Elton John playing two keyboards at once! It was totally ridiculous!”

Russ rolled his eyes.

He asked, “Why didn’t you just call them?”

I snorted. 

What ‘a guy’ thing to say.

Like I didn’t think of that.

I threw my hands up in the air, my voice skyrocketing.

Because I couldn’t find a frickin’ number anywhere! NO-WHERE! There’s no frigging number! You can’t call anyone! I looked forever trying to find a number!”

I really did. 

I spent the morning entwined with chat-boxes, my questions extrapolated by Navar at Amazon and Katarina at Squarespace. While Katarina was prompt and answered each question systemically (sending a deluge of links for directions “how to”), I never got the answer I needed from Navar. It was clear from his sentence structures, English was not his first language. I only make this point because I learned chat-boxes are no easier a tool for comprehension than speaking through a phone. The challenges are the same. Finally, scouring the world-wide-web using my phone, I found my answer, thanked Navar, and moved on. 

I still had more questions to fulfill from Google Workspace. Their ‘help center’ also offered a chat-box for solutions. I typed my question. Several chat-bubbles quickly populated, each with its own question, within the chat-box. My only choice was to click the question, best reflecting my question, and ask another question. This opened another set of chat-bubbles with more questions. The leader of information, communication, innovation and technology, Google, has decided the best strategy to engineer their ‘help desk’ is to answer a question by asking more questions. 

I can’t decide if this is well-played, ironic, or absurd. 

After a few rounds of volleying questions back and forth, I realised their questions were a stockpile of standard question-answers, so I recused my place within the infinite loop of failure. Sighing, I clicked back to the help menu to start over. Google also offered help by email or phone, two options I hadn’t seriously considered, neither being a paragon to the path of least resistance. This assumption proved to be true. The links were inactive. Clicking them yielded no response, their purpose more akin to window dressing, an empty proposition, not unlike the framed suggestion hanging above the washroom basin, “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.”

 Google Workplace is not merely absurd, but passive aggressive too. 

A friend recounted her own recent chat-box experience. With growing frustration, she admonished the chat-box for being “full of BS.” This chat-box did not lobby back a question, but scolded her. It stated offensive language would not be tolerated. My friend’s frustration erupted all over her keyboard. “BS isn’t even a word, you asshat, it’s an acronym!  Bullshit is the word for the acronym BS which you are full of!” The chat-box repeated its moral decree before cutting off the conversation and closing.

Now even chat-boxes retreat to a “safe room” following a triggering event. 

Often, I wonder if technology serves its intended purpose. I spend more time forging through several firewalls, the apps to access the networks, and the codes to approve the passwords, than I use it to accomplish my work. I said to a colleague the other day, “I think I would have saved a lot of time if I had created the whole document by hand and walked it over to it’s destination.” 

My last project was held on the Slack platform. Besides having a Bot that occasionally offered useful suggestions, Slack also has an internal app (an app within an app) called Kyber. All told, the materials, deliverables, and operations for the project were shared between Slack and the other platforms/apps Calendy, Accuity and Notion.

I’m not sure who was working for who.

Keeping track of my passwords is a sport in itself. I edge closer to creating an Excel worksheet to manage them, but the thought feels counterintuitive. The worst is when the password for my entire office IoT expires. It’s like losing the keys to the kingdom. I have access to nothing, and it’s a hunt from the back door, through the dark, in order to locate the front latch.

Billy Cox said, “Technology should improve your life, not become your life.”

Technology is surely a challenge in endurance. Every time I sit down and face it, I have to be in it for the long haul. It’s like engaging a child who doesn’t listen, has no emotions, and no sense of accountability or remorse.  

Wait….

Isn’t that the definition of a psychopath?

As frustrating as it is negotiating the internet of things, I have to admit, I’m slightly envious of the chat-box. It controls the conversation, preventing the time-sucking derailment of irrelevant, superfulous questions, consigning it short and to-the-point, tasking users to stay the course. It can also be completely unhelpful, even hang up on you, with naught repercussions. 

Chat-boxes have more autonomy, and power over the self than I do, and not even a modicum of the expectations saddling small children.

Elon Musk wants to plant a chip in our brains. It sounds like a terrible idea, but then I remember Chris Voss’ words, “The easiest way to ride a horse is the direction it’s already going.” Either get on board, or get run over. One day, we might all chuckle thinking we ever had a choice about it to begin with.

After nine months, with the pandemic headed down the homestretch, I have finally succumbed to yoga-on-demand. Never an early adopter of most things, I had to finally accept the truth. Turns out I’m quite lazy and prone to cheating, and even more perturbing is the ease to which I concealed this fact from myself for so long. I really miss the hot studio. I now don a polar fleece to trap close any heat my grisly strings might generate.

Screen-fatigue is real. Each day begins with writing, then yoga, work after, ending with the banquet of networks offered by Roku, all of it screen-time. My books are what is left, preserved in original form. I’m holding out as long as I can. I love the feel of them in my hands, the anticipation felt turning the page, the satisfaction absorbing each word of the next line. These days, I am forced to wear glasses, when reading for long periods of time.

On my laptop, however, the font size is always just right. 

(Graphic found on Twitter, original source unknown)

MORE GRAVY

Mourning Has Broken

Recently, a family friend passed away. All told, he had a brilliant life. He achieved great success, both professionally and personally. He died at the age of 91. While it came as a surprise, my first thought was, “What a lucky guy to die in his sleep, avoiding days or weeks, or even months and years, of pain and frustration!”

 But that was Bob. He went out of this world as gently as he had lived in it. A man with rosy cheeks and a smile like St. Nicholas, Bob was tall and thin, quiet and well educated. He always had a kind word or a fantastic story for the weird loner kid at the neighbourhood holiday party and spoke to her (me) like an adult.

After hearing the news, I kvetched about the best way to reach his wife. Should I call her? Text her? Email her? We live thousands of miles apart. My choices felt callous, impersonal, cyborgic. (My newly-minted term. It fits.) I just wanted to give her a hug. Nothing replaces human touch, and the warmth that goes with it. It conveys much more than the kindest words. 

I called five days later. That’s how long it took the wooden figures, the ones continuously circling the board-of-director’s table in my head, dressed in pinstripe suits, on clothes-pin legs, to sit down and reach a consensus. The Board mollified my fear that calling her would hijack her suffering for my own. There is nothing worse than being the emotional dump for someone else’s pain when you are the one suffering the personal loss. The Board warned me not to cry, because tears are a slippery slope. Once the well springs, it’s easy to emote a moat around that person.

Sympathy and empathy are visceral. It’s human to sense the pain of others, and share in their grief. Sometimes however, there is a disconnect between the emotions, how to hold them ourselves, and how share in them with others. This leads to other emotions, usually a turbine of guilt, fear and anxiety, bolstering further disconnect. Ideally, this highly-charged flywheel spins towards a shared connection, like oil-paint splashed across a canvas on a spinner, beautiful and hopeful, yet abstract and undefined, instead of further apart. It’s what we aspire to, but being human, we bumble through it most of the time.

Sometimes the flywheel even stops and falls flat. A widow once said to me, “It feels like people are afraid of catching whatever it is I have. They can’t look at me for fear of seeing the possibility of what could happen to anyone–what could happen to them.” After a death in the family, after mourning the loss of the loved one, survivors often face mourning the loss of friends and friendships. They change, maybe fade, and sometimes disappear altogether. In rare cases, a friend never acknowledges the death, coupling the initial devastation a survivor feels with more unexpected pain and loss.

Credentials

Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb said, “There is no hierarchy of pain” when comparing one person’s pain to another. Honestly, I grapple with this. I really want to believe her. I really do. She has a column in The Atlantic and has written a fantastic novel/memoir about her experiences being a therapist. She has great credentials and a healthy sense of humor to go with it. 

But I really need to hear Cheryl Strayed say the words. I’m more likely to entertain advice from someone who’s taken an existential walkabout; suffered the massive loss of her mom as a young woman; has cut ties with her narcissistic, abusive father; has done some hard drugs and survived; had a couple abortions along the way; put herself through college and grad school; and continued wracking-up tens of thousands in credit-card debt beyond that; all before her success with Wild or Dear Sugar. I’m going to trust the words of Dear Sugar before I swallow any psychobabble from someone who attended Yale, Stanford and Pepperdine. (#CesarChavezatheart).

In her own words Lori says, “I believe that of all my credentials, my most-significant is that I’m a card-carrying member of the human race.” Well if that’s the most important qualification, you’ll see my shingle hanging outside by tomorrow morning (#callmeanytime). There’s an Ivy League education, there’s the school of life, and just because you carry a membership card to either, doesn’t mean you’ve used it well.  If Cheryl isn’t available, then Wendell will do (Lori’s therapist in her book). I have no idea of his credentials, but I liked his character, and he wore a cardigan and khakis to the office everyday, not unlike…Mr. Rogers. We can all thank Fred for the feeling of love and safety a cardigan denotes.

I really want to accept the premise we all experience pain on the same level. For the most part, it’s true. Everyone’s pain is their own after all. In the same way ten miles is painful for me, another runner might laugh hearing that distance. They only begin to feel the edges of pain at 26.2. While I comprehend this deduction, I fail applying it to the gradient of emotional pain.

I value compassion and empathy, but my compassion can also be a bitch. While your own pain is your own, and you grapple with it however you do, sometimes I have an initial opinion, such as “Get over it” or “Just wait. It gets a lot worse.” I keep these thoughts to myself. The best I can do is whisper Lori’s platitude under my breath, “There is no hierarchy to pain,” when facing another’s (perceived) anguish. 

I’d go as far to say my compassion is a calibrated analogue, divided into four sections. The first group are those who deserve compassion and get it. These are good people, who do good things. The second group are those who deserve compassion, they do good things too, but they don’t get it, because life just sucks and is unfair sometimes. This the group I cheer and support the most, because I like to give karma a kick up its ass when I can. The third group are those who don’t deserve compassion for their ruthlessness and uncharitable acts, but get it anyway, because again, life is unfair and karma likes to headfuck you for fun. Then there is the last group: persona non grata— those who deserve nothing, because they are the worst of the bad actors, yet karma plays fair this time, and even better, lets us watch.

Clearly, I have a lot of work left to do, to better understand the intricacies of pain and compassion within myself, with others, and within our world. Thank God it’s only half over for me. (As far as I know, anyway.) There’s still time, and I need all the time I can get.

(You never know with karma. Especially after what I just said.)

Turn Off The News

Last week my Dad went for a check-up at the doctor’s office. His blood pressure was out of control. They gave him something to bring it down and made him wait twenty minutes before continuing the appointment. My dad called me afterward. His voice was somber. 

He said, “Well, I got my ass chewed big time.”

What do you mean, Dad? What happened?”

After his blood pressure settled, his doctor asked him a few questions.

So what are you doing these days?

How much news are you watching?

What are you eating?

Finally, the doctor sat down and said, “Mr. Simmons, you’re 85. The average American male lives until 81. So the last four years have been gravy! I suggest you turn off the news. It is what it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Quit worrying, make the most of your time, and enjoy every day!”

Pass the gravy, please.

Marriage Advice From a Dog

I heard the key click in the door. The bags crackled as Russ nudged it open with the toe of his sneaker. The door swung wide and he rushed past, toppling back and forth like an apple tree, limbs heavy with fruit. The door slammed back into its jamb. He was covered in grocery bags. The handles pulled at the skin between his fingers, bundling them like kindling. More bags hung from his wrists, all the way down to his elbows, striping his forearms pink with ridges. He stopped in the kitchen, gingerly lying the bags on the counter, one by one. He wrinkled his nose.

Oh boy, here it comes, I thought.  

He looked at me over the sea of bags.

Oh my God! What-is-that-smell?

I heard him, but I didn’t look back. I didn’t have to. I knew where this was going.

I sat quietly for a minute, on the couch, deciding how to respond. Either way, this wasn’t going to end well. Russ had already made up his mind about whatever this was. I could either acquiesce, winding myself up to his level of irritation, or, or, I could play dumb, diffusing any hostility. 

I called this strategy “slowing your roll.”

For several years, I watched Cracker manage us this way: listen, blink a couple of times, yawn, lay down on his side, and close his eyes with all four legs straight-out like a fainting goat. It worked. We always settled right down. 

In a marriage, this tactic operates like a golf cart, and is useful for sublimating those inconsequential bumps we never see coming, like the annoying and harmless zits that appear on our faces, and aren’t ready to pop for days. (Yes, I still get those.)

 Putting my foot on the accelerator generally guarantees a single outcome—more of everything—irritation, frustration, decibels, hyperbole, arm flinging, harsh metaphors, and unfair comparisons. Less accelerator is a better bet when resolution is the goal, but toggling carefully between the two maintains the liveliest “engagement,” which I define as the mid-point between shitting-the-bed and shutting-down during any altercation (or argument).

This is the goal anyway.

I closed my eyes and yawned. 

Foot off the accelerator.

Russ puffed up more. 

“THAT SMELL?? Oh my God, what is that smell?!”

Accelerating….

He cracked the windows open, one after the other, covering his nose as he went. Done, he stopped short in the middle of the living room. 

This is when things took a hard turn. 

“OH MY GOD,” he said. “IT’S YOU!!!! WHAT-DID-YOU-DO??”

My knees were pulled up to my chest and I hugged them loosely on the couch. 

Not one to waste an opportunity, I sighed long and slowly, stretching it out. 

Foot off accelerator.

“It’s peppermint oil,” I said.

Foot back on accelerator.

“Wait, what?

Why, why, why?!

You’re killing me, Smalls.

You smell like every elf in Santa’s workshop, drunk on peppermint ice-cream lattes, doused with peppermint schnapps, and swirled with sticks of candy cane…that they burped-up simultaneously, like an a capella choir at Santa’s holiday party! You’ve stunk up the whole joint!”

I had to smile at this. 

“I woke up this morning  and my neck and shoulder were sore. As in really sore. Like a pinched nerve.”

Russ looked down at me, over his lifted brows.

So naturally, you thought peppermint oil??” 

Accelerating….

“Well, no…

But I’ve used a heating pad all day, took 1000 mg of ibuprofen, and it’s still kickin’ hard…

So I found some peppermint oil in the cabinets….

and you know what?”

“What?” 

Russ fans his wrinkled nose, his olfactory epithelium clearly not past the assault. 

“It feels awesome. 

It helps.

The burn distracts from the pain….

for the most part anyway.”

Russ rolled his eyes and exhaled all the air he had been holding hostage.

“How about I go to the store and get you some tiger balm?”

I shrugged. 

“Sure…

…if you want.”

Foot off the accelerator.

“I can’t stand the smell. I’m going.”

Accelerating….

I already knew he would anyway.

Untwisting the top off the glass bottle, I ran my fingernail along the edges like a spackle, peeling the greasy balm from the surface. It rolled into a little ball on my nail, surfing along. Pulling my hair to the side, I reached back. Before finding the skin on my neck, the globule of grease plunged onto my shirt. More attempts left It tangled in my hair, smeared on my collars, and spread under my nails like Crisco, before ever making contact with the pain. 

I was reminded of my very first three day event thirty years ago, when my horse was embossed with Crisco from ear-tip to tail before heading out to begin the cross-country phase of the competition. I frantically wiped down my reins, before mounting to go, only to land in the saddle and see a finger of Crisco smeared across his forelock. It waved like a flag in my face for the next ten minutes while negotiating the biggest challenge of my career that day.  

And just like when a naughty horse misbehaves, and is subsequently moved to the stall furthest away in the barn, the Tiger Balm went to live where the Peppermint oil used to—in the very back of the cabinets.

Using the peppermint oil helped, but it didn’t solve my problem. After four days, I booked a massage. It”s desperate times when I consider this high-contact therapy during a pandemic. (I haven’t had a professional hair cut yet this year. ) The massage made me sore, but it improved the pain.

Like taking the foot off the accelerator. 

Leftover Giblets

It’s All Downhill

What are you doing? Russ said. Too hot.

I’m snuggling. 

Russ inched away.

You’re too hot.

I’m not hot, I’m freezing. 

Too hot.

Russ, now at the edge of the mattress, pushes me back.

Over there. Too hot.

C’mon, I’m cold. I need to snuggle.

Russ flips over to face me, sinking back into the nest of pillows, placing the palm of his hand over my face, like a catcher’s mitt. 

Silence.

What are you doing? I ask. 

The crease of his eyes opened to a slit. 

I’m cuddling.

What?

Closing them again, he sighed.  

I’m cuddling. 

More times than not, this is indeed how we end up cuddling. It happens almost every morning. I sneak into a dark living room to write for a couple of hours, before climbing back into bed with a sleepy Russ to warm me up and snuggle. He calls me the “hot one” of the two of us, but not one to overlook a good pun, I do believe I’ve passed that torch this past year.

Russ is now the ember warming our coupledom. 

He denies this. He’s still in the first stage on the road to acceptance of any major life-change: deny, deny, deny… thennn embrace. But despite all of the photo-filters at our fingertips, the bottled hair color, the black slimming wardrobe, and the endless plucking, tucking and hopefully fucking, middle-age is upon us. Most of us are burning up. “Hot” is no longer the wonderful euphemism it once was.

As my dad recently said to me, “You better enjoy life from now on, because it’s all down hill from here. After 50, it all goes to shit. So right now is as good as it gets, for the rest of your life.

Umm thanks, Dad??

In his defense, these words were spoken while mourning the loss of his dear cat, Leroy, his buddy for the last ten years or so, since he was thrust into the fold of their home, from his days as a wily stray.

Ownership

Russ and I just returned from PA. We crashed at Russ’ older brother’s (one of them anyway) and wife’s house for the holiday weekend. Their basement is a tricked-out flashy little flat, very private and spacious. Having stayed here a few times, I always find it ironic that upon arrival, I marvel their basement feels twice as big as our apartment, although they are roughly the same size. Empty space is a beautiful thing. What is it about combining the accessories of two individuals into one household that devours any surplus of available square-footage? Our trappings, bundled together, have replicated like clusters of mushrooms from measly spores. Our shit, now prolific, is squeezing us from the very ecosystem we constructed.

This coming from a habitual minimalist. I’ve always subscribed to “that which you own, eventually owns you.” I find this true of vehicles, real estate, livestock, all the way down to credit cards, the clothes you buy, and even the amount of luggage you choose to carry on your travels. The travails we encounter on a journey, are often buttressed with the amusement of watching fellow tourists wrangle their baggage, like they’re juggling unwieldy greased piglets in a stockyard. 

Walking around one of the many farms I was fortunate to work from over the years, Dad turned to me once and sighed with a smile, enraptured by the vast beauty surrounding us. He said, “The only thing better than this farm would be if you owned it!” Then he chuckled at his joke. I looked at him quizzically, not sure whether to take this personally or not, before thinking to myself: Now why would I ever want to do that? Scratching my head I said to him, “I don’t know, Dad. I’m not sure it gets any better than working on a beautiful farm that someone else pays for. I’m thinking this right here is the best it gets.” I knew without a doubt that was a noose I would not stick my head through any time soon. Purchasing a new pair of riding boots was enough of a push against my ideas around ownership. The fact is, I owned more pairs of boots at any given time, than I ever did own horses. I had five pairs in constant rotation. You only had to have a zipper break once at a horse show, in the pouring rain, to ensure it never happened again. 

Choices

Jerzy Gregory said, “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” I’ve thought about this quote a lot, especially in the last decade, when I finally earned enough wherewithal through my experiences to understand the depth and implications of this notion. Still, I question whether my comprehension has truly scratched the surface. Do we always understand which is hard and which is easy? Is it that clear? Do we know whether the easy choice was to leave a painful marriage, or to stay in it? Is it a hard choice to keep the secure job that numbs your senses, or is the hard choice to leave it for something less secure, but more fun? Is moving away from your hometown taking the easy road or the hard one? The best choice isn’t always clear at the moment of decision.

A friend recently shared she was struggling with the limitations and closures imposed by COVID. Not participating in the activities she loved left her feeling anxious and out of sorts. She asked me how I was dealing with the changes, such as not having a yoga studio to attend this year. I instantly laughed and said, “Are you kidding me? I gave up everything that mattered to me and that I loved most in the world five years ago. Compared to that, this is easy!”

I regretted it as soon as I closed my mouth. I hadn’t intended to belittle her experience, which of course I did, but I was speaking my truth, albeit crudely. Leaving the horses behind was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. It has taken years for the pain of that massive loss to subside. At the time, I wondered if I was making the right decision. As the dust has settled and past events are clearer, I now understand the huge advantage to ending something while it is your choice to do so, before you are forced to end it, when you have no choice and aren’t ready. There is a wide chasm between responding to a situation and reacting to it. One leaves you poised for success while the other  leaves you scrambling. This lesson is priceless, but painful in the process. 

Between the Two

Russ said I portrayed myself as “the ugly duckling” in my last couple of posts. That wasn’t my intention. I said, “I was just trying to share some of my own insecurities, because we all have them, but we don’t always talk about them. If I can share something that someone else can relate to, and maybe they feel better about themselves as a result, then that’s a good thing.” The difference in my last two entries was an earnest attempt to pull out “first thoughts” and write them down, before censoring and toning the content down with “revised (second) thoughts.” I think most of us revise our thoughts and words automatically (or am I wrong about that?) before sharing them. Sure, vomiting expletives all over the page could be considered “first thoughts,” but more often than not, even that is armour added to protect our vulnerable bits, from the fear of overexposure. 

I accomplished my new goal the last two attempts, but it did leave me feeling a little weird after the fact. (Like I went to school but forget to put any clothes on first. Just like that.) I’ve struggled more with this entry. For the last four days, I can’t seem to shake the censoring in my head, or on the page, as much as I work to ward it off. I keep striving, thinking of this quote by economist, Kate Raworth. She said, “Too much efficiency makes a system vulnerable, while too much resilience makes it stagnant. Vitality and robustness lie in a balance between the two.” The sweet spot is in the middle and is hard to find.

The Text  

I’m sure some of my distraction writing these last few days came from being a guest in another’s house. I also received a text from my mom the day after Thanksgiving. Her dearest friend’s husband had died the night before. This made me very sad. He was a wonderful man who loved the outdoors, and always had a terrific story, usually involving tracking wolves or polar bears, with which to entertain a young girl at the annual Christmas party. I am so happy to have known him, and I will miss seeing his smiling face this upcoming holiday.

In a year that can’t end soon enough, sometimes it feels as if it is all going way too fast.

RIP, Bob.

Side Dish

We all have that one friend. You know the one I’m talking about. Every picture posted on social media with the two of you is fabulous of her…aaaand…that’s it. By all appearances, she looks the wealthy benefactor, her made-up face fresh with application, sandwiched between perfect hair and the strand of pearls draped around her chiseled neck.

And you…well…you appear like the indigent recipient of her opulent charity.

All that is missing to encapsulate this record of goodwill is the oversized check bearing your name, or the cardboard box brimming with non-perishable foods. But your awkward smile, with the shred of wilted spinach lodged in the corner of your canine all evening, eyes half-mast frightened by the flash, tell the true story nonetheless.

You must be homeless.

Or unacceptably uncouth at your ripe middle-age, suggesting a lifetime of shortcomings and failures. It doesn’t matter if the photo is celebrating your birthday, or the holiday party you both attended, or it’s a Facebook memory from years gone by. The one photo she chooses to share with the world, out of all the possibilities, is the one in which she looks best. The state of your image, as it turns out, is nothing more than collateral damage.

But you’re not special.

She does this to everyone.

Then there are the the photos you take with friends who are naturally gorgeous (aka as young and in the prime of their lives). The ones you happen to be talking to at the annual company-holiday party when a photo gets snapped. We all lean in, shoulder to shoulder, smiling brightly, while clutching a fruity cocktail to our chests, the one with the cutesy name created just for this occasion. Later, we become emboldened by the cheer, and make our way to the green-screen room to have a “professional” picture to commemorate our year.

My colleague recently shared last year’s group photo on social media and I sighed. My two girlfriends are soooo beautiful, just naturally so (they will still be beautiful, even when they are older). Every year I cluck when the photographer hands us our photos. I remind them what super models they are and how I look good purely by association, sort of like being the worst house in a great neighborhood full of beautiful homes. They increase my value.

All of this is true. They do.

The first year I attended the holiday party, I “dressed up” especially for the occasion. I bought Kelly green pants to wear with a sparkly sweater. This was indeed outside of my comfort zone, but this green was what I wore cross-country riding my entire career. I’ve had an affinity for it that long. I soon learned green pants do not show up in front of a green screen, even though a background filter is applied to every picture taken. From the waist down, I was nothing more than sand and sea. Not even my beautiful companions distracted from the eyesore of that photo.

I returned the green pants to the store after that.

I’ve never been a “fashion forward” kind of girl. Many years ago I came into DC with a few horse friends to go “clubbing.” I split a hotel room with one of the girls I didn’t know that well. As we were getting ready that evening she asked, “So what are you wearing tonight?” I was pulling my stuff out of my backpack, placing each item carefully on my bed. I said, “Well, I bought a green sweater to wear…and brought some tight pants.

This right here explains a lot, really.

She had just opened the closet door where all her clothes hung neatly on hangers. She wheeled around and cocked her head. Placing her hands on her hips, she could not hide her disbelief, nor her derision. She said, “You brought…a GREEN sweater…to go clubbing? Is that it?

Like I said, I like green.

That’s when I noticed her selection of clothes. It included an ensemble of leather as one possibility, and many sparkly items as the other. I quickly surmised the purchase price of her two choices far exceeded the cost of my entire wardrobe, twice over. Not only was clubbing outside of my periphery, but so was fashion, and I’ll just go on and say it…so was fitting in…anywhere.

For all those people who espouse the mantra of “get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” it’s exhausting when you live it, and starts to feel like really bad life advice.

Some quirks, as much as one works to smooth their creases, don’t really ever change. Driving with a friend to a trailhead for a day of hiking the other day, she asked if I had seen the new Birraporetti bags that were so popular.

That’s what I heard her say anyway. 

 I racked my brain. We were headed to the AT after all….was this a hiking bag? Did she say Eataly, not Birraporretti? Was it a gift bag of gourmet food? 

Nooo, the new ATP Atelier bags!” 

That. Is. Not. What. I. Heard. At. All.

Once again, I found myself reminding a dear friend that the friend she was conversing with was not “fashion forward” like her. She had the wrong audience. She laughed because she knew this was true. 

When we arrived, I popped out of the car and slammed the door, announcing my need to pee. I hunkered down next to the car as my friend turned and jogged to the woods saying, “Yeah, me too.” She might be classy and cosmopolitan, but being a horse girl as well, she embraced equal measures of practicality and humility. 

One of the things I love about my friend, besides her adventurous spirit, is her keen eye to the widening chasm of oppression in which we live, despite her own privilege. On the trail, I told her about the day I left the office late last week. I passed the same park I always did on my walk home, but at that time of night, I passed a line 40 or 50 people deep, wrapped around the block. They were waiting for the meals being dispensed from a pantry truck.

Regardless of what people suffering from homelessness did in their lives, or didn’t do, it would be a mistake to lump them altogether as fuck-ups who created their situation. How many of us have fucked-up badly in life and gotten away with it? So much so it never affected our careers, our long-term health, or our important relationships?

Is there still a single hand raised in the air?

Sure, some impoverished individuals are bad actors who created their misfortune. But bad actors exist everywhere, despite their titles, their bank accounts, their level of education, or their otherwise sterling reputations, yet they will never face scarcity, insecurity, or oppression as a result of their shitty actions and fuck-ups.

So can’t we grant those suffering a little bit of grace before condemning them to judgment?

This Thanksgiving, I hope we can embrace a little more grace and generosity into our daily lives, myself included. A pandemic makes clear how fleeting and vulnerable all of it is for any of us. Family gatherings will be fractured at best tomorrow. But I have plenty this year for which I’m thankful. There are so many wonderful people in my life, family and friends alike, fashion forward or not, glamorous or hygienically questionable or not, or maybe even slightly narcissistic or not. You are all wonderfully weird and precious, and are what give beautiful texture to this life. 

I hope everyone has a beautiful Thanksgiving and enjoys their favourite food, even if it’s just a gift bag from Eataly or Birraporettis. X