• On the morning after my 44th birthday, early draft

    On the morning after my 44th birthday (which, as of the first draft, was a little earlier today), I woke up a bit late, exhausted and sick from an infection. I was sick yesterday, too, but I felt better with some antibiotics and feel even better now. I hadn’t done everything I wanted to do on my birthday, which I typically plan for myself, because

    • I didn’t feel well;
    • it was a Wednesday;
    • I had driving to do for the kids; and, as it turns out
    • birthdays tend not to be about the person born on that day.

    Today, embarrassingly, I have been a a pity party of one for giving myself such a crap birthday celebration. So, tonight, I’ve decided to brine chicken leg quarters in buttermilk, herbs, and oil. These leg quarters are the final 5 or so pounds from an order I placed late in January 2022 for a 40-pound case. The ten pound case of boneless chicken breasts, as well as the similarly weighted pork loin case, are long gone.

    I dumped the defrosted limbs into a bowl, poured buttermilk over them, and chopped some rosemary with sage and thyme. I considered how I acquired the 40-pound case of chicken leg quarters, the 10-pound case of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and the pork loins. And I thought about suspicious it sounds. Or rural. Or both. What kind of person would judge someone for how they acquired food for their family? Anyway, it was probably legitimate. People can’t just sell butchered meat with a Google form sent via email without it being legal. There are laws.

    I purchased the meat on a form that was sent to my email address. I was to show up at the volunteer fire company in our town on meat day and collect my order. Which I did, obligingly. I drove around to the back of the building, where no one can see you from the road. One of the men unloading the chicken from the box truck needed to figure out how to give me change for my cash. Wholesome. They even helped load my car.

    But now, nearly 11 months later, as I pour kosher salt into this bath, it occurs to me that getting discount chicken from the back of the box truck down at the fire house is not a normal way to acquire food. Who raised these chickens? And how did our small town volunteer fire company come upon them? Perhaps they came from the slaughter house or from a farmer, but I truly have no idea. I never asked who raised the chickens; how the volunteer fire company came upon them; or who owns the nondescript box truck.

    Now I wonder if I have been harboring illegal chicken in my deep freezer. Probably not, though. I mean, how naive could I be at 44?

  • Good Ten List: Songs with a Story

    In honor of National Tell a Story Day, I’ve made a list of ten great stories told in song, avoiding some of my favorites and some obvious choices. This is not a top-10 list; it is a good-10 list. I hope you find something you like here. Maybe you already know it, maybe it’s new. These songs prove you don’t need a lot of words to tell a great story — but a story of love gone wrong won’t hurt.

    10. Queen Bitch, David Bowie

    Jealousy, angst, illicit behavior, Bowie’s wailing perfectly representing a lover’s darkest hour. Definitely a top-five Bowie song for me.

    9. Judy’s Turn to Cry, Lesley Gore

    Recently, my husband asked, “Did you know there’s a sequel to ‘It’s My Party (I’ll Cry if I Want To)?’” It took me a minute to remember, but hell yeah! Johnny came back, right after punching a romantic rival for kissing the storyteller. Suck on that, Judy. Get your own man.

    8. You Know I’m No Good, Amy Winehouse

    Girl, we miss you. I was going to choose “Rehab” because this song starts our list off heavy with cheating, but Amy’s take on being the cheater is gritty and real. (I went down a rabbit hole with Amy today. “Tears Dry On Their Own” has gorgeous imagery but does not suit this list.)

    7. He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones

    Heartbreaking, beautiful. I heard it recently on the way home from driving my kids to school, after not hearing it for years. This story of unrequited love story ends in an unexpected way.

    “He said ‘I’ll love you till I die,’ she told him ‘You’ll forget in time,’
    As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.”

    6. Come A Little Bit Closer, Jay and the Americans

    Hot damn, sometimes it’s hard to resist something when you know you should just walk away. Luckily, the storyteller gets out the window in time to avoid the vengeance of bad man José who until this very day while researching I thought was Madman José. My interpretation is a better lyric because it makes José seem like he has a gangster name. A scarier rival gives the narrative higher stakes. Fight me on it. They call me Ol’ Murderous Sarah.

    5. Levon, Elton John

    The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge this week announced their young baby would be named Louis, a fine name for a young prince, but I would have liked to hear, “He shall be Levon.” Levon has a sad ending, though, after such an exciting birth announcement. He must have spent too much time counting that money and not paying attention to his son, who leaves him while Levon slowly dies.

    4. Out of Range, Ani DiFranco

    Actually, you know what? Forget Johnny. No one needs a two-timing, hypocritical jerk. Ugh, but a hottie on a motorcycle is hard to quit. “You’ve been juggling two women like a stupid circus clown.” Ani, the mistress of angst we’re grateful to have outgrown, gets it right in this story about a woman struggling to end it with her lover while fantasizing about running away with her lover.

    3. Love Is Blind, Eve

    When you get your hands on the abusive, motorcycle-riding idiot your friend couldn’t quit.

    2. Afterlife, Paul Simon

    The storyteller has died and gone to the afterlife. What happens next? First, fill out a form.

    1. Just a Friend, Biz Markie

    The song that inspired the list. RIP, Biz Markie. There’s no one like you.

  • Have you seen the moon tonight

    Did you see the moon tonight? I noticed it while I was driving home from the next town. Living in a flat, rural area often makes me long for the hills and valleys I knew as a kid. But where I live now, on the Delmarva Peninsula, the sunsets sprawl and sometimes the moon swells beyond what seems possible. Tonight, the moon is full.

    I could describe it for you — huge, orange, and tangerine, pregnant with itself, maybe full of cheese. Set against a charcoal sky, it presented itself and the winter-black trees as a theater backdrop — almost comically beautiful.

    Did you see it, too?

    I pulled off in a small parking area at the edge of a farm field. Even though it’s well below freezing and I hate the cold, I stepped out of my car to take photos of the moon with my phone. I snapped a lot of photos, some zoomed in as far as my iPhone would allow, but the moon is a speck in all of them, so far away I couldn’t capture it to share with you. The moon could be a dust particle catching light from a flash. Still, I was glad to spend time with it in the bitter cold while it shone. Did you see it? Could you hold onto it?

    Not wanting to miss it, I got back in my car and drove on, glancing at it when I could, aware of its sweet bobbing along the horizon. I hoped it would still be glowing peach and amber when I got home. I drove past my house on Main Street to a church parking lot a few blocks away. I tried again to take photos of the moon tonight, walking away from my car to get a good shot. A light on a utility pole impeded the process, and I walked farther, to the edge of the graveyard near the back of the church property. I wondered briefly whether the people living in the home behind the church saw me and what they thought of me photographing their property.

    Can you see how close it is? Did you see the moon?

    I never got a good photo of the moon tonight to share with you. Even if I had, it wouldn’t be the same. I appreciate sunsets in photos but I’d rather be enveloped by them. I would rather the sunset burn my retinas and wrap around the sky so big I feel I am almost — but not quite — nothing. If I had recorded the moon tonight, I could not recreate the experience of it. Could you imagine how it felt to walk through the beams of headlights in the church parking lot, past a utility pole, holding an iPhone, wanting to hold onto something fleeting and delightful? At the very same moment we enjoy beauty, it breaks our hearts. Maybe it wouldn’t be beautiful if it didn’t hurt.

    One morning in 2008, I was rushing to leave the house to take my two 1-year-olds to the YMCA. In my hurry, I left the twins unsupervised in the kitchen while I ran upstairs to get something. I heard a crash and then two little voices repeating, “uh oh.”

    When I arrived at the scene of the uh-oh, my laptop was on the floor, irreparably broken. Every photo I had of my babies from 10 months to 15 months of age was lost. I tried desperately to find someone to retrieve the photos, driving to two different towns that day to visit computer experts. While I was driving to one of them, my mother called with the news that our family friend Donna had died. She had been sick a long time.

    A few months earlier, Donna played “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my babies, Lucy and Harry. Maybe you can imagine their large eyes fixed on Donna’s warm brown eyes as the toddlers’ fat fingers stumbled their way up the spout. Can you feel the joy and pain watching the scene, knowing Donna would soon die, knowing she had forgotten some of the words, knowing how much they all enjoyed those moments together singing about a determined spider climbing against all odds, no matter the weather?

    The same morning she died, before I knew she was gone, I lost my photos of our last moments with her. If I had the photos, I would probably frame them. I would post them on social media. I would know more details about the positions of their bodies, what they all wore. I could show those photos to you, and you could marvel at the cute baby-ness and how sweet the moment must have been. I was devastated to lose Donna and to lose the photos I have of her and my babies, but I remember the moment so clearly because memory is my only record of it.

    Photos can’t do everything. They can’t build for you years of night swims in my parents’ humid backyard, a breeze blowing across the dell, tree frogs screaming, a bullfrog calling from the koi pond, my mother and Donna singing folk songs off-key while Donna’s husband and my dad roll their eyes, careful for their wives not to see. You might see Donna’s freckles and big smile in photos, but photos won’t wrap her arm around you and squeeze you tight because she knows how hard it is to be 14 and grounded and in the bad graces of your parents. A photo won’t wink at you, speak to you in French (Donna was a French teacher), or love you even when you’re rotten and riddled with guilt and angst. It won’t sing songs with your babies.

    Even if I had a picture, I couldn’t show you the moon tonight. I hope you saw it. I hope you saw something.


  • It felt like a gift

    When I was 23 or 24, in the early 2000s, I worked at a small company in a small office with thin, dingy carpet on the second floor of an orange building near the industrial area of Berkeley, California.

    It was a weird work environment, but I didn’t have enough work experience to know that yet. I had some good colleagues, many of them around the same age, and we were all muddling through young work life. I had veered from my professional path in order to afford living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the dot-com boom had inflated housing costs. The company gave me a shot at something I hadn’t tried before, and that opportunity both gave me a living wage and the knowledge that I was on the wrong career track.

    I could not afford to be a beginning writer and pay $1,300 a month to rent two-thirds of the top half of a red North Berkeley bungalow with an accordion bathroom door and knocking pipes. The apartment came with a cracked window and a cracked ceiling, and my boyfriend and I spent our downtime repairing, painting, and decorating to make a home.

    Working at the small business in Berkeley, well off my career path, afforded us the opportunity to feed ourselves and buy furniture. Later, we would move to a nicer apartment on the quiet island of Alameda, just inside the San Francisco Bay from Oakland. The Alameda apartment building had a gym and a pool and was $200 cheaper. I don’t remember where we lived when my boss patted my ass.

    Here are my excuses for him:

    • He gave me an opportunity to work in a career for which I had not been formally trained. He offered me on-the-job training.
    • He promoted me from an office manager position into this better paying position, well before the event I am describing.
    • He encouraged me in the position, giving me bonuses when my work was especially productive.
    • He had never made me feel sexually uncomfortable in all the time I had worked for him.
    • To this day, I am confident it was an unfortunate slip, the way you might have ended a client call with “OK, love you. Bye,” and after ending the call, realized with horror what you had done. He had patted my ass in the affectionate way he might have patted the bottom of one of his sons or wife when they were all in the kitchen and happy and preparing a meal. We were celebrating a big success in the department and hugged, like people do in small offices when they celebrate successes or life events or holidays. I thought I saw embarrassment flash across his face.

    We hugged, he patted my ass, and all of the celebratory joy drained from my body. I was shocked and embarrassed, speechless. My cheeks were hot, and I felt nervous. He said nothing, did not acknowledge what had just happened. No, “Oh no. I am so sorry.” No, “I am embarrassed by my behavior. I apologize. It was a stupid reflex.” Not even, “Oops.” He left my part of the office without any explanation or apology.

    I stood there stupidly, feeling stupid, among my colleagues. My mind raced to question itself: Maybe he didn’t register it? Maybe I imagined it?

    I asked incredulously if anyone who stood with us had seen that. I don’t remember what most of them said, but I remember nervous chuckles and slinking back to their cubicles.

    “I saw it,” someone said.

    My colleague looked me in the eyes. He was a smart, funny man my age who exuded a cool, casual confidence. I knew him to be professional, kind, and decent. “I saw it,” he had said, and held my gaze long enough for me to know I could trust him and I could trust myself.

    I don’t know if I said, “Thank you,” or if I asked again to be sure. I don’t remember much else except overwhelming embarrassment and shame.

    I told my female boss what had happened, that others had seen it. I told her I thought it had been an accident. I told her I wanted the boss to acknowledge it and apologize. I was terrified of making waves, and in my early 20s, fear could have silenced me. But others had seen, and I was worried about my reputation.

    The battle between fears could have kept me awake, could have riddled my thoughts, could have bound me so tight I resigned to inaction. By speaking up, I risked repercussions from my boss or the company. (And for what? It had been an accident, hadn’t it? Had it even happened? Was it someone walking by I hadn’t seen?) By staying quiet, I risked the respect of my colleagues and I accepted shame.

    That could have been the end of my story: anxiety, self-doubt, diminished self-esteem, guilt, shame.

    But my colleague’s simple sentence changed the way I faced the situation: “I saw it.”

    The boss gave a horrible apology: “If I somehow unconsciously or without my knowledge … I’m sorry,” delivered with contempt, an eye roll, and after quite a bit of arguing about whether it happened. It was not his best moment. I suspected he was worried I would sue him and let that fear guide his actions the way I might have let fear lead mine, a larger life lesson for me than I realized at the time.

    But I do not tell this story because my boss didn’t behave well or because I faced an uncomfortable conversation with a person who touched me inappropriately. We know people don’t like to acknowledge their wrongdoing. We know that survivors of sexual assault face a secondary social and emotional assault from their perpetrators and society at large: doubt, blame, contempt, and shaming. We know that fear of those repercussions silences survivors.

    This story is not shocking; a pat on the ass is so common and relatively low-level that it would be easy to dismiss. How many tweed-clad strangers 40 years my senior have cupped my ass? Countless. They are good at doing it under the radar; they’ve practiced. My ass has many stories of unwanted touching. I don’t tell this story because it’s shocking.

    I tell this story because 15 years ago, a man in his mid-20s changed the way my story ended. Having a witness gave me back my power. It felt like a gift. Three quiet, serious words validated my experience, and that is what lit my path.

    Let us be witnesses. When we see wrong, let us validate the wronged. Let us say, “I saw it.” Let us lend our power to people who are feeling powerless. It doesn’t take much. Three words. I saw it. I see you. I believe you.

  • Lentish, or Proper Tuna Melt Construction

    Once upon a time, a man named Jesus did a bunch of wholesome stuff. He never sinned, which is impressive considering he wasn’t allowed to eat pork because he was Jewish. He lived to be thirty-three years old and never ate bacon, not once, and imitation bacon bits hadn’t been invented yet. That’s called sacrifice, and you could learn something from Jesus. Bacon abstinence aside, Jesus was God, only in man form. People didn’t understand God the first few times, so He came down to Earth as a man to clarify His message through His Holy example. Henceforth, I stop capitalizing he and him because it’s obnoxious.

    Jesus, that’s the man-God, made some amendments to the messages people had previously received, and he forgave people for their wrongdoings. He did this because everyone had become so goddamn judgmental, he could not take listening to us bicker for one more minute. Honestly, that was super chill of him, because when my kids are bickering in the car, I suggest we play a game to see who can go the longest without making any noise. Anyway, Jesus asked us to try out his new rules in return for his extreme sacrifice, and he asked us to really try this time, not just make up our own rules or focus on the rules other people are breaking (ahem, Pharisees). Just do your best, he asked. If it works, no one’s judging those who mess up. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Like, maybe pick up your dog’s droppings from the neighbor’s yard, but if you find the neighbor dog’s droppings in your yard, pick that up, too, and don’t get angry about it. Your neighbor might not know it’s there. It could have been a different dog. Maybe your neighbor was running late for work because her kid insisted on wearing flip flops in 20-degree weather, or she maybe had to rush to the hospital to see her mother.

    To some, Jesus’ message seemed clear: Be nice. I mean it. Don’t make me come back here again. I’m going to check on you one more time, and if you’re still abusing each other, you’re in eternal time-out. If, by the time I get back, you’ve been kind and forgiving and you’ve followed my lead, we’re going to go rock-and-roll with the angels and throw back some shots but never have hangovers and eat lots of ice cream but never get fat, plus we’re going to sleep on fluffy white clouds. There will be peace.

    After that, Jesus died, went to Hell, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. He left his friend Peter in charge of his message, and told him to pass it on. Peter was a fisherman and a loudmouth, the Catholic everyman. He was a rock, the first Pope, as we now call the supreme leader of the Roman Catholic Church. There have been many Popes since then, and reminiscent of the slumber party game Telephone, the Popes mixed up the message as they passed it from one to the next. Jesus’ “be nice” part got twisted and still hasn’t been fixed, but it seems many people of faith and no faith alike are trying to muddle through their lives, being kind and hoping for some compassion in return.

    Over the millennia, while playing it a little fast and loose with Jesus’ message, the men in charge of the Roman Catholic Church came up with some other stuff. For example, they decided people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays because every Friday, Catholics should remember how Christ died a gruesome, horrible death, nailed to a cross. Even though Jesus mentioned a few times that fasting had value, as far as we know, he never asked followers to honor his message of compassion by making meaningless sacrifices on the weekday he died. I’m guessing he would have preferred that we would give of ourselves and use the time to reflect on how we could make the world a kinder, love-filled place. But who am I? Not a Pope, that’s for sure. The official guardians of Christ’s message devised rules for honoring his sacrifice and declared it sinful to eat meat on Fridays, even though keeping Kosher, as Jesus would have done as a Jew, wasn’t really necessary anymore. Except for Fridays, followers of Christ could have pork. Bacon for everyone (who obey Pope’s rules)! But for a long time after that, people who accidentally ordered a club sandwich on a Friday at the MBNA New Associates Retreat went directly to Hell after death. A bit harsh.

    Then, nearly 2,000 years after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the people in charge of the message made an announcement: Catholics may now eat meat on Fridays. Hooray, Jesus! Not during Lent, of course; abstinence from meat is still required on Fridays during Lent. Glaring at people with hamburgers is optional.

    jesus“We mean it,” the clergymen probably said and looked sternly over the top of their glasses at the people. And the people shuffled their feet and muttered, “So … no bacon on Lenten Fridays?” Members of the church hierarchy get pissy about questions—except for the Jesuits, who are, as far as I can tell, the only ones sanctioned to question any of the rules created A.D.

    “No meat,” the men in charge repeated and clarified the rules: Catholics do not have to be vegetarians on Lenten Fridays. Fish is not meat, according to the Vatican. Also, broth is allowable because it’s boiled marrow, not meat. Bacon drippings are acceptable, but not bacon—even if you fry a little up just for the fat and it smells so delicious and salty and porky that you can’t resist one little nibble. If you eat just the corner that broke off in the drippings, the Pope will see you, and you will go to Hell. Snake meat is undefined, as far as I can tell. A water moccasin is a water animal that is not a fish, but I don’t think we’re allowed to eat dolphins either, no matter how delicious their large brains are. Not that I eat snakes or dolphins (except as an unfortunate byproduct of the canned tuna industry), but my policy is to eat what is served to be polite, and I’m not used to outside forces imposing food rules on me—especially when I’m just trying to be nice. I’d ask about the snake, in case it’s ever served to me on a Friday during Lent, but then I imagine the leader-men asking, “Is it really going to kill you to skip eating snake on Fridays during the most religious 40 days of the year?” The imagined guilt trip wears on my psyche before it even happens, so I just order a cheese pizza like every other Catholic on the planet, except when I forget that it’s Lent and Friday and accidentally order a cheeseburger.

    It’s not the worst sacrifice. No one is forced to breakfast on scrambled eggs and grapefruit, so the Vatican’s rules are admittedly better than those of the Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet (hindsight: Herman Tarnower should have considered a bullet-proof Popemobile). Lacto-ovo vegetarians and pescatarians might find the rules rather accommodating, as eggs, dairy, and honey are allowed. People fourteen and older must abstain from eating meat on Fridays, period, except for the previously mentioned exemptions. Everyone must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, which are also days of abstinence. “Everyone” means anyone between the ages of fourteen and fifty-nine who are not pregnant and have no underlying health issues.

    The Catholic Church spent a lot of time inventing and editing the food rules, but I submit some mistakes were made. The Church should let the people eat turkey on Fridays because turkeys are so stupid, they’re practically vegetables, but at press time, there’s no official dialog on this with the Pope, and maybe this is exactly the kind of idea that exemplifies why women aren’t allowed to make any rules.

    I further submit that a a better plan would have been to prepare a few thousand open-face tuna melts, let the people feast, and watch how quickly those who feasted spread the word about God’s divinity. Tuna melts are God’s way of sharing manna. On Lenten Fridays—or any day—nothing is lovelier than warm tuna salad and a slice of tomato on a whole-wheat English muffin, covered in two slices of melted cheddar with a side of Utz potato chips and a pickle. If you truly want to know Jesus, add a slice of avocado under the cheese. The whole plate is heaven and might make a believer of you. Try though I do, I still find myself unsure. I firmly and wholeheartedly believe in tuna melts, compassion, and love. But God? Even as I’m grateful for the tuna melt on the plate before me, even as I make Lenten sacrifices and pray the Rosary, I wonder who is buried beneath a mudslide or who is making a pipe bomb in his basement and where is God.

    (self-plagiarized and updated from a previous blog)

  • Hopeless Cases


    This is a love story.

    In your journal, you draw faces, words, and twirling patterns. In notebooks, you doodle improbable leaves and tesselating triangles. Sometimes, you draw a funny pig or a bird. Your mother used to draw the same triangles on notebook paper or envelopes as she talked on the phone. An old drafting pencil made particularly crisp lines as she repeatedly retraced her design.

    First a triangle. Two become a square. Three, a house. Four, a rectangle. Beyond that, it’s a pattern without shape or reason.

    You have done this in class, in meetings, during readings or speeches. You have trouble sitting still. You frame your nervous energy, fence it with lines and triangles, an endless trap of tessellations that will never be satisfied.

    A man murdered fifty people last week. An alligator snatched and drowned a little boy. An old, kind acquaintance lost a child to an awful disease. Your dog was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A thousand million other things terrified the tiny creatures on a spinning globe in an endless universe.

    Your journal sits on the coffee table. You want to doodle, shade with the new pencils you bought with your children at the craft store named for a founding father. But you don’t. You write drivel on social media. Sentence fragments. You give the dog bacon and extra peanut butter. You eat double-dip ice cream cones with your children and swim together at the YMCA. They try to make the tiniest splash and then the biggest. They request that you rate the splash created by each jump. You listen to the dog’s snores while you work and will your heart to ignore his present missingness. You pet his soft head, to his annoyance. Other people’s tragedies feel too close. A storm is coming.

    On your back steps, sometimes you smoke cigarettes. You are not a regular smoker but you like rituals, and you have always loved the view of the stars in your backyard. You struggle to remember the constellations from your undergrad astronomy class. One star is Betelgeuse; three stars are a belt; seven become Orion, but you have to look that up. Look up. Look out.

    On the back steps, one of the corner bricks cracked in last winter’s snow and it seems as though a chunk might fall off. The sky spits now, and the first drops hit your arm. Next door, maybe the artist is leaving his studio, or his wife calls in the dogs. Why do fireflies avoid the rain?

    You go inside and pet the dog. He is panting but you don’t know if he is nervous about the storm or if a tumor is shorting him lung capacity.

    On social media, someone has made a joke, someone has posted a sunset. A new niece, a dead parent. Are you there?

    Yes, I’m here. Are you?