Brunch at Tiffany’s

I worked at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts when I was in college back in the 90s. I was on a work study program, and I actually started in the work shop, in the basement.

This may sound like a mismatch, and it was, but not for the obvious reasons. I took shop in Jr. High school and, all things considered, I did pretty well. The class was one year long but divided into three sections: wood shop, technology, and metal shop. My wood shop teacher loved me. He gave me 150% on one assignment because I carved a 3D design when everyone else had done a 2D cutout. I rarely saw the tech teacher but his student teacher told me flat out (and in front of the entire class) not to come to him with any questions because he had no intention of helping me. “I know you are only here to meet boys.”

I was thirteen and I would not have known what to do with a boy if I managed to get one’s positive attention. And anyway, I spent each day of class just trying to stay out of the path of those trolls. I don’t know if there were particularly nasty personalities in that group or if it was the result of getting too many thirteen year old boys in one room with power tools, but those boys were the worst! They were both mean and dangerous and they made every day torture. They were constantly trying to humiliate me into quitting, or at least crying. If I said anything in class – right or wrong – I was teased for it for the rest of the period. One day they would roll the spot welder into place behind me and set it off to burn my arms and singe my clothes with the flying sparks. The next, they would wait for me to walk into class and then they would strip the skinny nerdy kid of his pants and push him toward me. It was an exercise in tolerance, and I survived it, one day at a time. I hope that skinny nerdy kid did, too.

The metal shop instructor in the final section of class was helpful but stern. I never got a sense that he knew I was in any way different from the 29 other male students. Then one day I got called down to the office and learned he had nominated me for student of the month. Maybe he wanted to reward my fortitude? Or maybe he felt bad about putting the spot welder on wheeled castors to begin with. I’ll never know.

Fast forward a few years, and I was looking for a work study job at the University of Utah. I saw a post at the art museum and thought it would be fun to work there. I think I listed two things on my job application: 1.) my year of shop training in 8th grade and 2.) the fact that I got the highest possible score on my AP art history exam. I got the job. I may have been the only person who applied.

My boss in the museum’s shop was what we would now call a “hot mess,” though by the time I met him he was cold and lumpy. On my first day, he told me to “earthquake proof the Pre-Columbian exhibit.” Then he went back into his office where he sat at his desk and stared at a corner in the ceiling while medium priced scotch directly from the bottle. We never spoke again.

I had no idea what to do or where to start. Maybe if this weren’t the year 1995 it would have occurred to me to look up “how to earthquake proof old ceramics” on the internet, but it wasn’t and I was screwed. I walked around the exhibit trying to get some ideas. I looked for ways to suspend the smaller objects from the ceiling so that if there were a quake they would swing around but never hit the ground. Or each other? But still be out of reach of thieves or handsy children? I decided it wouldn’t work but I was feeling like I had made some progress by having a bad idea and eliminating it and that seemed positive. Then I noticed a large mask under filtered light. It had a strangely familiar texture. I leaned in and read the card next to the plexiglass box which read, “made of animal skin.” It was the generality that made it come together for me. Human. It was definitely human skin. I was convinced. I still am. If I had ever found a way to secure that collection I might have left that particular object to fend for itself.

I still had a work ethic back then and I couldn’t just not work. Having no clue what I was supposed to do and a distinct fear of trying and failing, I was stuck. Then I noticed a shop-vac in the corner. It was one of those trash-can sized deals on wheels with a suction tube like an elephant’s trunk coming off the side. I named it R2 and it was my only co-worker for a while. I showed up to work three afternoons a week and I vacuumed every nook and crevice whether it needed it or not. And it didn’t. Not at all. At the end of each shift I emptied R2 and then I went home. Until one day I showed up and was informed (not by my boss, but someone else) that I had been transferred to the gift shop. For a few seconds before the relief set in, I felt that I had let all of womankind down. I had a shop job, and I failed. Then I headed upstairs to the lobby and the sunlight and I left R2 behind without so much as a backward glance.

My new boss was a man named Brad who rarely came in to work, but when he did he was over dressed and wearing too much foundation. On the days that he didn’t come in, I was told he suffered from migraines. I interpreted this as code for a penchant for late nights and hangovers, but I don’t really know. I just know that I was again left alone, but this time with post cards, a cash register, and some clear expectations.

This was not the MET or MOMA. Sometimes I would go days without a customer. There was plenty of time to do homework, but in the summers I read entire Steven King novels while sitting behind the register. Once in a while I had a customer, and they would want to pay with a credit card. On those occasions I had to run through the museum and ask everyone in their offices to hang up their phones. “We made a sale! I need to use the phone line to run a charge!”

The 90s were an adorable time to be alive. I’m sorry if you missed them.

One day I was sitting at my station, writing in my journal or something, when the security guard stopped by to ask if I needed a bathroom break. Her name was Debbie and I just adored her. She was sweet and worldly and she had one deformed tiny hand, not unlike the Kristen Wiig “Dooneese” sketches on Saturday Night Live. At least, that is what it made me think of, many years later, when I saw them. Debbie told me that when she was growing up, her mother always made her use her tiny had to clean out the garbage disposal and she was always frightened it might turn on spontaneously.

“Yes!” I shouted, hopping off my too tall stool. “Thank you!” But as I landed, the stool fell back and hit this weird waist high block thing that we used to push in front of the cash register area when no one was on duty in the gift shop. (It was very secure, obviously.) The block made a thunk and tipped on its side in the direction of the glass wall that was the only thing separating the gift shop area from the ten foot tall Tiffany crystal doors. I was told that they were a gift from Louis Comfort Tiffany to the LDS church in the late 1800s, but church leaders didn’t want them because they featured winged angels. Mormon angels don’t have wings (because Joseph Smith saw some angels and he said they didn’t have wings, and man who sees angels and talks to them in the woods and then reads secret books by putting his head in a hat and using magic stones to translate them into English is not weird. Angels with wings? That’s silly. Amazing what bunk some folks believe in. We don’t want those. Give them to the university in case they ever get an art museum.).

I leapt between the falling block and the glass and stopped the impending crash with my body, the right angle edge of the block crushing into my full bladder. Luckily I was 19 and I didn’t piss myself so that was the end of the drama.

“Woah,” I said. I looked back at the Tiffany angels, which are not the classic blue and green of the classic Tiffany lamp shades that you are probably picturing. They are long elegant slices of crystal with frosted angel designs carved into them. They could be the doors leading to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. For a moment I imagined them shattered and skittering in icy pieces across the floor. At the time, the museum’s director was a diminutive octogenarian and man shaped ball of rage named Frank Sanguinetti. I had witnessed a few of his milder temper tantrums by then and I was imagining my new life as his forced butler or maid as I tried to work off the debt of the priceless art I had destroyed. I would have been buried in his garden beneath the irises within the week.
“Don’t worry,” Debbie said, helping to unpin me with her little hand. “I always get clutzy on my period, too.”

That is when my head exploded. Yes, but how did she…? And was it true that…? Now that I think about it… Oh my goodness, yes! Why had no one told me before! This should be common knowledge! There should be a PSA or a warning label on forklifts, at the very least!

There have been a few occasions since that day nearly 20 years ago where I have watched a woman struggle with a task or gravity and, if I felt I knew her well enough, I repeated Debbie’s phrase. “Don’t worry, Sweetpea. I get like that when my red sea is parting, too.” (Side note, I just googled euphemisms for menstruation to find a funny one and was reminded that there aren’t any, so I just made that up. I did learn that in Japan they call it the “Arrival of Mathew Perry” which is the best thing I ever heard but I failed at finding a way to make it work here.) And each time I have witnessed a similar series of responses. Incredulousness, recognition, connection, amazement, horror, and finally amusement and laughter. Maybe not in that order exactly, but the moment usually ends with laughter. But there is always that moment of recognition. That moment of “Damn, she’s right! Why didn’t I put that together myself? And why don’t they mention that in those fifth grade maturation videos?”

I don’t know the answer. It would have been nice. But as far as I can tell, it is still a well-kept secret.

I’ve been thinking about all of this the last few days, ever since I got the devastating alert on my phone that read the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire. It hurts to think about the loss of history and human accomplishment. The last I heard, they still didn’t know how the fire began. It seems they have out-ruled arson, but I read that there was some reconstruction work going on somewhere in the cathedral. Which isn’t a surprise. 800 year old buildings have a lot of maintenance required.

I just hope whatever stared the fire was some faulty piece of equipment being operated by some man. Women have suffered enough to build our cred with power tools. That is one disaster we simply do not need.

Update on the Tube Scarf

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that included an idea that I had for a “tube shaped” scarf. I was going to find a hat pattern and then use it to create a scarf instead.

Well… my experiment didn’t go exactly as planned. But not in a funny “Pinterest fail” kind of way.  Just in a boring, “um… nope” kind of way.

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First of all, it was too big. It made more sense as a cowl, and I briefly considered going that way.

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But that wasn’t what I had in mind in the first place.

Second, it was taking too long. That is actually still part of the first point – I made it too big so it was taking forever to make any progress.

Third, I just didn’t like the way it was coming together. This isn’t really a stand alone point, but I created a second point and I learned in high school that arguments have to come in threes.

I had a couple of ideas. Maybe I just needed to find a child’s hat. Or better yet, a sleeve! So I went back to the drawing board to find a pattern that would work and discovered that I hadn’t invented the tube scarf. There are tons of patterns online.

I was sad about this for a few seconds because I really thought I had an original thought, but that quickly passed and turned to relief that I don’t have to invent a pattern. It exists! That simplifies everything!

I am going to try out this pattern next. There are no cables as I had originally envisioned but this simple pattern is so elegant, and I think it will work beautifully with the light-weight yarn I’m using.

Oooooh so pretty. I’m not actually sure I can knit that evenly. My stitch size tends to vary with my mood. And sobriety.

Maybe it’s a good challenge for me: simple done well.

Wish me luck!

 

Visit to Topaz

I had an amazing experience last weekend. I’m not actually sure how to talk about it except to say that it was special and I’m so grateful for it.

Let me back up to explain. Matt is a social studies teacher and he has two students who have a project that is going to the state History Fair competition. My sister and I did a project when we were kids that won state and went to nationals in Washington D.C. (I heard that… you pretended to sneeze but you really said “nerd,” I heard it!) so I volunteered to help them out a little bit. I basically just gave them my thoughts on the written portion. They have to stick to 500 words and they were struggling.

When they learned they got beyond the regional competition, Matt encouraged them to spruce up their project a little bit before state. Their project is on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It just so happens there was a camp called “Topaz” here in Utah, about two hours from Salt Lake City.  There is also a new museum dedicated to Topaz which opened just two years ago. We planned a trip to caravan down with the students and their families. Matt called the museum and made arrangements for the girls to interview a docent and we packed up our cameras.

After a long drive (made much longer by a wrong turn), we made it to the museum to discover that the docent wasn’t available. However, it just so happened that three Japanese-American gentlemen who had lived in the camp as children had arrived to see the museum just a few minutes before we did. We introduced ourselves and asked them if they would be willing to speak to us on camera. The oldest brother (who was 10 when the camp closed in 1945) agreed to be interviewed.  Then, after the interview, they told us they were driving out to where the camp used to be to find the block they lived on and invited us to come along.

I’m intentionally not giving their names here.  They were incredibly kind and generous with their time, but I didn’t ask if I could write about them and I want to respect their privacy. This was the first time that the two younger brothers had returned to the site since they left. The youngest brother was born there. I couldn’t believe how open they were to sharing the experience with us, a clutch of complete strangers. I was astounded by the largess of their offer and I want to be as respectful as possible.

We drove to the site and wandered around. All of the buildings were torn down after the war, but there are still signs that people lived in this desolate square of desert nearly 80 years go.  We parked and walked to the cement foundation of what was once the cafeteria.

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As we shuffled around in the playa, we started to see artifacts from the more than 11,000 people who were interned here. That was emotional, as it makes the cruelty of it so tangible. The brothers shared what they remembered. As children, they were allowed out of the barbed wire fence to hunt for Native American ruins and arrowheads. Their mother made dolls from scraps of fabric and stones that she collected.

 

This is the site of the brother’s block (block 3). In the photos you can see a spring, the heel of a woman’s shoe, and a hair curler with some rusty nails.

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Here, the eldest brother is helping Ethan to identify some objects. You can see the scattered nails.

As we walked along I saw the edge of what looked like the base of a drinking glass just poking out of the dirt.  I decided to pull it out to take a look at what shape it was in. It was dirty, but devastatingly in tact; not a chip anywhere on it. My inner hoarder pleaded with me to steal it and save it. It has been in the desert for all this time and it has survived! Someone  should take it and keep it safe! Someone should tell its story!

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I was able to overpower my impulse. Instead, I showed it to the museum director, but apparently even she doesn’t remove artifacts from the site. I was obsessing about it for the rest of the day, though. I’m still wishing she would have taken it back to the museum. But of course I realize that it wasn’t really about the glass. It was about the brothers, who are the last witnesses to this event. It’s about history and memory and wanting to right wrongs. It’s about wanting to save things that time – by definition – won’t let you save.

We decided to slip off and leave the brothers alone to visit the site and talk.  I tried to think of something to say that would convey my gratitude. We thanked them profusely and got out of their way. I hope that was enough.

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Flickers are F^ckers

Matt and Ethan were out of town last week. As I’ve mentioned, I work from home, so when I’m alone I’m truly on my own. I made do by carrying my camera with me on my walks and spending a little extra attention on my wild neighbors. I got a cute shot of one of the Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers in my area. I hear them a lot but it hasn’t been easy to spot them. Last week, I figured out why. They have built a nest inside one of the sycamore trees. I was walking past and I could hear pounding coming from inside the tree trunk. Here is the male peeking out of the sunroof to call to his mate.

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And here is his girlfriend looking down into the hole to tell him he’s doing it wrong (I assume). I kept hoping she would look back so I could get her face in the photo but no such luck for me.

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The next day, I was in my house, sitting on my couch, which is next to the fireplace. I was working on an essay for my writing class and deep in concentration. Suddenly, I was startled by a booming “BAM! BAM! BAM!” sound that came from the fireplace. I jumped to my feet with a theory and grabbed my camera before ducking out the front door to get a view of the roof without making any sudden movements.

There he was, the little dick. Sitting on the metal capped roof of my chimney.

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I felt like he was saying, “how do you like it when people stalk you at your home, huh? BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM! How you like me NOW?”

Ug. Flickers. I was loving on them for a minute there, but now I’m just grateful I live in a brick house instead of a wood paneled one. It doesn’t hurt the chimney when he drills on it, after all.  And I have other rooms I can write in while he tries to punish me while giving himself a migraine.

Sick Burn

I met some girlfriends for brunch this weekend. I saw Mandy park in the parking garage and waited for her so we could take the elevator up to the brew pup together and saw, as she walked toward me, that she was already cracking up. I was just about to ask if she got some pre-brunch bloody Marys in her when she said, “I just took this photo of this bumper sticker…”

Here is the photo she took (I’m sharing it with her permission):

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I have not been able to stop laughing, since! I need this sticker!

If you aren’t a skier or if you don’t live in a skiing culture and are wondering why this is funny, I’m afraid I can’t really help to explain. You just have to trust me: It’s funny. And a little mean.

It also reminds me of this story I heard many years ago from a boy I briefly dated. He was a very good skier (I assume he still is, but we’ve lost touch) and he worked in the industry. This is not to say that he was a “professional skier,” but he sold skiing equipment and worked at resorts and then spent every penny he made traveling to new places to ski.

Back in the 90s he was working a celebrity skiing event at Big Bear in California. It was some kind of charity drive and a bunch of actors attended for a ski day. Apparently the talk of the day was the fact that Richard Dean Anderson (the original – and to me: the ONLY – MacGyver) showed up in jeans and proceeded to ski in them all day. The snobs were aghast! But according to my friend, RDA was a great skier and he out-skied everyone. EXCEPT Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Apparently, no one out-skis Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

 

An Evening with Pam Houston

Note: This blog posts contains affiliate links. If you click on these links to and purchase something from Amazon (the book I recommended, or a 40 lb. bag of dog food, or whatever) I will earn a fraction of some cents in the form of a gift card. If I ever get enough fractions of cents to make $20 worth, I will actually get to spend it (probably on more books, or dog food)! Thank you for your support.

Pam Houston was in Salt Lake last week. She gave a reading at the King’s English Bookstore to promote her new memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. My friend, Beth, attended one of Pam’s writing workshops and had a great experience. Apparently Pam is attentive and supportive and really liked Beth’s work (which isn’t a surprise; Beth’s work is beautiful.) I’ve never read any of her work, however, so when Beth called and asked if I would be her date for the reading I jumped at the chance to add a new writer to the mix.

Pam is a shy speaker, but very authentic and down to earth. She joked about her friendship with Cheryl Strayed (one of my favorite writers) and how they thought this memoir was, in some ways, fit as a life’s journey follow-up to Wild. She said they even had a laugh about calling it Tame.

I wrote down a few quotes I liked. This one reminded me of my own journey.

“Turning 40, for me, was permission not to have children. 50 was permission for everything else.”

Then she said something about the different between writing memoir and fiction, and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind ever since.

“The action of fiction is very vertical. Memoir is like a creek: horizontal. And the meaning comes from the saturation. Sometimes you have to sit and stare at it long enough, and then good things will happen.”

I love this so much and I am not going to pretend for one moment that I understand what she meant. As I have thought it over I have made my own sense of it using pottery as a metaphor.  I picture that with fiction, it is like having a slab of clay pre-cut from the earth and placed at my waist level for me to shape to my will. I can add and remove as I build it up, letting my imagination devise what might happen next, and shifting the shape between my hands until I am happy with it.

Memoir is the clay that is still in the ground, on the banks of the creek. And I have to get down on the ground and dig for what is there, collecting it piece by piece.  It is not an exercise of imagination, but of excavation. I have often found with memoir that I am writing something that I thought was in the past, only to discover that the events are ongoing. That is the saturation process. You must to sit and watch the creek as it seeps into the earth, making more clay. And it will make its own progress in its own good time. After all, you can’t write a memoir if you haven’t finished living the story, yet.

Which is not to say that fiction is easy and memoir is hard. They are both hard to do well, in my experience. But I agree with Pam, that it feels like a different process.

The reading was wonderful.  Pam’s writing is stark and furrowed, like the weather-warn mountains that are the background of her story. She lays bare, with gritty detail, a story of abuse and neglect at the hands of her alcoholic mother. I was sucked in immediately and stayed captivated by the way Houston discloses her story, without excuse or apology, seeking a truth, but asking nothing of the reader but to witness. The thought of giving pity to the narrator or her mother never crossed my mind. It simply wasn’t the point.

After the reading we waited in line to get our books signed. Pam immediately recognized Beth and asked about the progress on her manuscript. I could tell Beth was flattered to be remembered and I was thrilled for her. I had just met this woman and had yet to read one of her books, but nonetheless, I found myself star-struck.

I’m finishing up I Was Told There’d Be Cake: Essays by Sloane Crosley right now (which is awesome and so funny!), but I’ve added Deep Creek to the “next to read” stack by my bed. I can’t wait to dive in an witness more of Pam’s saturation process.

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Netflix & Chill

This is a prescription that my chiropractor wrote.  It says, “Ice 20 on 20 off / Netflix.”

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If you are a chiropractor and you wonder why people refuse to think of you as a real doctor, this might be something to bring up at the next convention.

Yes, I threw out my back early in the week. I was dusting and straightening my nightstand when I picked up… wait for it… a tube of lip balm. BAM! Pain, starting from my lower spine, shot down my left leg and I was stuck in place unable to move. Obviously I did manage to get in to get my back cracked and I’m doing better today. But I woke up this morning with a bad head cold, and I’m wishing I hadn’t just gone back to work after leaving the chiropractors office.  I should have taken the Netflix advice. Sometimes, your body wants you to slow down and chill out. You can ignore it, but then it will remind you who is really in charge.

BTW I do know that this is not what the “chill” in “Netflix and chill” means.  I’m old (as evidenced by the damage a one ounce object can do to my spine), but I watch TV.

The funny thing is, this would have been great news a few weeks ago. I was furiously trying to finish the throw that I was making for my baby sister’s (gasp) fortieth birthday, and I was behind. Where were you when I needed you, sciatica?! We could have done Knitflex for a week and I would have made my deadline! But, as it happens, I got the package in the mail the day before my lip balm related baccident. Here are a few photos of how it turned out.

I was trying to do *artful staging,* something I realized successful bloggers do at the conference I attended two weeks ago. I put the throw on this chair and took several pictures, trying to figure out what was missing.

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Then Wensley hopped up there because apparently if you are in this chair you get my attention, and I realized what was missing.  Cuteness!

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This is a free pattern from Lion Brand called “Lovers Knot.”  I’ve made it a few times.  It is complex but fun. I especially like the XOXO cable. I didn’t use Lion Brand wool, however. I have developed this addiction to Malabrigo yarn; I can’t work with anything else these days.  It’s pricey, but I don’t care. I’m not going to spend 80 hours of my life on something and use cheapo shit yarn. No way. I’ll eat in August, it will be fine.

Here is the a little more information on the specific weight (Rastita) and color (Solis). It just happens to match the book I am reading perfectly.  Also, I added my mala beads because I do *artful staging* now.

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When I got up this morning and realized I had a cold, one of my first thoughts was, “but I just finished a project and I haven’t started another one, yet!”

My very first thought was a question. “You know that statistic that says the average American gets six colds a year? I used to think that was high, but now I know it is because when you have a child living with you, you get twenty colds a year and spend the rest of your life evening out your average.”

So I got up and went shopping for orange juice and yarn, but I didn’t design this planet so I had to go to two stores. The amazing thing is that I went to see my crack dealer… er… local yarn store (Blazing Needles), and only bought yarn for a new project!  That is a first! Except for that time I went in, saw several things I wanted, only bought the yarn I needed for a baby blanket, then rewarded myself by going back the next day and buying the other things. I’m telling you: yarn is crack.

Here is my idea for my new project. I’m going to start a basic hat – brim first with an entrelac cable pattern – but then (here’s the crazy part), instead of reducing I just keep going until it is the length of a scarf, and then add a second brim / edge. So the scarf is like a long tube with no “wrong side.” Plus it would be doubly cozy, right? Is this crazy? I’m going to try it; the crazy will out itself in due time. I will have to post pictures, especially if it goes all sorts of wrong. Those are the best projects, at least when they happen to someone else, who is everyone but me in this case. And I am happy to share.

Here is what I picked out. It’s three more skeins of the Malabrigo (of course). The weight is Mechita and the color is Impressionist Sky. Blazing Needles always winds your yarn and wraps it up like a gift. Or like illicit drugs… it’s just occurring to me.

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And here is the artfully staged photo of my new blue yarn… But keep in mind, I’m new at this and I’ve taken a lot of Day Quill.

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I’ll keep working on it.

An Update on Frog

Last year, I wrote about my nephew, who we call Frog. He was born early, at just 25 weeks, weighing about 2 pounds. I had just come back from meeting him and was feeling assured by his fighting spirit.

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I’m happy to report, a little over a year later, he is home and thriving. He had is first birthday over the holidays, when he was still wearing 9 month old clothes, but he’s happy and goofy and a delight to be around.

My sister just sent me this photo of him playing with the felt activity book I made for him last Christmas. Apparently he is a big fan of the red shiny buttons. Can’t say that I blame him; they are mesmerizing.

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I don’t know if activity books (I’ve also heard them called “busy books” or “quiet books”) are a thing everywhere.  When I was growing up, it was something you gave a baby to keep them occupied during long church meetings. I had kind of forgotten about them until I was looking for a good DIY present for Frog and Matt’s nephew (who also turned one over the holidays) last fall. I purchased the pattern on Etsy from LindyJDesign. I thought, “Oh… that will kill a cold autumn weekend or two.” But I’m not great with the sewing machine and making the books turned into a part time job for a couple of weeks.

Don’t let that deter you, however. It was a lot of fun. Here are a few more photos of some of the pages:

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And as long as I’m doing a humble-brag post about my Auntie craft projects, here is another recent photo of Frog wearing a hat I made many years ago for his older brother. This pattern is by Mamachee and can be found here (what would I do without Etsy?). I don’t know how much he weighs now, but look at those gloriously chubby pink cheeks! I know I said I made the hat for his brother, but it really suits our Froggie.  He’s a warrior, for sure.

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Bad Trip

Not that long ago, I often traveled for work. This was when I was single and lived alone. Traveling for work became routine after a while. I would even say I got to the point where I enjoyed traveling solo. I remember one conference in particular. It was in San Diego and I didn’t know anyone at the conference or in the city, but I explored and found fun things to do. I even blew off the “networking” session of the conference because I saw a sandwich board advertising, “One Night Only: John Cleese Live!” It was a great choice; he was hilarious! I just wish I would have bought one of the t-shirts that read, “I saw John Cleese perform RIGHT before he DIED!” (This was in 2008, by the way. He is still alive.)

This was also the trip where I accidentally ordered veal because I thought “scallopini” meant “little scallops.” I felt terrible once I realized what I had done, but it wasn’t like I could give the little guy CPR once it was on the plate. So I ate it. (And goddamn it was delicious.) Then there was the supposedly haunted restaurant in Old Town with the margaritas the size of bird baths. Well, the first one is a bird bath. The second one threatens to become a facial. But I wasn’t driving, and I was without a companion to judge me, so I enjoyed both, completely.

As I said, this was 2008, over ten years ago. Many things have changed. I’m in a relationship. I have a stepson.  I had Wensley in 2008, but now he is an older dog with some health issues. (He will be fourteen years old this month.) That’s a lot of comfort and responsibility to leave behind, especially when I haven’t traveled on my own in years. It didn’t actually occur to me that I hadn’t exercised those muscles and therefore had lost all the tone until I went to Austin by myself last weekend.

I made a New Year’s goal to do more with my blog and I searched for learning opportunities. I found an online community of blogging women with a conference coming up in Texas and I bought tickets and booked a flight. I was anxious about the trip, but I have acute anxiety. I am anxious about everything.

The morning of the flight, Ethan (who is six) told me he was worried that I might get lonely on my trip and asked if I would like to take one of his soft friends (his word for stuffed animals) with me. It was such a sweet gesture and it touched me. I even took out an extra top to make space for the soft friend he selected, which was a black bear featuring a radio collar because it was purchased at a national park where bears are tagged and studied.

As soon as I buckled in for the flight, my anxiety went to work. “Why are you doing this?” It asked. “Can you even afford it? What if something happens to your extremely old dog while you are gone and you aren’t there to comfort him?” Tears welled up behind my eyes. I fought them back, but they pretty much stayed right there for the rest of the weekend.

I want to be completely clear: the conference was great and the ladies I met were lovely. I might even go again next year. That said, it was a hard experience for me. From the moment I entered the first event (a cocktail party on Friday evening), women were reaching out to me to help me feel welcome. Obviously they picked up my introvert vibe and reacted by inviting me into their conversations, metaphorically putting an arm around my shoulders and saying, “You’re good; We got you!” But I was not prepared for what a room full of female Texas bloggers (who refer to themselves as “influencers” and “momtrepreneurs” would be like.

These women are poised and glamourous. They are fit and fashionable, and they wear lipstick and high heels on Saturdays. Where I come from, Saturdays are for skiing, or biking, or hiking (depending on the weather). There are definitely no high heels. There may be tinted chapstick, but it has to be SPF 15 or higher.

They sell their makeup and outfits and home décor ideas on their feeds and they make serious money doing it. They have class and style and they will help you have it, too. All you have to do is click and add to cart. And that is exactly what thousands of people on Instagram do, every day. You have to see the photos of their picture perfect lives to understand it. I felt like a fraud sitting with them and taking notes on what makes the perfect Pinterest board.

I know what you are thinking. “Oh, Rachel, we all feel that way! I’m sure half of them thought you were the one that had it together! It’s just a bad case of imposter syndrome, that’s all!” No. Wrong. I can prove it. Here is a photo I found on the photographer’s site (@mandiroachphotography) in a collection of pics from the event.

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In case I have to explain, I’m the one in the center dealing with, I don’t know, an entire chicken wing or similar stuck in my back teeth. If you could zoom out you would see one hundred more women just like the ones surrounding me here. Lovely, lovely, stinkin’ lovely. Not one giving themselves dental work.

Feeling out of place just made me feel even more homesick. And then, the last day of the conference, I made the mistake of checking my email and discovering that the coverage I had set up for my day off to go to the conference hadn’t been adequate. I realized that I was in some trouble with my boss and that sent me into minor crisis mode. I felt like the whole trip had been a mistake. This was just before the smaller focus group session where we discussed questions and takeaways. I had been conspicuously quiet, so the group leader asked me to share my thoughts.

“I’m totally overwhelmed,” I blubbered, the tears that I had been holding back breaking forth in a torrent and hitting the floor. “I don’t even know what an ‘instagram story’ is!”

Again, the lovely ladies enveloped me and told me I was okay. They reminded me I just needed to get one actionable thing out of the conference and hold on to that. And someone else told me something that did stick with me. It isn’t about followers, it is about authenticity. What is your “why?” That is, why do you blog? What are you bringing to this space?

So I went to the loo and washed my face. Then I went back to the table and sat down with my notebook to draft a mission statement. I didn’t figure out exactly what it was, but I realized that I do have a “why” (aside from needing a place to write and hoping someone who likes my sense of humor will read it). I want to live an examined life. Writing helps me do that examining. My hope is that sharing what I unearth will help others, too.

Whew! I got my one thing, just before the conference ended! But then it was over, and all the ladies headed off for home. I, however, headed back to my hotel. I wasn’t able to find a non-red-eye flight, and my red-eye days are behind me.

Or so I said when I bought my tickets. My hotel had a spa and a gym, surely I would be able to find something to do that last evening before catching a reasonable morning flight, right? But then I was in the hotel with sixteen hours to kill, completely stressed out about work and needing a cuddle from each of my boys, human and canine alike. As good as it would have been for me, I wasn’t going to go to the gym.

I went down to the hotel bar and started texting a friend to ask her how she got 10k Instagram followers, but we ended up talking about the conference instead. The tears came back and I couldn’t make them stop, not even when my amazing mac and cheese with brisket tips arrived. My poor waitress probably thought my best friend died. I snapped a tearful selfie and sent it to my friend, but I’m sharing it here also in the spirit of authenticity.

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And the mac and cheese… (that’s cornbread and bacon butter in the background)

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Throughout the trip, I kept an eye out for good spots to pose Black Bear so that I could send photos home to Ethan. I looked through them back in my hotel room and realized that, based on the photos, the bear was on the trip that I hoped to have. It seemed significant and apropos of the conference and the idea of sharing an authentic experience, versus and idea of perfection. I can’t do what those other ladies do. I am not here to tell you how to have the perfect vacation because I don’t know how to do that. I’m here to tell stories about why I spent last Sunday ugly crying in public places. I’m here to talk about how living with acute anxiety is hard. I have learned that it is possible to live a full life with anxiety, but you have to work at it. It won’t always go according to plan, and sometimes you have to force yourself to get out and do it. Luckily, there are also stuffed bears to cuddle while waiting for planes, and there is love and kindness waiting to reassure us on both ends of the trip.

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