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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Tostones

I recently made tostones and posted some of the pictures on Facebook. Several friends responded with a request for the recipe. Here it is!

First, a language lesson. The appropriate singular form of tostones is tostón, not tostone (pronounced toston-eh). I’ve heard people, including high profile TV chefs, mispronounce it all the time. It grates on me. And I’ll be damned if I let a single tostón go the way of the tamale!

Thank you. Now let’s begin.

Start with very, very green plantains. In fact, it’s pretty critical for the unique flavor of these Latin-Caribbean delights that the plantains not show any signs of ripening, such as yellow spots (even a dulled green), or feeling soft when squeeze-tested. Green plantains are now relatively easy to find at most grocery stores.

Trim off the ends. Using a dull kitchen knife, run a lengthwise line down the middle, and peel. You will notice the skin is quite hard and heavy on sap. But a dull knife does the trick very well, and it’s a lot safer than a sharp knife given that it will take a bit of elbow grease to get this part done. Don’t be surprised if your fingers end up heavily stained from the sap. (It’s worth it!) Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds.

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Preheat a frying pan with about 2 inches’ worth of your preferred high-heat frying oil to medium high. Fry the rounds in batches (to avoid overcrowding them) for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, and drain.

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Flatten the rounds. I use the bottom of a plate against a cutting board. It’s best if the plate has a flat bottom, no rim. Once flattened, the rounds start to look like tostones. You may need a knife to unstick the flattened tostón from the bottom of the plate. Fry them a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side.

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Drain them on a fresh piece of paper towel. Sprinkle both sides of the tostones with salt the instant they come out out of the hot oil.

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You’ll realize right away that you can’t make these without needing to taste test the first one(s) to come out. The challenge is to not eat them all before the rest of dinner is ready to be served.

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TOSTONES

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cooking time: 30 minutes. Two plantains make about 1 dozen tostones.

Ingredients

  1. 2 very green plantains
  2. oil for frying
  3. salt

Cooking instructions

  1. Preheat about 2 inches’ worth of oil in a shallow pan to medium high
  2. Trim the ends off each plantain, and peel with a dull knife
  3. Cut each plantain into 2-inch rounds (about 6 per plantain)
  4. Working in batches, fry each round for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  5. Drain and flatten using a flat-bottomed plate on a hard, flat surface
  6. Fry a second time for 3 to 4 minutes per side
  7. Drain and sprinkle each side with salt
  8. Enjoy!
  9. (Serving these with homemade guacamole –recipe available– is optional, and highly recommended)

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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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No more Miss Nice Girl (My turning 40 manifesto)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The summer felt both long and drawn out, and short and sweet. It’s Saturday of Labor Day Weekend as I start this post. On Tuesday I’ll be 40. Friday is the anniversary of 9/11. A week ago the world lost Wayne Dyer. That made me pretty sad. Then a few days later, our human family lost a young Syrian boy named Aylan, and I swear, my heart –like so many others’– turned to shards. I tucked my own little boy into bed the night after those wrenching haunting photos appeared, then cried tears of gratitude (for our safety), denial, shame, angry powerlessness…

All this hand-wringing on the eve of one’s fifth decade really gets a person thinking. I can’t take on the weight of the world. SO WHAT CAN I DO?  Well. In my own small way, one thing I’ve decided to do in honor of my 40th birthday is to stop being nice.

Listen, I’ve been nice long enough. Nice paired with judgmental. Nice while prone to comparisons and competitiveness. Nice and secretly angry. And you know what? No. I’ve also been on the receiving end of similar types of niceness. Nice plus condescending? Oh, yeah, always a doozy. And how many times has someone been perfectly nice while slapping me with a terrific underhanded insult? Like I can’t tell? Please. Stop it-just-STOP IT!

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It’s not that “nice” is bad. It’s just so ubiquitous and tired. It conjures (for me, at least) comfort zone complacency and stagnation. It is all too often used as a front for self-righteousness and passive-aggressive derision. Plus it’s on a steep slippery slope to inane flattery without substance. And I want off  the damn slope!

In the face of bad stuff happening in the world, what’s the stuff that matters? What have four decades of living and loving and wins and losses taught me? Nice doesn’t cut it anymore. I want to strive for depth, authenticity, empathy, love. I don’t want to compete with you. I want the light in me to see the freaking light in you. And I want to tell the TRUTH about it all.

The whole, “If you have nothing nice to say … ?” Meh. I’m not a big fan. My kid is being taught about kindness, love, intention, about saying what he means and meaning what he says, and owning it. I don’t want him to settle for inserting some prepackaged PC response on cue. I want him to give a genuine shit! About the planet, his place in it, and how he coexists with its fellow occupants.

Also? I’ve never been softer (and I don’t just mean in my midsection) or sappier. I’ve never felt a greater urgency to say “I love you,” usually with a hard squeeze, to the people I love. I cry a lot more easily. There’s a space somewhere in my heart that I’ve only just begun to uncover in the five years since becoming a mom. I have a feeling this space runs deep, and I want to both nurture it and draw from it. I often look at my boy and say, “If you could see what I see every time I look at you … !” And once, after hearing it enough times, he finally said, “What, Mom? What would happen?” I love that he made me finish the thought. So I did; I said, “You would always, always know that you are good enough, and worthy of love, exactly as you are.” I fret often over whether he knows he is precious and beloved. I mean, does he really, really know it? I want to plant as many kisses on his sweet, soft face as I possibly can before he decides it’s uncool to let his mom do that.

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I want to remember to thank my husband every single day for being my best friend and cheerleader and the best imaginable co-parent. Ever. I want to try to yell at idiot other drivers less. I want to keep smiling, hell I want to smile more. I’ll probably share more cheesy Facebook memes with positive messages and lighthearted silliness. Why? Because I refuse to give in to cynicism. These four decades have hardened me in some good places and softened me in other very important ones.

I will continue to assert my faith in the good in humankind and in the power of love. I resolve to align myself, as much as possible, with things that are good. Not perfect or (god(dess) help us) superior. Not PC or ceaselessly angrily militant for one cause or another. Just good. Loving. Authentic. It’s not likely that I’ll be housing refugees or marching in protest against this and that. But I do promise to cultivate truth and peace in my world. And I pray that for now, that will be enough.

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Roasted Kale Chips

My beloved picky eater Eric came home from PreK one day and announced that his class had made kale chips with their gardening teacher. That he’d had some. And more importantly –wait for it!– that he’d liked them. I went straight to his teacher to ask if this was true, and she confirmed it! Whuuut?

So after several tries, this is my very own foolproof recipe for crispy roasted kale chips. Eric’s teacher wasn’t kidding. Whenever I make this (true story, I swear), he says, “Kale for dinner tonight! Yeah!”

(Oh yeah, and right as I perfected my recipe, I saw this at Whole Foods.

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Really? Don’t you just love it when that happens? “Like this or that? Yeah well that is sooo yesterday’s trend.” Bah, don’t believe ’em.)

Start with one bunch of curly kale*. Odds are pretty good you already have the other two ingredients for this recipe: olive oil and salt. Preheat the oven to 375. kale1

Pull the leaves off the stems, discard the stems, and rinse the leaves well (at least twice, depending on how much dirt you start out with).

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Make sure the kale is dried very, very thoroughly. I always use a paper towel after the salad spinner to be extra thorough. Otherwise, if it’s still too moist, it won’t crisp up in the oven. Drying the leaves is probably the most time-consuming part of this recipe.

kale6Arrange the kale leaves on two (half-sheet) sheet pans. Drizzle each sheet pan with a 1 1/2 tablespoon (a tablespoon and half) of olive oil. Toss to coat the leaves in the oil. Then arrange them in a single layer (this is why you’ll need the two sheet pans).

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The single layers is another step that ensures that the chips crisp up properly. If the leaves are layered on top of each other, they will only steam, and stay soft.

*My quest for crispy chips is an important reason why I use curly kale and not the more popular (if we believe Food Network) dinosaur or Tuscan or “lacinato” kale. Tuscan kale is too flat. The effect is similar to roasting the kale in multiple layers or without drying it well; it comes out soggy. Curly kale, on the other hand, allows some air underneath the leaves that helps the chips crisp up. Plus Tuscan kale is often more expensive. This one’s a no-brainer.

After the leaves have been tossed in olive oil and arranged in a single layer, sprinkle each sheet pan with about  1/4 (a quarter) teaspoon of kosher salt.

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kale12Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 oven for 10 minutes. When the kitchen starts to smell like someone in your house has bad gas (about 2 minutes in), that’s how you know the kale is cooking properly.

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The kale chips will come out looking wilted, drier, and slightly browned once they’re done. But they’ll burn easily if you’re not careful!

Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt the moment they come out of the oven (optional). And voilà. Enjoy!

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kalepicstitch1Any leftover chips can be stored in the refrigerator for two or three days. Just take them out of the fridge about two minutes before eating them, and they’ll taste just as crispy as when they were freshly made!

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ROASTED KALE CHIPS

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch curly kale
  • olive oil
  • salt

Cooking instructions

  • Preheat oven to 375
  • Remove kale leaves from stems, discard stems, and rinse leaves well.
  • Dry thoroughly in salad spinner followed by a towel.
  • Place kale leaves in two separate sheet pans. Drizzle each one with 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil, toss and arrange the oil-coated leaves in a single layer.
  • Sprinkle each sheet pan with 1/4 teaspoon of salt.
  • Cook each sheet pan (individually) in preheated 375 degree oven for 10 minutes.
  • Sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt while the chips are still hot.
  • Ignore obnoxious trend-fixations and enjoy your superfoods!

 

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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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Ask and it shall be given. Part 3, Theater!

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(Here are Part 1 –Paris– and Part 2 –Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert–  of Ask and it shall be given.)
Do I always believe this quote by Maya Angelou? Please. Does anyone, besides maybe Wayne Dyer? The truth is no one always gets what they want. It’s also true though–cliché alert!–that we never know unless we ask. Here are two stories I present to you as evidence.

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The first time my husband David and I went to London together was in 2007, years before parenthood. For our next-to-last night there, we bought tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof in the Savoy Theater. He and I have always loved this musical, and were so excited for the opportunity to see it.

Geeking out in front of the Rosetta Stone. (My background is in historical linguistics.)

When the night of the show came, we first had dinner reservations at a famous restaurant nearby called Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Britain. And may I say, it’s quite the experience. (Can’t believe I couldn’t find photos from our dinner there, sorry!) A gentleman who I’m sure had been around since at least Shakespeare’s time pushed a silver domed trolley around. Under the dome was a huge piece of prime rib, to be carved with flawlessly executed olde English flair directly beside your table, and served with boiled potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. The man was as delightful as he was ancient. He only scoffed a small amount when I ordered fish instead of beef, and he happily posed for pictures with diners like a bonafide celebrity. The meal was so enjoyable in so many ways, it felt like an embarrassment of riches that the main event of the evening was yet to come when Fiddler on the Roof started at 7:30.

Shortly after this delightful dinner, we strode into the vestibule of the Savoy Theater, so excited, but surprised to find that we were the only people there. Hmm. David hurried to find someone we could ask what was going on, and returned with an usher, who very nicely escorted us into the theater, right after he told us the show had started at 7!! Oh … HELL no. To this day, we don’t know how we made that mistake.

The usher then assigned us temporary seats until intermission. Because the seats we’d bought were so good and close to the stage, it would have disrupted the production to let us take them right away. The song we entered to was To Life-L’Chaim. A favorite, to be sure, but what about Tradition?! Matchmaker?! If I Were a Rich Man?! I was close to tears. During intermission, when I saw just how wonderful our seats were, I shed a few. I told David we had to come back the next day and see it from the beginning. “Let’s at least ask!” I may have even suggested we buy a second pair of tickets for the next night, or that we propose standing somewhere in back. But the plan was, first, to explain what happened, and ask if they’d just let us sit through the first few numbers the following night in whatever seats they had. David was hesitant. It was embarrassing, of course. And why would they say yes? Finally though, he agreed that the worst that could happen was they’d say no.

The theater manager wrote down David’s name, and told us it could be arranged for us to attend the first half hour of the show the following evening–for free! She told us there would be a different manager on duty, and that she’d explain the situation to him, so he’d know what to do. David and I were excited … and skeptical. Show up and tell a different manager that someone had promised us the previous night to let us in for free? Um, no.

Picture from our last day, most of which we spent wondering if we’d get to see Fiddler on the Roof from the beginning…

Imagine our surprise when the manager on duty the following night sprung into action with what seemed like crystal clear recognition the instant David said his name. He didn’t wait for further explanation. Hell, he didn’t even ask for I.D. He just went to the ticket window, and produced an envelope with two tickets for us. They were for two pretty decent seats, together! Fiddler on the Roof became the definitive highlight of that entire trip for us. It’s a story I love, and love telling.

New York
I don’t have to tell most of you about my long-standing love affair with New York. Being a fan of Sex and the City as a single gal in the late nineties probably had a little bit to do with that. A couple of years ago, it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was starring in a play called The Commons of Pensacola with none other than Blythe Danner. I decided I just had to go.

As soon as the tickets went on sale, I tried to buy one online, but kept getting a message about no tickets available. Next, I called the theater, The New York City Center. The guy explained that theater “members” get first dibs on all shows. Once members have purchased their tickets, a limited selection of seats becomes available for “the rest of us.” They had no idea when that would happen, only that it was very close to performance dates, at which point they expected tickets to sell out pretty fast.

Through a series of circumstances that included family obligations at home and hotel reward points, I soon narrowed down the dates when I’d be in New York to one night. I’m not usually this brazen in my wishing and hoping, but at this point, I had to see the play on that very specific night. So I started to check Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more than once a day. Still nothing. Everything was in place for me to go see the play … I just didn’t have a ticket for it. Yet. The quest got to be a bit of a joke between David and me. Then one day, the heavens parted, and voilà. Tickets available for online purchase! I bought one on the spot. And when, out of curiosity, I checked back for a few consecutive days afterwards, I once again found nothing available. Lo and behold, it’s a tiny, intimate theater, and I had a seat very close to the stage.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I know this type of wish-come-true seems pretty trivial, even shallow. I get it. Theater is a privilege. And with everything that’s going on in this world, life is about so much more than enjoying a performance from an awesome seat. But I think valuable lessons can also be learned from things going right, from something wonderful that you almost gave up on, but didn’t. I’m not always going to get what I wish for, and sometimes that’s where the blessing lies. Sometimes, though, if I pay attention and know what to tune into and keep at it, enough of the important factors can align perfectly. And the answer is yes. And it then occurs to me that if this can happen, what else can I dream into reality? May you have many such moments. Just remember, you’ll never know if you don’t ask!

Oh yeah, the following morning, I got to listen to Wayne Dyer talk about manifesting dreams. And did I mention I got to stay in New York for free that night? I’m telling you … !

I had one of the best pizzas of my life the night of the play.
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Wanderlust

wanderlust1

Of all the unexplained compulsions in human behavior, wanderlust has got to be my favorite. I blame my parents. In my early childhood in Puerto Rico, when my father was in medical school and my mother was the sole bread-winner for our family of five, they still managed to scrape together enough money to take us to Disney World a couple of times.

Orlando (1977 & 1979). I’m the youngest.

Later, in the three years we lived in Albany, NY while Dad was a resident in rehabilitation medicine, we’d pack the five of us into the family car, and set off for Manhattan, Toronto, DC, and many other places. There was never a lot of money, but my parents understood well the importance of expanding our horizons. So I learned early on, for example, that eating food from a grocery store–rather than a restaurant–for at least one meal a day is an excellent way to save money on a trip.

Roadtripping in the early 80’s

Upon completing his residency, my father moved our family back to Puerto Rico, and made a vow: That one day soon, he’d take the five of us to Europe. The year was 1985.

In summer 1987, la Familia Falcón embarked on a three-week tour of Europe. And that was it. THAT WAS IT! Before the trip, I thought historic sites in Europe were these boring, abandoned places, visited only by a handful of rich eccentric types. It was confusing that my parents wanted to take us there. But I quickly “got it.” There’s a whole world just beyond my own, awaiting exploration. There are people very different from me … and ultimately not that different. The world is terrifically big and wondrously small. It’s okay to see things differently, and to think and be different from my previous beliefs. Magic is real, and wealth isn’t a pre-requisite for it. It’s possible to be many miles away from home and still experience a powerful sense of belonging. These were just a few of the lessons learned.

The Falcón’s at the Roman Colosseum (1987)
My parents have made good on that 1985 promise many more times than their children or grandchildren could have dreamed.
Madrid (2006)
And they sent each of us on plenty of solo adventures, too.
Clockwise: A summer in England (top two on the left -1992); semester abroad in Spain (1994); camel ride in Egypt (1999); eating pizza sold by weight in Verona (1999); Santorini (2000).
Imagine my delight when I met my husband David, and learned that he suffers from the same travel restlessness as me. Soon, we were engaged, and the adventures continued. Which brings me to the present(-ish), and to my point. Mark Twain said it best.
Oh please, please-please, SEE the world as much as possible. It’s one of the best things you could ever do. And with enough planning and flexibility, it can also be done on a budget.
After we had our son Eric five years ago, our travels definitely slowed down. We are now a very frugal single-income household. Last year we had hopes of visiting Spain on the 20th anniversary of my semester abroad there. Alas, the expense would have been unwise; we didn’t go. Yet David and I continue to agree that any extra money is set aside so we can see our country and the world as a family. Both he and I count travel–and a love of reading books–as the most profoundly enriching experiences of our formative years. This is precisely what we dream for Eric during his childhood. Not surprisingly, he is a natural little wanderer like his parents.
This world map with color-coded pins for places dreamed, planned, and visited is one of the best Christmas presents David has ever given me. (2013)
When we returned from a 12-day roadtrip to Canada and New England last summer, the moment Eric realized we were done travelling, he sat down on the family room floor, and cried, “But where are we going tomorrow?!” Here’s a picture from our trip to London when he was a year old.
Did you know you can fit your stroller–opened, with your baby strapped in–into the backseat of London’s famous black taxis? He loved that! (2011)
Guess what? We’re thinking of taking him again in just a few weeks. David has a work trip. Eric and I could tag along. This trip has been over a year in the making, and we have never thought longer or harder over a travel decision. Among the factors to consider? 1-I’d be alone with Eric in London, not seeing David until the very end of the day. On the other hand? 2-I could be alone with Eric in DC, doing our routine stuff, not seeing David for an entire week. Only one of these options gets me eating scones with clotted cream and jam … in friggin’ England. Yeah, I like what’s behind door #1 better. Do I still wonder if it’s the 100% sensible thing to do? All the time. Our finances are a far cry from when we had two incomes and no kids. Just in case, don’t tell Suze Orman on us, alright? Not to mention my anxiety-prone self is coming out full force, conjuring fantastically awful mental scenarios about things that could go wrong. (I am a superior catastrophizer.)
But we’re still seriously considering it. With David’s expenses covered, the trip would be a fraction of what it would cost for the three of us. There’s this wonderful phenomenon called tax refund. The curiosity and wonder of a five-year-old child are like lightning in a bottle. For me, besides the chance to give my boy an invaluable experience, it’s also an opportunity to overcome an anxiety. And a priceless reminder that the world is still within reach and a relatively safe place, no matter what dire news stories tell us; that it is ours to experience and love; that I can go on travel adventures long after my carefree “younger” years, this time, as the mom. I still don’t know how my parents took their three kids on all those trips. Sometimes, it occurs to me, they must have decided to just go for it. Life is short. There’s a time for prudence … and a time for scones. This time I want the scones. I hope you will find whatever your metaphorical “scone” is, and go after it. Dream it, map it, plan it, and go. I’m telling you, it can be done, and it is WORTH IT.
You see, I’m not kidding when I say we love to travel. Here’s a sampling of some of our pre-parenthood trips. Clockwise from top left: Toledo (2003); Grand Canyon (2003); Paris (2004); Ireland (2007); Innsbruck (2008); and Maine (2008).
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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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On Martin Luther King, and teaching kids right from wrong (spoiler alert: It’s hard)

MLK1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftrMy four-year-old son was asking me a few days ago why school will be closed on Monday. He doesn’t care for school being closed, and asks to know the precise reason why he has to endure this. I told him it was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and asked him what he knew about Martin Luther King. Here’s what he said: “Martin Luther King was someone who used very big words when he grew up. And then he died.” Technically, what he said wasn’t inaccurate. Still …

My first reaction was to take issue with his school for not teaching him in better detail about MLK. Then I got over my momentary lapse into short-sighted self-righteousness, and remembered that I am the boy’s mother–oh, riiiight–and it is not, ultimately, the school’s responsibility if he hasn’t learned about Dr. King.

So I began to start to try to tell him. That’s when I realized he may not know, at this age, the difference between black and white, or any of the races, for that matter. I mean, it’s just not something we have talked about explicitly in our house. Apologies to anyone who feels that my husband and I have been negligent in this regard. The boy is four years old, and he gets along with everyone (with about two exceptions) of every race that he’s ever met. He knows he is half-Puerto Rican. His friends have been white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed like him, etc. I simply don’t think it’s ever occurred to him that these differences can cause people to act differently–more importantly, unfairly–toward each other. In a sense, the reason why my boy doesn’t have school on Monday is because of racism. To explain the holiday to him was to burst his bubble. And that made me kind of queasy.

But I started. It was Friday afternoon. We were driving to Baskin Robbins after I picked him up from school. (I highly recommend surprising your kid with an impromptu after-school ice cream run.) I told him Martin Luther King is an American Hero, on the hunch that using the term hero would hold an appeal for him. I was right. He perked up, and instantly became interested. I fumbled and stumbled my way through a summary of how once upon a time, black people were treated very, very unfairly in America. Fairness is another concept that I know resonates with him. Naturally, though, my mind was screaming in protest about the once-upon-a-time part. If recent events in our country have revealed anything, it’s the staggering, nauseating, deadly pervasiveness of prejudices and inequalities based on racial differences. But. MLK was the topic at hand, and I told myself there’s no reason to force dire nuances on the kid if he’s not asking to know them at this time. He will learn soon enough–and no, I do not and will not defer to school to do the work of teaching him about this.

So I continued. I told him that Martin Luther King thought that everyone should be treated the same, whether they were black or white, or of any color. I consciously choose to use black as the more accurate term. Extreme political correctness all too often comes off as trite and inauthentic, in my opinion. See the story about CNN’s Chris Cuomo just last week using African-American incorrectly. So I try to stick with more transparent language. I told my son that MLK suffered injustices for defending everyone’s right to fair and equal treatment. That he was very brave, and never gave up. So we honor his birthday on Monday, again, because he’s a hero. My son seemed satisfied enough with this explanation. Once we got to Baskin Robbins, the one item on the agenda was chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone.

The challenge One of the countless challenges in teaching a young child ethics happens when doing so entails him being aware that sometimes in life, it feels as though things really suck, with no rhyme or reason. It’s “easy” enough for him to grasp this concept when he is affected by it on a very personal level, like when the answer to something he wants has to be no, and he’s pissed about it. In those moments, my response tends to be something along the lines of, “I know you are disappointed, I’m sorry you’re upset, we all feel that way sometimes, I love you, the answer’s still no.”

For about a year when he started watching the movie Toy Story, we skipped the Sid scenes completely. Dude, Sid’s toys are flippin’ scary to a three-year-old. Then there’s the whole meanness issue. Over time, though, when we thought he could tolerate the scariness, we let him watch those scenes. We’ve used them to talk about kindness and unkindness. About consequences. About bullying and abuse. And about disabilities, how Sid’s toys might seem scary at first because they look different, but they aren’t “bad.” Some great conversations have come out of this. Ultimately, it’s a fact that there are mean people in the world, odds are good my son will encounter a few of them; why not discuss these topics at home, first?

When the world at large becomes involved, it obviously gets trickier. We see the entitlement in this generation of kids. And we don’t wish to contribute to it. But there’s a way of teaching kids about others who are less fortunate that can lead them to feel like wretched beings who are to blame for world hunger. To a degree, I was subjected to this type of morality growing up, and I really, really don’t want to do that to my child.

At Christmas, for instance, we make a shopping trip for non-perishables that we then take to a food bank. We also collect some of his old toys to give away. The idea, as we try to convey to him, is that if we want to receive gifts, we first make room in our hearts by giving and sharing. Again, though. I struggle finding the balance in teaching him that there are others less fortunate than ourselves, without feeling as though I’m guilt-tripping him. Nor do I like the idea of doing something like it’s an obligation you take care of and check off, then pat yourself on the back for it. “So be right(eous) for righteousness sake?” Uh, no thank you.

For now, I think he knows his actions have consequences for others, both good and bad. Beyond that, I strive to lead by example, and stay focused on one thing: that we are all the same. That–on the most basic, logical level–it makes no sense to do to someone else something we wouldn’t like being done to us. For what it’s worth, I think he has a sense of that. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

You know, you have a baby, and you spend the early stages just trying to keep him alive, safe, fed, clean, and content enough. Then the realization dawns on you (or maybe it was just me being slow on the uptake) that you are responsible for delivering to the world a well-rounded human who’s not a pushover but who also gives a genuinely empathetic sh*t about others. Who knows he is worthy of love and joy, but doesn’t feel or act entitled. You know, all that fantastically easy stuff. No pressure. No big deal. And then … ? We all just do the best we can. How do you talk to your kids about (in)justice?

 

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