Monday, January 30, 2006

It's Raining .. Men?

It was raining when I woke up this morning. I could tell by the way the cold felt a little damp and by the gentle tapping on the windowsill. Even before I had opened my eyes I knew it was raining. Then, after I got out of bed and made the long hard trek to the kitchen 3 feet away, I got another shock. I realized I was out of coffee.

Because of all this by the time I reached my car I was feeling a little grumpy. Monday morning, a cold wet slippery drive to the mountains and the prospect of a 2 hour staff meeting without coffee. What can be more lovely?

I pull out of my spot a little recklessly, lost in the little world in my head, and almost wipe out my neighbor. Okay, so I notice him a split second after I start backing out and slam on the brakes immediately but it was closer than I would have liked. I half expect him to jump over a puddle and start yelling. Instead he leisurely walks over to my window, smiles and taps on the glass.

This is odd but I know him. We have said hello a few times in the elevator. Plus he doesn't look crazy and he’s cute in an adorably artistic, non-threatening way. So I roll down the window - a little tentatively because in the city you still never know - and peer up at him. He bends down and beams, “Hey!”

Now people here, although they are nice people, still don’t behave quite this way. They are more likely to hop in their cars and try to run you down. The “Hey!” completely throws me. I stare at him, then find my inner goddess and bestow a dazzling smile on him, a reward for not attempting to run me down. He offers me his coffee.

This too is very unexpected as despite the fact that there are seventeen Starbucks within one block of where I live people here are naturally very protective of their coffee. I have even seen fights break out in the line. You don’t believe me? Go on a Monday morning around 9 am and see for yourself. Anyway, I find myself starting to stare again when he says, “I was just carrying an extra cup back to my apartment but I don’t need it. Here, it’s yours.” I protest. He insists. This is bizarre.

As I get closer to the mountains my mood significantly improves. I don’t know if it was the coffee or the guy or the rain or Ani DiFranco on the cd player or all of the above but I find myself humming happily. What’s a little rain on a beautiful Monday morning.

At work I park my car, gingerly step around some puddles, climb up the flights of stairs, hang a left at the paintings and start to make my way to my desk past the long line of cubes. Halfway through I notice someone speaking to me. I turn around and it’s some guy asking me if I am so & so. I am so I say yes. He introduces himself and says he hopes we run into each other again. Again, bizarre.

At my desk I intercept a note from Dave – a handwritten note – asking if I am free Wednesday. Lunch? Dave and I have gone on many work lunches, generally arranged over email or IM, so this too is puzzling. I call him and he says he thought I would like to go check out this new restaurant he's discovered. Yummy food, great ambience. He says, “It’s time, don’t you think?” What does he mean? We have been kind of innocuously flirting for months but I never thought of it as much more than that. Is it?

After standing John up Sunday morning I had emailed him to apologize and explain that I had a bit of a family emergency. He was a perfect gentleman. He replied that he hoped everything was okay and asked me if I was free Tuesday night. So now I have a date with John tomorrow night, Dave (possibly) asking me out, cute guys introducing themselves in corridors and offering up coffee.

Is this Spring? Restlessness? Or am I wearing a sign on my forehead that says I am ready to go back to dating again? Because I just realized something... I am.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Love & Gratitude

I had a huge fight with my parents this morning. I needed them to get hold of some papers for my job and fax them over to me. My dad said he couldn’t do it. No reason, no explanation, just that he couldn’t do it. My mom said she didn’t know what to do and progressively got more anxious as I tried to explain. Then she finally said, "Don’t ask me. You know I am no good at things like this." Any other time I would have given up halfway through and said, "Okay. You know what. Forget it. I will find another way." But today I didn’t. Today suddenly years of anger and pain found a voice.

I have been more or less taking care of myself since I was 11, I have been fully financially independent since I was 18 and I have sent a lot of money home over the last 10 years, money that I could have put towards my own future. They owed me this. For every time my mother yelled at me that I ruined her life by being born, for every time my dad missed a school play or a birthday which was pretty much every single time, they owed me this. For not being able to protect me from the bastard across the hall when I was little, they owed me this.

All these words came rushing out. Tears of rage and fury flew with abandon. And then I cut my mother off as she started to say something and hung up.

I felt horrible afterwards but I blamed my parents for that too. Years of emotional blackmail has left me unable to even express justified hurt without beating myself up. Nothing I said was untrue. Why would I feel bad? I wasn’t going to apologize.

I stubbornly ignored the blinking message light knowing it was my mother. I also knew that she was bound to say something that’d make me feel worse. So I unplugged the phone and went shopping. I was supposed to meet John at the gym today. I had emailed him yesterday, he had emailed back, we had spent some time on IM and then agreed to meet up at the gym at 9. I didn’t go. Instead I went to first Nordstrom, then the grocery store and then to Blockbuster.

After I got back from the store I put the groceries away and put in Laws of Attraction. I have always wanted to see it but never got around until today. But I couldn’t concentrate. Halfway through the movie I paused the dvd unable to take anymore and started thinking.

Once there were two young kids very much in love and with great dreams for the future. But fate had other plans for them. They got married and embarked on what they thought was going to be a life of sweet romance and happy songs. Instead, the boy got caught up in student revolt and went to jail. It was the end of 60’s - early 70’s after all. The girl gave up med school to take a job as a bank clerk so she could care for her crying infant.

He came from a long line of blue bloods. Elitist arrogance and sense of entitlement from years of privileged existence permeated their very being. She was an immigrant, a refugee’s daughter. Her family had once been revered for their honesty and generosity in their community. They were pillars of the society in their own land. But here they were nothing. They lived in a cramped one room living quarters trying to decide how many kids the parents could afford to send to school while working with dogmatic persistence to make something of themselves.

It was cupid’s little joke. That chubby diapered freak thought playing with my parents’ life would be a great laugh.

Both sets of parents begged them not to get married. They didn’t listen of course. They thought love would conquer all. It didn’t. My dad’s family never accepted them. My mom’s family tried to help the young just-marrieds but their means were meager at best. Very soon the young couple was trapped in an existence that battered them from every side, thwarted their dreams, crushed their spirit, stole their youth and left them with nothing but heartache and despair.

I feel this in my veins. I know what my parents have been through. How can I be mad at people who have had so little? Just because I have had hard times doesn’t mean I have any right to ignore the plight of others. Just because some bad things happened to me doesn’t mean the things that happened to them do not deserve acknowledgement. Maybe my dad should have been there when I needed him. Maybe my mom shouldn’t have said I ruined her life. But what kind of a life did they have? They deserved happiness, they deserved the finer things in life. They never got those. Is that fair?

It is so easy to get trapped in your own existence, think of no one but yourself. We are all guilty of that at one time or another. But my life would be a bigger waste if I got so wrapped up in myself that I couldn’t see other people’s pain. My mother gave up her dreams, took care of us (my dad never quite got back to life. He was imprisoned for his ideals. That’s hard enough to deal with. His family who had enough clout to have helped him did nothing because they didn’t want their name associated with him, even more so after he married my mom. That was harder.) She gave up her dream of being a doctor to work as a bank clerk and put up with jerk bosses, sticky situations, years of bad pay and humiliation so my brother and I could have some semblance of normalcy in our lives. At times, beaten by life, they let their anger show. And now I am repaying them with mine.

I finally picked up the phone just now and called home. Sympathy is cryptonite to people who are not used to getting much of it. I knew one word too nice and my mom would break down. So I just said, "I behaved badly. I am under stress and I took it out on you. I had no right to do that. You have been there for me all my life. Maybe not the way I wanted but they way you could. I am sorry mom." She started to cry and then, of course, she forgave me. Like she always has for every stupid thing I have ever done.

I am not as good a person as I can be and most days I don’t care. And then there are days when I do. For all my faults and all their mistakes my parents must have done something right for me to have that 1 ounce of awareness. That’s the best gift they could have given me. They don't owe me anything more.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Existential Angst

When I woke up this morning my whole body ached.

Last night I got home at a decent hour, also known as before 7 pm. On my way back I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a rotisserie chicken, bread, some lettuce and a jar of mayonnaise. It was freezing outside. When I got home I turned on the lights, turned up the heat and then went into the kitchen. I dropped my mail on the counter, took out the food and crumpled and tossed the empty bag in the trashcan. I made myself a sandwich, poured a drink, carried them into the living room, switched on the TV and put the food down on the coffee table. Then I went to shower. Afterwards I got out, towel dried my hair and pulled on an old t-shirt as I walked back into the living room. I sat down, switched to channel 7 just as CSI was starting. Watched for a few minutes, took a couple of bites and drank a little wine. Then I lay down on the couch, my head propped up on two cushions, another clutched to my side and fell asleep.

When I woke up it was halfway through Without A Trace. I looked over at the blinking light on the DVD player. It said 10:21. I turned around, fell asleep and woke up again at 7:49 am with a hangover like headache, unexpected aches, the TV buzzing merrily in the background and the realization that my life has become dull.

I was never the girl who drank herself into near-stupor or danced topless on a bar. But I was there, somewhere in that bar, surrounded by friends, generally watching the tableau unfold in amusement or dancing myself (just not topless). I used to go ice trekking and swimming in the ocean and to book clubs and parties. I have lived in or been to NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, Denver, Dallas, Bangkok, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Delhi and Calcutta. And I have met interesting people along the way. Now all I do most days is work, come home and crash.

This, my friends, is what's called existential angst.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

John

"Hi xxx,

My name is John, I work with Tom and both he and his wife thought our mutual obsession of all things Rock n' Roll (do people still say that or am I dating myself?) might give us something to talk about.

I wanted a better opening but I couldn't think of anything that didn't sound awkward, too familiar or just plain lame so I am keeping it simple. Hope you don't take this as a sign of disinterest and do write back.

-John"

I haven't replied.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Learning To Fly

When I ran into an old friend on Sunday I thought this might happen. Married people everywhere are determined to see me married. It is their sole purpose in life. They are on a mission. They stand unflinchingly united in this despite all my protestations. The fact that I may not be ready or may not want it does not discourage them at all. If anything it spurs them into action. I am the last frontier to be conquered in the jihad of marriage. (Ok, I admit, that was badly mixed metaphor)

Luckily, after years of practice I know how to dodge people's attempts to set me up on blind dates. It is one of my many talents. (Others include burning toast, parallel parking, being able to flawlessly paint my right fingernails with my left hand - I am very proud of that one - and the ability to stun crying babies into silence with impromptu renditions of Roadhouse Blues in the middle of crowded coffee houses.)

When my friend calls I am ready. The standard excuses roll off my tongue smoothly. "Oh, that's so sweet but I am taking a break." "I need some me time." "I am thinking of becoming a lesbian." "I was kidding. I am a lesbian." "I am moving to Massachusetts."

Sadly it doesn't work.

After I hang up I feel oddly upset and restless, even tearful, and not just because I hate blind dates. Since the breakup I have shied away from male contact unless it was work related. Outwardly there is no change in me but inside I know things are never going to be exactly the same again. After I hang up I start to think. It's been seven months. How much longer am I going to mourn? And why am I mourning anyway? Men jump from relationship to relationship all the time. Yes, I know, not every guy is a heartless unfeeling bastard but let's face it, men are better at moving on than women are. Maybe it's time I stopped hiding from the world and started living again.

I keep thinking back to last night in the car and to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singing "Learning To Fly."

The good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
Some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I've started out for God knows where
I guess I'll know when I get there
I'm learning to fly, around the clouds

Maybe I will find my wings are clipped for good. And then again, maybe I will find that they are not.

All Apologies

When I was younger and someone praised my achievements I would get horribly embarrassed. I would say, “Oh, I just got lucky.” Or I would make a joke about it. “Yeah, I am good at fooling people.” “They just haven’t figured out how much I don’t know yet.”

And then yesterday I came across a post that made me want to get very angry. (The post wasn’t directed at me or anyone in particular – it was an old post – it just found a mark) It started out well. I was agreeing with the author. And then it said people’s success in life is mostly just "plain dumb luck." That annoyed me. We are all unhappy with our own lives at some point or another. We all feel compassion (or most of us anyway) towards those who are less fortunate. But to denigrate the accomplishments of those who have persevered against odds and to reduce their success to a heaping dose of serendipity is unnecessary.

I took it personally. I related to all the people whose accomplishments the author so succinctly reduced to nothingness with that one sentence. I felt like writing a scathing reply. Then I thought better of it. Maybe I am not angry at the post so much as at myself. Compassion is a many edged sword. Maybe not for naturally saintly people but for flawed humans like me. It cuts you coming and going. I am caught between wanting my dues and feeling apologetic for my small success.

This morning I saw a garbage truck. Have you ever seen one? The front car is like the ones you see on cranes at construction sites but the back portion is a tubular shape with a flattened top. On top of the front car are two giant claws with pincers. In repose the claws stay tucked close to the sides of the body of the truck. In action, they swing up and around to the front. The pincers slide into two long slits on the sides of the trash collector, hoist it up, two doors on the top open up and the claws empty the contents of the dumpster into the gaping void inside by turning it upside down and shaking it a few times. Afterwards the dumpster is placed down on the sidewalk (or yard or wherever that particular dumpster happens to be), the pincers slide out and it is pushed back into its resting place.

I watch the garbage truck. The guy inside is wearing a fluorescent lime green jacket with white/off-white stripes. Regulation issue I would say. I can’t see his face. I wonder if he’s happy at his job. Does he have the time to be unhappy with a stranger’s perception on the internet? Or is his time taken up worrying about how to feed his family?

A few blocks down from the garbage truck I see another, with a big front car and a flatbed. I stop to let him make a turn and the guy waves a thank you. I wave back. Then I see a FedEx truck. A little later I see another big truck. The kind you see most commonly with the big rectangular box on its back. Nearing the mountain I see a coal truck. It’s black and grimy. I wonder if it really is black or if it’s the soot.

I have no parental boons or silver spoons to attribute my success to. I have suffered setbacks in my career because I didn’t want to compromise my integrity, I have suffered setbacks in life because I stood my ground. The fact that some people are driving trucks or waiting tables does not detract from my accomplishments. But the fact that I am proud of my accomplishments does not detract from their daily pain either.

My boyfriend and I broke up in June. It was over a long time ago. Or maybe it never was. All we did for three and a half years was drive each other crazy. Crazy with love, crazy with anger, pain, frustration. Six months later I still find myself fighting back tears for absolutely no reason in the middle of day or night. I don’t understand it. All of it. None of it.

Maybe that’s how it is. Life is as much a game of roulette as precision engineering. Some luck, some accident, some hard work. In the end, an Og Mandino quote says it best for me: “Each misfortune you encounter will carry in it the seed of tomorrow's good luck.” After that ...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Life In A Cube Farm

Sam comes running in, "Dave’s asking for the document," he says unhappily. "It’s not even due this week." "I will talk to Dave," I assure him.

I just got in. It’s 8:50 on a slightly overcast morning. I drove to the mountains through a thick fog. It hung soft, gray and still. Feist was singing on the stereo about how she finally figured out why winters are lonely. I drop my purse on a chair, snap my laptop onto the docking station and pick up the phone.

"Hey, have you been scaring my people?"

"Well, yeah, you know. I got up this morning and asked myself how I can give you a hard time." Which is probably true enough. Dave and I have a slightly flirty, slightly competitive relationship.

"And that was the best you could do?"

"I am slipping." He admits regretfully.

We play verbal ping pong for a few minutes. Then I tell him he can’t have the document.

"You were in the planning sessions. You signed off on the schedule. You know the dates. I am not going to randomize my team unless this is on critical path. Is it?"

"Define critical path?" he says wishy-washily, which is code for no. If it was urgent he would have said so.

"Sorry. You will have to wait." I take a moment to relish the satisfaction any normally sweet natured girl gets from occasionally putting an alpha male in place. Then I yield in the interest of maintaining workplace harmony and because I am feeling gracious at having won the previous battle, "But I will make sure Sam sends you a draft by the end of the day."

"You are much too kind," he says, half-sarcastically, half-teasingly.

After I hang up I realize I am smiling. I like this part of my job. I am one of the three women in a group of 40. All three of us are managers. I keep the card I got from my team last year on my desk. It says "You are the best Boss!" When I hear some people pontificating on whether women have progressed in sixty years or calling other women sell-outs for choosing a professional career I look around me at my women colleagues. The circle I move in does not define itself by designer shoes or handbags or any other status symbol. We do not frown upon motherhood or women who have chosen a different path. But we do take pride in our jobs and make sure we do it damn well. Maybe this is why despite my occasional longing for a greater purpose or for horizons unknown I am still here. Sure Big 4 was different. More competitive, more politics, more emphasis on appearances. It was partly the reason I don't work there anymore although I could have and did handle it while I was there.

At lunch I don’t feel hungry so I decline a couple of invitations to join people for lunch and go for a walk. Winter day is not the best time to walk around in the mountains but there is no snow here. It’s chilly but the sun is out. I make my way to a Starbucks several blocks away. Unlike the city where there is a Starbucks crammed 3 to a feet here you have to walk almost a mile to get to one. But the walk is invigorating and when I get there I notice they have these mini plastic shotglass type cups filled with a sweet caramel concoction topped with mounds of whipped cream. I sip one. It's Heaven! I finish my mini glycolic overload, order a Short (which is the unadvertised small size baristas don’t tell you about because they want to sell you more) to go and head back to work.

At work the afternoon goes by in a blur of meetings. Issues meeting, risks meeting, synch meeting, review meeting, tech meeting, spec meeting. Then someone from finance comes over to discuss some budget issues. Very soon it is dark outside. The bustle of end of day fills the corridors. People start powering down laptops, gathering up their stuff, putting on their coats. You hear the shuffle of feet as one by one they leave.

Sam comes by and says, "I sent Dave the draft like you asked." I smile at him. He’s a solid worker. I say, "Thanks Sam! Good work. Have a good night."

A minute later Dave calls and says he got the draft. It looks good.

My coworker Beth stops by on her way out and asks if I am ready to leave, we can walk out together. We make our way down the serpentine corridors, the 4 flights of stairs, the ½ mile stretch of now empty parking lot. We laugh about some ridiculous suggestions someone made in one of the meetings, discuss a persistently annoying rep she works closely with who is driving her crazy and make fun of bad movies. "God! Was that boring or what?" "Tell me about it! I would have gladly shot them both just to end my own misery!"

On the drive home I half listen to Tom Petty singing "Learning To Fly."

Life in a cube farm has its moments.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Hold My Hand

Years ago we had to stage an intervention for a friend whose drinking had gotten a little out of hand. At first it was a couple of beers after class on the football field. Then it was a couple more over a late night card game. Finally a few at the start of the day to prop him up, physically and psychologically, for the drone of the day ahead. We, his friends, alternated between concern and alcoholic jokes with the typical sympathy of teenagers. Then one day after a night of dancing some of the boys went up to the roof of the dancehall for some more drinking and smoking. It wasn't until he stepped off the ledge and hurled himself into space that anyone realized how far things had gone. Next morning I came upon a heavily bandaged, bloody eyed, suddenly sober, suddenly scared lonely little boy and the realization that everyone has a skeleton in their closet.

Earlier that year I had my first brush with betrayal. Betrayal had always been there, since my birth, circling me like a snake about to strike, biding its moment. That year it found its mark.

It was towards the end of the freshman year of college. We were eighteen and still carefree and happy. I was best friends with two girls. One day one of them came to me and said, "Hey, do you know what Anne has been saying about you?"

"No, what?" I asked.

"She's calling you the Dumpster Princess. She's been telling everyone that you walk with your head held so high when you live in a ramshackle home that has weed growing on the walls and your mother walks around in tattered robes with holes in them."

I said, "Oh. Ok." What else could I have said?

Later that day I told them I didn't feel like going to the library and went to the ball field. There were trees around the circumference every few yards. Circling the trunk of each tree was a raised brick seat. I sat on it, crosslegged, reading a book. That's when Ari came over. He was part of the most sought after group in our class. He came over and said, "Is this seat taken?" We hadn't really spoken before and I was a little surprised. Before I could answer he had jumped up and sat down.

I went back to reading but after a while I gave up. He was providing a running commentary on the ball game. "There goes Big Billy Joe. Big Billy Joe is reputed to have been raised by baboons from the east coast of Madrika. He is a plantation plantain fed boy, and quite well fed at that. Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, his early days with baboons has left a distinctly baboonish cast on his face, not to mention his general disposition." I looked over at him and started to laugh and asked, "Is there even a place called Madrika?" He said, "Who cares? It sounds good doesn't it?"

We kept talking and watching . A little later Jane, another girl from his group, came over. They were friends at the time. Later, they would get married. After the game they invited me to come to the cafetaria with them. I hesitated for a minute. Then said yes. Next day I found myself part of a new group.

A few days later Anne cornered me after class and said, "How did you muscle your way into the A-team? What's your secret?" I felt like saying, "Backstabbing friend." but I didn't. Instead I said, "I don't know. It just happened. Hey, we are going to meet in the library in a few minutes. You wanna come."

Anne came to the library that day. Hung around, chatty, happy. After she left everyone made fun of her. I kinda thought that might happen. It was the reason I had invited her. Revenge. I thought it would make me feel better. It didn't.

Ray was one of the guys in our group. A senior wrote a rather graphic piece of fiction starring me. Yes, I am not making any of this up although I am retelling as a writer would, in a language that flows and with voids in dialogue filled in with words that fit. Ray had the story whisked off campus over night. I don't know how he did it. He never even told me he had done that. I found out years later from someone else. There were several times when I was a bitch to him over the next few years but not once did he say, "You owe me. I did this thing for you." He was the one who jumped off the roof. It was a really bad week for all of us. Trying to make sense of it all. But we got through, in some ways weakened but in other ways strengthened by it.

At my first job one of the first things we were asked to do after we had signed necessary forms was to set up direct deposit. I had no idea how to do that. I didn't even know how to open a bank account. My mom was a clerk at a bank and normally she took care of all that. But I was 3000 miles from home. Fortunately, they gave us the names and addresses of a couple of banks. I figured okay, can't be too hard.

Some of the other people in my group decided to go together. V ... let's call him Victor, Vic for short, came over to ask if I wanted to come with them. I said, "You guys go ahead. I will go later." He said, "Why? Is your account more special than ours? You are coming with us." So he dragged me to the bank and one of the girls, Ivonne, helped me fill out the form. Over the next few years they would be my closest friends. I'd have had a hard time without them at the bank that day.

A week ago, just days before I started this blog, I was walking down Main Street on my way back from posting a letter when a kid came running up and grabbed my hand. I laughed and said, "Where are your parents?" He pointed to a couple waiting at the crossing furiously beckoning at him. I said, "You better go." After he ran off I realized. People have been running up to me to hold my hand all my life, sometimes when I didn't even know I needed them.

My other friend, the one who told me the things Anne had been saying behind my back? We stayed friends, hung out, studied together at times. But I never invited her into my new group and she and Anne kind of fell out. I should have been a better friend to her. I should have held her hand.

Life, Or Something Like It

Last night I was at the grocery store bending down to rescue a can of peas from the deepest confines of the bottom rack when I suddenly feel a sharp hard pinch on my behind. I jump up, can in hand, ready to turn around and shove it down the throat of my molester only to see a sweet old lady standing there with a vague smile. I think, “No way. It can’t be her. Look at her. So little and harmless. Aww. Maybe it was a kid who ran away.” And as I am thinking this I suddenly see her hand start to dart out towards me again, fingers taking form, getting into position for another pinch. I yelp and jump back. Damn! It was her! The little lady, suddenly startled, starts flailing her arms about and making panicked sounds. I am torn between laughter and concern.

Turns out the little woman, 90 if she’s a day, had wandered off from her posse, strolled into the canned goods aisle mistaking it for the produce section and seeing me bent over like that had suddenly developed a hankering for watermelon. You can’t really blame her. I was wearing a green pinstriped suit. Besides, as her family apologetically explained, grandma’s a little senile and nearly blind.

Moral of the story: Sometimes life happens when you are not looking, sometimes it catches you square in the face, sometimes it passes you by and sometimes it pinches you in the butt in the middle of a grocery store aisle. There are messages everywhere - opportunities, cues - waiting for you to pick them up.

I just wish I knew what the message was last night.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sunday Revelation

I know a woman who loves children. She doesn’t have any of her own. They tried for years, saw specialists and then they gave up. Now she reads, writes, paints, goes on vacations. Her husband reads, debates, follows the market, cleans the house. They’re both in their early sixties. They are quite happy.

The above reverie was prompted by a rather unexpected encounter this morning. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in six years. It was just outside a Starbucks. I was about to go in when I noticed a young woman with a baby. The baby had a cute baby smile. The mother had on old sweats and a frazzled expression. I smile at them even before I realize it is my friend. And then we both scream. Now if you think that’s odd you are either a man or just a very remarkable girl. Thing is, we scream. Girls scream. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are. We also cry, pout, stomp our feet, shriek, giggle and whimper. It’s our signature really, just like serial killers. And just like serial killers we have an excellent although slightly less disturbing reason for doing this. We do it to differentiate ourselves from men.

After we had screamed and gone inside I hold the baby - a cuddly little boy who seems delighted to have found a new neck to nuzzle (Isn’t it amazing how similar babies and men are in this regard?) - I hold the baby to give the mom a chance to rest her arms. We sit down with our drinks. And then I stupidly say, "Wow. You with a baby!" My friend bursts into tears.

"I hate my bastard husband for doing this to me! He's ruined my life! I can't do anything. I can't go anywhere. I am not fun anymore. I am trapped!"

Now I have experience with this. Almost every one of my friends had cried out those same words a few months after having their babies. Not because they don’t love their husbands or their children but because it’s a big change and even if they were ready, even if they had wanted this exact change there comes a time in every new mother’s life when she realizes the days of carefree girlhood are gone. The grass on the other side starts to look greener. Eventually, this will be replaced by a certain sense of content superiority and comments like "You should get married" and attempts to set you up with all their single male friends will follow but right now she needs consoling.

I start patting her on the back and telling her she wanted this, she loves her baby and one day she will look back and realize this was the most wonderful, most fulfilling moment of her life. It’s all crap. I don’t believe in this fulfillment through motherhood shit but it generally works. She cries louder. The baby who had up until now been alternating between staring at my face in curious fascination and making gurgling, slurpy noises against my collarbone, suddenly also starts to cry. I think, shit! I start to rock the baby. I try to think of a lullaby.

It’s a coffee shop. It’s Sunday morning. There are people lounging about. A young guy alone with his laptop. A man with his newspaper. A group of three in a table around the corner. Baristas bored behind the counter wishing they were anywhere but here on a Sunday morning. And in the middle a young woman, clearly a new mother by her stained sweats and harried expression, crying copious tears into her cup. Next to her another young woman, professional by the looks of her - you know the type. The Working Girl. You can always tell her from The Heritage Princesses and The Trophy Wives. They may wear the same clothes, carry the same designer handbags but there are telltale signs that give her away. She sits a little straighter, says thank you a little too quickly and looks oddly grateful when a stranger is unexpectedly nice to her. Yes, that type - looking worried and faintly amused. She is patting the mother on the shoulder with one hand and rocking her friend's baby with another when the baby starts to cry. She looks around momentarily panicked and then bursts into the first song that comes to her mind which in this case just happens to be Roadhouse Blues by Creed... "Let It Roll, Baby, Roll."

The guy across from us drops his newspaper and looks at me like he’s about to burst out laughing. The baristas take notice. The baby stops crying in surprise. My friend raises her tearstained face and says "What the fuck?" And we start laughing.

On the drive back home I think. I think about the two women. The grass looks greener from where you are standing because the light plays tricks on your mind. Life is a weave. Pleasure and pain, triumph and disaster, joy and sorrow, woven together like threads through a loom. It’s all there. No one’s exempt from it. And it’s not a bad thing. You need to experience it all to find meaning in your life.

I think, pregnancy’s hell but babies are not so bad. They are soft and cuddly and they love you. True they lunge for your chest at the most awkward moments (I am telling you. Babies and men. The similarities are uncanny) but they are just so cute. If they would only stay that cute and not cry so much maybe I wouldn’t mind having a couple someday. Then I think, painting's good too.

"Tout doux, tout doux, tout doucement, toujours, tout doux, tout doucement, comme ça, la vie c'est épatant."

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Water, Water Everywhere

I was 7 or 8 years old. It was all around me. The soft green water, cool against my skin, swallowing me. I could see the sunlight rippling on the surface just a few feet above my head. To my right the light streaked into the water creating interesting patterns. When I moved my hand through them the patterns broke up and scattered like children in a playground. When I squinted into the water in front of me I could see fine grains of sand swirling about. I floated trying not to disturb anything, my lips pursed, my cheeks puffed out from having to hold my breath. My little white swimsuit billowed around me. And then the wave was gone and I was gulping for air in the bright sunlight.

We were staying at a humble little hotel on the beach. I spent all the time I could in the ocean. My parents were fed up. They would be yelling at me from the sand, asking me to come out. Finally my mom would come to the water’s edge and issue me an ultimatum. You come out right now or else. She never finished that sentence. I should have asked, or else what? But a child’s imagination can conjure up horrors that an adult’s can barely conceive so when she said "or else" I obeyed. Maybe she knew that. That’s why she didn’t finish the sentence. Or maybe she didn’t want to commit herself to any one form of punishment.

We had bread with a little pat of butter and some water. I got angry. She pulled me out of the water for bread? Bread was all we could afford.

Afterwards I went back into the water. I came out of my own volition when it started to get dark. Suddenly the soothing green jello dissipated into sinister black shadows. I ran out of the water and inside.

That was the night the beetles came. They came in a swarm, each as big as a football. Okay, so there were only five and they were a little larger than normal.

We had the window open because of the summer heat. My mother was entering today’s expenses in her diary where she always wrote down everything we spent. She used to write down every penny. I was asleep next to her. Suddenly the beetles rocketed in through the window in all their splendored glory. I am surprised they didn’t drop down dead from collective shock at what followed. My mother screamed. I woke up and screamed. My aunt next door heard us and screamed. Her daughter woke up, cried out and screamed. My other aunt across the hall heard our screams and screamed. Her husband woke up and screamed. Sympathy screams everywhere. Outside dogs barked. Somewhere a baby started to cry. The beetles turned on their heels and flew right out into the comforting arms of the wild night.

The Storm

The storm came. Everybody thought they were going to die or at least be cooped up for a long time. So they went to the store to buy supplies. I did too. It was total pandemonium. After being elbowed in the ribs for the second time I thought, "Screw it! If I die I die. Could be the solution to my problems. Short cut." So I bought a bag of chips, some water and went home. Next day the storm passed. I thought, "Isn’t that funny? There are people sitting on top of mountains of bread and garage full of bottled water and no storm to hide from."

Friday, January 20, 2006

Girl Friday

Today I got up at the first sound of the alarm. Normally I would burrow deep under the sheets and whimper in protest of an unjust world that expects me to get up at 7 every morning. But today I bounded up, turned off the alarm and ran into the bathroom. Once there I stayed for a few minutes staring at myself in the mirror. If I was still with my boyfriend he would come in around this time, see me standing there smiling at my reflection and start splashing me with cold water. I’d squeal, laugh and try to grab his hands away from the faucet. Not a bad way to start the day.

On the drive to work I reflect. I love my morning commute. A few months ago when my office decided to move to another building away from the city I was disappointed. My commute went up from 10 minutes to 35 minutes one way. That’s 50 lost minutes a day. But then after I had grumpily got into my car, looked over the directions one last time, started driving and suddenly seen the mountains appear in front of me I knew I was going to love it. It gives me time to think about all the things we don’t have time to think during our busy days.

These days I read “Bridget Jones Diary” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” I don’t read “The Keys of the Kingdom” or “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” anymore. Those books have some weird kind of power over me. They have the ability to make me sleepwalk through life for days afterwards. I smile on cue, laugh at jokes, eat, drink, sleep, go to movies and parties. But it all seems distant. Sharp, clear, in focus yet far away. There is another world, a vague, shadowy, elusive world that whispers to me. Intoxicating, enticing, confusing, alluring, magical. A world where passions endure and adventures nourish both the body and the mind.

Sometimes I just want to pack up and go. Feed the orphans in India, climb Mount Everest. Lie on the beaches of the Riviera and kiss on the streets of Paris. Ride an elephant in Thailand. Go scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef. Gamble away a fortune in Reno. Paint one great picture. Write a short story.

Some of these I have done and would like to do again. Some I haven’t.

I think, this can’t be my destiny. Work, home, watch a movie, dine out. Work, home, watch a movie, dine out. I know I am extremely fortunate. I have the life that a lot of people want. A nice car, a roof over my head, a salary that will hit six figures this year. People who love me. But I want more. A different kind of more. I feel like a butterfly trapped in a caterpillar’s existence.

Then I remember retirement, aging parents with no savings. A brother still in school. Dreams recede and pragmatism takes its place. Besides, I like my life. I like my work too. I have had my ups and downs, good years and bad, but that’s par for the course. Life isn’t meant to be devoid of misery or adversity. It is those experiences that make us stronger. I have been more fortunate than most so what am I complaining about?

The caterpillar chews on a blade of grass.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Insanity

I have never been in therapy. I know some people who have. Maybe I should have been too. As it is I have high hopes of total insanity for myself. I can just see myself in my twilight years. Small, hunched over with age, wisps of gray hair escaping the bun at the nape of my neck to frame my wrinkled face. I walk with faltering steps. Suddenly I stop and look up at my companion. He is a nice young man. Always dressed in white. Always polite, walking me to my room. Sometimes I suspect he doesn’t want me wandering around too much. I screw up my face, concentrating. Something I meant to do. Oh yes. I remember. My face brightens with happiness. I remembered. There are giant swallows under my bed. He will take care of them for me won’t he, I ask, anxiety starting to cloud my face again. They keep me up at night. Of course, he says reassuringly. Such a nice young man. Always dressed in white.

There is no insanity in my family. None that has been diagnosed anyway. But I wouldn’t be so quick to call them sane either.

My mother thinks the solution to aches and pains is to throw herself into increased physical labor. One day her knee was bothering her. So she hopped on a ladder and started to take down the curtains for washing. What do you think happened? She fell down and broke her leg.

My brother went to buy potatoes. Normally groceries were my mom’s department but she was busy planning a party so she sent him off with some money. He came home with a bunch of rock hard tubers at 10 cents more per lb than they normally sell for. Turns out having reached the store he politely asked the grocer whether the best potatoes were hard or soft. The grocer said hard so he carefully picked out the hardest he could find. Then, in a fit of inspiration, he decided to haggle for the best price. The grocer wanted $1.40/lb but my brother, not having completely mastered the metric system yet, mistook 40 to be the same as 40 on the time scale where 40 minutes comes after half hour. He shrewdly offered one and a half instead. Needless to say the offer was gleefully accepted.

And then there’s my dad who has these days taken to walking around the house with his glasses perched on top of his head looking for his quite unsurprisingly missing glasses. This one time my father and mother both got into the spirit of the search. I came upon them walking around in a circle in the middle of the room. "They were here a moment ago." "How strange. Nobody will believe this."

And me? I went to work wearing two different colored nylons today. I put on a skirt, my little blue sweater, slipped on a pair of black pumps over stockinged feet. Everyone seemed to really notice me today. Then around midday I looked down and realized why. I had one black and one brown leg.

I blame the furnace guy. He distracted me.

But then, I’d rather be a little crazy than have nothing to laugh about at the end of the day.

Flirtation

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“You know, I have been at this number for 6 months and there is no XYZ heating here.”

“Did they move?”

“I don’t know. I guess so. Sorry.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry. They moved.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry. They moved.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry. They moved.”

“Do you know where?”

“I am afraid not. But maybe you can try 411. They may have the new number.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry, they moved. But I can give you their new number. I got it from the exchange.”

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry, they moved. But I can give you their new number. I got it from the exchange.”

I have been getting these calls asking for XYZ heating ever since I moved into this place. At first I was annoyed. Wish they’d stop calling me. Sometimes it was 2 am in the morning for Christ's sake. Then I realized the calls won’t stop anytime soon and if someone was calling at 2 in the morning it was probably because they had an emergency. So I called 411, got the new number and now when someone would call asking for XYZ heating I would give them the new number. By now I have the routine down pat, refined over time. And then this morning the routine changed again:

“Hello. XYZ heating?”

“No, sorry, they moved…”

“Shit!! Sorry.”

“That’s okay. I can give you their new number. I got it from the exchange.”

“Thanks. That’s nice of you.”

“No problem.”

“You are not a heating company by any chance are you?”

“Not yet.”

“Not yet?”

“I am thinking of starting one.”

“Really?”

“I am already providing customer service.”

He laughs. “May not be such a bad idea.”

“Not at all. This could be my destiny. Fate has been sending me all these phone calls at 2 am for a reason.”

Laughs again. “Are you available?”

“What, to fix your furnace?”

In the silence that follows I frantically search my brain. Could that be construed as a sexual come on? Could a furnace be euphemism for something else? There are so many oblique, arch references to male genitalia it’s hard to keep track sometimes. Maybe I should hang up. But then he has my number. He can call back. Crap, what if he’s a psycho? That’s when I hear the laughter. “No, I was asking if you are single.”

“Hang on. I’ll ask my boyfriend.”

“Bummer.” he says.

In the one and a half years I have had this number I have not called the heating company to tell them I am receiving their calls. Maybe I like these fragmented exchanges. Sometimes they last 10 seconds, sometimes longer. Sometimes I get a glimpse, a brief glimpse, into another life, another personality.

On my drive to work I start to think. I wonder who he was. A building super, a store manager? A young harried father indulging in some harmless phone flirtation? Or maybe a confirmed bachelor living in a swanky bachelor pad. I will never know.

Maybe it's better this way.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

That First Day

I remember my first day at work vividly. Actually, no that’s not true. I barely remember it at all which is kind of ironic considering how big it was to me at the time. I remember bits and pieces. I remember gathering in the lobby with a bunch of other recent graduates, secure in the arrogance of youth but nervous and fidgety at the same time. We were all given clipboards and some forms to sign. Afterwards, we were taken around the office by a regular old curmudgeon. Walking past the rows of cubes where people tapped on their keyboards, fielded phone calls or held impromptu meetings in the corridor, so assured of themselves, was both nerve wracking and titillating. I had stepped into this exciting grown up world that previously existed only in my imagination.

I don’t remember much more about that day. I remember the day after we had to go to this other location where we were given our training schedules. That’s where I met V who would become one of my best friends over the next few years until we slowly drifted apart through vagaries of fate and the intervention of time.

The first day I do remember vividly is from a few years later. The wide eyed wonder had been replaced by a quiet confidence, the wide eyed girl of early years by a somewhat poised young woman. I was on a flight to Dallas. The day had started the same as always with a 3 am wake up call, a mandatory groan, a quick shower and a fast drive to the airport. By then the long lines were familiar territory. The laptop was out before I reached the gate and coins and keys were tossed into one of the little plastic mesh jars kept in numbers by the gate before anyone had to prompt me. I knew exactly what to wear. No stilettoes or buckled belts as the metal would set off the alarm. A smart but simple black suit, sometimes with the jacket on, sometimes off. Black loafers with a slight heel. A periwinkle blue shirt or maybe a red tank top if I was feeling daring. In that outfit I could roll off the ramp, drive to work and be ready to stand up and give a presentation to a room full of executives at a moment’s notice.

In the plane I normally just flipped through the in-flight magazine if it was a short trip. For longer trips, I brought a book or I worked on my computer. Sometimes I had the window seat and I would look outside at the mechanics walking around doing their pre-flight inspection. Sometimes when it was cold I would watch the machine spraying the green stuff to melt the ice off the wings. If I had the aisle sit I watched people as they walked in or I read until a flight attendant wheeled the refreshment cart over and asked if I wanted a beverage. "Just water, thank you. And no ice, please." Smile. I never sat in the middle seat. It’s the most depressing seat on a plane when you don’t know any of the people on either side.

When I got into Dallas that day I collected my roller at the gate and marched purposefully towards the rental car exit. I knew my way around airports by then. A bus would come every 10-15 minutes to carry all the people waiting under the little blue rental car sign to the rental car lot. From there you are on your own. You can go inside and book a car or if you happen to be a frequent traveler with a membership number you can proceed directly to the little kiosk to check your reservation and then pick up your car.

By the time I pulled into my client’s parking lot that day it was a little after 11. I had a noon meeting which gave me just enough time to park, rush upstairs and power up my laptop. Waiting for it to warm up I made casual chitchat with two of my coworkers. Weekend plans, incidents during the flight, that kind of stuff. For the next two hours we discussed schedules and dates. We discussed scope, hotly debated "key strategic decisions" and bandied around a few more choice words deeply entrenched in the consulting lingo. It was two weeks before a major delivery and every one was a little on edge. A few tempers flared, a few egos blistered, a few fingers were pointed. I bit back a few angry responses myself and at 2 we went back to our desks.

It was a long day. By the time it was 7 pm I was ready to leave. I think that was the first day I didn’t feel like joining anyone for dinner at yet another quaint restaurant that someone had discovered. Instead, I told them to go on without me and went to check into my hotel.

I was staying at the Intercontinental. I had been going there for the last few weeks and I absolutely loved it. A small town girl from a lower middle-class family hotels had always been a luxury for me until I started working. I still liked them. At the hotel, I checked in, went upstairs and I remember that week I had a room with the most glorious view. I could see thousand little twinkling lights from my window. I stood and stared out the window while I ordered room service and even after I hung up I stayed there for a while. Then I unpacked, shaking out my 1 champagne silk blouse for impromptu fancy dinners, a pair of khakis for Friday, a couple of tops, a nightie, a little plastic bag with lotions and potions and a big round hairbrush that I had just bought the weekend before. By the time the room service knock came on the door I was sitting at the edge of the bed, wet hair stringing down the back, flipping through TV channels. Maybe one of the reasons I remember that day is because that was the day hotel service staff became my extended family.

I don’t remember her name, the woman who came to deliver my food, but she was nice and a little concerned to find me all alone in a hotel room. It’s funny. I have never been able to explain to people that sitting alone has always been one of my favorite activities. We chatted for a few minutes as I signed the bill. She asked me if I had been around the city and I said no. I work and I leave. There never really was much time for sightseeing. The modern day version of Veni, Vidi, Vici! Her anxiety for me seemed to only increase at this despite the fact that I was laughing when I said that. Before she left she gave me directions to several places nearby, a mall, a something else. Things to do, scribbled on the back of some blank hotel bills. Later when I called to tell them the cart was ready for pickup she came back with a bowl of butter pecan ice cream and some butterscotch toffee sprinkles on the side. I tried to protest but she said it was on the house. She was about my mother’s age and probably felt I needed a little mothering that day. When I went to bed at 1 am in the morning I had the curtains open so I could still see the lights.

Why Cherchez La Femme?

Somewhere between the rebellion of youth and the responsibility of adulthood I lost track of who I was. The carefree days of climbing trees and hiding our schoolyard giggles behind our palms was replaced by long work hours, financial worries and myriad relationship woes. Or in other words, the same old same old story. But maybe not exactly. Every story is a little different.

A little under 10 years ago, a solid degree under my belt, great GPA and the confidence of youth, I found myself wide-eyed and eager at the bottom rung of a corporate ladder ready to take on the world. To say disillusionment followed soon would be a morbid exaggeration, to say I lost myself would be melodramatic but to not admit that those things did happen would be a bigger lie. At first the perks were sweet. Frequent flyer miles, first class hotels, power lunches and fancy dinners, all paid by the firm. The feeling of being on top of the world.

The realization that all that came at a price took a while to sink in. The realization that there may be something more to life took a little longer. And then, one day, I left my Big 4 career and moved to a less demanding job. I finally had time to do all the things I thought I wanted to do... only to realize six months later that that wasn't quite what I wanted either.

I find myself at a crossroads. It's time to reinvent myself but I don't know how. So here we are. There is no growth without awareness, no progress without understanding. Cherchez la femme is a glimpse into my past, present and future. It's as much an observation of the incongruities of human life (particularly mine), a collection of Freudian slips and a continuous essay on cognitive dissonance as it is a search for the woman within. The stories are real, the names are fake and the reflections are mine. But the journey is one I know I share with people everywhere.