Life Lessons

So here I am sitting down to my blog and once again, it’s a month since the last time I published anything. It’s not that I’ve been lazing the days away, or that my passion for the craft has withered. No! Not in the slightest. The idea for this post actually came to me some time ago. It was that alone, I didn’t think it was substantial enough. You know, I’ve never been a woman of few words, and obviously here, I favor the long-form essay. So, as I often do with early ideas, I put this one to rest for a little bit, and took a step back to let life unfold; to see if something would come to me– in my sleep or in the middle of workweek chaos– that I could add to it, to shape a meatier piece. And after weeks (sure, maybe a few too many), thanks to my open eyes and listening ears, a few things did.

It all started one Saturday a while back, when I took a free class at one of these new all-cycling studios that have popped up across the city. Having never been to one, and wishing I could afford to give up my cut-rate, regular gym membership and join one to be among a higher echelon of the gym-going public, I was pretty psyched for the preview. Well, as I had imagined it would be, it was great— the place was squeaky clean, like teeth after a trip to le dentist; the bikes, brand new, were super smooth to ride; the sound system was booming; the staff was friendly… yada yada.

Then there was the instructor. So, I get it… When it’s your career to work out, you’re going to have an awesome body. Great. Good for you. You deserve it. I mean it. That said, I’m a fan of humility and I never do get why, when you’re sitting on a bike on a platform in front of the class, where everyone can see you anyway (and they’re drooling… either with desire or with jealously), you, the owner of this awesome body, feel the need to flaunt it. Do you really need to get off your bike as we, your average, less-than-hard-bodied students pedal through virtual mud, to dance in front of us in your skimpy bra-top and teensy-tiny shorts like you’re doing a striptease, showing off your washboard abs and your collage of sexy tattoos?

This was the scene playing out in front of me, and by three quarters of the way in, I was over it and had put the kibosh on the idea that I would yes, trade in my discount gym for this place. (Thank God for my brain, because going through with that would have meant going broke, but somehow I had reasoned that it was ok.) So I was over it, but still, I would ride it out, through the one last song. Our little playboy bunny instructed us to crank up the resistance one more notch, and then another, and I did, and then she said to us [these words that I never would’ve expected]:

“I know it’s hard. But you can do it… Be grateful for the fact that you can do it. Be grateful for having this body, and this mind, and this spirit. Be grateful for having been able to wake up today and come here.”

And at hearing this, I closed my eyes… because however annoyed I’d been with her earlier, at that moment she was right; and she was saying this to us with sincerity. I choked up a little bit. But still there on my bike, I pushed through. And though being grateful is something that I am every day, being there in that room, all of us, grateful together for those few minutes, was bigger and stronger and better feeling to me than being grateful alone ever had been.

So a few days go by, and I’m still on this high after bunny’s words of wisdom, and I come across this article that was published last month on NPR. It’s a piece on the recent disheartening report on the increase in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans. And as I always do when this topic comes up, aside from whatever frustration I have that for some people, this is the answer, I felt really sad. And I wished in my heart that I could help find a way to change this reality. I don’t know how to do that of course. Would positive words or thoughts that I have to share sink in to someone flirting with the idea of taking their own life? I kind of think not.

But a few days after reading the article, I happened, coincidentally, to arrive at a page in the book I’m reading, that really felt fitting as I waited to find the last piece to this post. And whether it sinks in or makes any sort of difference, I share it here…from Tinkers by Paul Harding:

“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of greater certainty… And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

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On ‘Leaning In’

It’s a little over a week ago now, that I first heard about this new book ‘Lean In’ by Sheryl Sandberg. It was my mom who mentioned it to me in the middle of one of our weeknight phone calls. She’d caught an interview with the author on some morning show, and told me that I should find it online and watch it. For a second I wondered whySure, it’s a book about women in the workplace, gender inequality and the need for us [women] to push ourselves a little harder, or lean in a little closer, to get that place in front, or at the top, that we deserve. I get it. But it’s written by the COO of Facebook—a woman with two degrees from Harvard. My mother is fully aware that I’m nowhere near even standing next to the ladder, let alone trying to climb it, and that I have no ambitions of the high-powered executive ilk.

Maybe it was just her being a good mom, wanting the best for me; wanting me to be successful, and able to take care of myself, and achieve whatever goals or life dreams I set down when I got out of college. Who knows, maybe there’s some unfulfilled career dream that she had, that I never knew about. Whatever the case, I said ok, and found a segment that had aired on NPR and pushed play. Immediately, I was aligned with Sandberg, and in days that followed, in reading reviews both for and against her advice and her mission, even having not yet read the book, I agreed with her. Regardless of what kind of work I do now or ever will do, I feel very strongly that these hurdles we women face are ours to confront head on if we want to see change.

Growing up in a house full of girls with a father who didn’t want to raise little prisses, it was hard not to end up a feminist. So, like my sisters, I have feminist blood coursing through my veins, empowering me with the die-hard belief that I can do anything the boys can do. Ok, obviously not anything, but you get my point. I can do anything boys can do—and some things I can even do better.

What’s sort of backwards in all of this, for me personally, is that as much as I believe in leaning in, fighting the fight, at the same time, I think I might very easily be able to throw my hands up and say “Forget it.” The cover story in this week’s New York magazine is entitled, ‘The Feminist Housewife’. I read the article yesterday over lunch. It talks about the growing trend of stay-at-home mommyhood and how many young (and some not so young) women in today’s society actually don’t want to lean in to their careers—not because they’re wimping out, but because they want to be mothers, want to give their blood, sweat and tears to the job of taking care of their families. I have forever imagined having a family; but I’ve also always imagined working. I enjoy being part of the team setting, the regular interaction with intelligent, articulate, witty adult peers, the chit-chats and inside jokes and collaborating on projects and going for post workday beers. I have to say however, the article did make the housewife-mommy lifestyle sound very appealing, and by the end of it, I was kind of wanting it for myself.

But, let’s get back to reality. I’m a single, 36-year-old woman in New York City with not even a prospect for a husband on the horizon. So, as I wait for the housewife-mommy lifestyle to meet up with me some day (hopefully), I have to work.

This brings me back to a conversation I had over dinner last weekend with my cousin’s seven-year-old son Jack. He asked me at one point, “Andrea, what’s your career?” There is nothing quite like being put on the spot by a seven-year-old, let me tell you. I took a swig of wine, cleared my throat and replied frankly (because I was really answering the whole table of people staring at me and not just him). “I don’t really have a career,” I said. “It’s more of a…job.” Of course I wondered: at seven, do you even know the difference? “Well then what’s your job?” he asked back immediately. I stared into his brown marble eyes wishing the telephone would ring or that someone would swallow something down a wrong pipe and fall into a fit of coughing, but alas, no luck. So I started on about how I manage an office, and am the assistant to the boss, and that I take care of him to make sure his day runs smoothly. Of course I wasn’t feeling so proud but, whatever, it’s a job and I do it well. And Jack replies (and here I almost choked): “So you basically make sure his desk is clean?”

Well thanks to my mother, who was in town visiting and sitting next to me, the conversation was smoothed out and in the end, I was still breathing and Jack was at least somewhat satisfied with the work I do, however different or less it is than what he expected. Thinking back on the whole exchange, that initial question of why my mother felt so strongly about me needing to hear Sheryl Sandberg’s interview comes to mind—the question of how leaning in applies to me. I actually can quite easily see the answer. I think the basic principles Ms. Sandberg discusses can be applied to any of us in any environment if what we want is to be recognized for the work we do, and rewarded or compensated as we see fit.

So my job is not work that I am wholeheartedly fulfilled by, but this is by choice. I made the decision to veer away from what I thought years ago would be my career, because I fell out of love with it and found it eating up my life. A job, on the other hand, allows me to pursue the longtime love I never before focused on, which is writing. Granted, it means writing in my spare time, but I’ll take what I can get. Earlier this month, the website VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) published their ‘2012 Count’ which takes a look at the numbers of women versus men in various segments of the literary world. Without having to study their charts with much scrutiny, it’s quite clear, the dismal disparity that exists and subsequently, the message that success in the literary world is no easier to achieve than success in the corporate world…if you’re a woman. My dream may not be to have the corner office, or be the highest paid executive, but yeah, I’d love to be a successful and respected writer one day. So is the idea of leaning in, for me, really backwards at all? I think not.

The bottom line is that we all deserve to have what we want in life. I don’t think anyone is saying success in the corporate world is any greater than a happy, healthy, well-cared-for home, or that it makes you any better a woman. And I don’t think, despite what a lot of the critics have said, that Sheryl Sandberg’s advice can’t apply to all of us. She’s coming to us with first hand experience. She knows the challenges that come with being a woman. She’s definitely on our side in this. I remember being a little girl, afraid to put my hand up in a classroom full of boys but being free and speaking up at Brownies. Sadly, I know that that insecurity, despite believing I can do anything boys can do, has stayed with me to some extent. I hope one day we see change. And in the meantime, to Sheryl Sandberg (and to my mother)—thanks for the push… to lean in.

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Ah Yes…This Is Why I’m Here.

At the end of a long day, when stepping across the threshold of my cozy apartment is my heart’s absolute greatest desire, the walk home, short as it is, can sometimes feel like a painfully eternal trek. The freezing cold air bites at my face and my fingertips feel as if they are only moments from lifelessness. I pace briskly, but can’t seem to get there fast enough. At times I even wonder, exhausted from New York City life—commuting and all the rest of it: Shouldn’t I be done with this nonsense? In another town I’d have a car.” I think that after seventeen years, yes (and I think even Frank Sinatra would agree), I could make it anywhere. I wonder isn’t it time I trade the rat race in for a quieter, more peaceful existence. I even go as far as asking myself: “Why am I still here?”

On Mondays, it’s a residual high from my 7 o’clock spin class that keeps me from counting the number of steps I still have before reaching my block or questioning my life in New York. Despite the fatigue that inhabits me, my mind is off in some euphoric place after the 45-minute all-out blood and guts ride. It’s this class that gets me out of bed on Monday mornings as I dread the start of the workweek; this class, that I turn down all other Monday evening invitations for. Little can sooth my soul quite like it. But when a certain email caught my eye last week, while sifting through my inbox, without hesitation, I deemed that missing it every once in a blue moon certainly wouldn’t kill me.

The email was from a group I once took a class with called Sackett Street Writers Workshop. It was an invitation for a reading that they were hosting at an indie bookstore called BookCourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Just like I was first drawn to Sackett Street for the cozy appeal of its classes, many of which take place in the teachers’ brownstone apartments, I was drawn to BookCourt, perhaps because of the neighborhood it’s located in, or its story as a little community bookseller that could.

So last week, when Monday rolled around, I nixed the spin class and instead, after work, took a detour to Cobble Hill for the event. Well, as I had imagined it would be, BookCourt turned out to be a dreamland—where every title in the wide yet carefully curated collection called my name; the kind of place (if you are a book lover) that you want to visit everyday, or move into, if bookstore owners allowed such a thing. I found my way to the back of the store, to the events space known as The Greenhouse. A group of about 40 people were seated in folding chairs, as Julia from Sackett Street, a woman I’d never met, but through emails, introduced the evening and brought up the first author.

There were four in total, including Julia herself, each reading an excerpt from a recently published or soon-to-be published piece of work. As it is any time when you have a bunch of writers in a room, each was different from the next, and with every one, I connected differently. What I saw as the common thread was that each one of these authors was such a seemingly regular person. And though yes, there was a obvious disparity that existed between myself and each of them—that they have published books and I don’t—I like to think that they started at the same place I did, with that goal in mind, that ache, that need.

At the end of the night, before leaving, after introducing myself to Julia, I went up to the counter in search of the last author’s book. As a treat to myself, and because I am a lover of paper books and because I desperately want to save the disappearing brick and mortar stores that sell them, I decided I would buy a copy. The book was ‘Dare Me‘, about high school cheerleaders—what a NY Times book review called “Heathers meets Fight Club good”. The author? Megan Abbott, a petite redhead with a big smile and contagious enthusiasm. I’d heard Julia mention Megan was the author of six novels, but her name was not familiar to me. But then at the counter, I saw another book next to Dare Me, with the same name, Megan Abbott stretched across the bottom of its watery blue cover. This one was called ‘The End of Everything’, and it was one I realized then and there, that I’d seen on numerous reading lists in the past few months. So of course, I had to buy it too. And I would have Megan, the author sign the both of them.

An hour later, when I climbed up the stairs from the subway to begin my long, short walk home, I recognized, though it wasn’t my typical Monday night post-spin class high, that I had a feeling of lightness inside me. It was a pleasant mix of happiness and inspiration. What a perfect creative evening it had been. I paced the broken sidewalk, the winter air fresh on my skin, recalling Julia and my conversation, when she talked about New York and its wealth of resources for writers. I shook my head in agreement again, smiled and said to myself, “Ah yes—this is why I’m still here.”

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Selfish Doesn’t Have To Be A Bad Thing

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It was Monday night of last week, when I finally, after weeks of procrastinating, got to writing my very belated New Year’s blog post about all of my resolutions for 2013. My list is more or less a carbon copy of last year’s, but I did tweak it a little, maybe in hopes that by putting an interesting spin on each of my ambitions, I’d have a better chance of successfully tackling them this time around. For my fitness goal… I’d kick my workout efforts up a few notches and simply work on a pair of killer legs. (Wouldn’t that be lovely?) For my financial goal…for every little treat I buy myself, I’ll not buy the next two I want and instead, save the money. (Easier said than done, I’m sure.) And for my creative goals (because for me, just one artistic endeavor is not enough)…I will write something everyday no matter how long or short it is—just as long as it’s something—and I will try to paint one thing every month and be happy with that, instead of worrying that I’m not painting every week.

The next morning, the draft complete, there I was, standing in front of the mirror, trying my damnedest to doctor my festoons, thinking about last minute changes I should make before publishing the post, and out of the cold winter air, it came to me that I had it all wrong. As if the sight of the puffy crescent moons under my otherwise bright eyes wasn’t bad enough, there out of my peripheral vision I could see my oversized duffel bag, packed and ready to go, the sight of it angering me. I let out a weighty sigh thinking about my looming commute, and how I was going to have to squeeze into a crowded train with this behemoth bag and then spend four days away from home, away from my routine, away from focusing on things I wanted to be doing. And for what? To dogsit for someone I barely know… as a favor. It was then that I realized that my list was missing the most important resolution of all. What was worse, was that, by having said “yes” days before, and packing this bag, I had already failed at it.

Of course the fitness goal and the financial goal and the creative goals are all important, but when I think about last year and what I did and did not accomplish in the twelve-month window I had to conquer my 2012 X, Y and Z, it’s very clear, the issue here— I say “yes” too much. Can you dogsit for Squeaky this week? “Sure!” Can you babysit tomorrow night? “Yes!” Can you help me move? “Yeah, I can!” Want to help plan so-and-so’s bachelorette party? “Well yes, of course I do. In fact I’ll cater it myself!”

I know, I know, I know that it is appreciated when I show up at a friend’s (heck, or friend of friend of friend’s) door, ready with hands or head or heart, to help with whatever task is pressing. We learn this in life: What goes around comes around. Be good to others and they will be good to you in return. Sure. There is however, in this day in age, when a week is over and done with in what feels like a flash of lightening, something to be said for being selfish. It sounds ugly to say: the word selfish, like shallow or materialistic or cold-hearted. But… if we think of it as just putting our self first, or, really making it a priority to take better care of our self, show our self some love, it shouldn’t be seen as negative. As Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says, “The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided.” And didn’t someone once sing about loving our self, being in fact, the greatest love of all? Cheese-city here I know, but isn’t it true? (We’ll never forget you Whitney!)

So to be selfish…  I have a few friends who are very good at this. Really I should say, they are very good at being good to their selves. They have no problem saying “no” in favor of doing something for the betterment of their own lives. There have been plenty of times throughout my relationships with these friends, where I’ve felt annoyed asking one of them for something, and getting a “no” in reply, even to something as simple and I would assume as pleasant as meeting for a drink after a long day at work. The “Sorry babe, but I’m really not feeling up for it,” kind of stings. But looking at it now, with a clear head, while I’m having a fine day, I’ll admit, I am a little envious of those friends and their ability to not say yes so nonchalantly.

In New York City, where the 9-5 workday is more like 9-7, and after that, what’s left after the trek home via two trains and a walk, and dinner (whether cooked or reheated), and a call to the friend on the other side of the country or home to the folks, and catching up an emails and paying bills, and eradicating dust bunnies and managing the laundry heap, there’s only a sliver of day left for the real goals—the X, Y, Z. So when do they get paid attention to?

I realize, the older I get, and the more I question what it is I am really wanting out of life, that me time, or time for my self is really important. I feel better knowing that I’m not alone in this thought; that it is indeed ok to say no sometimes. Though I never want to be the one that shakes my head to a friend in need, and hope I’m never seen as someone who is really selfish, I’m making it a goal to better balance saying “yes” to saying “no” in favor of that more important something (or someone) that needs tending to.

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Thanks

As I was sitting yesterday scribbling the last of my holiday to-dos, baffled by how fast the last few months have come and gone, despite the sights and sounds of Christmas all around me, I couldn’t get Thanksgiving out of my head. It’s weeks in the past already, I know, but for more reasons than one, it was special this year, so it’s stuck with me.

I was supposed to head down to Florida, as I usually do, for a mini vacay over turkey and leftovers with my parents and sisters, but four days before I was to leave, my dear Uncle Ray in Long Island passed away. So with funeral arrangements being made alongside the stuffing and the pumpkin pie, instead of going anywhere, I would stay put, have Thanksgiving with my Aunt Dorothy and cousins, and my family would come up here.

Initially, I couldn’t help but think: perfect timing. Here it is the start of the holiday season, the happiest time of year, and this saddest of all life events befalls us not even a week before. Looking back though, I think the timing—because unfortunately, this was something that would happen sooner or later—may have actually been just right. We were clinking our glasses at a holiday whose sole purpose is to give thanks; what better a time to sit for hours and talk about and give thanks for the life of our beloved uncle, husband, father? Over the three days that all of us family were together—my immediate six and Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Ray’s 24-plus—there were tears, of course, but a lot of laughter too. And even better than the laughter, there was a lot of love. In a house of so many, how could there not be?

It wasn’t the Thanksgiving any of us had planned for, but it was one of those weekends you didn’t want to end. I certainly did not want it to. In the words of Kit De Luca, goodbyes make me crazy. For me, a looming farewell sets off a trembling in my bones; everything begins to appear almost a shade of grey; and my eyes start to sting as their sockets fill up with hot tears that sit on the surface waiting for me to lose it. It happens every time. This time, it was of course, no different. There I am, standing in my aunt’s kitchen, getting ready to leave for the train station, my parents and sisters around me, making small talk, in hopes to intercept the imminent deluge they’re all too prepared for—my mother hugs me and the floodgates bust open. I’m a bawling mess, as always, as I set off on my way. For as many years as this has been happening, I’ve wondered if it will ever stop. And like it’s always easier to get over an old flame if there’s someone to replace him, I’ve come to figure out that these tears at leaving my parents and sisters won’t until I have my own husband and kids, who when it’s time to leave, will come with me.

I pray for that. I pray for it for myself, and I pray for it for my sister. What I want really, is what I saw at my aunt and uncle’s house that weekend—a family, bursting at the seams with children and grandchildren…for my parents to have that some day. What a work of art. Surely Uncle Ray was looking down with pride. Surely while he was here, he was grateful. And for him, all of us were grateful—for being the good man he was.

So Thanksgiving I will tuck away now. But I will always keep the memory of my very special Uncle Ray close to me. And maybe up in heaven he can put in a good word for me… so that prayer I have… soon comes true.

Sandy Relief: A Lesson in Volunteering

At the end of last week, when it was time to head back to work after two days at home post-Sandy, with the L train still down and traffic at a standstill, it turned out that a 90-minute walk was my best option. New York is a pedestrian city and I’ve lived here for over fifteen years; I’m fine getting where I need to go by foot. But when instead of a leisurely stroll, the walk is a brisk-paced race against the clock through streets without power (and without traffic lights), you can imagine, it’s no picnic. I made the most of it for a couple of days, figuring with the gym closed for lack of electricity, it would be my workout. Ha! I should be so motivated. By day three, I’d had enough. But as the week went on and I saw the flurry of news stories about neighborhoods ravaged by the storm, and grown men and women weeping like children at their lost homes, I knew my upset at having to trudge to work by foot was nothing but selfish.

So when Friday night rolled around, I got to work researching how I was going to help my fellow New Yorkers who were really suffering. I saw listings for countless organizations that were taking donations and accepting volunteers, some places even sending people out to visit the sites to canvas and bring supplies. Help was in high demand. Considering the train situation, I needed to go somewhere that I could get to, and beyond that, I wanted be sure I was helping deliver aid to some of the hardest hit areas. After hours of going back and forth, [as if one’s charity’s work is better than the next] I decided on Occupy Sandy.

So at eight o’clock on Saturday morning, I crawled out of bed, and with one of those giant blue IKEA totes, I headed out to the store to collect supplies: diapers, baby wipes, gloves, masks, garbage bags, bleach, batteries. My plan was to head to a church called St. Jacobi in another part of Brooklyn, that for the past week, has been serving as a hub for donations and volunteers. If you don’t know Brooklyn, it is a massive borough. So because I had to get to a neighborhood on the opposite end from where I live, I was going to hitch a ride with some other volunteers that were somewhat nearby me– a 20-minute walk from my apartment. So I headed there, the IKEA bag packed full and getting heavier with every block, and causing me to slow my pace. But I was sure I had enough time. When I finally arrived, at four minutes past the noted departure time, I found that the ride had already left. So it was on to plan B. I’d call a car service. Well, on a normal day, this wouldn’t have been so difficult, but with cell service down for whatever reason at that exact moment, anyone I tried to dial came up a fast busy signal. And trying to find an available car on the street that morning, was like the joke of the century. Sandy had turned what is already challenging NYC traffic into a whole new kind of beast.

So with the tote, at that point, cutting into my shoulder, I walked to the car service storefront a few blocks from where I had started fifteen minutes earlier. I was more or less starting from square one. And I was getting frustrated, because here I was only trying to do good, but everything seemed to be working against me. But I wasn’t turning back now. I would not give up. These people needed me. At 11 o’clock, I finally arrived at the church, where on the sidewalk, people and donations were spewing. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, but asked a friendly looking guy with a bearded face and an air of authority who then directed me to an orientation taking place in the chapel. There, we got a quick rundown of ongoing tasks that were available to help out with, and heard a few of the basics about how the Occupy movement works—how everyone is welcome; how there’s no discrimination, and how it’s a horizontal structure, meaning that anyone can take on a leadership role if they would like to.

Minutes later I was downstairs in the parish hall where goods were being dropped off and sorted, bags were being packed to be sent out to victims, and food was being prepped and cooked. A man in an apron was calling out to the room of volunteers, “Does anyone have raisins? Does anyone have raisins?” I couldn’t imagine why raisins would be so important, but looking around, I had to trust him. It was obvious that despite the scene before me looking like absolute mayhem, there was some sort of order. There were so many different things happening at once, so many people moving in different directions, but work actually getting accomplished. I was impressed.

My first job was at a table stacked with canned goods—so many you could stock an entire bodega. I, and a few others, had to move them across the room to the main canned food area. Easy enough. Done. Time to move on. I circled the room, looking for some direction as to what to do next, and finally decided that it was up to me to find my own job. So I put my bold face on, walked up to a vegetable table full of strangers and asked if they needed help. “Sure,” one girl said. “We just don’t have any peelers.” So I went on a hunt for the kitchen, found a drawer with tools inside and headed back to the table where for the next two hours, I peeled and chopped potatoes and carrots. At one point, a couple left and there were two empty spaces at the table. One of the leaders who was organizing the food prep efforts called out that we needed replacements for them. And as if he had been waiting in the wings to land one of the coveted spots, a twelve-year-old boy jumped in with a raised hand shouting with fervor, “I’ll do it!” Every one of us at the table looked up with wide eyes, hoping someone would say what all of us were thinking. And there the kitchen organizer did indeed. “How ‘bout you just stick with peeling,” he said.  “It’s ok. I’ve used a knife before,” the boy replied confidently. “I’m sure you have,” the coordinator said back. “I’d just feel better that you stick with peeling, since it’s so crowded in here. I wouldn’t want you to cut yourself.” Obviously disappointed, but willing to take whatever he could get, the boy agreed and joined us, yelling to his father at the next station over, “Dad, I’m doing food prep! I’m doing food prep.” You would have thought we’d given him the role of head chef.

My next stop was the peanut butter and jelly table, which oddly enough, I had been eyeing for some time. Aside from being a longtime fan of the PB&J, I suppose I imagined that assembling the soft, sweet sandwiches in mass quantities would be more pleasant than peeling and chopping endless bags of carrots and potatoes. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was not the case at all. Making a single peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch at home is one thing; making hundreds by way of assembly line, at a folding table in a church hall, in an emergency relief effort, using plastic utensils—that’s another entirely. Peanut butter is thick and jelly is sticky, and the two together make for a messy pair. Beyond that, plastic knives like to snap in half when used to spread the stuff. Then there’s the overflowing bread-basket, filled with everything from packaged white to packaged wheat to artisanal seven grain with nuts and seeds. With such a mélange, there is no guarantee both slices of a sandwich are going to be a match. But I suppose in the end, looks don’t really matter when you’re hungry.

From peanut butter and jelly, it was on to pulled pork, and after pulled pork it was home. On the bus, I looked down and found a shred of carrot skin dried on my jacket, and on the underside of my sleeve, a sticky smear of jelly. It looked like I had taken a bath inside a dirty dishwasher and I smelled like a pulled pork sandwich. I was hoping no one around me would notice. But then I thought about why I looked the way I did and smelled the way I did. And I was thankful that at least I had a warm home to go to with a fridge full of food, a hot shower and my own bed to sleep in. I remembered that I was one of the lucky ones.

Day 2

By the end of Saturday, even before the shower and having something to eat, I was feeling on top of the world. I was, really—like my heart was overflowing with love. Cheesy, I know, but they do say that volunteering stimulates the release of endorphins, so…   Anyway, whatever it was, I was feeling great and there was no way I wasn’t going to go back for more. And of course, having gone through the drill once already—getting there, orientation, finding my way around and finding something to do– I felt prepared going back. I was ready for another productive day that I was sure would be even better than the one before.

I should have figured, by the way the morning started out though, that there was a chance things would not end up exactly as I had imagined. I should have seen the bus being 30 minutes late as a sign. But I’m an optimist through and through, so the fact that I waited on a stoop in the chilly air for half an hour didn’t really phase me. I arrived at the church a little later than I had wanted to, but I had all day and there was lots of work to be done.

At first glance, nothing was different from the day before, but very soon I noticed that there seemed more people…more stuff…and, more chaos. But as I had planned it, I wouldn’t be staying anyway. For Day 2, I wanted to be out in the field—to see the people I was helping face to face, to deliver hot meals and knock on doors to find out what they needed most. But, I wasn’t alone in this and I didn’t have a car. So for those who hoped to hitch a ride with another driver, there were two lines to wait in on the sidewalk outside the church—one for people with boots, the other for people without. I hadn’t thought of this and I had chosen to wear sneakers. So as the ones in work boots and golashes were whisked away to the Rockaways and Staten Island, I was running food and supplies upstairs, downstairs, from the donation room to cars and back. In all honesty, I felt less like I was doing any good and more like a hamster running circles in a toy wheel. And by the end of the day I was wishing I had just stuck to chopping carrots.

It wasn’t until I was home that night, watching the news again, that I started to see everything in perspective. First, that volunteering isn’t about how you, the volunteer feels—the endorphins and all of that—but instead, about the work you do and the people you’re helping. So I like to get my hands dirty, and when I didn’t get to that day, I was disappointed. I’m only human. But just because I didn’t feel like I was doing anything so important, it didn’t mean my simple tasks weren’t. Every job in an effort such as this one, is as important as the next, whether it’s sweeping the floor, sorting toiletries or lugging water to cars. So I didn’t get to go to visit the sites and I didn’t feel so fulfilled. I wasn’t sitting on a cloud like I had been the night before, but it was ok.

As the rain (and snow) and wind begin again, the effort to help these people is certainly not going to just end; the need is not going to go away. I will go back to help.

And when I do, I’ll just be sure to wear my boots.

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My Boo

The first dog I ever really loved was one I met thirteen years ago at my first job out of college. I had grown up in a house full of animals—three dogs included— but as a kid, I didn’t care so much about them. I loved them as kittens and puppies, but once they were past that, and real responibility set in, they may as well have been my dad’s. As I got older and our animals passed on, I got used to life without them. So here I was, not really a pet person, and I land this job in a studio working for a guy with a little Jack Russell named Henry. I would see him every day, because my boss would bring him, because in New York, that’s what people do. I was pretty much smitten with him right off the bat, and working in this small-office environment and being my boss’s right-hand-(wo)man, I quickly became dog-walker, dog-sitter and playmate. And soon, I found myself loving the little guy like he was my own.

Funny how history repeats itself—how years later I landed at a new job, with a new boss, with the same name, and…a dog. This time, however, instead of it being a spry, little Jack Russell at an office in the West Village, it was a 65-lb Golden Retriever in midtown. And rather than be a real city pup like Henry was, having been adopted into a Manhattan home at only weeks old, this one was an inheritance, left behind by deceased parents; a country dog from Jersey that had never set paw in the city, let alone been on a walk down Eighth Avenue.

When I first heard the dog first would be joining us, I didn’t think much of it. But days into the new situation, once I realized that as assistant to this dog’s owner, I would be next in line as daytime caregiver, I wasn’t so thrilled. Selfishly, it was this very lack of interest in having such responsibility in my life, that had kept me, for so many years, from ever getting a pet of my own. I didn’t want to be part-time dog-walker.

But how could I say no to those puppy dog eyes.

So I went along with it… most often times, instead of walking the dog, being walked by the dog—because at 65 pounds, this guy was quite strong.

A few months into this new routine, my boss asked me one day if I wanted to look for a dog walker to take over. I jumped at the chance. Relief! But before I ended up finding one, something came over me. I started appreciating my walks with the dog. I turned what I had been looking at as a task, into something I cherished. I began to love our midday strolls, whether in the sun or under a cloudy sky. It was time away from the phones and the emails, just the two of us. And funny…it happened so fast I didn’t even realize… we eventually got to a point that he wasn’t walking me, but that I was actually walking him. We had a route. We had a rhythm. Me and Boo, Boo and me. And soon, I began to love him just the way I loved Henry—like he was my own.

But of course when you love an animal so much, it’s only harder when you lose them.

Boo died last week.

I had known that he was sick, so in a way I was prepared. Still, you never really are ready for the day when it finally does arrive, the sadness that consumes you, the great void you feel with this sweet creature suddenly absent. Someone said it best the other day– how our relationships with our pets are like no others, in that they are so simple, but at the same time, so genuine. I miss Boo coming to my desk to say hello, nudging me with his wet nose because he needs to go out, sniffing around me as I eat my lunch, waiting for a scrap to fall, or even just curling up on the floor beside me. I keep thinking back to when I first met him, how in the beginning we were strangers, how clumsy our walks were. And then I think of how in the end, we had come so far. I really got to love this dog.

It was Tuesday when Boo died, the first day back to work after the long holiday weekend. As crazy as it may sound, I like to think he waited to go, until he could see us all once more– that maybe he even waited so we could have that one last walk together. One of my co-workers and I were talking the other day about how great it would be if pets never died, but instead could stay on forever and be passed along from person to person or family to family whenever someone was in need of that unconditional love they’re so good at giving.

Like when any loved one passes, I have to believe that  Boo is in a better place now, free from any pain or struggle. I wish of course he could have stayed with us forever, but I feel so lucky to have had him in my life even for the short time that I did.

My friend, I miss you.

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IF….

Once, years ago, I had a doctor friend of mine tell me that if he hadn’t chosen medicine as his path, he’d have gone the route of architecture or some kind of design. I laughed to myself, hearing his “if”, thinking how I, then a creative project manager, had so many times, wished I could do what he did. I sob, watching television dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy thinking, I want to save lives. I want to be a doctor.

At 17, I decided I was going to be an interior designer. That was it. And of course I assumed it would be my job—or my career– forever. I never imagined that at 30, I’d stop and question it and the whole direction my life was going. But I did. And now here I am working on being a writer. This is it. For real. (Or so I’m thinking.)

My mind still wanders though. If I could be anything…

It happened just the other day at work– at the architecture firm where I’m office manager (which ordinarily is just fine by me, as it provides me the freedom to leave with enough brain-power to be creative by night). It was during our office-wide meeting, when a line of architects stood up, one after another to present their projects. I was in the back of the room, craning my neck so to get a peak, and hear at least mumbles of what that had to say. One of them talked about their design for a clothing boutique in Japan, another about a penthouse apartment in the West Village; one was working on a flagship store uptown, and another on a beach house in the Hamptons. I felt a twinge somewhere between envy and longing as I stood there in admiration of their work, saying to myself, I want to do that. Architecture! I quietly slipped into a daydream– a ridiculous one of course– where I saw myself carrying tubes of drawings wherever I went, with a pencil always in hand, or twisted in my hair at all times that I could reach for at a moment’s notice to sketch random ideas as they came to me, on cocktail napkins or pieces of mail; I pictured myself adopting a wardrobe of all black and wearing my glasses every day, with great commissions coming my way from the US and abroad. I snapped back to reality.

But so quickly, I fall again into la-la land. Maybe it’s an athlete that I really want to be. That is my wish whenever the Olympics come around. Or I’d love to be a musician… or better an actor, where I could be so many different things without really being them.  My “If” list could go on for days.

Really, though what’s the point? Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for changing your path if the one you’re on is getting stale. But come on…sometimes it’s just gotta be said that reality bites. In a lifetime, there is no way for any one of us to do all that we’d like to do. It would be easy if we were all born with one-track minds. Unfortunately, I was not; and there is never a shortage of things I want to try and do and be great at. But since eventually we all must choose, I suppose we should just trust ourselves, that the choices we make, are the right ones for us.

You’re Invited (Alone)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me she was going as someone’s date to a wedding at the Pierre. Hearing this, I was surprised, as only weeks before, we’d been talking about how these days, considering the cost of such fêtes, wedding invitations seldom include guests. I suppose however, if you can afford to throw your party at the Pierre, you’ve got money growing on trees, so the numbers don’t really matter. But for us middle class folk, where there is a budget guiding our decisions, the guest list is always an issue. So for friends that are unattached, dates are most certainly out. I get it. I really do. And for the most part, I’m ok with it. Usually when I’m invited to a wedding, there’s a circle of friends I know will be there, so if I must go solo, it’s fine, because I won’t really be by myself. That said, seeing your name alone on the invite is a little tougher to swallow when you don’t know anyone but the bride and groom.

This past weekend, that was just the case. It was wedding #2 of five for me this summer, the only one where being single had me feeling a little unenthused. It’s not like it was a decade ago, when walking into a wedding reception was like walking into a speed-dating event—troops of single guys in every corner, to make eyes with and mingle with, to dance with, drink with and at the end of the night, maybe exchange numbers with. These days, all of them are married. Some are even pushing baby strollers around or wearing Baby Bjorns under their suit jackets. When you’re at a wedding, the lonely singleton amongst a roomful of couples, it can get awkward, especially when DJ spins a slow song. Let me tell you, it feels just like fifteen again.

So, a few weeks before the big day, I got an email from this bride-to-be, introducing me to her one other single girlfriend who’d be attending, thinking we might pair up, travel together, split a hotel room. “Kate, Andrea. Andrea, Kate.” We had actually met once before, at a party—a quick hello really. She seemed nice enough then. Maybe this was not such a bad idea after all. So I gave her a call, we settled on a plan, cut our costs for the weekend in half. Great. But as I headed out to meet her the morning of, I remembered, really, we were still strangers… Just like any blind date, our meeting could end up going either way. We could totally hit it off, or it could blow up in each of our faces.

My mother always tells me, it’s always best to expect nothing special. That way, if it turns out above and beyond, you’re pleasantly surprised. So, I went in expecting nothing. If we ended up hating each other’s guts, so what? It was one day. We would live.

Well, I made it through alive.

I’m sitting here, not yet a week later and I can’t stop looking at the pictures thinking about what a perfect time we had. I’ll admit it, being single, despite the old adage that you find it when you’re not looking, I always go into a wedding with the romantic idea that I’ll leave shouting from the rooftops, “I met someone!” I’ve never before imagined that that someone would be a new great girlfriend. But that’s kind of how it ended up.

From the minute we spotted one another hurrying through Grand Central, it was a match made in heaven. Like two peas from the same pod we were, rushing to find one another, apologizing, late, her having forgotten this, me having forgotten that, easily agreeing, no worries, we’d catch the next train. Sitting down, we split her Sunday Times, read a bit, chatted more. At the hotel we got dolled up, consulting one another on accessories and hairdos, while commiserating over parallel stories of dating in New York. At my realization that I’d forgotten my perfume, Kate said, like any good sister or friend would, “Use mine.” At the wedding, we danced and laughed. I practiced my British accent with her, a born Brit…taking the piss, she thought… but no, in adoration I told her. We even managed to find a pair of single guys to befriend.

I was so worried in anticipation of the day, of being by myself, that I didn’t even think of what fun it might be, to be there unattached. So I had a girl date. It was like going to homecoming stag with a bunch of friends. We could do as we pleased, no pressure, just fun. I’ll take that over sitting with an awkward real date any day.

So by the end of the weekend it was like Kate and I been friends for years. In spending all of a day and a half together, we sort of developed a friendship…in superspeed. Of course I would have loved to meet my dream guy there, but how could I be disappointed for having met a great new girlfriend? At 35, sure, it’s hard to go to weddings alone. But just as it’s hard to find that right person to spend the rest of my life with, it’s hard to meet the right woman to hike that bumpy road with. And when you find one, it is truly priceless.

The setting…

The happy couple…

Kate and Me…

Two Days In Woodstock, NY

Even as much as we love it, and as hard as it is for some of us to admit, sometimes the city can just get to us—the endless pavement, our daily subterranean commute, the crowds, the smells…

We all know, a change of pace, even if only a temporary one, is good for us every now and then. And here in New York, we’re lucky. We need not venture far from our urban habitat to escape to someplace different, where—beach or country—we  feel as if we’re worlds away.

It’s mid-summer and I got the itch. So last weekend I made a trip. It was not aboard the Jitney, to the beach like seemingly every other New Yorker, but instead north, just over a hundred miles from Manhattan, to Ulster county’s mid-Hudson Valley, to the cozy town of Woodstock. Yes Woodstock. I know what you’re thinking. Woodstock, where the music festival was. Contrary to popular belief, that festival back in 1969 didn’t actually take place in the town of Woodstock, but rather, in a town called Bethel, 43 miles away. Even so, Woodstock—a thriving artists’ colony since the early 1900s—remains adorned with tokens of the era: peace signs, painted guitars, tie-dye…

…and graffitied cars.

Despite Woodstock’s small-town charm, I don’t know that two days is enough to see and do everything, but it’s certainly enough for that change of pace I mentioned. At least it worked for me. So if you’re planning to head up in that direction, or if you’re still weighing your options, here’s a recap of my two days in Woodstock—perhaps a little guide…or if the latter, maybe something to help guide your decision.

My mom and dad were up visiting from Florida, and as they already know the city well enough, suggested we take a little adventure. So they were my sidekicks for the weekend. We started late in the day on Friday, and as anyone who’s ever tried leaving Manhattan past three o’clock on the eve of a weekend knows, moving in that traffic is (not that I’ve ever tried, but…) probably very much like trying to run a marathon in shackles. That is, getting anywhere fast is pretty much impossible. So, by the time we arrived in Woodstock it was dark. And by dark, I mean pitch-black, because in Woodstock there are barely any street lights. So I’m behind the wheel, driving along in this town I don’t know, on narrow and winding roads, I can hardly see, and the three of us are starving. So with our rooms at the  B&B secured, we decided to go straight to dinner. We called the first of three places I jotted down as options prior to getting in the car, and as luck would have it, because it was already after nine (and we were in the boonies), the first place we called said they’d wait for us. Great. So we took a turn off of 375 and after passing it at least three times, finally arrived at our destination—a rustic lodge, tucked in the woods, decorated in colored twinkle lights:  Café at Havana Club and Grille at the Woodstock Lodge. Like old friends, they waved us in and told us we could “sit anywhere”… (which is always what you want to hear, right?) Well it turns out, much to our delight, despite there being only four patrons besides us, and a dark, “lodge-y”, no-frills feel, dinner was anything but—and instead, a sophisticated menu of Cuban-Italian fare that was, simply delicious. Back in the woods, yes…back-woods, not so much.

Then, it was on to our B&B—The Woodstock Inn on the Millstream. Unfortunately for us, it was a place, again, tucked in the back roads, in the middle of the woods, and not the easiest place to find in the dead of night, even with GPS “Tommy” Tom Tom leading the way. We did eventually make it and by morning were well aware of where we’d landed.  As one local I spoke with put it, it’s the nicest of the B&B’s in town.

Located along the millstream, on three acres of lush green (or red and orange I’m supposing, come fall), the property includes three buildings with smaller rooms or larger rooms, each with a charming country feel, minus the cabbage rose comforters and dusty, cat-themed knick-knacks. Just beyond the welcome sign, in the lobby-sunroom, a hearty-yet-healthy breakfast awaited us, and outside, the lawn was set with Adirondack chairs and hammocks for an afternoon under the trees, along the millstream. The innkeeper is fittingly down-to-earth, which made the stay an even more pleasant one. We gave it an A+ all around. Definitely a nice place to call home for a weekend.

Saturday was hot and felt like a perfect day for a farmers’ market. Before I was even finished with my breakfast, I was dreaming of fresh fruits and veggies and cheese and bread, and all that good stuff. So, since Woodstock’s farmers’ market wasn’t open, we got in the car and headed to neighboring Kingston, (Ulster’s county seat), 11 miles southeast, to their market on Wall Street. Local vendors and craftspeople set up shop under tents to sell their goods, from produce, home-baked breads, artisanal cheese and local wines to handcrafted jewelry and pottery and homemade soaps. So we bought…and we went home and indulged.

After lunch, it was time to unwind in the lawn. While my dad napped, my mom and I relaxed in a couple of chairs by the millstream, picking our heads up from our books on occasion, to watch the brave few that decided to take a dip. Looked like fun yes, but it appeared that the water might have been a little too chilly for my blood!

For dinner, it was back into town to Violette Restaurant Wine Bar, housed in a cozy farmhouse just along Route 212. Inside, sunflower yellow walls set a cheerful backdrop to a beautiful dinner. Again, it was the perfect combination of lovely food, that was as tasteful as it was simple, friendly staff and a warm, welcoming surrounding.

We were finished with dinner by nine, which turned out to be just in time for us to head to the other side of town to Upstate Films, the one-screen indie movie house on Tinker Street, to see “To Rome With Love.” The evening was great. Fun movie, great place—every seat in the house full; and best, that quaint, small-town theatre feel you don’t get much of these days.

On Sunday morning, on the advice of our waitress friend at Friday night’s Woodstock Lodge, we headed to 11 o’clock mass at St. John’s Church, just up the road on Holly Hills Drive. Church is church is church, one may think, right? Well, after mass at St. John’s, I would beg to differ. Some are just a little extra special…and this is one of them. After an a cappella “God Bless America,” in honor of the 4th of July, the pastor, Father George said mass. And it was exactly what to me, church is supposed to be… an hour of peace, a little bit of prayer, a message to walk away with and maybe even some new friends in the end.

After mass, it was a walk around town; a stroll down Tinker Street to check out some of the shops.

At Mirabai, we found ‘calm’… with spiritual books and gifts…

…at Candlestock, it was…yup…candles galore…

kitchen and home goods at Gilded Carriage

…bread and pastries at Bread Alone;

Organic fruits and flowers at Sunfrost Farms

and a little bit of everything at the flea market.

And there was plenty of art along the way—as much out of doors as in.

On my list for next time, are the galleries, the playhouseyoga and maybe a hike or two; all the things I didn’t get to do this time around. I’ve pinned this list to my fridge, because there definitely will be a next time…

…and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.

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