Category Archives: this is my life

Potted Plants

For the love of tacos, remind me next time that moving in the middle of “the season” is not a good idea.  Since the move, everything is weird & feels out of sorts. I feel weird & out of sorts. I can’t seem to get solid footing. Change messes with me.

One evening after dinner, about two weeks after moving, Chris (who was in the midst of the unpacking…everything) mentioned how amazing it was to have so much space and how awesome the yard would look in a year. (The man loves his huge, lush lawn.)

“Maybe we’ll have room to grow here, ” I said. “On Crocus, that place was so tiny. It was like having a plant that you couldn’t transfer to a bigger pot when it outgrew the current one. We couldn’t grow, we were stunted.”

I couldn’t have been more truthful, and I didn’t realize it until later.

With space comes growth, with growth comes change, and sometimes change is incredibly painful. Yes, of course, sometimes it’s amazing & positive & pancake breakfasts. But even the idea of potential pain is often enough to stymie my fortitude on a good day, let alone a bad one.

My discomfort, however, is balanced by the new discoveries of the house, the neighborhood, the geography in general. I never thought I’d sit on the front porch & watch the bats hunt in the evenings. Or the weird fact that we’re in the air pattern now, even though we only moved 6 miles. Watching the cats in any number of windows. Establishing a routine, which has been lacking & taking it’s toll. Without a set routine, I function poorly. But every day, the kinks become just a bit more smooth.

I’m typing this in my new office at home, which is bigger than our previous bedroom. First time I’ve sat at my desk. I’ve got one cat snoring behind me, and one sprawled in the doorway. At this moment, I can’t believe we live here, how fortunate to have this opportunity. I’m trying not to waste it.

packing it in

I’ve been working on a piece regarding Hulu’s series “The Handmaid’s Tale” for over a week, trying to make it right. This is not that post.

We’ve been living in the same tiny apartment for a decade. It served us well for the first few years, when it was just us & one cat. But really, it’s tiny for two adults & no matter how much we enjoy each other’s company, we’re always on top of each other. Add a heaping handful of cats, and it’s become downright tight. Let alone having anyone visit. Then it’s simply claustrophobic. At the annual lease signing, our landlord would remark that he couldn’t believe we were staying another year.

While we’ve managed pretty well, a joking query to a friend of Chris’ has led us to greener pastures. Literally. There’s a lawn. And trees. And a backyard. For nearly the same rent as our barrier island abode, we’re moving to a legit house off the island on 8/1. A free standing house. No “shared wall” neighbors. I am beside myself, in the best way.

Six weeks. We have to pack up our lives in six weeks, in the height of “the season”. It’s a somewhat daunting task.

I poked my head into my tiny office last night, flipped on the light, and groaned. While pretty good with purging junk & unnecessary items annually, but I’m a bit overwhelmed. How much craft paper & supplies do I need? (All of it, clearly) How much ephemera is stored in cube shelves? (All of it, clearly) Did I mention it’s a daunting task, the packing?

But the end result, though. We’ve been in desperate need of a fresh start for quite some time. Our current apartment has been our home: with party lights & laughter, with tears & loss, with the “John Bonham solo” of scrambling cat feet. You know, the things that make life…life.

I’m naturally prone to nostalgic sappiness, and no doubt I’ll shed some tears during this process. Probably more out of frustration, anxiety & uncertainty than true sadness. Because truly there won’t be much to miss about this apartment, aside from our walks to the beach or back bay, which have been some of my happiest moments in recent years & lent themselves to nice photos. And the familiarity. For all of it’s summer frustrations, the Wildwoods have been an interesting place to reside.

But here’s to new routines, new commutes, new shin bruises due to new furniture arrangements. Like the Jeffersons, we’re moving on up (the road).

Symbiotic Salvation

As you may know, I’ve been feeding/caring for a random cat that’s shown up at our apartment. I can’t help myself, and to be fair, Chris can’t either.

While we’d seen him strolling around the neighborhood regularly, we first “met” him in January, when he marched up to us while leaving the house early one morning, chatty & looking for attention.

We named him Vic (Very Important Cat). And then we didn’t see him again until March, when he started appearing at our place on a regular basis, wearing a collar that was a bit too tight.  So we continued to feed & care for him, and he returned regularly, one day without the collar. He started spending so much time at our kitchen door, we bought a collar & attached a note, asking his “people” to call or text us if he was their cat. Within 12 hours, the breakaway collar was gone — and no calls, despite our best hope. Whether or not a human removed it, we’ll never know. He’s a great cat. Affectionate, chatty, handsome. Content to just be “around”. But he deserves better, as he’s clearly domesticated, but uncared for — at least in recent weeks, as evidenced by some wounds that could use a vet’s attention.

Caring for Vic has been a lifeline for me in some regards. Over the past few months, I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole of mental health issues. Again. It started with what I considered run of the mill anxiety & I found myself in familiar, unpleasant territory. I couldn’t focus on everyday tasks, regular duties & responsibilities were overwhelming, additional projects sent me into a full-blown panic. The harder I tried to rein it in, to maintain a level of “normal”, the worse it became.

When the physical symptoms of chronic neck pain & headaches arrived, with the new addition of auditory issues, I knew it was time to schedule an intake again at My Therapy Institute. It’s been about 4 years since I’ve been in treatment, and I’ve found myself here again, back in therapy & on medication. And a new diagnosis of Bipolar II. The diagnosis isn’t “new”, I just wouldn’t hear it last time. I had previously fought against it, saying it wasn’t me, it didn’t apply. But the reality now is that it does apply, and I’m okay with it.

Over the past few weeks, caring for this random cat has given me a little light while I navigate these waters again, armed with a compass & spyglass this time around. I’m taking care of him, taking care of me.  We both deserve better.

 

this time we go a little lower

My lifelong battles with depression & anxiety are well-chronicled on these pages. Just words.

Last week I fired up a limping laptop that I haven’t used in a number of years, looking for specific photos to move for future use. While scrolling through a untitled album that contained roughly 1000 photos, I found a series of self portraits taken when I was in my deepest, darkest places around 2006-2008. Before the hospital, before therapy, before medication. They knocked the breath from me. So often we don’t know how bad it is until much, much later.

My photo editing skills have dramatically improved over the years, and I must have deleted the original files, as I’d edit them much differently now. Maybe that’s okay. They speak for themselves, to specific point in my life. A place I don’t want to revisit, but always lives in the fringes.

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.

“I HOPE I GET IT! I HOPE I GET IT! HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES HE NEED? HOW MANY BOYS? HOW MANY GIRLS? I REALLY NEED THIS JOB”

“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.

“BARBARA LEE! DON’T YOU DARE!”

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?”

YES! YES I DID!

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.

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.