Beautiful Bullshit

Can a nation’s morale be broken?

I typed this question in my Notes app on my phone February 20th. I’m apt to doing this when I’m walking, usually listening to a podcast. This is the most efficient method I’ve found for capturing thoughts. I slide my phone from my pocket and my two thumbs, like drummer’s sticks, do all the work. A sense of urgency overrides perfectionism. This is the only time grammar is granted a pass until later. I used to carry pen and paper in my backpack. But, by the time I slid the bag from my back and parted the zipper, searching for my pen and paper, the soundbite had already disappeared, like a slippery little silverfish scurrying snakelike on its six stubbly legs, into the blackened recess underneath the refrigerator humming in the kitchen, never to be seen again, let alone wilfully detained. Yes, it happens that quick: This total loss of words. It’s a short leash between the dog and its handler. Transcribing thoughts, before the collar is slipped like a wanton noose, is tricky. I can only assume this question, about a nation’s morale, was asked in a podcast episode in regards to the situation in the Ukraine. In my notes, I added another question below it.

Can a person’s? 

Yesterday, I listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast. He interviewed Morgan Housel, who writes a blog on the Collaborative Fund. On the podcast, Morgan referenced an entry from May, 2021 called The Optimal Amount of Hassle. He said, “A unique skill, an underrated skill, is identifying the optimal amount of hassle and nonsense you should put up with to get ahead while getting along.” I think most people accept “hassle” as an uncomfortable feature, or by-product of life, such as waiting in line to board a plane; commuting an hour to work; punching a million passcodes on your keyboard to access your own network, god forbid you forget one of them, or inverse the digits, inevitably locking yourself out, creating a whole other set of challenges; or the likelihood of the hot water heater breaking in your home at the start of winter. These are the challenges we choose to accept in order to live the life we envision. It’s the price of admission we pay in order to get something better on the other side. 

But there is a difference between a fee and a fine. Morgan argues in his book, The Psychology of Money, that viewing these “pain points” as fees versus a fine will lessen the friction we feel experiencing them. He said [on the TF podcast], “If we accept the volatility of investing or the volatility of a career, as a fee and not a fine, then it becomes a little more palatable….Good advice for a lot of things is just, ‘Identify the price and be willing to pay it.’ The price, for so many things, is putting up with an optimal amount of hassle.”

I put ‘hassle’ in the same category as ‘inconvenience,’ as opposed to a ‘problem,’ which is a whole other bailiwick. My understanding of the differences was fine-tuned in my days as a professional equestrian. An inconvenience is solved by money, whereas a problem does not have that solution. An inconvenience is a car wreck. A problem is a passenger dying as a result. An inconvenience is your horse having colic surgery. A problem is not having the resources to cover the cost of colic surgery, limiting the sick horse to euthanasia instead. Inconveniences are the little hiccups in plans, solved with money. Problems are resolved, rather than solved, with fines, paid in blood, time, or both, all of which is infinitely more valuable, and expensive, than money. 

So when does the price (fee) of admission become a penalty (fine)?  When does an inconvenience turn into a problem? When does a petty annoyance (hassle) cross over into total overwhelm? Pressure leaves a mark, long after the pressure is gone. How much can a person take before it becomes too much? How much should they? A dog that is tied to a tree for too long: Does it forget how to be a dog? Do its legs forget how to run? Does the dog forget the river is for quenching its thirst, the thick mud enveloping its feet, the welcoming price of admission? Or, does a lifetime of creativity ignored eventually extinguish it, like a kerosene lantern, never to be restored, or an athlete’s legs tied, forever impervious to running full tilt and licking the heels of freedom?

Can a nation’s morale be broken?

Can a person’s?

The other day, in one of his diatribes, my eighty-six year old father said, “I can spot a con artist ten feet away. Their beautiful bullshit. Nothing worse than a con artist. And we have a few…” I had already heard this slandering monologue before. I knew what he was talking about; who he was talking about. I didn’t ask questions. I was too hung up on his one sentence, a sliver of poetic wisdom wedged between barbs of slur. Their beautiful bullshit. 

Beautiful bullshit is the flickering moment that lies between the fee and the fine, the inconvenience and the problem, the annoyance and the overwhelm. But it’s fleeting. Just like the little silverfish darting into the darkness. Racing after it repeatedly, the daily pressure to capture it; tame it; commandeer it; leaves its marks. But when does it break us, our morale? If it never does, is it because we aren’t trying hard enough? Or because we don’t have to? I don’t have the answer. I’m still searching for my own beautiful bullshit.

The Sword of Patience

I stared at the cookie for three days. It sat planted on the counter wrapped in clear plastic, next to Russ’ insulated lunchbox that resembled the modular toolshed from my childhood, with its gambrel roof. Every morning Russ sailed past on his way to work, grabbing the cooler by its handle on top, plucking it from the counter like a weed from the garden, leaving the cookie exposed, a lone impatiens wilting in a sun-filled  desert. 

Russ was still asleep Saturday morning when I remembered the cookie was still there. Hidden once again by the lunchbox, I fished it from the shade, giving the cookie a few squeezes like an avocado at the grocery store, while I waited for my coffee to finish brewing. Despite the plastic coating, the cookie had lost most of its suppleness. It was well on its way to becoming a chocolate-chip biscotti. Carefully, I unwrapped the plastic and placed the cookie on a paper towel, zapping it in the microwave for twenty seconds. Russ came out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes and yawning, as I shoved a broken piece of hot cookie into my mouth, before it hit the floor. 

Incredulous, he asked, Are you eating my cookie? 

Yes! What the fuck, Russ? Who keeps a cookie, or a cupcake for that matter, for three days without eating it?

He shook his head. 

You’re unbelievable.

Well, this qualifies as a mercy kill, if you ask me! You have to eat them, Russ, before they turn to stone. Otherwise, they are suitable to mark their own graves and that’s about it!

He was still shaking his head.

I can’t believe you just ate the cookie you gave me …

… Just like the cupcake!

Well, only a psychopath leaves a cupcake in the fridge for three days! I’m never bringing you another treat.

Well it’s not like I get to eat them anyway!

I sipped my coffee and pondered the Stanford Marshmallow Test, just like I did when I ate his red velvet cupcake. If I was a child in that test, would I have chosen one small marshmallow to eat right then, or would I have waited, the prospect of earning two marshmallows much more compelling? The test results revealed children who waited, the ones who delayed instant gratification, tended to have better life outcomes, educational attainment, and body mass index. Wow. What a heavy list determined by a couple of fluffy marshmallows! 

When I ate Russ’ cupcake, I was sure I fell into the first group of children. My life’s journey suddenly snapped to comprehension. But now, after eating his cookie, I am confused by the results. I’m straddling the implications of surrendering to instant gratification with flat out reaping the rewards. Even more confusing, I can’t figure out if Russ has mastered the marshmallow test, or obliterated it. Russ didn’t garner double the treats because he waited. He garnered none.

What I am certain of, is Russ would have tsk tsk’ed the chalky texture of the treats, blaming the bakery, if he had broken into them on the fourth day. Not only did I save the treats from extinction, but I saved Russ from disappointment.

Russ has patience in spades. We looked at campers last weekend, two years ahead of schedule. He has done his research and narrowed his list down to three brands. But when we arrived on the lot, Russ wanted to inspect every camper parked there. And if the doors were unlocked, he did. I walked inside eight or nine different campers, and gathered all the information I needed. I had already voted, “Winnebago,” at the very beginning of this discussion, and now, after our reconnaissance mission, Winnebago was still my vote. (Disclosure: I voted for Airstream initially, but that was shot down on price alone.) 

 Russ drove to another lot.

 I asked, What are you doing?

Looking at campers. 

Are these on your list? 

Rhetorical. I already knew they weren’t. 

No, but they’re here, so we might as well look.

I appreciated this logic, but then again, if we were standing in a shopping mall and he uttered these same words, I would run to the nearest exit to sit by the car. Logic is subject to falling on its own sword of fallacy, when any pageantry is usurped by pedantry. I had to save myself.

Ok, fine, I said, my voice singsong.  But I’m staying in the car.

Wait. What?… Why?

Because, Russ, I’m hitting my limit, nearing the edge. Once that happens, I’m out. Show me two or three brands, and that’s it.  I’ve looked at enough. Eight or nine is plenty. Besides, it’s mostly junk anyway.

You’re so fucking bougie! Russ accused.

Bullshit! You’re bougier than I am. Worse, you’re closet bougie!

Russ shook his head.

When did you become so high maintenance? …

… How did we end up together?

I’m not high maintenance! I snorted. 

Oh yeah you are!

Whatever…The fact is, you are bougier than me. You just didn’t know it until I showed up. 

We didn’t look at any more campers after that. We went to lunch instead. Russ has a surplus of patience, but I do not. According to the results of the Stanford Marshmallow Test, Russ is primed for better life outcomes, than a person such as myself. Yet, I’ll state the obvious: We have taken two different paths, only to arrive at the same place. Besides, we are looking at campers. How bougie can we really be?

More Than Chump Change

I prepared our taxes for the first time this week. Last year was a false start, after a red flag popped onto the page, halfway through the TurboTax application. Panicked, I called a new accountant. Send help, I penned, delivered with the expediency of Paul Revere flanking the ride of his life.

Before this, I had used an accountant for several years. But he filed my tax returns late, by extension, in the final two years, without discussing it until after the fact. I didn’t mind so much, until I was hit with a penalty for paying a capital gains tax late. I thought as my accountant, these details fell under his jurisdiction. It should have been noticed and dealt with in a timely manner. 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The following year, Russ and I were filing jointly for the first time. We made an appointment at HR Block in DC. It cost $350 for Melvin to prepare our Form 1040, and the process was fairly painless, considering the world was embroiled in a newly-hatched pandemic at that moment. After that, I decided last year I would compile our information myself, with the help of TurboTax. We both had W-2’s to submit, after all. No more wrangling 1099s, coming and going, like coupons ripped from the Sunday paper, and lost somewhere between the car and the grocery store. I was halfway through the application when the red flag appeared. TurboTax alerted me (“we” really, since filing jointly pools all streams of income into a single one), I had exceeded income limits for contributing to my Roth-IRA.

Huh?

No, I didn’t exceed IRA contribution limits. Brokerage houses tally that number with every addition to your account, all the way to the limit, that proverbial glass ceiling. Viewing additions to my IRA accounts is like staring at the glass ball hanging from the ceiling in Squid Game, when the cash shoots into it after each deadly round. Instead, my problem lied with Uncle Sam.

Shaking his finger, he admonished, “You make too much now, to save too much for later. You’re fired.”

Just kidding, he didn’t say that last part. And the statement, my accusation, is only a partial truth. I can contribute freely, up to the federal limit, to a trad-IRA, just not a Roth IRA. This is Uncle Sam’s strategy to ensure a steady flow of cash to grease operations later. The government collects income tax on funds in a traditional IRA when you remove it from the account, presumably at the age of retirement, after saving it for decades. In a Roth account, individuals pay taxes on contributions at the input. This makes the withdrawals later tax-free.

Paying taxes on contributions now, while you are still working, and not later when you have surpassed your highest earning years, is significant peace of mind. But I suppose that was exactly what Uncle Sam had in mind with this caveat (wrist slap). The future is uncertain. Laws were devised to ensure the bolstering of pockets for tomorrow. After all, this country was/is built on “buy now, pay later,” some of it born of necessity, the rest culturally rote consumerism. We pay taxes now on income earned, and we will pay taxes again, oftentimes on what you have already paid taxes on the first time around as income earned, then deposited into an individual retirement account, to pay taxes on again when removed from that particular financial vehicle, as we enter what is potentially our most vulnerable years—physically, financially, etc. 

TurboTax’s truth bomb was like swallowing a grenade whole. Mind blowing; an education earned using the empirical evidence of a costly mistake made. The accountant contacted on the fly, dug us out of the quagmire I had no idea I was mired in, chin deep. They walked us through the “recharacterization”process. This term sounds like a new fandangle therapy to improve one’s constitution, like a medically-induced LSD trip, but no, I learned “recharacterization” is the process of changing the “designation” of your IRA contribution from one to the other. For us, it was recharacterizing money from Roth status into traditional status. If done within the deadline (aka Tax Day), there is no penalty. This is a necessary step, not just because of the deadline, but because the money also never leaves the retirement account ecosystem, which would elicit a taxable event. 

Relieved, and grateful, we discussed a financial plan for the future, a plan to keep us out of trouble. He mentioned a retainer; a minuscule percentage of assets. We coughed nervously. The great irony of our situation was Russ and I made too much money to qualify for any tax “breaks,” but not enough to qualify for a financial advisor. We heard the same story twice, from two different advisors. “Our average client makes $500,000 a year, has a net worth of 2 to 3 million, and is ten to fifteen years from retirement.” 

Literally. Verbatim. Twice.

Umm, that’s not us. 

Russ and I discussed it at length, nevertheless. Did we pay the cost for someone to circumvent expensive mistakes, or did we just forge ahead, banking on (pun!) the probability of incurring costly mistakes in the future, learning from them, and moving on? It is the difference between paying upfront, or paying later, splitting the difference, not unlike overpaying your tax burden throughout the year, versus paying just enough, with the certainty you will write a check to Uncle Sam, before the deadline. I pay ahead, because not doing so feels like a dangling noose swinging in front of me, inviting my neck to dance. Plenty choose otherwise. Possession is nine tenths of the law, and that includes compounded interest. The argument of those braver than me is, “Why should I let Uncle Sam earn interest on my money that is essentially in escrow until April 15th?” Their strategy is to capitalise on interest earned, while in their own account, before handing over any balance owed to the USA.

Ultimately, Russ and I decided to go it alone. It was a decision made mostly due to default, not really qualifying as worthwhile candidates for a financial advisor, but also, we were confident that as we neared the finish line at the end of our careers, our cumulative mistakes would cost us significantly less, than management fees would have. Every penny counts. After all, there is a big difference between a 0.03% expense ratio of an exchange-traded fund (ETF) and the average expense ratio of 0.5% to 1.0% for most mutual funds when calculated over what is hopefully decades. If you owned $100,000-worth of an ETF, with an expense ratio of 0.03%, over twenty years you would have “paid” $2,500-plus to have the fund “managed.” If you invested that same dollar amount, for the same two decades, in a mutual fund with an expense ratio of 0.5%, you would pay over $41,000 out of your proceeds (interest earned) in management fees over that same twenty-year period. That’s more than chump change. 

How did I calculate those differences in cost? Anyone can discover anything they wish to better understand on Google. Love it or hate it, Google has decentralised the platform of information, lowering the barriers to entry for everyone. This is both good and bad. Much more information, and possibilities for education, are accessible to everyone, but conversely, significant value is whitewashed from a lot of it. Now I can do my taxes myself, and buy or sell my own ETF’s whenever I want, without incurring a transaction fee. I can bank online, find my rights as a tenant, or as a property owner, studying the real estate laws in my state as compared to others. Searching, I can find the best offer on a new pair of shoes, or a used car, and everything in between. In short, I can eliminate the middleman, of the middle class, marching towards modern capitalism.

It all seems a moot point on the precipice of this war. The future is uncertain, for all of us, a humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes. We always think, we must believe really, that war is what happens to other people, not us. I’m not so confident of this anymore. I am only certain that following death, Uncle Sam will still stand on my doorstep, a collection plate clutched in his bony hands.

Twin Gulps

How often did it happen? Standing in a semicircle, condensation dripping over fingers clutching boozy glasses at the neighborhood Christmas party, someone would shake their head and lament, “The older you get, the faster time passes!” The other heads would nod, a collective sigh filling the space between them, like penciling an empty bubble near black on a paper ballot.  

I’m with him. I vote yes!

I’d turn, silently slipping from the group I hadn’t been invited to join in the first place, and surf the snack table instead. That’s a downer, I would think, shoving a Frito in my mouth. I chalked it up to “small talk,” which I defined as conversation kindling, sentences uttered with no real value, a mere offering for the rest of the group to squash the uncomfortable silence. As a kid, I wasn’t on the hook to participate. After initial acknowledgment upon arrival, my presence diluted to nearsightedness with the correlating depletion of bottles corralled on the kitchen island, like painted ponies trapped on Chincoteague Island.

Yet, here I am now, a Cocker Spaniel chasing her tail, looking for the bobbed end that cut and run, like the pendulum that abandoned its clock. One minute I was the only passenger in a row of three seats, travelling west at 500 miles-per-hour, 37,000 feet above sea level; before freezing my ass off in Houston for a week. Then I rolled my bag in the dark through China Town and volleyed meetings all week, from dinner for eight on Valentine’s Day with two days notice, to winter Board Meetings in the office, dressing for the part after two years of not. I missed my writing class Wednesday night due to the fraught, and now I am staring down the barrel of tax submission this weekend, because the paperwork has finally just arrived. The passage of time moves so quickly these days, the force of it renders me limp, like a strawberry dropped from a child’s hand out the window of a car, forgotten on the asphalt, left to thirst under the summer sun.

I have become one of those adults at the Christmas party..

I was so pissed, missing class, but the image of strangers sitting at a round table, holding menus covered in hearts, as was reported back to me, cheered me more than it probably should have. It was the third restaurant I had called, the first one with space still available. The manager warned me of the pre fixe menu, prepared solely for the annual celebration of romance between couples, not for a group of strangers, knees touching, talking shop.

He said, “Let me tell you what’s on the menu to make sure it’s okay with your party.”

I cut him off. 

“Is steak on there?”

Silence.

“Well, there are actually three…”

I cut him off again.

“Got steak, we’re good.”

My question was purely rhetorical. I was talking to the frontman of a steak house, the only places this industry in DC patronizes. Did it really matter what cuts of cow were covered in Bordelaise, or Hollandaise, or Marsala? I didn’t think so. Hearing the chef’s spreadsheet was unnecessary. That would be a waste of time. Besides, there were no complaints.

I flew to Texas last week to help my parents, while Mom recovered from minor surgery. I arrived the day before her procedure. A family of one vehicle now, I dropped her at work in the morning, and later, my father and I had plans to meet my brother for lunch. Preparing to leave the house, I gathered the keys, and sweaters for the both of us. Dad stood in the living room behind his walker, pointing towards the door, patting his pockets.

I can’t find my wallet.”

I didn’t take him too seriously. Without a word, I went looking. I rummaged the usual cubbyholes, and checked places where it might be stashed, but shouldn’t be.

I’ve looked in all the places I might keep it, and it’s not anywhere,” he said, flabbergasted.

This was an unusual occurrence for my father. Turning pillows over and opening drawers, Russ’ words flashed across my mind like ticker tape. “Everything in its place, Jenn. Then you won’t lose it.”  There were two things Dad bragged about repeatedly over his lifetime. One, he never missed a day of work, in his sixty-plus year career. And two, Dad knew where every “thing” was. He could find “it” in five seconds flat—photos from a particular family trip to Europe; every financial document pertaining to the year 1968; or his tweed hat, worn once every five years. He needed just enough time to walk wherever the item sat and pick it up. Every thing had its place, and that was where he kept it. 

I checked the usual suspects: the crevices in the car; the garage floor surrounding the car; his khakis from the day before, plastered against the sides of the washing machine like a wet dollar bill; his desk drawers downstairs; his desk drawers upstairs; under the covers of his bed; the crack of emptiness between the bed and his nightstand, a vacuum for missing and abandoned trinkets; the cushions of the couch and living-room chairs; the pockets of his jackets hanging in his closet and the ones dangling from hooks lining the wall in the laundry room. I checked the baskets of his walkers; the one upstairs, the one downstairs, and the one that lives outside on the porch, for excursions off-premises, only. 

I began to sweat.

“Where did you and Mom eat the other night?”

“Last night?”

“No, last night we ate pizza with Rick, here at the house.”

“Hmm. What did we do yesterday?”

I had worked in my office, then flew to Texas, later in the evening. My brother picked me up at airport. I ordered a pizza on my phone en route, to collect on the way to the house. Once there, I ran inside, but the restaurant had no record of my order. Instantly, I knew what mistake I had made. I placed the order at the wrong location; the only other location, we had already passed inadvertently, when Rick missed the first exit off of the highway, caught up in chitchat, taking us the “longer” way to the house. I had made this mistake plenty over the years. The exit was easy to sail past. But we doubled back for a second time, retrieving the pizza, making the long route twice as long. I was ravenous when we finally arrived at the house. 

Standing with my father, thinking about the previous night, all those pizza slices shovelled into my mouth and washed down with cheap Montepulciano, I remembered Mom said they went to see Dr. Wang that day, but Dr. Wang ended up not being there. A different doctor had injected Dad’s eye. I called the practice. After being placed on hold several times, as the receptionist rang the different floor attendants, the head of security, and the valet, she reported back no wallet was found .

“Dad, you went to dinner the other night. Where did you go?”

“We did? Didn’t we have pizza?”

“No, the night before that. You and mom.”

“Well, we must have gone to dinner, but I don’t remember where.”

Tick tock goes the clock. 

I texted Mom at work. 

“Raffa’s,” she said.

In the meantime, Dad and I loaded ourselves into the car to meet Rick. Pulling out of the driveway, Dad laughed and said, “Well you have your wallet, right?” For a man who has never lost a wallet before, his laissez-faire humor surprised me.  Once seated at our table, I ordered a tall glass of Valpolicella from the waiter. Rick smiled.

“That kind of day?” he asked.

“Dad can’t find his wallet.”

“I could disappear, become someone else entirely!” 

Dad’s smirk twinkled. I pulled long and hard from the nine ounces of red swirling in my glass. 

Rick said, “Well I hope you didn’t keep your social security card in there.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s in there.”

A bubble popped above my head, the image of an old Archie Bunker episode, sepia-toned, playing on a tube TV. i pictured Dad creeping his walker back and forth through the zigzag of taped lanes in the government administrative building, full of pissed-off people, in order to reach a desk, to replace the missing license with a state-issued identification card. And then doing it again, all over for a second time, at the Social Security office. 

I threw my head back. 

Twin gulps.

When we got home, I repeated my ransack. This time, I worked backwards, starting from the outside of the house, circling all the way to its innermost depths: my parent’s bathroom. Still empty-handed as the search tapered, I opened drawer number four in the bureau, one of three drawers I hadn’t opened, because, well, it was near impossible his wallet would ever find its way to one of those drawers so close to the floor. But there I stood, knuckles wrapping knobs, hovering over a sea-foam of white socks, his wallet tossed carelessly like driftwood on top. 

I took his wallet apart. He wasn’t carrying his social security card. Instead, tucked inside was scrap paper, both his and my mother’s social security numbers scribbled across it. Using Russ’ word, I took the opportunity to “sanitise” Dad’s wallet. I shredded the scrap paper, and removed his insurance cards, replacing the originals with a photocopied version. Later that evening, Mom home from work, the three of us sitting around the dinner table, I uncorked another bottle of Italian. 

Picking up her glass, Mom asked, “Is the wine any good?’

Shipwrecked by the day, I quipped, “Does it even matter?,” raising my own glass like Lady Liberty’s torch.

We drove downtown the next day for her cataract surgery. I warned her not to judge my wrinkles too harshly, when they appeared more prominently, with her new eyes. Or at the least, I suggested she keep those thoughts to herself. The doctor explained the process, with his rudimentary pen drawing. He would remove her damaged lens and implant a new artificial one in its place. I said, “So you’re saying my mother will have implants?” My joke fell flat. Dr. Chang didn’t laugh.

She came through the surgery great, her vision improved almost immediately. With my parents settled, I headed back to DC, landing at a gallop to keep pace with the schedule outlined on my calendar. Combing emails, I opened one from the head of IT. 

He wrote, “‘JS’ received this scanned document and marked it as SPAM. Is this yours?” I looked at the attachment titled, ‘PDFTEST.’ 

How did she end up with that? I wondered. It was the latest addition to my latest story, that I sent to the printer in PDF format. Usually I export a piece written in Pages to Word. Every now and then, I need to read my work in hard copy, printed on paper, especially when they get longer, in order to suss out any bumps in the text. I opened the attachment to be sure it was mine. The first paragraph read:

The surgeon said, ‘We can do this arthroscopically, but your uterus is a bit big to pull out of your vagina.’ The image of the surgeon, gripping rabbit ears slick with blood, one foot on the table between spread leg for leverage, while vainly trying to dislodge the head, crossed my mind.

Yep. That was my story. I don’t know how ‘JS’ ended up with the document, except for the possibility the office printer was confused by our matching initials. I might have felt ashamed, like the famous dude whose dick pic was intercepted by the wrong person (paparazzi), when the intended recipient was someone other than his wife or proctologist. Except, this wasn’t a case of adulterous dick. This was the memoir of my vagina, a true story. I wondered for about five seconds if  ‘JS’ and IT had read the document. I decided they did, now knowing more about their coworker’s vagina than they ever dreamed possible. But a human’s propensity for remembering the minutiae is short-lived, and erroneously, we presume others spend a disproportionate amount of time examining us, when they are not. Pretty soon, not even my vagina will qualify as small talk, hashed out around the water cooler in whispered voices.

This too shall pass.

Knitpicking

She hung the cardigan on the plastic hanger, being sure to fasten the top button, so the  shoulders didn’t slip off, pooling the sweater on the floor. She had yet to wear the sweater. They had only just arrived and unzipped their bags, placing their belongings in empty nooks. She stared at the sweater with surprise, the hint of frustration curdling the edges of her delight. The sweater was already pocked with tightly-wound pills. This was a new sweater, the one she bought herself for Christmas, after much consternation. The one she had really wanted, the one she stared at for three weeks in the lead-up to the holidays, wistfully clicking past it every time, came with a price tag of four-hundred dollars. 

She had packed the sweater carefully, slipping the folded cashmere—cashmere-blend to be exact—into a garbage bag, keeping the straw-colored hairs rounded-up, and away from the rest of her belongings. In the few weeks of owning the sweater, the woman noticed its propensity to mark whatever it touched. When she stood from her couch, the cushions were left mottled, as if a large poodle had been seated there instead. Shirts worn beneath went straight to the washing machine, or remained paired with the sweater, until they did.  

The woman bought the sweater a comb. It reminded her of an old-fashioned harmonica plated with cherry wood. Everyday she combed the sweater, angling the screen at the edges, stiff like the dorsal fin of a Veiled chameleon, swiping the sweater with short strokes, starting at the top and continuing all the way to the bottom, catching the hairballs in the screen. She watched the loosed fibers accumulate, threatening to spill to the ground. 

The woman thought back, to the image of her own skin clippings, piling-up in the hollowed-out mandible of cuticle cutters, at the hands of the salon professional. She had watched the manicurist work, back when she paid that kind of attention to her nails, the same way drivers eyeballed cars heaped, dented and smoldering, on the other side of a highway. Her stomach would knot, for no apparent reason, awaiting the crash of her DNA onto the dirty tiles, right there at her feet. But it never happened. Like a consummate smoker, those professionals knew when to flick the cutters against the side of the trash can, dislodging the ball of skin before continuing onward, as surely as the lifelong smoker knew when to press their burning cigarette into the ashtray, breaking off the cremated end from the tobacco still fresh in the paper, before it melted a small hole in the Oriental rug.

Since acquiring the sweater, the woman surmised she had spent almost as much time grooming its coat, as she had wearing it. I might as well own a dog, she thought ruefully. In fact, the sweater proved more work than any ‘fancy’ dog requiring such attention, such as a miniature Poodle named Pierre, the curls of his cuffs braiding daily into knots, like passerby tucked chewing gum into them like recyclable wrappers; or even a speckled Australian Shepard named Pepper, his undercoat pushing past the surface for two weeks straight, like a down jacket ripped apart with a switchblade. He trailed fur-balls everywhere he went, like Pig-Pen trailed dust in Peanuts. The sweater required much more attention, because not only did the woman have to groom the outside of the sweater, she had to comb the pills from the inside of it, too. 

The woman sighed, standing in the trailer without wheels, parked in the middle of a plain facing the Sangre De Cristo mountains, 4.2 light years from the nearest stellar neighbour, Alpha Centauri. This must be the ‘blend’ part of the cashmere, she thought wryly, picking the wad from the edge of the screened comb like she was picking cotton from a stalk, unsticking the strands from one finger after another, until it floated into the can, like the ghost of a dandelion.

Yes, having a dog would have been much easier.

Just Add Water

She held the t-shirt by the shoulder seams, flipping it back and forth to display both sides. That’s a medium? I wondered. That’s-going-to-be-tiiiiight. I paused before answering, still holding onto my fork loaded with chicken burrito, resting against the plate. She must have sensed my apprehension.

Jiggling the shirt, she leaned in conspiratorially, “Whatever you do, don’t dry it. Trust me on that. Cold water, and don’t dry. Promise?”

I bought the shirt from our waitress at Orlando’s in Taos. I never intended to be a collector of shirts with the names of Mexican joints spray-painted across the chest, but this shirt now made three. At this point, I am compelled to retrace my steps back to the original spot, the one that stoked my appreciation for fine Mexican cuisine in the first place: Ninfa’s on Navigation, in downtown Houston. Sometimes you have to leave your backyard to know the value of what has always been there. Ninfa’s has been in existence one year less than I have. It’s a stalwart of the community and the location of many happy times spent there in my childhood.

I rate Mexican cuisine as ‘fine’ when the ingredients are noticeably fresh; there is a generous smattering of peppers for both spice and heat; and the Margaritas arrive to the table crisp with citrus and a slightness of sweet. A good margarita is catnip, mine with Patron, and Herradura for Russ. These days, ‘Modern Mexican’ is served almost tapas-style, with beautiful presentation on every small plate. But I prefer my ‘fine’ Mexican dining, including the stated qualities above, served ‘Waffle House style’—scattered, smothered, covered and chunked—on a large dinner plate.

When we ordered at Orlando’s, she asked, ‘Do you want red, green, or Christmas?’ Automatically I said, ‘Christmas!’ Russ had the foresight to question what those signified before answering. Burritos were smothered with red or green chili or both. Russ chose red. Every dish was served with a side of pinto beans and stewed hominy called posole. I washed my lunch down with a frosted mug of Tecate, drunk at a clip due to the surprising burn of the posole. I couldn’t stop blowing my nose. 

I considered upgrading my new t-shirt to a size large, but embraced the challenge ahead instead. This t-shirt would double as a truth stick. I am aware this strategy is not unlike buying a little black cocktail dress, with the goal of fitting into it, before the occasion arrives on the calendar. The shirt has one of two outcomes possible. I will either appear as an adult wearing a child’s tube sock as a shirt, my pasty-white muffin top squeezed between the compression of that and the fitted waistband of my jeans, or, it will just be a tight t-shirt, slightly inappropriate, a token emblem of an old woman, desperately clinging to her youth vanished, but not yet crossing into obscenity. Neither outcome is worthy of celebrating, but I’ve decided both are okay, and even more than that, they are acceptable. I’m not sure if this ‘letting go of the outcome’ constitutes maturity or wisdom, or whether I’ve dipped my big toe straight into the undertow of apathy. I’m straddling the roundabout of knowing better, but not caring either. 

This is what I rationalised finishing my burrito at Orlando’s. I thought of my father who recently told me, ‘I just walk down the driveway in my pajamas to grab the paper. No one is ever around. I never see anyone, so who cares?!” I thought to myself, but didn’t say it, ‘Just because you can’t see them, Dad, doesn’t mean they can’t see you.’ I pictured him, hobbling to the curb, wearing pajamas with the sleeves and pant-legs haphazardly hacked away, the only kind he owns. My tight shirt marks the halfway point between this and leaving the house in ratty pajamas and not caring what anyone thinks. 

We flew to Santa Fe and drove the rental car the ninety minutes to Taos. We took the scenic route known as ‘The High Road.’ We arrived in the dark, hangry, stopping at Albertson’s and loading the car with groceries and supplies: instant oatmeal, Ramen noodles, canned soup, a loaf of bread and lunchmeat for Russ, and a bag of chips and salsa for me. I threw a bottle of Dr. Teal’s bubble-bath into the cart. 

What’s that for?’ Russ asked.

‘Bubble baths, duh.’

‘You’ve never taken a bath since I’ve known you.’

‘That’s because there’s never been a big enough tub.’

He rolled his eyes.

‘Hey!’ I said. ‘Almost everything in this cart just needs water to work. We are killing this off-the-grid-living-the-simple-life-glamping-thing!

We lodged in a vintage camper among the almost two dozen others there. The space felt and looked like a private campground, but they called it a hotel: The Hotel Luna Mystica. I reserved one of the bigger campers for us called The Spartacus. It came installed with a double bed; a sitting area with a pristine velvet couch the color of Columbian emeralds; and a full bathroom with a deep tub. But it was ‘the little things’ that clinched our feeling of satisfaction: the nice sheets on the bed; the bar of soap sourced locally, tied with ribbon; the aromatic coffee grounds stored in a glass jar; and a French press to steep every cup to perfection. What was missing was equally important. To start with, there was no television. Nor could we find a speck of dirt or dust, mildew or mold. In all our travels, we’ve learned the important lesson where we bunk can enhance our visit, or diminish it. I had rolled the dice, but struck gold in Taos. 

And the view outside our windows? Well … it was spectacular. Every morning we watched the sun breach the mountains, like a Flamenco dancer in a ruffled red dress. She floated above the peaks with grace, the red softening to pink as she rose, until her halo finally cracked open, a million jewelled beams of light pouring over our heads, blinding us to the electric grid of the surrounding plain, until she flamencoed her way back to the ridge-tops of the mountains at the end of each day. It was like having center seats in the front row at Broadway, only it was on the world stage. 

We explored the area, as far as a single day would allow, there and back. We made the loop to Angel Fire and Eagle Nest, onward to Red River, and back to Taos, passing D.H. Lawrence’s Ranch in San Cristobal, now the property of UNM. Red River is where we encountered the herd of Bighorn sheep crossing the road, their horns thick, curled like handlebar moustaches, with eyes the color of khaki pants, beneath a polished glaze. It was unusual to find them so low in their territory, especially in early afternoon, but we saw another herd later that day as well, when we left the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. It was a cold day, and one of the locals said the sheep came down from the mountains, to seek the warmth from the asphalt road. 

We checked out every ski valley we passed, and visited Santa Fe twice. Once for a day trip, and then again the day we flew home, with several free hours before our departure time that evening. We also visited the Bandelier National Monument, home to cliff dwellings over 11,000 years old, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the site of a collapsed volcano over one million years old. I could go on and on, but honestly, my words fail me. I can only attest their moniker, ‘The Land of Enchantment,’ is a hint of what one will discover when visiting New Mexico.

This trip was our anniversary celebration. Year three logged in the book of record. We exchanged cards while there. Russ’ card was three dimensional with pop-ups, showcasing a couple paddling a canoe down the river, the mountains behind them, and a blue sky overhead. It read, ‘Everything is simpler, happier, and better…with you by my side.’  The card was perfect. Russ holds the key to hugging my insides, without so much as a word spoken, until they crumble and seep with gratitude. 

My card, on the other hand, pictured two squirrels pressed together side by side, holding a single stick impaled with two marshmallows, skins charring with each lick of the campfire flames. Inside, it said, ‘Love you s’more!’ Russ hates smores. I knew this, but the furry squirrels, with their kitschy sentiment, won in the end. I told Russ we would be two squirrels roasting hotdogs over our fire pit instead. 

The day before we left, Russ stuffed a bag and took it to the laundromat to wash and dry.

‘Got anything?’ he asked.

‘We’re going home tomorrow…so umm no.’

Russ rolled his eyes.

I sat in the car parked in the lot, waiting with a cup of coffee, and writing on my laptop.

We chose to move our connecting flight back, so we could sleep in a hotel room Saturday night, instead of waiting in the airport for seven hours for the red eye. It made for a long trip home, but we still had most of Sunday to get organised. That’s when I did my laundry. This made more sense to me, because Russ still had a lot of other laundry to do, even after using the laundromat two days before. As we finished up, I ran across the street to grab my favorite sandwich from the bakery. It’s a salad between wholegrain bread, with a smear of hummus on one slice, and a smear of pesto cream cheese on the other. Opening our door, I found Russ straddled above his suitcase vacuuming it with the extendable hose and brush.

I didn’t say a word. I didn’t shake my head in wonder (bewilderment) at the marvellous sight of a man happily immersed in his work. Besides, twelve hours later, I would be destroying the bathroom with food poisoning. Vacation was officially over. There wasn’t much I could do, but wait. That, and just add water.

Leaving for Tacos

When do you leave for Tacos?

The message appeared after I tapped the taco emoticon in my Noom app.  How does she know I’m feeling ‘Tacos’ this morning? Every day, Noom asks me to log my weight first thing in the morning and report back how I feel about the number on the scale by choosing an emoticon to represent it. There are two dozen characters, or caricatures, to choose from. In my first three weeks of my Nooming, I’ve clicked through the smiley face, the crying face, the half-frown face, and now I’m onto the avocados and tacos, the fried chicken leg, and a man squat-lifting barbells in a fiery red singlet. Otherwise, what’s left to click every morning is the pile of shit with its toothy grin, which I would choose daily, except it reeks of monotony and defeat. Reading the text, I thought to myself, ‘I can leave any time. But where are we going to find tacos at 7 am?

Ahh, 7-11. 

Russ and I now live in Little Mexico, the biggest transformation to take place in our neighbourhood in the last two years. We lost Ace Hardware (that was heart-breaking), and a golf-simulation franchise (not heartbreaking), whose name escapes me, despite how ridiculous I found it, walking past the storefront everyday. Instead,  a ‘European’ wax bar moved in, as well as another dry cleaner. That makes three. Little Mexico sprouted like a cluster of mushrooms, one after another, along a single block, sandwiched between China Town above it, and New York Ave below it. Six establishments selling similar faire, albeit in vastly different atmospheres, buttress one another. Listed in the order of their appearance in the neighborhood, the restaurants are Chipotle, *PPC; Sol Mexican Grille,*PC;  Chiai, *PC; 7-11’s The Taco Bar, *DC; d’Luna, *DC; and now Bar Taco, *PC. (* representing pre-post corona; pre-corona; during corona; and, post corona, respectively). Russ and I have each patronised a different one and that’s it.

Reading the text message, I realized autocorrect had failed in its calculus of comprehension. The question was supposed to be, “When are you leaving for Taos?” Right now, Russ and I are scheduled to depart Sunday, but looking at the weather, waylaid or delayed until Monday looks more likely. We celebrate our third anniversary next week and The West keeps calling to us. I haven’t been to Santa Fe since competing at the Diamond L Horse Trials in the eighties, and I’ve never been to Taos. Russ and I aren’t snowboarding this trip due to my knee issue. The doctor diagnosed it before Christmas as patellar tendonitis with the recital of my symptoms. He wrote a prescription for PT as a result. I asked him, ‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to do an MRI to be sure what’s in there, before scheduling PT?‘ The doctor didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘Your insurance won’t cover an MRI until after you’ve completed eight weeks of physical therapy.’ I shook my head at the irony. My horses had been treated with top class medical and surgical care their entire lives, yet human beings still have to push through massive amounts of red tape in order to secure the care they need, and not the care they decide to give you. ‘They’ being insurance companies, federal regulations (regulators) or lack thereof, or whoever else is manning this shipwreck of healthcare. In this country, you are better off born a sport horse, instead of a human being. I learned a valuable lesson, sucking up this pain for the last two years. Next time, I will go to the doctor straightaway, starting the process earlier, in order to facilitate a resolution in a timely manner. I’m not looking forward to wasting hours of my time, for the next two months, only to go through what really needs to be done after that. 

I said it at the end of last year. 2022 is already written. We celebrated Russ’ 50th, and the next day, he received a flyer advising him to get his Shingles vaccine. We spend a week in Taos starting Sunday, touring the surrounding landscape, and I start my new writing class that lasts ten weeks. I have 10,000 words prepared already, which isn’t a lot, but it is for me. It feels like uncharted waters, a step further away, ‘leaning over the toes of my skis’ on a mountain I’ve never traversed. In February, I head to Texas, while one of my parents recovers from minor surgery. Maybe I can start the PT, and stick with it, after that. I’ll finish in time to either have surgery before my birthday, or more likely after, but regardless,  I can look forward to my own flyer shortly, inviting me for a Shingles shot, and another one, reminding me I’m due for my first colonoscopy sooner rather than later. In the meantime, work is humming along, and will for the rest of the year. We’ve had our best few years of business to date, and log our 95th year in business this May. How many private, ‘blue-chip’ companies can espouse that?? 

This year is about family and friends, health, and reading and writing. That’s it. I’ve deleted more than half of my podcasts and unsubscribed from all but two newsletters (#morningbrew and #nomercynomalice). And while I’ve eliminated noise veiled under the guise of information, is there such a thing as too much information? I think so, when information erodes, or depletes, experiences. I struggle a lot with my writing. I’m constantly questioning if there is a purpose to it, if it matters, if it’s not just additional noise lending to the thick haze of the pollution surrounding us. Does the world really need the broadcast of one more voice, however minutely it spreads or languishes? I honestly don’t have the answer, but wrestle with it constantly. Yet I keep writing, perpetuating the torture, because one thing I am confident about, not writing is more tortuous. Sometimes the lesser of two evils wins, though arguably, that rule is not set in stone. Sometimes the opposite prevails and it should. Today, I choose writing. Then I’m leaving for Tacos. 

The Oakley’s

The plan wasn’t to leapfrog the ogre of failure. My pronouncement leaked into existence, like a tiny runt popping out long after the litter has suckled for hours. The timing was off, but that seems to be my specialty.

I ditched alcohol the day after Christmas. Sitting in a wingback chair at my parent’s house the morning after Christmas I thought, ‘Why not start now?’  For a month. Russ and I shlepped to the airport that day headed home. Once we boarded, my eyes hinged shut like coffin lids slapping closed, before the wheels wormed away from the jet bridge. Later, I heard an echo, an advertisement on a television set in another room, a mechanical voice informing us we would be landing in twenty minutes. My head vibrating against the side of the plane, my eyes cracked open, burning and puffy. My vision was blurry, but I made out the two mini bottles of wine tucked into seat-back netting of the seat next to me. 

After we deplaned I asked Russ, ‘How much did that guy drink?’

‘He had a few. I don’t think he was a fan of flying.’

I missed the whole thing. The guy sitting between us, slurping his fear away, or any of the other melodramas that unfold on a flight. In all my years of flying from Virginia to Texas, I have never slept an entire three and a half hour flight. The five days of Christmas wore me out. 

We drove from DCA to Union Market to pick up ‘linner,’ since our cupboards were empty. I always patronise South Block and Russ likes A. Litteri when we head over there. We unpacked, started laundry, pulling on our jammies, sitting down to relax to eat. I dug into my Warrior Acai Bowl.

‘I think I’ve decided to stay on the wagon until my birthday.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know. Why not?’

Licking my spoon, I said, ‘Well, the thing is, there is always an occasion, or there will always be an occasion to have a drink. January is a wash-out; then there is Valentine’s, or someone’s birthday, or dinner with friends, or another holiday. Basically, any event can be considered an occasion worthy of celebrating. I need to rethink other ways to celebrate and honour special occasions besides having a glass of wine or a cocktail. Anyway, that’s what I’m kicking around in my head.’

‘You’ll have to drop the wine membership then.’ 

‘No, I won’t! Why would I?’

‘So, you’re going to pay for a membership you’re not going to use?’

‘I’ll use it!’

‘How are you going to use it if you’re not drinking wine?’

‘We’ll give the wine away to our friends.’

‘So you’re going to pay for a membership for your friends use?

You realise we will have virtually no social life if you quit drinking.’

See? This is what I’m talking about. Our social life shouldn’t only revolve around alcohol.’

I’m undeterred. 

What is probably more revolutionary (for me), than a booze-freeze, is drinking my coffee black. There was no milk for the first few days we were home and it left me unfazed. Now that I didn’t ever see happening. Finally, I have fallen in step with the other Simmons’ women.

It only took fifty years. 

That statement is slightly premature, but not by much.  I’m five months younger than Russ, who celebrated his 50th on January 5th. Ahh, a Capricorn. A calm and cool saint. Maybe he wasn’t born this way (cue commercial jingle), but it’s an apt description these days. 

I handed him a card with Tyrannosaurus rex on the front, arms outstretched. 

It read, ‘I love you this much.‘  

Russ peered at the stunted limbs, as short as dessert forks, and looked at me over the edge of his glasses.

He said, ‘Mmm..That doesn’t look like…very much… at all.

Inside I wrote, ‘You’re my favorite dinosaur and I love you thismuch.‘ 

‘I’m a dinosaur?‘ he asked.

I bought Russ a pair of Oakley sunglasses for his birthday. Since I’ve known him, he has worn the same exact pair of cheap glasses. They remind me of the protective eyepiece the dermatologist balances on the bridge of my nose, before lasering the layer of leather from my face.  Except Russ’ are black, with temples like hockey sticks, cresting the top of his ears and holding them in place.  I don’t know where he purchased them, and the location does’t matter, but I picture them among a rainbow of others, spinning on a rack at an upscale truck-stop (oxymoron?) like Love’s or Buccee’s, next to the stacks of trucker hats. I asked him about them, gingerly, ages ago. 

‘I’m not going to spend money on something that’s easily scratched, lost, or ruined. It’s a waste of money. These are fine.

Okay, fair enough. But soon after we started dating, he told me my Maui Jim’s were almost a dealbreaker. 

“Whaaat?!”

The shock of my face was met with his own. 

“Are you kidding me? Seriously. I almost got in my car and drove home the first time I saw you wearing them.”

I purchased those glasses at the Kentucky Three Day Event. The Maui Jim pop-up shop was conveniently located across from the VIP tent. I stood facing the mirror on the countertop, switching pairs on and off my face, when William Fox Pitt walked up. I looked from his Dubarries up, up, and further up, like trying to find Jack hiding in the beanstalk, before locating his face.

That man is very tall. 

Russ’ admission was rich, considering his own choice of sunglasses he wore voluntarily. They barely qualified as what they were promoted as being. They were nothing other than cheap plastic sprayed with a thin layer of tint. What was most ironic about Russ’ logic was in six years I’ve known him,  he hasn’t lost or scratched this pair yet. I kept ‘willing’ them to be forgotten on the roof of the car as we  pull away from the gas station (can’t outrun your roots after all), but its never happened. Russ takes impeccable care of every. single. thing. Order and cleanliness are his mantra, his essence, the thread that weaves him into the person he is. As Russ likes to say, when I’m scrambling in our tiny apartment searching for my reading glasses, my keys, or even my New Balance sneakers, usually as I’m headed out the door, borderline late, “Everything has its place, Jenn, and if you put things away, where they belong, you wouldn’t spend half your life looking for it.”  

While we were at my parent’s house for Christmas, Russ asked me for a battery to replace the dead one in the fire alarm upstairs. Without looking up, I said, “Dad keeps them  in the second drawer of his dresser in their bathroom.”

Russ disappeared into their room and reappeared shortly, battery in hand. Heading up the stairwell, he mumbled, “You married your father.”

I howled with laughter. I had said this all along, and said it for the first time when I uncovered Russ’ own drawer of batteries, in a small cabinet, under the sink, in his bathroom. Russ had always scoffed the proffered cliche, the old wives’ tale dispensed freely in regards to himself and his father-in-law, but it would be difficult, impossible really, for anyone to concoct an argument steely enough to counter the evidence of two drawers filled with a collection of batteries, stored in a bathroom, on purpose, twelve hundred miles apart. 

What are the chances?

Everything has its place and sometimes it’s the same exact place as your father-in -law’s. In addition to his ‘golden rule, Russ is also extremely tidy. Chalk it up to a career in the military, but the Army only reinforced what was already there, like adding water and fertiliser to a seedling. I realised the extent of this when we camped together in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico before we were married. Russ packed the car as neat and tidy as a brand-new Craftsman Tool Box. When we arrived, we spent hours setting up our camping spot for the night. We unpacked the tent, sleeping bags, a seating area, and all the equipment and provisions needed to cook a meal and eat it. We were in need of not one single item. We had it all at our fingertips. 

We spent the night wearing several layers, a ski hat on our heads, our down sleeping bags pulled up to our chins, and Cracker squeezed tight against my legs in my contoured “mummy” bag, neither of us complaining about the lack of space. It might have been the first weekend of the summer solstice, but the evening hours went below the freezing mark in the middle of that forest. Typical of Russ, we were up very early (he had to pry me out of my bag, where Cracker continued to hunker down like a smart old dog), drinking watery coffee, and packing it all up to head to our next stop where we would be staying in a hotel. We washed every cup and pot, wiped down every piece of equipment, as well as the equipment used to house or cover said equipment, before packing it all into the car in the same exact configuration Russ had the first time. 

(Everything in its place, Jenn.) 

When we returned home, after our sightseeing trip was complete, Russ unpacked the car, opening every piece of equipment, and rewashing it again, this time “properly.” That is code for using hot water. When it was all said and done, I guesstimated we (he) had spent more time preparing to camp, cleaning up after we camped, then we did actually camping. Compare this to the person he married: Unloading the dishwasher, I drop a spoon on the floor. I pick it up, wiping it on my shirt, before placing the spoon in the cutlery tray with the rest in the kitchen drawer. Russ turns apoplectic. Not trusting that the tainted spoon is the one on top, he grabs all the spoons out of the drawer and rewashes them.

Somehow, we view each other’s idiosyncrasies as endearing. Most of the time. Nowadays, I place dropped cutlery back in the dishwasher, and Russ digs my keys out from under the stack of papers on the counter where I last left them. This is our version of marital compromise. It works. The Oakley’s best demonstrate our progress in this arena. Russ traded his cheap frames for sturdy ones without a fuss. I was surprised. (I kept the receipt, just in case.) This pair has polarised lenses. I told him it’s like sunscreen for your eyeballs. He shook his head at my metaphor, but I’m relieved. His eyes will now be offered some protection. I may not have toasted Russ’ big birthday with a glass of champagne in my hand, but I purchased a gift I knew Russ would never buy for himself, and it warms my heart to invest in his wellbeing. The unimaginable has happened. Russ wears a couple hundred dollars on his face, undeterred. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.  

Open Season

 Three years ago, our bikes were stolen out of the bike locker, the one with a security camera overhead, located in the locked parking garage of our building, using what could only have been a circular saw to sever the Kryptonite U-lock, never mind the additional cable lock, all of which supposedly secured our bikes to the rack. Yet, no one heard or saw a thing, including whenever Santa’s little helper rolled on out of the garage with a tangle of bikes stuffed in a van, leaving only remnants of the handiwork behind, butchered locks strewn about the bike cage, like bones sucked dry and tossed by a pride of lions in the Serengeti.

 The camera was inoperable, or too time-consuming to review, I never knew which, but with the same end result. It proved useless. After the police took our statement, they shrugged empathetically, suggesting we register future bikes with the aptly named BikeRegister.com, and the case disintegrated into the ether of nowhere after that. This outcome didn’t surprise me. The metropolitan police department had (have) bigger problems than a slew of bike thefts before the Christmas holidays. But this theft left a salty sting after the crushing blow of Cracker dying only days prior. I lost my best dog and my bike.

 Since “The Great Bicycle Swindle of 2018,” I’ve learned the day after Thanksgiving is not only Black Friday across the country, but the day also signals “Open Season” here in DC. It lasts until after the new year. One must nail their shit down, batten the hatches, and hope for the best. Any item left visible in a car is a rookie mistake. Only once will an individual walk past a row of cars, parked nose to tail on the side of the road with their windows punched out, shards of glass sprayed everywhere, to understand thieves snatch first and ask questions later. An empty backpack propped in the backseat is the cost of a broken window replaced.  Facing the fact our bikes were gone, I placated myself with “They must have really needed them more than we did,” even though I was still a reeking lowball of anguish, mixed with two fingers of anger. I fed myself this soupy platitude, uttered through clenched teeth, but I half believed the words, understanding these were difficult times. Nowadays I question if life is any more difficult now, compared to some other chapters in the past. My sneaking suspicion is our difficulties today may not be any worse, but affect more people at once than ever before, hence the roll tide of collective angst and dissension across the country.

But having your shit stolen pales to bullets flying through your neighborhood. There have been two shootings close to home in the last three weeks alone. One occurred in front of our building, and the other incident took place one street over, in front of my favorite bakery/hangout. What happened? Was it a personal vendetta? A random drive-by? The details aren’t always made clear to the public, but it’s a tragedy for everyone, a brutal symptom of a much larger problem.

 On Wednesday, walking past the Building Museum, G St. was taped off between 4th and 5th Ave. Police cars blocked both ends of the intersection, while a mechanical voice sounded, repeating instructions “for employees to relocate,” like she was advertising perfumed shampoo, above the ring of the alarm inside the building. Immediately I thought “bomb threat” and quickened my pace. I shook my head as I passed The Government Office of Accountability, almost sneering at the grotesque irony of this particular office being evacuated. Under my breath I huffed, “George Orwell himself couldn’t make this up!” (Yes, an entire building exists in DC dedicated to this department of the government.)

 I was working from home that day, so I turned on the television when I stepped through the door. Surely the networks would announce a bomb threat, but nothing was mentioned, not even on Twitter, where I often find the most relevant information. (This is the absolute truth). I called my husband who suggested it was probably a drill.

“With all those police cars? Really?”

“Yep,” he said. “They would do the whole emergency procedure with police and road blocks, etc.”

The police sirens and choppers made haste for hours afterwards. For what I do not know. My heartrate was almost stabilized when a score of fire trucks rolled down our street at quitting time, honking and flashing, dropping hose as they went. Russ and I glued our noses to the window, propped up on our knees with our elbows pressed into the back of the couch, like children watching a neighborhood squabble unfold in the square. The hose snaked down the middle of the road and the ladder lifted half way up to the building before the firemen called it. False alarm. Like any other mess, it took three times as long for the firemen to put the equipment away, as it did to pull it out in the first place. Disaster was averted, but it was an expensive drill nonetheless.

 Russ and I did eventually replace our bikes, but it took over a year. Now we stable (euphemism) our string (another one) in the solarium (purely hyperbolic); the space behind the couch and between the plants, next to the floor to ceiling window.  It’s like having two extra roommates, who never speak or steal our food out of the fridge at night, but don’t pay rent for all the space they inhabit either. I told Russ there is no bike riding in the city until after the New Year. It’s a slippery slope from a car jack to a bike jack and I already have enough trouble staying upright on two wheels without wanton intervention from passersby. In the eyes of a thief, I’m as good as a goat staked in the lion enclosure at the zoo. Easy pickings, as they say.

 Last summer, my sister came for a visit from Houston. The weather was sweltering, even by Texas standards. In light of this, I took her places somewhat outside the purview of a tourist’s attention, and more importantly, covered in shade. We visited Roosevelt Island, The FDR Memorial, and skirting the Tidal Basin, we found the only strip of shade lining the granite enclave of the MLK Memorial. Drenched, walking back to the car in West Potomac Park, my sister looked up at the helicopter parting the thick air above our heads.

She said, “You know, sometimes I think we are down here, just doing our own thing, oblivious, while this whole other world is going on that we know nothing about.”

I was almost used to DC’s helicopter traffic, but the truth was, the frequency had intensified since COVID, and like my sister suggested, I sometimes felt I was living under a state of surveillance in the nation’s capital. Not only do helicopters here transport those in power, but they also converge where tragedy strikes. They are the city’s version of buzzards attracted to roadkill. One has only to see them circling to know where the latest calamity is shaping up.

So Merry Fucking Christmas, Everyone!

Just kidding.

These days, when I work from the office, I pass McPherson Square on my walk home. A van parks there regularly handing out meals in the evenings. The line of people waiting their turn usually twists around a corner in the park. Maybe some of you reading this story picture those on the down-and-out; vagabonds, vagrants; the homeless. But many of the people standing there have just finished work. They are dressed for the job they just departed; a clean jacket zipped up and a hat pulled down over their heads to keep them warm; a decent pair of shoes on their feet; with a briefcase in hand, or a backpack slung over a shoulder. Not much separates me, or anyone else, from those waiting in that line, except for maybe a few lucky breaks along the way, and dodging a catastrophic scrape with misfortune, from which one cannot recover. Privilege, after all, is always landing on your feet.

A bike is replaceable, but so much of life is not.

Co-opting Scott Galloway: “Life is so rich.”

Liquid Blush

I hate to shop, but we had time to kill before dinner, and they loved it, and were good at it. What I mean is, my two friends arrived everywhere, whatever the occasion,  dressed like they had orchestrated their entire ensemble long before cracking apart their eyelids, while languishing supine in their beds, their limbs germinated, beginning to stretch one after the other, freeing themselves from the covers and reaching towards the start of each new day. Their outfits would be perfect, both faces coloured with skill and precision, and hair fixed yet tussled, like all they did was casually run their hands through it to get ready. And the shoes! The shoes were the centerpiece; the coda; the denouement; the finale; the coup de grace, so to speak, telltaling their sophistication.

Standing next to them, in my mixture of clothing procured from tiny photos on Ebay’s website, I was the hairball the cat coughed onto the carpet.  But we were in New York City, so I wore my Blundstones, classing it up a bit. My steady and reliable New Balances stayed home. (Sidenote: I discovered my entire wardrobe is showcased in the short series MAID, the story of a young single mother living in a shelter. She picked her clothing up at the shelter’s “free closet.” She wore New Balance sneakers; clunky sweaters; bland, mismatched tops and bottoms; and even Blundstones. It was like watching myself on screen, minus the long legs, thirty pounds and thirty years, and the kid on the hip.)

But it had always been this way. I was used to it. Growing up, I was Pig-Pen, a permanent dust cloud of barn debris dropping a trail of evidence behind me, or I was wet and reeking of chlorine from all the laps in the pool, my hair green and stiff like stalks of straw. This was my legacy. I was the unkept oddball of the family from the very beginning. 

Wandering down the sidewalk, carefully I asked my friends, “Hey, if we happen to see a make-up shop, can we pop in?” I knew the answer already,  but I was hoping my query would land furtively, not shaking loose the dormant grenades under our feet, the imminent threat of further explorations of the consuming variety very real. I spotted a Blue Mercury storefront and we crossed the street.

I hadn’t purchased make-up in five years. That was right before I started my new gig in Corporate America. Prior to that, my make-up kit was a gift as part of the bridesmaid’s dowry for my sister’s wedding. If I remember correctly, that took place in 1992. There has been a few random product misfires in-between then and now, so I’ve kept with slathering my face with what must be by now a carcinogenic, the wedding concealer, but only in spots to cover….my spots. (Bazinga!) Every time I take aim, at the bullseye on my face, I think “Take that!,” daring the hot-tub cesspool of bacterial floaters to resist the dab of my cotton swab, dipped in the tube filled with paste the color of roasted sunflower seeds, and wielded like a fire extinguisher painting over flames with shooting sprigs of white powder, momentarily hiding the eruption beneath. 

I never realised it before, but now I do. This was my strategy when it came to make-up and wardrobe: Hiding imperfections brandished precedence to highlighting any perceived features. This still holds true. The happenchance of finding myself appearing “pretty” renders me obsessively self-conscious and uncomfortable, like there must be toilet paper stuck to the heel of my shoe and florets of broccoli trapped in the corners of my teeth, but despite my critical monitoring I cannot find it, even though it is in plain sight for everyone else to see.

We stepped into Blue Mercury and I asked for lip stain. My two friends had said this was a must, but that was two years ago, and the last time we were in New York City together. I had stewed and procrastinated long enough for my only tube of reliable makeup to turn pasty, then harden into a kiln-fired brick, and finally, crumble to dust. The girl at Blue Mercury raised her eyebrows and said, “Hmm…I don’t think we have that.” Before I could respond dismayed, a short man skirted past us dressed in black, his index finger curled into a candy cane. “Follow me,” he said.

His name was Augustine. He pointed out a few options for lip color, but patting the chair next to the display case, he said, “Here…let me help you.” Before I knew what was happening, Augustine pulled out a palette of paint and brushes and got to work. When he was finished, I looked in the mirror he handed to me and nodded, smiling. There it was, written on my face. I had plenty of room for improvement, and more importantly, it was actually possible. My two sidekicks, professionals in their own right as I stated previously, clambered for the chair. “Do me next!,” they chorused.  Not only did all three of us receive an expert express makeover from Augustine, but when he was finished, we clucked, “More! More! Again! Again!,” until each of us sat in the chair a second time, our faces shining like fresh canvases, and our features elevated into prominence.

During the course of events, Augustine answered the ring of his phone, pressing it between his ear and shoulder blade while he worked. It was his wife. We promptly chattered that Augustine was busy, doing a fabulous job, and how much we loved him, but he might be a while longer arriving home. (I’m sure they both loved that phone call ripe with interruption!) We left Blue Mercury with our pockets lighter and our blue square bags visibly heavier swinging from our fingers. I, myself, spent ten times more than I had intended when I first walked through the door. Leaving, I looked Augustine in the eye and said, “I have never had that done before. Thank you so much! You did an amazing job, and you are really good at your job!” All that I said was true, and because we had a great time, thanks to Augustine, I was happy to spend more, and patronise his location.

Later that evening, unprovoked, other friends complimented my skin, unaware of  my stop earlier at Blue Mercury. She leaned in, assessing, and cooed, “It’s so smooth! Perfect, really!” If I could have blushed, I would have, but I was already wearing blush. Liquid blush. Obviously, I didn’t even know that was a thing, and I viewed it skeptically when Augustine pulled it out of the drawer, the same way I dismissed liquid soap when it first hit shelves in grocery stores. “What a rip-off!,” I remember spitting in the direction of the bottles, lined up like soldiers wearing matching labels. But I bought the liquid blush anyway. Every day I smear it on my cheeks, watching the liquid deplete a little more in its bottle, and I think about the thirty-six hours I spent in New York City with my friends. I smile at my reflection in the mirror, despite myself. Some ripoffs are simply priceless.