Just beneath the surface of normal

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On Being Sensitive to Immeasurable Suffering

I’m the first to admit that I’m more than a little too empathetic. I have always had to curate what I watch on tv and in the movies, because I have a terrible sense of what they call “suspension of disbelief.” Basically I have a hard time feeling the difference between what is happening to characters and what is happening to me personally.

As you can imagine, I was the life of the fucking slumber party at 10. All my friends wanted to watch Nightmare on Elm Street for the 97th time, and I was like, “can’t we just rent Desperately Seeking Susan again? Or how about Earth Girls Are Easy?” I very quickly learned to look away and just fall asleep during horror movies, because otherwise I would lie awake terrified in a strange house positive that every sound was someone trying to kill us, while my friends drifted off obliviously. Also I spent my summers living in the woods with my dad. Friday the 13th basically rendered my entire environment potentially dangerous. Hell, I was even afraid of running into E.T. out there (at seven, I spent over half of E.T. in the lobby of the theater, because it scared the fuck out of me). So violent or scary movies were not ever really part of my growing up. I loved Star Trek and Steve Martin and Danger Mouse – sanitary sci-fi, comedies, and clever cartoons.

Even then I couldn’t always protect myself. When X-Men came out, I sat on the curb afterward and sobbed because Rogue not being able to touch anyone ever was the saddest possible thing I could imagine. My first husband was like, “oh my God, are you serious right now? It’s X-Men! It’s fantasy. It’s for KIDS! Get up and let’s go home.”

When Lord of the Rings came out, I only went because my best friend promised to help me through it. She would hold on to my hand and say “this part is going to be really violent, but it doesn’t last very long. Close your eyes and I will tell you when it’s over.” And she would squeeze my hand while the noises got scary, but I knew what was coming so I could handle it. And I was really glad I got to see LoTR, because it was fucking brilliant.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about movies. I wish it were, because even though I get caught up in them, movies aren’t real. What is real is the waves and waves of suffering the news keeps washing up. Today a hotel in Mali is taken hostage. Before that, Syria, Paris, Nigeria, Beiruit, and on and on and on – people in terror, grief, and pain. Bloody devastation everywhere. Except in these cases I can’t just turn away until it’s over, because it will never be over. There has always been pain and rage and loss. Someone is always plotting revenge for their own grief in a cycle of suffering that every religion tells some kind of story about, because it’s pretty much always been there.

When I turned on the radio and heard today’s tragedy, I climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over my head, just for a minute, just to turn away and find comfort so that I could go out into that world and not get overwhelmed by its pain. That sense of agency is a luxury plenty of people in the world don’t have right now, and that’s what got me back up and moving. People without blankets or food. Without the people they love to touch them, without sanitation, without a home, without a sense of power. I wish there were a way to love the world whole and bring peace, and it’s an entirely selfish wish because I can’t seem to stop imagining the sort of suffering that leads to that level of heartless violence, or the suffering that reaction engenders. So I walk around raw and heartbroken, because that’s what I imagine it feels like in their shoes.

I think I understand why Buddhists pray for the immeasurables – because they don’t fucking know what else to do in the face of mountains and mountains of pain, relentlessly piling up across the planet every day forever. I don’t either, so let me add my voice:

May all beings have happiness
and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering;
May all beings never be separated from
the happiness that knows no suffering;
May all beings live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.

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Sometimes You Just Have to Maraud

Every marriage has its own weird language that’s kind of hard to explain to outsiders. I’m going to try to explain a bit of ours so that I can tell you a story.

First of all, Jim came to me with the nickname Bear. That’s what Corinne called him, which conveniently sidestepped the whole complicated “what do you call the step-dad” mess. Together we have a number of bears, and there are many stories told about their antics, including the absurd lengths to which they will go to procure hidden sweets in the house. When something is askew, we nod to each other knowingly and whisper, “bears.” When I get overwhelmed – which happens to me sometimes – he says “your bear is right here if you need him,” and it is really incredibly comforting.

Early on, I tried to be a bear too. It never quite fit, though I had my momma bear moments when the world would fuck with my kid. We tried on a few things, and I don’t even remember any more how we landed on tiger, or why it was a secret. But I am the Secret Tiger (except it’s not a secret any more, I guess – I’ve always been horrible with secrets. Never give me secrets unless you explicitly tell me to forget as soon as you’re done telling me, which I can do, but I can’t hold onto a secret for any period of time. This is why I do my holiday shopping at the last minute).  When Jim gets overwhelmed, I say “tigers are standing by” and he finds it incredibly comforting.

It’s not THAT unusual.

After a decade, a whole lore and language has arisen around our alter-egos. I have other friends who have evolved other versions, and I suspect it’s a common thing in intimate relationships.

Anyway, today we had to run errands, but we were both feeling overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon was pretty much unavoidable, even though we just needed one thing. We made a plan:

Jim: We’re just going to get in and get out. No browsing today.
Me: Right. We’re marauding.
Jim: YES! Let’s maraud!
Me: Rawr!
Jim: we’re more-odding. Those people are less-odding, but we’re more-odding.
Me: none more odd!

And that’s how we made it through there in 10 minutes with nobody dropping everything and running. Afterwards there were celebratory fist bumps. Now we are sitting at home in the quiet for a few minutes before we do the next Thing Which Must Be Done.

There really is nothing in the world like someone you can be vulnerable with.

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Greeting Cards: Now With Actual Empathy

Today is the 11th day I’ve been sick. Today is the day I woke up with pinkeye. What the hell? Do childless adults even GET pinkeye? Probably they do when their doctors blew off their symptoms a week ago and they have a festering sinus infection. How is that doctors under age 30 are even a thing? I should be able, by virtue of my damn life experience as ME, be a slightly greater authority on my body than your diagnostic software and your still-damp medical license. I’m just sayin’.

"How long have you been having these symptoms, doo-doo head?"

“How long have you been having these symptoms, doo-doo head?”

Anyway, after two delightful days at work (that’s how you know it’s bad – when you’re so sick of being sick that you say fuck it and go to work because at least you can be sick somewhere less boring), I’m back home on the couch in my bathrobe, feeling my eyelashes stick together every time I blink, and surfing the Internet.

One of my favorite things about social media is that despite being sort of a shut-in, I get to find out about neat things. The work of Emily McDowell is one of the neatest things I’ve found out about in awhile (though evidently she’s been making them since May, because viral is weird that way). They’re greeting cards for vulnerable, emotionally intelligent people! Why is there not more of this in the world?! Why do other greeting cards even need to exist anymore? The entire greeting card aisle is fired.

This is the best thing ever. I will probably never be that pithy, but I really wish I were.

If I were going to get a card right now (or ever), I would want it to be one of Emily’s. I am trying to avoid buying everything in her shop in my vulnerable state; so far I have loaded up my cart, but not hit check out. So…it’s not looking good for me. However it’s looking pretty amazing for Ms. McDowell.


Almost – But Not Entirely – Unlike Soup

I’ve come down with some kind of yuck that makes it very hard for me to think clearly, but unless my friends are pranking me and this is complete gibberish, I’m still expressing myself well enough to blog about an incredibly pressing issue: the sad dearth of pre-made gluten-free chicken noodle soup.

Do not for a moment, ye gluten eaters, take for granted how easy it is to get your hands on passable chicken noodle soup when you get sick. It is a privilege – a luxury even. If not for the bloating and dehydration that comes with gluten, even when I take Gluten Cutter (which only avoids the migraine part of the adventure), I would be eating real chicken noodle soup even now. But bloating and dehydration are not a sick person’s friend.

Soup is good-GOD, what just happened to your waistline?! Are you possessed?

Last time I got sick, I lamented my situation such that I vowed, with God as my witness, that I would never go soupless again. I bought a couple of cans of gluten free chicken noodle soup (which will henceforth be referred to as CNS, because typing is hard when you’re sick) and smiled smugly to myself every time I saw them in the pantry, knowing they would be there in my time of need.

My time of need arrived today. Jim dutifully heated me up said CNS upon my request, and I was excited enough that I even came downstairs to eat it. Which was frankly a lot more fanfare than that soup of the damned deserved.

Pictured: an abomination.

Aside from the inevitable spongy cubes of chicken-like material – which certainly serve their purpose in providing chicken flavoring to the soup, but are not edible in their own right – that seem to grace most canned soups, this soup was…wrong. It was almost like CNS, except…not. It is the uncanny valley of sick food. Not wrong enough to stop me from eating it, but definitely wrong enough to stop me from enjoying it, or from accepting it as The Real Deal.

Once my head stops unleashing lightning bolts of pain, I will have to make goddamn GFCNS from goddamn scratch and freeze it so that I can eat reasonably decent soup like a civilized sniffling zombie in a bathrobe the next time I get sick. Except by then it will probably be freezer-burned, and I’ll have that to resent instead – but It will still be better than this depressing canned horror.

Take it from me: next time you get sick, remember to deeply appreciate your soup being there for you. Because there may come a day when it won’t be. May your day never, ever come.


This is Probably Why I Don’t Get Invited to Parties Much

Jim and I are pretty hardcore homebodies. If there were an Olympic-level competition for Couples’ Introverting, we’d be guaranteed to at least bring home the bronze. That said, a friend of mine has an annual pumpkin carving party that we’ve never made it to, and we decided to finally go this year. It was BYOP(umpkin), so I decided to pick out the most misshapen pumpkin Aldi had on offer for $2.99. I was not disappointed.

Me: OMG, it looks like a butt!
Jim: (accusingly) are you going to carve a butt-pumpkin?
Me: No, that’s the low-hanging fruit. Surely I can do something more creative than that. Also, holy crap, the stem looks like a boner! Choices, choices.
Jim: Are you really going to get that thing?
Me: TOTALLY!!! How could you not?! Also, nobody else will. It’s like the gimpy cat at the shelter that nobody wants. Isn’t that sad?

Fast forward to Saturday night at the carving table, with me turning the pumpkin in all sorts of directions, waiting for inspiration. My friend Jodi walks up.

Jodi: Whatcha doin?
Me: Trying to figure out how I want to carve this suggestive pumpkin.
Jodi:  Oh! just turn it on its side, like this…., draw a hand *here* and *here* and pop them out 3-D like. Voila!
Me: Oh. My. God. That is BRILLIANT. Thank you!!
Jodi: See, this is why we’re friends.

I had some trouble with dismembered fingers, but in the end (ha!), I think it was a success.

Butt Pumpkin

I give you: Goatse Pumpkin. The red candle wax was totally accidental – there had been another pumpkin there earlier, and I guess it leaked. I did not make some kind of bloody santorum pumpkin, because that would be gross. Unlike my gourd butthole, which is comparatively classy.

And then I stepped back and looked at it in among the happy, family-friendly pumpkins (because there were a TON of kids there) and the creative masterpieces and I thought, “yeah, this might have something to do with my empty dance card.”

pumpkin party

Pictured: how normal people carve pumpkins. Not pictured: butt pumpkin.

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I’m Helpless In the Face of Pun Temptation

Last time I was at our local purveyor of absurdly expensive semi-organic groceries, I happened to notice that their sweet potatoes were much less…round…than they used to be. I suppose this is in support of the ugly produce movement, which is great because ugly produce is a ridiculous thing to waste. But this one (along with many of its friends) was, shall we say, unmistakable:

dick tater

It looked like a dick, okay? That sweet potato straight up looks like a lumpy, malformed dick and scrotum. Not on its best day, for sure, but I DARE you to tell me you don’t see it. You can’t. That is a Dick Tater.

My friends, a pun is a terrible thing to waste. You cannot stare at a dick tater without thinking about dictatorship. Or at least I can’t. I’m willing to concede that I might be alone in this. But anyway, that’s how I wound up spending 30 minutes crafting this:

dick tater ship

Putting the dick tater in ‘dick tater ship.’ Yeah, I went there. Apologies for the crude photoshopping, but even I have limits to how much effort I’m willing to put into a visual pun.

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Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

I would apologize for being gone so long again except we all sort of knew it would happen. It’s time we came to an understanding: I’m not the sort of person who can reliably shit out a clever blog post every single week. I’m much more the sort of person who writes when inspiration hits me, and it just hasn’t hit me in awhile, because not unlike like jury summons, I seem to be getting more than my fair share lately. So here’s the quick version of the past five months:

  1. Corinne graduated from high school and went to college (using my tuition remission benefit -damn her and her practical ways!). Those of you with kids in high school, do not for a minute underestimate the amount of effort (or expense) that goes into the time between the first day of senior year and when you are blubbering incoherently on college move-in day. It’s difficult and weird and sort of wonderful in a way I can’t really entirely convey. I’m proud of her, though -she’s launched, and she’s doing wonderfully. I laugh every single week about something she’s experiencing at school, and I love that she still comes to me when she’s not sure about things. I also love that 40% of my brain is no longer consumed with thoughts like where is she? When is she coming home? Will she remember to give me any kind of notice when she’s on her way? What do I have the energy to cook tonight that includes vegetables? How come ever time I walk in the door at Whole Foods she texts me that she’s on her way home? Oh, two more for dinner? Empty nesting: I miss her, but it’s actually pretty nice sometimes.
  2. Corinne and I went to Mexico for a graduation adventure. It was one hell of an adventure. I might try to write about it, but I’m not sure I could. It was amazing and beautiful and exciting and delicious and terrifying and I will NEVER FUCKING EVER drive a car in a foreign country again. If you take nothing else from this post, take that driving in Mexico is an absolutely horrible idea. Don’t do it. The coach bus system there is awesome. Use it.
  3. Cancer. Jesus Fucking Christ, cancer. You turn 40 and suddenly it’s everywhere. A couple of my friends have it. My therapist’s wife is dying from it. One of my oldest friends went from “something hurts” at the beginning of July to dead at the beginning of August. I was honored to be there when he passed, but I’m still recovering. There are people in the world that you don’t need to see often, but their very existence somehow keeps things spinning rightly along, and when they’re gone, there’s a wobble that knocks you off your feet sometimes. But I have his toaster now, which is weirdly comforting. And he left me a blank book, because clearly I don’t have enough of those…. But I know him, and I know what that book means. It means, “stop making excuses and fucking write already!” And so I am. He was the first person to make me believe that I might have something to say in a way that is uniquely mine and might somehow be needed in the world. If I write for a public audience, it’s because of Keith.
  4. I re-enrolled for a second bachelors degree, because it’s nearly free as part of my benefits in bureaucratic hell. We don’t have the major I want, though, which is okay because I wouldn’t be ready to graduate in four years taking 2 classes per semester anyway (and you better believe that the ink will barely dry on Corinne’s diploma before I’m packing up and leaving NJ for good). I’m taking all the math & general science prerequisites and then transferring out to finish up a BS in Geology. But I had to pick a major, so…I went with Physics. Which is admittedly weird, if you know me, because I sort of don’t math. But I also don’t really want to spend the rest of my life as a secretary with a history degree who writes for free in her spare time (because frankly that’s a shitty retirement plan for both me AND Jim). If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that you can do pretty much whatever you decide to put in the effort to do. If I want to get good at upper level mathematics, I just have to practice. And I will, because I need to get my ass OUT of the office world. Why Geology. Well honestly it was the only thing I could find at the center of the Venn diagram:

    As a bonus, it also includes a circle called “Shit That Gets Me Away From Desks.” NOW how much would you pay?!

    So yeah. Math is my new frenemy. Also I’m really sorry I just resurrected that word. I take it back. I will learn love math, but it’s an arranged marriage and it’s going to take some time.

  5. Also I may have joined a belly dance troupe and committed to actual dancing in actual public.


Anyway, mostly the urge to write hasn’t been as strong as the urge to hide. There have been some good moments, mostly in the comments of Facebook posts, where for some reason I’m at my cleverest. Probably because it takes two seconds to blurt out whatever crossed my mind and then everyone forgets about it. But it’s harder to write about months of sad and trying and changes, and how incredibly hard your brain has to work to accommodate so much change in a short time. But I’m doing it anyway. Because really, a lot of delightfully absurd things have happened over the past few months, and I should remember to share them.


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