Curiosity and the…Cat

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a working mother in possession of even a single hour alone in her own home will inevitably look upon some heretofore unremarkable object and think to herself, “Huh. I wonder if I could masturbate with that?”

Such were my circumstances on a recent Thursday morning, when I found myself blissfully showering in an empty house, all on my own but for the company of my Clarisonic. A Clarisonic, if you’re unfamiliar, is a cleansing brush that oscillates at a sonic frequency that produces over 300 movements per second. It’s a power washer for your face, essentially. It is also a waterproof, handheld device that vibrates at a truly admirable rate.

“Why not?” I thought, and proceeded to have a perfectly lovely interlude with the business end of my Mia 1.

Hello lover.

Hello lover.

By now, in my mid-40s, you might think I’d learned a few things. Such as, if one is beginning an adventure with the thought, “Why not?” one might pause for a moment to go ahead and answer that question PRIOR to skipping gaily forward. Perhaps one might think, “Self, despite its pleasing shape and cheerful vibration, this device is designed, literally DESIGNED, to remove deep-seated impurities from the skin. It’s for DEEP CLEANING the skin ON YOUR FACE which is exposed all the time. Do we really think this sonically oscillating brush head is something we should jam against our usually sheltered flower?” And further, to paraphrase the poet — Chris Rock — just because one CAN masturbate with a thing, does not mean one OUGHT to.

But la-di-da, I have always been a devil-may-care, pay-the-piper-later, adventuresome sort of girl. “Why not?” is my raison d’être.

Sisters, look upon me and learn, for I have dirty danced with sonic technology and come home to tell the tale.

First came the stinging, a sensation very much like rug burn, only decidedly more painful and in a place where you’d really have to work to get contact with a rug. It grew worse as the day progressed, and by the next morning the situation had escalated.

Significantly.

S'up.

S’up?

Yes, in the wake of my Clarisonic indulgence, my secret garden had swollen to a primeval forest. It had swollen past the point of pants, sitting, or clarity of thought.

I did the only rational thing, and I called my best friend, Lisa.

“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I said, and confessed my folly. She stopped laughing at me long enough to burst into a parody of My Sharona, thusly:

Oh there you were, there you were
in the shower, hon
Watching that motor run, CLAR-I-SONIC

Never gonna stop, give it up
Such a dirty mind, always get it up
For the touch of the vi-bra-ting kind
My my my i yi woo!
My my my my CLAR-I-SONIC

I mean, with friends like these.

I spent the weekend alternating between warm compresses, perching on an ice pack, and suffering my husband’s amused sympathy.

Eventually the swelling subsided, to be replaced by the itching. This was a hellish itching, spawned by Satan himself in an fiery underground bunker where punishment is born. I withstood it as long as I could, then finally broke down and made an appointment to see my gynecologist.

Of course, I am not the first person to turn up at the doctor with a story of self-pleasuring gone awry. But like so many things, it’s only funny if it’s NOT YOU explaining how your Clarisonic talked fancy to you and now that the baboon swelling has subsided you itch in a way that is Biblical. To her credit, my doctor was understanding and matter-of-fact. She examined me carefully and pronounced me healed but suffering from bacterial vaginosis. The cure? Five days of a cream to be applied nightly, and a gentle suggestion not to do it again.

For the record, Clarisonic has not called, texted, or emailed me since this all went down. It’s also unfriended me on Facebook.

Bastard.

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It’s a Date

With her 47th birthday rapidly approaching, my best friend, Lisa, has dipped a toe into online dating for the first time. Lisa is professionally successful, slim and lovely, hilarious and brilliant, cooks like Ina Garten, dresses like a model, and has a head of hair that would make a Disney princess angry. In other words, she is rich, gorgeous, generous, sensitive, and authentically cool (and I am totally unbiased).

And yet, her experience online so far has been less than a fairytale. And so it occurred to us one recent evening while simultaneously trolling Match.com and watching The Bachelor (shut up) that there ought to be a competitive elimination dating show for ladies and gentleman of a certain age. That age being the white-knuckle hydroplane into the black ice of “the middle.”

Join us, won’t you, for The B-AARP-chelor. One man with a prescription for Viagra and a houseful of perimenopausal women in the pursuit of love, marriage, and the chance to spend down their retirement plans together.

  • Watch as the women fight over the temperature in the house. It’s too hot!! No, it’s freezing!!
  • Adventure dates…for colonoscopies!
  • A night in the Fantasy Suite…where the couple talks about how much their knees hurt before dozing off in front of the TV while watching The Good WIfe!
  • Swapping beauty secrets…like which derm has the lightest hand with the Botox!
  • Dyeing each other’s hair…to cover the grey!
  • Fine dining…before 5pm!
  • And instead of a rose ceremony, the presentation of an aloe plant, to naturally hydrate dry skin!

We were kidding, of course. Sort of. This is the same kind of whistling in the dark we’ve been doing since we were old enough to whistle, since we were old enough to know there were awful things in the dark, terrible things we could only face by holding hands and telling jokes and making each other laugh until the laughing turned to crying and the crying let in the truth.

We have been friends for a very long time. So long, I have never known the world without her. We grew up together; tethered by our mothers’ lifelong friendship and our own sisterly attachment, which was forged in the fire of absent fathers and secrets we kept from everyone but each other. In the lonely confusion of childhood, she was as essential to me as my hands, my eyes. She still is.

In our 20s, our lives diverged. I married young, far too young, to the wrong man. And just as my first marriage was falling apart, Lisa married a man 20 years her senior, who promised her everything and gave her hell instead. I was already remarried and pregnant with my daughter, Emerson, when she left him. We were in our mid-30s by then, and in radically different places. She was raw from her divorce, and newly single. I was a newlywed and about to become a mother. But we were tied together more tightly than ever, and in the decade since we’ve each lived two lives, vicariously. Working mom and single world traveler. Gentrifying Brooklyn and chic Manhattan. The comforts of marriage and the excitement of potential.

I know her, is what I’m saying. I know her as well as I know myself, even better than I know myself, in some ways. And because I know her, from the way her hair misbehaves in humidity to the way she doesn’t feel properly groomed without a pedicure, I know what sorrow hides in that shadowy chasm between making fun of arrogant profiles on Match.com and the harem shenanigans of The Bachelor.

What hides there is the truth of being a woman in your late 40s who is still looking for the kind of love that feels like a homecoming. What hides there is the particular sadness of realizing that even if you do find that kind of love, you are too old to now to grow up with someone. What hides there is something that has already been irretrievably lost.

“This is some cast of characters,” I said, scrolling through potential dates for her. “Why does this 50-year-old man have a parrot on his shoulder in his profile picture? Is he a pirate?”

“You see what I’m up against?!” she laughed.

Despite the odds, she believes, we both believe, that is possible to fall in love, crazily in love, fantastically in love at our age, at any age. Who knows what surprises are yet to unfold? But for everything she has, everything she may yet still have, what she will never have is an uncomplicated beginning with someone who is still figuring himself out, who hasn’t already become whatever it is he’s going to be. A shitty first apartment together, to look back on and laugh about. Raising children together. Accumulating friends together. Making a life together.

Here in the middle, we already have our lives, and pasts. We have careers, and friends, cabinets full of good dishes and furniture we bought new. We’ve loved and lost multiple cats by now. We have children, some of us, and ex-spouses, ex-lovers. We have scars, and stories. Histories upon histories.

“It’s all so complicated,” she said. “The idea of taking two entire lives and fitting them together. It’s like starting a movie in the middle. Two movies that you have to watch at the same time.”

It is. But Lisa and I bet on love. We bet on hope. We bet on the improbable happy ending. Every single time. Because otherwise, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Otherwise, we would have given it all up for lost a long time ago.

“Maybe,” I said, “Or maybe it’s more like when Emerson plays with all of her Playmobil sets at once.”

Emmy has a half dozen of these plastic sets — dinosaurs and mammoths, a whole zoo full of animals, a camper with a pop up top and teeny tiny dishes. She plays with them without consideration for time or logic, the camping family driving into a prehistoric adventure, the zookeepers tending the mammoths. She plays it all at once, history folding into the present to make a single story where a caveman takes a shower in an RV and a lion marries a saber-toothed tiger.

Maybe that’s what it can be like, to love in the middle. Two stories that seem disparate but somehow synchronize, like when you play Dark Side of the Moon and watch The Wizard of Oz at the same time. It may not be the kind of beginning we get when we are young. But it is a place to start.

We’re still debating the best sponsor for our mid-life version of The Bachelor. I’m pulling for Maalox. She thinks Lipitor.

That’s Lisa. Playing it from the heart. Every time.

Just You And The Words And The Dark Sky You Shout To

About a week ago, I received a tweet from a reader named Thomas, which read:

I started a novel and got 3/4 the way written then lost inspiration. Anything I can do to rekindle the desire to finish my book?

With permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Thomas,

Let’s begin with a confession: I haven’t finished my debut novel yet either. I’m working on it, with a NOVEL OR BUST sign hung across my chest, but it’s not done. I am unpublished, unrepresented, and unrepentantly optimistic.

Furthermore, I have been working on this novel of mine for a long time. It started as a glimmer of an idea I had in 1999 while on vacation with my best friend, Lisa. 1999 was not my finest year. My first husband had left me just months before, and I was in a haze of depression, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that made it difficult to put on pants, much less consider writing a book. And yet, this idea nudged at me and poked at me and stamped its foot while I tried to ignore it and did other things. It absolutely refused to go away. The main characters took on names, and then personalities, and started asking — demanding to know, really — why I was ignoring them.

I made at start at writing my book in January of 2013, and it was like falling in love — a headlong hot rush of words and ideas. That lasted for a few months, and then in April of 2013 I attended the Robert McKee STORY seminar, which is to writing seminars what Ultraman is to endurance races. I do not exaggerate when I say I cried through most of that seminar, for a few reasons:

I cried with frustration, because I was more than 100 pages into a novel that I now realized had to be dismantled and rewritten from page 1.

I cried from relief, because finally, FINALLY, I had a method for doing the work. I have been to many writing classes and seminars where the focus was on beautiful writing, finding your unique voice, and being brave on the page, and these are good, worthy things to learn, but holy hell — INDEX CARDS ARE THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. (OK, now I’m exaggerating, but the McKee seminar gave me a precise method for understanding characters and crafting a story. It gave me tools, not permission.)

I cried because on the last day of the seminar we watched Casablanca for hours — with McKee stopping the film to explain the mechanics of the plot, the subplots, the way everything from camera angles to costumes tell us that Elsa and Rick are soul mates – and I always cry when I watch this movie, hoping in vain that this time he won’t put her on the plane, this time she’ll refuse to go, this time there will be an epilogue where they find each other after the war.

I cried because it is four very, very long, exhausting days, and it is so cold, and the seats are so uncomfortable, and I was so hungry, and I had to pee all the time, and did I mention I had to throw my whole book away and start over?

That was April 2013.

I went home from McKee, and took the book apart. I went back to basics. I outlined. I wrote character bios. I wrote scenes. I threw them away. I made a timeline. I made a Spotify playlist. I tried again. I wrote and rewrote.

I thought I had it.

I didn’t have it.

In mid-2014, I got stuck. Profoundly stuck. Scary stuck, the kind that makes a person want to give it all up and re-watch The X-Files. All of The X-Files. Including Season 9. And both movies.

So I stopped writing the book, and I started thinking about it instead. I had a problem, a major problem, and the problem was I didn’t know what my main characters wanted. Oh, I had lists of things they desired, dreams and wishes, motivations and hungers, but nothing that could be expressed in a single sentence, nothing that would drive a person forward.

I thought about them all the time, these two characters who first appeared to me as I climbed a mountain in Costa Rica with my best friend in 1999. I thought about them as I drifted off to sleep. I thought about them on the treadmill. I sat in front of my computer and I tried a million answers to the questions “What do you want? What do you wish for? If you had a magic wand, what magic would you do?” I listened to Into the Woods. I listened to Bleachers. I listened to Motown. And I finally got my answer last month, in December of 2014. It was a terrible answer, raw and full of pain, but it was the absolute truth.

I wrote it on an index card and I got back to work.

This is a very long way of telling you that I am no field commander in this business of giving advice about finishing the book. But I am here in the foxhole with you, and I will share my cigarettes and coffee and tell you what I know, what I believe.

You say, Thomas, that you lost inspiration ¾ of the way through. Which makes me suspect that you don’t have an ending, something went awry that makes it impossible to get to an ending, or you’re scared of what will happen (or won’t happen) when you finish.

Do you have an outline for your novel? Do you know what happens in act 3? Do you have an honest resolution for your plot, your subplots? Will you know when it’s done? These are questions you need to ask yourself, and if the answer is no, then you have work to do; however you do it (index cards!). Returning to the bones of your story, writing an outline that takes you from where you are to that last moment, figuring out the “and then and then and then,” will free your mind to write beautifully. It will give you the comfort of knowing exactly how it all goes down, and the ability to structure your time by giving yourself assignments and deadlines for those assignments. It sounds so obvious, but you need to know how it ends to write the ending.

“But Stefanie,” I imagine you protesting, “I do have an outline! I have all of act 3 carefully planned on multi-colored index cards and I’ve got a string map that shows how the plot and sub-plots resolve. I made a Pinterest board! I have a Spotify playlist! I’m just not feeling inspired to finish.” It is possible, Thomas, that you aren’t feeling inspired because there is something essentially wrong with your story, something dishonest, a problem to be fixed that requires dismantling and reassembling. You may need a rewrite. It may be terrible, the idea of starting again, but take heart in that it happens to the very best writers. You are in good company, if this is the case.

But it may be something else. It may be that as you stand on the cusp of finishing you are thinking, “Well shit, it looks like I’m actually going to finish this thing and then what? What if I finish and no one wants it? What if I can never find an agent, find a publisher? What if it DOES get published, and the world thinks it sucks? What if it DOES suck? What if I suck? Even worse, what if it’s good and I have to do this AGAIN?”

I am well acquainted with this kind of crazy making thinking, and after years of therapy and meditation and yoga and journaling and studying the Dharma I have found there is nothing for it but to tell that voice to Shut. The. Fuck. Up. and do the work. That voice does not have your best interests at heart. That voice is not your best self. That voice rides with fear, and complacency. That voice likes The X-Files. Even Season 9. And both movies. That voice is an asshole, Thomas.

It really does help to have a teacher to consult. For me, that teacher is Robert McKee. When I get mucked up, I turn to the two notebooks I filled during the fours days I attended his seminar, and his giant book STORY. If McKee isn’t your thing, Anne Lamott gives some wonderful, encouraging, beautifully Lamotty advice in Bird by Bird. Neil Gaiman has some excellent things to say about getting the work done (although I find it hard to hear him over those soulful eyes and magnificent floppy hair). Stephen King’s On Writing will kick your ass (and scare you half to death). Steven Pressfield can help you get out of your own way. Find the one who speaks to you, who can help you figure out what to do next when the going gets tough.

Here’s what it comes down to, Thomas. There is so much in this world left undone, unresolved. People leave us in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and we never get to tell them the one thing we always meant to — I’m sorry, I love you, it was always you, I didn’t mean it, thank you. Jobs end. Accidents happen, and tragedies. We make choices, and by their nature those choices leave us wondering about what might have been, lingering wants, regrets that can’t be made right. There is no way to control all that gets left behind as we make our way through life, but you do control this. Finish the book. Finish it. Give it closure. See what it feels like to be done, to have done this thing, to have said the thing you meant to say, to not back down to fear or apathy, to have given your heart and your sweat and your time and your best intentions to something with no guarantee, no promise, just you and the words and the dark sky you shout to.

Always,

Stefanie

The Life That Will Be Your Life Forever

I received the below email from a reader on New Year’s Eve. With her permission, I’m replying here.

Dear Stefanie,

I’m 37 and single and not a mother. I was engaged for a while and have been in a series of relationships for the last 12 or so years. I recently realized I want to have a family, but I’m mystified as to how I could possibly ever believe love lasts and being a parent is something I wouldn’t screw up. I really loved your piece on FaceTime and your daughter. I have babysat for children in the midst of young romance and have been so moved by their ability to open their hearts so wide without fear (well fear of being embarrassed I guess). I suppose this isn’t a question you can really answer, but it felt right to send it out into the Internet ether: How do you settle into a life that will be your life forever? How do you know what man will be a good father to your as yet non-existent children? How did you know?

Anyway, quite personal I know, no one answer fits all, but I am so new to wanting actually wanting a family, that I would gladly accept any thoughts you have.

Anne

Dear Anne,

There’s a story I tell about the day I found out I was pregnant. It’s a funny story, about how I took a pregnancy test in a bathroom stall at Nickelodeon, where I was working at the time, and how I was utterly floored to find myself knocked up by accident at the age of 35, a newlywed, and days away from quitting a lucrative full-time job I despised to start a career as a “permalance” writer. You can go read it, if you want to, and then come back here. Or not, that’s all right. What you need to know is that I took all the elements of that day, the day I found out I was unexpectedly, ambivalently pregnant, and turned it into a sweet story with a happy ending.

It’s not a lie, that story I tell, but it’s not complete.

I’m going to tell you the part I always leave out, because it goes to the heart of what you’re asking, or at least some of what you’re asking. I’ve never written about this before, and I’ve told only a few people about it. But these questions of yours demand courage, in the asking and in the answering.

I went home from work the day I found out I was pregnant and told my husband, Jonathan. He was surprised, but joyful in his gentlemanly, muted way. That night we discussed logistics (Oh God, our apartment is so small and we have no doors!!!) and finances (Oh God, we have no money!!!) and if I could still quit my job (Oh God, it’s a huge pay cut and I’ll lose my paid maternity leave but if I don’t quit it will surely ruin my life but how can I possibly?!?). Sometime after midnight we fell into bed exhausted and giddy, having decided that babies are small and surely we could fit one into our Brownstone floor-through apartment, and it was inaccurate to say we had “no money” because we were managing, and would continue to manage, and that I would quit my job, no question about it. We’d figure it out.

At six the next morning, I woke Jonathan from a sound sleep, so overwrought I was nearly dry heaving. I’d been up for two hours by then, sobbing in the bathroom (the only room in the entire apartment with a door). I told him I wanted a divorce. I was going to have an abortion, and I wanted him to move out, right now, today, and I wanted a divorce. Because this baby was going to turn him into a father, and fathers leave. That is simply what they do. It was unbearable, to think of this man I loved turning into a father— unknowable, frightening, ultimately gone. And anyway, who was I to believe I was the kind of person who got this life? This love, this husband, this baby? I was the girl who got left, everybody left, I was made for loss, but not this time. This time I was the girl who was leaving.

He let me go on like this until my throat was so raw I couldn’t talk anymore, and then he opened his arms to me and I fell into them. If I wanted an abortion, he said, then he would take me for one. And if I wanted a divorce, he said, he’d give me one. And if I truly couldn’t bear to have him in the apartment, then he’d just sit outside on the stoop. You know that quote, he asked, the one from Winnie the Pooh? “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Well if you live to be a hundred, he said, I promise I will live to be a hundred plus one day, because I am going to be the man who never leaves you.

You asked, Anne, how I knew. This is how. I showed him my most ugly, vicious, terrified secret self, and in return he showed me exquisite compassion and promised me the thing I could never bring myself to ask for. He promised to love me, in all my broken sorrow. He promised to stay.

For the longest time, I wondered how he managed it. How he was able to comfort me exactly the way I needed, cracking open the door to possibility just enough for me to walk through. I’ve come to realize part of it is who he is, his goodness and decency, his fearlessness. But also, I let him. He was the first man I was willing to be completely honest with. No fronting, no performing, no trying to be interesting by pretending to be what I thought he wanted. The irony of all this is that, when we first met, I thought he was so out of my league I didn’t even bother trying to be anything but what I was, and it was me in all my messy realness he fell in love with. Go figure.

I wonder, Anne, what is the promise you can’t bear to ask for? And where do you keep it hidden, this visceral, essential need you have? It’s worth investigating, I think. And once you’ve thought about it, can you be courageous enough to show someone, to let them see you in your raw, most vulnerable wanting and answer you with kindness? Can you show up and say, I don’t know how to believe, but I want to. I want to believe in a love that lasts, I want to believe I can have kids I won’t screw up. I want to make a family somehow, but I don’t know where to begin. Here is why it’s so hard for me to trust in that. Here is why it’s so hard for me to ask. Will you stand with me and let me show you how I am when I’m at my worst? Can you see how my worst is also my best?

I think you can. I think you’re that courageous.

That’s how you start. You find out what your plus one day is — the secret ache you hide, the thing you suspect no one could ever possibly give you — and you ask for it. You keep asking until someone opens his arms and says yes. And then you believe him.

I know how overwhelming it sounds, how scary, but it gets easier, the more you do it. And you do have to keep doing it. Because even when you find that lasting love, even when you have the kids and you’re almost certain you’re not screwing it up, there is no such thing as a life you live forever. You were engaged and then you weren’t and then there were relationships and then there weren’t, there were friends and jobs and places you lived and here you are. For years I was scared and then I was alone and then I was in love and then I had a baby and now I am a wife for more than 10 years and have a child who can FaceTime. And soon I will have a teenager and then she will be gone and Jonathan and I may finally take the honeymoon we never managed and we all roll along, the years unfurling like an endless road while we keep telling the truth about who we are now and the secret thing we still need, in the face of change and heartbreak and joy.

Always,

Stefanie