About Stefanie Gunning

Native New Yorker. Brooklynite. Voracious reader. Movie junkie. Theatre nerd. Recovering manic pixie dream girl.

Pantheon, One Fallen

I have been trying, and failing, to write about the Bill Cosby abuse allegations for weeks. I am finding it nearly impossible to talk about, because I am so sad.

On the surface of things, this story doesn’t touch me personally. I’ve never met Cosby. I don’t know any of the many women (23 at this writing) who have accused him of drugging and assaulting them. I believe these women, without ambiguity. And while I am distressed at how familiar this narrative is — the powerful man, the vulnerable girl or woman, the fear of not being believed, the threat or payoff to stay silent — that doesn’t account for how bereft I feel.

I am desolate over what has been revealed here, because Bill Cosby is one of my pantheon of fathers.

I’ve written before about my biological father, about his particular damage and how it made him behave in thoughtless, cruel ways. He and my mother split up when I was 6; I ceased all contact with him when I was in my early 30s. In-between, we waged a war of love and fury, estrangement and dark intimacy. He was, in many ways, a great love of mine. He was, in others, a malevolent force that nearly destroyed me. He was so many things to me, but a good father was not one of them.

For that, I had Pa Ingalls. James Evans. Atticus Finch. And Cliff Huxtable.

. . .

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Charles Ingalls, a father who fiddled so you could dance.

I was about to turn 5 when the 2-hour Little House on the Prairie movie premiered in 1974. Like many little girls, I was obsessed with Half-Pint and her braids, perfect Mary, the dinner pails and single room school, that bitch Nellie Oleson. (For the record, I met Alison Arngrim once, and she is delightful. What? Yeah that’s right, I interviewed Nellie Oleson when I worked at TV Land and it was even more amazing than you think it was.) But the real draw of this show, for me, was Pa. Charles Ingalls was a man you could look up to, a man who could shoot and ride and plant and reap, who could build his family a house and then fill it with music he played himself. This was a father, and I turned to him the way sunflowers turn their open faces towards the sun. I never read the books, because someone told me that Book Pa was actually sort of strict and a disciplinarian, and I wanted none of that. For me, Pa is bright blue eyes, moppish hair, social liberalism, a charming sense of humor, and a faithful, enduring, enlightened love for his wife and children.

. . .

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James Evans, whose daughter was always his Baby Girl.

Good Times also premiered in 1974, and I fell in love with the Evans family immediately. As an adult, I wrote about this show for TV Land, and I was shocked — I mean genuinely shocked — to realize they were poor and lived in a dangerous housing project. As a child, all I saw was they love they shared, the wholeness of their family. I wasn’t an idiot, I knew they weren’t wealthy, but anything they might have been lacking, might have been wanting for, was made insignificant by James Evans. Here was a deeply proud man who was willing to do what needed to be done, who worked two jobs at a time to provide for his family. And when that failed, he was cool enough to make money playing pool. He was a man who called his daughter Baby Girl in a way that felt protective and kind, that made the world safer. A man who was there for for his children, adored his wife, and navigated a brutal world with a steadfast power that awed me. This was a father. Poor? Hell, these people were rich as far as I could see.

. . .

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“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

There were years when I carried a copy of Harper Lee’s  To Kill A Mockingbird around with me wherever I went, tucked into my backpack. Atticus Finch made the world bearable. His humility, his passion for justice, his brilliance. The way he could shoot. The way he chose not to. His uncomplicated, profound love for his children. His compassion. His courage. His dignity, and the way he offered a sort of grace to everyone around him. Atticus was the definition of a good man, a gentleman, a man whose fundamental decency was the truest thing about him. This was a father, someone to look up to, who could guide you to the next right thing, the hard thing, every time. He would not fail you.

. . .

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Which brings us to Cliff Huxtable.

I was 15 when The Cosby Show premiered in 1984. By then, my mother had remarried, and my biological father had come back into my life after disappearing for several years after the divorce. My stepfather is a good man, and he has treated me with kindness and love from the start. But it was complicated, being the daughter of these two fathers, both sort of strangers. It was messy, confusing. It was hard to know whom to trust, whom to love and how to love without feeling I was perpetrating some kind of betrayal against one of them.

For the Huxtables, life held no such complexities. There was no mistaking how comfortable these people were, no mistaking the joy and playfulness in that house, the saucy love between the parents, the comical throng of siblings. Cliff was present for his family — literally present, his office was downstairs — and he took such clear pleasure in his children, their achievements and quirks, their adorable babyhoods and teenage dramas. This was a father, one who would talk to you, listen to you, make you laugh. One who was genuinely engaged with who you were, and whom you might be someday. One who didn’t give you secrets to keep, unless it was that he’d given you chocolate cake for breakfast.

And he is lost to me now.

. . .

One of the largest parts of growing up is accepting the fact that your parents are people, with flaws and passions and hungers of their own, with their screwed up histories and regrets. Sometimes you realize  they are dangerous, and the only thing for it is to build a wall between you. Maybe you forgive. Maybe you can’t. But at some point, if you are to have anything for yourself, you find a way to stop blaming them. You take responsibility. You take up the threads of your life and weave a tapestry of your own design.

I know this.

But it is hitting me hard, this realization about Bill Cosby. It is a fresh hurt in a place I’ve been wounded before. Because I believed Cliff Huxtable was like Pa and James and Atticus. I believed he was the kind of father who could keep me safe from men like Bill Cosby, men like my own father. And as much as I want to separate the character from the man, they are inextricable. When we talk about Bill Cosby we are talking about someone who, by reputable accounts that I believe, would drug and abuse more than 20 women while publicly joking about hoagies. Cliff feels like a lie now, the kind of lie my father would tell his friends and colleagues about our relationship, the kind of lie I was meant to agree with, about how close we were and how proud he was of me, while all the while he was hurting me in ways no one could see. This is personal. It is a tangible loss in the father-shaped place I have been trying to fill since I was 6.

Make no mistake. I stand with the women who accuse him. But I stand with a broken heart.

My Life in Books

I was flattered and delighted when We Wanted to be Writers asked me to contribute to their Books by the Bed series. I was also immediately thrown into all my old insecurities about not being good enough or smart enough or educated enough for this task, since We Wanted to be Writers has its genesis in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a place that seems nearly mythical to me, like Camelot, and deals in fancy authors with impressive degrees and publications.

This particular demon, the one that tells me they made a mistake when they asked me to write for them, that I am unworthy, a hack, a pretender and a loser and no one is interested in anything I have to say, is named ‘Broken Childhood SUNY Bachelors Degree’ and it is an old friend by now. I have learned to ignore it, to tell it to hush and send it on its way.

One of the ways I learned to do this, to not snuggle with the demon and instead do the next good (scary) thing, was reading. Books have been my solace, my escape, my education, the father I needed, the adventure I craved, my ticket to the world. Over and over, I have been transformed and sustained by books. I do not exaggerate when I say Wally Lamb saved my life, Anne Lamott set me free, Atticus Finch showed me what a man is, Jennifer Weiner was the friend I needed.

Books have been my constant companion, they are how I lived my life. They are also how I remember it. And so, I shushed the demon and wrote a love poem to the stack by the side of my bed, that ever-changing tower of inspiration and friendship, grief and care.

Demons be damned.

My Books by the Bed post: http://wewantedtobewriters.com/2014/12/books-by-stefanie-gunnings-bed

Let’s Talk About Books: She Can Fly by Michael G. Gabel

I was asked to review the book She Can Fly via a thoughtful message on Twitter. Prior to that message, I’d never heard of the book or Kerry Keyes. It’s for the best that I came to She Can Fly cold, because I don’t know that I would have had the courage to pick it up if I’d known what it was about.

That would have been my great loss.

Written by Michael G. Gabel, She Can Fly is a creative nonfiction memoir project dedicated to raising awareness and support for victims of domestic violence. It tells the story of Kerry Keyes, a sheltered young woman who fell for a charismatic (aren’t they always?), manipulative, viciously abusive man and got trapped in an escalating, seemingly inescapable horror of a life. Horror is a big word, but it’s the right one for Kerry’s life with her abuser, Wayman.

I am no stranger to stories where terrible things happen to women, but these books are nearly always fiction and the women in question generally triumph, or if not triumph, come to a resolution that feels satisfying. There’s closure. Sometimes there are even happy endings. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone springs to mind as an example of the kind of book I’m talking about. And as I made my way through Kerry’s story, I found myself trying to retreat into the comforts of fiction.

Kerry has children with Wayman, surely she will flee with her sons and disappear into a false identity, like in Anna Quindlen’s Black & Blue!

Wayman seduces and has children with other women, and at times Kerry and these women live together in a single home. Surely they will bond in sisterhood and fight Wayman together, like in The Witches of Eastwick!

She kills him, right? She absolutely murders him. Like in Practical Magic.

She Can Fly is full of the kind of drama that makes for a gripping story — forbidden attraction, involuntary commitment to a psych ward, crimes committed, jail time done, an escape from the abuser, evading the authorities, living on the lam. But it is no fiction. And knowing this, reading Kerry’s words, her prosaic telling of the circumstances that set her up as a target for Wayman and left her bereft, having intimate knowledge of what was done to her, what she had to survive, makes me want to wail. It makes me want to rip my clothes and throw dust on my head.

This isn’t an easy book to read. But there is redemption here.

Kerry is alive to share her story. She has the courage and willingness to do so. Gabel — who met Kerry when he was a child and she was his nanny — has the resources, talent, and passion to share that story. And we are here, to bear witness, to raise awareness, to work towards a world where every woman has a way out, a way to safety, if she needs it.

She Can Fly is harrowing. It is ineffably sad. It is deeply important and necessary.

And we owe it to ourselves, to each other, to Kerry and all the women like her, not to look away.


You can read She Can Fly for free online, or purchase a copy on AmazoniBooks, or Nook. (I am not an affiliate and will not receive any compensation if you choose to purchase, I’m linking for convenience only.)

Please consider making a donation to the National Network To End Domestic Violence, Safe Horizon, or the domestic violence prevention organization of your choice.

It’s Called FaceTime for a Reason

This summer, my then 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, experienced two important rites of passage.

First, she became the object of a young man’s affection. This boy, whom we’ll call DG, had it bad for my moppet. So bad, in fact, that he asked if she had email, and told her that if she did NOT have email he’d make an email for her, so they could write during the evenings and over the weekend, when he was bereft of her company.

She told me this matter-of-factly one hot July night after camp, as she shoveled mac-n-cheese into her summer pink face. My baby, who has my pointy chin and round cheeks, her Daddy’s beautiful mouth, and more hair than anyone has a right to. My sweet little girl, who loves dragons and making things out of clay. My precious child, who is the kindest, funniest, and most generous person I have ever known.

“Well, Mama. Do I?” she asked.
“Do you what?”
“Do I have email?”
“Yes, my darling, you do. You have email so you can write to Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, and Grandma in Connecticut, and Yaya.” (That’s her nickname for my best friend, Lisa.)
“Well write it down for me, so I can give it to DG and he can send me an email.”

I didn’t just hand over her email address, of course. First I confirmed that this person was actually another child and not a 40-year-old ice cream vendor who hands out balloons to his “special” customers, but you have to climb into the back of the truck — which is really just a white van that he painted to look like an ice cream truck — to get your balloon (I watched far too many After School Specials growing up). Cue the epic eye rolling as she assured me that YES MAMA he’s a KID! He’s 10! We then had a giggly conversation where she admitted DG had a crush on her, and while she didn’t have a crush on HIM, she liked the fact that he had a crush on HER quite a lot.

I told her that she’s under no obligation to like him just because he likes her, that she doesn’t have to give anyone her email or phone number or smile for them or tell them her name or respond AT ALL just because a boy likes her. But if she IS going to be friends with him, she should understand that he has more-than-friend feelings for her, and be kind to him. And that if he, or anyone else for that matter, ever makes her feel uncomfortable or hurts her feelings or pressures her to be more than friends when she just wants to be friends then she should immediately tell me or her Daddy, and we will kill him. With our bare hands. And make it hurt. Bad.

Maybe I didn’t say that last part.

At the time Emerson didn’t have her own device on which to receive email. No iPad or iPhone or computer to call her own, because she is the most deprived child in all the land of Brooklyn. Her email came through on my iPhone, however, and so I was privy to the besotted musings of this 10-year-old Romeo. Here’s how it worked: He would send a message. I would see it on my phone, but not open it. I’d go home after work and tell her she had email. She’d take my phone and read the message, giggle, and then hand the phone back to me so I could type her dictated response, because I am her secretary. Sometimes she’d get bored and wander away, and I’d go scrambling after her because it is one thing to be transcribing a message from an 8-year-old girl to a 10-year-old boy, and quite another to be texting said 10-year-old boy by myself.

Things got serious when he started in with the emojis.

This went on for quite a few weeks. He even emailed her while we were away on vacation, counting down the days until she returned to camp, pumping out a string of emojis we had to consult a glossary to decipher. And then, sure as winter follows fall, came rite of passage number two: He dumped her. She went to camp one day, and he casually informed her that they were breaking up, but could still stay friends. She shrugged it off — she really hadn’t liked him that way, and was content with his ongoing friendship — but I admit to feeling a little miffed. I’d gotten pretty invested in all those emojis after all.

In August, for her 9th birthday, we got Emerson an iPad. She was so happy she cried. Mostly this iPad has been used for watching Wild Kratts (#TeamChris forever), taking photos of herself using Photo Booth, emailing grandparents, and FaceTiming Yaya.

And about a week ago, she used it to FaceTime DG.

I do not know what her motivation was. I think she was just missing her friend. He gleefully shouted her name when he realized it was her, and they talked for a long time, about school and games they were playing online, about his parents’ divorce and his brother and sister, about her fish. I didn’t eavesdrop – she did it in front of me, sitting on the couch. It was sweet, and tender. He told her he cared about her, and missed her, and was so happy to see her face.

He is a lover, this DG. His vulnerability slays me.

This is just the beginning, of course. The beginning of the boys and men (and perhaps women, who knows?) who will love her, whom she will love. And I want it all for her, all the ecstatic wonders and heart-cracking pain that is loving another person. The lavender-scented joy and the eating a tub of frosting in the bathtub while crying. I wish her everything, all of it, every electric moment of love and passion, eventually, when the time comes.

But first, this girl and I had some business to take care of.

I found her curled up on her bed, reading one of the BONE books. “Hey Emmy,” I said. “Can we have a conversation?” She put her book to one side and turned her open, sweet face to me.

“Sure. Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think you’re in trouble?”
“Well, what do you want to have a conversation about?”
“I want to have a conversation about FaceTime.”

I nude modeled in college, for sketch classes, and painting classes. I loved it. During breaks I would slip into a white robe, light a cigarette, and wander through the rows of easels, looking at the canvases and seeing myself the way others saw me. It completely changed the way I thought and felt about my body, made me appreciate the curved landscape of my belly and hips, my neck and breasts, the wild tumble of my unruly hair. I had a lover who photographed me nude, and I trusted him with my life. When we broke up, he gave me the photos, and the negatives.

I didn’t tell my daughter any of that. I will, someday, when my 20-year-old innocence and wildness can serve as a fond anecdote, rather than a model for her own behavior. Instead, I told her that sometimes when people have phones or other devices with cameras they can get a little silly and take pictures of their bodies, like their tushies, and then send them to other people. She laughed at that, thought it was ridiculous. And it is, I told her, it is very silly, but it is also sort of serious, because the Internet is an endless place, where nothing ever truly goes away. And even if you just send a photo like that as a joke, to someone you trust, once it leaves your Photos it might go anywhere. So we struck a deal. She will never take a photo, or video, or FaceTime of any part of herself below the neck. In a nervous spurt of creativity, I even made up a cheerful rhyme, to help her remember:

If it is not of your face, do not send it anyplace.

I also told her that if anyone sends her a photo of anything but their face she’s to show me or her Daddy immediately, and we’ll help her take the right next steps. If they show her any non-face parts on FaceTime, she’s to shut it down and come tell us.

I’m almost completely certain this was the right thing to do. She’s young, she’s so exquisitely young, but if you’re old enough to have your own iPad, know how to shoot photos and use FaceTime, and have a romantic boy to FaceTime with, then I think you’re old enough for this conversation. I think this conversation is required.

The world is so wide and full, so delicious and riotous. And I want her to have all of it. But for now, only from the neck up.

What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: The Silence of the Lambs

There is simply no way to overstate how enraptured I am by Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. I have read the book six times. I have seen the Jonathan Demme movie more times than I can count, and have bought it on every available format, including laser disc*. I saw the musical twice. I own the soundtrack. I have a t-shirt with Precious on it (she’s pictured in her basket). I never, ever miss the opportunity to make a “It rubs the lotion on its skin” joke, and I once described a co-worker I dislike as being “courteous and receptive to courtesy,” at which my husband, Jonathan, asked if I was quoting Hannibal Lecter on purpose. In fact, I was not, I was just talking and Hannibal Lecter came out. And while there is an argument to be made that Michael Mann’s Manhunter is a far better film and Brian Cox the superior Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs will never lose its allure and power for me, because of Clarice Starling.

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Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling. I immediately got that haircut and bought that blazer.

I was 21 when The Silence of the Lambs opened on Valentine’s Day in 1991, a college senior in a tiny town in upstate New York. My plans at the time included surviving my last snowbelt winter, graduating in May, and then moving to New York City to work in the theatre and live with my boyfriend. All of this terrified me. I loved the theatre but had no real idea how to launch a career with no contacts, no professional experience, and a BA from a SUNY college that, while excellent, wasn’t the famous School of the Arts one. I was sad and anxious all the time, which turned out to be an undiagnosed depression that got much worse before it got better. And though I couldn’t admit it to anyone, especially myself, my boyfriend wasn’t very good to me.

I felt powerless in those days. Unable to define what I wanted, and even if I could figure it out, incapable of creating it for myself. I worked hard to please my professors, smiled enthusiastically for my parents, agreed to whatever my boyfriend proposed. But I felt like I was choking all the time. Not metaphorically. It felt like I had a golf ball in my throat, always. Like I couldn’t breathe.

And then Clarice ran into my life, in her FBI Academy sweats.

She was damaged. She was tormented. She had so much to prove. And yet, she was so incredibly courageous. Not fearless, not by a long shot, but courageous. She knew what was at stake, she knew the dangers, and she ran towards them, gun drawn.

Clarice Starling was a revelation, with her skill and intelligence, her vulnerability, her flaws, her perfect bob haircut. She seemed nearly divine, like Theseus, braving the labyrinth, killing the monster, rescuing the innocent. Like Artemis, protector of young girls. Like Demeter, fighting to save her daughter from the Underworld.

She didn’t save me — I moved to New York, married the boyfriend who wasn’t kind to me, continued to spiral out, and had a rather spectacular emotional breakdown when the marriage disintegrated — but she became a touchstone, a reference point for determination, for resiliency, for sheer guts, for holding my own in the company of people where I feel terribly out of place. It isn’t uncommon for me to invoke her, still, when my backbone needs stiffening, telling myself that if Clarice Starling can walk down that scary-ass hallway in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to talk to Lecter and then get covered in Miggs jizz, if she can shrug off her adorable coat, pull her weapon, and descend into Buffalo Bill’s horror basement to rescue Catherine Martin, then I can ask for a raise, stand up to an arrogant colleague, and figure out how to get my daughter into a good New York City middle school.

And I always remember to check my corner.

If you’re familiar with how Clarice’s story unfolds after The Silence of the Lambs, you know that she and Lecter end up together , as a romantic couple, at the conclusion of the novel Hannibal. Many fans, critics, and Jodie Foster herself, were deeply disturbed by this, thinking it was a betrayal of Clarice’s goodness, her fundamental decency. But I always thought it rang true, that the darkness in Lecter reached for her light, that he was a broken creature she could try to save, the ultimate lamb in the night. The marriage of the Divine Mother and the Dark Lord. It’s twisted, but the older I get the more I wonder, what great love isn’t, somehow? And in the end, it is worth noting that Harris makes sure to tell us it is possible that Clarice Starling could frighten Hannibal Lecter. As well she should.

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You’re right, Clarice, I do load the dishwasher like a rube. I’m sorry. I’ll do it your way from now on.

Which brings us to the question, what should you eat while you watch The Silence of the Lambs? I suggest liver with some fava beans and a big Amarone, which is what Hannibal dines upon in the book (Chianti, even a nice one, being too pedestrian for his refined tastes, I imagine). Or you could follow the example of Clarice’s flirty bug expert, Dr. Pilcher, and have a cheeseburger and beer, or the amusing house wine.

*I have never met the creator of this video, but I suspect she is the sort of person I would have bonded with immediately at sleep-away camp.

Read What Should I Eat While I Watch That Movie: Blue Valentine.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or tweet me at @stefgunning and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!

Just Stay in the Car

Photo by Emerson Gunning, who stayed in the car

(c) 2014 by Emerson Gunning, taken from inside the car

My daughter, Emerson, is visiting my parents in Miami this week. While the annual pilgrimage to visit grandparents in Florida is an ancient tradition among my people – those people being New York Jews – this is Emmy’s first time making the trip. My parents moved to Florida in October of last year, after a lifetime in New York City and Westchester, and we are all still adjusting to the new distance.

For Jonathan and me, it’s been a lazy week of sleeping in, Netflix binging, and take out. A delicious reenactment of the first six months of our relationship, when we put on pants only long enough to go get another pizza and rent more movies. It’s also an odd sort of return to my teenage years, those idyllic days when my parents would go out of town and my 17-year-old, green-eyed, James Dean lookalike boyfriend would all but move into my house.

Yesterday was Jonathan’s birthday, and we were awakened by a phone call from Emmy, who warbled an early-morning rendition of Happy Birthday and enthusiastically informed us that she was going on SAFARI today, to a place where the ANIMALS WALKED AROUND but you were perfectly safe, because you STAY IN THE CAR. There could be lions, or tigers, or monkeys, and maybe you will want to touch them and maybe they are dangerous but you STAY IN THE CAR and you will be fine.

Emerson is often a pint-sized guru, dropping wisdom about forgiveness, friendship, admitting when you’re wrong, and self-reliance (she is well named, this independent, imaginative, dragon-loving cherub of mine). But this particular bit of advice has been traveling with me, working its way into my thinking, the way poetry will.

I have a habit of getting out of the car, metaphorically speaking. Of wanting to run my hands over the tiger’s hot fur, feel his rough tongue on my skin, because he is exciting and beautiful, even though I know he is dangerous. Wanting to mediate the chattering drama of the monkeys. Wanting to help the giraffe figure out how to safely walk under the low-hanging bridge. Sometimes this works out fine – the tiger is growly but playful, the monkeys’ disagreement is resolved, the giraffe is rescued. Other times, more often than I’d like to admit, my good intentions end in troubled feelings, and I am reminded again that it is wise, good even, to empathize, to hold compassion, to listen, even to offer an opinion or perspective, if it’s asked for, if it can be received, but ultimately, you have to stay in the car.

Stay in the car.

Let the tiger slink by, let the monkeys sling it out, let the giraffe find her own way. You stay in the car, and you root for them, you send them your kindness and your care. But your business is in the car, behind the wheel, driving through soft summer air or under a brilliant winter sky, into the soft grey where morning arrives. You stay in the car, fiddling with the radio, keeping the temperature right. You plot the best route to wherever you’re going, get lost, find your way again.

None of which is to imply you can’t invite a fascinating gazelle or rumble-throated golden lion into the car with you, or that you can’t climb out now and then to ride a buffalo. I’m not talking about coldness, or a lack of adventurousness. I’m talking about cheerful participation from a secure place of your own.

Stay in the car. Drive your own safari. Let the tigers and the monkeys and the giraffes figure it out for themselves.

In which I am anally probed by a chiropractor and fitted for a truss, also, some thoughts on love

I was diagnosed with scoliosis during a routine visit to my pediatrician when I was around 12 years old, and immediately burst into hysterical tears. I had just finished reading Deenie, Judy Blume’s novel about a beautiful girl with a twisty spine, and I was certain I’d be in a full body brace before sunset. In fact, my curvature is relatively minor, and required nothing more than monitoring until I’d finished growing. I look perfectly normal in clothes, but I am imbalanced — one hip is a little higher than the other, my waist is a little more concave on one side — and as a result I have overworked muscles in my right shoulder and left lower back, and corresponding weak muscles in my left shoulder and right lower back. I’m a bit of a Picasso, but none of it was a problem until I was 18, when I slipped on some ice, fell on concrete, and did something terrible to my crooked musculature that made it painful to sit, stand, lie down, and walk. Those being all the options, I was in big trouble, and was saved by a local chiropractor, who crunched me back into my version of alignment and got me back on my feet.

Since then, I have struggled with back pain, sometimes just a little stiff and twingy, other times in spasm so terrible I was essentially immobile for days, alternating heat and ice, abusing anti-inflammatory drugs, and crawling to the bathroom because I couldn’t stand. In my 30s, I found a chiropractor who truly helped me, with an extraordinarily expensive weekly regimen of electrical stim, massage, chiropractic adjustments, abdominal exercises, weight lifting and stretching. After years of this, she retired, and because I felt so well, and it had been so long since I’d had an episode, I figured myself cured and never bothered to find another doctor.

I am so dumb, sometimes.

The past few months have been a strange time, demanding and emotionally draining, with work eating up much of my life, a great deal of travel, and an unusual level of stress to do with family dynamics and the unexpected death of an old friend of a friend, a man my age. I’ve been letting some things slip, important things, like my morning run, daily meditation, dinner with my family, going to the movies, reading for pleasure, and time to pursue my own creative work. I’ve been letting life slip, is the thing. 

So of course, my back went out on Monday.

It was just like the bad old days, the immediate seizure of all the muscles in my lower back, my left hip pulled up, my torso pushed to the side, what I think of as my Elephant Man posture, the searing, blinding, nauseating pain, the inability to look down, to bend, the fear that this time I’ve done it, this time it won’t get better, this time the brace, the surgery, the pain that won’t stop, the never dancing again or horsing around with my daughter. This time I’m really broken.

Experience has taught me that the only thing to do when this happens is to keep moving. Stand instead of sit. Walk instead of stand. Crawl if I have to. Movement is the key. To give in to the pain, to the spasm, to the crazy-making swirl of fear, is worse than useless. When life clamps down, you move. So I double dosed on Tylenol and Motrin, counted out exactly how many I could take over the next 24 hours without poisoning myself, had Jonathan help me dress, and went to work. 

My crooked posture and obvious distress were met with compassion and care, because I work with people who are as kind as they are talented. I was given the names of many doctors — sports medicine, orthopedists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors (this is New York City, after all, everyone’s got a specialist for everything). And so it was that I found myself on Wednesday afternoon in the beautiful office of a chiropractor who is named for an Egyptian goddess, has been interviewed by O magazine, and uses a technique called Directional Non Force, which is extremely gentle and nothing like the twisting, cracking, popping chiropractic care I’ve had in the past.

I mean honestly, she had me at Oprah. 

She is lovely, this doctor, warm and kind, with a healing touch and a deep wisdom about the body. She talked to me, examined me, and worked on me extensively. She detailed my curvature to me, identifying L5 as the vertebrae to blame for my troubles, and then she told me that my coccyx was out of alignment, and she thought adjusting it would help me feel much better.

Funny thing about having your coccyx adjusted. It’s an internal procedure. And she didn’t even want to cuddle afterwards.

And then, because the afternoon had not been horizon expanding enough, she fitted me for a support belt. It’s a wide, multi-Velcroed garment that wraps around one’s hips and waist, providing support to newly aligned tailbones and exhausted muscles. It is my Deenie nightmare come true.

And so home I went, where I explained my day to Jonathan, and showed him my truss. Then I took a large dose of Oxycontin (they should put this stuff in the water, I swear), and went to bed.

The next day I was feeling better, but on doctor’s orders needed to wear my belt anyway, to help preserve my adjustment and not send my muscles back into spasm. After trying to get it placed properly on my own, and failing, I finally asked Jonathan for help. 

I think often about what it is to love another person, the comforts of it, the surprise of being charmed anew after years of familiarity, the chasm of rage you fall into sometimes. And to be sure, love is silk stockings and French bras and nursing a sick child, it’s dirty texts and harsh words, buying groceries and who is going to empty the dishwasher. And if you are lucky, love is a partner who will rub your aching, crooked ass with anti-inflammatory gel, and then wrap you in a truss while talking dirty to you about how you’re a sexy nurse and he’s going to straighten you out, you saucy little minx. 

The moral of this story, I guess, is that sometimes all we need is anal from a chiropractor and a truss to remember what’s truly important in life.

The Seventh Bear

If I ever have my own ad agency, I’m going to call it 7th Bear. Here’s why:

I’m gonna tell you a little story. Once there was a great big pregnant bear. And after a painful labor, she gave birth to seven baby bears. So she was very tired. And she looked at her seven babies, and they were all gooey and slimy with afterbirth. And in that miraculous way that Nature has built the bear, she felt in her heart a tremendous welling up of material feeling. Maternal feeling. And this maternal feeling filled her with strength, so she licked and licked and licked her babies, one after the other, rendering them clean and fresh and beautiful. That is until she got to the seventh little bear. Right then, she ran out of gas and dropped dead. Muerto. And the six, well-tended little bears, with their beautiful brown coats, shed a tear, a tender tear, and bounded off into the woods. To have wonderful lives. And the seventh cub, the unlicked cub, went into show business. (Tada). Whenever I can’t believe the behavior of somebody in the business, I think, this is an unlicked cub. Whenever I can’t believe my behavior, I think, I am an unlicked cub. Being shocked, being taken aback, it’s a waste of time. This is the way we are! This is the mess we’re in! Let’s get on with it!

~John Patrick Shanley, Four Dogs and a Bone

 

Unexpectedly Expecting

About two years ago I performed at The Jukebox, a storytelling/karaoke series run by my good friends Steve JacobsMargaret Lyons, and Steve Heisler. The topic of the evening was parenthood, and while the story I told isn’t the kind of thing Hallmark cards are made of, it is a love letter to my daughter, and so I thought I’d share it today.

Happy Mother’s Day, no matter how you got there.

*   *   *

I found out I was pregnant in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon. And I was FURIOUS.

And shocked. The word “gobsmacked” comes to mind. But mostly furious.

Here’s why: I was 35, I was a newlywed, and I was madly in love. At my recent annual gynecologist appointment, my doctor had told me that for a variety of reasons I might have a very tough time getting pregnant. I was a little concerned because I was pretty sure I wanted to have a baby…eventually. Not now, but, you know, later. Eventually. When I told my doctor this, she said, quite gently, “You do realize that 35 is considered ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE.”

WTF? Apparently I had run out of “eventually” and if I had any intention of having a baby ever, we had to get the ball rolling. So even though I had absolutely no interest in getting pregnant right now, she pulled me off the pill with the idea that she’d run tests and check my hormones, and I would feel my mucous (totally gross) and we would see what my cycle was like when I was off the pill. And then maybe I would get pregnant in a year or two.

The other thing you need to know is that I was about to quit my job. Yes. I had a great big job then, with an office on the 38th floor of 1515 Broadway overlooking Times Square and an assistant and a bonus every year…and I despised it. I was a contract negotiator, which is an exciting job if you’re into that kind of thing, which I was decidedly not. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a business degree. In fact, I have a degree in Theatre, and a minor in Religious Studies. What was I doing negotiating contracts, you ask?

I came to New York City after college to be a stage director. And I had a job at Manhattan Theatre Club I adored, but it paid almost nothing and then I ran out of credit cards. So I took this job at MTV Networks in the Business and Legal Affairs department when I was 25, thinking I’d work there for a year and then I would go to grad school. And it never happened, because every year they promoted me, and the salary got bigger, and the bonus got bigger, and then I started thinking, who quits a job like this, I have such good benefits. And every year I died a little more inside.

On the day I found out I was pregnant in the bathroom, I had finally gotten to a place where I was ready to quit. I was going to quit big. I was going to quit my full time job, and take a $30,000 pay cut, and I was going to work as a freelance writer. It wasn’t as completely crazy as it sounds, because I had a permalance gig lined up to be the editorial director for tvland.com and nickatnite.com, but even so, I wasn’t flying out of the nest so much as I was flinging myself out of it… blindfolded…while on fire.

I should also mention that my husband, Jonathan, was working at EMS (an outdoor store sort of like REI) but his real focus was on finishing and selling a screenplay. So we got a fantastic discount on fleece, and every night at our house was like a scene out of Shakespeare in Lovebut when it came to our income, it was all pretty much on me.

But we had talked about this, and he was completely supportive of me quitting. I mean he was all, “You quit that job! You quit it hard! Full steam ahead on the quitting!”

And now I was pregnant.

So there I am in the bathroom stall with my pee stick and all I can think is, I don’t want to have this baby. Never mind it’s basically a miracle I got pregnant without trying, totally by accident, WHILE using a diaphragm (and I put spermicide in that thing EVERY TIME, just saying) after all the talk of advanced maternal age and checking the mucous.

Nope. No thank you. Because if I had this baby, there was no way in hell I could quit my job, with the paid maternity leave and the sweet benefits and the big paycheck. No way in hell. I would have to stay there, negotiating contracts forever, until I was just a shell of the person I once was, and then I’d retire, and then I’d die. And my tombstone would read, “She had amazing benefits.”

You guys, I came up with this awesome plan. The plan was, I was going to hide my pee stick in the trash and then march back to my desk and call my doctor and tell her I needed an abortion. Right now. Immediately. I wasn’t even going to tell anyone. I was just going go and quietly have an abortion and never tell anyone and then quit my job. A stealth abortion. A Stabortion. And then, in a year or so, when things had settled down a little, we’d have a baby. Maybe. Probably. Whatever. I don’t know. Abortion. Right now.

I hid my pee stick, and I left the bathroom, but instead of going to my office I took the elevator down to the lobby and I went across 44th street to the Starlight Deli, because as much as I desperately wanted an abortion at that exact moment I wanted a coffee the size of my head and a black & white cookie even more.

The head counterman at the Starlight Deli is this robust, wonderful, gregarious, friendly Egyptian man named Abraham. On the day of the pee stick, he’d been feeding me breakfast every work day for more than a decade. He fed me through my South Beach phase, and half a dozen bad breakups, and then he fed me though all the time I dated Jon, and planning our wedding. We were pals.

I walked into the Starlight and Abraham hollers out, “Hello beautiful! Coffee time! Yes?”

And I said, “Yes. But decaf.”

I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t want this dream-crushing, soul-sucking, scary baby. But I also didn’t want to hurt it.

Meanwhile, Abraham lights up and does an actual double-take. Because ever since I’d come back from my honeymoon he’d designated himself my Jewish mother and had been pestering me about where his babies were.

He points at me, and he says, “Decaf!? You baby?”

And I burst into tears. Wailing. Snotty wailing.

Abraham comes rushing out from behind the counter, and he takes me by the shoulders and he says, “Why you cry? Baby ok?”

I tried to explain about my job and quitting and my dreams and being a husk and my tombstone. And he just shook his head and he said, “You have baby. It’s good. You’ll see.”

And I was like, noooo, you don’t understand. $30,000 pay cut! How in the world can I possibly do this?

He shrugged, and he said, “I have five children. A blessing, every one. Every baby brings its own blessing. You ask me how you do this? You do it. Have your baby. Quit your job. Be brave. You’ll see, your blessings are just starting.”

I stood there with him, crying, and he actually took me in his arms and started to sway with me. He smelled like sugar and salami, which for a Jewish girl from the Bronx is the smell of home. He made it sound so easy. Have the baby. Quit the job. Both. Say yes.

It dawned on me that I had been saying no to myself for so long, I’d forgotten how to say yes that way. All of my choices, from the day I left the job I loved at Manhattan Theatre Club, were based on being safe. All of them. Everything was an “or.” It didn’t even occur to me until that moment I could choose “and.” Have the baby, and quit, and have it be ok.

I pulled myself together finally. Abraham poured me a decaf, bagged me a cookie, and sent me on my way.

And here’s what happened next.

I did call my gynecologist…

…the next morning, after I’d gone home and told Jonathan he was going to be a father, and we called our parents, and I called my best friend.

And then I quit my job.

Our daughter, Emerson, is going to be 9 this summer. She is the image of her daddy, and the love of my life. And every single thing I was scared of that day in the bathroom, they all turned out to be nonsense.

I was afraid I’d be trapped forever in a job I hated. Instead, emboldened by the need to contribute to my family’s wellbeing and motivated by a cellular desire to be the kind of person my daughter can admire, I kept pushing until I found a career that rewards me richly for being an information junkie with a tendency to burst into song.

I was afraid I’d lose myself completely, and instead I rediscovered everything I’d ever taken pleasure in: making up stories, singing songs, living room dance parties, talking in silly voices, themed Halloween costumes, ice cream for dinner, laughing until you pee.

I was afraid I’d resent her, but instead, I am indescribably grateful, for her laughter and sweetness, how she helps me see the world as a place of wonder and goodness. For the ways she’s softened me, made me kinder, slowed me down.

I am absolutely certain that every good thing in my life started the day I said yes to her. As Abraham predicted, she has brought an endless stream of blessings. And they have just started.

There were a lot of people around the day Emmy was born — Jonathan and my best friend, Lisa, were in the delivery room, and our parents were at the hospital also. I didn’t get to be alone with her until about 4 in the morning, when everyone had gone home to rest. And that first night, with her tiny head tucked under my chin, I whispered the most honest thing I have ever said to another person. “I have spent my entire life wondering what I’m supposed to be doing, where I’m supposed to be, what my purpose is. And it’s so clear now. I am here to love you.”

I know it’s corny, but motherhood is a corny business. It is made of promises, of hopes that are larger than everything you fear, of saying yes, and yes, and yes, to the mystery of love, to the surprising hugeness of your own heart, to messes, to the unknown.

It’s also made of lullabies, and that’s what I’m going to sing you for now.

Where’s Waldo?

Waldo-image_approved

Look, I’m going to tell you a story about tampons, all right?

I got my period today — hooray! And I mean that genuinely. I have always been glad to see my period. Back in my youth because it meant I wasn’t pregnant, and more recently because it means I am not in menopause. Circle of life!

And so it was with the satisfaction of a job well done right on schedule yet again that I went to the office drawer where I keep my tampons only to find that I had failed to restock last month. Not a tampon to be found. Luckily, I work with many women, and when I inquired about borrowing a tampon I was directed to the drawer of a lovely young woman who we’ll call L, who is tall and slim and possessed of a flowing mane of brunette hair so pretty it makes me want to learn how to do french braids, a skill I never mastered despite 7 years of day camp and three at sleep-away camp.

Her tampons were tiny and adorable, each packaged in its own pink envelope. They were the collapsible sort, where you have to pull the plunger out to deliver the tampon to its destination. I did so, and went about my business.

A few hours later I needed to use the bathroom, so I borrowed another tampon from L. And here is where our story takes a turn for the mysterious. I could not find the current tampon. Could not find it. And I looked. Trust me, I looked. Finally I decided to just insert another, to see if I could find the missing tampon with a new tampon. I think I was hoping they’d act like magnets, and the new one would pull the old one out? I don’t know, you guys, I panicked. I prepped the new tampon by pulling out the plunger and tried to insert it, but now this one wouldn’t go in. It’s not that there was anything blocking the way, it was more that I couldn’t seem to get my lady bits to grasp and hold the tampon in place.

‘What kind of crazy-ass skinny girl tampons are these???’ I wondered. ‘Have I reached the stage of life where my vagina is rejecting the cheekily packaged tampons of the youth market? Or worse, is the tampon rejecting me??? Does this have something to do with my not watching Broad City? Does the tampon know I have no idea who Jason Derulo or 2 Chainz are and I only know that one Lorde song and I think I’m pronouncing Lorde wrong? Has the tampon guessed that I truly want a pair of clogs, that my running playlist is filled with hits from the 90s, that sleep has become my new favorite thing? Stop judging me tampon!’

I was rescued by my friend P, who hooked me up with an old school Tampax Super, the kind with the pokey cardboard applicator. And it turns out the cute tampon hadn’t found me lacking, I just hadn’t pulled the plunger all the way out — it’s supposed to click into place before you use it. The tampon hadn’t rejected me. We just had a miscommunication. As for the lost one, it had never been there in the first place. Due to plunger failure, I’d been tampon-less all along.

I imagine there’s a deeper meaning here (heh), about aging and self-acceptance and the passage of time. Or maybe technology. But mostly, I thought this whole thing was funny as hell, and I am once again sort of surprised and amused to realize that I am old as fuck…for the club, not the Earth.