Set the Dials to “Thrill Me”

Is it juvenile, at age 43, to babble about your favorite album? Dunno. But that’s what I’m writing about today. I’ve been writing this post off & on for over a year, according to my draft bin.

If you’re lucky, you find that one album by that one band that grabs you by the nethers & never lets go, no matter how much time passes. Enter the Afghan Whigs’ “Black Love” in the spring of 1996. This muttering of mine is not a song by song critique of the album, as many of them have been done beautifully, such as this one, but how this album has been a constant in my life since the first listening.

He brought the CD over to my apartment & popped it into the player. “I think you’ll really like this”, he said. In the previous months, he had given me a lot of new music that I loved: Massive Attack, Tricky, Everclear & Pavement to name a few, so I paid attention. And from the first notes of “Crime Scene Part One”, I was enraptured by the storytelling, by the music, by the alternating howling & crooning of singer Greg Dulli.  At age 23, I believed I had a thorough knowledge of deception, betrayal & lust — the backbone of Black Love. But that’s the folly of youth. I never did. It rears back & knocks me over repeatedly. At least I’ve had a soundtrack to my poor decisions for 20 years.

Through the burgeoning & failing of relationships of the romantic kind, Black Love has been the default as I either celebrate the excitement of new entanglements or the devastation in which I’ve found myself embroiled. But even Dulli finds temporary redemption on Black Love & while “hope” may be too strong a word, resilience may be the key. Despite the indiscretions, the fabrications, and suffering the consequences of my actions, Black Love remains mirror of my confessions, and my penance.

This year, Black Love turns 20. I’ve found myself listening it almost daily as I navigate emotionally choppy waters once again. It never fails me. That’s the beautiful thing about a favorite album, story, piece of artwork. While it’s a snapshot of an era initially, it can take on new life as you gain experiences. It’s always worth revisiting to see if it sticks. It’s not the same album to me at 43 as it was at 23.

As so many fans have said previously, “thank you, Gentlemen”. Thank you for providing me with a lifeline when I often couldn’t/can’t get it together alone. I can always press “play”.


Dancers Wanted

My love for reading started early. I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on: my own books, the Reader’s Digest Home Repair Book that frequently lived on our coffee table, classified ads. The classified ads were especially intriguing. Items for sale, homes for rent, job offers. I would spend hours splayed on the living room carpet of our row home, pouring over the “help wanted” section of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Like many 8 year old girls, I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up, despite my inherent lack of grace or discipline. But it was the era of “A Chorus Line”, which was still running on Broadway & many local theaters. The advertisements were shown almost constantly on TV, and I played the album endlessly, singing along loudly in my tone deaf way, much to the dismay of nearly everyone around me, especially my oldest sister who was visiting from college.


“Barbara Lee, you’re 8. You don’t need a job”, she snarled into the pillow on the top bunk in the room we were temporarily sharing while she was home, probably hung over.

I was undaunted by her irritation & danced out of the room, down the stairs & into the living room where I again, sprawled out with the Help Wanted section of the classifieds. Where I saw The Ad.

EXOTIC DANCERS WANTED. No experience necessary. Will train. Make $2000/week. XXX. Call 215-555-1234.

I COULD GET A JOB! And this was PERFECT for me. I didn’t need experience, but I had some experience, thanks to my weekly “jazz” class. So I already had a leg up, so to speak. And exotic? Aside from the Original Cast Recording of “A Chorus Line”, the other album that played often was Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits, which contained “Copacabana”, so I imagined myself in sparkly attire with feathers in my hair & a “dress cut down to there”. And obviously this was a nice place to work, because they ended their advertisement with XXX, which meant “kisses”. I imagined of all the things I could get from the supermarket foyer toy machines on $2000/week. Exciting prospects. I was beside myself.

My mother made her way through the living room carrying a basket of laundry up from the basement and noticed my unrestrained glee with the newspaper.

“I’m going to get a job, Mommy!”

She paused on the first stair that headed to the second floor & turned to me, “Really? What do you have there?”

I rushed over to her & showed her the ad, pointing out that I already HAD experience, so I was basically a shoo-in for this available position. She blinked rapidly, removed her foot from the step, put the laundry basket down & led me to the scratchy sofa across the room.

“Barbara Lee, this isn’t the type of dancing that you do. This is naked dancing. For men. These aren’t nice places. Ladies take their clothes off for money.”

I was CRUSHED, twisting the newspaper in my hands, sputtering about “exotic” & “feathers” & “kisses”. She shook her head at me, telling me I didn’t understand, which also was a  blow, as I was aware that my reading comprehension was well above normal. My dreams of raiding the supermarket foyer quarter machines circled the drain.

She sighed & took the laundry upstairs. I followed her, & upon seeing that my sister had dragged herself from bed, put on A Chorus Line again, to my then-favorite song “Dance 10, Looks 3”. While I sang loudly & unfettered to this ditty about having the skills but not the looks (without the help of plastic surgery) to make it on the Great White Way, I could hear my sister snickering from the shower.

“Tits & asssssssssss”, I danced around my room, posing in the mirror all the while, “bought myself a fancy pair. Tightened up the derriere. Did the nose with it. And all that goes with it! Tits & assssssss, had the bingo-bongos done. Suddenly I’m getting national tours.”

While my dreams of being an Exotic Dancer with feathers, spangles & kisses might have been dashed, I still held out hope for Musical Theater. My mother sighed loudly from down the hall, shut the door to the room & put away her laundry in peace.

involuntary crab-slaughter

In the late 90s, I lived in central Pennsylvania, but returned to the shore frequently to visit family & friends.

During one such visit in mid May, while spending the afternoon walking on the beach with my longtime best friend (now husband), I spied a sand crab (also called “mole crabs”) digging around the water’s edge. I have always loved sand crabs & would spend hours “playing” with them as a youngster, building them sand castles from which to reign. But they always escaped my civil engineering attempts, as crabs do.

So I scooped up a handful of sand that contained my crabby little friend & terrorized played with him for a few minutes, rolling him over in my palms with glee, telling Chris about my childhood castle construction. The air was balmy with a cool breeze and because early in the season, the beach sparsely populated. It was a truly a perfect day.

Chris & I talked about what we should do with the remainder of our afternoon & I decided to set my crab friend free. But instead of setting him gently down at the water’s edge where I’d found him, thereby calmly restoring his world, I launched him into the air towards the water with a cry of “be free, little buddy!”

And a seagull swooped down and ate him, mid-launch.

I stood there stunned, like a jackass, while Chris fell to his knees laughing at the perfect serendipitous moment. “It’s the circle of life”, he cried, clutching his stomach. We laughed our way to the nearest bar, toasting our now-digesting crab with afternoon beers.

This moment in time sums up my general day to day life.  I often react with my first impulse without clearly thinking things through and despite my noblest intentions, it is usually the wrong action. No doubt it will be my legacy: Good Intention, Poor Execution.

Cheese & Spit

I’ve always worked in retail. Well, almost always. Save a two year stint in hotel hospitality which wasn’t really my forte, but yielded great stories, a few amazing friends & in retrospect, a wonderful sociological study of humans on vacation. But this isn’t about my time in hospitality.

I love working retail. I really do. I’ve had the good fortune to work in small local shops and big box national stores. All of them winners in their own regard, with important lessons & personal growth trajectories. I really do enjoy finding that “perfect thing” for customers, whether it’s a book or CD that might change their life, a new fragrance option they’ve never considered, a stunning piece of jewelry. While some might say that I lack ambition by “just working retail”, I can tell you that it started early.

There was a corner market in the town where I lived before we moved to the shore. It was an aging building, even in the late 1970s, with slowly rotting uneven wood floors and an aroma that was vaguely wet, sharp & decaying.

When I was about six,  I stood with my mother waiting for her cold cuts (“1 pound of american cheese sliced thin“). Bored by this shopping excursion, I wandered to the cheese case, which had been picked over. The blocks of cheddar, swiss, muenster & so forth were in disarray. It upset me. While my mother pushed the one of the market’s creaky, rusty carts through the aisles, I organized their cheese. It was satisfying, lining up the blocks in the proper slots.

When I stood back to admire my work, my gaze caught the deli case to the right, covered in condensation & fingerprints. So I did what any budding retail worker with a sense of order (and without cleaning supplies) would do: I spit on the glass & started using my sleeve to clean it.

I had just gathered enough saliva for round 2, and was preparing to shower the right side of the case when my mother bellowed at me from a few feet behind.


It was too late, I’d already sprayed the case & had my sleeve at the ready when she yanked me away & spanked me in one smooth motion.

I was bewildered & surprised, as I was just trying to help. “I just wanted to make it nice!” I stammered through my tears, much to the bemusement of the market’s deli clerks, who had been watching my reorganization.

She marched me to the front of the store, snuffling & wiping my eyes with the same damp sleeve, where we paid for our groceries under the dim flickering lights. The ride home was silent, after I’d been chastised for spitting. I didn’t have the words to make her understand that I wasn’t being rude or gross, I was just trying to help.

During the next visit, after I straightened the cheese, my scrutiny again fell upon the deli case. Again, covered in moisture & prints. While I stood there anxiously, wanting to “make it nice” but not wanting to get spanked, one of the deli workers remembered me from the previous incident & offered me a rag.

“Want to clean the glass?”


It became a regular ritual when we shopped at the market: Reorganization, glass cleaning, and compensation in the form of a few pieces of American cheese. I was helping.

The retail seed had been planted. Although I’m now armed with Windex & paper towels, I still have the same mentality. A clean, neat shop is satisfying. I tend to “help” when I visit other small establishments: putting items back in their proper place that have wandered to wrong shelves, straightening books as I browse.

And I recognize the young “helpers” when they visit me, organizing the marbles or the display of tiny candles at their eye level. We always know our tribe.

18 Carat

18 can be a magical, mythical number for some women, like me, who chose adoption for their children. In closed, semi-closed, or unsatisfying open adoptions it’s a thread of hope that contact can be made someday, a relationship with our kids possible in the future, legally free & clear. A carrot to keep us on the path.

I know it was for me. When the Kid was a primary schooler, 18 was a beacon to get me through the long nights, an idea to clutch when I felt like I had little else. Now that I’m standing on the threshold of the Kid’s birthday (give or take a few days), I know differently.

Eighteen years was how long it took for me to come to terms with the consequences of my actions, to mourn a lost motherhood, to set free the person I was “before”, to grieve the loss of my son.

I hear my friend Paul in my head regularly “But Barbara, what did you learn? What’s the lesson here?” And for the past six months or so, I’ve been answering it honestly, consistently. It’s neither a startling revelation nor a heart-warming conclusion tied with a pretty ribbon.

False hope is worse than no hope, which is not the same as hopeless. What has served me best is an almost unrelenting pragmatism on any possible future relationship with the Kid. I say “almost” because I am a human being, after all. I expect nothing from him. This is not to say that I don’t care, as I care more than I let on, but I no longer wait on scraps of information from the Kid or his parents. It’s an exercise in continual disappointment, which is exhausting & demoralizing. It will probably never be a satisfying relationship for me, and I’ve come to accept  it. My life is littered with unsatisfying relationships – it’s familiar territory.

I chose adoption for my son because I convinced myself he deserved better than me. While I haven’t viewed his adoptive parents as “better than me” in quite a number of years, I know he has had many opportunities that I could never have financially afforded. I suspect he’s an overall good kid. So I guess I did my job as far as picking parents for the Kid, despite my relationship with them, which has bordered on adversarial at times.

There’s no Certificate of Completion for this class, no finish line, no closing ceremony. But I don’t follow the carrot. There are far more interesting paths to travel. That was the lesson.

Frog Season

In the spring of 1983, when I was 10, my family moved from suburban-Philly-on-the-Jersey-side to a small seaside town at the end of the state. I went from row homes & friends I’d known since infancy to the sound of the Ferry horn jerking me awake & knowing virtually no one. I attended my new school for the remaining 5 weeks in the school year, long enough to make rudimentary friends with some kids my age.

While I would have been perfectly content to spend my summer with familiar friends in the Little House on the Prairie books, or taking up residence at the local library when I was pleased to have my own card, my mother banished me to the outdoors every afternoon when her shows were on. I didn’t mind.

I’d walk on the beach up at the bay & watch curiously as the horseshoe crabs dragged themselves up the sand to mate. Sometimes I’d map the neighborhood, which is essentially a mile by mile grid, scribbling my findings in a little Holly Hobby notebook I’d attached to the front basket of my bike with a rainbow heart shoelace. “The house on Kenvil Road with the yard full of crochet flowers” or “Stay away from Miramar Ave: creepy guy in dirty, orange Beetle.” The usual ten year old observations. It was also the summer of the frogs. Living near marsh & bay was an ecological mystery to me. New bugs, new birds, and frogs.

“GODDAMN FROGS”, my dad bellowed the first time he mowed the lawn, with our new gas-powered mower. Our old push-mower that served us well on a small patch behind the previous row home was no match for the much larger yard.

“I started mowing over there, by the garage, and thought I was running over rocks, and then there were frog guts & blood & JESUSCHRIST!”, my dad howled, sputtering from laughter & disgust.

I found them endlessly fascinating: small, vaguely wet & slimy, unpredictable. It made me wonder if they were pet-worthy. I knew bringing them in the house was out of the question, so I built a makeshift terrarium from a large, shallow metal tub complete with beds of crabgrass, wet sand, flowers.

I captured about 5 or 6 & placed them in their new digs. Every day I “fed” them by adding new grass & leaves, adding more water to the sand, cleaned out the sand with frog poop. At night I pulled a piece of paneling over the top of the tub, wished my little frog charges sweet dreams.

But I thought they might be getting bored. I knew I was.  I’d been messing around with old bricks behind the garage & some scraps of wood. Inadvertently, I’d made an obstacle course for frogs, complete with ramps & holes to squeeze through & the piece de resistance, a foot-long drop into a plastic bowl of water, not unlike the Steel Pier horses of Atlantic City.*

Every afternoon, during my scheduled “outside time”, I ran those poor damn frogs through the paces, using an old stopwatch my mother had given me, encouraging them to stay on course by gently nudging them with a stick. I kept their times charted in a separate notebook, giving them what I considered “racehorse” names such as Big Legs Mama & Slime Chin Sneakers.

As the summer drew to a close, my mother prodded me to set the frogs free one day when we were shopping for school clothes, by appealing emotions, saying my captive frogs’ families probably missed them.  So when we returned home with ribbon barrettes & ruffly shirts, I set the frogs free without fanfare.

The subsequent summer yielded us less frogs. I don’t know whether word had gotten out in the amphibian community about a giant who frog-napped residents & forced them into circus life or that my dad had simply mowed them all down over the course of a year. I’d moved on from the frogs, now with friends to go watch the horseshoe crabs mate or to ride our bikes to the local community pool where we’d make ourselves sick on chocolate licorice.

The old bricks are still behind the garage, the ones with the holes that would stymie Slime Chin Sneakers  & I’d have to push him through after some mild admonishment. Every time I take something to the garage, I check to see if they remain. And I laugh a little at my earnestness during  the summer of 1983, the Summer of the Frogs.


*This behavioral experiment with obstacle courses would repeat itself several years later in what is known as “The Great Seventh Grade Hamster Debacle”. But that’s another story.


Shoot the Left Ramp

In the summer of 1993, I practically OWNED the pinball game, Creature of the Black Lagoon, which was installed at the “little arcade” in my hometown of Cape May.

From 10-5, I’d be knee deep in Hello Kitty wares at my “main job” , and from 6-12  at my night job of dipping ice cream at an ice cream shack on the main drag. In the time between I could either return to my really crappy, but really huge apartment over a bakery on the pedestrian mall or I could hit the arcade. I had always been a bit of an arcade rat growing up, so I often chose the latter.

I ate a lot of peanut butter & banana sandwiches that summer, which I attribute to what became Pinball Savant Season. I’d play every second I could between jobs, fuming if someone else was on the machine. I’d grudging take another, and in my mind, lesser, machine, looking at my watch, trying to discern how many games I could fit in before I started portioning out soft serve WITH JIMMIES*.

When the summer ended, I moved to New Orleans with a guy I’d met  at the ice cream shack, strangely enough. But when I returned  next season, Creature From the Black Lagoon was gone. I was heartbroken.

The next summer saw me back in Hell Kitty, but instead of ice cream, I sold harem pants & Grateful Dead t-shirts at the hippie shop on the beach front in the evenings. Across from the “big arcade”. Where I met & fell in love with the “Star Trek: Next Generation” pinball machine. Oh Picard, you made my flippers twitch.

Up until recently, I hadn’t played much pinball or even given it a thought. Chris & I will seek out a machine if we’re up on the boardwalk, but I haven’t felt the burning desire to play. And then Chris discovered the Pinball Arcade download for the gaming system, which had all of our old favorites.

For the past week, in my free time (of which there’s very little), I’ve been playing. And holy cow it has been FUN. While I like my job and am excited about the volunteering I’ve been doing at my local animal shelter, and have been steadily selling those weird magnets I make, I feel like I haven’t been having much fun.

I can’t play for long stretches anymore, which is probably a good thing. My eyes start to tear & burn after about 15 minutes, and my hands & fingers don’t have the sustainable “flipper power” (or button mashing), but it is FUN. For 20 minutes at a clip.

Because of course I’ll still play, with burning, itchy eyes if I’ve got a good table going. Of course I will.

*sprinkles, jimmies. same same.

073109 to 073115

I generally ignore Facebook’s automatic “memories” function, as it’s normally some status update that involves cats, coffee or something ridiculous about me personally.  Until today.


Over coffee, I remarked to Chris “Hey, it was six years ago that I got out of the Behavioral Hospital”. Six years ago, feels like eons.

While I don’t think about it much at this juncture, I sometimes wonder about the people I encountered while inpatient. I’ve written about them, stayed in vague touch with two (greatly frowned upon for clear reasons, but common nonetheless).

One of the two didn’t make it. Two years ago, early one morning, while scrolling through my feeds, I was alarmed to discover fellow patient, Matt* (the Atlas Shrugged guy) had committed suicide. My stomach dropped into my shoes & I had the metallic taste of fear on my teeth.  Goddammit.

Not that Matt & I were close, not that we really kept in touch. But he was someone that I knew for a specific amount of time, in a specific amount of space**. And he didn’t make it. It broke my heart. It could have been me.

But it hasn’t been me, it’s not me today, and hopefully not tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week. And so on.  Six years out:  four years of regular, active therapy and two years of freewheelin’. I know my rough spots, have learned some important skills, faced some ugly truths, still keep on keeping on. Sometimes it’s a train wreck and difficult to not let the bad days multiply while I’m not paying attention. Because they will.  And they do.

There are many days where it feels like the only thing I can do is keep my head up. Usually it’s enough. I’ve gotta see where I’m going.

*Not his real name

**He used the phrase “Goat Prison” in reference to the hospital. It made me laugh, which is why I call this sub-category “Stories from Goat Prison”





Three Nanoseconds

When I first met Doug Letterman, it was my first day of junior high, 7th grade.  I don’t remember much, except he didn’t look like other teachers, with his hippie beard & baggy pants.

What I do remember, however, an algebra lesson early  in the year. Something about time & math. He crossed the room & flicked off the lights. A roomful of 12 years olds sat in semidarkness for a moment or two & he flicked them on again.

“Three nanoseconds”, he intoned. “It took three nanoseconds for the light to reach your eyes.”

Apparently it was the only thing I remembered, and I received a “D” for my efforts, which were poor.

Several years later, in my senior year, I was flailing  in my Algebra/Geometry/Trig class, and I turned to him for help. He’d moved to the high school a few years prior, and we’d struck up a pleasant, somewhat snarky, friendship.  He agreed to tutor me, get me over the Math Block. He still had that hippie beard & baggy pants, and I ribbed him about this one shirt he wore often, one I’d remembered from 7th grade. It had once been a black & white plaid, but had faded to a weird grey-green, threadbare. Every time he wore it, I made a smartass comment which he tolerated.

The day before I graduated (with a B in that math class), he gave me that shirt. I wore it for years, until it disappeared into the ether.

When I returned to Cape May after 10 years & started working at the shop, I was shocked & amazed & delighted to discover that the cool recycled metal fish we sold were his works. Whenever he popped in the store, it was always fun banter & laughter. Still, with the hippie beard & baggy pants, now with tales of VW Buses, retirement.

Watching him decline these past few years as he battled ALS made me acutely aware of time. I asked him questions about his life: about his time serving in Vietnam (for which he was a proud Veteran), about his creativity, about his life in general, about his thoughts on Game of Thrones. I wanted to know more about the man behind the beard & pants. I’m very lucky to have gleaned a few insights to a man I came to admire so much.

About two years ago, I asked him about the Nanoseconds Lesson. He chuckled & shifted in his wheelchair. “Well”, he said, “it would all depend upon the dimensions of the room. It’s funny you remember that”.

Three nanoseconds. The time it takes light to reach my eyes in the 7th grade math class, the time it takes to strike a friendship, the time it takes to let go.


If you’d like to do something cool, please donate to Doug’s Walk to Defeat ALS page.

Extraordinary Machine

One of the mantras that I keep on mental speed dial is the fact that I’m not alone in my brand of crazy. When Jenny Lawson posted this yesterday about how mental illness has affected her & what she’s learned to help others, I figured I’d toss in my two cents. Because loneliness & feeling like you’re the only one can really put the thumb screws to you.  And me.

How Mental Illness Has Affected Me: I’ve been like this as far back as I can remember, cycles of years, a roller coaster. There are labels: Major Depressive Disorder, Chronic Anxiety, PTSD. Therapy, meds, a hospitalization or three, therapy. It affects every area of my life, every relationship that I have. Working in retail, I sometimes fight regularly to keep my head up and get on with it. More often than not, one issue will outweigh the others, like my recent bouts of crippling anxiety.

What I’ve Learned: While the past few years have been relatively even keeled (compared to the mid to late 00s), I know that I become suicidal every year, like clockwork, from the end of January to the beginning of April. As a result, I know how & when to ask for help. I know that my body lies, that my issues manifest themselves in my limbs, my stomach, my neck, in chronic infections that don’t clear up despite the antibiotics.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and just in the past few months, is that I have to try. To make a conscious effort despite what the choir of assholes in my head tell me, to prove them wrong with my actions. The world will continue to rotate on it’s axis despite the crushing feeling in my chest. The more I invest in myself, the more I take care of myself, the better I feel. Some days I do better than others.

I have to keep hope, even if it’s just a nearly invisible silk thread. If I have a really lousy day, when my head is all fucked up & I can’t seem to keep it together for one more goddamn minute, I know there’s tomorrow. If I can keep that hope, hang onto that silk thread, I can make it.

And maybe tomorrow won’t be as bad.

You are not alone, I promise. (I’m writing this for me, too)