The Blog

What remains?
August 20, 2017

You never know what someone will remember from her time with you.

The other day Katie delighted me with a snapshot from her childhood, inspired by the stream of people descending the escalator at the Whole Foods on Columbus Circle in New York during the afternoon rush.

“This reminds me of that game we used to play,” she said. “‘Watching People Come Home from Work.’” We’d sit outside after she got home from school, with her snack and my coffee, and watch cars go by. No screens, no agenda, nothing but the pleasure of each other’s company.

Such sweetness.

North Shore Drive for the blogDarrell wanted my blessing on a work move a while back, but I hesitated. Would this prompt legal action? It wasn’t an idle threat, so to speak. It was important to proceed with care.

Now he was hesitating. So we talked.

What Darrell had proposed was good and necessary. How much risk did it actually represent? As we talked I remembered that in the bigger scheme, this constituted a smaller risk than we’d already weathered. “If you’re looking for something to hang the decision on,” I offered, “there you go.”

Then I realized how much of life is looking for things to hang our decisions on. There’s no map for making the most of a life, after all -- and the happiest people I know are more likely to ride a wave than follow a rule, anyway.

Once upon a time I had the privilege of attending a perfect wedding. Use any metric you want. Dreamy doesn’t begin to cover it. I could probably fill a book with all the reasons, but come on. Who craves that much detail on anyone’s wedding, unless it’s your own?

The way it ended has become my template for endings, though. I didn’t give much thought to endings until I watched this one. It was a surprise, and it was perfect.

The happy couple had changed into traveling clothes and were making their way into the getaway car. They got pummeled by rice. Once in the car the bride scanned the crowd for her parents. Yes! There they were. Hugs and kisses and -- over and over and over -- “I love you.” Now the bride was smiling. She apparently wanted reassurance this was okay with the parents. After the wedding comes the wedding night, after all -- and, well, you know. The look on her face was so innocent, like she just couldn’t believe this was okay.

And then, a lull in the action. It was time to leave. Right? But somewhere in the crowd a good friend of the couple decided, no. “Wait! Wait!” he hollered. “Nobody’s kissed the groom yet!” The friend made his way to the driver’s side of the car, threw his arms around the groom, and gave him a big kiss on the lips. Everyone cracked up.

Now it was time to leave.

The couple, suddenly happier than ever, pulled away -- leaving a trail of laughter I still hear thirty years later.

How do you relax?
August 4, 2017

Working for a big company wasn’t my thing. I hated it. Most of what I remember was the endless, unrelenting quest to keep -- as Dave Barry would say -- the blame balloon afloat.

It doesn’t bring out the best in people. Ever notice that? The amount of time spent assigning blame seems inversely proportional to anything good happening.

After a particularly rough week on my new job with a big company, I confided in someone I’d interned for at a manufacturing plant the year before. Let’s call him Frank. “Come down for the weekend,” he said. “It’ll be great.” He didn’t have ulterior motives that I was aware of. He knew my boyfriend, for one thing, from Steve’s internship at the same plant the summer before mine.

So I made the drive from my apartment in Minneapolis to Frank’s house in Iowa City. He was watering his plants when I got there. He offered me some aspirin and a glass of wine. This might’ve been when I started taking aspirin in anticipation of a headache, but whatever. We talked. Then he suggested I take a nap while he got steaks ready for the grill. The pampering was soothing.

We had fun just making salads together. “Maureen,” he announced. “It feels so good to have you here because you’re the one person I don’t feel like I have to entertain.” Can you imagine? Is there a sweeter thing in all the world to have said about you, that you’re easy to be around? To have it come from Frank, a guy I loved -- well, I was healed before the salads were on the table.

Another guy I’d been pals with at the plant came by later, and the three of us joined Frank’s neighbor in that gentleman’s garage. Then the three (or four) of us returned to Frank’s place to listen to Billy Joel albums (yes, I’m that old -- though I hear albums are making a comeback). We talked and talked, may or may not have had another glass of wine, and made plans to recreate the weekend again soon which of course we never did. Frank and I remained long-distance telephone pals for years, though. He was my oasis.

Most of my real and imaginary vacations are in Manhattan. But once in a while, when I’m especially depressed or discouraged or lonesome, I head back to Frank’s kitchen in Iowa City. A few minutes into the reverie it feels like I’ve been to a spa. It occurs to me I could find someone on Facebook to find Frank, but I don’t want to -- and not just because Present Day Frank couldn’t possibly live up to the romanticized version.

I won the friendship lottery in him once upon a lovely time, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Ever watched someone working so hard you had to look away? That’s what happened on my way to get groceries recently. The guy on the construction crew was pounding these big-ass nails (I think that’s what they’re called) so fast and furiously I thought he’d pass out. It was difficult to watch. So I looked away.

A few seconds later the pounding stopped. The guy wiped sweat off his brow as he straightened up and walked toward the other guys on the crew. One minute I’m wondering how I got so lucky, to have avoided this gentleman’s fate. The next minute I’m enjoying a wave of relief, knowing he apparently gets regular breaks.

I’ve talked with and been colleagues with construction workers who wouldn’t trade their calluses for all the screen time in the world. Even from my vantage point the guy I just mentioned had an air of satisfaction about showing those big-ass nails who’s boss. When he wraps up a day at five o’clock or whatever he can see what he accomplished, even allowing for all the breaks he took just to make it through another shift.

How do you know when to quit?

roses“Wow. That was unnecessary.”

That’s what I thought immediately -- and I mean right that very second -- after someone lit into me about a supposedly stupid question a few years ago. It wasn’t objectively stupid, but that isn’t the point. The point was this person’s attempt to shame me, which didn’t work.

I couldn’t get over that. It hadn’t worked. I’m a shame magnet. I can smell it from miles away. It rushes in and sticks to me like whatever they fill bug traps with. I’m trapped, all right. Katie was visibly bored by my choice of conversation topics one morning when we were on vacation five years ago, and I still get this little ache inside just thinking about it. Isn’t that sad?

I’m okay with it, though. If Katie didn’t matter to me as much as she does, her reaction to even the seemingly insignificant wouldn’t matter as much. There’s no wishy-washy with either of us. It’s intense. And fun? God we have fun.

She’s become my benchmark for friendship. The proverbial high bar. Keep me interested, or I’m not interested. I used to think it was a character flaw to prefer the company of people who didn’t bore me, but that was a reflection of the company I used to keep. Now I follow Kate’s example and gravitate toward people who are interesting and kind.

Katie helps me realize how much energy I’ve wasted on people who are thoughtless, or worse. For a while that was okay. For a while that kind of drama -- with no improvement, let alone resolution -- held my interest. Now I’m ashamed of myself. Is it possible to literally bore yourself to death? Just the other day I thought, “This is as close as I want to come to the line.”

I’d like to think there are other problems the world needs my help to solve. Like a good journalist, I’m going to experiment with that idea -- and report in on the results.

It was, for a while anyway, what I would’ve called the happiest day of my life. I still have the video evidence. Almost everyone I’d ever loved had assembled for a special occasion. You can see on the VHS tape how dreamy the setting was, how thick the crowd had become, and how festive the atmosphere seemed. Look a little closer. Do you notice that guy leaning in to talk with me? He’s about to offer some advice.

Which was?

To relax.

I was playing hostess -- and considering how many different people from wildly different backgrounds had assembled, it was not a stress-free occasion. I was trying to make sure everyone was happy because I was young and clueless enough to think that was my job.

The day had been perfect. Dreamy. I’d done it. I’d orchestrated what was reportedly a magical experience for everyone. Nothing bad had happened. I hadn’t even remembered the exchange with this gentleman until I saw the tape, and I was struck by how not helpful it seemed. It wasn’t, “Hey, good job! I hope you’re able to take a break from attending to other people to kick back and have a little fun yourself.” It was more, “You’re letting them see you sweat, kid. Shame on you.”

Did he think hearing that would help?

And yes, I learned to relax. Eventually. Sometimes. With less “help” from people like him!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am maniacal about boundaries. Much if not most of what happens in the course of a day or a week or a life isn’t only about me, of course -- and what you read here is with the permission (indeed, blessing) of the other people involved. Even with Katie, I’m loathe to report on much beyond what we directly experience with her. When it comes to her friendships? Forget it. They’re hers to share, or not.

Can you guess what’s coming? Yes! An exception! Why bother with a whole paragraph of disclaimers if you aren’t going to make an exception? I feel comfortable doing that because I doubt the guy I’m going to tell you about reads this blog. Even if he does, I would’ve said this to his face. Someone should.

Katie had built him up a lot. Darrell and I got to meet him. We only had part of an afternoon with him, but what struck me is how often he checked his phone. Yes, I realize how common that is. No, I didn’t see Katie appreciating it. She’d apologized to us about it -- and while I’d felt bad for her, I didn’t linger on it. His friendship was obviously important to her, and that was that.

You can guess what else is coming. Yes! He’s history! I can’t remember the exact wording Katie used when she described how easy it was to move on from this particular friendship, but it was something along the lines of not feeling like she was special enough to rate his even occasional undivided attention.

Interrupting conversations to check your phone won’t kill people, granted. They die a little inside, though. Does that count?