Thursday, April 20, 2017

Miss Penny Lane Danger

This is Miss Penny Lane Danger. She has been my constant companion for seven years. We got her when Elliott was still an infant, in diapers even, which is a ridiculously dumb thing to do. She was scheduled to be "destroyed" from an organization and a worker there transferred her to another shelter, then another, and then another until how she made it all the way to Mission Viejo. I didn't even know I wanted a dog but then one day, there was her face on my work computer. The shelter was hesitant to give her to us because we had small children. But we took her for a walk on their lawn and when she sat down to rest, Elliott toddled over to her and rested right on top of her, the two of them one heap on a patch of spotty grass. Oliver pulled on her ears and she let him. We took her home that day.

But she was almost 11 and that is very old for a Boxer. She had pesky old hips and a loose bladder. Her excitement to see me every time I came home was so great that she tinkled every time. Every damn time. She literally could not contain herself.

Her hips started to fail her about a year ago. She would fall over, so I carried  her to and from her bed, helping her up when she needed it. I bought her all the magic pills and chews for arthritis. I took her on shorter, slower walks. I laid down and read Mary Oliver to her. I hand fed her turkey and ham and all the things I forbid the boys from feeding her. She loved when I sang to her in the shower. She was a rapt audience.

On days when I was home all day in my writing room, shut up and pecking away furiously, she was at my feet. I talked to her constantly. I asked her questions. She followed me from room to room, coffee refill to lunch break in the yard. I have wept into the crook of that neck more times than I can count.

The thing about dogs is that they don't know how to be selfish. It is us, stupid humans, that do.

And the thing about dogs when they die is that they are not here to help you mourn.

I do not know how to mourn without Penny.

I have no neck crook to weep into.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Just This Once

"Shit," I said out loud, even though I had just explained to E. yesterday that shit is a bad word. So is crap. But not poop, that ones okay.

Pulling up at school, I had forgotten it was flag ceremony day. YOU KNOW. The day that all the OTHER parents stay at school for the ceremony, hovering around the donuts and coffee, clapping for all the kids that get awards, talking with all the other room moms and collective parents. Then, they stay for the hour-long-plus Parent Support Group meeting after the flag ceremony. Oliver tugged on my arm, "Come on mom! Stay! Stay!" Elliott begged me, "Please mom! You can go to the gym later!"

 And for a minute, I considered it. Because I should stay. That is the thing to do.

But I had already done all the things I should do, or was supposed to do. I had gotten up early, before the kids, to work while the house was still dark and quiet. We had breakfast. We got out our Spirit Shirts because it is Friday. We double checked homework, we practiced the spelling words for the test ONE MORE TIME. We packed a bag for basketball practice. We packed lunches and filled water bottles. We built Legos in the living room until it was time to go.

Another mother caught my eye and said dismissively, "Oh come on Jessica. You can't just stay THIS ONE TIME?"She used my elbow to steer me towards the mountain of powdered donut holes. I like this woman. Our kids have played sports together and had play dates and shared class photos and all of the things elementary school parents do together for almost a decade.

All six eyes stared at me, pleading, as I pried those hands off of me and said, "Nope. I'm going to the gym." And then, I just left.

My boys still went to the flag ceremony. They still lined up with their friends to listen to songs and say the pledge of allegiance. They listened to all the other adults there, and followed directions by someone other than their mother. They were in clean clothes, had been well fed, got a good nights sleep, and were surrounded by a community that loves them and wants to see them thrive.

In short, they did not need me. 

But that mother, the one that rolled her eyes at me when she implied that staying for the flag ceremony should take precedence, haunted me as I drove to my CrossFit gym. Halfway through the workout, I was still thinking about it. It irritated me, her assumption that I should drop all other things for the kids, and the underlying belief on her part that if I did not then I was somehow a faulty mother. But it also irritated me that I was allowing it to irritate me.

(I want to pause here, and tell you that I understand (truly, totally understand!) that some parents - lots of parents - choose to  give everything up to focus solely on their children's needs. It brings them joy. They thrive in this situation. To these parents, that wake up and choose this every day, I applaud you. Really, I mean it. Because HOLY SHIT man. How do you do it?!)

But, here is the thing, it is acceptable - and in our best interest - for me to make myself a priority.

When my father died and I found myself drowning in the grips of depression (and probably a mild drinking and sleeping pill problem myself, if I am being honest with myself here) I thought I could work my way out of that depression. Having just discovered running, and then endurance sports, I relied on these things to help see me out of the hole I was in. I was terrified to miss even one day at the gym thinking that it would cost me everything at that moment in my life if I backslid even a millimeter. And maybe I was right, maybe it would have. I don't know.

What I realize now, on the outside of three years, is that it wasn't necessarily the working out alone that did it for me. Yes, of course, the physicality of movement helped. I can sit here and talk to you for hours about the physical benefits, mental health benefits, and emotional benefits of daily diet and exercise or training and eating (and I will, if you let me) all of those things are true but what did it for me in those three years is the decision, actively deciding every day to make myself a priority - if anything, a primary priority - and this is something I refuse to relinquish.

When I picked the boys up from school that day they were fine. No one even mentioned the flag ceremony. On the short drive home we talked about all the things that had happened to all of our family members that day. We laughed and shared stories and were our own best selves. Walking into the door the dogs charged to meet us, Elliott did a new dance move and Oliver rolled his eyes in his near-teenager experimental moodiness. Everyone was included, and no one single person took precedence. For us, we are all our own people. And this is how it should be.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Education and Democracy

On this election day, I want to let everyone know that I wrote a little piece for Consequence Magazine on Education and Democracy.

You can read it here.

I hope you do.


Friday, December 30, 2016

A Memoir is Not a Diary

 I don't know about you, but whenever anyone asks me WHY I am writing the book I am writing, I struggle to answer them.

What makes my story more important than anyone else?

What is so special about it?

I never know how to answer because there are so many answers and they're not all correct.

Perhaps the tougher question is, "What is your book about?"

Well, all of the things. Empathy. Grief. Love. Forgiveness. Never forgiving. Family dynamics. Alcoholism. More grief. A constant compounding of grief. Empathy, again. Empathy always.

I keep an ongoing reading journal. It's the only type of diary I can maintain. I've tried diary writing and journaling so many times in my near 40 years. I fail every time. I always find it so boring, quotidian. But not reading journals. Those are a blast! So this morning, when I came across this section in Why We Write About Ourselves, I took note. 

 From Why We Write About Ourselves, edited by Meredith Mara, "A memoir is not a diary. I've written six novels in the past fifteen years. I've had an enormous amount of fun couching my life fictionally in those novels, extrapolating from direct experience as fuel for my imaginative fire. I'm relishing my newfound ability to transcend the self-absorption and artlessness of journal writing into a coherent narrative, to shape the raw material of my life without denying any of its fuckedupness or my own culpability and fallibility. And that ability came directly from many years of writing fiction. The fictional "I" gave rise to the nonfictional one and enabled me to write directly about myself, as a character rather than an unmitigated, diaristic first-person voice."

The key here is without denying any of its fuckedupness. No, not an ounce. Put it all in there.

Later, in this same section, she writes "My friend Rosie Schaap, who wrote the brilliant, beautiful memoir Drinking with Men, told me, 'The only person who should look like an asshole in your memoir is you.' I strove to follow that. I hope I didn't fail too badly."

Today I sent my finished memoir manuscript off to be printed for my early readers and my family members. I hope I didn't fail too badly.

So, happy new year. And cheers! Here's to general fuckedupness and assholes.

Happy New Year,

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rabbi Francine Green Roston

Most of you know that we are an interfaith family. Being not only interfaith but also blended and heavily tattooed, we are limited in the places that we can freely worship in Orange County. Temple Beth El was the first temple to open their arms and welcome us - all of us. While we no longer attend, I think fondly of our days there with Rabbi Heather Miller who held my hand through learning about having a Jewish husband and comforted me when my grandmother passed away and I found myself profoundly confused. When my father passed away his home Catholic church refused to send a priest, but Heather and our temple called and prayed and sent cards. They opened their arms, like every other Jew I have ever met and said, What do I have that I can offer you? Please, sit down. Let me listen. Are you hungry? How can I help? 
Lately, I find myself distracted when my kids are at Hebrew school or Religious school. I am nervous, fidgety, on edge. It's like we are putting them all under one roof and then painting a bull's eye on that roof. Here, right here. Here is where we are keeping all of our lovely, light-hearted, funny little Jewish children - the ones with the sparkling eyes and the kind hearts. The ones that do Mitzvot every week for homeless people or elderly people or Meals on Wheels or just the neighbor that looks lonely. Here- here is where we are storing up every hope for our future, for my future, every prayer and meditation I have ever offered up to God, here - here they all are.

To hear the news that Beth El's old Rabbi is being attacked does not surprise me. It is increasingly prevalent. It is increasingly upsetting. Yet, it does not surprise. People ask me all the time, what do you have to be worried about? I am white and middle class and educated and liberal and live in a safe clean home. In a time where our country is terrified, across the board terrified, I can understand. 

What I cannot do, will not do, is accept. 
This is unacceptable.
The most recent news quoted here: 
Some of you may be aware of Richard Spencer - he is the alt-right neo-Nazi who has been quoted as saying that this country belongs to white men. Mr. Spencer lives in the small town of Whitefish, Montana. My friend and colleague Rabbi Francine Green Roston -- who used to be the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange -- lives in Whitefish as well. Mr. Spencer has called upon his fellow white supremacists to make life difficult for the Jews of Whitefish. Just this morning David Duke - the country's most famous Klansman -- tweeted two pictures of Francine and another Jewish woman saying that they are "not good people." Needless to say, these people are being inundated with hate just because they are Jewish and they are willing to stand up to Richard Spencer and his ilk.

I would like to see them inundated with love. All of our Religious School students will be sending cards this Wednesday, but the more cards and letters they receive, the better. Would you consider sending them Hanukkah cards or just notes of support? I think it would be wonderful for them to feel some love as a counter-balance to all the hate-filled messages they are receiving."

The mailing address is: Glacier Jewish Community - B'nai Shalom, 591 Hilltop Court, Whitefish, MT 59937.

Thanks, in advance, if you are able to do this mitzvah!
Be kind,

Monday, November 21, 2016

But What Do You DO?

You guys.

As of this writing, nearly 600 people have read my last blog post, My Friend Mark.

Six hundred of you large-hearted beauties. It blows my mind.

Four people - strangers!- emailed me, sharing their stories of anxiety. Friends texted me all day. I got so many paper airplanes of affection. 

I went back to my gym, Left Coast CrossFit, the very next day. Everyone was kind and very polite as they asked how I was, or how I was doing. One member approached me and shared their experience with anxiety. Then, this person asked a big question.

"How do you cope with that? Like, what do you DO?"

I checked my body language, sensing that this question was more for them than for me. "I come here, every damn day. That's what I do."

And then I did the workout. And I felt better.  A lot better.

Yes, yes. Of course you're right. There are lots of other things I do, many of them so ingrained I no longer notice them. I cannot wear high necked tops, or collared t-shirts. I must have the doors and windows open. I cannot stand people behind my back. And I am the one that knows where the emergency exits are on planes. I hope you never get the chance to thank me for knowing where they are. 

As a writer, it took me a long time to not be embarrassed about my athleticism. Writers are supposed to be dreamy, sedentary little things. We wear all black and mope with our cats. We smoke and drink heavily, stay up late frantically scribbling and wake up the next morning groping for water near our headboards. Right?

Yes, sure. Okay, okay, yes sometimes I DO do all those things. I do. But mostly I get up very early, before the rest of the house needs me. Before there are a thousand things to distract me, to demand my attention, big alarms calling out for me to COMPLETE THIS NOW. I read, and write, and revise. I sit in that time when my mind is still as sleepy as the house and I let it do its thing.

Then, after the kids are off to school and everyone is fed and clothed to the best of my ability, I go to gym. Six days a week. I do not skip days. I do not.

I spend the rest of my day, in my head, or in books, or amongst manuscript pages and made up friends. Students rush in and out of my-not mine- office. When we talk about books we are talking about BIG IMPORTANT THINGS. And that? That demands all of my attention. Literature deserves all of my attention. So do my students. So do my own stories. Because they are all that important.

But when you spend that much time in your head, you need to actively work to maintain holistic sensibility. What I mean by that is this- that I go a little bit crazy if I don't work out, if I don't use my body to the best of my abilities, just like I use my mind the best way I know how. Two days is the longest I have gone on purpose and I was fit to be tied.

Fit to be TIED.

I call it, "feeling stabby" and sometimes that happens even if I miss just one workout. I'm not just saying it when I say that I hate rest days. I really really really hate rest days.

But, see? See, here is the thing. When you look at it from a different light, the dedication and commitment required of an athlete is the same that is required of an artist. You must get up early. You must do the work, even when no one is looking. Especially when no one is looking. You have to find those that know what you don't know, and ask them to teach you. Study them. Emulate them. You must not get discouraged when you fail. You will do more work outside of the gym then you ever will inside the gym, just like your "overnight success" of a novel will actually have consumed ten mostly unnoticed years of your life.

You will keep fucking going.

And that, my large-hearted friends, is why I show up every day, panic attack or not.

Friday, November 18, 2016

My Friend Mark

This morning I had a panic attack at the gym, right there in front of everyone. Chest heaving and my mouth gulp gulp gulping for air, I had to stop what I was doing and go straight outside. Away. Where it was calm and quiet and not crowded.

Except that did not work.

I could not breath. My lungs shook and rattled. The tears came on, hot and fast. I could not stay upright. My heart beat between my eyes, throbbing it's own song around in my head.

My coach followed me outside.

I was a goner. 

I was disappointed that I had such an attack, because it has been "so long." I've been doing "so good." I had to call my husband and tell him. I had to take all the steps I knew to "calm down" and try to function for the remainder of this typical run of the mill average Friday, a Friday in which things are still expected of me. Me, who should be a functioning human being. An adult no less.

Listen. Here's the thing.

If anxiety were rational, I'd have figured it out by now.

Hours later my hands were still shaking and I still couldn't quite catch my breath. It's a funny thing, breathing. One realllllly takes it for granted, you know? Until you can't do it, despite the part of your brain screaming at your body to BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE. Your lungs just say, nope. Not today. Sorry, they say, as they shrug dismissively.

I had had enough. I went to get my nails done. Because, you know, that will TOTALLY help. Lets pile gobs of chemicals on my fingers and then LITERALLY cure them under the same rays I hide from everyday. (I chose Asphalt Grey though. The best shade of grey. I love it.)

On my way back to my car, outside in the beige-ness of Irvine, I met Mark.

Mark changed my life today.

He was walking, creeping, inching, across the parking lot. I walked by him to my own car, but noticed a fresh abrasion on his right temple and cheek. He was holding his jacket in one hand, three layers of fleece still covering him. Black Ray Bans struggled to hang on, the side with the abrasion had a broken hinge.

What I'm trying to say it, Mark had just taken a spill.

I stopped and asked him, "Hey. How we doing today?"

"Oh. Not that good." He reached for my arm.

We knew each other, but we had just forgotten until that moment.

I asked him where he was headed and he said he didn't know. When I commented on how he seemed to be on a dedicated path he said, "Oh yes, over to my truck." And so, we shuffled, together, two-stepping across the parking lot to Mark's truck.

It took us twenty-two minutes. It was maybe six car spaces.

Mark told me all. He told me how it felt to be eighty two (eight two!) and how he can't believe we got stuck with Trump. And that he is scared for America. And for women like me.

"What do you mean, women like me?" I asked Mark, our arms interlocked like lovebirds taking a little stroll.

"Women like you," he said again, "that are kind and intelligent. Smart. You're gonna have one hell of a time reminding yourself that most men don't have any idea what the hell they're talking about."

I thanked him for saying I was kind and intelligent, not just defaulting to pretty.

"The trouble with my legs is," he stopped and rested on a Land Rover. Fuck the price tag on this Land Rover, I thought. We are resting. "The trouble with my legs is they have minds of their own."

"And they're not parallel minds, are they Mark?"

"No. No they are not."

Once we got to his truck, a little grey Toyota with a shopping cart next to it, I was shocked to see that it was a stick shift. I told him excitedly my oldest boy has almost the exact same truck! So as Mark climbed into his truck, one stubborn leg at a time, taking breathers in between bouts of positioning, I told him about my kids, about those red-headed, loud, little loves and about Tomas at school, and about my students - how much I care for them, and how many hours outside of class I think about them, how sometimes when I see them making poor choices I want to scream at them, Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!

Mark was tired. We got him in his truck and I leaned on the door. I wasn't sure he would be able to drive home. (Stick shift! I still cant believe it was a stick shift!)

"You know, Jessica, I feel bad about not taking that shopping cart back. Once I leave, will you please take it back for me?"

I told him, yes of course, I will return the shopping cart for you.

"It's not even mine," he said. "But that's the thing, sometimes you just have to do a thing to do it. It doesn't make any sense, but you still do it. What else can you do?"

I told Mark I was going to follow him home. He said, okay, but only if I promised to come back for the cart.

I promised.

"I hope you make it to 82," Mark said as he tested his left leg's ability to press the clutch. "You'd be great at 82."

I followed Mark home.

I went back for the cart.

I hope I make it to 82 also, Mark. I hope I do.