Not My Best Day

Let’s talk more about not belonging.

I can’t think of a single community in which I belong right now. RR asked me what I was good at the other day and I thought hmmm (yes, that’s how I get started thinking) I’m not sure I’m really good at anything. At least, nothing marketable. I mean, I’m pretty good at video games but also I’m pretty sure I’m not going to find a new employer who wants to hire a 45 yr old queer woman with no coding skills and no real desire to learn. Not that I’m looking for a job. It was a fake interview question (no time like the present) and one that I had asked her moments before. She’s good at drawing (established) and that’s a pretty good answer. Rambling, yes

So even the things I’m good at, I don’t feel like I belong in. To wit:

  1. Using fancy words like to wit – I would not be good at RenFest sorts of things, mainly because those dresses are hot, I can’t get into the names, and I don’t sew or joust. Also, no.
  2. Aforementioned video games – puzzles, platforms, archery, I’m on it. But I’m also a girl who doesn’t care for first person shooters, who doesn’t have time for castle raids with strangers or grinding to build skills. 
  3. Writing – I can’t seem to find time to write anywhere other than here. I love to put words together but I don’t particularly care if I have readers (though I very, very, much appreciate this community) and I don’t especially want to critique or be critiqued so no writers’ groups for me.
  4. Cooking – hobby. I’m never going to write about it and I almost always fail to read some sort of step. Like the angel biscuits we were going to have but couldn’t because they actually took 12 hours and not 1. 
  5. Comics – but not really the superhero kind. And I can’t converse about this Spiderman vs that one or the darkness of Batman or even Marvel v. DC. There’s a women’s comic club that meets downtown but my anxiety isn’t down with going and besides, see previous sentence.
  6. Reading – I am the world’s worst homework doer. Going to a book club, reading a prescribed book, and then talking about it might be torture. Also, I don’t drink wine.
  7. Gardening – I considered doing all the steps to become a master gardener or naturalist but  I can’t be relied upon to remember which plants are lilies and which are irises in my own yard and the various kinds of mulch perplex me. Having a conversation about which plants don’t like wet feet is terrifying.
  8. Herbalism – see above. Also imposter syndrome.
  9. Playing board games – I suspect my friends don’t want to play with me, not because I suck necessarily, but because I don’t want the game to take three hours while we chat. This makes me suck and so we can check this one off the list. 
  10. Reading tea leaves – I’m actually quite good at this but somewhat out of practice and probably just a really, really good guessitmator. There is not a local community of legit tea readers.
  11. Being a librarian – I am bad at this and they pay me for it. 
  12. Being a teacher – I’m good at this, they pay me for it, but I don’t fit in with the other librarian teachers. I’m not radical enough, I don’t present enough, I don’t write enough, I’m not anyone, if you know what I mean. It’s the one place where I should fit in and yet I look at my colleagues and I could disappear and they probably wouldn’t notice. 
  13. Telling bedtime stories – first rate however they don’t go anywhere and besides, see 2.

You know what I am good at? Noticing that this is probably imposter syndrome at work and knowing that I could probably make it happen. You know what else I’m good at? Letting my anxiety get the better of me. These are not making it better. And so I bring you this video about anxiety as the third person in relationships:

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Vietnamese Coffee and Getting Old

When I was 24, I had a fancy job working for the Department of State. I moved to Washington, DC with exactly seven cardboard boxes, one suitcase, and a bike. I left the last odds and ends of college in a box for goodwill. I was thrilled to be in a new city (my brief hiatus in Tucson, AZ had included providing childcare for the local YMCA camp and seeking house-sitting jobs in between being desperately heartbroken over having to leave San Francisco) and I was more thrilled to be starting a Grown-up Job which I had worked very hard to get. I moved into a furnished apartment at 10pm that night and tried to ignore the fact that it looked like someone had slept in the bed and the apartment manager was asleep (or dead, it was all the same at that point).

This particular job involved learning a new language, how to destroy the company china upon a coup, and the fine knack of signing a contract without over-committing the United States government. It took a year to do all that. The language took the longest and the china nearly so, contracts, schmontracts. In that year, I ate cuisine I hadn’t imagined existed and went to fancy dress parties with my classmates who spoke Arabic and Hebrew without blinking and had all studied at lofty institutions. They came from Boston and New York and a few had been in DC all along with their more than seven boxes and cats and comfort.

To say I felt out of place is an understatement.

But I had the slight advantage of an undiagnosed bit of crazy and so threw myself into blind dating, spin classes, soccer teams, and an unstoppable drive to make up for all the missing bits and pieces. I did not do my language homework (you can imagine how far that got me). I joined friends at restaurants and threw on my most extroverted exterior. This self I have now, the one that fights anxiety everyday, was sat on, pushed down and drowned under heaping amounts of Thai iced tea, Afghan cuisine, baba ganoush, Ethiopian injera, and tzatziki. And then I had one of the most important memories I’ve had yet.

One mosquito-free summer night I was invited to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant not too far from my apartment. I walked there and met two of the most cultured members of my training class. They had invited me. I didn’t speak much during the meal except to laugh appropriately, eat my food appropriately, and contribute a small bit of humor here and there. They laughed at my jokes. The lights dimmed and twinkly lights glowed to life. The dinner lasted well into the evening, long after the utilitarian consumption of food (this luxury, I was learning, was a thing amongst adults). It culminated with Vietnamese coffee suggested by one of my companions.

I hadn’t had coffee before but I was not about to share that humiliating bit of information. The server brought tiny tin pots of espresso to place on top of mug of sweetened condensed milk. We turned the tiny dial on the bottom of the tin cup and the espresso dripped slowly into the milk, melting it as it drained, leaving behind a cup of sophistication I had never experienced. It was delicious, much like the warm humid air, the good company, and the sense of belonging I was feeling for the first time in months.

I’ve felt that feeling since, but never so intensely. It was years before I understood the joys and camaraderie of coffee. And now here I am, 21 years from that moment, sitting in a cafe, drinking Vietnamese coffee, and wondering if I should cut back my coffee consumption in order to make the unexpected hot flashes less startling. I can only assume these are the heralding bells of peri menopause. I refuse to read any more about it since the symptoms and their timeline are so depressing. So let’s think about the beautiful things, like the last drops in the cup beside me, the mosquito-free spring morning, and the comfortable buzz of strangers.

Hey Google, Can You Die From Anxiety?

“The truth is you will not die from a panic attack.”

We have Google devices in our home. They tell us the weather, play music, read recipes, and remind us of practically everything. In the morning, I greet it and it answers with the forecast, a recap of my schedule, and switches to my favorite DC morning show. We don’t have any fancy lights or doorbells or connected appliances because we are not made of money but we do get reminded to take out the cat litter ever Tuesday morning so it makes up for it, don’t you think?

The devices also answer our endless questions:
How do you spell naive?
What’s a zip gun?
What’s a three letter word for prevarication?
Can I use FSA to buy toothpaste?
How long do I roast broccoli?

They cannot tell me why I’m arguing with my wife or dreading waking up in the morning. They can’t explain why my stomach is constantly in knots whether I’m going to work or coming home. They don’t know why sometimes I lay in bed and plug my ears just to try to shut out the noise in my head. They are about as effective as I am in dealing with anxiety over everything. Even something so minor as what to make for supper churns into a 10 minute long, heart pounding, teeth gritting, decision process. When you ask a Google something they don’t know they say, Sorry, I can’t help with that right now. That’s how I have been feeling for months.

Back to a therapist (in addition to the couples’ counselor because that’s not over yet), off to a psychiatrist, who is quirky and not in a good way. However, both my doctor and therapist say she’s a chemist, as if that’s supposed to explain her patronizing weirdness. However, she explained perfectly what the medications that I’m on do, how they interact, why they work together and, in particular, why the one I stopped taking a few years ago was really, really important. I didn’t notice, you see, because I thought the terrible anxiety was because my father was dying. Well, then.

I say all that to say that things are better now. More even than I expected. It’s wonderful not to feel as if you are stuck in quicksand because every possible option will probably kill you. I suspect it’s the reason why couples’ therapy is going better and why there has been more laughter at home lately. I wish my brain chemistry weren’t what it is but, when I asked Google, all they said was Sorry, I can’t help with that right now. But my weird, quirky psychiatrist can and I suppose that’s enough.

Disrespect, Right?

My mom moved last July and we haven’t seen her since. We talk about once a month and send postcards in the meantime. None of us are big fans of the phone and video chats usually are focused on RR and how big/fast/strong she has gotten. We knew a visit was coming and it looks like the time is nigh.

I’ve been nervous about a visit since she announced she was moving, yes actually, and now that it’s imminent I don’t feel any better. We host a fair number of guests and I’m a firm believer in the Three Days adage. For my sister and close friends, I’m willing to go a week but we have one full bathroom and you can extend your arms in it and touch the walls. It’s also in the main hallway which, you know.

Back and forth we went. Here are RR’s camp dates, maybe you could come on one of the weeks we don’t have child care. Nope. This day is her end of school ceremony to move up to the next classroom, she’d love it if you came for that. No. If you come these days, you would be here for her birthday. Meh. Consider the fall, we’d love to have you for Halloween, it’s our favorite family holiday. Noooo. Yes, I understand you want to come for three weeks. We think 10 days is best for the first visit.

I suppose you can imagine where this is going.

We have two dogs, two birds, and one very bad cat. We also have one disrespectful houseguest who, when she gets here, will stay three weeks. She also will not be coming at a time that is beautiful (spring), has lots to do (fall), or is convenient to us (RR has camp the entire time). No, she’ll be coming in the middle of summer so that she can complain about the heat and humidity to its fullest extent. She will also be overwhelmed by the aforementioned animals. Especially when she finds out that Debra and I plan to go out of town for a long weekend while she’s here to babysit.

Two Wheels

There are a few things I want my child to be able to do. I want her to know how to drive so that she can get to and from a job when she’s not near a bus stop. Or, deliver pizzas, or papers, or people. I want her to know how to swim so when she gets invited on the once in a lifetime trip to explore a remote island she’s not the only one sunning instead of snorkeling. I also want her to not drown. I want her to know how to read, cook, and be gracious so that when she cooks for her future mother-in-law from one of my old cookbooks, she’ll be able to handle both compliments and grimaces with grace. I want her to know how to ride a bike for those two years in the Peace Corps where it’s the fastest, easiest mode of transportation to the next village. If she never does any of these things, she’ll still be able to rent a bike with her sweetheart and pedal through a park, take a dip with her kids in the city pool, read a trashy novel or five, feed herself, know how to say thank you, and have the most typical sort of photo id.

I did not think she was going to swim and she did. I certainly didn’t think I’d be able to watch her confidently mix a blueberry pie and crimp the edges. I knew she could read and she’s undeniably charming most of the time. Biking, though. I was pretty sure it was never going to happen.

First she couldn’t figure out how to pedal. She went backward when she meant to go forward. She braked when she meant to fly. Her feet, nearly always on tiptoe, were bent back to push but the push never happened. Meanwhile, she couldn’t steer. Her eyes were glued to her stubborn feet and she teetered into cars and trees at agonizingly slow speed. Even equipped with training wheels, she couldn’t balance. This child, who can cartwheel off of a balance beam and scramble down a tree limb with abandon. The pedal scraped her leg when she pushed the bike. The front wheel spun around and bit her hand. Last summer she gave up. I would have, too.

We tried it again recently and it went much better. As an almost nine year old, she’s acutely aware that her peers can ride while she’s just (very fast) on a scooter. The balance was better. The pedaling still eluded her. She got another scrape and the front wheel waggled at her. She braked when she wanted to go and went when she wanted to brake. We called in her Fake Uncle and put him to the task. Maybe it was me. Maybe she would ride for someone else.

It took 30 minutes. I watched while he ran with her and pushed her. I watched as she flew out of his hands and pedaled around the parking lot as if she had done it her whole life. She never once fell over, although she did crash into a curb requiring one bandaid to certify the crash happened. She might not have needed the bandaid but she was so happy to get the first one out of the way, she threw out our favorite phrase*.

It was so easy for her once she got a glimpse of what it would take. And so, we can check off another Life Skill.

*I suppose I didn’t mention that we bought a car (a brand new, never been driven car) in December and, having had it 5 days, someone hit it in a parking lot. It was parked at the time and the hitter, Kim, left a note (thank goodness). Her insurance covered the whole thing, the car looks like new, we’re still very wounded about the it, but we have spent the better part of the last three months saying well, at least we got the first one out of the way.

Holidays With

Since at least 1973, there’s a place in town that has been serving two grilled doughnuts with a scoop of ice cream called a Grills With. I have a love/hate relationship with insider language like this. The dish itself sounds amazing – I have not had it – but it implies so much. What is grilled? What comes with? Can you order it without? Then is it just called a Grills? But it’s historical, you say, and of course the menu tells you! And there are other hidden features like bacon! And chocolate sauce if only you ask! You clearly do not experience restaurant ordering anxiety but I don’t hold it against you.

The winter holidays are the Grills With of my life and maybe yours, too. There’s the basic units, in our case, me, my wife, and RR and the holiday events themselves which evolve and change over time but which have been core ingredients. They are loaded with insider knowledge, for instance, there’s no way for you to know that my family always had tamales on the Eves, on New Year’s Eve we ate pizza rolls and watched 1959’s House on Haunted Hill, cinnamon rolls dethroned overnight french toast on Christmas morning in 1986, and 11pm church services were non-negotiable for everyone. There’s also no way to know that Debra and I ban family and friends prior to 10am on Christmas morning (if not longer), that I get to hang the six tiny glass ornaments, and that we do all of our shopping for each other on Christmas Eve.

That’s the Grills With for us. Then there’s all the other things you can have with it, family, new traditions, travel, weather, etc. For the last several years, my family has been adding random ingredients into our recipe. Barring the Christmas my parents lived with us, we managed to keep Christmas morning to ourselves. But, they brought with them a load of other add-ons, some of which were their Grills With, no doubt. It made for a complicated set of holidays trimmed with anxiety over unspoken requirements and unknowable “givens”. This year, my dad is gone, my mom has moved away, my sisters aren’t traveling, many of our friends are out of town, and it looks like we will be back to basics again.

Perhaps my Grills With analogy is hard to follow, but it sticks in my head as the thing that is so simple but so complicated to actually have, much like the holidays. There are many assumptions and a coded language. There’s anxiety but also enjoyment if you can just manage it. And so, happiest of holidays to you. Enjoys your own Grills With and don’t try to explain it, just dig in and savor it. I will be.

Bad Habits, I Guess?

I’ve been informed that I’m doing it all wrong. I know, right? That is a heavy burden to carry. Yes, friends. I am proceeding through life as only the oblivious can do. Wrongly wronging with abandon. 

A more than occasional theme of late is that I’m accommodating. That I am particularly aware of how my actions/inaction will impact the people around me. That I am overly concerned with smoothing the way. This theme is accompanied by a stream of well-meaning scolding. I mean, honestly, I’d have ignored it if it hadn’t become such a thing. Apparently, my inclination to do this or that in order to minimize potential confusion or frustration is a hazard, not a perk.

Well, fuck. 

I suppose being accommodating can be seen as being too concerned with others’ feelings. I see it as pretty self-serving. I’m made more comfortable by having as few bumps in the road as possible. If I can proactively do or say something that will make our interaction better, I absolutely will. It’s not a tendency to avoid conflict either, because in the fight or flight equation, I’m full on fight. I also don’t go very far out of my way to smooth yours. Not everything can be perfect, of course, but it doesn’t mean I’m not trying.

These sound like excuses though. And as much as I don’t think it’s a big deal, everyone else seems to, which is in direct opposition to being accommodating. Here’s an example that I suspect will make you nod and agree with my wife:

I’m sitting in a coffee shop across from a man who has his backpack on the chair next to him. It’s a busy day and a small shop. I have also noticed that our table is the wheelchair accessible table which has filled me with low level angst the whole time I’ve been here. Several people have eyed this chair as they walked past, a mother and child, a lady with a mean cell phone voice, and a befuddled man with a cup of coffee who has circled the table three times. He looks like he’d like to ask for the seat but hasn’t for whatever reason. He also doesn’t look like he’s used to contending with fancy people, like backpack man, for space. While I don’t want to ask the man to move his bag myself, it tripled the anxiety I was feeling about working at the shop at all and being at the accessible table in the first place.

Not my backpack. I’m not taking up too much space. I’ve only been here 20 minutes. This is a common work location. Just because I have the skills to deal with a fancy backpack man doesn’t mean befuddled guy didn’t. This is not my concern. Still though. 

Another example. I’m having, again, dreadful problems at work. I go out of my way to get as much management training as possible, I practice what I learn, and I get rave reviews about my communication and support for my team. However, it turns out that I’ve been trying too hard to cushion the more difficult issues and, as a result, there hasn’t been as much suffering as there could be. Or something like that. Rather, I’m the one doing all the suffering. Even I’m aware that less hand-holding is required. This smoothing the way habit has definitely backfired. 

Obviously, that’s vague and doesn’t make for great reading. Suffice to say, now it’s not just my wife and sister telling me I’m too accommodating, it’s work, too. Which apparently pushes me over the edge. Fun. I can’t even effectively blame my mom for this since it has definitely gotten worse in the last several years. There’s no conclusion to this and I wish I’d remembered to warn you about that so you wouldn’t waste your time but there it is. 

And there it is. Literally. Right above us. I clearly have work to do.