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)


As the summer revs it’s engine in my seaside locale, I’m fraught with anxiety. It’s been a struggle, these past few weeks, with chronic anxiety issues.  With work becoming steadily busier, a change in our household schedule, a change in dietary habits & other regular life stuff, I’ve been a little squirrely.

The other night, for instance, I went out to see some live music for the first time in years. I went after work, tentative plans to meet acquaintances. I ignored the stomach acid sloshing around as I headed down to the restaurant, talking myself into doing something social.

I took the first seat I could find, which was unfortunately in front of a mirror. After I ordered a coke, I caught my reflection across the bar: slightly disheveled, ruddy from elevated blood pressure.  A full-on panic attack loomed.

Despite my best intentions of trying to power through it by ordering food & focusing on my friends who had now started to play, it was too late. My squid arrived, beautifully plated & crispy perfection. But vaguely threatening. I felt like I was on fire.

When the bartender passed my way, I stuttered for the check. There was already $20 clutched damply in my hand.

I lasted about 20 minutes, total. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing. I failed.  That’s how I felt that night, anyway.  I know I didn’t really fail. I made an effort over just having an intention. And that’s ok.

Routine is a big part of what keeps me on an even keel, and our lives are all about creating new routines at the moment. It’s disorienting & scary & frustrating. I spend time consciously controlling my breathing, getting through the day 30 seconds at a time.

Everything will even out eventually, I know. Three weeks, a month from now, we’ll be heading into the Full Summer Swing, where days run into each other, and this rough spot will be an anecdote over breakfast.

What Matters

One day he grew up. I chalk it up to another milestone that I missed.

I saw a photo, and he was unrecognizable to me.  All of the oxygen left my body in one rush and that metallic taste crept into my mouth,  my stomach went sour. Who is that kid, and what makes him tick?

We have sporadic contact, mainly texting. I have no idea  what he’s about, what inspires him, what defeats him. If I think about it long enough, ten minutes or more, it becomes an endless source of angst. Given that it’s “birthday season”, and the “off season” in my seaside locale, I find myself in this place more often. There’s a fine line between being “interested” & a creeper. A very fine line, which I try to walk respectfully & carefully.

While fairly at peace with myself, at least with the version of myself that made this decision, I’m not yet at peace with the outcome that we may never have a relationship. But it’s a reality that I need to consider.

I am reliable in my efforts, every few months, open ended questions that don’t demand any taxing emotional thought. I divulge small, inconsequential bits of personal information if the exchange warrants. My therapist taught me well.

What adoption has taught me, over these nearly 17 years, is how to wait. How to be patient beyond all personal expectations & previous experience. How to really stretch & flex those emotional endurance muscles.  The trick is how to live, actually build a life, while waiting. And there’s no chapter in the Birthmother Handbook* on that topic.

*yeah, there’s no “Birthmother Handbook” either.

Blessed Are the Ignorant

adoption tweet


I found this gem last evening. I get this guy’s point – He & his wife are looking to adopt. I find myself caught between being fundamentally appalled at his Neanderthal approach to finding an expectant mother considering adoption for her unborn baby and laughing my fool head off because of his language. Probably the latter.

I mean, it’s a shame that he & Allison can’t just go down to the cabbage patch & pick out a shiny new infant.

While God may have “called them to adoption”, he certainly didn’t bestow on them common sense or ethics. It’s not as if there’s a Birthmother Boulevard where an expectant mom is waiting on each corner, looking to “give up her baby”.

On the flip side, part of what I find so laughable is the complete lack of guile. He’s saying exactly what he wants. He doesn’t know any different. Because he doesn’t see “birthmothers” as people.

Vaya con Dios on your “journey”, mister.