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.