Inches of Tissue: The Thin Line Between Self-Love and Hate

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I remember the first time I became aware of my body relative to other people’s. I was quite young, around six or seven. I was sitting on the blacktop during gym class, my legs folded neatly under my body, shins flush to the ground, hands resting on my knees. I gazed from teacher, to the trees, to the four square court, then down to my legs, which were juxtaposed against the similarly fashioned – but much skinnier – legs of my classmate. She was a petite little thing, a classic Southern belle with feathery blonde hair and a ballerina’s build. All little girls in the South were enrolled in dance class – except me, of course. I didn’t have the grace.

The flesh and blood and sinew of my thighs flattened out horizontally, bulging out in a soft rounded curve before tapering to the pointy ends of my knees. Her thighs didn’t bulge out at all. They were the same width folded as they were extended, perfectly aligned to the span of her curiously angular knees. Almost rectangular. My eyes darted to the folded legs of the other girls – angular, angular, angular… then back to mine. Squish.

Everyone talks about how little girls are beaten over the head with body-conscious marketing messages. There’s no doubt that the media narrative plays an indoctrinating role. But in my experience, they simply served as reinforcement points to something that was very observable: my body didn’t look like the other girls’.

It started out as an objective matter of fact. Inches, proportions, clothing size – all large. Pediatrician said I was in the 90-something percentile. Big head, big bones. I was reminded of my percentile range frequently. My mom posited that it was my German lineage. Big German bones. I’m not sure that’s as compelling an explanation as she made it out to be. 

Heidi Klum is German, so.

When I was little, I was only bothered by it to the extent that I was made to feel different. Kids aren’t keen on feeling “othered.” Our peers are our yardstick for normalcy and I quickly became hyper-cognizant of my outlier status. Tall girl in the back row on picture day. Slow poke during the mile run at P.E. Incapable of scaling the rope or doing a pull up. Waiting in line with the boys to get a size large promotional t-shirt at the school fundraiser.  

Then puberty rolled around – early for me, of course, just like a Judy Blume novel. Taller still, with big breasts and big hips, which I then started to match with big opinions and a big voice. I was commanding in physicality and personality, with the latter serving to offset (or maybe just match) the former. That’s when everything shifted from merely observable data to data points that were qualifiable – moral and immoral, desirable and undesirable. With so many opinions about my maturing body being hurled at me from every angle – grown men cat calling from pickup trucks, sales clerks at the department store, caustic matriarchs on my TV set – the only option for having any semblance of control was to be louder, smarter, and snarkier. Of course, I quickly learned that those things didn’t offset the fact that I was taking up space physically. They compounded the problem.

Now I bristle at the fact that I ever thought any of those things were a problem, and that I’m still agonizing over them as I fast approach 40. It’s bullshit. There’s no other way to put it. (Tied to this decades-old tangle is my immoral penchant for profanity. Or, as Sarah Silverman recently said on her podcast: “the English language in all its flourishes.”)

I have been tortured by internalized disapproval of my own body for as long as I can remember. I fear that if I was held at gunpoint and forced to reckon with my life through rapid flashes of memories, half of them would be of me grappling over the trauma of a few extra inches of flab on my inner thigh, just a bunch of yellowed, faded Polaroid shots of me scribbling goal weigh targets in notebooks, planners, and diaries.

All because of a few extra inches on my body pieces. INCHES! It’s asinine when you strip it down to the fundamentals. It reminds me of a comedic bit in which Bob Newhart acts out what a conversation must have sounded like the first time someone had to explain tobacco usage to civilization. “It’s a special kind of leaf that you tear up and stuff into a little piece of paper, roll it up, stick between your lips, AND SET ON FIRE.”

SCENE: 

“Mommy, what do you mean when you say you’re fat?”

“Well, sweetie… it means that I have highly observable amount of skin and adipose tissue around my bones and muscles, causing me to wear a size large tank top at the Gap.”

“What is ‘large’?”

“Well, sweetie… it comes from the Latin word ‘largus,’ which means abundant, copious, plentiful, bountiful, liberal in giving, and generous.”

“And that’s bad?”

“Well, sweetie, in many other contexts, large is good – for men, beer, houses, turkeys, and sports utility vehicles. But not for my thighs or my tank top. Or for tumors or leaks.”

END SCENE.

It’s mind blowing to think that I’ve given up years and years of peace because of mere inches of tissue. Maybe I can’t change that I’m “largus.” But whew, have I tried – Weight Watchers, Noom, Atkins, Starving College Kid Diet, Chew Gum & Eat Apples Diet. But maybe I can change the KIND of large I am.

Not leaky tumor large. “Refreshing yard of ale at a Skynard concert” large. “Black Label Lincoln Navigator with an optional third row” large. And if I’m going to take up space, I’m not going to cower in embarrassment, I’m going to do it like a guy in a fleece vest on the subway. Shamelessly. 

On my Instagram, I’ve talked exhaustively about how I’ve set up obstacles in front of myself my entire life, all because of this belief that I won’t be “ready” for certain opportunities until I’m a certain BMI. For example, my desire to pursue a public speaking career. On paper, I have all the most critical makings of someone who would be successful in the public sphere: a big head and mouth, hardly any sex scandals, expertise on 20th century pop culture references, and an endless supply of unsolicited opinions on topics about which I have very little understanding.

But then I remember that time in “Devil Wears Prada” when Stanley Tucci told Anne Hathaway that size 2 is the new 4, and zero is the new 2, and nothing off the rack is going to fit her size 6 ass, because 6 is the new 14. And a size 14 in show business just means it’s time for celery juice and the Tracy Anderson Method. Ha! Just kidding, size 14 in show business is NOT A THING. And girl, you cannot afford the Tracy Anderson Method, get the hell out of here.

(See, even my toxic inner monologue is riddled with references.)

Author Caroline Dooner writes in her book, The F*ck It Diet:

“I am here to tell you, and then tell you again, that everything you think being thin will give you is something you need to be willing to seek now, regardless of your current weight. You were not made to sit around waiting until someone deems you good enough for the life you want.

You were made to go create it.”

I’ve run out of diets to try. I’ve run out of space in my closet for all these “one day they’ll fit” jeans. I’ve run out notebooks to house my arbitrary weight loss targets. Their lines and boxes are instead filled with to-do lists that prop up the corporate communications career I’ve created, which supports the children that I’ve birthed, who live in the house that I bought, where I write stories using the creativity that I’ve nurtured regardless of the numbers on the bathroom scale.

I have accomplished so much in spite of the 30+ years of hating the very body that allowed me to do it.

Imagine what I could accomplish if I loved it. I’m ready to find out.

How a Roadside Pause Made Me a Doe-Eyed Optimist

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I experienced a flash of optimism today.

I was driving southbound on Cass Avenue, approaching an intersection where cars swarm in and out of parking lots that house big box stores and fast food joints. These are places where angry honks are just waiting to blare at the slightest inconvenience, aggravated by poorly designed exits and entrances obstructed by oversized SUVs.

As my body began to tense up in a Pavlovian response to the usual Saturday morning congestion, I was startled by a siren blast from an approaching fire truck, which was being tailed by an ambulance. Suddenly, all the traffic stopped. The oversized SUVs pulled to the side, sidewalk joggers stopped jogging, and the crew of car wash workers who had been swiftly wiping down an Audi all stopped to marvel at the fire truck, as did the car’s owner – like children in total awe.

For 15 seconds, the whole world stopped in solemn reverence. We had no details of the emergency and no ability – or even a desire – to make a judgement as to whether it warranted this response. We just knew that there was a need and these vehicles were answering the call – and our job was to stay out of the way. Sure, there are traffic laws requiring that motorists pull over to allow firetrucks and ambulances to move through, but this observance seemed less about lawful compliance and more about maintaining a certain social contract.

The notion that we can and do still uphold social contracts stirred within me a warm, gushy feeling of endearment for humanity that I had not felt in many months. We, a cluster of random strangers, each existing in our own individual little car pods with a diverse range of hyper-specific problems, worries, hopes, and dreams, were suddenly aligning to a collective understanding of how things needed to go in that exact moment.

It electrified me, like a jolt from the Holy Spirit.

God is alive on this street corner, I gasped. Right here next to this alarmingly crowded Dunkin Donuts.

It was incredibly fleeting, this existential moment. Once the sirens faded in the distance, everyone went back to being faceless bastards fighting for parking spaces, complaining about face masks and vaccines and teachers’ unions, voting for the wrong candidates, undermining faith and science and civil discourse.

But even now, seven hours later, I haven’t let go of that cozy feeling. It became a brilliant, highly saturated lens through which I viewed every little moment during my otherwise mundane errands. A retail worker helping an elderly lady reach a box of crackers from a top shelf. A young man letting a frazzled mother cut him in the checkout line because she only needed to buy a single gallon of milk. A teenager running a forgotten shopping bag out to its neglectful owner. Please, thank you, have a great weekend, stay warm, safe travels.

What were previously throwaway courtesies became, to me, reminders of the comfort we find in deep-rooted social contracts. This moment in American history has certainly exposed massive fissures in a perceived moral framework that so many people had either overestimated or taken for granted. I have certainly done my fair share of spiraling.

Still, in this moment, I am refusing to believe that the dissolution of American civilization is a foregone conclusion. Fifteen seconds of roadside reflection has made me a doe-eyed optimist, if only for a day. At this point, I’ll take whatever optimism I can get.

Bloody Floss Reflections

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There are two moments in a 24-hour span each day that ground me in the fact that I am in a perpetual state of monotony – when I’m walking into the bathroom to get ready for bed, and when I stumble into that same bathroom the next morning to get ready for the day. There’s just something so distinctively repetitive about the way my bare feet feel on the soap scummed grout, the way the smell of shampoo emanates from the shower and hits my nostrils, the way that the flickering light above the mirror causes my eyes to scramble for focus. It could be stormy, snowy, or hazy outside, but I would never know because this room at the end of my hallway has no window, just the smudged reflection of my face day in and day out. It’s a face that used to be called out for being overly expressive. You have no poker face, they’d say. Not as much now. Poker face is often all I have to give. That stony “here we go again” expression is my new normal.

Normal. Whatever that means.

For the first few months of this fiasco, I would wax poetic about a life that will inevitably return to normal. Now, deeper into this thing, I recognize that while some elements of my life will be restored to original condition, the core of my being will not. I don’t want it to. The way that my life was before – the delicate way that it spun around me each hour, day, month, year – was weak. It crumpled so easily under the pressure of what was an inevitable seismic event. It has let out countless exasperated sighs, complaints of inconvenience, and visceral shock towards human misbehavior and exploitation. How the hell can a human being exist in this universe, with unparalleled access to historical texts and surround sound global suffering, be so incredibly shook by the state of the world in 2020?

These are things that I think about as I brush my teeth in that tiny bathroom. Brush, spit, brush, spit, and then yank the floss out of its little box. As it slides across the gummy contours of my mouth, I consider how I have the gall to stand here and wallow in the mundane repetition of a world on fire and pretend like this choreographed coping is somehow novel because it’s happening to me.

I spit blood into the sink and watch it fade from red to pink to clear as it swirls down the drain. My husband reminds me that poor dental hygiene can lead to more daunting medical issues, so I’ve been committed to correcting my regimine. Yet, despite how much effort I now put into proper flossing, my mouth always bleeds violently. Every night, without fail.

Seems fitting.

Your Opinion Is Just So Incredibly Terrible

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Listen, I’ve tried to keep this to myself but I just can’t any longer. I have to say it. That opinion you just shared? It’s really bad. It’s so, so bad. I really can’t overstate how bad it is.

Your opinion is so bad that I want to wrap it in duct tape, prop it up on my couch, and force it to watch 72 straight hours of “Two and a Half Men,” and then another 72 hours without the laugh track so it’s just Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen drinking coffee, earnestly discussing how bad they are at satisfying women. That’s how bad your opinion is.

Your opinion is so bad that I want to lock it in a Yankee Candle store with all of the food-themed products emitting their fragrances at once: “Pecan Pie Bites,” “Mandarin Cranberry,” “Mango Peach Salsa,” “Toasted Pumpkin Treats” – so many smells to smell! And there’s no escaping this hellscape. Even the refreshing scent “Café Al Fresco” has now been re-engineered to more accurately smell like a ham and cheese omelet mixed with piles of trash on a hot NYC sidewalk. That’s right, breathe it in!

Your opinion is so bad that it should only be allowed to wear high-rise, low-stretch denim for the balance of the pandemic. In fact, your opinion was so abhorrent that not only should it have to wear jeans, it should also have to wear a stretched out underwire bra, like the ones they use in the before shots in the Third Love sponsored ads on my Facebook feed. If the bra is from a clearance bin at Kohl’s, your opinion should have to wear it at night on the couch while watching all those episodes of “Two and a Half Men.” That’s how bad your opinion sucks.

Your opinion is so bad that the only friend it should be allowed to have is a person who is suddenly experimenting with keto, training for an Iron Man, and aggressively co-opting New Age spirituality, all at once. Has your piece of crap opinion listened the Tony Robbins podcast? Well then, it better buckle up, because that’s all it’s going to hear about for the next six months, at least until its friend finds a new “personal growth” obsession with which to commandeer every conversation.

Your opinion is so bad that it deserves to change the loaded diaper of a teething baby at the beach on a hot windy day. Of course, there aren’t any garbage cans, so it can just stuff the dirty diaper in a greasy McDonald’s bag and subsequently forget about it in the backseat of the car until the next day. That’s the morning commute your opinion deserves.

And your opinion is so bad that instead of being fact checked and substantiated by peer-reviewed data and broad consensus among subject matter experts, it will be flippantly regurgitated as absolute truth in perpetuity through a variety of shoddily created gotcha memes and basement blogs, until there’s absolutely no discernment between subjectivity and objectivity and the republic ultimately cannibalizes itself. And that’s the future we probably deserve.

God Grant Me the Self-Assurance of Sourdough Yeast

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I’ve been trying to write practically every day since the pandemic commenced and I’m finding it increasingly difficult. The polarized and ever-evolving conditions never seem “just right” for polished expression. Then again, the current conditions don’t seem right for any of my zig zagging whimsies either. Frankly, I’ve found 2020 to be almost the antithesis of whimsy. Taylor Swift just released an album, “Folklore,” one of the few prominent creatives who have released a high-profile body of work during these dark times. Her introductory note to the album states that she poured all of her “whims, dreams, fears, and musings” into it. The notion that one has successfully dumped their COVID-era whims into a critically acclaimed piece of art is enough to make me want to rip my skin off. It doesn’t help that I personally found “Folklore” to be absolutely delightful. Kill me now. 

I have myriad whims, and instead of manifesting on paper in any profound and productive way, they’re twisting and turning in my gut, manifesting as persistent acid reflux than anything that Bon Iver would want to collaborate on. That’s not to say my household has been devoid of creativity. At this exact moment, my 11-year-old daughter is in the kitchen baking “margarita cupcakes.” They have tequila in the frosting – she’s giving the people what they want! While I flail about in neutral, she’s embraced the simple pleasures of baking, celebrating her increasingly complex techniques through beautiful carb-rich creations that the entire family has relished in. I want so desperately to find refuge in the soft folds of cake batter, which will reliably coagulate in the heat. There is so much satisfaction in the beauty of a perfectly golden cupcake or bread loaf. It takes little effort to understand why supermarkets have been short on flour and yeast over the last few months. The convergence of reliability, beauty, and comfort found in the baking experience is exactly what a world that has been throttled into disarray needs.

Unfortunately, I don’t bake, I write. And nothing I can express right now can possibly be beautiful or comfortable, and certainly not reliable. My mind has been spiraling more than a hunk of ham – and my heart, which tries so hard under normal circumstances to prop up all this mental chaos with some sort of moral soundness, is like a weather-worn statue of Atlas ready to crumble on the weight of it all. Most days I’m the personification of a fallen cake, burned around the edges, mushy in the center, more savory than sweet in all the wrong ways, at which its creator yells “I don’t know what I did wrong! I followed all the instructions and it’s still completely messed up!” 

(Okay, so I did just find some joy in picturing Jesus in a well-appointed kitchen, angrily flinging chunks of confetti cake into the garbage.)

Again, I’m not sure the current conditions are right for my whims. They’re erratic, half-baked, bursting with incongruent textures and flavors, and confusing to most people I share them with. How does that integrate into said conditions, which are decidedly ripe for focused, large-scale systemic overhaul. They’re ripe for long-overdue discord, for broad dissent, and for an entire re-authoring of the world and the societies that comprise it. 

The world has proclaimed, rightly so, that creators must use their voices. They must maximize their platforms for good, to usher the hoards of willing disciples to the light of a newly conceptualized existence. We’ve already moved past the Great Pause and are now neck-deep in the Great Reset. Creators who remain stubbornly rooted in the Old World must be toppled into a six-foot deep pit of obscurity, and new thinkers must act fast, act decisively, act bravely. 

My heart acts fast, my brain is decisive, my spirit is brave. But my words, which are the mouthpiece for these admirable attributes – well, they are slow. They are scared, insecure, and they second guess at every turn. Established journalists and novelists have discerning editors that serve almost as philosophical safety nets. They are the shrewd sounding boards that reign in whimsical creators to the parameters that ensure their relevancy and resiliency. I am the writer and the editor all at once, and the checks and balances system for my own brazen expression is basically a swinging tightrope with nothing but a death fall beneath it. 

Every day I try to push through my own internal resistance and speak bold words that, unless released, will slowly erode my spirit until there’s nothing left. I can already feel the violent spiritual by-product of my fear – the sensation of getting sucked into my mattress at night, like those cursed teenagers in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies. Speak out and lose family and friends, burn bridges, and shiver in the chill of heightened isolation and anxiety. Don’t speak out and allow my spirit to get shredded to a bloody pulp by a Freddy Krueger-like boogeyman who rightly punishes milquetoast moderation in the wee hours of the night.

I am struggling with this conundrum. In the meantime, maybe I’ll focus my energy on a sourdough bread starter kit, just like everyone else. At least yeast knows what it’s supposed to do.

True Love Can Be a Crap in the Pants

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In the incomparable show “30 Rock,” the character Jenna Maroney describes love as such:

“It’s hiding who you are at all times. It’s wearing makeup to bed and going downstairs to the Burger King to poop!”

I remember sharing this sentiment as a younger woman. I carried my cosmetic bag everywhere I went. I brushed my hair hourly. My legs were always shaved. If I was eating in front of a man, I was eating salad or pecking at my dish with feigned disinterest. God, it’s so asinine, the pleasures I withheld from myself in order to acquiesce to the male gaze.

The night I met my husband, I was drinking a low calorie Michelob Ultra. That was my go-to drink, or a rum and diet. I don’t remember what he was drinking but it was much cooler than a domestic light beer. He’s a bona fide foodie, but he also despises words like “foodie,” which are honestly the best kind of foodies. He was a restaurant manager with a seasoned career in the food industry, and as our relationship took off, so did my immersion into the Chicago area culinary scene. Nothing was off limits: sashimi and quail eggs, wild game meat, Pakistani street food, Eastern European bohemian (where you get a cup of jello and a side of cottage cheese for dessert), and everything in between.

It may sound like our relationship was sponsored by “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” but the one hiccup is that I have a very sensitive stomach. We’re talking IBS, lactose intolerance, and fingers that swell to the proportions of a bloated pig intestine should my body have to process the slightest hint of salt. However, unlike the thousands of other women with precious stomachs who also have boundaries and discipline, I choose to just power through the pain.

I’ve sacrificed my body to good food, which is way better than sacrificing my body to Fleece Vest Chad.

You know how you know you’ve met your life partner? After you’ve collectively scooped brain from a duck skull during dim sum in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. After you’ve eaten a questionable batch of cuttlefish, after you’ve said, “YES PLEASE” to every bit of meat and shell fish on a lopsided lazy susan.

It was mere weeks into dating that I joined my now-husband’s family for a celebratory Chinese brunch. My sister-in-law is from Shanghai and is a delightfully adventurous diner. Not only am I game for anything that hits my plate under normal circumstances, but I also served up some serious new girlfriend gusto, enthusiastically blurting out “YUM” for a cool 90 minutes.

For the entire drove home via Chicago’s westbound I-290 expressway, I felt untouchable. I had just won the Girlfriend Super Bowl. There was no conversation I couldn’t join, no 1980s pop culture reference I couldn’t glom onto, no Cantonese dish I wouldn’t toss down my esophagus with the enthusiasm of a thousand homecoming dates.

“That went great!” he said as he squeezed my thigh.

It sure did. IT SURE DID.

…until it didn’t.

His bathroom floor tile was so cold as it pressed up against my cheek. That damn cuttlefish. A mere two hours ago, I casually tossed that cursed animal into my mouth as I waxed poetic about Fleetwood Mac with my future father-in-law. It served its purpose that afternoon but punished my hubris that evening.

Like one of those wall-mounted singing bass fish, the cuttlefish taunted me and my delicate bowels to the tune of Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River.”

KNOCK KNOCK

“Babe, are you okay?”

If there’s any place I wished I could have been at that moment, it was evacuating dim sum from both ends at the Burger King, not in my new boyfriend’s apartment. No amount of sultry eyeliner or potpourri spray could offset this nightmare.

I was mortified. Fleece Vest Chad would never abide. But Allen, future husband, did.

He rubbed my back. He kissed my head. He poured me a glass of club soda. He pretended not to smell the bioterrorism my body just unleashed through the 800 square foot apartment he called home.

My mouth muttered “DON’T TOUCH ME” but my eyes said, “I LOVE YOU.” I slept on his dilapidated green couch that night, clenching my orifices in humiliation. I knew in that moment I would hold his heart in my heart forever.

Ladies, if you want to find your one true love, don’t rely on astrology or Cosmo quizzes or the judgement of your friends. Eat a bad batch of seafood and let it ride. The man who holds your hand as you crap your pants is certainly the man with whom you want to grow old.

The Joy of the Eternal Rookie

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A silver haired, curmudgeonly man approached me under the fluorescent lights of a Publix grocery store, two decades ago. He asked me where he could find hearing aid batteries. I had no idea. I was only a week or two into my new job as a cashier and customer service associate. I only knew where baby diapers were, and that’s because we were standing right in front of them. He seemed irritated with my ignorance, which filled me with anxiety disproportionate to the situation.

I remember wanting to quit. I wanted to quit a dozen times, because I felt foolish not having the answer. Over time, I went on to master the entire product catalog of that store, learning to identify merchandise placement in every department, aisle, and shelf. At that point, I was ready to move to something new, and the learning curve pattern started over again. This stubborn pattern emerges with every single job, life stage, and hobby I take on. I wanted to quit at my first marketing job out of college, I wanted to quit at my first challenge as a people manager, I wanted to quit when new motherhood felt too painful, when my finances were disastrous. But the reality of the learning curve applies to all undertakings, no matter your age or station.

There’s nothing in the life that doesn’t have a learning curve. You’re not born with any skill set that doesn’t require at least some degree of effort, save for pooping and sleeping – and any honest adult will admit that there’s a new learning curve to both of those things starting at some point in your mid-30s.

Fortunately, I’m learning to relish the uphill trudge rather than use it as an excuse to flake out.

Today, I find no excitement or beauty in stories of coasting or ease of acclimation. I’m attracted to humans struggling along the learning curve, who are demonstrating sweaty effort and the emotions of intermittent failure. I love encouraging the new barista behind the Starbucks register, trying to figure out how to hit all the right buttons to process some dude’s half-caff, two-pump monstrosity. I love when my daughter collapses on my bed at 8:30 PM because she just can’t solve the math problem. I giddily adjust two sets of fluffy pillows on which will put our heads together to figure it out. I love to massage the shoulders of bloody nippled friends who have just birthed their babies, giving them the same rah-rah pep of a boxing coach in the corner of the ring.

Slogging through intellectual, emotional, or physical resistance is the kind of rich human experience that we have to embrace, because it’s a requirement of anything worth doing. Any endeavor that is too easy feels like a total cheat.

Parents are pressured to give their children a range of extracurricular experiences – you know, to see what sticks. Team sports, music, performance, visual arts… we plop these kids into a million park district and school-sponsored activities and prod them along their own learning curves. “You won’t be any good if you don’t practice!” “It’s important to commit for the good of the team!” “How do you know if you will be any good if you don’t give it a try?” We wipe away their tears when they don’t make the team, telling them that the fact that they made the effort is even more noble than becoming the captain.

Why do we act as if this vulnerable experimentation only applies to children? If anyone needs an extracurricular, it’s Carol in Accounting, who risks spending the next 20 years being defined by a single set of circumstances instead of the full spectrum of possibilities that she fails to pursue. Over the past 10 years since I’ve become a mom and a career woman, I’ve joined a recreational roller derby league, studied comedy writing, formed a comedy troupe, experimented with stand-up, done kickboxing, joined more than one book club, attempted ink sketching, put myself in front of cameras at work, and started a blog. In all of these moments, I felt like a fumbling rookie, just a few strides onto a steep learning curve that I had zero confidence I’d be able to surmount. This was true in a few cases, but a total underestimation in other cases.

We were not put on this earth to coast through the motions. We were put here to live. I’d rather be perpetually powering towards my aspirations as a member of the junior varsity than being bored at the top of varsity.

There’s satisfaction in being at the top of your game, but there’s exhilarating joy in being the eternal rookie. Here’s to trying new things, potential failure be damned. As far as I’m concerned, there’s more sexiness in the effort than the success.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”

Tales of a Second Grade Spitfire

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It’s January. ‘Tis the season of motivation!

Gone are the days of trendy diets and “scientifically proven” workout regimens. A generation ago, January represented an uptick in gym memberships. Today, January is the time to read up on your Love Language, determine your Enneagram, and start practicing yoga – not to trim your thighs, of course, but rather to cleanse your chakras and recalibrate your mind’s eye.

The zeitgeist of today is dripping in New Age affirmations and I’m lapping it up like a kitten with her face in a saucer of organic nut-based milk.

“LOOK DEEP INSIDE YOURSELF!” the chorus cries out. “THE ONLY STRENGTH YOU NEED IS ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU!” The idea is here is that if you can bushwhack through the tangled jungles of past traumas and toxic cultural narratives, you will ultimately find a sparkling jewel of self-realization.

Unfortunately, this has been my sticking point.

Just look inside yourself!

Okay, bumper sticker on a Subaru. I’ll just go and do that, as if Maya Angelou and Joan of Arc are simply wading about in the deepest cavities of my soul, just waiting to be fished up and sic’d on whatever egregious stressor is ruining my day. Maybe if I cough hard enough, a hairball containing a collection of Brene Brown mantras will come tumbling out.

I’m irritated that as a 36-year-old woman living the 2020, I need to be encouraged to dig deep for strength in the first place. After all, I’ve felt the burn of not one but two human skulls tearing through my cervix in the last decade. I assembled an IKEA entertainment system all by myself with nothing but $3 Trader Joe pinot noir in my blood and Michael Buble’s 2005 seminal album “It’s Time” in my ears.

I’m a survivor! I’ve seen some shit!

In some ways, the misadventures of adulthood have added a layer or two of scaly protection atop my thickened skin. I’m usually adept at letting certain cruelties and injustices roll off me and I credit that to normal life experience. But in many ways, I’m softer now than I was as a little girl.

As I’ve discussed before, contrary to the popular belief that all little girls are conditioned to be docile, apologetic conformists who grow up to be shrinking violets who get passed up for promotions, I feel like I’ve long been running on the lingering fumes of my younger self.

Truth be told, 8-year-old Rachel was a stone cold broad. So, if I must dig deep to unearth the inner strength needed to power through this cruel world, then I’m digging a tunnel straight to 1991.

Second grade. My punk rock year.

They say well-behaved women seldom make history. Well, second grade was probably my worst year, behaviorally, and the closest I’ve ever been to a true, scorched earth renegade. I hate to admit it, but I may have peaked when I was 8.

Let me just start by explaining that in 1991, I looked a bit like George Costanza if he was an American Girl doll. I just think it’s important for you to have that visual as we dive into my salacious past.

It all started with a note that needed to be signed by my parents. I don’t remember if I didn’t want her to see it or if I had simply forgotten to get the signature and realized it was due that day, but either way, that day at school, I made the split-second decision to forge my mom’s signature.

I gripped that Lisa Frank pencil with a determination as fiery as a thousand suns and signed my mother’s name with these giant, sophisticated swooping loops never seen before that day and never seen since. It was a masterpiece. Did it look like my mom’s signature? No. Did it even look like a signature? Not really. I had not yet been taught cursive, so it was more like a sloppy sketch of a sideways snowman.

But I owned it. I believed in it when no one else did – namely my teacher, Mrs. Carter.

When she confronted me, I told her that my mother gave me verbal authorization to sign on her behalf while she was in the shower. This was just how we chose to manage business in our home, I explained. She relented. At the time, I thought she bought it. Now I just realize that she probably hated her job because of tyrants like me and had finite battles that she wanted to fight. Mrs. Carter had likely already given up on my entire generation.

No matter. I had already tasted the sweet, sweet nectar of rebellion and it was time to up the ante.

At first, I kept it small. When I was instructed to vacuum my room, I did so, but without actually turning the vacuum on. I made the vacuum lines on the carpeting but didn’t clean up any of the mess. The fact that I still did the manual labor of vacuuming was irrelevant. The dirt was still there and hence, I was sticking it to the man.

THAT’S RIGHT, MOM, LOOK UPON MY FILTH!

Other times, I would pretend to eat everything on my plate but I was actually spitting it into my napkin in small increments, disposing of those steamed vegetables with the stealthy precision of the world’s deadliest assassins.

YES, FATHER, MY CLEAN PLATE AWARD WAS BUT A SCATHING SYMBOL OF MY EVIL GENIUS!

But my boldest moment came after listening to an angry tirade about the war on Christianity by 90s conservative radio darling Rush Limbaugh while in the car with my dad. There was a war! What a revelation. And here I thought war was over. We were fresh on the heels of the Gulf War and many of my friends’ parents were just returning home from that. But according to Rush Limbaugh, there was still a war on Christianity. And, according to the sing-a-longs at Vacation Bible School, I was in the Lord’s army. As a young, moon faced Lutheran white girl wearing outlet mall Reeboks, I realized I was being oppressed and it was time to rise up and revolt.

I woke up the next morning, strapped on my armor – orange floral Oshkosh overalls, naturally – and headed out to the battlefield. The state of things proved confusing in the context of Mr. Limbaugh’s grave warnings. The world around me was still strangely Christian-friendly. People still said “bless you!” after a sneeze, church parking lots still appeared full, and at school we still enjoyed a 60-second prayer break before lunch. (I mean, it was the Deep South.)

Clearly the cowardly enemy had to be coaxed out of hiding!

Suddenly, what started as my earnest attempt to be a crusader for Christ became a concerted effort to wield religion as a weapon of power and shame.

As we stood in line in the cafeteria, the twisted stench of country fried steak and okra swelled. Satan and his minions were taunting me and it was time for a strategic counterstrike. I lifted my arms up and gave the entire student body the middle finger. Double middle fingers, in fact! The most egregious of hand gestures.

My classmates were beside themselves. “Mrs. Carterrrrrrrr! Rachel’s giving people the birrrrrrd!” What a bunch of little narcs, and they were playing right into my plan. Predictable.

Poor Mrs. Carter, who just wanted to eat her thermos of room temperature casserole, walked towards me. “Rachel…” she said. It was more of a breathy exhalation than a word spoken. She was sick of my crap.

“Mrs. Carter, where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shall not give people the bird,’” I interrupted.

That was it. That was my big play. She and I both knew there were no references to flipping people off in the Bible. The public school system was here to oppress me with man’s law, not God’s law, and I would not let them police my body and my freedom of expression with their secular strictures. And fortunately, she didn’t really have an answer to my badass hardball.

“Please just…stop.” She shuffled away dejectedly, back to her casserole and her dreams deferred.

Once empowered by the Holy Bird Flip of ’91, I proceeded to tote my Bible all over school, dramatically placing it over every textbook in the curriculum, eagerly waiting for someone to try to stop me, for the war to ignite. I treated every class like it was the Second Virginia Convention and I was Patrick Henry. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

I was like a little William F. Buckley, waiting for her Gore Vidal.

Of course, Gore Vidal would never come. The war I was anticipating never happened. Second grade ended and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Carter flew to the Maldives that summer and never returned. And I never listened to Rush Limbaugh again.

I grew up to become the woman I am today – relatively accomplished and extremely driven, but a lot less apt to take a stand on the matters that give me heartburn. I avoid confrontation at any cost and absorb any angst or discomfort in other people – pulling it from them and making it my own, all in the name of harmony.

And while I obviously have no interest in being the fundamentalist juggernaut I was for that short period nearly 30 years ago, I do yearn for that no holds barred attitude.

That little girl still lives inside of me. Ready to fight when the cause demands. A passionate spitfire who won’t be steamrolled and is more proactive than reactive.

And when the going gets tough, she knows that a couple well-timed middle fingers are just what the world needs.

A Short List of Super Specific New Year’s Resolutions

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1. Buy a new toothbrush before the plastic head beneath the frayed bristles shaves away my enamel.

2. Read the books and films that I hype on social media.

(It’s just that Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard looked so good with the Gingham filter on Instagram. And posting that Wes Anderson trailer was a lot easier than actually sitting through the whole movie. All that symmetry makes me sleepy.)

3. Recognize that the act of writing down who gave what gift during the birthday party is not the same as actually sending thank you cards. Get better at sending them.

4. Find out how often I’m supposed to be changing out these contacts, because I have a feeling it’s not every 8 months when they’re ripped and caked with bacteria.

5. Stop buying white shirts. White blouses are the privilege of women who don’t wear drugstore foundation and can get a meatball in their mouth without hitting the rim. Nothin’ but net. (Or, maybe they don’t eat meatballs? Whatever, I don’t want that life.)

6. Stop buying “tummy firming” undergarments. All they do is relocate the fat to a different spot. I’d rather have a round paunch than have my torso look like a chef’s hat.

7. Learn how to enjoy a nap without the guilt. Let the children fend for themselves. They know how to open a bag of chips, or turn on Netflix, or dial 911. The fire extinguisher is but a few frantic steps away.

8. Stop trying on shoes in an 8 ½. That ship has sailed. I’m a solid 9 now. Blame it on the pregnancies. Actually, stop blaming things on the pregnancies. My kids are 6 and 11. My big feet, wide hips, and weak bladder are just part of who I am as a woman.

9. Let overly aggressive drivers pass on the highway. We don’t have to race. This is not Tokyo Drift – it’s the suburbs and no place is worth dying in a fiery crash to get to. Except, apparently, Old Navy on annual $1 flip-flop day.

10. Even though the sight and sound of flip-flops make me want to fold up inside of myself like a Popple having a panic attack, stop giving people shit for wearing them. Live and let live! C’est la vie! Laissez-faire!

BONUS RESOLUTION: Brush the dust off the French Rosetta Stone kit I got for Christmas 10 years ago… then promptly put it back on the shelf, dust-free.

A Release for Peace

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In the new year, I will let go.

I will let go of the disappointment in the mirror.

Too much of my heart is wasted trying to convince my eyes that what they see is deficient

I will let go of the unrelenting drive to win.

Or, rather, the need to win over those whose approval is nothing but a wisp of vapor never to be grasped.

Even my quest for self-validation is a perpetual hamster wheel, because I compete only with myself – making me the winner only when I lose.

I will let go of the fear, for fear is the lone obstruction between me and peace. And I will let go of antiquated concepts of peace, the rules for which bear little resemblance to the life I wish to live.

So I’ll venture off-path to travel to the place I’m meant to be.

But only if I manage to let go.