I’m NOT Fine ~Death to Small Talk

death to small talk
Copyright : Peter Bernik

I’m in a great mood right now. Surprising, huh? I usually write when I’m depressed, pissed off or at least lethargic. Never fear, because the other day, I wasn’t in a great mood. I was in a horrible mood, but necessity dictated I go out into the world, so I did.

As I went, I was determined not to tell people I felt “fine.” I’ve gone out with this decree in my head before. When people ask, “How’s it going today?” I think, I’ll tell it like it is. Though I fantasize about responding with, “shitty, actually,” I know I’m not confrontational enough to pull it off; I hate making people uncomfortable. But I figured  I could say, “Not great,” or at the very least, “Meh.”

It turns out, it is a physical impossibility for anything other than “fine” to escape my lips. The clerk at the grocery store asked how I was, and I said, “fine.” I didn’t even realize it until thirty seconds later:

Wait, did she ask me how I was? Did I say “fine?” Crap, I did. Damnit!

It’s like breathing. I don’t think about saying “fine,” it just happens; I’m barely aware of it coming out of my mouth. Bottom line is, people use it as a greeting and aren’t actually interested in how you are (unless you are indeed “fine” or “great” or “fabulous.”)

The thing is, though, what are they going to say when I give less than, “Gosh, gee, ain’t it great to be alive?” They will probably…

A. Be sorry they asked.

B. Ask what’s wrong even though they don’t want to know.

C. Be baffled when I shrug my shoulders and say, “Just one of those days, I guess.”

I’d like to be honest about my feelings when people ask, even if it’s a stranger. I don’t want to pour my heart out to them; that’s part of the reason for the knee-jerk “fine.” I just want to be able to use an adjective that actually applies to my mood and/or day. In my ideal world, where everyone admits they’re not “fine” all the time, it would go something like this:

Stranger: How are you today?

Me: Not great, actually.

Stranger: Oh yeah? I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.

Me: Meh. It happens. How are you?

So here’s the question: Have you ever answered “How are you?” with something other than the expected positive affirmation when talking to a stranger? How did it go?

 

My Own, Finished Steaming Pile of…

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Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

I am great at starting projects. I have started writing a book at least six times in my life. In the past several years I have begun learning to knit, gathered pictures for a collage I never finished, and started a quilt using old fabric. Okay, I gathered the material in a big kitchen bag beside my bed, but I don’t actually know how to quilt, so it just sat there until I got tired of Jason complaining about all my unfinished projects lying around, and I hid it in the closet where it still resides today.

Sometimes I just lose steam. That’s what happens with writing. I’ll get this great idea, usually while I’m lying in bed on a weekend morning. I’ll run downstairs and tippity type away, banging out several chapters. That might happen a few more times until I get a quarter to a third of a novel…and then I quit. I used to think I was just lazy, but then I realized it’s that I get cold feet. I start to think the idea sucks or I can’t think of what comes next without it feeling contrived. Several months of hesitation go by where I find every excuse not to write. Suddenly, whole closets need to be cleaned out and rearranged. Suddenly, I need a Twitter account. Then I lose the thread of the story. Half a year later, I have another blinding flash of genius whilst lying in bed, and the cycle begins again. I am really good at starting stories. Is there a career in that?

As time went on, I doubted I was capable of completing a novel. I couldn’t even finish knitting a pot holder, after all. So this last time I got an idea, I told myself I would finish, no matter how doubtful I was and no matter what steaming pile of inconsistent plot and shallow characters I ended up creating. I had to know I could finish, quality be damned.

As I wrote this last story, there were days I was inspired and tippity typing at my fastest, but there were more days when I sat, typed two halting sentences, deleted them, then went for a walk. But, I finished the damned story. At this point, I’ve been over it so many times, I think it might be crap. I don’t know; I really can’t tell anymore. And there are problems with it that I don’t know how to fix.

I enlisted my sister as a beta reader because despite being my sister, I know she’ll tell me the truth, which is why I am scared to read her feedback. It’s dismaying to think the thing you’ve wanted to do pretty much your whole life, the thing you’ve finally accomplished, might be awful. I also know I have more stories in me, but finishing that first one was like wringing the last drips from a washcloth. I’m not sure I have it in me again.

But, I did it. I wrote a novel. It might be a steaming pile of crap, but it’s my steaming pile of crap. And it’s finished.

Business Advice You Probably Shouldn’t Take

115722623 - funny bored girl playing with pencil at business meeting
image credit: nicoletaionescu

 

UPDATE: Since I first posted this, I did decide to merge my business blog with my personal blog. Since I consider the business of uncomfortable emotions part of my business, it made sense.

When I first started a personal blog back in 2008, I was nervous about putting my most private thoughts and feelings out there on the internet for anyone to read. However, I quickly discovered that, guess what? NO ONE READ MY BLOG. I was equal parts dismayed and relieved.

Years and several blog iterations later, I was waiting on the corner for my kids to get out of school when another mom I barely knew said, “I read your blog. It was really great.” I froze. This random woman now knew some really personal things about me, and I felt VERY uncomfortable.

Since that day, I’ve made peace with putting my life out there. My goal was to acknowledge the emotional struggles we all have — the ones we sweep under the rug so we can pretend everything’s hunky dory — and help people feel relief in the knowledge they’re not alone. Now, when people tell me they read my personal blog, Riding the Wave, and tell me it struck a chord in them, I’m pleased.

But how does THAT blog mesh with this business-related one? Both are under my name; I even have them linked together. Anyone I do business with can click on over there and peer into the chaotic chasm of my brain. “Uncomfortable” doesn’t do it justice.

I could discontinue my personal blog or write it under a pseudonym. I could at the very least un-link it from this one or quit splashing it all over social media. But in the name of authenticity, I just can’t do it, even if it’s a terrible business decision. Sure, there’s a place for business and a place for emotional messiness; that’s why I have two different blogs. But the emotional messiness is real, and I’m not going to force it to live in the closet. It’s exhausting trying to keep it in there; the closet’s just not big enough.

You don’t have to empty the contents of your brain onto the page the way I do in my personal blog, but maybe you can let your guard down concerning work a little. And maybe we can all strive to make it feel safer to do that than it does now — not make it the death of your respectability. We can be good at our jobs, we can be focused, efficient hard workers, AND we can have some mess in the background that roams around the house instead of keeping to the unseen storage spaces. It’s not weakness; it’s normal.

Coffee Pods, Banana Peels, and Impending Doom

Jenny Lawson, You Are HereI ordered a book the other day, and then I forgot I ordered it because it took longer than the customary speed-of-light Amazon delivery. Then I remembered yesterday and thought, Where is that book? It was in the mailbox this morning, and it showed up exactly when I needed it.

They’re building a new shopping center down the road from us. I don’t know what will be in it, but it nicely complements the half-empty one less than a mile from it. I read a blog the other day about consumerism and how advertising is always trying to convince us we need stuff, pointing out our supposed flaws so they can sell us eye creme, Spanx, and protein shakes. I would’ve been pumping my fist in solidarity if it hadn’t been for the pop-up ads on the post making me wonder if the hypocrisy was totally lost on the author.

There is so much shit wrong with this world politically, socially, environmentally. It seems capitalism is failing us, as businesses act with self-interest — build more stuff, sell more stuff, convince people they need more stuff — instead of what is in the interest of the greater good. Sometimes it is clothed in a disguise of altruism, which is either intentional misdirection on their part or self-delusion and rationalization, but it always results in the making and buying of stuff.

I look at all of this, and I have a feeling of despair, of helplessness. I can clean out coffee pods to recycle them all day long, I can compost every last banana peel we make, I can avoid driving to reduce our carbon emissions. But what real difference is that going to make when industries, the biggest purveyors of environmental pollution of all kinds, aren’t following suit? Because it’s more expensive or a pain in the ass or people just don’t like change, they aren’t going to do it. Because industry is self-serving, and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to say they don’t give a shit about the future of our planet or humankind. They *might* care on an individual person level, or they might give lip service to it, but those who could implement real change through business policy aren’t going to.

And then I get You Are Here in the mail, and I read these lines:

You send out needed ripples of greatness and kindness in unexpected and accidental ways. You won’t always see the wonderful ways in which you shift the world. They may be invisible to you. But I promise you they are real.

IMG_1350This isn’t empty platitude from a self-help guru or motivational speaker. It’s an honest accounting by the author, Jenny Lawson, who suffers from anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease. Most of the things she writes are darkly humorous accounts of her childhood and her struggles with illness. Coming from her, it reads less like someone trying to cheer me up and more like a sister in suffering giving me a hug, shoring me up, and telling me to keep the faith.

My mother’s guiding principle in life is to “leave things better than she found them.” Mine, I guess, is similar. I want to recognize what is real and raw, emotionally, for so many of us. I don’t need to offer mind-blowing advice or shout it from the mountain for all of humanity to hear. But if a few people read what I write and it makes them feel less alone, makes their lives just a tiny bit better, that’ll be enough, coffee pods and banana peels be damned. Thanks, Jenny, for reminding me.

Hammer Therapy

Hammer, nails on wooden boards outside on construction site
Copyright : Jozef Polc

When I was thirteen, my dad threw a hammer at me.

Now before you go getting all shocked and jumping to conclusions, I should point out, he prefaced the throw with, “Here, catch,” as he gently lobbed it about six feet to my outstretched hand. Also, we were on a roof, and I suck at catching things.

Okay, full story: My dad, mom, sister, and I were up on our roof hammering shingles into the addition to the house my dad had just completed. We have always been a full-on, do-it-yourself family, occasionally to the point of what some would call stupidity. When Dad said, “Here, catch,” and I realized he was going to throw a hammer I was expected to successfully receive, I was terrified I’d miss it and Dad would be mad. I did miss it, and it clattered to the roof, knocking some of the surfacing from the brand-new composition shingles. He was mad. It was the classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the way, do you know what composition shingles are? ‘Cause I do. That’s how I was raised — knowing a lot of random construction details most non-construction people neither know nor care about. And yes, it’s a point of pride. Go ahead, ask me how dual vanity sinks are plumbed. I’ll draw you a diagram. If you want to know how a post-tension slab foundation works, I can give you details on that, too. Mind you, I couldn’t actually build one, but I could definitely write a manual.

But I digress. So I missed the hammer, and Dad got irritated at me. He said something to the effect of, “Goddamnit, April! Why didn’t you catch that?”

Mom then came to my rescue with, “Because she knew you’d yell at her if she didn’t!”

I didn’t say anything, but in my head, I was like, Yeah. Yeah, that’s why! It was a revelation; nerves had gotten the better of me, and I didn’t even realize that was a thing that happened until she said it.

I tell this story, because how can you not tell a story that starts with, “One time, my dad threw a hammer at me…” and make people wonder? And because it’s a snapshot memory that stands out in technicolor clarity in my mind. It was when I realized that pressuring people to perform can have the exact opposite of the desired effect, and it gave me an inkling of insight into my own psychological hangups.

The moral of this story is, you’ve got to verbalize your children’s emotions for them from time to time to help them label those emotions. Or maybe it’s that you shouldn’t expect your kids to be perfect all the time. No, no, I’ve got it. It’s…

If you really want a kid to learn something, put them on a roof and throw hammers at them. Right?

 

 

This is Not What I Expected

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Photo Credit: Catherine George

Yesterday, I was wading through old photos on my computer looking for one I could use for an article when I happened upon some pictures of myself, roughly eight years ago. I’m feeding baby Gage with a bottle and looking over at toddler Jack, smiling. I totally look like I have my shit together in those photos. I totally did not.

I often wonder, when I see parents at the grocery store toting two young children along, parents who look like they also have their shit together, are they really that chill? Or is it like that photo of me — only calm on the outside? Is everyone kind of a wreck when they have little kids? I wonder this because I have…let’s say a history behind my quest to have children. That history gave me an unusual level of anxiety once I had them.

I always wanted kids. I have introspected on that desire a lot, and I’m pretty sure it was a biological/emotional urge that originated with me and not societal norms. So in college, I mapped it out in my head. This may seem weird, but I know of at least one other person who did this, so it’s a thing. I wanted to be done having kids by the time I was 30. To space them out by at least two years, I needed to be pregnant with the first one by the time I was 26. I wanted to be married for at least two years before having them, so that meant a wedding by the time I was 24. I wanted to date at least two years before getting married, so that meant meeting Mr. Right by the time I was 22. And, since I figured this out when I was 21, I panicked.

This absurd logic is what prompted me to get married, just slightly off my timeline, at 25. This doesn’t mean I was a heartless asshole who didn’t marry for love. I was deeply in love with my first husband. We were great friends, we were okay dating partners, we were shitty at marriage together. (Not that anyone knew it, not even us. We were delusional.)

I was the catalyst for all of this. I don’t think he was quite ready to get married, and I think he was even less ready when I suggested going off birth control when I was 27, but he went along with it because he loved me and he did want kids at some point.

I got pregnant. We celebrated. We told everyone. I gave my grandmother a birthday card from her great-grandchild, and it brought tears to her eyes. Then, I miscarried. It was awful, and we had to tell everyone what happened, which was a lot shittier than telling them I was pregnant. I was devastated. Then, I had three more miscarriages, and I was a wreck. I was profoundly depressed and panicked that I might not ever carry a baby to term. My timeline was all fucked up now. He said, “I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.” I said, point blank, “I won’t.”

He went back to school to change careers, and we decided to take a break from trying to conceive. That’s when I realized how unhappy I was. I’d been distracted by the baby thing, and taking a step back, I noticed how dysfunctional our marriage was. I knew it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I let it fester, the childish part of me pushing it down and ignoring it, despite the more adult part of my brain knowing that wasn’t going to work long term. We got divorced.

At that point, I was 30, and I finally stopped clinging to my stupid timeline, stopped adjusting it and projecting forward with the ridiculous notion I had control over the matter. I decided, in my dogged way, I would have children. If I had to beg, borrow, steal, or adopt them, if I had to raise them by myself in the woods amongst the wolves, it was going to happen sooner or later. So when Jason and I got married, I had no ulterior baby motive.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we had Jack. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. I got pregnant with Gage when I was 34, and gave birth to him when I was 35. During my last pregnancy, I had to talk myself out of a panic attack repeatedly; my uterus hadn’t magically expired on my 35th birthday. Then, there was a measure of relief. Procreation, which had dominated my thoughts for over a decade, seven pregnancies later, was complete. I could stop worrying about baby-making sex and relax. But I didn’t. Because after all that time, I couldn’t believe it was real. I couldn’t fathom that “they” (I have no idea who “they” are) were going to let me keep my children.

When they were infants, I worried about SIDS, I worried about whooping cough and the flu, I worried about BPA in baby bottles and pesticides on lawns. If it existed as even a remote threat to my babies, I worried about it. Something in my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that they weren’t going to be yanked away from me. The saga I’d gone through to have children made their existence feel fragile to me.

Thankfully, I grew out of that. I’m pretty free-rangy as a parent these days, and it would be hard to know I was ever so anxious about their safety. Those close to me back then knew — my parents, Jason’s parents, and certainly Jason. But not the people in the park or the people in the grocery store. They saw what I see in that old photo — a calm, smiling, competent parent. More and more these days, I am that mom, but I still have my moments.

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Photo Credit: Catherine George

Absence Makes the Heart…

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Jason and the boys at Chuy’s

Jason’s out of town this week. He doesn’t travel often, so it’s weird having him gone. There are logistical things. I had to take both kids to a dentist appointment for one of them because no one was home to watch the younger one. We have two soccer games, two birthday parties, and a school thing this weekend — events that overlap, so I’m trying to finagle rides, decide which I’m going to and which ones my kids can do without me. The real difference, though, is less obvious.

While most of us introverts love a chance to have the house to ourselves and watch whatever we want to on TV, I find myself feeling lonely this week. I am enjoying the alone time some, but it’s taking a backseat to how much I miss Jason. I get a lot of my adult social interaction from him. We both work from home, and though we don’t spend a lot of time talking to each other, we run the occasional errand or grab lunch together sometimes. We share the little things with each other — a funny meme, a ridiculous email, allergies or a back muscle that’s acting up.

True, I’ve been going to bed on time more often this week, because I’m not tempted to stay up and watch Game of Thrones and drink wine with Jason, but that doesn’t feel like an improvement in my life; it feels like something’s missing. The TV isn’t on as much, because he’s not here in the evening to watch whatever the sport du jour is. It’s kind of nice; I like quiet. But it’s also kind of lonely.

The kids miss their dad, too. Jack needs him to commiserate over sports with him, and Gage needs those silly interactions they always have. It’s clear to me, our family is not whole without him. I give my kids a lot, but I don’t have everything they need, and I would not want to do this parenting job by myself.

Right now, Jason’s in Scotland, playing the Old Course at St. Andrews. He is having the time of his life, as I can tell by the texts with multiple exclamation marks and the gorgeous photos. It makes me smile to think of him having so much fun. He really is my best friend — the kind of best friend you sometimes fight with, sometimes roll your eyes at, sometimes storm off from — but you know you’ll always be friends because no one knows you better. He knows what that look on my face means, and I know what his heavy sighs indicate about his mood.

We get on each other’s nerves sometimes, just like any two people who share a household, a relationship, and children, but right now, I just miss him. I know it’s silly, but I’m having a hard time working, I miss him so much. His absence is palpable. He’s oceans away, and it’s like I can feel it. I can feel that he’s all the way across the Atlantic and not just on the other side of town or in Houston.

This feels like a good thing — anything that makes you appreciate how much your partner contributes to your life. Day in and day out, it’s easy to focus on the little annoyances — toilet paper not on the roll, the television on too loud* — but when all of that is gone for a while, you start to see all you’ve taken for granted. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Or if it doesn’t, you’ve got bigger problems than rogue toilet tissue.

Part of me wants to delete this because it’s so sappy and I find it a little embarrassing, but that would be counter to my personal mission to keep it real in the emotional realm. So there you have it. I love him. With all of my heart and soul. He’s not perfect, but it’s a good thing because neither am I.

 

*That’s not to say that these aren’t valid complaints that deserve to be addressed and made into memes, just that there’s a lot of good stuff too.