Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Future Gift

My to-do list has become a virus. It has split itself at the cellular level and sprouted new versions that have taken root in notebooks, in my Blackberry memo pad, in my computer sticky-note application, and in that part of my brain that wants to think about other things, namely iTunes playlists.

So far, iTunes seems to be winning. After spending two hours this morning trying to deal with financial fallout caused by me mistakenly thinking four jobs would be enough to pay my bills, this viral to-do list has short-circuited everything I need to be productive.

Actually, I think the real virus I have has done that. (The one that gave me a 101 degree fever on Christmas. The one I get EVERY YEAR on Christmas. My immune system has impeccable timing.) The to-do list just makes everything seem harder and more depressing. Which is annoying because I usually greatly enjoy a well-made list, as evidenced here on this blog, in my enumerated conversations and even on my water bottle. But here's a glance at what I have facing me today:

1. Find a viable credit card.
2. Pay cell phone bill, car payment, car insurance (all late)
3. Call RCN about phantom bill that I DON'T OWE
4. Call City of Chicago about parking tickets that I DON'T OWE
5. Call hospital about charity care letter that I haven't received yet
6. Fax charity care letter to four separate places to take care of bills that I DON'T OWE

Here's what I got done today:

1. Found two credit cards that I hid from myself.
2. Activated one and destroyed the other.
3. Tried to pay one bill with new card.
4. Failed to pay one bill with new card.

That's it. And this took all day. And now I have no brain power left to do much of my actual work. So I'm writing here. Because I'm annoyed and when I'm annoyed I have to put words on a page in order to feel better. Much like making lists, actually. But my annoyance really comes down to one major issue:

I hate New Year's.

There. I said it. Deal with it.

New Year's is an arbitrary holiday meant for us to take stock of things we should have already been looking at in a contrived period of time that means nothing other than a way to sell calendars. It involves an intense amount of pressure to have plans and do something important in a week when we've eaten too much to dress up well, the weather is too bad to look nice anyway and there are no cabs to be found.

I'm on to you, New Year's. I'm so on to you that I made my goals last month. Ha.

These are not resolutions. I do not resolve to do anything because that sounds like settling. Also, January is not a good time for me to pretend to be new. Nothing starts new for me in January. November is clearly when things change for me. Plus two of my jobs have required me to do a lot of intense goal setting. (Like, five- and ten-year plans. Scary, y'all.)

In setting all these goals, I have been able to practice making important decisions. For me and only me. These decisions have come down to four main focal points. Which brings me to my water bottle.

I bought myself a new water bottle. Not because I necessarily feel the need to drink more water, but I needed a brand-appropriate water bottle for two of my new jobs and have been wasting too much plastic. It took me exactly twenty minutes to decide which water bottle to buy. But in the spirit of all my goal-setting, this one was too perfect:

Note the Starbucks cup - clearly none of my goals include drinking less coffee.
Then I realized I had to actually write my goals on the bottle. Which is what took the twenty minutes of deliberation. Did I really want everyone to see these? What if they look stupid or trite or daunting? What if I change my mind?

And then in minute 19: Fuck it. They are MY goals. And I can't achieve them if I can't even admit that I have them. So here they are:

Look at all this potential blog fodder! (Possible goal to consider: learn how to space words correctly. )
What was I scared of?

That you'd laugh at my future?

Or that I wouldn't get there?

Maybe. And maybe you will laugh. And maybe I won't get there. But it's my water bottle. My list of decisions. And you can't have it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Birthday Gift

Happy Birthday, Blog!

(For the record, the word "blog" makes me think of Muppets. And this is why: there is a Muppet song, which is probably also a real song, called "I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog." Blog is like Blue and Frog combined. Hence, I get this song stuck in my head every time I write here. Every time.)

I started Gift Well exactly one year ago today. In writing a Birthday post, I could go over all of the things that have changed in my blog-based year. I won't. Most of them are pretty well covered throughout the blog itself.

Instead I'll tell you a story I was saving for a special occasion. I was saving it for when I started having a lot of readers because I wanted people to know about it. I was saving it for a holiday it would tie in with, but then I couldn't figure out where it fit. I was saving it for a day to make people happy, but then I got confused, and then angry and then sad. But today is my blog's birthday. And my blog deserves a really nice present.

I grew up in a house that celebrated birthdays as if every year were a lifetime achievement. Which is accurate, really. Balloons, streamers, cakes decorated by my mom's hand to reflect your favorite item of the moment in a fairytale of frosting. One year Rose Petal, of Rose Petal Place fame, graced the top of my cake true to form in her layered pink dress, an icing rose delicately draped on the side of her head. I believe this was also the year I got Rose Petal's doll-sized, rose-pink Cadillac with the gold steering wheel as a present. Birthdays are special in my family. I intend to carry this tradition on as long as I have a birthday coming to me. Because it is a lifetime achievement. Your whole life in one day, every year. And that deserves a really nice present.

So last summer, M turned 30. He saw it as a marker of achievements he had yet to accomplish. A milestone that tells us to take stock of where we are and where we go from here. I saw it as a chance to win him over to the land of Rose Petal birthdays - with streamers and balloons and a week-long excuse to do whatever you want.

I started by blocking out 24 hrs. - I told him not to plan anything for one whole day, but I wouldn't tell him anything else. I told him to pack a bag of clothes that included a nice outfit for going out to dinner, some pyjamas and a change of clothes for the next day. I told him I would pick up the bag from him at 2pm that day, and from there the 24 hrs. would start.

I picked up M's bag of clothes at 3pm and handed him a set of envelopes with times written on the outside. He was to open each envelope at its appointed time.

"I'll see you later," I shouted as I drove off. I'm pretty sure he was thoroughly confused. But he opened the cards:

3pm: Make your way to the Borders at Water Tower Place. Open the next card when you get there.

3:30pm: Go to the checkout counter and tell them your name. They should have something for you. When you get it, open the next card.

I had bought a New York Times newspaper and a pen and left it with the cashier at Border with M's name. He loves crosswords.

3:45pm: Take your new crossword and pen and make your way to the Starbucks at Wabash and Chicago. Feel free to wander through your favorite neighborhood near Loyola. Open the next card when you get to Starbucks.

4:00pm: Use this (I inlcuded a $5 bill) to buy yourself some coffee. You have one hour here to do crosswords and drink coffee.

5:00pm: Make your way to Trump Tower. Open the next card when you get there.

5:15pm: Go to the desk. Tell them your name. They should have something for you.

The desk had the final envelope. Inside was a room key. I wrote the room number for our Trump Hotel room on the card and told him to call me on his way up. I met him at the door with chilled Prosecco. Inside the room, I put up streamers and balloons. I made cookies and snacks and put those out along with a few presents. Also I looked really pretty.

We went to a fancy dinner near the hotel, but mostly just enjoyed the view of Chicago from our ridiculously fancy hotel room. This was the ultimate rose-pink Cadillac of birthdays. And not because of cost. (I found online deals for a lot of the cost.) The Rose Petal quality of this gift was how it was tailored to what M likes and values. His concerns about turning 30 were wrapped up in the measure of his success and not being able to enjoy the city as much as he wanted. My gift to him was to show him how much he had already succeeded, how we could enjoy the city here and now even while looking forward. All wrapped up in a birthday surprise scavenger hunt.

Your whole life in one day. What a great day.

For my blog, this story wraps up a whole year. This gift was the impetus for writing Gift Well to begin with. A blog life in one post. Little blog, you have already succeeded. I enjoy writing here and now, in the present, every time. I AM in love with a big, blue frog. Named Blog.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Waiting Gift

Waiting in line is a constant game of risk vs. reward. As in:

Do I need $57 worth of makeup and workout pants at Target enough to watch the cashier move through slow-drying cement?


How many overdue bills make it worth a trip to the bank, just before closing, for a deposit?

I am impatient. I know this. I haven't always been this way. But I am now and it makes ordinary tasks like going to the grocery store interminable when too many other people are there. It also makes book signings a special kind of torture.

I've been to two different book signings in the past year. At the first, I was extremely patient and it was rewarding and excellent. A week or two after I was fired, I bought a copy of Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball and stood in line at ESPNZone for two hours to meet the author. The line wrapped around an entire block and I was ten people from the end. Outside. In November. By the time I reached the table, Simmons looked like he was minutes from death and I was so frozen my smile looked less like happiness and more like I had just sat on something sharp. But I was wearing my Red Sox hat and a green coat, and Bill Simmons took one look at me and said, "Boston!"

He signed my book "Go Sox!" I was ecstatic.

At the other, I was miserably intolerant and ditched out early. On Tuesday, David Sedaris stopped by Borders. I have been coveting his new book, "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" and figured this was as good an excuse a chance as any to buy it. Dumbly, I assumed this would be the same setup as the Simmons signing, so I cruised the scene before parking. I didn't see a line at all, not even inside. After buying the book, a red polo-ed employee tagged my wrist with a silver band. He told me to head upstairs. This was a mean trick. Apparently Borders has a secret room where they keep authors. A small room with two sets of doors. Two lines grew from each set of doors, spreading like a wet spot on a carpet into the maze of shelves. I pushed my way to the front of the second set of doors, feeling like a car that drives for too long in the imminently-ending lane. The car that everyone hates.

Another red polo-ed employee began handing out post-its so we could each write our own name on the inside cover of the book. This would streamline the process for Sedaris, who would now be writing out names for all of eternity inside Borders. Being a good foot shorter than the person directly in front of me, I raised my hand and asked for a post-it, thinking that since they were being offered, this would ensure I would receive a post-it. Not so.

"I will GET to you," Red Polo shouted. My coat warmed itself and I began sweating. Suddenly I was seven, waiting for Santa and being yelled at by an elf. An elf with the power to deny me access to my wishes. I shut my mouth. And I never got a post-it.

I did, however, wriggle myself far enough into the secret room to see Sedaris as he read from his new book. He was engaging and genuine and did not pretend to be anything other than his own voice.

I was happy.

Then the elves descended and told us to line up by wristband color. We were to wait in our separate lines, to then be called into the secret room and wait for Sedaris to sign our books. I shuttled into formation along with the other silver bracelets. Behind a man who had pulled his clothes out of the bottom of a Guiness Records-worthy pile of dirty laundry. In front of a screaming child. Between shelves of mass-marketed children's games that had all been placed upside down. I waited for thirty minutes, attempting to shut out all my senses except the one that was internally keeping track of my rapidly expiring meter time. I gave up. Not even the promise of Sedaris laughing at my obviously hilarious jokes could keep me in that cage. The reward did not outweigh the risk of insanity.

So what happened to me? Last year I was perfectly content to listen to pretentious posturing at the back of a line with nothing to read and nothing to do. This year I was gasping for air inside a store I could spend hours in on any other day. The main difference is that last year I literally had NOTHING ELSE TO DO. I had just been fired and was searching for things to keep me occupied and buoyant. This year, I was running to get to Borders after working no less than two of my three and a half jobs. My brain is starting to feel like a little rubber ball bouncing around my head. It does not need any more ricochet-able surfaces.

The other difference is that the Sedaris signing was not a gift. The Simmons signing was for me, but I also had him sign it to M, because he wanted to read it too. M was the first person who told me to read Simmons' online column and I've been hooked ever since. I bought the Sedaris book just for me and do not plan to give it away. There was nothing keeping me in that line except my ego. And my ego HATES crowds.

The only other time I have waited in a line like that was for the second Harry Potter book. My brother was 12 and he wanted that book BAD. I was home from college and it was released at midnight. So I drove my brother and I to Barnes and Noble at 11pm. We snaked our way around the children's section, alternating between standing and sitting and talking and dozing. I honestly don't remember much of the waiting part. Partly because we had each other to keep company. But also because I saw people I knew from far away and spent much of the time wondering if they saw me. (They did. It was fine. I immediately realized Harry Potter had become something a lot cooler than I had originally thought.)

My brother had saved up money to buy this book himself. Granted, it was money from my parents for doing things like cleaning his room which he had debatably completed, but my brother does not spend money easily. I have seen him waffle over a pair of $5 sunglasses for days. So when we finally got to the front of the line, I bought the book for him as an early birthday present.

Any risk involved in this line was catapulted out of contention by my brother's lightning-bolt-tattooed, 12-yr old face.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Okay Gift

Happy Anni-fire-sary to me! 

One year ago Thursday I was fired from the bar. I have made it through exactly one year of embarrassing unemployment checks, excellent barely-working schedules and excruciating changes. 

And today, it's okay. 

Sometimes there's a minute, a gasp of a moment, where all the stuff you're confused about clears for a full second and that pregnant pause allows a gust of emotion to blast you in the face. It is so pure and pungent it becomes impossible not to react. Over the summer, I was so stressed out and confused and sad that during yoga, every time I got into half-pigeon all those feelings trapped in my hips would release and I would just start bawling in the middle of the studio. I went to yoga every day this summer. 

At the museum, we teach a workshop inspired by the book, "It's Okay to Be Different.", by Todd Parr. I got a chance to watch it for the first time last week, and the entire book is like an extended half-pigeon pose. It IS okay to ask for help. It IS okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub. It IS okay to have been fired from a bar. (Obviously that one is not actually in the book but that doesn't make it any less true.)

At the end of the workshop, the students get to write their own page, prompted with, "It's okay to..." One of the Pre-Kindergarten girls I met last week drew a large, lopsided heart on her page with a red pastel. She swathed over it in watercolor paint that spread in wide, wiping arcs across the page. In marker, she scrawled, "It's okay to be alone." Her symbol of love expanded, bright and wet; her heart enveloped the meaning of her words and flipped them from lonely to lovely in the gust of one pure emotion. 

I'm a little slow at life sometimes. I didn't want boobs. I bought my first pair of skinny jeans yesterday. And it took me three tries to realize I'm not cut out for a 9 to 5 job. So October 29, 2009 probably saved me some of the awkward growing pains all of those other slow adjustments took me through. I'm not ready to thank anyone for this just yet, but I am better for this past year.

Last October 29 was awful. It made me question everything I knew to be true about myself. It shredded a lot of what I had built around myself as confidence. It was the second-to-most-recent awful thing that happened in a really terrible two-year span that included a lot of endings, death and sickness. I was told I wasn't happy enough. Not excited enough to come to work. And that was true. I wasn't happy or excited enough to do a lot of things. This doesn't excuse anything and it doesn't make anything better. October 29 was handled badly and done with poor intent.


I had been clinging to that job as the last semblance of a life I had intended to create for myself. A life that would include a non-traditional work schedule, a lot of true, unshakable confidence and a lot of true, unshakable friendships. I no longer enjoyed the reality of the job, but I wanted so much of what it represented. And it took losing the illusion to figure out how to build the real version. I would like to think I would have gotten there anyway. But that's not the point. I choose to see it as one in an inevitable chain of events that has brought me back to a happy place. I choose to see October 29 as a bonus. Like my slow self saved some time.

I didn't think I needed a book like "It's Okay to Be Different." As a teaching tool it's used as a springboard for conversations about race, disabilities and building friendships. It's a great gift for children. But for me, I'm already there. I like being different. I'm different in a lot of ways. But I'm impatient with myself sometimes. And the cool blast of emotion I felt in the middle of hearing that it's okay to have blue hair was the clarity of that impatience.

It's okay to be slow.

We can all use a half-pigeon to shake up those feelings we keep wound around our joints. They hide in the sockets, eyes squeezed shut, refusing to wiggle out even when we watch a sad Oprah show or listen to David Gray. They settle in, moved by nothing except a big, wetly painted heart that exclaims the virtues of everything they fear.

My friend C just made a scary decision. Her hidden feelings were shaken out, shouting "Me too! Me too! I'm unhappy too!" She listened. She changed something. And she's not sure how okay it is yet. I bought her this book today.

Because it's also okay to not be okay yet.  

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Routine Gift

"It's wonderfully strange and nobody'd look for it, but having our backs against the wall, our bones cracking for the marrow to come out (if we can hold on, survive it, keep our heads screwed on, our hearts clean of resentment) can be decisive, impelling us down a road we'd hardly have dared imagine or chosen."

This is the best and only way to say that change is hard but good. (This was part of an email I received a couple of weeks ago. I'm not kidding. Who writes like this in an e-mail? Honestly, I think we should all start to craft our online messages like this. It's gorgeous.)

I have never been one who does well with change. Even though I crave it. Even though I long for adventure and love to explore. Even though I repeatedly shove myself outside my comfort zone like my internal compass knows the only way to cure stage fright is to stand in the spotlight. So here I am, blinded to the audience and sweating.

There's the big stuff of change that has happened and will happen and impels me down this road I do not yet recognize.

Then there's the little stuff of change. This is where I really freeze up. Instead of worrying about not having a clear path in life, love or work, I am totally thrown off by:

  • That when my battery died, I had to change the pre-set radio stations in my car
  • That I can't park in the lot at the gym anymore
  • That Starbucks remodeled and now all the tables are tall

I call this the science of M&Ms.

Even for people like me who actively resist traditional structure and feel suffocated by the idea of a regular schedule, humans need routines. I know this because I was a teacher. I know this because I still teach. And I know this because when I start to have all kinds of changes to my routine, I start buying lots of M&Ms.

M&Ms provide me with a lot of control over a practiced routine. I do not eat them like a normal person. I do not grasp a handful of random pieces and toss them into my mouth like a carefree monkey. (Although, are there monkeys who are full of worry and anxiety? Rocking back and forth in their corner of the zoo, hoping for a Xanax-laced banana?) Instead, I pull out a carefully measured palm-full. I place this mound in front of wherever I sit and I put the pieces in color order. Then I take them two at a time, but only within their color group, and I suck on them until they melt into a smooth, chocolate slide.

The order with which I construct my M&M path is determined by the meaning I place to each color. This was not entirely my own imagination here - I did this with my friend, J, back in elementary school. We decided it would go as follows:

Tan*: Boredom
Green: Envy
Orange: Hunger
Brown: Intelligence
Blue*: Adventure
Yellow: Happiness
Red: Love

*Tan was replaced with Blue after we made this up, so this I adjusted on my own.

This is the order. You eat the negative associations first and save the best for last. Why is love better than happiness? How are they not one and the same? I have no answers. This is just the way it is. This was also created back when I insisted I could taste the difference between the colors without looking. I did have an uncannily correct percentage. But also J and I watched Empire Records 194,000 times in one year and Gina claims to be able to do this too.

For J's birthday that year I bought her a VHS copy of Empire Records. Not that either of us needed it. I can still recite it by memory and I haven't seen it in years. But it was a routine. It was a piece of familiarity, of structure, of a path that we could stay on for about two hours.

I do not want to work in a cubicle. I do not want the same routine all day every day. The bones are cracking and the marrow will be decisive. But the little routines give us something to recognize of ourselves. This is why I save the red ones for last.

"It was perfect. Well, not exactly perfect." -- Lucas, Empire Records

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Words Gift

I am teaching myself Russian. Because, as with poker, I have tried to learn it about seven separate times and have stopped paying attention halfway into the alphabet. Because I learned French and can therefore figure out Spanish and Italian and I want a real, cry-yourself-to-sleep-in-a-physics-book challenge. Because my dad knows it and I feel left out.

But the real reason is because I want to and I can. I know I can because it's words. And I like words.

I like words the way other people like bendy straws or porcelain gnomes. I have notebooks full of quotes from books, movies and song lyrics. A collection dedicated to the science of the turn of a phrase. These notebooks are currently in storage, as part of the streamlining process I will share with you all soon. But the lifeblood of those sentences was too much a part of my consciousness to throw out.

This collection dates back to high school, when I started my first notebook of quotes. They track from the lamely familiar to the embarrassingly angst-riddled. They morph from novel excerpts to Nike advertisements to dialog from Friends episodes. And somewhere along the line they informed an entirely new subset of language created by my best friend, K, and I. Not that we spoke with words unintelligible to the entire public, but we had a set of words to describe people and things the full meaning of which was entirely un-discernible.

For Christmas one year in high school, I made a photo collage of the two of us. This is a highly non-original gift idea for a high schooler. (Let's be honest - high school students will turn anything into a collage. One time I even collage-d a trash can. But that is a gift for another time.) For this collage, I bought a frame that had a wide mat. Using a purple, glitter, gel pen (give me a break, I was 15,) I wrote all over the mat:


Just words. But to the two of us, they are how we communicated, how we connected, how we made sense of being 15. They are the basis for the language of friendship. Of best friendship. And for whatever reason, we still both talk like this to each other. Seriously.

In the past few months of upheaval, the language of friendship has become paramount for me. I am extraordinarily lucky to have not only purely lovely friends, but ones who are eloquent on top of their awesomeness. I'm going to feature a sampling of these here in the next few posts. Just know that they are each written by someone I know and hold dear which makes each golden drop of thought that much more brilliant. Like an enormous vat of glittery purple ink.

But in the meantime, I am teaching myself Russian.

I am two hours in to my self-study. I am at Borders, accompanied by a latte and a soft-cover book. I am sounding out the letters and can now successfully read celebrity names written in Cyrillic characters. I am, however, doing this aloud for no particular reason other than I want to feel the sounds in my throat.


I look up to see the 300 pound man behind me staring with his mouth open. He has at least thirty cookbooks spread over his table like a fort of yummy pictures. Some of them have papers sticking out and others are waiting for their turn to dive off of a column and into the wreckage of the middle of the table. I wonder if he is a chef. And then I wonder if you are allowed to take recipes out of books if you are a chef. And then I realize that I am staring back.

Managing a half-smile, I turn around and continue to practice being a three-year-old Russian child.


The illegal chef surely heard this. Maybe he wouldn't understand. Maybe he doesn't know that instead of being a mildly illiterate psycho, I actually just read Shakespeare in Russian. And Shakespeare loves words too.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Rule of Three Gift

The number three has symbolic importance across several categories. It is religiously significant, architecturally important and aesthetically balanced. I use the Rule of Three in gifts - every Christmas and birthday present for M included three separate parts. But my favorite part of the Rule of Three is its use as a literary device. It is employed to emphasize comedic timing, to give weight to a theory and to balance the plot of a story. I use it a lot here. Like now, when I tell you about three reasons why I do not like the idea of dating.

Let's be clear - I am not dating right now. I am however going out with lots and lots of friends. And instead of being able to say, "Oh I have a boyfriend," to unwanted suitors like I have been used to doing for four years, I feel the need to be painfully honest. And out tumbles, "Sure you can have my actual phone number for no apparent reason." Life would be a lot easier if I learned how to lie. Otherwise this will keep happening:

1. Unwanted Technological Contact

Background: The only contact info I offered was my email written on a business card.

1:30 pm: Facebook Friend Request. His profile picture is him standing in front of a boat. He's a member of the yacht club, lists his fancy private high school in his educational background and wears a sweater tied around his shoulders. In no world would we be friends based on this profile. We also would not be friends because when I talked to him at the bar he backed me into a corner with his close talking and referenced all the salsa dance classes he takes.

1:31 pm: I ignore this request.

1:35 pm: Email from SAME yacht enthusiast. His message includes the phrase: "There's a great wine bar in my neighborhood of Lincoln Park." There's also a lot of douchebags in MY neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

1:36 pm: I ignore this email.

2:00 pm: Twitter message from SAME yachter. "Dorkwad97 is now following you on Twitter!" He is listed as following 24 people. He has exactly 0 followers.

2:01 pm: I delete his profile and block him from following me.

There should be rules here. And I don't mean social rules. I mean like actual punishable rules. This is tech assault. I have been violated via social media. And I'm not even easy to find. If you Google my whole name, nothing about my actual self comes up until page three. That's how hard it is to find me on the interwebs. And that's how much of a hardcore stalker Mr. Salsa Class is.

2. Idiot Text Messaging

Background: Phone numbers were exchanged.

Text #1: "I wood luv 2 c u & take u out sumtime"

I get text speak. I even use it occasionally. (Although writing LOL makes me want to gag a little. Mostly because if you sound it out it sounds like gagging.) But this is a little too much for me. You are not saving characters here. "Sometime" is exactly one letter longer. So is "would." You sound like a moron.

Other texts in this sequence included the following: "gr8t" "pik" and "mite" and nowhere in the conversation were we discussing lice.

Just to be clear, I'm not a huge grammar Nazi and I certainly do not have any kind of educational bias. But this is just lazy. Even a basic phone has auto-correct that catches all of these.

3. Social ADD

Background: At a new-ish bar in my neighborhood where every person there insisted they hated the place and had never been there before. Is this a thing? Pretending you don't like the place because you don't want to associate yourself with the crowd that you secretly want to be? This is weird. But I really had never been there before.

Guy: "So what do you do?"

Me: "I teach..."

Guy: "Oh, I love this song! Sorry. What do you do?"

Me: "Um, I tea..."

Guy: (Singing along to song) "Wait, what?"

Me: "Um, I..."

Guy: "I smell meat."

It was like talking to the dog from Up.

So this is why I have no interest in dating. In every form - online, phone and in person - it is weird and inappropriate. It's forced and uncomfortable. It causes me to envision a line of arms, fingers outstretched and grasping...pulling on my arms, my clothes, my public persona. Dating is grabby. And I do not want any part of being grabbed.

I miss being able to have an automatic, honest response to avoid the crush of desperation. I miss feeling like that desperation has nothing to do with me. And I miss giving a trifecta of presents. The last gift I gave M was for his birthday, which fell during the month we spent apart before the breakup. I gave him a shirt he wanted and a Coffee Ice Cube tray (instead of water, you put coffee in, so when you have iced coffee it doesn't get watered down.) Only two parts. Not three.

That's the thing about the Rule of Three. It strikes a chord when you break it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Fan's Gift

In his column, "20 Rules for Being a True Fan," Bill Simmons writes that you cannot practice Sports Bigamy, or otherwise root for teams other than your hometown teams. I agree. And not just because I love Bill Simmons. And not just because I am true to these rules even while proving the exception to a few of them. (See #18, and "Pacers.") But partly because I like to make fun of my brother. 

When I was little, we had no money. This really hasn't changed for anyone in my family since then, but for a few years we had enough to go on vacation in the summer. And by "go on vacation," I mean instead of driving the 20 hours straight through to Boston and then staying with family for a week, we would go somewhere exotic. Like Michigan. 

For a couple weeks in a couple summers while I was in high school, we rented a cabin on Lake Michigan and did nothing but eat, lay in the sun and play terrible rounds of ping pong. I also used one of these weeks as an opportunity to extol the virtues of Dave Matthews to my whole family. (In my defense, I was 15.)

My brother spent most of these days in the lake with a Nerf football. He would spiral the ball as high in the air as he could, trace its arc through the air while slicing his way through the waist-deep water. He would leap out of the waves, a human splash, twisting his perpetually pale, skinny torso to meet the ball as if it would not come down of its own accord. And he would yell in a screeching impersonation of an unrecognizable announcer, "TO RANDY MOSS!" 

This phrase accompanied both the throwing and receiving ends of the play. Leading us to make fun of him endlessly. (In his defense, he was 7.) 

G's obsession with Randy Moss was so pervasive he became a Vikings fan. He was also a Seattle Mariners fan because he really liked Ken Griffey Jr. And there was one year when he rooted for the Mets for no apparent reason. His fan allegiances were all over the map. Until recently, when he moved to Boston and now he refuses to believe this was ever the case. 

To be fair, we were raised in a confused sports state. Indianapolis is the closest big city to where I grew up, and it is not a big market. My parents are from Boston and we spent almost every summer back there, gorging ourselves on televised Red Sox games. The Celtics were great and the Pacers were managed badly. The Bruins were bad and hockey barely existed in the Midwest. Indiana is a state for football, even though we are known for college basketball. Our family is a potluck of Massachusetts and Indiana, but nowhere in this mash-up does Minnesota or Washington factor in. 

All of this is to say:

1. I am a Colts fan.
2. My brother is a Patriots fan.
3. My brother lucked out when he moved to Boston. Randy Moss went to Boston that same year. 
4. Moss just went back to Minnesota, revealing the gaping hole in my brother's allegiances.

There are two gifts associated with this random assortment of family information. 

One is that my dad and I text back and forth during Colts, Red Sox and Celtics games. (He literally four seconds ago coined the term Farvrergate. Yes, there is an extra "r." Sound it out, it's funny.) My brother and I text back and forth during Patriots and Celtics games. (And sometimes Red Sox, but since we both text my dad for those, we can't keep it going.) These text conversations are some of my favorite times of the year. Really this is a gift for me. 

The second is that *SPOILER ALERT FOR MY BROTHER* I will be sending my brother a Nerf football this week. On it, in Sharpie marker:


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Silver Lining Gift

Occasionally there are days when I think, "OMG, the universe is so much smarter than me."

But then I have days like today. And I think, "OMG, universe, you are a giant douche-sock and I don't understand you."

To explain, let me give you a timeline. See if this means anything to you:

6:42 am: I am awake three minutes before my alarm after also being awake intermittently for the past five hours. I am recently terrible at sleeping.

7:09 am: I leave the house to walk to yoga, planning to walk by my car on the way and make sure it does not have a boot. I have gotten two tickets in the past three weeks and am getting paranoid. The last one was on Monday because my battery died on a street for which I'm not zoned. Seriously - I couldn't move it. It was stuck.

7:12 am: I pass by my car which is miraculously ticket and boot-free. It is however parked on the side of the street that intends to have street cleaning in exactly 1.75 hours. I think, "Perfect - it is great that I decided to walk by because now I can move my car."

7:15 am: The battery is dead again. I am now on a countdown to get a ticket that will insure a boot placed on my car, thereby putting my various car-necessary jobs in jeopardy. Jobs, I might add, that do not pay enough to actually get the boot removed.

7:20 am: I walk to the nearby gym, thinking this is a sure-fire plan to find someone with jumper cables. I am informed this is not the case.

7:25: I have ransacked the entire contents of the glove box and my wallet. Documented oil changes from 2003 are sliding down the front passenger seat as I flip through expired warrantees. There is nothing there to tell me who to call in case of a dead battery in the face of mean city workers wielding parking tickets. In fact, there is nothing in any of these papers that even explains what the battery is or where to find it.

7:40 am: I wander aimlessly around the neighborhood looking for people getting into or out of cars to ask for help. I find one mean lady late for work and an unmarked white van. I decide against approaching the van.

7:45 am: I remember that I have car insurance that I also remembered to make a payment on this month. I am pretty sure the policy number has stayed the same even though the only card in my glove box is from four years and three addresses ago.

7:52 am: I am assured by Geico that someone will be there before street-cleaning-death-time to jump my car.

8:41 am: The extremely nice man from Wells Auto Service jump-starts my car in literally 4.7 seconds. I drive straight to AutoZone and buy a battery, which they install for me. I successfully avoid buying the two-for-one fuel injector fluid they insist I need. I am wearing yoga clothes, no makeup, my hair is falling out of the 94 bobby pins intended to keep my bangs out of my face and my hands are blue from waiting in the cold for 45 minutes. I ignore the fact that the employees are nonetheless making rude comments about me in Spanish.

9:11 am: I decide I still have time to make it to the later yoga class. I do. I also find free parking at the gym later in the day.

My immediate reaction to this day is, "Look at how well everything worked out! I luckily walked by my car at the right time, fixed the battery situation, eschewed a ticket, spent less to get the battery replaced than I would have at the dealer and even made it to yoga and found free parking. What a lucky day!"

This is my default state - the upside of things. But I am starting to wonder if that's really the truth of it. I mean I wouldn't have had to pay anything if the battery wasn't dead in the first place. The rest of this day also includes various inanity like having to fight with the doctor's office about a bill that I shouldn't have gotten in the first place from a doctor that essentially punched me in the stomach and then ignored me for 8 hours. At what point do we stop trying to find the silver lining in everything and admit that there isn't a lot to be gained from sucky stuff?

My friend L just started teaching. She is where I was seven years ago when I was wandering into oncoming traffic without looking and seething with envy at Borders employees. At that point, even "Everything's fine" me would not have handled this morning's adventure with any sort of poise. I probably would have kicked something. L is handling things much better than I did, but she is still struggling to find time for herself and feel like a competent and social adult. So I found a card that says, "WTF" in braille (mostly because they do not make "Sorry your life sucks now that you are a teacher but you don't have to be one forever" cards but also because it's funny), some Halloween Pop Rocks (because everyone in the world likes these except me - I hate them the same way I hate cotton candy), and a bottle of wine (because - just because). Tomorrow night we are going to watch Jersey Shore and I'm bringing these things with me.

So I guess, if you are me, you don't get to that point. If you are me, you try to find a gift that relates to the sucky stuff and elevates it. Something that explains why this is all ok. Why days like today make days like, "OMG universe, you are a genius," possible. Even if that is just a bottle of wine and some Pop Rocks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sweet Gift

On Tuesday I tried acupuncture for the first time. It hurt. A lot.

Everyone (and by "everyone," I mean acupuncturists) tells you acupuncture is not supposed to hurt, even though it is a procedure comprised entirely of pricking a person with needles, leaving them in the skin and then moving them around. Still, those who swear by acupuncture say they don't swear in pain. These people are liars.

Granted, the needles themselves are invisibly small. Like Victoria Beckham-skinny. And even someone who hates needles (me) couldn't feel them go in at first. It's the moving those suckers around part that did me in. After placing a total of 12 needles in my legs and lower abdomen, the acupuncturist twisted each one until I felt a chord of discomfort braid itself through my system and zing its way out at another point entirely. The most painful one radiated from my lower right side straight into my shoulder. Totally weird.

But on Wednesday, I felt great! This could all be relative -- as in, Wednesday did not include any run-ins with needles -- but hey, pain-free is pain-free.

Why did a needle-phobe like me feel compelled to try this in the first place? Several reasons:

1. It was on sale. Usually needles are not a big clearance purchase, but the gym where I train clients offers a reduced rate for treatments like this for trainers like me.

2. My alter-ego Stressy is refusing to let me sleep. Or eat any vegetables. She clearly only likes Pop-Tarts and tortilla chips.

3. For pain relief. Two months ago I landed in the hospital with what I thought was an appendicitis. It turns out it was a ruptured cyst, which might keep happening. I am close enough to the poverty line to hopefully have eschewed the majority of the hospital bills, (Did you know a single dose of morphine is $200? No wonder people try to make drugs in their own kitchens.) but I certainly can't afford to keep popping back to the ER. Plus my whole right side hurts fairly consistently and is visibly swollen.

So I went to get pricked.

And it turns out Stressy was right to want all the Pop-Tarts she can handle. Apparently when we are in pain, our bodies try to heal themselves by craving certain foods. When that pain is localized in the lower abdomen, specifically to organs that correspond to the heart, we want sweet things. This is how someone like me who eats produce like a farm animal could go for a whole month without eating a single vegetable.

The connection between sweet and healing extends to other areas in our lives as well. Think of all the times we use sweet things as a soothing comfort or a security blanket...

  • Homemade cookies in care packages when we're far from home
  • Gingerale or Gatorade when we're sick
  • Hot chocolate when we're cold
  • Raisinets or Sour Patch Kids when we watch a scary movie
  • Lemonade or Soda when we're hot
  • Candy or ice cream when we're heartbroken

Or, as I have given before, sweet baked goods for grieving friends and family. I have made banana bread, cakes, truffles and other treats. I have also made full meals. But I usually come back to cookies.

There is something about a platter of soft and chewy, sweet and buttery, warm and melty cookies that reminds us of an older generation. Of caretakers and worry-free childhoods. Of safety and happiness. When we have lost someone important, there is a hole where these needs were once met. Cookies may only last a few days, a few minutes even, but the gift of cookies meets that need and reminds us there are others there who can pad the hole so it feels less jagged. Who can heal us, sweetly.

I made cookies for a grieving friend last year. The details are not important. What is important is a gesture that honors what the body craves. Our bodies are smart and they crave what will help. What will heal the pain.

Which is what brought me to acupuncture. And today I ate an apple without thinking twice about toaster pastries.

**If you are at all interested in acupuncture, I do highly recommend Korina at Happy Healthy Whole. She is extremely knowledgeable, compassionate and gentle.**

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Open-Ended Gift

I read somewhere recently that stress or fear or anxiety is really our minds trying to protect ourselves from pain that has already happened. So when we get all stressy about whether something will work out or we fear the outcome of the unknown, it is because we are starting to feel the pain of when this went badly before.

I have absolutely no memory of where I heard this and am now starting to wonder if I made it up, but it makes sense. Can't you just picture your body saying, "Hey, I remember this. You hate this. I'm going to squeeze you until you can't move forward into it anymore." Except your body doesn't realize you're already there. That memory, that moment of recognition was enough to throw your mind into a full immersion experience of all the pain you remember.

My life right now is as if  I threw a bunch of papers up in the air, and then they all froze. I know some of them will blow away and I'll never see them again, and others will land. I will pick up the ones that land and they will form a more structured path for my life to come. But right now there they are - encased in perpetual flight. Twisting and extended. Free and static.

For the most part, I am at peace with this. The control-y part of me wants a little more input in which papers come down - like everything would be perfect if I could just rank my options - but where is the fun in that? If you could rank everything, wouldn't you always choose paper number one? Instead of whichever one hits you in the face first?

So I am resisting that part of me that wants to be in control of everything. Because sometimes she is no fun at all. Sometimes the fun is in the creation of something new. The answer to the Open-Ended question.

As a Journalism major, I was trained to ask open-ended questions in interviews. In order to get organic, true responses from interviewees, you ask questions to which people have to say something back - not just yes or no. Anything that starts with "do you," "can you," "are you" are BAD questions for a reporter. (This is why sideline reporting annoys me. It's generally bad journalism.) Questions that start with "what," "why," or "how" invite a conversation. And that's what a journalist is supposed to do - create a conversation, preferably with really good quotes. Yes and no are not good quotes.

Interestingly enough, this is where my writing life and my teaching life most intersect. Because in teaching, open-ended questions are the best way to push a child's learning forward. Teaching is not about imparting knowledge. It is not placing information, however delicately, inside a child's brain. It is about creating a conversation that asks a child to come up with predictions and explore how those predictions hold up throughout new experiences. These explorations are done many ways, but one of the things we talk about at the museum a lot is open-ended materials.

Open-ended materials are not like snakes with a hollow tail. They are toys or objects that can be used in whatever way the child invents. Unfortunately, they are getting harder to find. Not in a, "We're running out of wood," sort of way. More in a, "The toy aisle at Wal-Mart only has Pixar characters in it," sort of way. There's an interesting (well, to me,) article that explains the deregulation of the toy industry in the 1980s, but to summarize, the 80s were when things like McDonald's Happy Meals took off. And the toys found in those cardboard M-handled boxes usually correspond to a popular movie or TV show. The success of Happy Meal toys led to a boom in action figures and other toys with pre-existing scenarios. Meaning, kids went from playing with "a doll," to playing with "this specific doll that does this one special thing and lives in this one special place and wears this one special outfit." All the imagination that goes along with creating a world for an unknown person is crushed when that person is replaced with a character from a world that already exists.

This is all to say that encouraging kids to use their imagination has become more difficult. Because if you travel the toy aisles, it is way easier to grab a brightly colored box of action figures than it is to seek out open-ended materials. Plus there are no commercials for plain old blocks, and you don't want to be the loser who brings the toy everyone ignores.

I, however, am not scared to be a loser. Last year, Target had cardboard bricks in their dollar spot. I should have bought 100 packages. Instead I bought one for one of the greatest two-year olds I know. I gave it as part of a family thank-you gift for hosting me for the weekend. This little girl has more toys than I have ever seen, and as a credit to her amazing parents, most of them are open-ended. So she was ahead of the game in terms of knowing she had options for what to do with the bricks. She did not look at them expectantly as if they should suddenly sprout video screens. Instead, she picked them up and began to build with them. What did she build? That's the beauty of the open-ended gift. It could have been anything. And we wouldn't know what it was unless we asked her. (Apparently she built a fort.)

On a related note, I went to the Indianapolis Children's Museum this weekend, which is the museum I grew up adoring as a child. It is the largest children's museum in the world. (Which is a little bit relative, as most other countries do not have children's museums at all. When I was in France last summer explaining my job, everyone was like, you work for a museum that has exhibits of children? It doesn't translate well.) And in every educational aspect within the exhibits, the ICM is right on point. The gift shop however, is another story.

The gift shop offered Legos. I LOVE Legos. As a child I would play with Legos for so many consecutive hours that the tips of my fingers would go numb from pressing the knobby tops together. I was constantly running short on wheels and doors, but I still managed to make an entire transit system. So when I saw Legos at ICM, I thought, "They must have cool Lego pieces here."

Instead, I found this many Lego sets based on movies, TV shows and pre-existing ideas:

This represents one fourth of the case, btw.

Super fancy Legos deserve black packaging.

Not sure why Star Wars is such a big deal here.

I found this many plain Legos:

Twelve buckets. I found twelve buckets of regular, open-ended Legos. AND those buckets were color-coded to be gender specific. Lego, you disappoint me.

If I ever have a daughter, I will buy her the blue bucket. Because f*** you, Lego. Stop telling us what to build. You are no fun at all.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Sad Gift

"Is this why all your Facebook status updates have been like, 'Oh noooo, the candy canes have all gone rotten!"

My brother is calling me out on being dramatically whiny over the past few months. He is not the first person to bring this sentiment to light, but he is the first to send me into a giggle fit over it. I immediately picture boxes of striped candies growing mold underneath their tight plastic sheaths. I don't even like candy canes, so the absurdity of me crying over gross Christmas treats is too much for me to handle seriously.

Yes, struggling with what I want out of life and relationships is exactly why my blog posts and Facebook updates have been totally emo and against my real personality. My default state of being is extraordinarily happy. Like grinning in public and daydreaming kind of happy. And I haven't been that way for a while. The basis of the why-not has been a long time in coming and taken a lot of self-reflection and shouldn't be posted on the Internet for all to see. But the end result means a lot of change and new adventures for me. And no more rotten candy canes.

For the past year, I have been driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I have had the sinking feeling (or punched-gut feeling) that I need to stop or turn around or jump out of the car. And I couldn't figure out how to do it or if maybe there just wouldn't be any oncoming traffic and everything would be fine. I decided it wasn't worth risking the safety of my passengers or myself and I stopped the car. And M and I broke up.

How do you break up with an amazing friend that you live with? How do you extract yourself from a life that you thought you wanted for four years? How do you pull the rug out from under your own feet? I didn't know and I still don't and there is probably a lot more grace to it than I was able to manage. The surreality of my life now consists of job searching in cities all over the world and apartment hunting for short-term leases. I might be done with Chicago. I might be ready to be the person I intended to be. The person who is not afraid to take risks without safety nets.

There is not fault here. No blame. Nothing done wrong or badly. This relationship was a gift to me and gave me a chance to love without regret. Without fear. Without knowing it would end. And now it is time to be sad that it's over. Without regret. Without fear. Without knowing what comes next. And that will be a gift too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Unprepared Gift

Just when I think I have successfully established myself as a normal person, my weird slips out. I think this is starting to wear on people. By "people" I mean M, and by "wear on" I mean "piss the fuck off."

Sunday I decided that in order to be productive at all (which by the frequency of blog posts, you can tell I have not been recently) I would need to actually remove myself from the couch and write at Borders. Why Borders? Because Starbucks by my house cannot guarantee me a seat. Also because M suggested it and then it was stuck in my head and I was incapable of thinking of alternatives. We decided to walk there together.

Literally three minutes before leaving the house, M pulls out his phone to check the weather and announces that it will rain. We have this conversation:

M: "It's going to rain."

Me: "Ok."

M: "Like storms with 40 mph winds."

Me: "Ok."

M: "So...."

Me: "Umbrellas."

For whatever reason, the idea of 40 mph winds did not stick in my head like the idea of writing at Borders. Maybe because I hate driving places or maybe because I don't mind walking in the rain. Whatever the reason, I tend to ignore any preparation beyond taking an umbrella and hoping things work out. This seems to cause problems. Halfway into the walk it monsooned. We had this conversation:

M: "This is what I meant by 40 mph winds."

Me: "Ok."

Normal people, like M, do not find this situation fun or exciting or even a little dumbly amusing. They think it's annoying and frustrating. Weird people, like me, think this is kind of hilarious. Even a little grossly amusing. Because it's different and messy. We'll dry and then we'll have shared something goofy. Weird people do weird things. Normal people do not like this.

It's not a recent discovery (nor a new blog idea) that I apply these tendencies to the entirety of my life as well. My preparations in life include lugging a giant bag of things-I-might-need-that-somehow-do-not-include-things-like-food and hoping the day works out. It's not that I can't plan. I am very organized and I get to almost all places on time. But I also actively avoid doing these things:

  • Checking the weather before leaving the house
  • Buying groceries that include full meals
  • Creating a specific path to get to my intended destination (instead of whatever way looks the most interesting)
  • Checking to see how much gas is in my car (instead of trying to make it an extra three days with the light on because I used any extra money on useless groceries that do not make a meal) 

My preparations for presents falls into my schizo approach to life as well. For the most part, I can get things to people on time and I have a whole bag of wrapping paper and decorations organized by color in the closet. But I also seem to actively avoid shopping for gifts before the last minute and sometimes end up drawing a picture en route to a wedding to suffice.

The most unprepared I have been has been my most  recent attempt at sending a present to my best friend K. After almost three years in Pennsylvania, K moved last weekend with her (very immediately new!) fiancĂ© J to Arkansas. In preparation for her move, I picked out a bunch of postcards and researched the great state of chicken and rice. (Apparently these are big there.) There are many amazing things about Arkansas...none of which I remember off the top of my head...but I managed to narrow the list down to a top ten. And I planned to send one fun fact on each postcard as a send-off to K and J on their new adventure.

I sent one.

The rest of the nine are now going to be a Welcome to Arkansas present instead of a Bon Voyage from Pennsylvania...I might be unprepared at life, but I do adapt easily. Or at least I don't mind a little rain on the way.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Unknown Gift

There are very few things that I am actually scared of. (OK, fine, "of which I am scared.") For most people, this kind of list includes things like being shot or stolen. For me, I have been close to those things and they don't scare me in quite the same way that these do:


The Sound of Balloons Popping

Outer Space


I know you are looking at this list and thinking, "How are clowns possibly scarier than guns?" And if you don't know, I'm not sure I have an acceptable answer for you. But the one thing that everything on this list has in common is the quality of the unknown. Clearly I am freaked out by things with no explanation and no predictors. In case you need this broken down further:

Clowns = Fake happy, which leaves no way to tell how they actually feel or what they will do.

Balloons Popping = No trigger, which leaves no way to prepare. You can stand next to a balloon, act like you love it like a puppy but really be holding a needle to its face the whole time, thereby scaring the bejesus out of me.

Outer Space = Infinite possibilities, which leaves me paralyzed with fear. This is also why I HATE Horton Hears a Who.

Spiders = Ability to drop from the ceiling, which leaves no way to tell where they have gone and leads me to believe they are probably stuck in my hair, biting their way out and I will end up like everyone in Arachnophobia.

Currently I have a GIANT spider living in the side mirror of my car and it might have to stay there forever. Chicago is having an identity crisis and seems to think it needs to rain all the time instead of being summer, which has created a swamp-like atmosphere that my shoes, hair and social life would like to sucker punch. This has also created an abundance of bugs that clearly think they can just set up camp wherever they please. I mean, I know spiders were around before automobiles, but if dinosaurs came back I don't think I would just hang my laundry up outside their caves.

Anyway, every morning I get in my car to go to yoga and halfway there I look to the left and see that there is something too close to the window and then I realize that this is the GIANT spider being creepy in the middle of its GIANT web. This flash causes me to have a mini-heart attack -- the kind where you breathe in so fast that your brain blinks for a full second and when you can see again, your chest hurts up into your neck because your whole body forgot to be alive while your brain shut down.

Sometimes I try to drive fast or swerve a lot in order to shake the spider off of the car. But spiders are sticky and this doesn't seem to work. Since it's been raining, I keep thinking the spider will be washed away or at least be so discouraged at its repeatedly demolished web that it will crawl itself away to die of despair. But this also doesn't seem to work. So instead, I open the door only enough so I can slip out of the car undetected and I keep all body parts above the spider so it can't leap onto me. I shut the door carefully so I don't anger the spider, which would obviously cause it to launch itself in the direction of my hair. And then I promptly forget that it is there, thereby putting this cycle on repeat indefinitely.

My parents have long been baffled by my fear of spiders. When I was little, they refused to kill spiders for me and made me deal with them on my own. They would say, "What's going to happen when you live on your own and you have a spider? We're not going to travel to another city just to kill it for you." This plan failed. Even living by myself for several years, I have managed to find many people who will kill them for me. Otherwise I stare the spiders down or sleep on the couch to avoid them falling on my head. The only way I can kill a spider is if it is on the floor, not moving and I have a large weapon. And also only if I am wearing shoes.

While the element of the unknown is a scary concept for me, it translates well to gifts. Space is scary because of the infinite possibilities of what this means for us as people and the meaning of life. A wrapped present has less infinite possibilities, but these options do not usually make us question our life decisions. Unless someone bought you a clown.

This is why wrapping paper can be a gift in itself. For M's birthday a couple of years ago I forgot to buy wrapping paper. The only option in the back of my closet was a roll of Christmas paper that I found in the apartment when I moved in. So I unrolled it and used the blank side. I was going to decorate it and then got distracted by the internet. Which turned out to be fruitful because I found a website devoted to Chuck Norris jokes. (The ones that say things like "Beneath Chuck Norris' beard there is no chin. Just another fist.") I wrote a bunch of Chuck Norris jokes on the blank side of the wrapping paper in large font. It was M's favorite part of all of the gifts.

Out of the unknown comes an opportunity to be creative. And with wrapping paper, there is no danger of it leaping onto your hair and biting your head.

(And to my credit, Chuck Norris is probably afraid of spiders too. Because you can't roundhouse kick your own head.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Smart Gift

You know the age-old female paradox of Pretty vs. Smart? Like, you can't look like Megan Fox and...well, do anything else, really.

Anyway, I give up. I refuse to play this game of trying to be both. Not that I think I am ugly and stupid. It's just that I'm a little weird. So I don't fit in anywhere. I seem to be living my own personal paradox of Strange vs. Boring.

Outwardly I am really boring. I am not a "talk first" person and I have trouble remembering names and identifying details. I don't have exciting stories to share. My response time is often slow and I stumble over my own jokes.

But all of this is because really I am just trying to approximate normalcy instead of my default "weird" setting. For example:


Person #1: "Hi Kate, nice to meet you."

Me: "Hi."

Me: (Four seconds later) "Nice to meet you too."

Person #1: "What's new?"

Me: "Nothing. Nothing new."

Me: (Four seconds later) "What about you?"

(Painful. I know.)



Person #1: "Hi Kate. Nice to meet you."

Me: "OMG incoming handshake. Concentrate very hard on shaking hands without pinching and while maintaining eye contact. You want to look like you have normal hands. Shit, totally missed their name."

Person #1: "What's new?"

Me: "Am I sweating? I might be sweating and now they think I have weird hands and a sweating problem. What's new? Everything sucks right now, I can't tell them anything recent. And all the stories I have are about getting hit on in the middle of the street. These are not appropriate stories. Why am I so fucking inappropriate? Don't swear. Did I swear out loud? What did I say out loud? Oh, God I didn't say anything. Now I am sweating and mute."

See? I am totally weird. And by hiding it I just seem weird AND boring. A few people have recently called me out on this. But I am unconvinced that not hiding this would make me any better. For instance, last night I unleashed my stream-of-consciousness-inner-self on M during Scattergories and it didn't go so well.

Scattergories, "Things Found on a Map," Letter "H"

Me: "Hydra"

M: "That doesn't count."

Me: "On a map of where to find hydras."

M: "No. That's cheating."

Me: "What do you have?"

M: "Hiroshima."

Me: "That's not a thing, that's a place. So mine should count."

M did not think this was funny. He thought I was trying to cheat. I was however, NOT trying to cheat. I was trying to be funny. Scattergories is my favorite board game for this very reason. Normally you get points in the form of other people laughing for totally bizarre answers. Last night I realized that my definition of "normally" is that I usually play this game with my dad. Who makes things up too.

My dad is very good with words and his favorite board game is Scrabble. The only time I have come close to beating him was during a late-night rematch over Christmas this year. And I still lost. Scrabble is the only game where my dad does not relent on whether his words are made up and he will make you take your complaint to the 97 pound dictionary displayed prominently throughout the game. The current edition of Scrabble at my parents' house was a joint gift from my mom and I to my dad several years ago. It is now a family fixture. (And by that I mean it gets used only when the whole family is home because my mom hates Scrabble and goes through three magazines while waiting for her turns.)

Also my dad just texted me and asked what a hydra is. I'm a genius.

It turns out that Hydra is actually also a city in Algeria AND an island off of Greece, so suck it Scattergories, but that is not why I thought of it. My brain went like this:

"Hmmm, H for Car Parts...Hydraulics. H for Things Found on a you just used that and it doesn't make sense....Hydraul...No!...wait...Hydra? NO...but maybe..."

And then my brain began drawing an intricate old-timey map of oceans with many-headed serpents sticking out in key places. In green.

This is why I stay mute.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Obvious Gift

In case I decide to forget this, please do not let me attend large gatherings without eating for an extended period of time. This might be obvious to most people but clearly I am having trouble with it.

The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last week (yay) which of course means the city went temporarily insane for a few days (opposite of yay but not nay because that sounds British and/or lame). Despite the fact that a rally in the middle of downtown on a workday that draws upwards of two million people outside in 100 degree heat is the actual definition of hell, I decided to see what it was all about. In retrospect, my rationale that this was "history" and I had to walk through it anyway to get to my volunteer shift was not enough to overcome the massive disaster that is the reality of millions of sweaty people who have been drinking for four days.

I pushed my way as close as I could in the name of research and documentation. I was maybe thirty yards away from what was going on but I was too short to even see the screen that hung high above the players' heads. I could only see the damp shirts around me, a sea of red flags and heads dripping with sweat. There were discarded bottles and lunch bags at my feet and no exit in sight. I was effectively tucked into a pocket of the crowd like someone had dropped me into a fold of a blanket. A really smelly and hot blanket. I hadn't stopped sweating since I woke up that morning to do hot yoga and then a short workout. Also I had eaten four pieces of cheese and a Vitamin Water in the past 20 hours. I panicked.

As the players began talking, I pushed my way out of my sealed pocket of strangers and made my way back to the art museum. After realizing part of the street was blocked, I used this as an excuse to go shopping before my shift started. In case you were wondering, retail therapy keeps panic at bay.

The worst part of this is not that my efforts were in vain. It's that this is not even the first time I have done the exact same thing. Last year I attempted to navigate my way to the Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day in Paris while running on two days of coffee and a nectarine. I may have also been wearing the same outfit.

Given the immensely important similarities of these events (I mean starvation and black dresses are definitely too weird to ignore,) here's a rundown of how they stack up against each other as Major Events in a few key areas:

1. Trash - Winner: Hawks

Bastille: I didn't notice much trash while getting myself over to the Eiffel Tower. I think partly because I wasn't looking for a place to throw up in, but also I was distracted by just finding my way around. When I was exploring four days later, however, I took a series of pictures of all the trash and broken barricades that still littered the ground. It was like the city was not prepared for their own national holiday.
Hawks: When I think "ticker tape parade" I think long strips of white paper, like ribbons or paper for adding machines. What I saw along the streets was actually just pieces of newspaper. Like someone had a tantrum with the Tribune. Along with the discarded soda bottles and Hawks flags, the streets looked like the inside of a gerbil cage. That is, until Streets and Sans came through about 30 minutes after the rally. I have never been more impressed with trash removal in my life full of appreciating the art of removing trash.

2. Drunk People - Winner: Bastille

Bastille: I would have thought there would be enough foreigners in Paris to make this an even match, but aside from a few wine drinkers on the lawn of the Champ du Mars and a few rowdy Americans on their way home after the fireworks, this was the most sober festivity I have ever seen.
Hawks: When I saw the occasional stroller, I cringed. Because that baby is probably now drunk by osmosis and sticky with beer.

3. Smells - Winner: Tie

Bastille: French people think we smell like soap and medicine. We are clearly use hand sanitizer like super clean coke-heads. But you know what the reverse is. When I am in Paris, I certainly do not stop using deodorant but I also don't mind a cloud of cigarettes and armpits quite the same way some people do.
Hawks: Even if everyone showered the minute before they walked outside, the weather that day was like was being zippered into a wet balloon next to the sun. The scent of liquored sweat doesn't do anyone any favors.

4. Push-and-shoveness - Winner: Hawks

Bastille: This might be skewed for me because I just wasn't expecting to have to push so much here. I had clearly underestimated how easy it would be to cross open bridges and streets and how hard it would be to cross blocked off streets in plain sight of policemen. Sometimes you have to push your way through even as you are yelled at and sometimes you have to about-face into a crush of hundreds of people because there is no where else to go.
Hawks: Again this might be skewed because I was expecting the worst after Paris. With the exception of trying to climb the stairs onto Upper Wacker without knowing where the line began or ended, the crowd was fairly forgiving. Or I got better at pushing.

5. Escape Route - Winner: Hawks

Bastille: This was absolutely the worst part of Bastille Day for me. Several Metro stations were closed but not even the policemen knew which ones and you couldn't tell until you actually went into them. Some pathways ended in a barricade without any signs or any way to turn around and only a few bridges over the Seine were open to foot traffic. Not one person knew what was going on. It took me two hours to make the 20 minute trip back to my apartment and I left even before the mass of people arrived for the fireworks.
Hawks: Despite the fact that I panicked inside the crowd, people let me out easily and the barricades all faced the same direction. I couldn't cross north on the East side of State St. but I could on the West side. The fences and blockades all came down within an hour of the end of the rally. Also it might be a little easier to figure out where to go when you live there.

The clear overall winner here is the Blackhawks rally. Which might be in direct inverse proportion to how momentous an event it is. I would never take back going to Bastille Day in Paris but I certainly could have lived without going to the rally in Chicago. However, both of these could have been greatly improved had I the foresight to eat food like a normal person.

All of this is to say that sometimes a great gift can be something obvious, like giving a rally-goer a protein bar before she embarks on a stupid mission. When my brother came to house-sit last summer (while I was off starving myself among the throngs) I gave him a pre-loaded card to ride the El and a map of Chicago. Things that maybe seem obvious to those of us who live here, but save visitors a big hassle. I also stocked the kitchen with food, which I totally should have done for myself too. Obviously I am an idiot.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Bridal Shower Gift

Sometimes (and by "sometimes" I mean all the freaking time) I feel like I am pretending to be an adult and I'm in way over my head. Like severely sucking at it. Partly this is exacerbated by moving in with M, which feels like playing house. Or being on vacation. And I keep thinking I will be going back to my own apartment soon and I had better live it up in the meantime. By eating junk food and keeping everything clean. (I don't get it either. My brain has a path all its own.)

Anyway, I have succeeded in being an adult in a few ways recently, including impressively making the bed each morning. I have also managed to:
(note that I have been known to do the exact opposite of all of these on a regular basis)
  • Buy flowers for the dining room
  • Turn off all the lights at night and sleep in a bed (not a couch)
  • Keep the coffee table clear of bills, dirty glasses, spoons and drawing pens
  • Put almost all of my dirty clothes in the laundry basket (not the bed)
  • Not leave the Brita picher empty in the fridge (To be fair, we don't actually use the Brita at all since we bought a Pur filter for the sink. This was a slight point of contention, solved when the filter-free faucet spat out a large bug. No more Bug Water, no more Brita.)
  • Also, my gym bag is not residing in the middle of the living room

Unfortunately this has taken all of my adult capabilities, as this is how I have failed at being an adult recently:
  • The flowers I bought died and they are still prominently displayed on the dining room table
  • I forgot to change my address for 70% of my bills
  • I left my comb, brush, razor, conditioner, and a pair of socks at the gym all on separate occasions and have had to buy another version of each of them again
  • I am clearly incapable of unloading the dishwasher or taking out the trash
  • I have not once watered or even looked at the two plants we have (To be fair, I did tell M that if he wanted to put the plants eight feet high in the kitchen, that I would most likely not remember that they are there as it is a good three feet above my sightline. I was right. Also, I killed a cactus once and have a decidedly red-for-danger thumb.)
  • I am highly uncomfortable in adult situations, like bridal showers and graduation ceremonies.

I suppose this last one is not something I just "discovered" while trying to be a real person. This is just consistent with my personality. I don't really like sitting still and making small talk. I am severely crowd-averse and I don't remember names or identifying details very well. Also, I very much think the bridal shower tradition of making people watch you open presents is tedious and weird. Even though I'm pretty sure I did this at every one of my birthday parties until I was 17.

Is this a tradition because the tradition is to show as much extra attention on the bride as humanly possible or is it a tradition because old people go to bridal showers and this is what they expect? (I am picturing a panel of white-haired ladies waving knitting needles in the air and waging a protest against "new-fangled bridal showers" - refusing to attend or send presents if they can't see their own gifts opened to much fanfare and applause.)

If you take into consideration the fact that I have a well-documented inability to lie or otherwise control my facial expressions/compulsive eye-rolling, you can see this as one in a natural line of elements of "The Wedding" that I do not want any part of at my own hypothetical future nuptials. This list includes that damn Corinthians reading that makes me want to strangle people. (Yes, clearly my impatience and rage dictate that I am not in fact the essence of love.)

Anyway, when you are buying presents for a couple who have essentially told you what to buy them via a gift registry, opening these presents is like writing a list of demands to Santa, and then having to pretend you are surprised when you get what you asked for on Christmas morning. Why do we make brides pretend they are not only surprised that you did what they asked, but they are extraordinarily thrilled with how you did? Do we expect that people are innate fuck-ups? (Don't answer that.)

In keeping with my rebellious inclinations toward "The Wedding," I tend to either not buy off of the registry or I try to insert something that will make the gift more than just something to check off of a list. I apologize to any brides that I have annoyed in this process. 

The most recent bridal shower that I went to involved a registry in which almost all of the things I could afford had been purchased already, leaving me with a choice between a $700 rug or a collection of random materials. I determined these were not good enough choices. Especially given that faking your way through excitement becomes even harder when people buy you a box of random crap. My friend A, of the delicious pretzel hostess gifts, is extraordinarily talented at baking cookies and cupcakes. When our boyfriends were roommates, cookies were a running obsession. So, for her bridal shower I bought a baking sheet off of the registry and then found a mini spatula made just for cookies, and cookie cutters in the shape of cupcakes. Neither of which were on the registry.

At this point I was worrying slightly about breaking the rules, so I pimped out the Crate and Barrel box:

To break this down for you - A and J are the initials of the betrothed. That striped panel with the cookie peeking out the top is a library pocket stuffed with shopping cards for cookie recipes. And the green sheets are cookie recipes attached to the handle with a metal ring.

For the shopping cards, I drew a picture of each type of cookie and then listed the ingredients needed for the recipe, directing A to Bon Appétit's website for the full recipe instructions:

The idea is that when you want to make one of the cookies, you pick up the card and bring it to the store instead of copying down the whole recipe. But also I hand-wrote them the night before the shower and did not have time, patience or enough index cards to write out the whole recipe.

Faking it at being an adult is helping me feel like I am sucking at it less.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Totally Inappropriate Gift

I am no stranger to totally inappropriate behavior. I talk to myself. In public. In French. I also have allergies that compel me to wipe my nose with restaurant napkins. And sometimes I forget that sunglasses do not make me invisible and end up blatantly staring at people for too long. But I do not chase people down the street to ask them out in the following way:

Crazy Man in Range Rover: "Hey beautiful, take a copy of my book!"

Me: (Ignoring crazy man completely.)

Crazy: (Following me in Range Rover, parking car on the street and running after me, waving a crazy arm in the air.) "Hey, I just want to get your number! I just flew in from filming a movie in New York and I have a fashion show coming up I want to give you the dates for."

Me: (Ignoring crazy man completely.)

Crazy: "Here's my card. Can I get your number or give you mine? Wow, you sure walk fast."

Me: "Your number's on the card, right? Then I have yours."

Crazy: "Well, that not my real cell phone number, so take my new one."

Me: (Pretending to type Crazy's number in my phone while actually stabbing at random buttons. This entry is now "Zz8r47Wa" in my phone.)

At this point Crazy has returned to his Range Rover and I am still zig-zagging my way through downtown to teach at the museum. It is 8:40 am. Crazy continues to follow me in his car and is now waving something out the window.

Crazy: "I want you to take a copy of my book. I'm gonna be on Oprah in two weeks."

Me: (Thinking I either have to take this copy or call the police, I take the book.)

Crazy: "You'll see on the back that I have seven kids. But I'll be divorced in three years."


Crazy: "I know God brought me to you for a reason."

I hope God doesn't tell him I put a fake number in my phone.

As pointed out by my best friend K, I do seem to attract a certain level of crazy. (She said "hilarity" but if you knew all the stories, you would know that "crazy" is more apt.)

I'm not sure what kind of woman thinks a man with seven kids, a pending divorce and a really terrible book is a catch, but I would guess that chasing even that woman down the street doesn't do you any favors. I did read part of the hardcover autobiography I now reluctantly own. And if "With five kids by the age of 26, [Crazy] didn't think it could get any worse, but had two more kids in the next three years" doesn't just pull at your heartstrings and make you fall in love with Crazy, I don't know what will. He goes on to talk about how when women "get scared, they get possessive of their man" and that at this point "the man doesn't respect the woman at all and the woman makes it worse by clinging to him."

If Crazy goes on Oprah I hope she eats him.

Anyway, as I said, I am no stranger to totally inappropriate behavior. And sometimes this behavior actually makes totally appropriate gifts. As long as it doesn't involve chasing.

Last summer I went to France for a couple of weeks. I did an exchange program in high school in which I lived with a family for a month in a small town two hours southwest of Paris. The girl I was paired with has become one of my closest friends and when I received her wedding invitation in the mail, I decided that even if I put the whole trip on my credit card, I would be at her July 2009 wedding in the town where I had lived for a short time ten years ago. So, last summer I went to her wedding. And maxed out my credit card.

Anyway, what do you get someone as a wedding present when you don't know the wedding customs of their country? If you are me, apparently you draw a sketch-portrait on the plane, tear it out of your sketchbook at the airport and then visit a French Pier One at the train station to buy a frame and frantically scratch off the price sticker while riding the TGV.

Totally inappropriate. Yet, this made a lovely gift. Why? My friend is a dancer and the picture I drew was of them dancing. Also, the frame covered the torn-off edge of the paper.

The moral of the story is, if your inappropriate behavior is behind-the-scenes, or a clumsy means to a tidy end, then the behavior is a non-issue. Or that chasing people down the street is never a good plan for woo-age. Or inappropriate pick-up lines are funnier when invoking the name of Oprah. Whatever. I win.