Make Your Bed

I once dated a man who said he’d bought a new set of sheets shortly before he met me. He said that he’d hoped that if he made his bed nice, he might find a nice woman in it.

Although his penchant for yelling at cab drivers and shaming meat eaters eventually drove us apart, those words stuck with me. Sometimes you need to take an action not for its literal impact but its symbolic one. Hogwash? Maybe, maybe not. We all do it at some point: buying a new outfit for a big job interview even though the closet is full of wearable alternatives, or putting on the sexy panties even though no one may see them. Doing so makes you feel in control and ready to be interviewed. . . or bump into your own personal sex god on a Thursday afternoon.

And sometimes we need these little tricks more than others. It’s about building mojo, right? You know that post-breakup phase where you spend weeks on the couch watching TV and eating cookie dough? What’s your ritual for remembering you’re a woman again, finding the chutzpah to put on some heels and go out?

I’ve found that making one’s bed is as good as any other. I recently moved into a new apartment. Nicer, but much smaller than my previous home, it’s required a lot of creative organization and hauling boxes of non-necessaries to a nearby donation center. I’ve enjoyed the process of shaving my belongings down to the basics again, even though it’s taken about seven weeks of hard work to finally banish every box and stack of stuff.

Although I wanted an entryway that didn’t require hiking boots to scale, or have people over for dinner they didn’t have to hold in their hands, what I really obsessed on was my bedroom.

For one, I believe a bedroom should be a sanctuary from not only the outside world but also any of one’s own day-to-day stressors. Stacks of boxes belching clothes and odd stacks of papers made my bedroom feel more like an airport than an oasis.

More than that, the state of my bedroom symbolized my heart. Okay, my libido, but my libido’s issues were my heart’s, not my body’s. I’ve been running this magazine and loving every minute of it without actually having any sex since the day it launched. Or maybe I did, but that’s the point–I can’t remember when the last time was I had sex with the man I was seeing around that time. Our little relationship began calmly, ended calmly, even our fights were calm. Is there anything worse than apathy?

I had had a string of colds and flus all winter, my apartment was falling down around my ears, and the lack of passion I was feeling or eliciting made me feel like a lump of Kleenex.

So, more vitamin C, a new apartment, and no men. Humbug.

Working on my bedroom became a ritual for restoring my interest in the opposite sex. It worked firstly because it restored my interest in myself–I wanted to show off my cute new pad, what a clever decorator-on-a-budget I was, and test the new bed frame. (You can’t really figure out how sturdy it is just by sleeping on it, right?)

It also worked because I had used the condition of my last apartment as an excuse not to let someone in, literally as well as emotionally. Now I was preparing a lovely space I could be proud of, and would have no such excuse if I got involved with someone today.

As I added each new piece to the room–a pair of curtains, a vintage desk, pictures I hadn’t bothered hanging in my old place, I became more and more ready for someone to see all this.

Because there are many ways to reveal yourself other than taking off your clothes–if someone cares to look.

“You didn’t seem very impressed at the way I’d made my bed,” someone teased me a few mornings ago. We were re-assembling his bed and I laughed. I told him I’d probably had other things on my mind the night before than how tightly his sheets were tucked.

“My grandma always told me,” he said with a grin, tossing me a pillow, “That people would like me if I made my bed. I’m gonna have to call her.”

A few nights later he was here, for the first time. The last time he’d come to my home I’d met him down at his car, refusing to let him in, citing “a mess.” Now, his shoes were off and I had taken extra care to smooth the new bedspread across my bed.

I was ready.

Intimacy, or, to Ruffle the Feathers Lovingly

Kevin Kline: To kiss a prostitute, it costs more.

Meg Ryan: That makes sense. A kiss is so intimate. You could probably disconnect from everything else, but a kiss… Two people’s lips together, their breath, a little bit of their soul. (Stops). All I mean is that a kiss is where the romance is.
–French Kiss

We talk a lot about sex. Sex is fun. But even though sex (usually) involves stripping down and exposing oneself to another human being, it isn’t always intimate. It’s very possible to have sex without being fully aware of your partner’s body or emotional state. . . in fact sometimes it’s too easy to do so.

Remember that scene in French Kiss when Kevin Kline’s character explains that a kiss from a prostitute cost more than sex? Meg Ryan’s eyes fall shut as she muses on how a kiss is the truly intimate act. He snorts in derision but by the end of the movie all either one of them wants is just to kiss each other.

If you were having that conversation, what would you define as the most intimate part of sexual contact? Or is your definition of intimacy even sexual? Perhaps it’s the quiet moments in the kitchen when you’re both fixing your morning coffee, or the last moment before you fall asleep together.

I’m not personally a fan of sexual bells and whistles. New poses and toys are all fun but in my opinion should only come later when you want to keep things fresh. At the beginning, for me, it’s all about whatever happens naturally. I’m fascinated by the unexpected intimate moment. Having sex with someone for the first time, whether you know him well or not, is a peaceful form of combat, a discovery of vulnerabilities–a sometimes addictive confrontational exposure. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine. Then what happens?

Bruising, pounding, hand clutching the headboard, trying to catch breath–but no eye contact.

Or, he gets up afterward and turns on his laptop.

Or, he pulls you close, snuggling your head on his shoulder.

Or you’re so spent that you fall asleep without noticing what he does.

Or you roll over, not interested in snuggling.

Or you lay there wondering how long you should wait before getting him riled up again so you can go at it one more time.

Can he make you laugh during sex without either of you losing the mood?

Does he look you in the eye? Do you want to meet his?

Can you recover afterward from an awkward flub? Does it make you feel closer to him or are you just being polite, waiting until he goes?

The next morning when you first see his face, you feel. . .

What is the most intimate experience you’ve had that didn’t involve sex? Did it involve hand-holding, dirty socks, just finally letting down your guard?

I’ve had sex with a man that wasn’t nearly as intimate as an unrelated, PG conversation we had a few weeks later. I’ve had sexual contact that didn’t include kissing–when we finally did kiss it felt far more intimate than anything else we had done. I’ve been pushed to raw uncensored emotional honesty in the bedroom by someone I could barely have a conversation with outside of it.

You just never know what you’ll find, in him, or you, or what you create together. That’s what makes it such an addictive gamble.

Although I’m no expert on longterm relationships I have observed many couples losing desire for each other because there are too many things swept under the rug. A few fights that were never resolved, one of you puts on a bit of weight and feels insecure, the other is always stressed and tired from work, and sex becomes at best a comforting ritual, at worst something to avoid. You can’t be spontaneous and challenge each other sexually because you’re afraid of resurrecting all these stifled insecurities, fears, or resentment.

Sex is, ideally, a spontaneous confrontation. Hormones aren’t driven through the body by boredom, rather, by a bit of fear, a challenge, even anger. One doesn’t connect through apathy.

I recently overhead one coworker exclaim to the other, who was jokingly demonstrating how his neighbor touches his shoulder whenever he greets him, “Omigod! I haven’t been touched like that in ten years!”

She burst out laughing, but I hoped she wasn’t telling the truth–she’s only in her mid-thirties and can’t have been married much longer than a decade. I hope her husband touches her like that all the time.

Whatever your relationship status, I hope the coming week brings you an unexpected moment of intimacy. . . and if it doesn’t, let’s consider it a challenge to seek one out, however many feathers it ruffles.

hamster, interrupted.

In the winter of 2007 I worked for an eccentric entrepreneur in Brooklyn. He had a window and door business that was faltering while he devoted all his resources to inventing a series of ingredients to create a fireproof elevator. On my first day, his CFO bought me coffee and told me they couldn’t afford to pay me. Yet they did find enough money to pay me, weekly, in cash. Among other things I was tasked with wading through a year and half’s worth of paperwork for unpaid city, state and federal taxes.

There was a hamster in a little plastic cage near my desk that was the fire test hamster. They’d put him in a box lined with the fireproof material they were developing and film him while holding a blow torch to the box. I felt about as secure as that hamster. It had taken me months to find someone who would hire me, a nanny in New Jersey with little work experience. I hated the idea of having to move back to Oregon. Yet I was working for a farting little sexual harasser who hardly seemed charismatic, confidence-inspiring or sane enough to get the funding it would take to keep us all employed.

My mom, on the phone from Oregon, gently suggested, “What if you. . . put your worries in a box? Just for a month.” I don’t remember if she meant literally or metaphorically but the phrase “put your worries in a box” stuck in my head. I wrote every single thing I was afraid of on a piece of paper, put the piece of paper in a box, and left the box in my chilly Hoboken windowsill.

To my surprise, it worked. Writing down my fears let me forget them. I still wound up taking another job, but I had just enough calmness to do so because my worries were in that box.

For the past several months I’ve had fears about my parents’ relationship that are based on events I wrote about quite a bit on this blog. They’ve been back together now for three years, and for two years I’ve been a part of their together-life. You’d think I’d feel pretty secure about our family unit. But for some reason, fear has snowballed.

Because I’m an intuitive person, it’s taken me a long time to realize that these feelings may not be hunches. They may just be fear. Groundless, unsubstantiated, pointless fear.

Last week on Valentine’s Day my good friend Kirby texted me. I was eating dinner, feeling calm about being alone on this particular day. But the minute he texted, I realized I was not okay. My response to him was innocuous but he knows me so well that he knew I was melting down before the second tear had fallen. He called me, assuring me that I’m like a bundt cake in the oven, just not done yet.

“It’s not me,” I cried. “It’s my parents.”

I’ve known him for a year and a half and had never told him the complete sequence of events that is documented here for any stranger to read: being in England and in love when I find out my parents’ marriage has collapsed. Having to fly home to help my grief-stricken mom. My relationship with my dad crumbling to nonexistence. Having to let go of the man in England. A year in Buffalo with my mom and brother trekking through the snow, drinking brass monkeys, watching “Lost” and wondering what the hell was going on.

I don’t talk about it now because it’s exhausting and sad and a long story and it shouldn’t matter anymore. Besides, no one in the Northwest knows what a brass monkey is.

I realized while talking to Kirby that night that it does still matter. I’ve been holding my breath for three years. I’ve dated and said I love you and been held and had my heart broken but nothing, no one, was going to keep me. No one. Ironically, it hasn’t been fear that I might be cheated on. I’m just afraid that I’ll be with “the one” when my parents turn everything upside down, including whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m with and whatever love I’m in.

The thing about fear, and I was just ranting to my cousin about this the other day, is that we think we should fear the things we know about. For instance if you hear about a plane crash, you may develop a fear of flying. But you didn’t fear flying before the plane crash and you still survived your last flight. Were you safe then because you didn’t know planes could crash? No. You were safe then for the same reason you’d be safe flying now–planes can crash, but most of the time they don’t.

It’s very difficult to live with the idea that the monsters you know about, and the ones you don’t, are equally dangerous to you. Yet coming to terms with that is freeing because you realize there’s no point in fearing either type of monster anymore. In effect all the worries go in the box because they’re equally pointless.

When all this happened back in 2008 I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was earning seventy pounds a week looking after toddlers (who were adorable) riding a bus every weekend to meet a man I could only have spent a few more months with, anyway. I know, rationally, that my choices landed me in Buffalo as much as my parents’ choices did. I know that what happened then would not happen now. I’m living a stable life, and my parents are more honest with each other and with themselves.

It’s just that now I know about a type of monster I hadn’t met before. The better my life gets, the more I assume that monster will pop out again to shock me.

Fear is talented, and clever, and tricky. It can change shape, it can hide whistling in the corner, and it can kill you. “Because you’re going to die,” my therapist said the other day, causing a waterfall of tears. He meant, life is short. But I heard it in the hollow places in my heart: because life like this is death.

Refusing to let my emotional life move forward, refusing to love someone for fear I’ll be interrupted? Stupid, sad way to live. And when you compare it to what other people go through every day, it’s a weak way to live.

Giving in to fear is weak. But writing this makes me realize what it will take to put it away in that box. People who care about me keep assuring me that my parents will be fine and that even if they’re not, it won’t alter my life the way it did. Those sorts of sentences go in one ear and out the other. I should have told them what I once told a boyfriend: never tell a depressive that it’s all going to be okay. I have to be able to accept the worst case scenario.

There is always something that could turn my life upside down. Or yours. Yet we go on. Why? Not because we forget that it could all go to hell in a second.

We keep going because it’s still all worth it. Even coming home from my underpaid job at a nonprofit in a dimly lit room in downtown Buffalo to find my mom sitting in a cloud of cigarette smoke at our little kitchen table crying because she had just realized something new about my dad. . . even as sad for her I as I was, and as confused as I was about the crazy path my life had taken, and as bad as I felt for my brother having to share in our emotion-drenched days, we were together. And we still are. Somehow, after England and Buffalo and New York and Toronto and all the crazy places we cast ourselves, and all the mean emails, and all the confusion, and all the tears, we’re all (mostly, awaiting my brother and his girlfriend in Boston) here. Stronger. Happier. Closer.

I don’t know how. It’s the definition of counter-intuitive. But we are: stronger, happier and closer.

I am stronger and happier. It made me a person I liked instead of a person I considered weak.

As much as we try to avoid what scares us to death, we get out of bed each day so that one of those monsters can leap out of the closet and yell, “Hey! You’re going to die! In the grossest, most painful way!”

We know that every time we face one of those bad boys down, life tastes that much sweeter.

I’m not going to get to know someone telling myself the entire time that it will all be fine. I’m going to do it fully aware that it could all go totally and hideously wrong and adultery and insults and theft and disease and freak snowstorms and really disappointing Carrie Underwood songs could all ensue.

Hell will break loose.

Thusly, like that hamster, do I walk into the fire with a silky coat and a happy step. Because, hey. Maybe what emerges really will be fireproof.

The Inexplicable Things Men Find Attractive

I’d dated him a couple times, and he’d seen me all summer in the short denim skirt I loved to wear on weekends when the weather is warm–but he never said anything about my legs until I walked up to him in shorts.

“Nice gams!” he exclaimed.

I blinked and said, “You’ve seen my legs before.”

“But. . . not in shorts.”

I’m continually surprised by what men find attractive. It’s particularly interesting considering how we, as women, tend to focus on trends. As a gender we have a bad habit of assuming that just because some (probably gay) art director thought that gigantic mouths were sexy this year, every man we meet will be looking for that mouth, too. Couldn’t be more wrong. We shouldn’t be shocked to discover this, but based on countless conversations I’ve had with women, I think it needs to be said:

Every man is attracted to different things.

What’s even more interesting is how different men are attracted to different aspects of the same woman. I’m going to use myself as an example. Think of me as your guinea pig who also reports on the results of her own lab tests.

One man I dated loved to see me in a dress. Babydoll, cocktail, long boho, didn’t matter–he just loved the feminine look. Another man (an engineer) never remarked on my clothes except for when the day he saw me in black knit booty shorts. “These are kinda sexy,” he says, reaching thoughtfully for an exposed thigh.

I have a friend who confessed later that the sight of me on one particular bad day wearing a tank top and no bra made it difficult for him to have a conversation with me. Another man taught me how to play pool that day–which involves a lot of leaning over–without batting an eyelash. He was a long-dress guy.

Another kept getting distracted at the sight of me in pedal pushers but finds no distraction in my shortest skirts. I’ve had boyfriends who loved lacy nighties and others who found them annoying impediments or hardly noticed them at all.

“You look so darn cute!” a man says on a day I’m without eye makeup and wearing a denim shirt.

I’ve never gotten a compliment in my favorite sweater, which I think is the most sensational bombshell off-the-shoulder number ever worn.

I have an unsurprisingly high success rate getting attention with a push-up bra and a low-cut top. But even thus-clad, I’ve encountered men more interested in other parts of my anatomy (or not interested at all).

Hopefully we all remember that classic scene in Housesitter when Goldie Hawn asks Steve Martin if he minds her wearing a ratty old sweatshirt and he says something to the effect of, “That?! No! You look fantastic in that.”

The one consistent trend I have experienced my entire life and will swear by until I die: no one ever finds me sexy enough to remark on when I am uncomfortable. Whether it’s a sneaks-and-jeans day or a heels-and-dress day, my relaxation in that given outfit has a direct proportional relationship to how much (if at all) I’m complimented in it. And I’ve seen so many women experience the same thing–coat yourself in makeup and you won’t get a second glance if you’re hunched up in that low-cut top. All eyes will be on the confident girl in sweats.

So let’s repeat it one more time for the road: Every man is attracted to different things. And when you find one who is attracted to your particular look, don’t scoff. Believe it. Own it.

Goldie Hawn it.

15 life tips for the unitiated, or, how to flourish as a stranger in a strange land.

Thirty years ago, my grandpa’s girlfriend found out he was still married, to my grandmother, who no longer lived with my grandpa. So upset at that initial “I’m married’ confession to even hear the details, this woman, who later became the woman I called “Grandma,” climbed on a bicycle and rode from his house in a rage. In tears, she pedaled furiously down the gravel driveway, and crashed. My grandpa fetched her, told her the rest of the story, and shortly after, married her, right around the time my parents married.

That was in California, near San Diego. Meanwhile, thirty years later, in San Jose…

I got a call from my mother, who had ridden my dad’s bicycle from his apartment in San Jose, pedaling furiously, also because of a confession about another woman. She was riding around town, beside herself, determined to stay at a hotel and fly back to Buffalo the next day. It was late afternoon when she called me, and after I heard her out, she said, “I’m going to go get some dinner.”

Imagining her riding back and forth between downtown San Jose and its airport, knowing my mom well enough to also know she would not return to my dad’s apartment that night, I asked her if she’d found a hotel room yet. She said no. I said, “Mom, get a hotel room. The first rule of survival is to make your shelter, even before you find food.”

She reconciled with my dad a day and a half later, but in the meantime, had a place to stay.

You’re not going to believe this, at least, not if you’ve heard me ranting about hunting, fishing, and camping, but I spent one hour of every day of my senior year of high school in a class called Outdoor Living. I needed a science credit and couldn’t fathom chemistry, so while I spent half my day surrounded by fellow over-achievers in AP English and History, I took another class with the kids who were destined for management positions at Wendy’s: the slacker science class. My teacher spent an entire unit on survival skills, and even though I hated the class, I remember a disturbing amount of it.

I hadn’t thought about it until that class, but the idea that one needs shelter more than food probably stuck in my head because I wound up later living in a lot of different, alien places. I don’t move to new cities with a boyfriend and an SUV, I move with a couple suitcases and a willingness to walk. And after doing so in Seattle, Portland, various parts of New Jersey, New York, Brooklyn, southwest England, Barcelona and now Austin, Texas, I can authoritatively call myself an expert on surviving in the non-wild wilderness we call the civilized world.

Some of the things I’ve learned, most people don’t and shouldn’t have to, because they give themselves “luxuries” like cars and familiarity. Other things, everyone should know, especially every woman, and I’m continually astounded how many don’t. So here’s a mixture of both.

  1. No one judges you for doing something alone. It is usually more fun to eat, shop or travel with good company. But the self-consciousness and fear that prevents most people from acting alone is largely imaginary: no one cares, and as long as there are other people within shouting distance, you’re probably safe.
  2. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Anyone who works at a bar, hotel, or any form of public transportation, knows from experience how to help the lost and confused. Elderly people and parents with small children are also usually trustworthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to the fair or flying to Guam: tip the bartender well, trust the bellhop, and be kind to the curly-haired grandmother sitting on the bench. Also, just because you didn’t stay at that hotel doesn’t mean you can’t ask the bellhop to call you a cab like your suitcase is upstairs in room #321.
  3. Conversely… if you’re female and alone, it is never rude to be rude. Most well-adjusted men know where it is and is not okay to engage a strange woman in conversation. The ones that don’t are the ones you probably shouldn’t get to know, even if their biggest crime is general cluenessness. Safe zones include: Bars, hotel lobbies, Toys R Us, and gas station pumps with at least one car between you. If someone approaches you outside one of those settings, feel absolutely free to respond in one sentence, smile politely, and turn away.
  4. If you’re worried someone’s following you, take some advice from a Wiccan book I’ve kept for the past ten years, and turn all the way around instead of glancing furtively over your shoulder. If someone actually is following you, he might be alarmed by your confrontational pose, you won’t look as scared as you would if you kept glancing, and you’ll be in a better position to fight back. And if it was just your imagination, the only people who’ll see you do it are the pigeons.
  5. Lost or overwhelmed? Find a restroom. I don’t know about Morocco, but in the US, even the worst parts of town have a crowded bar, grocery store, Starbucks, or McDonald’s. Head for the stall and get your bearings. It may sound gross, but no one is going to notice you studying your map or digging frantically through your purse in the bathroom. Collect yourself and then return to the fray.
  6. Reminding yourself that “you can always take a cab home,” takes the stress out of most situations, as long as you keep cab fare with you, and have the number of a cab company stored in your phone.
  7. Don’t drink unless you can accept the worst case scenario if you have one too many and your judgment flies right out the window.
  8. It’s okay to go home early.
  9. Don’t be afraid to get lost. Some of the best love affairs, creative epitomes, and undiscovered coffee shops have been discovered when I was lost. Just be aware that it all gets a lot more stressful after dark, and/or in ouchy shoes.
  10. Keep the following in your purse at all times: Antibacterial handwipes (Purell won’t do it if you have actual dirt on your hands); an iPod with cheering comfort music on it; almonds (to avoid costly emergency meals when you’re too starving to take another step); and if it makes you feel better, pepper spray.
  11. If you look sexy, you’ll get admiration, and (maybe) sex. If you look competent, you’ll get a job, the trust of strangers, entrance into any building you want without question, and that fabulous rent-controlled sublet. I’m not advocating women hide their feminity. I’m just saying that if you look like you’ve got money in the bank, a husband, and a full three car garage, you get access. Think J. Crew instead of Victoria’s Secret.
  12. Pay attention to landmarks. Navigating any new place is much easier if you note the tall building that looks like an owl (Austin’s got one downtown) and the big billboard with a salon advertisement on it.
  13. Most bus systems can’t give change, and most bus drivers are friendlier than they look.
  14. Regardless of what I said earlier, it’s always okay to show a little cleavage and a big smile, if you need some help and attention.
  15. Serendipity is your best friend. Planning the entire experience sets you up for disappointment, and you’re liable to miss the local treasures the guidebook missed. Leave the house with one planned destination or event and leave the rest up to chance. It is very, very important than you have time to pause for the shop, restaurant, or conversation that just seems to “catch your fancy.” Following those whims creates about 97% of the magic any individual will ever need in one lifetime.

Bilbo Baggins will tell you that every good adventure is scary by definition. The important thing is to find the wizards, dwarves and enchanted mini-swords that give you the courage to take it.

a bit of Shana and Donny.

“I feel like any conversation I have with any man right now is going to end with him mentioning a girlfriend… or just being a weirdo,” I said to my brother on the phone yesterday. “Maybe it’s a full moon thing, like that one Archie comic, you remember, when he dressed up in a wig and dress to escape the crazies?”

Yes, yes, my brother said. I had just finished listing all the “weird” male behavior I’d witnessed in the past two weeks: the Distant Friend who said he’d like to hear how I was doing, and then didn’t respond for several days, the married penpal who appeared to be sending me provocative poetry, someone I’d met online who, when I suggested we meet for a beer, asked, “Should I bring my overnight bag?” the guy who kept staring at me during a recent BBQ but turned out, at the very end of the evening, to be dating a girl he hadn’t so much as brushed elbows with the entire time I was there, a likable photographer I met with my boss for a work project, who had just moved from Rochester to Buffalo to live with his girlfriend, and a guy named Charlie who leaned all over me at Goodbar last weekend, buying shots and cracking jokes, assuring my wingwoman that he did not have a wife or girlfriend, but who didn’t even respond to a casual but friendly text message a few days later.

“Candi said he might have been so drunk he didn’t remember who I was,” I told my brother, “But he was just a liquor store guy!”

“Maybe this is because you talk to the guys at the bar who wear Wheeler’s Used Cars t-shirts, and not the guys in suits,” Ian suggested.

“No, I did talk to a guy in a suit lately, that friend of Plumtopher’s,” I reminded him. “He freaked me out.”

My brother had nothing more to offer, but I invited him to continue brainstorming reasons why every interaction I had with men lately had either mystified me or contained that dreaded line, “My girlfriend…”

At the same time, I’ve been watching a lot of A Bit of Fry & Laurie, a late-eighties, short-lived English comedy starring Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) and Stephen Fry, that guy who’s in everything. After lusting over House with my mom for the past couple years (you can find proof on this blog’s very first entry) I would probably watch Hugh Laurie read old grocery receipts and enjoy it. Still, although they’re genuinely funny actors, their skits in A Bit tend to wrap up with a joke that’s always a bit too tidy. They set up two engaging characters, play out an amusing conversation, and end it with one elbowing the other while the live audience laughs. It’s forced.

And, so is my life. In order to convey this properly, I will now switch to present tense.

I rant to my brother, release him from the phone conversation, finish work, and walk home to gather taco fixings and a leftover six pack to bring to my friends’ house. The three of us eat chicken tacos on the front porch and drink too much while watching a comedy I love dearly but which put Dawn to sleep, ending the evening a bit early.

I say my goodbyes, gather up my salsa, and head home. But as I reach my corner I pause, tempted by the sight of the bar across the street. It’s only eleven-thirty and I’m not quite ready to go home yet, so, warning myself to behave, I go on in. Ordering a vodka and settling in at the discreet, far corner of the bar, I admire a muscular guy playing darts with his friend, make unfair assumptions about the couple sitting next to me, and keep an eye on the bartender. The bartender wears huge glasses, skinny t-shirts, and full sleeve tattoos on both arms. I have actually met this bartender before while drinking vodka with a man I was very sorry to wake up with the day after Fourth of July. But I can’t remember his name, and this saddens me, because he has a big smile and those great tattoos.

A seat opens up in the middle of the bar and I move down, ready for fresh people watching. A female bartender appears, complimenting my earrings and introducing herself as Shana. Next to me, a man with bags under his eyes and white hair curling over his ears asks Shana if she approves of his Hawaiian shirt. He holds his shoe over the bar to show her that it matches his shorts, and she assures him it’s all very tasteful. He glances at me and, immediately deciding he’s the most entertaining person in the place, I tell him the shirt may be okay but the comb-over is a mistake.

We engage in acceptably distant banter about his hair, his grasp of the French language, a bad joke about cannibals. Then he offers to buy me a drink and I tell the tattooed bartender, sorry, no can do. A bit more banter, but I’m also watching Meryl Streep laugh with Stephen Colbert on the TV over the bar. I can’t remember why the elderly man started to unbutton his Hawaiian shirt to show me his chest, but I look at nearby Shana for help and she waves her hands, saying, “No, no, come on, let’s at least keep the nipples covered.”

Buttoning his shirt with great reluctance, he moves on to heritage, trying to guess what I could possibly be if not Irish. Somehow that leads him to announce that Obama is going to ruin this country, being a socialist leftist mumble mumble who’s trying to take credit from Bush for ending the war. I gasp and tell him Bush did no such thing and the war is very far from being over, at which point my Hawaiian-shirt wearing buddy exclaims, “F*** you!” flings his drink over the edge of the bar and storms out.

I look around, astonished at how quickly he’s vanished, and turn back to see Shana pouring beers, asking, “Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “I defended Obama and he said f-you and stormed out.”

She rolls her eyes. “Thank you.”

We joke a bit about him, she returns to tending bar, and the tattooed bartender takes her place. “So did you really not want another drink or did you just not want one from him?” he asked.

“Not one from him,” I respond, telling him about the Obama thing. The bartender shakes his head with a big grin, saying, “He hasn’t been president that long, it’s too soon to judge. And besides, I’m just happy he can string together a complete sentence.”

We bond over our enthusiasm for Obama’s command of the English language, and the tattooed bartender reaches his hand over the bar, introducing himself as Donny. We keep talking and he says, “Is your hair naturally red?”

“No, I dye it.”

“Because my girlfriend has red hair and she can’t tan like you are…”

I could just hear the English audience laughing.

fears are supposed to be scary.

Personal beliefs from a spiritual agnostic on a summer Sunday afternoon.

1. Fear is supposed to be scary. Frightening situations are gifts, exactly as valuable as the degree they frighten you. Each is an opportunity to experience liberation, act on faith, release the pretense of control, and find joy. In fact it is that helpless sense of joy that comes after unexpected destruction of something we loved that is often as close as any of us come to nirvana.

Helpless joy is when you give up a stable career and instead fly to Spain to earn sixty Euros a week looking after someone else’s children, discovering that your future has never been less certain and your happiness never greater.

We each carry within us a list, sometimes miles long, of ocean breezes we long to feel, languages to speak, flavors to taste. Yet we don’t experience those moments because we are afraid of failure, disappointment, mockery. In this way our fears and our dreams are often the same. It could even be argued that our fears of things we do not want to happen, such as to have our house broken into, are in fact dreams of being liberated from the fear itself.

With our happiness so often on the other side of a large fire-breathing dragon, one would think we would all be better dragon-killers. Yet so often we waste years waiting for someone else to kill it for us, or for the dragon to turn into a mouse. We forget that even being burned alive by a dragon does not actually hurt as much as cowering in its shadow for the rest of one’s life.

2. There is a reason for everything. One can only experience relief from this theory, however, when one abandons the need to see the pattern. This is partially because some events are too painful to embrace, and partially because we’re not objective enough to recognize that we need the circumstances we perceive as “bad.”

For most of last winter, I bemoaned the difficulties that kept Mr. Hotness and I apart. I was bouncing around the US, unemployed, while didn’t know how to move here without marrying me. My mom needed a great deal of emotional support and had been forbidden to return to the UK. We seemed stuck in our respective countries.

It took me months to recognize and accept that while Mr. Hotness’s love sustained me through the hardest winter of my life, it was one that would not survive living together. We communicated differently and had very different ways of engaging the world. Mr. Hotness takes his time, head down, circling round to his goal, while I run face-first off the side of every cliff. We would have driven each other insane. In fact, we already were by the time we broke up. Those gods I cursed for keeping us apart were in fact giving us exactly as much time as we needed together.

But during those times when the silver lining is not so easy to see…

3. Stop punishing yourself. I don’t care if your back goes out or you discover your significant other packing her bags to fly to Argentina with embezzled funds. There is no benefit to asking the question “Why me?” or worse, looking for answers to that question. It compounds the pain, and is often based on the pretense that if it was your fault, you can prevent it happening again. Not only that, but as long as you believe you deserve the painful situation, you’re not going to open your mind and heart to possible solutions or outlets of relief.

4. It really is going to be okay. I can’t argue this or prove it to you. You will know it when you realize that your definition of “okay” is adaptable. When my mom and brother moved back to Oregon and I faced life alone here in Buffalo a few months ago, I was convinced I would be lonely, broke and miserable. How could I not be? Instead, my part-time admin job turned into a varied full-time position, I’m making great friends, I’m laughing, I’m dancing, I’m living, because I no longer define “okay” by New York City standards (I am, in fact, starting to recoil from them a bit) or the standards my family had before my parents’ separation. I define it by what feels okay today.

And when today is terribly different from yesterday…

5. You can cope. I hope you have friends or loved ones who can sit shiva for your hopes, but even if you don’t, you will get through it.

Pain and shock pushes us the cliff of our life. For a long time, we cling to the edge, terrified and screaming. We do not want to fall. We want to feel, to see in color, to revel in the glory heights, to love, feel the fresh wind, wear the brand-new satin dress of life.

We want life to be the way it was, and all we can see is what we’ve lost.

Which is natural, probably inevitable, certainly human. But someday you’re going to get tired of clinging to the edge, palms sweaty, shoes scrambling on the rocks below. You’re going to either be pushed into that valley, or you’re going to decide to slide down there yourself. And I hope you do. If you’re already not coping, sinking down to the valley floor is the only solution if you ever want to climb back up. Until you settle down at that sandy bottom, hands on the yellow dust, and sit, you will not hear your gods, your conscience, your peace. You will just hear your own sobs. So slide. You will not be there forever, and if you stop comparing it to the mountaintops, you’ll find it’s not really that bad. For the time being.