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.

jodiefoster_thesilenceofthelambs

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.

hannibal

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.

 

 

 

Grown ups

My husband, Jonathan, and I both had the kind of childhoods where we were left to look out for ourselves a lot. Not because we weren’t loved. We were, very much, and also well provided for. But in the houses where we were raised, there were larger issues that needed attention, and those concerns took priority.

When I was a little girl, my mother was consumed with keeping us safe from my father’s selfish cruelty and the repercussions of his philandering. And then later, after she kicked him out, she devoted herself to repairing the damage he’d left behind. She built a career, patched herself back together, paid off the debt he’d accumulated, met my stepfather, fell in love, bought a house, became a success. She was busy, yo. She had business to take care of.

In Jonathan’s house, his sister was fighting a battle with her own personal demons, which I won’t detail here because they are her business and she has been well for a long time. I bring it up only because her difficulties were paramount for many years, the most important thing in his family.

As a result, Jonathan and I both have a sort of patchwork understanding of what it means to be taken care of, to rely on another person to help solve problems. Neither one of us is very good at asking for help, preferring to gut things out on our own. And we share a specific kind of panic when things go awry, a knee-jerk, wide-eyed, deer in the headlights reaction that’s best summed up as, “Oh shit. Now what?” We’ll joke that we need an adult to come help us figure out what to make for dinner, deal with paperwork, make plans. We’re only sort of kidding.

On Christmas morning our heat broke. I’m not  good with mechanical technology, so I’m not sure how best to explain what happened except to tell you it was extremely cold and when I moved the thingy on the thermostat there was no heat. Jonathan and I had one of those conversations where you keep a crazy-eyed smile on your face and pretend everything is fine because your kid is there, opening presents while wearing a parka and a hat, but really you are freaking the hell out because the heat is broken and it’s Christmas day and you need a grown up and that’s supposed to be you but you don’t know what the hell to do because all of a sudden you are 16 again and home alone with a situation that is way out of your league and probably this is going to cost all the money and then you will have to sell your apartment and live in a box. (Living in a box is my worst-case scenario and I tend to go there immediately when the slightest thing goes wrong.)

Eventually we remembered we have a management company for just this sort of occasion, so we emailed them. And then we remembered we have a building supervisor, so we called him. They both got back to us quickly, the management company offering the names and numbers of emergency plumbers. (Oh dear God, I thought, do you know how much a plumber will charge on Christmas???? We’ll be living in a box by New Year’s. LIVING IN A BOX.) Meanwhile, the Super generously volunteered to come over and see if there was anything he could do to help. But we were due to leave for Jonathan’s parents’ house in Connecticut in a few hours, and so we told the Super we’d call him when we returned on Friday.

We had a lovely, if slightly fretful (NO HEAT LIVING IN A BOX OUR CHILD WILL HAVE BLUE LIPS WHILE SHE SIPS ICY SKIM MILK FROM A TIN CUP WEARING FINGERLESS GLOVES OH GOD MY LIFE IS A DICKENS’ NOVEL), visit with Jonathan’s family, and then we returned to our freezing cold apartment on Friday night. We called the Super, who told us he’d “bled the whole floor” in our absence (I assume this is a heating related thing and not a reference to The Shining) and we should try turning on the heat and see if something happened. Nothing happened. We could hear water gurgling in the pipes but the baseboards stayed cold. We called back the Super and told him what was going on, and he gave us the number for a heating repair company and told us to call them, because it sounded like it might be a pilot light problem.

And that’s when it happened. That’s when I realized there ARE grown ups in our house, and everything was going to be fine.

Because when we bought the apartment I signed up for a service plan with the heating repair company the Super had just told us to call, and I knew where I’d filed the paperwork, and I’d paid the renewal on time, and when I called them they told me that because I’d purchased the cadillac plan, they’d be here first thing in the morning, and the repairs would be covered (by which I mean free, by which I mean there’s no need to pay them any money for this emergency repair service, so no living in a box, for now at least, and, pardon my digression, but this is why you should get the good insurance, everyone who asked my advice about which health plan to choose when we were doing open enrollment at work).

We had a chilly night, but it hardly mattered. I gave Emerson a steamy hot bath, dressed her in two pairs of pajamas and wrapped her in a fleece blanket, slept with my icy feet pressed against Jon’s warm legs all night (he’s part potbellied stove, I swear). This morning the repairman came and it was the pilot light, easily fixed. We gave him an exorbitant tip, what Jonathan calls the “relief tax.” The heat is now blasting and we’re all watching Batman: The Brave and The Bold on Netflix.

I know it doesn’t sound like much, particularly if you grew up in the kind of house where, if the heat went out, someone lit a fire and gave you a mug of hot chocolate to wrap your cold hands around while they made things right again. Where your worries were appropriately sized. But for us, kids who had to figure out grown up things, who had to bandage our own wounds and soothe our own hurts, fix what was broken on our own as best we could and instinctively knew not to ask for much from the exhausted, preoccupied people around us, it is deeply comforting to know that there are finally grown ups at home. Two of them, even. And while we may be watching cartoons and eating cake for breakfast, all is well here. All is safe, and whole, and warm.

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

Today marks the debut of a new feature here on the blog, called “What should I eat while I watch that movie?” These aren’t movie reviews or re-caps, per se, although I will tell you what I thought of the movie, because talking about movies is a thing I love to do. Mostly it’s a helpful guide to pairing drinks, food and the occasional prescription drug along with a film, either to enhance the experience of watching it or to soothe yourself from the emotional fallout.

NOTE: SPOILERS! THERE WILL BE SPOILERS! Most of the movies we’ll be covering here are at least a couple of years old, so I’m going to assume you’ve already seen them or heard about them.

***

blue-valentine

Released in 2010 and starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine is a nearly forensic examination of the dissolution of a marriage. It is so realistic, so achingly true to the way things between people can fall apart, how love can twist in on itself and we can hurt and disappoint each other, that it actually makes you want to NOT marry Ryan Gosling.

I am certain there are people who live lives of contentment. People who look around at the things they’ve chosen and think, “Perfect. This is EXACTLY what I meant.” But for the rest of us, it’s not so simple. Life has a way of letting us down, we have a way of letting ourselves down, in ways large and small. Missed opportunities, a litany of what-ifs? Irredeemable mistakes. All those could haves and should haves and might have beens. Maybe things won’t ever fall apart for us as spectacularly as they do for the couple in Blue Valentine (let’s hope not), but to watch it is to see all our small concessions and compromises and disappointments writ large. And it hurts.

And so you ask, “What should I eat while I watch Blue Valentine?”

The answer is, a large bowl of buttered noodles and a Klonopin. If noodles aren’t your thing, you can substitute a large bowl of farina with butter, milk and salt. The Klonopin, however, is non-negotiable.

Want to know what to eat with that movie? Leave a comment here or send me an email at stefanie.gunning@gmail.com and I’ll suggest a pairing for you!

Sometimes, what you need to do is read a poem: Evening Primrose by Amy Greacen

I read a lot of poetry, mostly for pleasure, but also because I find the way poets use language to be extremely instructive. As a copywriter, it seems everyone is always telling me to make the copy shorter. Whenever this makes me grouchy, I go read ee cummings or William Carlos Williams; then I get over myself and make the copy shorter.

So I read because it makes me happy and because it makes me a better writer, but every now and then a piece hits me right between the eyes and reminds me why I write in the first place, why I bother breathing.

I ran across this poem the other day while meandering the Internet, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I am deeply enamored of brash weeds that bloom against all odds. Perhaps because I am one myself.

Evening Primrose

Amy Greacen

Oenothera biennis

Early adopter, familiar of vespertine
temporal specialists, itinerants:
who said your life would be easy? Chance
encounters, chancy neighborhoods, the lean

ground nothing cultivated will possess. But you,
night-bloomer, all strings of dubious exes, loose
ends, unabashedly seedy—you need no excuse.
This is simply what you do.

Daze them with perfume, bombshell;
daylight’s gaudy attractants are nothing to you.
Instead, take moonlight to the next level; take the dunes,
parking strips, waste ground that, for the right body—well,

presents the perfect opportunity. Herb of the X
chromosome: you know stigma. You don’t care.
Wherever the ground’s disturbed, you’re there,
brash, sticky with longing, a complex

quadruply branching ripple-effect array
of balanced-lethal genes and a flair for risk.
You know why you are here, let no one say
otherwise, heterotic odalisque;

X marks the spot, and hot things happen next;
slippery, brimming inner places; oils surefire
for increasing suppleness and desire
and damn the consequences, baby;

they’re on your turf now.