Category Archives: Writing

Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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One new website – one “new” blog – one (very good) old friend

The “launch” of my author website compels me to ponder some hard questions –hard for  me, at least– regarding the pursuit of attention and popularity. The cold hard truth is I created this website, in part, for attention. Ew. Oh! I cringe to admit it. But it’s true. So let’s tell the truth and deal with it.

Attention is something I tolerate reasonably well, in the sense that I don’t have much fear of public speaking. I also don’t seek to be in the center of it, though. That’s just weird.

Popularity mystifies me to no freaking end. It obviously overlaps with attention, but I find it so much more elusive and foreign. My confusion goes all the way back to my first dance party in junior high, when I was stunned to realize that some girls got asked to dance, while others didn’t. I had no idea why, I still don’t, and I’ve been asking myself this question ever since. In my years of research*, I’ve concluded that highly popular people fall into two general categories.

1) Those who earn their popularity in their own, legitimate right. They are friendly, generous, gregarious people, and very easy to be around. I have had the good fortune of being friends with several such people, and would never begrudge them their popularity. Because they’ve got that special something that others –including me– gravitate to and so enjoy.

Then there’s category 2) The type who are prone to meanness, yet somehow manage to persuade others of their inherent superiority and charisma. Think about it, the schoolyard bullies were often also popular kids. Now they’re just grown up. I know a few such people, and goodness knows I steer clear of that snark as much as possible. Even with my 40th birthday around the corner, I still can’t see it coming sometimes.

But enough about the meanies.

I don’t know if I fall into either type, because I’ve always been somewhere in the middle on the popularity spectrum. Trust me, if I could speak the language that makes one “popular,” I’d be milking it to no end right now as I pursue the publication of my first novel. I wouldn’t say I’m reclusive, even if the writing life has made me more so. But I’ve never had a ton of friends either. I’m confounded and intimidated at the prospect of making new friends as a grownup, and in moments of weakness, I feel certain that everyone —everyone!— has more friends, and makes new ones more easily, than me. My point is, I have few, but they are good ones!

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December 1999 – at one of the epic parties Gorky was known for during graduate school

The first friend I made when I moved DC was Gorky Cruz. It was late August 1997, our first day as graduate students in Spanish Linguistics at Georgetown University. Gorky is a solid type 1 popular guy. He has an enviable group of friends who are like his family. His easy, kind, generous disposition makes it easy to shrug my shoulders and say simply, “Of course he has all those good people around him.”

Gorky has been with me at countless birthdays. He was there the night I met my husband David, was at our wedding, and has come to at least one of my kid’s birthday parties. He continues to have wonderful gatherings at his home, where everyone feels welcome and happy. And when I asked if he could help with my website and migrating my blog from Blogger to WordPress –with nothing more than a homecooked dinner as pay– he did not hesitate to say yes.

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September 2000 – my 25th birthday

Gorky has been patient and knowledgeable with me. He hasn’t done the work for me, but has walked me through the nuts and bolts of this stuff so I gain the know-how to do it myself. He’s never talked down to me even though his knowledge of techie stuff makes me look like a preschooler –turns out that using Facebook and shopping on Amazon does not equip a person in knowing what to do with a website of their own. There is no way I could have done any of this without him.

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June 2015 – working on my website with Gorky

*When I say ‘years of research,’ I mean the thirty years since that first party in junior high. Thirty years later, I’ve come up short in seeking answers regarding the question of popularity. But I’m all grown up too now, so I know that more questions than answers is okay sometimes. It’s okay to not be surrounded by a gaggle of friends, and to even endure the occasional case of FOMO. I am grateful for the good people in my life, and hope to meet more. I’m honored to call Gorky Cruz my friend of 18 years. This first post on my new blog is for him! Gracias, Gorky!

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Coming to Manhattan

teaching-in-the-dark-learning-to-love-what-we-fear-23-638Tomorrow I’m going on a two-day trip to New York City, as I have done every February since 2012. I like to call it Mama’s Annual Pilgrimage (previously documented here, and here). My plan for this year is to attend a tour at the Tenement Museum, called Exploring 97 Orchard Street. This is like a dream for me. Besides that, I’m going to find a nice café (or a few different ones), and work on my whittling.
Whittling tools. If only they could help me in this situation!

Turns out the novel I’ve spent the past three years writing is too long. “Debut novels” in my genre are supposed to be no longer than 100,000 words. My first draft was–wait for it–147,000. Stephen King says the second draft is the first draft, minus ten percent. That, I can do. On draft five now, I’ve so far hacked off 10,000 words; ten percent looks well within reach. Will I get all the way down to below 100,000? Not sure. And if I can’t, odds are pretty good no agent will even look at the manuscript. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving these pseudo-dogmatic standards this treatment. But I’ve had them explained to me recently in a way I understand (almost) better; and so, I hack away. Hacking doesn’t sound very artistic though, hence the term whittling.

In a recent Google search on book word counts, I found that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is approximately 150,000 words, similar to my original word count. I like to look at it and think it’s what my novel will look like once it’s published.

Momentum has admittedly slowed down. It’s partly due to feeling disheartened. Also, though, recent family needs compel me to re-evaluate things. No, I’m not pregnant. But there could be change on the horizon, which will be felt on many levels within my family. The meme posted by my hero Elizabeth Gilbert on her Facebook page today couldn’t be more timely.

For the past three years, I’ve been going strong–creativity-wise–fueled to a significant degree by this sort of feel-good inspiration. I tend to dislike gratuitous cynicism. I find it so one-dimensional, and we can do so much better. Lately, though … ? How do I distinguish between good old reality check and caving to cynicism? Here’s another recent meme.

A few months ago, I would have shared this, lived by it, maybe even written a blog post about it. The thing is, though, I also think that people who think they’re above paying their dues are idiots. Was that unkind? I’m sorry. The message about being born for something greater and more profound still resonates with me deeply. I’m not trying to be unkind. I swear I have a point.
My point–aside from having fun with social media memes–is that I strive to not be an idiot. And I know that, at age 39 and a half, I’m nowhere near done paying my dues. My own practical form of dues-paying will likely–hopefully, and for very happy reasons–mean finding gainful employment again, and soon. We just can’t continue the sponsoring at this time. I’m excited about it. I’m also panicked: That if I can’t get my book down to the desired word count by the time I start a new job, I’ll have to give up on writing. Dramatic? Please. This is nothing.
Because I work well with to-do lists, here’s the plan for now.
1. Keep whittling.
2. Pack vitamins and cold meds for NYC. (I caught my son’s recent cold, because sharing is caring.)
3. Attend some super-fun writers conferences this year–yeah!
4. Find new job and start it. Resume getting up at 5AM to write/research for an hour before the rest of the day starts, and again after boy goes to bed. It’s been done before, it can be done again.
5. Love my family. Love hard, in general.
6. Write down ideas (coming fast and furious lately) for second book. Give myself permission to be excited about it.
7. Remember that life is good, very.
8. Reread the article about 12 historical women, as needed.
9. Enjoy New York.
10. Write blog post about the trip.
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Vlogging: How hard can it really be?

There are countless quotes about the value of trying new things or pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. Now that my baby is off to PreK and I have time to resume writing, I can finally take a stab at something I’ve been wanting to try for some time. Vlogging!
True confession: The first time I saw the word vlog, I thought it referred to some sort of log kept by women for things related to … uh … something else that starts with the letter V. Upon learning what it actually is, and soon enough starting a blog of my own, I’ve been super curious to see what there is to this video-blogging thing. One of the sessions at a writers conference I attended in February was all about using social media to “build an audience” for our books. The fabulous speaker encouraged us to use our cell phones to keep video recordings simple and spontaneous. Huh. That had never occurred to me. So I tried to see what it looked like when I took a selfie video with my phone.

 

Yeah. I didn’t really love that one. It wasn’t helped by my post workout glisten and frizz. So I quickly moved on to would-be shots of my face using the built-in web cam on my laptop.

Then, I couldn’t even figure out when it was recording. I may not be an expert on technology, but nor am I a complete moron. And most of the times, it’s all pretty self-evident. Not here, man. For some reason I couldn’t figure out how it worked at first. Meanwhile, the camera kept snapping photos of me, without my knowledge, looking bewildered.
And bemused.Then at one point, the video recording function finally worked. Though as you can see, I still wasn’t sure.

 

 

That was back in April. I quickly gave up, and eventually, summer and family events took over. Yesterday I decided to try again. And in the spirit of true confessions, it wasn’t until yesterday that I knew the photos and video from April had even been saved on the computer. That was a pretty hi-larious discovery. So yesterday I opened the web cam on my laptop, and:
Damn it! Again it took a picture without me knowing. And yes, I own a William and Kate wedding coffee mug. My family went to London a month after their famous wedding in 2011, and I got very caught up in the excitement while shopping at a souvenir store. I like using it for tea.
But, back to my camera practice. Finally I was rolling.
This was the video that really drove home for me the importance of keeping my mouth closed no matter how confounded I am by what’s going on. That’s a tough one. You should see me at yoga class. Next, I tried to focus on looking at the camera instead of at myself. You can see the precise moment when I saw that it was rolling.

 

Finally, I tried looking straight at the camera, without laughing. Not as easy as one might think.

 

You know, I’m going to keep at it. It’s new to me … a work in progress and all that stuff. Next step will be trying with an actual camera we have; see if that’s any different. I’ve got this idea for a video blog series about awkward moments that have happened to me, and I’m working on at least one of those installments for a … ahem … vlog post. (Is that even correct lingo?) And if nothing else comes of this, I can tell you one thing: I’ve cracked myself up so hard in just two tries with camera shots, that that’s already a major win. I mean, what’s the point if it’s not fun? And don’t worry, having my family talking in the background is not part of my long term vlogging plans.

Update: I just looked at some vlogging tutorials on Youtube and realized the full depth and breadth of my cluelessness on this matter. Invest in lighting? I’m a stay-at-home mom with no paycheck to my name! And how the hell do I do a jump cut?
Well …
Sh*t.
But I shall not be deterred! I am nothing if not a good student. Just wait and see.
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Why am I doing this again? Aspiring author journeys back to New York, NY.

“Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs. Don’t … Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs!” The woman stood a few feet away from the hot dog cart. With the unmistakable rasp of a heavy smoker, she warned frazzled-looking tourists as they walked up to it to buy lunch outside a subway entrance near Manhattan’s Herald Square. “Big fuckin’ cockroaches all over the fuckin’ hot dogs.” And yet folks kept buying their hot dogs from the vendor, who looked disgruntled but otherwise unfazed. The woman recoiled and turned her head in dismay, as though there was someone beside her in support of her crusade. “Ugh!” Her face conveyed the distress of someone whose sincere concern for the greater good of another goes unheeded. “Can you believe this? They’re buyin’ the fuckin’ hot dogs!” she lamented to no one in particular, before taking a long drag from her cigarette.

This was last Saturday at lunch time. I was in the City on another one of my research trips for my first historical novel, set in New York City in 1911. My train from DC had pulled into Penn Station less than an hour earlier. New items on the agenda this time were seeing some of the buildings where workers at the Triangle Waist Company once lived, visiting the Brooklyn gravesite of the six victims of the fire who remained unidentified for nearly a hundred years, and hoping to meet with Triangle historian Michael Hirsch.

I had made an inquiry about the victims of the Triangle fire on Facebook, when I heard from someone named Michael Hirsch. Where had I heard that name before? Oh, right, I’d seen his name here:

And here, as one of the producers of this HBO film:

And oh yeah, he was the researcher who single-handedly uncovered and confirmed the names of the six once-unidentified victims. You could say I was pretty excited at the prospect of meeting him.

Nevertheless, this time I was significantly less exuberant than I’d been on previous trips. Gone was my I’m-writing-a-novel! cockiness enthusiasm, ironic given that this was my first trip after actually completing the first draft. The enthusiasm had given way to a raging why-am-I-doing-this-again? funk. The past weeks had been spent waist-deep in novel revisions, and at least elbow-deep in the funk.

More and more people asking me if I have a publisher (no), an agent (no), or if I have “workshopped” my novel (no) or am “working with someone” on it (um … no). Then I talk about self-publication with enough people to realize that the stigma around it is still very prevalent. Don’t think I haven’t thought that these beloved, passionate projects of mine may never really see the light of day, let alone earn enough money that I can be a writer full-time while also affording to take my kid on a few trips during his growing-up years, then send him to college one day. Besides (whines the funk), does the world really need another novel about the Triangle fire? What makes me think I have anything to add to the stories that have already been told? Finally, I was bogged down, as I often am, by the knowledge that while I am not earning a paycheck, each one of these trips costs my family money, and I–still!–feel a degree of guilt about leaving my 4-year-old son for a couple of nights away.

I slept less and less in the nights leading up to the trip, until I barely slept the night before. This was the state in which I was confronted with the woman and her anti-hot dogs tirade. It bothered me. I hurried past her and down the stairs into the subway. Two minutes later, I got stuck in one of these damn things.

(Photo from http.nybydzine.tumblr.com)

This time I didn’t even have luggage!* After swiping my MetroPass twice (and feeling a little ripped off), I was finally in. It was after 1PM, breakfast had been in DC around 7AM, and I was lightheaded from lack of sleep and the train. The wait felt endless, and the ride was cramped and sweaty. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable my beloved City can be during summer. And I was starting to fear that it was my beloved City no more, that I was turning into one of those people who find it to be too much.

Lemme tell you about a glistening, sweaty subway ride.
I was on my way to historic Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side. It was a place where immigrant women (men, too) living in New York one hundred years ago had access to books, and I’ve set a scene in my novel there. But first, I needed lunch. And finally it came, at a place called Cafe Petisco, across the street from the library.
Falafel pita with fries: Extraordinary in both flavors and textures. The pink dipping sauce was especially inspired. And when the check came for a whopping $8, I knew I’d found a new favorite place in the City.

And it came with a side of interesting conversation. Cafe Petisco is the sort of place where you sit thisclose to the person at the next table. The woman next to me was an Australian living a couple of blocks west from where we were, apparently, in the heart of Chinatown. “I am the only English-speaking round eyes on the entire block.” Her words. For the past two years, she has rented a room in a 5-room apartment full of Chinese people, including entire families. I wasn’t certain of the number of people in her apartment. But she did tell me that when her flat mates stock the fridge up with fresh groceries, she has opened the door to find seafood so fresh it’s still moving, and has been startled by chicken feet falling out of one of the refrigerator shelves. I wanted to hear more, while also wanting to reserve the right to hit the Undo button if it got too weird. I asked whether she can have friends over–mostly, my curiosity had to do with a specific kind of guest … the type that might be inclined to spend the night, tú sabes. She said she probably could, but hasn’t felt the need to these two years. All she knows is she pays less than $700/month (utilities included) to live in Manhattan and she is saving loads of money.

In the 30 minutes we sat together, my new friend drank two Bloody Mary’s and a coffee. I paid my check and headed across the street to the library in a bit of a haste, realizing only too late that, at least in the context of my mildly weary state, I had indeed crossed into too-weird territory in my conversation with the friendly woman, who was now probably tipsy (if caffeinated).

Left, Seward Park Library at the turn of the 20th century (photos courtesy of New York Public Library). Right, the library as it looks today.

From the library, I made my way up to the East Village on foot to meet Michael Hirsch. No tequila was involved, and I had plenty of cold water to keep me hydrated. (*See previous blog post for a bit of context on the topics of subway with luggage, and tequila.)

My meeting with Michael Hirsch at Veniero’s Pasticceria, and our stroll around the East Village, did not disappoint. Talking to him is like getting the inside scoop on the garment workers’ strike, Triangle, and the fire, with plenty of nuance and countless poignant details about the lives of the workers.

Piragüero outside the site of the Clinton Street building where a 35-year-old widow from Russia named Julia Rosen lived with her children in 1911. She and her son, Israel, worked at the Triangle Company. Both perished in the fire.

An after-dinner stroll around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library brought the day to a close on a decent note.

But when it came time to leave the hotel Sunday morning, I suddenly didn’t want to. There was a Harry Potter movie marathon on TV, and I thought, how often (not counting illness) do I get to just lie in bed and watch TV? I could take a mini-vacation! I just didn’t feel like dealing with the City. Could New York’s energy, which I’ve always so proudly reveled in, be getting the best of me? And what if I got lost on my trip to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn ?

Still, I couldn’t not go to Evergreens. If I did nothing else, I would go to the cemetery and pay my respects, then I’d spend the rest of the day in the hotel if I still felt like it. So I got over my boo-hooing self, and hopped on the L train to Bushwick Avenue and Aberdeen Street. The cemetery was deserted. It was beautiful, sprawling, old … I got lost about 5 minutes in. It was also very overcast and windy. I tried my best to keep various points of reference in sight so that I wouldn’t become deeply scary-lost.

I also tried flagging down the lone security guard making rounds in a large white sedan; no joy. A small voice inside my head taunted that I should never have left my hotel. Yet I knew even then that I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt at peace, and I knew I’d find the gravesite. After several more minutes (with my husband on the phone reading from Google Maps), I did.

It had started to rain; this brought to mind accounts I’ve read of the burial of the victims in 1911. Countless stones sat atop the base of the monument, placed by previous visitors, and I instantly felt less alone, even though there was no one else there. The only sound, aside from the rain drops, was the subway rumbling in the distance every few minutes. It was a powerful, unforgettable moment. I said a prayer, and felt duly ashamed of my self-pity earlier in the morning. As more people began to arrive to visit other graves, I made my way back to the subway for the ride back to Manhattan with a very full heart. The rain cleared, and the Manhattan skyline came into view.

The rest of the day was spent in the West Village. I stood at Greene Street and Washington Place a good long while, making notes of different details I hadn’t noticed before about the building that once housed Triangle.
I like to think that talking to myself while pacing back and forth and taking notes on this street corner confirmed my place among New York’s eccentrics.
Afterwards, I visited Our Lady of Pompeii Church, where I’ve also written a scene–and where I took the chance to say a quick thank you. The final stop was the Merchant’s House Museum, taking more notes for my novel, in addition to snapping photos of mirrors throughout the home. Why? Read my book!  🙂

Crossing Broadway that afternoon, I overheard a man say to his friend, “My mom always says you can have comfort or courage, not both.” I knew I’d heard that phrase before; two minutes later, Google told me where. Of course it was Brené Brown! The quick search revealed another really good one.

I only headed back to my hotel to get showered and dressed for dinner. Along the way, I noticed a disheveled woman on the subway fighting with an MTA attendant about her MetroPass. It seemed she had swiped it, but hadn’t been able to enter. “It’s unlimited!” she insisted. Then, to no one in particular, she loudly decried, “They’re trying to stop me because I’m bringing people to Christ!” I smiled to myself. Not in the spirit of mocking the poor woman. One thing I love about the Big Apple is the keen reminder it offers that we are all the same. I may not be bringing people to Christ, but I have plenty of experience getting stuck entering a subway station. I did not hurry uncomfortably past this woman. That’s when I knew I got it again, that we’re all the same. I was back on track. At dinner, I treated myself to an outstanding mofongo at a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazón.
Tried so hard to finish it …
Upon returning to my hotel room at the very end of the day, I got really comfortable, and watched the final installment in the Harry Potter movies. Afterwards, I had my first real night’s sleep in several days. It had been a good day. A very full, fast-paced New York day. I no longer felt ashamed of the discomfort I’d had previously. After all, one of my fears was realized; I did get lost by myself in the big old cemetery on a gloomy day. And yet, I was okay. So instead, I blessed my vulnerability and the realization that it hadn’t been the end of the story. I had walked through that vulnerability and come out stronger on the other side. Noted. I still have no publisher, no agent, etc., but I’m going to keep walking through it…!
An ad on the subway … Really?! Ah, I love this City.
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Tips for New York City

I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.

While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.

(Photo from Subwaynut.com)

But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.

Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.

The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.

My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.

Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.

Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!

I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.

Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.
Now go.
You’re welcome.
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My ode to the everyday mundane

Let’s see. What did I do on Thursday?
6:15AM. Meditated for about 20 minutes before getting up and going to the bathroom.
7-7:45AM. Spent some time writing. My first novel is nearly complete, but it has been harder to see real progress writing in 30-45 minute spurts per day. Still, I’ll take it!
7:45AM. Made and ate my delicious breakfast.

Fresh lemon juice being squeezed in my water. Maple syrup, vanilla, and cinnamon in my oatmeal as it cooks. Puerto Rican coffee brewing. These are the comfort smells I bask in every weekday morning. And the sun coming through the windows this morning was glorious, too.

8:30AM. Walked into my 4-year-old son’s room with a huge smile on my face, telling him how delighted I was to see him, how much I love him, how precious he is to me.
8:33AM. Walked out of son’s room and closed the door while he threw a bit of a hissy fit, refusing to get out of bed, demanding cocoa rice crisps for breakfast. I had made oatmeal. Not happening, buddy.
Went back in his room a short while later, struck a deal with him, and got him to calm down.
8:40AM. Helped him get dressed, came downstairs.
8:45AM. Started a load of laundry.
8:50AM. Served my son his oatmeal with berries for breakfast. Sat and played with him with his globe and world map. While he happily devoured his oatmeal.

The button for Spain on the globe isn’t working well. Should I read anything into this? I can’t help laughing every time he complains, “Spain isn’t working!”

9:30AM. Baked a batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookie bars, with the help of my sweet boy. These guys I live with have an incredible sweet tooth. As much as possible, I try to have something homemade every week to satisfy that. Just because they have a sweet tooth doesn’t mean they should eat crap. Wait. Did I just sound a little bit like Gwyneth Paltrow? Poor woman’s had a rough week. Yet I still like her.

One bowl. No sifting. No electric mixers. And you should have smelled it baking–holy mother of G. See that little hand in the upper right hand corner, stealing a few chocolate chips? Two minutes later came the question, “Now can I have cocoa crisps?” For about the 20th time. At 9:30 in the morning.

10AM. Washed all the dishes from breakfast and baking.
Absently answered yes when boy asked if he could use his scissors to practice cutting up a piece of paper. Realized later that the piece of paper was a to-do list that my husband and I started back in February. We had gotten through most of the things, but there were a few items left to check off.

Who needs checklists anyway.

10:30AM. Began to make dinner. Tex Mex pasta salad with corn and roasted shrimp. Allowed little man to watch Finding Nemo in Spanish. Kept mum when he declared repeatedly that Dory is Nemo’s mom. He has not watched the opening scene of the movie. We’ve tried telling him Dory is a friend. He insists she’s his mother. That’s okay for now.

Wish I’d had lime and black beans. Still though …! And it was dinner for two nights.

11:30AM. Washed dishes from dinner prep.
12PM. Heated up rice for boy’s lunch. Heated up a veggie “chicken” patty for me. Ate lunch together while playing some more with the globe, and trying to talk on the phone with my parents.
12:45PM. Washed lunch dishes, while, again, trying to talk to my mother on the phone.
1PM. Folded laundry.
1:25PM. Sat down with my after-lunch cup of green tea. Played with my son a little more. Talked to him about weekdays vs. weekend days, and who’s who in our family. (“La mamá de Mamá se llama Abuela Norma,” etc.) This week he can’t get enough of maps, calendar days, and family trees. It’s an improvement over last week, after his trip to the hospital (documented in previous blog post HERE), when he wanted to have entire conversations about vomiting.
2PM Took the boy upstairs for his “naptime/quiet time.” Sometimes he sleeps. Those are the only times he is quiet. Spent some time singing and cuddling with him, practicing more words and spelling. Thought about how I will miss our afternoon cuddles once he starts school full time.
2:45PM Laid down in my own bed for my own bit of quiet time. Half-meditated. Half-napped. Half-tried not to be mad at my boy for being so loud while he played in his room. Hang on, I’m up to thirds now, not halves. Oh whatever. At least he was staying in his room!
3:20PM The little man actually fell asleep. Wow, that means I have a bit more time! Came downstairs. Began blog post. Downloaded and sorted all the photos I took for it. Treated myself to this.

The secret is to use a lot more chocolate chips than the recipe calls for. That way it looks like very little dough with a gooey, dense chocolate filling running all through the center. I think I nailed it.
Worked on photos and blog post for about an hour, while in the background (on the TiVo), Oprah interviewed Eckhart Tolle.
4:55PM. Got boy up from nap. Watched Dora the Explorer.

5:30PM. Awesome husband came home. I decided to forgo the day’s workout.
6PM. Washed and dried my hair. Good thing I had saved up my energy for that.

You think this hair happens naturally? Actually, it looked nicer before I got rained on. Ah well.

6:50PM. Ate delicious pasta salad with a glass of white wine.
Loved watching my guys enjoying the oatmeal chocolate chip bars.
7:30PM. Continued work on blog post while husband washed dishes.
7:55PM Placed Amazon order for robot-themed thank-you notes, for the gifts my son received at his birthday party last weekend.
8PM. Went upstairs. Put away clean laundry and laid out clothes for son and me for preschool Friday morning, while husband gave boy his bath.
8:15PM. Sat with husband and boy while they read Nemo together. Laughed with them every time Dory speaks whale. Nemo is popular in our house this week.
Said bedtime prayers.
8:55PM. Felt like winding down after boy went to bed, so I watched some TV. Celebrity Ghost Stories. Oh yeah baby.
10:30PM. Teeth brushed. In bed. Wrote in my journal. Read from the novel I am currently reading, Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline. Realized how much I am enjoying the book, wished briefly I felt a little more awake at that hour. But hey, I was the one who chose watching Celebrity Ghost Stories over reading Orphan Train, thus reasserting that balance where low-brow just beats out high-brow stimulation at the end of most days for me.
Tried saying a more few prayers/having a few more thoughts of goodness before falling asleep around 11 o’clock.

Somewhere along the way, I also wrote several emails and texts. I also wondered how my living room got to be such a mess, when it was tidy just one week ago. I never left the house. Had little contact with people outside my family. I had very few adult conversations, and the few that I had did not have any particular depth or sophistication. I wore sweats all day, until I “upgraded” to jeans for dinner, after my shower.

Why am I sharing this? I don’t think an average day of mine is any more interesting or busy than yours. Taking a note from Eckhart Tolle, I think that trying to be interesting is kind of like trying to be good, or witty or sophisticated or PC and tolerant. There better be something there to back it up, or people eventually notice. So I try to not try. And I know you’ve probably been subjected to the occasional Aren’t-I-fahscinating Facebook post by someone you know. I have, too! Nor do I think myself superior for choosing to be at home full time; let’s please not go there.

March hasn’t exactly been an uneventful month in our family, with a series of health crises and scares. I’ve talked about some of them, and some I haven’t. My day was nothing more than an average, routine, busy day at home. It was gloriously uneventful, and for that I am grateful. That’s all!

Oh. Of course I caved and let him have cocoa rice crisps. It was his mid-morning snack. After baking, before Finding Nemo, seated at the table. Take heed, boys and girls. If you change your tactic from whining to asking for what you want ever so politely and sweetly, over, and over, and over again, you’re likely to have much better luck getting it!

But wait! It’s Saturday afternoon, and I am writing these lines two days after I started the blog post. So. This happened yesterday.

Remember how my boy and his globe with the malfunctioning Spain button have been inseparable? Well, he accidentally dropped the damn thing on his foot. Noooo! Ugh, man.

So far, no urgent medical intervention has been required. Not that it won’t be; I plan to take him on Monday if it still looks and hurts this bad. Hey, at least we avoided the ER this time! And until Monday, we are keeping the kiddo off his feet, and keeping the toenail clean, with plenty of ice on. It’s a rainy weekend in DC. Good for staying at home on the couch. Guess what movie is playing downstairs–first in Spanish, now in English–at the close of this blog post … ? We are now a household with varying degrees of proficiency in English, Spanish, and Whale.

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Networking lunch

“Do they really need to call it networking lunch? Can’t they just call it lunch, and take some of the pressure off?”
This was me, whining. I was going to a writers conference, which in itself was very exciting. I’d heard about it from my fabulous writing teacher, Kathryn Johnson (see this blog post for details of my writing journey, and my class with her). But the networking element in reference to the lunch session had me in a tizzy. A true fact about me is that I was not born with the gift of schmooze. And the notion of professional networking strikes me, in my weak moments, as nothing more than a popularity contest for grown-ups.

I don’t even have business cards to my name since my last teaching job ended. Which leaves me with the question, what do I include on a business card? “Sandra Falcón, Stay-at-home mother and writer?” “Pretty decent cook and baker?” “Once and future professor and linguist?” Do I include PhD even though my current writing has virtually nothing to do with my academic background? My mother’s response to this last one is an unequivocal YES. Why? “Sweetheart, because you can.” Hard to argue with that. Still, I was worried. What if I came on too strong? (People sometimes do.) What if I felt invisible? (I suppose people do this, too, sometimes.)

The morning portion of the conference did not disappoint. I met a lot of friendly people, the setting was excellent, the conference was running like a well-oiled machine, and the incidences of “networking” conversations that typically make me want to plug my fingers into my ears and go, “Laaaa la la la laaaaa,” were minimal. The day was off to a very good start.

Lunchtime came, and I quickly noticed in the buffet line that I was the only person who had put two wrap/sandwich halves on my plate. Then the woman behind me did the same, and I almost felt relieved, until she said, “I’m taking two, but that’s okay, because I’m not having any potato chips.” Precisely as I was piling the potato chips on my plate. Sh!t. What was I supposed to do, put something back? My seconds’ worth of hesitation was already holding up the line, and I was certain that others had noticed. Finally, I said an internal “Screw it,” and moved on, head held high … and resolved to eating very fast in order to cover up my blunder.

I entered the dining area, my loaded plate of food weighing me down a little–for what it’s worth, I had not taken any cookies or brownies for dessert, and I did eat all of my food. Looking at the tables filling up before me, I had brief visions of every teen angst movie that features a lunchroom scene involving some form (or various) of rejection.

Then I spotted a table that was half-empty except for a young African-American man … with his very appropriate single wrap half, and few potato chips. I made timid eye contact, took a deep breath, and made a beeline for a seat directly across from him. We first talked about the sessions that we had each attended in the morning. I’d been to the one on self-publishing a book; it was excellent, and my head was still spinning. He had been to a session on poetry.

He told me he’s a college student at a nearby University of Maryland campus. I went to ask him whether he raps, then quickly chided myself for stereotyping. Black college student who writes poetry, must be a rapper? So what if I was nervous–I knew I could do better. So instead, I asked him, “Have you always been a poet?” I could tell he liked the question. We each admired what the other was doing. I find poetry daunting, he said that writing a whole book sounded scary. He told me some of the things he knows about poetry. I shared how it had always been my dream to write stories. I was having a great time with my new poet friend.

Halfway into the lunch hour, we were joined by one of his professors. She had two long braids, and wore a large feather on one side of her head–she later confirmed her Native-American heritage. Had it not been for the Bluetooth device on the other side of her head, I could have sworn I had traveled back in time and was in the presence of a beautiful, regal tribe elder. The beautiful and regal part were nevertheless very real. To give you a bit more sense of her, she also told me that she has African, as well as four different European countries (“not by choice,” her words) in her ethnic background. And she has two children who are around my age. Before long, the professor and I were bonding. We covered the joys and exhaustions of raising a four-year-old, being home full-time in the early years of motherhood, teaching and experiences with students, writing practices that work for us given the various obligations of our respective schedules, and writing because it nourishes our souls and we can’t imagine not doing it.

Here are some highlights of the things she said. I am paraphrasing, but not a lot:
“I’ve trained myself to work on my writing at the end of the day, until I simply fall asleep. I’ve trained myself to do a lot of different things to accommodate my writing over the years.”
“My parents were undertakers. I saw a lot of carnage. So many Trayvon Martin’s before anyone ever cared about Trayvon Martin. My parents understood when my brother and I decided we didn’t want to go into the family business.”
“My first book was published in 2001.”
“I’ve decided to focus on the writing part for now, and not worry so constantly about getting it published. It’s too distracting right now.”
“This young man here is one of the best students in our Honors Program. He is an excellent poet. And a gifted rapper.”
“You have an author’s name! I can see it on the covers of books already.”

“You seem like a very devoted mother. Enjoying these early years at home with a child is a great privilege. I can tell you know.”

Eventually, we were of course joined on our side of the table by other conference attendees, and in hindsight I hope they didn’t feel ignored …  Can you imagine the irony? And before we knew it, the hour was over, and it was time to move on to our afternoon sessions. Lest you conclude that our networking lunch was just a touchy-feely exercise in mutual flattery with very little potential for business advancement (and if you do, hey that’s fine), I will tell you that our entire discussion did basically revolve around writing. I just really liked that it was also deeply grounded in kindness, and life. Stephen King says, “Life isn’t a support system for art; it’s the other way around.” By staying grounded in our lives, we had the kind of talk that transcended the perfunctory business/art stuff that can seem so tedious to me some folks. This was my kind of networking lunch!

I even learned, in a later conversation with a much larger group, that one of the characters in the professor’s new book is a Puerto Rican who is “really messed up.” What?! I know a lot about that! I could be her expert consultant on the subject of a Puerto Rican who’s ” really messed up!” Wait, could I put that on a business card … ?

The most basic definitions of network in the Oxford Online Dictionary are perfectly appropriate.
NOUN
1 An arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines
2 A group or system of interconnected people or things
VERB
2 (no object) Interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts

It’s when I think of it as a scenario where I am essentially competing to “sell a product” that the term becomes intimidating. Instead, I think that from now on I’m going to define networking as the simple quote below.

I mean, right? For all my whining, I think this was ultimately the approach I took going into this event. It did not lead me astray. Among the many, many highpoints throughout the conference, the networking lunch I had so dreaded turned out to be one of the great highlights. On my way out, I stopped by the buffet table and treated myself to a brownie. And when I’m done posting this, I will get to work on those business cards!

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