Of Cursed Birthdays (#220)

When I was a kid, birthdays were a big deal.

As an adult? Well, after your 25th birthday, when your car insurance bill drops, there’s not a lot to look forward to. Besides, no birthday could ever live up to my 10th, when I got a kitten and pierced ears.

My husband tried, though. Andy made me a cake the first year we were together. It was beautiful: nicely frosted, with my name written across it, even. Andy is a fantastic cook. I know it. He knows it. Everyone knows it, probably because I brag about it all the time. I expected the cake to be delicious.

I took a bite. The cake was moist. It was sweet.

Other than that, it had absolutely no flavor.

I took another bite and asked, “So, um, this cake is really unique.  What flavor is this?”

Andy groaned and said, “It’s supposed to be chocolate, but I forgot half the cocoa.”

I said, “It’s okay, it’s very pretty and not dry at all, and no one has made me cake in decades. Thank you, honey.”

The next year Andy planned an elaborate surprise party for me…only to have a an acquaintance give it away. Andy was furious for weeks.

“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “It’s not really his fault. My birthday has been cursed for years.”

“But you always talk about how great it was when you were a kid!”

“When I was a kid, sure. But my mom died right before my 15thbirthday.  On my birthday, my Ex-Stepfather got me this gorgeous cake from the premiere D.C. bakery. Then, as we were eating, he read us a letter from a family friend telling us how wonderful our dead mother was and we all cried and couldn’t finish the cake.”

“Wow,” said Andy. “You and your siblings couldn’t finish dessert?”

“I know, right? Shows you how catastrophic it was. Anyway, every birthday after that was a reminder of her death. Since then, crap seems to happen the month of my birthday. Someone dies, I lose my job – and it’s not just me.  It’s a miserable month for my whole family. It’s better not to celebrate my birthday.”

Andy didn’t believe me. Not when we when we ran into problems buying the house we wanted the week of my birthday. Not when the plumber’s apprentice made an error that sent sewage all over our bathroom. Not when we lost a beloved pet. Not when I spent 5 hours in a Houston airport or when his parents insisted on visiting for my birthday. Not even when Andy of the Iron Stomach got  stomach flu for the first time.

Last year, Andy insisted on making a big deal out of my birthday.

“Don’t do it,” I warned him. “You know it’s cursed. The bigger the plan, the more likely something will go wrong.”

“It’s gonna be fine,” Andy insisted. “I’ll take the day off work. I’ll make you eggs Benedict for breakfast, poutine, and a cake. What kind of cake do you want?”

“You and cake and my birthday seems like it might not be the best combo—”

“Once! I only forgot the cocoa once! Just tell me what kind of cake you want. You make amazing cakes for everyone else’s birthdays, you should totally have a great cake on your birthday.”

“If you must, how about a single layer Genoise with strawberry whipped cream frosting?”

“I can totally make a Genoise,” said Andy, typing furiously on his phone.

“You’re googling Genoise, aren’t you?”

“Absolutely not. But is it spelled G-E-N-O-I-S?”

A few days before my birthday, Andy’s company had an important conference call scheduled with the East Coast. A shocking, unseasonal blizzard hit the Eastern Seaboard. The important call was rescheduled for my birthday.

“Give it up,” I told Andy. “We’ll go out to dinner on Saturday.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I mean, I won’t be able to make the eggs Benedict, and I probably won’t be able to manage homemade French fries, but I will be home by noon and make you a cake!”

Andy picked up a nasty respiratory virus the night before my birthday. He barely made the conference call. He came home and crawled straight into bed.

I had Campbell’s tinned tomato soup for dinner.

When he regained consciousness, Andy weakly said, “Sorry, honey, I’ll make that cake this weekend. We’ll have your friends over and celebrate.”

“Dude. What will it take to convince you it will never work out?”

“I’m making a cake, damn it,” Andy swore.

And make a cake he did.

Exterior shot of actual cake.

The cake came out suspiciously flat. Andy refused to admit it was problematic. He gamely frosted it, decorated it, and sang “Happy Birthday” as he placed it in front of me.

I had to use my sharpest knife to hack through the bottom crust of what was supposed to be a European sponge cake, but I served it up to our guests.

“Sponge” cake interior.

Andy’s cake was again…unique. While the bottom was tougher than shoe leather, the middle and top of the cake were gooey. The frosting, however, was divine. The guests and I ate that and complimented Andy.

“Thanks!” said Andy. “Does anyone else want another piece?”

We demurred. Andy pouted, then declared, “Fine. I’m having another piece.”

The rest of us avoided eye contact as Andy served himself. But as Andy struggled mightily to fork off a bite-sized piece, I locked eyes with the guest on my left. He was red in the face, holding a napkin over his mouth.

That was it. I lost it, and the rest of the table followed me into endless gales of laughter. I didn’t quite pee my pants, but it A Very Near Thing.

Andy was a good sport, which was a good thing, because we must have laughed for five minutes.

Later that night, he mumbled, “Sorry about your cake, honey. I must have over mixed it.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry! That was hilarious, what with your pouty face and the Great Chef’s refusal to admit that his sponge cake could not be cut. I haven’t laughed that hard in years.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

“Nope. Frosted Genoise jerky is officially my most favorite birthday cake ever now.”

“Good. Because I’m gonna make it again for Mother’s Day.”

Wretch (#218)

My mother loved being pregnant. When I was 10 and she was pregnant with Baby Brother, she gave up alcohol and cigarettes without complaint. Same thing when I was 11 and she had Baby Singing Sister. She rarely threw up and was always cheerful.

My older sister, the Judgmental Genius Doctor, had miserable pregnancies. Her nausea was so bad she wore ice packs while operating. She gained 75 pounds because only Dove ice-cream bars were appealing and food had a fifty-fifty chance of preventing her from puking. Once the nausea ended, her cervix became problematic. She spent months on bed rest to avoid an early delivery.

When I told Dr. Sis I was pregnant, she immediately asked how I was feeling.

“Good,” I told her. “I mean, a little cramping where my innards are rearranging themselves, but I don’t feel sick at all.”

“How many weeks are you?”

“No more than five.”

“Hahahaha, enjoy not feeling like shit while you can,” she advised me. “Which will be one more week.”

“You don’t know that,” I argued. “Mom felt great during her pregnancies. Dad’s mom was the one who was sick and miserable when she was pregnant.” Gram had been so sick with her third pregnancy that she’d had an abortion – in the 1950s. Gram only managed this because her father was a doctor with connections. I only learned about this then illegal procedure when I spent the summer with my grandparents and experienced A Summer Night of Too Many Martinis.

“You’re gonna be sick, too,” Dr. Sister predicted. “It’s in the genes.”

“Not necessarily,” I countered. “You’re tiny and built like our little Welsh Grandma. Of course you take after her. But I’m built like Mom, from strapping Germanic peasant stock. I’ll be one of those women who finish threshing a row of wheat, push out a kid, and finish the next row.”

“You can tell yourself that all you want. Don’t you remember high school?” Dr. Sis asked.

“Are you talking about the genetics part of Biology? Of course I don’t remember that. Or Geometry. Never used them again, they were completely useless–“

“I’m not talking about Geometry,” Dr. Sis interrupted. “I’m talking about you. Every morning…” She made a retching noise.

“Oh,” I said, remembering. “Shit.”

*****

I’ve been a night owl since infancy. I was the kid that always snuck out of bed, unable to sleep. Then I’d overhear my parents fighting and have to sneak back into bed. Once I hit adolescence, I rarely slept before midnight.

Our high school started at 7:30 AM. It took almost an hour to get there, either by school bus or driving, thanks to northern Virginia traffic. To manage staggered morning showers with low water pressure, 6 siblings, and 2 working parents, I had to get up at 5:30 AM.

Almost every school day, I either threw up or felt like throwing up until at least 8 AM. Sometimes I threw up waiting for the bus. Sometimes my sister, or friend, or boyfriend had to pull over so I could vomit. I had multiple winter scarves; they were for face-wiping, not fashion. The good news was that on the mornings I did throw up, I only did it once. After that, while I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel queasy.

The fall of my freshman year, I begged to stay home. My father had no sympathy. “You always feel like crap,” he told me. “Unless you have a fever, you’re going to school.”

So I perfected the art of predicting actual heaves, as opposed to just feeling like I might puke. I learned to immediately assess every venue and vehicle for places I could get to quickly and heave with minimal clean up. Bushes, for example.

I also learned how to chew gum without teachers noticing.

During a particularly nasty morning episode in the kitchen sink as a senior, I heard Dad grouse to my stepmother, “I don’t understand this. I mean, she can’t be pregnant. Not for four years!”

Once I got to college, where the earliest I ever got up was 7:15 AM, my nausea disappeared. Research appeared, showing that adolescents need more sleep, and they need to sleep as late as possible, thanks to the biology of puberty. My body decided that puking was the best way of  punishing me coping with sleep deprivation.

Northern Virginia high schools now start at 8:10 AM — or later. (Thanks for nothing, fuckers.) Like many high school districts, they’ve learned that later classes mean higher test scores and better grades.

And possibly schools that smell less like puke.

*****

“All that high school heaving means it’s your body’s go-to response for biological stress. And pregnancy is NOTHING but physical stressors,” Dr. Sis said.

“You don’t have to sound so damned gleeful,” I muttered.

“I am not being gleeful. I’m just preparing you for the fact that you’re gonna start puking soon. Just like I did. Get ready.”

“No way. I already spent 4 years puking, that’s enough! I did way more vomit time than you. You only had six months, you poseur!”

The conversation deteriorated after that.

But my appetite did not. I passed the 6 week mark.

“Ha!” I gloated to Andy between bites of an In-n-Out burger. “Six weeks and I still feel great! I was right and I got the good pregnancy genes!”

My high lasted 12 hours. I woke up queasy the next day. I ate little oatmeal. It didn’t help.

I gagged brushing my teeth.

When I walked the dogs, I threw up in a neighbor’s yard.

“Goddamn it,” I said to the dogs. Sitting nicely, they cocked their heads at me as I dabbed my mouth with the precautionary wipe I’d stuck in Fey’s pack. “Dr. Sis was right. And now I’m gonna feel like shit for the next three months.”

I tried to look on the bright side. I hadn’t puked on my shoes. I’d at least avoided puking in the yards of my close neighbors. In fact, I’d made it to the yard of the jerk who shot raccoons (and ate them, but that’s another post, this one has enough nausea in it already). The vomit had missed my shoes and landed in a nice, concealing bush.

The dogs needed a walk. We forged ahead. I ignored the nausea when it returned, but I was ready with one of the dog’s plastic bags when I did have to heave again.

I used five bags on that walk. Only two of them were for dog poop. But we made it several miles that day, and almost every other day of my first trimester.

Various girlfriends and family members told me to stop being masochistic and make my husband walk the dogs. Sometimes I did. But mostly I kept trudging along.

I may never have used Geometry or Chemistry again, but at least there was one high school skill that proved useful later in life:

How to keep functioning while puking.

 

Not Your Ordinary Magic Wand (#217)

Finding out I was pregnant was anticlimactic. Because here’s the rule: you can’t tell anyone until you know it’s a viable pregnancy.

Actually, you can tell people, sure, but since 1 out of every 3 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, you run the risk of having to un-tell them later. Possibly while sobbing incoherently.

So I was stuck in this no-man’s-land of being pregnant – maybe – for two weeks while I waited for my obstetrician to officially confirm that a) my pregnancy tests weren’t liars and b) the embryo had a heartbeat.

Normally the only people you’d tell that early are the girlfriends or family members you’d tell you miscarried. Like your mom. Except my mother was dead.

My BFF, M, had already had five heartbreaking miscarriages of her own. I was too chicken to tell her I’d gotten pregnant easily. Of course she’d be happy for me. And yet…how would I feel if I’d wanted a baby for years and someone who’d  been pretty ambivalent about having kids got pregnant right away? I’d be happy for my friend, but I’d also be bitter enough to flip off the universe. And maybe my fertile friend, too, while she was looking in the opposite direction.

It’s kind of how I feel about writers who get their first book or screenplay published or sold immediately. Happy for them while also screaming “why not me?!” at a smirking universe.

I stayed quiet, waiting. Waiting for the moment you see in all movies, TV shows, and commercials, where the doctor holds the ultrasound wand on a pregnant belly and announces, “There it is!”

Or, alternatively, turns white and runs out the room to get a specialist because something is very wrong. (Since I’m always imagining scenarios with my close friend catastrophe, I was sure we were headed for that second scenario.)

Only my husband Andy knew about my pregnancy.

I didn’t feel sick and I don’t drink alcohol. No one suspected a thing.

Six weeks after my last menstrual cycle, we visited the OB.

It’s not like TV. Turns out, when the embryo is barely 4 weeks old, it’s hard to pick them up on a regular abdominal ultrasound.

Enter the wand. Yes, the transvaginal wand, which goes exactly where you think. The transvaginal wand even gets covered in a condom and lubed up before insertion. Maybe someday it’ll vibrate, but until then, Mr. Wand feels about as good as you’d expect, which is to say, not good at all.

Though not as bad as the curling iron/ vise the OB uses for your annual pap smear and woman’s wellness exam, at least. (Yes, I know it’s technically called a speculum, but that’s not remotely descriptive enough for that particular instrument of torture.)

But back to the exam room where a paper sheet covers my lower half and allows Andy, me, and the OB to pretend there’s no wand up my vaginal canal as we stare at the ultrasound monitor.

Nothing.

“Relax,” the OB tells me, moving the wand.

I glare at her, because never in the history of women being penetrated by a foreign object has ANY WOMAN EVER managed to relax just because the twerp initiating penetration simply suggested it. I settle for taking a deep breath and imagining shoving a wand in some of her bodily orifices. And maybe Andy’s too, since I know this is just the first of hundreds of poking and prodding indignities that I will endure while being pregnant.

“Good,” she says.

Apparently, I find images of violence relaxing. I file that away for the next appointment. Then I stare at the screen, willing an image to appear.

It does.  A tiny blob, smaller than a pinto bean, vibrates on the screen.

“That’s it,” says the doctor. “There’s the heartbeat.”

At that age, the barely-an-embryo is nothing but a heartbeat, beating almost twice a second. It’s not as complex as an earthworm, let alone an ant.

“That’s it?” Andy asks the OB.

I take immediate offense, answering, “Of course that’s it! It’s not even a fetus yet! What did you expect, a wave? It doesn’t even have arms! Or a brain!”

Andy asks again, “I meant, there’s only one, right?”

The OB says, “Yes. Just one. Were you hoping for more?”

Andy and I respond together: “NO!”

The OB looks startled, and so I explain, “My mom’s second pregnancy was triplets, but she lost them.”

“Ah. No, just one here.”

“Dodged that bullet,” Andy murmurs.

“Seen enough?” asks the doctor.

Andy, entranced by the vibrating bean on the screen, doesn’t answer. I tell the doctor yes, and breathe a sigh of relief when the wand withdraws.

I scowl at the vaginal violator as the doctor strips off its condom and ask, “Are you going to be using that thing for the next ultrasound?”

The doctor laughs. “No, no, as long as there are no complications, next we’ll listen to the heartbeat, then regular abdominal ultrasounds.”

And eventually, there’d be a baby.

Maybe.

I am sure this image is upside-down and equally sure my Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister will explain why. At some point. At length.

The Brilliance of the Teen Brain (#216)

I feel old. Yes, I did just have a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one.

My knees started making noises. The orthopedist assured me that I’m young for creaky knees; it’s probably an unfortunate combination of too much dancing and volleyball. I feel decrepit anyway.

Even so, it’s not my knees that made me realize I’m old.

It’s my brain. My brain feels ancient. It’s also wiser, sure, which is helpful when it comes to spotting the free riders and over promisers of the world. It’s able to envision worst case scenarios and avoid potential pitfalls, thanks to years of experience.

My old brain has perspective now, too. The old brain recognizes that even the worst misery is temporary, and tomorrow the pain won’t be so bad (or maybe if I just eat something, a situation won’t feel as hopeless).

But you know what my old brain has recently been pining for?

Adolescence.

I know, I know. Totally fucked up. I mean, think back on the hideous days of acne, friend dramas, and romance rollercoasters. Whom among us would want to return to the tyranny of SAT scores, strict parents, sarcastic teachers, or the snide commentary of mean peers?

No one, of course.

Yet I yearn for my adolescent brain.

****

Daniel J. Siegel is a child psychiatrist who wrote a book about the adolescent brain half a decade ago, as his own children went through their teen years. It’s called Brainstorm, and it explains the scientific reasons for certain behaviors. Remember how you felt immortal as a teen and maybe did something risky like not wear a seatbelt or jump off cliff?

According to Siegel, “There is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward… It can also lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards they are sure are in store for them, while failing to notice or give value to the potential risks and downsides.” In short, teens are optimistic about success.

The teen brain also rebels. It rejects parents and the status quo, hunting for new, novel ways of doing everything and anything.

One of the biggest drivers of an adolescent brain is a need for peer connection. When surrounded by friends, adolescents will engage in more novelty-seeking behavior and be more likely to discount the risks.

Living by a middle school, I watch this progression daily. The sixth graders are easily spotted, timidly scurrying by my house to get to school on time, often alone. The seventh graders will dawdle a little longer, laugh louder, and travel in packs. By the end of eighth grade, full-on adolescents skateboard down my steps and post their spectacular crashes on Snapchat. Or YouTube. Or Twitch. Or whatever new social media platform arrives tomorrow.

And the high schoolers in my neighborhood? They’ve used my house as target practice for their air rifles. They’ve tried to use my front yard as their personal port-a-potty at midnight. They even built a “campfire” on the roof of the school. A year or two ago, I decided that the collective noun for a large group of adolescents should be “a stupid.”

But now? I think maybe I’m the stupid one.

Because a group of teens from a bullet-riddled high school in Parkland, Florida now leads a massive movement that might change the American political landscape forever.

*****

After the Sandy Hook school shooting 6 years ago, adults, legislators, and even the President tried to shake the NRA’s hold on the Republicans and pass national gun reform legislation. They failed.

There were more shootings. Mass shootings, school shootings, police shootings, domestic violence shootings. Over 7,000 children have died from gun violence since Newtown.

Women marched and the shootings continued.

The Republicans took control of all three branches of government. The shootings continued.

We despaired, even as we supported women candidates and cheered whenever a GOP candidate was defeated. Because even progressive adults, with our old brains, steeped in perspective and realism, didn’t really believe we could change anything. As Dan Hodges said on Twitter:

Then, out of yet another horrific massacre, hope arrived. Born in the battered, yet somehow still optimistic teen brains of students like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky. They challenged the status quo, telling GOP legislators to shove their thoughts and prayers up their collective assholes. They called bullshit on all the so-called reasons for not enacting gun reform. They supported each other, drew strength from each other, and took on both American disillusionment and the NRA.

They created a movement. They implored adults to run against the pro-gun lobby and spearheaded voter registration. And when they marched on D.C., they brought along their peers of color who’d been fighting against gun violence already. They gave their friends microphones, but refused to let the elected officials speak.

And rightly so. I read editorials and blog posts daily that eagerly point out the failings of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. The culture can’t be changed, authors insist. The activists are flawed, or their messaging is flawed, or they’re being used by career politicians.

As if it’s better to sit smugly on your ass and be critical than to go to a meeting. Or a march. Or canvas voters. Or make a donation. Or just TRY.

Screw that, my fellow old brains. It’s time to jettison our realistic (or maybe our real jaded) neural pathways and resurrect the rebellious ones of our youth.

If my brain can’t manage that, well, I’m gonna limp along behind those teenagers as best I can on my creaky knees, supporting and admiring them.

You know what my newest collective noun is?

A brilliance of teenaged brains.

Illustration from Brainstorm, by Daniel J. Siegel

Orange You Glad You Live in California (#209)

When I was a little girl, I always got an orange in my Christmas stocking. I would have preferred chocolate, but oranges were traditional. My parents got oranges in their Christmas stockings, and so did their parents, because back in the day, oranges were an amazing, exotic treat in northern locales.

Also, perhaps, because citrus crops are harvested in the winter.

Today, oranges are less special, thanks to big growers and modern transit. In fact, most of America’s seven million tons of oranges are now processed and turned into juice. When I shipped some belongings to college, a crate of oranges leaked all over my stuff — some of which wasn’t washable. One of my Florida classmates loved to come into my dorm room and sniff. “It reminds me of the orange processing plant back home,” she told me. Continue reading Orange You Glad You Live in California (#209)

Thanksgiving Smorgasbord

If you’re traveling today, or just need to read something turkey-related, I’m serving up hot holiday helpings right here.

Are you far away from your family this Thanksgiving? Do you miss them even though they are dysfunctional as fuck? Here’s a post for you: Sunny, with a Chance of Thanksgiving.

Are you bringing a significant other home for Thanksgiving? Are you worried that they won’t fit in? Try this post: Hearts & Turkeys.

If you’re gonna play it sane and do a leisurely little 5K Turkey Trot, I’ve got a post about people who chase turkeys for 2 miles.

If you’ve been training hard to kick someone’s ass in a 10K Turkey Trot, you can read about my one — and only — 10K attempt.

If you lost hours slaving over a Thanksgiving dish that a) got eaten by the dog, b) got burned when your husband accidentally set the oven to “broil”, or c) got dropped on the floor, here’s a post from last year’s baking disaster.

Wishing all my U.S. readers safe travels and loose pants this week!

Top 10 Reasons To Have Babies…Refuted (#204)

My husband wanted a baby.

Meanwhile, I literally had a whole list of reasons NOT to have a baby.

But in the interests of fairness, I interviewed and studied various parents. I came up a list of reasons why (other) people want children…along with reasons why those reasons are screwed up. Continue reading Top 10 Reasons To Have Babies…Refuted (#204)

The Finest Drivers in Los Angeles (#189)

This driver is ready to take on L.A.’s asphalt jungle.

Sometimes, when I’m stuck behind an old white woman doing 45 mph on the 405 Freeway, I remember Germany’s Autobahn.

I drove on the Autobahn once, years ago. Heaven. Not just because it’s well-paved and you can go really, really fast. It’s heaven because a) Germans are rule-followers, and b) Everyone follows the same rules. If you’re passing, you’re in the left lane. If you’re slow, you’re in the right lane. If you wind up slow in the fast lane, a righteous German will fly up behind you and flash his lights until you move.

Los Angeles is the opposite of Germany. Continue reading The Finest Drivers in Los Angeles (#189)

Hostess with the Mostess…Dysfunction (#179)

I’ve had a lot of comments from incredulous readers over the last few months. Apparently, no one believes that I have not lost my shit yet with my provocative Chinese-American in-laws. Not even when they nearly burned down the house and never apologized.

Spoiler alert: I have, indeed, lost my shit. In as spectacular fashion as any of you could want. It just wasn’t on my in-law’s first visit, the one I’m blogging about now. (Yes, my reward for surviving the first visit was a second visit! Whoo-hoo!) If you’re waiting on the East Dates West version of The Real Housewives, check back in a few months. Continue reading Hostess with the Mostess…Dysfunction (#179)

Pets Versus Dinner (#176)

Christmas Bunny, just prior to attacking a confused cat.

My family has always had a multitude of pets. I grew up with dogs, cats, turtles, rodents, and more. We even had a very special Siamese rabbit named Christmas. Yes, Christmas. Normal people have bunnies named Peter, but, hey, my little sister was only five when she found him in a New Jersey parking lot. Christmas was a New Jersey street tough masquerading as an adorable bunny. He spent ten happy years terrorizing the family Labrador and several cats while eating the antique Italian Provincial dining room set. Continue reading Pets Versus Dinner (#176)