I’m Gorgeous

“I’m fat,” I say.

We’ve just made love…we are 55…we’ve been together for 36 years…we’re each other’s one and only lover…ever…

I was 110 pounds of long legs and silky hair when we met. I was gorgeous, but I didn’t know it.

We got married. We had kids. I was trim.

In my 40’s, for the first time in my life, I got fat. So fat, my breasts were abundant.

But I was fat.

I lost weight. I was, once again, slim. I was gorgeous.

Ten years passed.

I got fat again. Menopause and anti-depressants. Ten years older, crow’s feet and age spots.

Which is where I am today.

It’s okay.

Today, I love myself. I’m happy. I have a good marriage. My kids are doing well. My career is vibrant, and I make a good living. I’m talented and creative and…if you don’t mind a little padding, well…

I’m gorgeous.

Not because I’m slim, which is what he calls me, even though I’m not.

Not because I have exceptionally great skin, which I do.

Not because I can still turn a head. Which I can.

I’m gorgeous because I love, and I care, and I give and think and try.

I’m gorgeous because I love. I love. I LOVE.

It feels good.

“I’m fat,” I say as we make love. 165 pounds.

He doesn’t argue.

He’d like me thinner. I’d like that, too.

But still, I think, I’m gorgeous, even if I’m no longer his skinny little wife.

Knowing all the ways that I am, indeed, gorgeous, fills my soul with great joy.

I know.

It’s enough.

He loves me. He always will. He is my deepest and dearest and only love.

I am no longer slim. It’s unlikely I’ll ever weigh less than I do at this moment.

That will have to be okay for him. It’s okay for me.

I’m happy. I’m at peace.

So, I’m gorgeous.

The Legacy of Suicide

June 10, 2018

It is tragic that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain both chose to end their lives. They were young, brilliant, and had so much yet to accomplish. If only they could have found a way to hang on.

What’s troubling is that these two gifted people, both of whom called New York their home, opted not to reach out for help despite living in a city that probably has more mental health professionals per capita than any city on earth. We know that Kate Spade had been treated for depression, and that Anthony Bourdain had conquered personal demons, including heroin addiction, without relapsing, and one imagines that counseling of some sort might have had something to do with his sobriety.

So, both were aware of and had access to mental health services, and since they had (likely) made use of them in the past, to some benefit, one assumes that stigma was not a factor in their decisions not to reach out for help. Certainly, the resources available to them given their financial comfort did not make care inaccessible.

Clearly, given these considerations, both must have been, quite literally, not in their right minds. I tell myself this over and over so I can understand how…how…you end your life knowing that a young daughter (Frances Spade, age 13, and Ariane Bourdain, age 8) will spend the rest of her life wondering why she wasn’t a good enough reason to hold on.

I don’t pretend to understand what was going on for Spade or Bourdain as they took the steps to end their lives, but amidst my sadness that they left us too soon, I cannot shake my anger at the inherent selfishness that robbed two children of their parents.

Children do not understand how painful and crushingly hard it can be to be an adult, and even though they may, someday, come to terms with their parents’ suicides, the memory and impact of this trauma, visited upon them so early in their lives, is something they will confront over and over as they get older…the thing they have to overcome, rise above, beat back day after day after day, in an effort not to let it consume them.

It did not have to be that way.

I have battled depression and anxiety for much of my life but wasn’t diagnosed until my 40’s. I’m a very functional, go go go kind of person, and it never occurred to me that the plunging depths of inexplicable sadness that overcame me from time to time was anything other than personal weakness. With the help of an excellent therapist and the right medication, I’ve gotten to a place of good mental health and tranquility. I was lucky to have had the support of my husband and dear friends, not to mention access to really good health care and health insurance that enabled me to get the help I needed. Again, I was lucky.

I don’t know how bad it was for Spade or Bourdain; pretty bad, I’m guessing. What I just cannot understand is how you take that step knowing (as Kate Spade clearly did, according to her suicide note), that such an act is the equivalent of throwing that same child into the middle of the ocean and hoping someone will rescue her before she drowns.

I’m trying hard not to be judgmental or to minimize what must have been a private hell no one understood, one so isolating and complete that the certain trauma that their suicide would inflict upon their daughters was acceptable collateral damage.

I have often said to myself, “I may be a crappy mother, but I’m the only one they have. They deserve to have a mother who is there, imperfect and wanting though she may be, and I will try to get healthy, if only because they need me to.”

When you choose to become a parent…and in our country, with birth control and abortion both legal and available, it is a choice…your life is no longer your own. It becomes about the welfare and well-being of another person. Don’t want that responsibility? Use birth control, abstain, abort, or give up for adoption. All are available to you. You have a choice.

But if you choose to parent, then guess what…whether you are 14 or 24 or 42, your life as you knew it is now over, and it becomes about what is best for the child YOU have chosen to bring into the world. If you can’t do that, DON’T. Because the person you brought into this world has nothing but YOU to count on. Not up to the task? Then DON’T.

I just think that Frances and Ariane, who didn’t ask to be born, and who relied upon the constancy of their parents, deserved better.

My Body, My Self

 

January 25, 2018

For most of my life, I’ve been thin. I was a painfully scrawny child, a slim adolescent with no curves to speak of, and a slender young adult who could eat anything she wanted.  While I was in way toned (because I was in no way athletic and abhorred exercise), I could wear pretty much anything and look reasonably respectable.  I didn’t think about my weight at all, in fact, until after the birth of my first child, when the last fifteen pregnancy pounds didn’t magically disappear as all the breast-feedings manuals said they would.  In fact, I carried those fifteen pounds for the next two years, and as I contemplated adding another child to the mix, I worried that I’d have another fifteen to lose after a second baby, and at that point, I got serious:  I went to Jenny Craig, lost 20 pounds, and kept it off; after having my second child, I quickly lost the pounds and even got down to my pre-college weight.

During my thirties, my weight varied a bit but always remained pretty much within the same 5 – 7 pound range. I had a third child, lost the weight easily, and as I approached my fortieth birthday, I acknowledged that, while I could stand to lose a few pounds, I was still in pretty good shape.

It was in my forties that my anxiety disorder – more low-grade in my earlier years –went into high gear, and for the next twelve years, I dealt with it by either eating nothing or eating way too much. I was on and off anti-depressants; was, for a time, emaciated; gained a huge amount of weight, then lost it; got emaciated again, and then put most of the weight I’d lost back on.  Which is where I find myself at the age of 53.

Over the last two years or so, the weight has crept on – thirty pounds, to be precise. I’ve gone up four dress sizes, have had to purchase three new wardrobes as my weight has increased, and lament the fact that my once hyper-driven metabolism has slowed to a snail’s pace.  I tried Nutrisystem last winter and lost ten pounds, then put it all back on – plus another twenty.

I don’t like the way I look. I hate that my favorite clothes don’t fit and that I don’t look great in the ones that do.  I feel more sluggish, have a harder time hauling my ass up and down the hills at the Lehigh Parkway during my weekly walk, and yet I have zero interest – truly, ZERO interest, in changing my eating habits or significantly ramping up my exercise.

And my daughter’s getting married in August. I’d like to look good for that.

I’m not going to go into a rant about how modern culture has brainwashed women into believing that we should all be a size 4 (though it’s true), or how we need to empower females of all shapes and sizes, starting at a very early age, not to feel bad about themselves solely because of a number on a scale (though we should). Rather, I’m going to focus on me (since it’s my blog, I get to do that if I want), and why losing weight is really important, except that it isn’t.

Partly, I’ve gotten to an age where I really don’t care what people think about how I look, the single exception being my husband – I’d look to look good to him, and he says I do. Whether anyone else – be it male or female, young or old, gay or straight, from a shithole country or a non-shithole country – I just don’t care.  I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m truly, deeply content with myself, my life, my work, and the people around me, and believe me, that is no small thing.  Having rid myself of horrible people, having extricated myself from disastrous jobs, having learned that being right is usually less important than being kind, and having let go all of the detritus of Unfair Shit that Has Happened to Me, I’m a happy person.  I’ve achieved the major goals I set for myself early on, both personally and professionally, and life from here on out looks like smooth sailing, barring catastrophic illness or a second Donald Trump presidential term.  Bottom line, life is good.  It’s hard to care much that I happen to be bigger than I’d like to.

Yet, sometimes I do, and then I feel bad that I’m not doing more to lose the weight. After all, I certainly know how – stop eating so many Milanos, and start going to the gym.  It’s not rocket science, but it does take determination and discipline, something I have in abundance – it’s just that these days, I’m more interested in using that determination and discipline to learn about beekeeping, or staring a charitable foundation, or writing a book, or tending to my plants and my pets, or helping my daughter plan her wedding.  Those things are interesting to me.  Doing Zumba and eating fat-free yogurt isn’t.  Yes, I know I SHOULD be thinner, but I don’t HAVE to be.  It’s not affecting my health, it doesn’t prevent me from living a satisfying life, and it’s really not an issue for anyone except Perfectionist Wendy, who doesn’t tolerate in herself the kind of personal weakness that fails to immediately size up a problem, draft a plan to fix it, and then put that plan into action.

Except I am tolerating it, and really, I think that’s going to be okay, especially because of a small epiphany I had last night while getting out of the shower and spying my cellulite-ridden carcass in the mirror:  “God, you’re so FAT!” I said to myself.  “Disgusting.”  But then I immediately apologized, because I’m trying to be nicer to Inner Wendy.  “Stop doing that, Mean Wendy!” I scolded.  “Be nice!”

And then I thought, why are you criticizing this body? This body that made it possible for you to ski in the Alps, to be in a championship marching band, to perform in high school plays, to learn to play piano, to walk to classes in college and law school to get an education, to dance at my wedding? This body that made and nursed three spectacular young women, that carried them, bathed, them, comforted them when they cried, and snatched them out of harm’s way? Why would I have anything but gratitude for arms and legs that can make a garden look pretty, build an Ikea bookcase, decorate a Christmas tree, or run down a North Carolina sand dune to throw my arms around my newly-engaged daughter as the sun sets behind us and everyone is crying with joy?

Why, I asked myself, are you berating this body that has protected you from serious illness and injury, this body that enables you to bask in the strength and serenity of a yoga practice, or these legs that carry you weekly along walking trails past trees in full color, duck-filled ponds and creeks and, just last week, the first cardinals of the spring? Why would you castigate the body that has made it possible for you to be present, to experience all of the beauty and joy and staggering love that this world has to give? Why would you do that?

 And so I’m not going to, not anymore. If I lose weight, that’s cool, but if I don’t, that’s cool, too.  From now on, I am going to love this body, fat or thin, wrinkled or smooth, size 2 or size 20.  It’s the only one I have, but more importantly, it’s the only one I want.

Mother Wendy’s Letter to Young People

June 23, 2017

Last week, a Massachusetts judge found Michelle Carter guilty of manslaughter after she sent a series of text messages to her boyfriend urging him to commit suicide. At the time, she was 17; her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, was 18. Both had a history of emotional problems.

The texts sent by Carter to Roy on the night he killed himself are chilling, and the story is heartbreaking on so many levels. As the mother of a teenager and two young women in their 20’s, I can’t even imagine what Roy’s parents must be going through – or Carter’s, for that matter, as they contemplate the years their daughter will serve in prison.

But Mother Wendy feels compelled to speak to the Young People (not that I have many Facebook Friends under the age of 40), and so I ask that you please indulge me as I address all the teenagers who may read this post.

Dear Young People:

Being a teen isn’t easy. Sometimes, it out-and-out sucks (my mother hates that word, by the way, and I only use it when I really want to make a point).

You have a lot on your mind, hormones coursing through your body, parents and teachers who are annoying and think the Periodic Table of the Elements is like, super important, and you don’t have a lot of power or self-determination. You’re dependent upon others for your basic necessities, which means that those others get to make a lot of decisions you maybe don’t like, and they also get to tell you what to do or, at the very least, severely limit your ability to do what you want.

Or maybe you have no one – no reliable adults, no support, nothing. Maybe the people who are supposed to be there for you aren’t, because of their job or drugs or prison or because they’re narcissists who should never had children. Maybe you have too much responsibility, and not enough resources. Maybe it feels like there’s no one there to help.

If there are supportive adults in your life, maybe they don’t remember what it’s like to be a teenager. They think that because they have jobs and mortgage payments and have to pay for health insurance and new transmissions that whatever you’re dealing with is minor by comparison, and maybe it is, to them, but it isn’t to you.

Sure, someday you’re the one who’s going to have to pay for the new washing machine or deal with a boss who’s an asshole, but for now, you have teenage-sized problems, and compared to middle-school or elementary school problems, they can feel all-consuming. Parents sometimes forget that things like chemistry tests, or not being included in a social event, or being teased for something about yourself that you can’t change, can feel like the world is ending. They may scoff when you complain about school, or friends, or your job, or maybe they one-up you with an “in my day” story in which they spent their entire youth wearing the same pair of underpants and working in a factory where people routinely got their arms cut off (probably not true, by the way).

Please try to remember, when this happens, that sometimes adults really don’t remember what it’s like to be young. Even more importantly, they probably don’t realize just how different a place the world is these days. My oldest was 10 when 9/11 happened, and she’s spent her young-adult life with an awareness of just how quickly a beautiful Tuesday morning can turn into a nightmare that changes everything, forever. She has lived with the uncertainty and fear that the terrorism and school shootings and economic collapse have fomented, and so has every other young person under the age of 30. So it’s not easy, and when adults tell you to shake it off, it’s because they forget that when they were younger, they used to ride their bikes to the store to buy a soda, walk unaccompanied to school, and didn’t have to be taught about “good touch/bad touch.”

So, even when you have supportive adults in your life and a pretty stable situation (a relative privilege these days, it seems), things can still be rough, because neurotypical teenage behavior is fraught with drama and angst and urgency. Your body and your brain aren’t done baking yet, so that you’re subject to wild mood swings and may be easily frustrated when things don’t go your way.

Guess what? That’s normal.

What you don’t know yet is that how things may feel on any given day is very much like the weather in London: Don’t like it? Wait a few minutes. It’ll change. I don’t say this to minimize the importance of the things you may be struggling with, or to be patronizing, or to suggest that the things that teenagers are focused on are frivolous. I was a teenager once, and for all my wailing about my Double A bra size and the fact that no boy would go out with me, you would have thought I was a penniless, homeless orphan with terminal cancer and a bad perm – just ask any of my high school friends. They’re all on Facebook. They remember.

What you also don’t know is that, with the exception of very extreme and dire circumstances (and, frequently, even in the case of very extreme and dire circumstances)…this too shall pass. It gets better. Hang in there.

I know, I know, I KNOW. Not the words you want to hear, not very helpful when it feels like the world is about to end. You don’t understand, Mother Wendy, you may be thinking.

Ah, but I do. I do. There’s a reason that old people like me say things like this: Because we’ve been there. We’ve felt that fear and frustration and sadness, and we’ve cried those tears. Just because we dye our (grey) hair, don’t know how to Snapchat, and are totally lame in just about every way a person can be, if there is NOTHING else that we know, we know this:

You won’t always feel this way.

I promise.

But when you ARE feeling this way, and if it isn’t going away, and you’re starting to feel like there are no answers, you must hear this: No matter how sad, depressed, desperate, or lonely, you may be, THERE IS HELP. There are people to talk to, medications that can drastically improve your mood and correct organic chemical imbalances, and facilities where care is available.

There are ways to get better, and people who want to help. No one will judge you – they’d rather help you than mourn you. If your parents won’t listen, talk to a friend. If your friends won’t listen, talk to a teacher. If a teacher won’t help, because she’s busy staring at the Periodic Table of the Elements, talk to your friends’ parents, and if none of those people will help, Uber yourself to the emergency room and say, “I NEED HELP.” Yes, that’s hard and dramatic and scary beyond belief, but it’s better than being dead.

Young People, there are answers, and whatever is going on, you can endure this. So, no matter how bad things may seem, DON’T KILL YOURSELF. DON’T. JUST DON’T. And if you’ve got a “friend” who’s suggesting that you should, you need to end that “friendship,” like, yesterday.

I’m an old lady with a bad right knee, I am wildly out of touch with pop culture, I love nothing better than doing crossword puzzles in my jammies, or pruning trees, or watching koala videos. I use words like “notwithstanding,” and things I find interesting include memorizing world capitals and the Periodic Table of the Elements. In other words, I’m completely irrelevant.

Except that I will always be here for you, Young Person, whomever you are, even if you don’t know me, even if you think I’m an idiot (mostly, you’re right). I’m at least one person who cares about you, even if I don’t know you, but I’ll bet I’m not the only one. If things are rough, I will be here in any way I can, and so will a lot of people. Even if you’re getting through life one minute at a time, there are people who care.

Stay tough, get help if you need it, and know that things will get better. It may take a while, but they Will. Get. Better.

Love, Mother Wendy

Looking My Age

April 19, 2015

Last Friday night, the hubby and I attended a black tie event; in honor of the occasion, I got my hair done and put on a fancy dress.  Since we were looking awfully posh, I asked my daughter to take a picture; later, Michael snapped a selfie as we entered the ball and posted it on Facebook.  While I have to say that we clean up pretty good, when I looked at that photo, I had to admit something to myself:  I look OLD.

My whole life, I’ve been told how young I look.  This meant that well into my mid-thirties, I was routinely carded whenever I went into a liquor store or ordered a drink.  I was 25 when I got married, and guests attending another event at the venue where our reception was held surreptitiously asked my sister if I had graduated from high school – apparently, they assumed it was a shotgun wedding.  Up until a few years ago, I could reliably count on credible gasps when I (accurately) revealed my age.  I really, really liked that.

But when I look at that photo, there’s no denying it:  I look OLD.  The crow’s feet and bags under my eyes, the beginnings of jowls, the neck that’s starting to look a little crepe – y.  What’s happened to my body isn’t pretty, either – after years of managing to keep my stomach relatively flat with almost no effort, I’ve got a legitimate potbelly, and don’t get me started on the cellulite, spider veins and (my personal favorite), my bingo wings (the flab that hangs off the upper arm, that is).

My body is failing me from a functional standpoint as well – I recently nursed an injured shoulder for a week after doing nothing more strenuous than sleeping on it wrong, and the right knee gets pretty cranky after a three-mile walk.  Although I’m actually about the same weight as I was ten years ago, things aren’t exactly in the same place – just ask my jeans.

I have to cop to feeling not so great about the realization that these days, I look my age, and it bothers me that it bothers me.  After all, I’m a Paragon of Feminist Outrage when it comes to photo-shopped swimsuit models and the Fashion/Cosmetic Industrial Complex that since the beginning of time has brainwashed all of us into believing that no woman, no matter how thin or beautiful, has ever looked good enough.  I’m the mom who wouldn’t let my pre-teen daughters go to birthday parties at Sweet and Sassy where the main activity was transforming eight-year-olds into pint-sized Vegas Hookers by teasing their hair and slathering their faces with make-up.

I’m also the mom who counts among her proudest moments the fact that on the day of my oldest daughter’s senior prom, she spent the afternoon learning how to roll her kayak and threw on her dress, wet hair pulled into a neat bun, fifteen minutes before her date arrived.  I’m a woman who’s happiest in cargo shorts and flip flips, hair pulled back, no make-up.  If I find myself with the time to engage in some form of self-improvement, it’s far more likely to be of the internal kind, and although I adore my stylist, it’s a bit of a tragedy to me how much time I waste at the hair salon coloring my grays, so much so that I have decided that on the day I retire, I am going to shave my head and let my white hair grow in.  Neither my beloved stylist nor my husband are on board, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Because I’m that kind of woman.

But apparently, I am also the kind of woman who, unexpectedly, doesn’t like the fact that she looks her age.  I don’t mind getting older, or even being older, I just don’t like looking older.  Perhaps it’s because as the baby of the family, I’ve always believed I would be forever young, so the evidence to the contrary is a little unsettling.  Additionally, I didn’t actually think I looked all that great until I hit 40, and I was still getting used to feeling sort of attractive—that is, until Michael’s selfie of us at the gala snapped me out of it.  And now it’s all downhill.

I guess I should take comfort in the fact that the only person besides me whose opinion on my appearance matters—my husband, that is—claims with a straight face and uncrossed fingers that I am “smoking hot.”  He told me this last Friday, at the gala, but he’s a generous man, and he’d had several glasses of wine, so I can’t exactly consider him an unbiased, objective critic.  It’s not that I need members of the opposite sex to fall over themselves in the wake of my surpassing beauty, but nowadays, if a man other than my husband gives me a second glance, it’s probably because I’ve got lettuce in my teeth or I’ve spilled something on myself.  Glamourous, I’m not.

So I guess I’m going to have to get used to people being able to figure out without me telling them that I’m over fifty, and I’m going to have to be okay with people not being shocked when I mention that my oldest is in graduate school.  In the not-too-distant future, I’ll be sharing pictures of my grandchildren, and I doubt anyone’s going to mean it when they say, “but you’re too YOUNG to be a grandmother!”

I’m mostly okay with the whole aging thing.  I’ve never been happier or more at peace in my life, and since I’m a pretty healthy girl, I’m hoping I’ve still got a lot of good years ahead of me.  I wouldn’t switch places with my twenty-two-year-old self for any amount of money, and I’m not ruling out the possibility that someday I’ll have enough time to get my body into the kind of shape that would justify my husband’s sweetly inflated assessment of me.  And, too, I remind myself to be happy with how I look right now, because it’s only going to get worse.

There are worse things than looking your age, or feeling creaky, or knowing that your best days, looks-wise, are behind you.  Perhaps one of the unexpected blessings of believing yourself to be a troll for as long as I did is that it never occurred to me to rely on my looks to get me anywhere in life.  Thus, it shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for me to go from “smoking hot” back to troll, and women like Meryl Streep and Judi Dench give me hope that I might be able to eke out a few more years of not-too-shabby.

All my life, if you asked me what I’d change about myself, it’s never been to be better looking, even in my teens, the time of my life that (not) being pretty mattered most.  No, I would have chosen to be braver, or stronger, or to have a really great singing voice.  When I die, I don’t want to be remembered for always looking great (and, let’s face it, there’s no real danger of that ever happening); no, I’d like people to say, “you know, even though she looked her age, she was an interesting woman, and she hardly ever had toothpaste in her hair.”

So here I am at almost 51 and looking every minute of it and you know, I think I’m going to be okay with it.  But you can still tell me I don’t look a day over 35, because you should always be kind to the elderly.

George Bailey Day

February 19, 2015

I’m having a George Bailey kind of day.  You, know, George Bailey, the main character in the classic move, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In case you’re one of the thirty-eight people over the age of 40 in North America who hasn’t seen this movie, here’s a brief synopsis: George Bailey is this really smart guy with big dreams, living in a sleepy little town in upstate New York.  As a teenager, he can’t wait to escape the confines of his boring old home town, but through a series of events, most of which involve him making sacrifices for others, George ends up staying in tiny Bedford Falls, a slave to the tired old Building and Loan where he carries on the family business and is a frequent target of the mean-spirited jabs of Bitter Old Mr. Potter, who has lots of money but no soul. George is mostly happy with his life – he’s happily married, and the father of four lovely children, but he sort of feels like life has passed him by as he realizes that all those dreams he had way back when are never going to happen.

 

Because George is a nice guy, he’s never fired his Idiot Uncle Billy, who’s absent-mindedness lands George in a pickle so desperate he concludes that the only solution is to kill himself.  I know, I know, I’m leaving out a lot of important exposition, but this is a 1,500 word blog, so….Utterly hopeless, George decides to throw himself into the river.  Before he can end his life, the Big Guy Upstairs (you know…God?) intervenes in the form of Clarence, an angel third class, who knocks some sense into George by showing him what the world would have been like if he’d never been born.

 

And of course, George sees how he has made a difference for a lot of people and that he has made the world a better place in ways he never imagined, even if he’s never left Bedford Falls or worked in the Argentinian oil fields or built a skyscraper.  In the end, George runs through Bedford Falls so happy to be alive he doesn’t care if he gets arrested and spends the rest of his life in jail, which, of course, he doesn’t, because the whole town pitches in to help him, and everyone is happy.

 

I love that movie.  I do.  We watch it every Christmas Eve, and I try to stay up for the whole thing, because it’s such a wonderfully affirming message that just about everyone who’s made it to middle age can identify with.  I love how George always does the right thing and is (mostly) content to step aside while others benefit from his sacrifice and rise to levels of glory and recognition that George will never know.  At the same time, though, I feel his aching desire to have done more, to have had a bigger life.  Sometimes, I feel that way, too.

 

Now, before all my Facebook friends (who are the only people who ever read my blog) leave comments on my wall telling me what a great person I am, and how much I have to thankful for, believe me – I know.  Well, I know how much I have to be thankful for, anyway.  But sometimes, I ache, too.  I think about all those dreams I had back when I was in college, and seeing as I’m now well into the third act of my life (with the gray hair and creaky bones to prove it), I have accepted that those dreams aren’t gonna happen.  I’m never going to be an Oscar-winning film actress, I’m never going to backpack through Europe and Thailand and Kenya, and I’m never going to have a cover-of-the-magazine, best-of-the-best, award-winning Big Time career. There was a time that I believed that I was going to be a mighty conqueror in whatever profession I chose, that I would rise to the top of my ranks, whatever they were, and would be internationally (or, at the very least, regionally) recognized as the best at what I did, whatever that was.  Well, that hasn’t happened.

 

I’d probably feel less bad about this if I weren’t so well-educated.  By that, I don’t mean that I’m necessarily all that smart or intellectual, but I was given the great gift of an outstanding education, and while I’ve managed to eke out 25-plus years as a fairly adequate attorney, I can’t say I’ve set the world on fire with my legal brilliance.  Probably the best I can hope for in the decade or so that remains of my professional life is a partnership that will afford me little more than the continued opportunity to draft motions, justify my time entries to a claims adjuster, and fret over meeting my billable hours until I’m too old to wear a bikini.

 

I can point to many reasons why I haven’t exactly made much of a mark in the legal world. For one, I took a number of years off to stay home with my kids, and for another, my career has always taken a backseat to my husband’s, a decision I have wholeheartedly supported, just as my husband has always supported my career right back.  As well, although I’m a good-enough attorney, I have the insight to appreciate without feeling bad that I lack the sort of legal brilliance that lands people jobs on the federal bench.  Most days, I’m okay with the fact that I haven’t had a career that includes a corner office, Learjets, or frequent appearances before Justices Ginsburg and her posse, because I have a lot of other things in my life that make me happy and fulfilled.  Like a really, really great husband, and three really, really great kids, and two really, really flatulent dogs.  I have a happy marriage, a happy home, and I’m healthy.  There’s more, but you get the picture: Not much to complain about, unless you’re sort of spoiled and horrid.

 

But today, I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, and today, I want to matter more.  I want to have made more of a difference in my career.  I want to be more important, to be recognized as really, really good at what I do (as opposed to being the world’s oldest associate).  Just once, I’d like to feel like I’ve achieved some modicum of the promise of my education, that I have made good on the imperative of my beloved Mount Holyoke that presented me with “the challenge to excel” all those years back.  Yeah, I’ve raised good kids, and yeah, I’ve done a lot of things right.  But have I excelled? Doesn’t feel like it.

 

As luck would have it on this George Bailey day, having suffered the slings and arrows of another ten hours toiling in the soul-nourishing world of insurance defense litigation, I came home to find my Alumnae Quarterly awaiting me and was once again made aware of the many ways in which my fellow alums have excelled – they’re all out there forming non-profits, sitting on boards, starting their own businesses, or working in the Obama administration (and even if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, you have to admit, that’s kind of cool).  No one ever writes in to the Alumnae Quarterly, “I drive my kids to karate and I go to the grocery store and I draft really boring briefs that no one reads and I fold laundry.  Also, I have bingo wings and the beginnings of a turkey neck.” Maybe we should.  I don’t tend to share with my former classmates the ups and downs of my life as a brown-polyester attorney living in Suburbia, U.S.A. amidst the big box stores and chain restaurants.  What’s special or important about that?

 

But here I am, at the ripe age of fifty, old enough to know that while my life is by no means over, there’s not much chance that I’ll be shaking the cobwebs off those pie in the sky dreams of thirty years ago.  One of the most poignant lines I’ve ever heard is the following from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River:” “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”  Bruce, who always gets it right, also talked about the “fear so real you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.”  It’s hard to imagine Bruce has ever had occasion to experience either of those particular emotions, but I have.  All those dreams I had as a woman with a flat stomach and knees that didn’t pop when I walked up the stairs, are they lies? And all those moments that haven’t come – what am I supposed to do with them?

 

Yeah, I’m a spoiled brat.  There are people out there who are battling cancer, who have lost a spouse, who are out of work and don’t know how they are going to feed their kids. There are those struggling with mental illness, who lead lives of quiet desperation, who are lonely and sad and have no hope.  I’m lucky, and I know it.  Most of the time, I know how much I’ve got to be thankful for, just like George Bailey did, but still, that didn’t stop him from occasionally thinking about running away from it all, from his lovely wife Mary and his adorable daughter Zuzu and all the rest of his kids and Idiot Uncle Billy.

 

Sometimes you want to just set aside all the responsibilities and have-to’s and dirty dishes and field trip permission slips and time sheets and oil changes and depositions and say, “I’m going to pursue my dreams and do what I want to do, and I don’t care how my kid gets home from soccer practice or how we’re going to pay for her braces.”

But George Bailey didn’t do that; he didn’t run off to Mount Bedford (or anywhere else) with Violet Bick.  He found a way to be happy working at the Building and Loan while his brother became a college football star and was a war hero who killed a lot of Nazis and then went on to have a brilliant career as a glass manufacturer.  Which is a lot to compete with, even if you are married to Donna Reed and have a really neat house.

 

I’m not going to run off, either, because for one, I love my family and would be lost without them, and for another, where am I going to run, and what is there, that would be better than what I already have?  Nothing, really.  The high-power career as a $700-an-hour attorney with the Big Important Office and really fabulous shoes wouldn’t make me any happier than I am now; in fact, I’d probably be a lot less happy, since $700-an-hour attorneys with Big Important Offices don’t get to spend much time with their flatulent pets.

 

I guess I’m just going to have to power through today and hope that the gratitude that usually infuses most of my days will be waiting for me when I wake up tomorrow.  If I’m lucky, by then, I will once again feel in my bones all the joy, satisfaction and contentment

that my family, friends, and, yes, even my job has brought me, and I will happily tuck my dreams of grandeur and fame back amongst the cobwebs where they belong.  After all, even when I’m feeling spoiled and horrid, it’s a wonderful life.

Are You Mad at Me, and Am I Getting Fired?

April 8, 2015

I’m an anxious person.  I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember.  No matter how good things are, no matter how well things are going (sometimes, precisely because of how well things are going), I worry.  If there is something for me to fret about, I will find it, and if there’s nothing even remotely troublesome going on, I’ll make something up.  I used to think I was just sort of neurotic.  In recent years, I’ve come to understand that I suffer from anxiety disorder.  I’m not sure I feel better about it now that I have a name for it; it hasn’t made me any less anxious.

This isn’t going to be one of those blogs that gives Helpful Information by listing the signs and symptoms of, or providing recommendations for living with anxiety disorder, because pretty much, it comes down to this:  Do you worry a lot for no good reason? Yes? Is it, at times, all-consuming? Also yes? Do people tell you that you worry too much over nothing? Uh-huh? Well then, you’ve probably got anxiety disorder.  Wanna know what to do about it? The truth? Medication and therapy may help, but mostly, you’re just going to have to learn to live with it.

There.  That’s all the Helpful Information you’re going to get.

I have some idea of the roots of my own anxiety-related issues:  Raise a painfully awkward child in a less than idyllic setting where life alternates between rigid order and total chaos, add to that a parent who is a demanding perfectionist, then send said child to law school, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to end up with someone who’s going to worry.  A lot.  If said person also happens to be sort of bookish, bespectacled, and bad at sports, well, you might as well buy stock in Pfizer for all the Xanax you’re going to need to get through the rest of your life.

My particular form of anxiety disorder tends to take two distinct themes:  Half of the time I’m convinced that someone is angry with me.  Something my husband used to hear a lot, until he told me to stop asking, was, “are you mad at me?” “Trust me,” he finally told me, “I’ll tell you if I’m mad at you.”  Given that most of the people in my life who have ever been angry at me have never had a problem making their unhappiness known, you would think I’d would just assume that unless I’m told otherwise, there’s no reason to worry.

But I do.  I worry that I’ve said or done something hurtful or offensive, or that I’ve failed to be sufficiently attentive or available.  Never mind that I am, by and large, an extremely thoughtful, considerate person who tries to be sensitive to the feelings of others, sometimes to a fault.  If I text someone and don’t hear back within a few hours, I assume they’re mad.  Not that they might be busy, or that (unlike me) they don’t feel compelled to check their smartphone three to four times a minute, or that they got my text, read it, didn’t think it required a response, and didn’t give it another thought except, “that Wendy sure is nice.  I wonder if koalas are as soft and cuddly as they look?”  I worry that people will read things I’ve posted on Facebook and think, “she’s awfully full of herself,” or, “did I ask her about her opinions on gay marriage?” or “yeah, we know, Wendy…Wegmans is a zoo on Sunday.  We get it.”  That I have the fortitude to actually start a blog is mostly due to my assumption that nobody will ever read it; if I thought otherwise, I’d probably have to be on a Valium drip.  You know, in case my opinions were wrong.

Most of the time, then, I’m pretty certain that I’ve managed to piss someone off and, as well, that if someone is angry with or disappointed in me, they’re probably justified in feeling that way.  I try to remind myself that all those people I’m worrying about being mad at me probably don’t give me much thought at all, and there’s not much chance they are fixating, as they drive to work or fold laundry, on whether or not I am upset with them.  But I worry nonetheless.

When I’m not worrying that someone is mad at me, I’m worried that I’ve made a critical error at work and that I’m on the verge of being fired.  Mind you, I’ve never been fired from any job, ever, my entire life.  In every job I’ve ever had, I’ve consistently gotten excellent evaluations (which probably has more to do with the fact that I’m relentlessly conscientious than to any real talent).  But despite a record that should give me some level of confidence that I am a valued, respected employee, I obsess about the one comment in a hundred that is anything other than unreservedly positive, and I worry that the smallest error is going to lead to termination.

When you factor in that my profession (litigation attorney) is, by definition, adversarial in nature—where any weakness is blood in the water to be leveraged for a more advantageous result—it’s not surprising that you won’t get many of my colleagues to admit to anything other than utter certitude in the correctness of their position.  I don’t meet many lawyers who will cop to a lack of confidence, and so I try to hide my own lest others perceive me as weak or ineffectual.  So, in addition to worrying that I’m not very good at my job, I worry that others will interpret my worrying as a sign that, in fact, I’m not very good at my job.  It’s exhausting.

Even my dreams are anxiety-filled:  Whereas my husband has fun action dreams in which he’s a Jason Bourne type character involved in international intrigue and adventure, I have dreams in which I’m walking over glass barefoot being pursued by someone, on my way to the final exam in the calculus class I haven’t attended all semester.  Or I’m trying to make an important phone call and keep messing up the digits, or I can’t open my locker at school, or I’m falling over a cliff into a ravine, or I’ve promised a friend I’d look after her pet while she was away for a month, but forgot to do so.  Some nights I’m so tired I don’t dream, and that’s a blessing, because I don’t have the kind of dreams where good things happen.  Ever.

Over the years, I’ve found ways to combat the anxiety.  Therapy has helped enormously.  In the past, medication has, too (self-medication, not so much).  Exercise has been my savior, as has my tremendously supportive husband (the one who isn’t mad at me…at least for now).  Getting older, too, is a factor; there are a lot of things I’ve stopped worrying about (like not having six-pack abs, a foreign luxury automobile, or a firm grasp on what’s going on in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Russia), and that’s been really liberating.  I hope that the older I get, the less I will worry about things I know, objectively, to be ridiculous.

But for now, there are many white-knuckle days in which I simple have to gut it out, and I do, for the most part, by telling myself that 99% of the time, my worry turns out to be baseless, that most of the people in my life like and respect me, and that as long as I show up to work every day and make a solid effort, I’ll probably have a job until I’m ready to retire.  Some days are better than others, and there are the rare glorious days where everything is right with the world, and I feel sanguine, peaceful—optimistic, even.  I’ve learned to treasure those days when the nagging sense of dread subsides for a little while and I can feel silly and light and carefree.

Unless you’re mad at me right now.  Are you?

Applause for the Audience

May 17, 2015

On Friday, I attended my daughter’s end-of-the-year chorus and handbell concert at school.  The talent of the various singers, the ringers, and the stringed instruments was pretty impressive.  At one point, two students played a piano duet that was absolutely brilliant, and I experienced two emotions simultaneously:  Delight at the wonderful performance that had me grinning from ear to ear, and regret that I can’t play the piano like that.  It didn’t bother me that I can’t sing or play the cello, because I’ve never been able to sing or play the cello.  But I did used to play the piano, and so, because I’m me, I took it as an opportunity to beat myself up.  You know, because I can’t play the piano like that and, obviously, I should.

I started playing the piano in second grade and continued through college.  I picked up the basics pretty quickly, but though I had marginal talent and a good ear, I never practiced enough, and my technique was deplorable.  As a music major in college, I was required to take performance every semester.  After two years, I switched to harpsichord, and then organ, because I get bored easily, and because the harpsichord/organ instructor was a lot less demanding than my piano professor.

So I was an adequate pianist, but not a great one.  Then I went to law school, got married, and had kids, and I really didn’t think much about playing the piano.  It was all I could do to make a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner and sign off on the kids’ homework assignments, and this was before yoga pants and the internet were invented, mind you, so you can see why I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my Mozart.

Later, we bought an old piano for $100 from a bar that was looking to get rid of it (mice and all), and later, after my oldest had been taking lessons for several years, we bought a better model that now gathers dust, un-tuned and untouched, in the living room.  I sit down about once a year to tinker around a bit, and I have good intentions of finally mastering the Alla Turca or this Bach fugue that I’ve been working on since college, but billable hours, laundry, and driving my kids places sort of gets in the way of a regular practice schedule.  I’ve mostly accepted that I’ll never get around to that book of Chopin preludes that’s been sitting in the piano bench since 1985.  There have been other more important things to attend to.

Listening to those two young men perform on Friday night, however, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed playing, back when it was something I did regularly, but within three seconds, I knew that I’d never been as good as those high school students were – not even close.  Having studied piano for as long as I did, and having attended many, many concerts over the years, I know a good pianist when I hear one – again, I’ve got a really good ear.

So, I knew that these young men had more talent that I ever did (and, to be fair, probably practice a lot more than I ever did).  As I sat there, I imagined the concerts they would play in the years to come, formal and informal, and I thought of all the joy they would experience when they sat down, opened up the sheet music, and got it just right.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  It made me happy for them, and sad for me that I don’t get to do that anymore.  There’s not much time for creative pursuits these days; I’m pretty much tapped out attending to the immediate needs of work, family and home.  Because I’m me, I felt bad about that; if I were only somehow better, I would have found a way to fit in two hours of practice every day over the last 15 years—you know, between working upwards of 50 hours a week, taking care of my kids, scrubbing the bathroom and folding sheets.  I hate folding sheets.

But then, I had a teeny tiny epiphany – I’ve been having more of these lately, which I suppose is a worthwhile tradeoff for the increasingly frequent word retrieval issues I’ve been experiencing since turning fifty.  It occurred to me that art is a two-way street:  All of us volunteer to be the audience every time we go to a movie or a concert (whether it be Beethoven or the Rolling Stones), or buy a ticket to an art museum, or perhaps even when we pick up a book (unless it’s “Fifty Shades of Gray” or anything written by Danielle Steele).  We do that to be entertained, or edified; to learn something; to feel something; to watch someone do something amazing; to see something beautiful.  We the audience seek out and benefit from art, that much is certain.  But while the creative process itself is likely fulfilling to the artist regardless of whether anyone else ever listens to or sees the finished product, I think there’s some validity to the notion that ultimately, an artist needs an audience – at least some of the time, anyway – and that being that audience has some value as well, especially when the artists are our kids, who benefit from our attendance and encouragement and applause.

Perhaps this is a massive rationalization – me trying to find some meaning in my role as a suburban mom in jeans and DSW ballet flats clapping from the third row and remembering my own end-of-the-year concerts all those years ago when I took for granted my mother’s faithful attendance.  Perhaps I need to face the fact that playing the piano well is just one more thing I’m going to have to add to the list of Things Wendy Meant to Do But Didn’t Get Around To (and Never Will)…you know, like learning Italian or reading “Democracy in America.”  Suddenly, all that time I thought I had to read the great classics or become a serviceable tennis player has passed me by.  George Bailey knows what I mean.

I’m pleased to say that as I turned over these ideas in my mind, I decided that instead of feeling bad about the fact that I can’t play the piano the way I wish I could, I would congratulate myself on being an appreciative audience, which every artist needs, at least some of the time, especially when that artist is your kid, who probably doesn’t give much thought to the fact that you’re there, but would certainly miss you if you weren’t.

I can’t play the piano the way those young men can, but you know what? I’m a hell of a good audience, and at this point in my life, that’s enough.