Just me and F, cruising down the highway. Car full of music, snacks, and overnight bags; my socked feet rest on the dashboard.
I’m spying on the families in neighboring cars, making fun of them all.
Identical families in identical vehicles running off to identical rental properties to have identical vacations. Dads with polo shirts and reflective sunglasses driving the family vehicle, while Mom rides shotgun, staring hypnotically ahead at the infinite road stripes. Uninterested kids melting from boredom in the backseat. An occasional disgruntled mother-in-law is sandwiched between her mouthbreathing grandkids in the backseat, boring a hole into the back of her disappointment of a son-in-law’s skull with her iron gaze. A family’s worth of bicycles jimmy-rigged to the back of the vehicle, impeding their rear view.
Cutting off drivers on the highway to hurry to some banal destination, just to eat overpriced rubbery seafood and subpar waffles, and sit on a lackluster beach while your kids lament about missing their carbon-copy friends. Take a few washed-out, blurry photos that end up sitting in a shoebox to collect dust until after the funeral.
In other words, livin’ the middle class dream.
“Are we gonna be like that someday?”
His right hand moves from the wheel to my knee and tenderly squeezes, eyes straight ahead. “Maybe.” Suddenly, a clueless errant driver weaves into our lane. F’s face hardens as he grips the wheel and hits the brakes to avoid them, all while muttering uncouth things in French. (Roughly translated, it’d be something like: “These unfortunate gentlemen are ill-informed about the art of driving; ’tis an act better left to those more capable of doing it.”)
I make a silly face at the driver as we pass them by, and I burst into laughter at their confused expression.
No, we’ll never be like them…
We arrive at Scampi, our friends’ home near the beach. When we pull up to the house, we’re greeted by Mama and Papa, holding bright-eyed Baby 3. Babies 1 and 2 run outside to greet us, in a dust storm of blonde hair, blue eyes, joyous shrieks, and general excitement at receiving visitors. Papa is happy to see F, to increase the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio in the house, and Mama is happy to chitchat with me in English. Fresh beverages fizz and glasses clink to herald our arrival. We catch up with our friends while Baby 3 coos and giggles, and Babies 1 and 2 twitter about in a show-and-tell flurry of sparkly princess stickers and bold finger paintings.
Dinnertime approaches, and our tummies growl. The men stride into the backyard to start the fire for our barbecue.
I hold a hand to my empty stomach and look out at F.
Someday, we know there’ll be something more in here.
Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station. He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization. There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.” Thanks, pal.
Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.” What am I, some kind of language workhorse? I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today. That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.
All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters. Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.
I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit. No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty. The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache. The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.
The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking. I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel. Even their ashtrays are immaculate. Freaky.
I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town. Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs. I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty: it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun. The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.
As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques. A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step. I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection: successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed. Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone. I wonder what happened to her.
I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic. His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch. He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.
Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think. I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…
I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water. I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in. I don’t mind. I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws. The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes. Like a goddamn family sitcom. They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit. Hell, neither do I.
I realize my headache has ceased.
I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.
Just another Thursday.
“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”
How many times have my students confided this fear in me? Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.
I wonder, What’s the big deal?
Since when do strangers’ opinions matter? Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?
This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying. Anything less than excellence is insufficient. You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.
Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?
Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.
I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say. I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.
So what? We all do.
Criticism from one person is fleeting. As is the embarrassment of screwing up.
More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.
Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.
Sometimes, things start to feel lackluster, and one day blends unremarkably into another. I’m on auto-pilot, and the urge to complain comes about more frequently than I’d like. My head is filled with cotton, and the outside world looks bland and uninviting.
Ennui: a feeling of dissatisfaction and bored, weary listlessness due to a lack of excitement and stimulation. Also associated with cynicism, world-weariness, and self-indulgence. I’m so deep, man. I’ve got a bad case of ennui. It’s a French word, look it up.
Ugh. I’m giving myself douche chills. I can’t stand myself when I feel this way. In order to combat this feeling of stagnation and boredom, I pull out my mental list. I pare things down, take a deep breath, and try to look at myself, now. What is special about this moment? Is there something I can indulge in, to appreciate my world and bring things into color and focus?
This morning, while shaking off the remnants of a nightmare, I poured myself a bowl of Cocoa Krispies. I hadn’t tasted these babies since I was a kid, and the silly monkey on the box called out to me at the grocery store earlier this week. In the gray quiet shadows of the morning, I curled up onto my couch with my bowl of sugary nostalgia, and chowed down. Something lifted in my heart, and I felt a nice warmth there. Sure, I’m shirking my healthy-living promise to myself; but sometimes, a guilty pleasure is just what you need. Every chocolatey morsel of goodness brought a new idea to mind.
I recommend everyone make themselves a list. You might be surprised at how small a gesture it takes to show yourself a little loving compassion.
For me, it could be…
The nostalgic crunch of breakfast cereal
A piece of whole-grain bread topped with a chunk of sharp English cheddar
Gliding my new gorgeous Micron pen across the smooth paper in my new notebook
Caressing the pages of a new journal, deciding what its purpose shall be
Burning a stick of incense I’ve been saving from Japan
Admiring a rare sight here: the frosted white treetops on a frigid morning
Brushing through my hair, adding oil to make it shine
Painting my nails clear in an effort to stop biting them
Pouring myself a finger of Cuban rum at the end of a 6-day work week
Wearing an outfit that makes me feel like my final form
Quenching my thirst with a large, perfectly cool glass of water
Looking up a new subject to learn about (at the moment: 18th century cooking and re-enacting)
Walking through the garden, smelling the herbs
Planning an upcoming trip or outing
I’m talking about self-care: doing things because they make you feel good, and for no other reason. I’ve made a list, and when things start to look gray and I need a pick-me-up, I refer to my list of comforts.
Now, on this gray Sunday afternoon shrouded in fog, I’m off to another one of my comforts: gathering around the table with family, and enjoying a meal. Today’s meal: pot-au-feu. Please excuse me while I run off to stuff my face as an act of self-kindness.
Self-care: Doing something just because it makes you happy, and for no other reason. Give yourself the privilege of finding joy in a simple moment. Recharge the spirit. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast. Take a hot shower and wash your hair. Wear a pair of comfy socks. Hug an animal. Write a letter to someone you love. Drink a glass of water. Enjoy a cup of coffee that’s JUST how you like it. Take a deep breath.
Me, I cook.
I love preparing fresh herbs and spices. Crushing red peppercorns for a shallot cream sauce to be served over fish. Grinding fresh nutmeg into buttery mushrooms. Grating cinnamon into an Indian-inspired simmering dish. Plucking a fresh bay leaf, snipping sprigs of thyme for a hearty chicken soup. Cutting the ends off a bunch of fresh cilantro for THE essential Puerto Rican seasoning, sofrito. Infusing annato seeds in warm oil to extract their vibrant color: the rich saffron red swirling into the yellow oil is a lovely sight. Adding a teaspoon of this rich orange-colored infusion will keep your pasteles from sticking to the parchment (or, if you’re going traditional, your banana leaf). I feel like an alchemist of flavor in my laboratory. This is my moment of bliss.
Yesterday’s act: bake cookies and share them with friends.
Gool ol’ peanut butter cookies: signature criss-cross top, crisp buttery exterior, soft inside. It’s very satisfying to stir into the smooth butter, and hear the gentle grinding of the sugar as you swirl through the complementary colors. The sound is what makes this experience so sensually authentic. Crack in an egg, and watch it resist incorporation into the gritty butter mixture. Oh, you little scamp, you… Coax it in with a sprinkle of flour. Roll bits of cookie dough around in your hands to make a small ball, the size of a king marble. Tines of a fork imprint the cookie to form a hashtag. Cookies bake until they puff slightly in the middle, and turn golden brown on the sides. 10 whole minutes of anticipation and mouthwatering. Cool until mouthburn can safely be avoided. Devour. Share. Enjoy. Repeat.