Tag Archives: Relationships

Knot of Vipers

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IMG_2653For a while now, I’ve been unable to wear one of my favorite necklaces. It’s been snarled up in a “hopeless nœud de vipères,” as my husband put it. A couple days ago, I grabbed it off my jewelry tree and brought it to work with me, thinking that I would get it untangled when I could find a free moment that morning. I was sure it would be hanging around my neck by lunchtime.

By lunchtime I had made no progress at all. Instead of going for my usual walk around campus during lunch, I hunched over the cursed necklace for the entire hour, trying and failing to make any headway. I grimly resolved that the deed would be accomplished by the end of the workday. Several times that day – I couldn’t help myself – I literally shook the necklace in childish, impotent rage, no doubt creating new knots with each shake. By the end of the day, it was still a tangled mess. I stayed at work an extra half hour, trying to meet my self-imposed deadline. Finally, I gave up and drove home under a heavy cloud of failure, gripping the necklace between one hand and the wheel to save what little progress I had made in untangling it.

It was time to enlist the help of an expert. My husband had once volunteered to untangle a couple of my sister’s necklaces…We marveled not just at the feat he accomplished in untangling the necklaces, but at the extraordinary patience it took to perform these delicate operations.

“I have a challenge for you,” I said, handing him my necklace after dinner.

“OK,” he said amiably, “I’ll work on it before I leave for choir rehearsal.”

When I left the house at 7 pm to take our daughter to her violin lesson, I snapped this photo of him:

IMG_2655It was the last I saw of him until the following morning.

I could tell he’d been awake for some time and had been impatiently waiting for me to open my eyes. They were barely halfway open when the words came spilling out of his mouth:

“Do you have any idea what time I went to bed?”

“Nnnooo.”

“It was after 1 am.”

Really?! Why?” My husband is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise-sort-of-fellow, so this was surprising news indeed.

“I was working on getting your necklace untangled all night long. I couldn’t wait to get it done and present it to you with a flourish.  I kept thinking I almost had it, but it’s actually impossible to tell if you’re making progress, or just making it worse! At 10:30 I was still working on it. I had to move into the kitchen and lean over the counter for better light. I couldn’t believe it when I checked the clock again and it was after 1. That’s when I finally gave up and staggered to bed. My feet were killing me from standing there for so long. I’d worked on it for something like 6 hours, because I even took it to choir practice and worked on it there…I almost hit a deer on the way home, because I was trying to drive with the damn thing in my hand so it wouldn’t get more tangled,”

“Oh my gosh! I did that too!”

“And you should have seen what happened to my fingers!”

“Did they turn black?” I asked, knowing the answer in advance, for this had happened to my fingers too when I was struggling to untangle the necklace at work.

“Yes!”

“Sooo…did you manage to get it untangled?”

No! There’s also a little bit that’s broken off, which will have to be reattached when we eventually get it untangled. But I think it’s almost there.”

There was a moment’s pause.

“You know what else was really bad?” he asked ruefully. “I made the terrible mistake of turning the whole thing into a metaphor for finishing my book. If I could just get the necklace untangled, I thought, my book would also just magically fall into place…” 

By now I was deeply regretting that I had asked him to help me with the necklace.

“But there was one moment when it really felt like I was truly in Hell.”

I shuddered as I tried to imagine what that moment in a day full of dreadful moments could possibly be.

“I was working away at it during choir and then we started singing that awful hymn…you know the one…” he said, breaking out a few bars of a song we both loathe in his most twee voice, “I the Lord or sea and sky, I have heard My people cry…My hand will saaaaave.

I burst out laughing so hard it hurt.

Although my husband hadn’t gotten the necklace entirely unknotted, (and had broken off a piece in the process), he had done the lion’s share of the work so that by the end of the that workday, I finally managed to get the knot of vipers untangled.

IMG_2657Here are some important life lessons I learned in the process:

  1. Ask for help when you need it. Two sets of blackened fingers are better than one.
  2. Don’t set arbitrary and unreasonable deadlines for difficult tasks.
  3. No deer need to die. Scotch tape is your friend.IMG_2663
  4. Sometimes une pipe really is just une pipe. Investing an ordinary object or event  with metaphorical significance is kooky and unproductive.
  5. Ration out pain when possible…Untangling a nœud de vipères is bad enough…doing it while singing a kitschy hymn at the same time is too much for anyone to bear.
  6. Most importantly: marry someone who will untangle your necklaces for you and make you shriek with laughter. That’s a keeper for sure.

My Old Man

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I’m ending my countdown to Valentine’s Day here, where we are now…or at least where we were a few years ago.

Old People Dating

(first posted December 6, 2014)

Thanks to our church, which hosted a Parents’ Night Out yesterday, my husband and I were able to go out on an extremely rare date night. Our daughter fit the target age for the participants, and I conscripted the boys to be helpers. My husband brought the kids from home and I left work so that we could all meet up at the church at 5.

As we signed the kids in, the kind adults who were supervising the evening asked, “So what are you guys going to do on your date?”

“Uhhh…we’re not really sure yet,” I admitted, “but I guess we’ll go out to dinner.”

“Where do you guys usually like to eat?”

I’m pretty sure they weren’t asking about our dashes into Subway between soccer and piano practices, or to Panera on a Saturday in the middle of a day of running errands with a minivan chock full of kids…It’s the kind of question that would be easier to answer if a date night was something that happened more frequently than say, the appearance of Halley’s Comet in Earth’s atmosphere.

The last time we had a regular date night was fifteen years ago, when we were married with no children. We were both singing in the church choir and practice was on Thursday evenings. I was pregnant with our first child at the time, (the boy who is now 6 foot 3), and I was always ravenously hungry. We would go to Ruby Tuesday, which was both close to our rehearsal, and had a menu that met both of our needs. While my husband demurely nibbled at his salad bar dinner, I would devour every last bite of one of those Pantagruelian platters groaning with three different kinds of meat. You know…the kind that would only be appealing to obese middle-aged men and me in my pregnant, callow youth.

Yesterday, as we got back into the car, we giddily pondered our restaurant options as wondrously as if we were contemplating a rare and precious diamond. We made a spur of the moment decision to go to an Italian restaurant, because we can be crazy like that. We showed up at 5:30 with all the other geriatrics.

Me and my old man

As I sat there in the warm and elegant ambiance, I drummed my fingers impatiently, my eyes darting around, wondering if the bread would arrive in my lifetime. After gulping down the bread and an appetizer that we rashly ordered in our expansive mood, we were both full.

“I guess it’s too late to cancel the rest of our dinner, right?” I asked.

We had a couple bites of our main courses, but took most of them home in boxes. This would have never happened in our Ruby Tuesday days! After polishing off my meat slab platter, I’d still be picking croutons off my husband’s salad.

Dinner was done and we still had a couple of hours to go before we had to pick up the kids. The restaurant is right next to Trader Joe’s, so that’s where we headed next. We got into an intense debate about the merits of Trader Joe Honey Nut O’s versus Honey Nut Cheerios.

“Their version tastes much better than Honey Nut Cheerios,” my husband told me, “It’s less sweet.”

“Well, it may taste better, but the misplaced apostrophe is burning my eyes,” I replied.

As we rang up our purchases, we still had an hour and a half before we had to pick up the kids.

“Well…what should we do now?”

“Oh, I know! Let’s go to CVS and pick up my prescriptions and get Epsom salt,” my husband said.

“OK, Gramps! Let’s do it!”

As my husband was paying for our purchases, I remembered I had a $5 coupon attached to a CVS receipt that was floating around in my purse. I pulled it out and tentatively showed it to the cashier. “Would we possibly be able to use this?” I asked doubtfully.

“Sure!” she said as she tore it from my receipt.

As we walked back to the car, we were both jubilant. My husband said, “I can’t wait to try my Epsom salts!” I said, “I think this might just be the best day of my life. I feel like I just won the jackpot! This is the first time in my whole life that I’ve actually been able to use one of those CVS coupons. I’m so inordinately happy, I think I could dance a jig right here on the sidewalk! Could you smell the scent of victory, crackling like ozone in your nostrils when I got to use my coupon? Because I sure did!”

Flush with my unexpected success, I had another idea…

“HEY! Let’s go to the CoinStar at Harris-Teeter!”

We drove over to the grocery store and my husband obligingly lugged in the heavy container full of change that I had stashed in the car.

Have you ever used CoinStar? It’s mesmerizing to watch the sum grow from piles of pennies that have just been lying around the house. We didn’t want the magic to ever end. After emptying our container, we pulled out every last penny from our pockets and wallets until the clinking of the coins finally stopped.

“Wow. This is the best date ever,” I said with a sigh of contentment, “First, the coupon and now this!”

It was now 8 o’clock.

“We still have half an hour. We’re supposed to pick up the kids at 8:30.”

“Yeah, but I’m sure it will be fine to pick them up early. And then we can get home, so I can try my Epsom salts.”

And that’s what we did.

Boys

Picking up our helper elves…

And it was good. Really, really good. I can’t wait to do it again next year!

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky…

Read the rest of Starfish, by Eleanor Lerman here.

 

Countdown to V-Day, Pt. 8

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My Scholarly Couch Potato

(first posted May 9, 2014)

This one’s dedicated to my husband, my beloved scholarly couch potato.

When I brought my future husband home to meet my parents for the first time, my father immediately recognized a kindred spirit. He watched knowingly as my fiancé gazed in wonder and admiration at his groaning bookshelves overflowing with exactly the same kind of scholarly tomes that he himself loved to read.

The day before our wedding, my father took me aside to give me the only piece of marital advice I ever got from him.

“If you want to have a happy marriage, don’t expect him to be handy, or to do things around the house. Basically, he’s a scholarly couch potato. All he’s going to want to do is sit around all day long reading his books. Let him.”

I thought this was hilarious. My dad’s own attempts to be “handy” have often ended badly. One of my earliest memories is particularly horrific – I remember seeing my dad coming into the kitchen with a river of blood gushing from his knee. He had just chopped it with an axe while trying to split a log. On another occasion, he cemented over the dryer vent by mistake. How many times have I heard my mother muttering darkly to herself, “He can do nothing!“? (Nothing but write more than fifteen books and accumulate two doctorates, a masters, and two bachelors as a non-native speaker in this country that is).

My dad had peered into the depths of my future husband’s soul and had found it to be the perfect mirror of his own. He had dispensed his paternal wisdom in an attempt to create for his son-in-law, his fellow scholarly couch potato, the life he himself craved. I foolishly told my husband what my dad had said about him, thinking that he would take it for the compliment that it truly was.

He did not.

During the first year of our marriage, we lived in my parents’ house, which was vacant while they were living in Korea. We had just left New York City where supers took care of any maintenance issues in the apartments we had lived in. Now, in the heart of suburbia, we were faced with the care and upkeep of an aging house.

Still stinging from my dad’s assessment of his practical maintenance skills, my husband set out to prove him wrong. There was nothing he wouldn’t tackle. Leaky faucet? He’d diligently watch youtube videos to figure out how to fix it. Elecrical issue? He’d work at it relentlessly, cursing like a sailor, deaf to my pleas to call an electrician. He obsessively tended to the lawn, brushing off my suggestion that it would be better to let the grass grow a little longer before cutting it. The pièce de résistance was when he waterproofed the basement, which had been prone to flooding. He may very well have shortened his life span with the highly toxic chemicals he had to use in the process, but when he finished he crowed in triumph: “How’s THAT for a scholarly couch potato?!”

As the year dragged on, I could sense that his spirits were flagging. Each hard-fought battle with a blown fuse or a shower head that needed replacing took its toll, and in the end the cost benefit analysis proved too unambiguous to ignore. He came to me one day with shoulders slumped and said in a defeated voice, “Your dad’s right. I am a scholarly couch potato.”

Somehow, dear reader, that admission made me love him all the more.

 

 

Countdown to V-Day, Pt. 7

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Starring my favorite muse, the little girl born ten years after this story begins …

Chunky Fingers: a love story

(first posted in December 2013)

There was an awkward period of time when, for the life of me, I couldn’t define the nature of the relationship between me and my future husband.

We met when we were both graduate students in New York City. We were in a singing group, and soon started spending a lot of time together outside of rehearsal. At first we hung out with a group of singers. Eventually, we started doing things on our own.

“So are you dating?” my sisters would ask me on the phone.

“Ummm…I’m really not sure,” I would reply.

I was getting some seriously mixed signals.

“You have the hands of a pianist,” he remarked one day.

I instantly understood that he was trying to flatter me. I imagined all of the things he was surely thinking…Your hands are so elegant! Your fingers are so long and tapered!


As he was obviously trying to find a pretext for paying me a compliment, I obligingly gave him the opening.

“Really? You think?…What do pianists’ hands look like?”

“Well, they have really chunky fingers,” he replied promptly and earnestly.


It never ends well when my husband and I discuss how the nature of our relationship was eventually clarified, but the resolution once again involved my hand. As I remember it, one day we were walking down Broadway, about to cross 113th St., when he held out his hand for me to hold. I took it, and that was that. From that moment, we both knew that we weren’t just really good friends who happened to take note of each other’s physical traits…We were dating.

My husband remembers it differently. One day he had the nerve to imply that I had made the first move.

“What?!” I protested, “You’re the one who grabbed my hand! Remember?”

“It was icy. I was just holding out my hand to help you down off the sidewalk,” he replied, “And then I was really happy, because you kept holding my hand.”

I had to resist a very strong urge to throw something at him.

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That was seventeen winters ago. We were married a year later.

WeddingWe still argue about things. We still walk hand in chunky hand.

Countdown to V-Day, Pt. 2

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… love isn’t always a bed of roses.

First posted on Feb. 13, 2013

img_2785True Love 

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, the day we celebrate romantic love. Couples will exchange kisses. They’ll gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes over candle-lit dinners. Many will get engaged. Bouquets of roses and boxes of chocolates will be given.

Today I celebrate a higher order of love. This love is not expressed with cards or chocolate, but with bitter tears. This type of love is messy, sad, and complicated. It’s what remains when falling in love happened long ago, and maybe it’s even what remains after we’ve fallen out of love. It sears us with pain. We should all be so lucky to experience it.

My dear friend’s husband died yesterday. When she first met him, there was a lightness in her step, a twinkle in her eye, and a quiet joy that I’d never seen in her before. On their wedding day the look of adoration in her husband’s eyes brought tears to my own. He looked as if he couldn’t believe his luck to be standing next to this amazing woman. The words he spoke during their vows reassured me that he knew her worth. He understood who she was and truly, deeply appreciated the person who was joining her life to his.

That was then, and it was beautiful. In these past few months, my friend’s husband became so ill that he slept most of the time. My friend’s days revolved around his pain management. They made plans not for the future, but for the end. They met with hospice workers. They discussed funeral arrangements. The twinkle in my friend’s eye was long gone, and had been replaced by sad resignation. Pill bottles, delirium, mental and physical exhaustion are not beautiful, and yet this formed the backdrop of a scene of pure and exquisite love that surpassed any romantic love they shared in the salad days of their relationship. So today, the day before Valentine’s Day, I celebrate this love and the fact that my friend’s husband was blessed to experience it as he left this world, and that my friend had the strength, courage, and love to give him this gift above all gifts.

On love, loss, and life.

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img_3733Thank you for bringing me here.

This line from my sister’s novel Tiger Pelt has been on my mind this past week. A year ago today, a dear friend died. This evening I will gather with Carla‘s friends and family. We’ll have dinner together and we will celebrate her life and the many ways she touched our own. At the end of the week, I will attend the memorial service for another friend who died almost a week ago today. Peter was one of the finest human beings I have ever met. I feel honored to have known him and to have called him a friend.

It’s been a rough year, if I’m being honest. I’ve been trying to prepare a celebratory post about Tiger Pelt, which is launching today, but I’ve been reeling with sadness and stumbling my way through the week. This past year, a beloved uncle and aunt also died, a close friend moved far away, and we worried about the health of our elderly parents. In a moment of overwhelming anguish I declared to my husband that I didn’t want to know any more people. Knowing people sets you up for sorrow.

Many years ago when I was in graduate school I ended a relationship with the person I thought I was going to marry. I was completely undone. My oldest sister rushed to my side to be with me in my misery. I wailed to her that I wished I had never met the person in the first place. I could have spared myself so much grief! I had invested so much of myself into the relationship, only to be left with a heart that was literally throbbing with pain. My sister told me that despite the hurt, I shouldn’t wish that time away. She said that every experience – good and bad – creates the layers and depths that make you more of a human being. One day, she told me, I would realize that the relationship had been a valuable one, and for all the pain I was feeling, my life would be fuller and richer because of it. I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was right of course.

In Tiger Pelt, the two main characters experience loss after terrible loss. Toward the end of the novel, Young Nam clasps the hand of Hana, whose life has intersected with his own in painful, and even destructive ways and says, “Thank you for bringing me here.” In this line he acknowledges the truth of what my sister once told me long ago. I think this is what I love most about this novel. The protagonists endure unimaginable suffering, but they choose hope, love, and gratitude over despair. You may cry when you read Tiger Pelt, but you may also laugh and be inspired by the strength of the human spirit. Hopefully, the stories of Young Nam and Hana will settle into your hearts forever.

And so I end with this. To Carla and to Peter, who both inspired me with their character, integrity, and spirit: Thank you for bringing me here. You are now a part of my heart and my story. I am better for having known you and I am so grateful.

 

Weekend Snapshots 42

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My family and I went to NYC this weekend to see my cousin in one of the final performances of Julia Cho’s Aubergine. It’s a play about the barriers to communication and understanding; it’s about the ways in which we try to commune through food; it’s about how we live and die. Our cousin played the part of Ray, a Korean-American chef who is taking care of his dying father. They have always had a tortured relationship marred by the inability to truly connect with one another. As his father lies comatose, unable to utter more than a groaned word now and then, Ray wrestles with the weight of all that was unexpressed between them during a lifetime. The play was beautiful and moving, funny and desperately sad, and so much of it felt very close to home…

Thursday

There were a lot of loose ends to tie up before heading to Arlington, where we would spend a night at my parents’ house before driving the rest of the way to New York. For one thing, we had to make sure the pets were set with everything they needed while we were gone. I did an inventory of their food supply, then handed my phone to my son and asked him to run down to the basement to take a picture of the new kitty litter we’ve been using so we’d remember which kind to restock. Feeling rather smug about my prudent foresight, I strode over to the pet supply aisle in the grocery store and pulled up the pictures on my phone to discover this:

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The Failure of Communication: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

Friday

The next day my mom cooked my kids’ favorite lunch: tender, salty mackerel with crispy, crackly skin.

In Aubergine, one of the characters talks about how her father would always eat the head and tail of the fish and give her the middle of the fish. One day she serves him the head and tail of the fish and magnanimously announces that she’s giving him his favorite part.

“Rice pot!” (i.e.: Dummy!) he says with exasperation and explains that he had always eaten the head and tail so that she could have the best part of the fish.

As the audience absorbs this revelation, Ray asks, “What part did your mother eat?”

As so often happens these days, my mother was too exhausted by her culinary labor of love to eat any fish herself.

She wasn’t too tired, however, to take care of some other pressing business. Before we left for New York, she handed me a thick envelope. She had prepared an identical one for all of her children. I opened it to see that it was a map and description of the burial plots she and my dad bought for themselves a few weeks ago. She had also included the contact information for two minister friends who already agreed to perform their funeral services.

“We got a 10% discount for buying early!” my mother chirped brightly as she dropped her latest weapon of mass destruction on our heads. “I thought we should be buried right under some pine trees, but your daddy was worried about the roots spreading. So we picked a nearby spot where we’ll have a good view of them. Remember! Put your dad on the left side, and me on the right. We’ll be able to call to each other in the morning and say, ‘Good morning! Have you eaten breakfast yet?‘”

Oh, dear God! Waterboarding? The rack? These don’t hold a candle to the myriad creative and devastating ways this woman devises to torture me.

img_7041We drove up to NYC where we met up with the rest of our family:

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Admiring photos of the grandkids who couldn’t be there…

Saturday

Breakfast of the Champions.img_7022

My brother took my boys to the Pan-American No-Gi International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship at City College of New York. Got that? Pan-American No-Gi International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship at City College of New York! Now say it quickly ten times!

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Meanwhile, the rest of us wandered around the vicinity of our hotel.

We stopped in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

img_1659img_1662Had lunch at Rosie O’Grady’s…

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Then headed over to the theatre to see the play…img_7028img_7037

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That night my four siblings and I spent a few quiet minutes with my parents in their hotel room, just the six of us. We thought we’d just have a casual chit-chat, but then my dad, a man who favors stiff pats over hugs, asked us to all hold hands with each other. He said a prayer for each of one of us and all the spouses and children in our family, asking for blessings for each of us by name.

Damn. Nothing like a good old-fashioned Pan-American No-Gi tag-team loving beatdown from your parents, the reigning champions of the emotional choke-hold. Clearly, this kind of thing should be banned, as there is no possible maneuver by which to escape.

Sunday

We drove back to C’ville. I decided to give my son some much-needed driving practice, and let him take the wheel for the last fifteen minutes of the drive:

img_7046It went pretty well until he almost drove off the side of the road…

There’s a line in the play I can’t remember exactly, but the gist of it was:

In the midst of life, we are in the midst of death…

I texted this photo of his traumatized little brother to my siblings:

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My sister wrote back, “Oooooh. So that’s what faster than a bat out of hell looks like!”img_7050

Despite the plot twists and turns, we made it back home safe and sound.  img_7051