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.