That Old Cotton T-Shirt Feeling

This one has about 20 years on it. Comfy.
This one has about 20 years on it. Comfy.

Lately, during my morning tea sessions, I’ve been pondering precisely what it is that makes for good sibling relationships or to take it a step further, soulmate relationships (not exclusively romantic ones). I said this out loud to the husband while at our local cafe hang out. My husband, insightful muffin that he is, took a sip of his green tea and it must have sparked something inside him because he then pointed at me in the way one does when one has stumbled upon a truth and must impart it to another. His pearl of wisdom: what makes for stable, loving, make-you-feel-good-just-by-being-in each-other’s-presence, soulmate-level relationships, be they sibling, friend or otherwise, is truly knowing and accepting one another with no expectations that one will change or seek to change the other. He’s deep, right?!

Not all siblings have great relationships. I know plenty of people that don’t like their siblings and have no real relationships them but I think my sibling relationships are the first opportunity I had to experience old cotton t-shirt level relationships. When you put on an old cotton t-shirt, it feels light and hardly like you have anything on and simultaneously cozy and snuggly like a blanket. That’s how I feel with my siblings and good friends.

What gives siblings a jump start on solid, ride or die relationships is that, if they are able to grow up together in the same household, they get to know one another while in the midst of the joys and horrors that is the crucible of childhood. You know the good, the bad, and the ugly of each other and also know, through experience, that your siblings are who they are, nothing will change that and you love them anyway. My sister still loves me even though I cut her Malibu Barbie’s, I think it was down to her ankles, hair to a more sensible shoulder-length. I think I thought it would grow back but that may just be adult me trying to make me look better in retrospect.

Once I knew that old cotton t-shirt feeling I didn’t really look for it elsewhere but have occasionally met people with whom I feel totally at ease. I am who I am and they are who they are and everyone is OK with that. When I don’t pursue friendships it’s usually because 1. I don’t have the energy to maintain more than a few friendships at a time. 2. There is something about them that just doesn’t jive with my me-ness. I can’t always put my finger on it but when I can it’s usually something about them that I cannot fully accept—their myopic views on feminism or their undying love of James Taylor’s music. Yeah, I know people LOVE his music but, sorry, while he seems like a lovely human being, his music puts me to sleep. I could be casual friends with a James Taylor fan but we’d never be soulmates, he would always come between us.

When I first met my husband I had a similar feeling—not an “Oh no, he loves James Taylor!” feeling but an immediate feeling of comfort. In the romantic relationships I had before we met, I almost always felt as if I had to subtly shift some aspect of my personality to align with the person I was dating—I was less/more cerebral with some or less/more talkative with others, for example. There were times when I felt like the other person was relating to me as if I were the idea of me he had in his head instead of the person I actually was. But when I met my husband, I was me, he was he (all muffinly and stuff) and we were both blissfully content with that.

All relationships have something to teach us about ourselves, from acquaintances to closest friends. The ones that make you stretch and feel a little uncomfortable and awkward can be world-expanding and great but may not evolve into old cotton t-shirt level friendships. What I think is so special about old cotton t-shirt friendships is that feeling of being allowed to be as you are. It just feels good to be seen, warts and all, and be completely accepted.

First Day of School

My boys, ready to tackle a new year.

Today is the first day of school in NYC. For me, that means getting back to my day job of working to become a paid writer. It also means receiving hundreds of emails from teachers, PTA committees and fellow parents. For my two kids it means new teachers whose style of teaching may or may not mesh neatly with my children’s styles of learning and a new group of classmates one of whom will probably be an asshole. There is at least one in every single class, I guarantee it. If you’re a parent, and you don’t believe it, it’s very possible that the asshole is your kid. I hear some kids grow out of it but all those grown-up assholes had to start somewhere.

For my oldest son, the asshole(s) used to cause tears of frustration and the ever burning question of why? There was a boy he had known since pre-school in his class and he was a manipulative little so and so—nice and friendly one day and the next, completely ignoring his “friends”. I witnessed it myself on the playground and was flabbergasted. My son came back to me, confused and hurt, why was he being this way? I had to tell him the truth, he’s not your friend. I asked him to list the people he thought of as his friends and if those kids had ever treated him so poorly. My son is very shy so the list was short, only four or five kids, but they are quality kids. “No,” he said. “No, they don’t do that.” Your friends don’t make you feel invisible and purposfully hurt you. That was two or three years ago. Now his strategy is to ignore the assholes and stick with the friends he knows are good people. His next challenge will be giving new people a chance to be his friend.

My youngest wants to be friends with everyone and will work to make that happen so when he runs up against an asshole, he tends to give them more chances than they may deserve. I think he’s learning how to be friendly without expecting everyone to return his level of friendliness or interest in a friendship. We’ll see how first grade goes.

I tend to take my oldest son’s approach to assholes and avoid them at all costs. If I have to interact with them, I am usually overly polite to counter my urge to throttle them with my bare hands.

I am in awe of teachers that deal with kids that are just straight-up jerks, day in and day out, for an entire year without losing their minds. When I chaperone school field trips I marvel at their grit and determination. Yes, they will occasionally lose it and yell but they aren’t snatching kids up by their collars and, as comedian Aziz Ansari witnessed as a young student, threatening to “end” them if they didn’t stop acting up.

After going on several field trips in the last few years I have realized that I don’t like children. I like a select few, including my own, but on the whole—no thanks. They don’t listen and they don’t know how the world works and their varying degrees of knowledge of the rules of civilized society and their inability to listen when in a large group is terrifying. They will walk tortoise speed across a street chatting about Minecraft while cars are barreling down the street at them and completely ignore the adults urging them to pick up the pace so that they won’t die a gruesome death or be maimed. They will screech in delight at carriage horses even after you tell them that horses don’t always react well to sudden high-pitched noises and then be surprised when the horse rears up and kicks them in the head. Thankfully that never happened but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (On field trip days, I rush home and immediately put the kettle on!) And the thing is, all of this is happening when the kids are out having fun on a field trip. I can’t imagine adding into this madness of perfectly normal child behavior, trying to teach them in the fifty million different ways that they learn. It seems impossible to the layperson but I guess that’s why teachers get paid the big bucks, oh wait….

With the school year stretched out before us, I hope my boys have fun, make new, quality friends and have teachers that are not afraid of a challenge, determined and happy to be doing what they are doing despite being under appreciated by society at large. As my friend’s late father would say, hope you (us) luck!

Me and Park Slope

Clouds—always changing, always the same.
Clouds—always changing, always the same.

I have lived in New York City for 17 years and in Park Slope, Brooklyn for 12 of those years. New York City has a peculiar way of simultaneously changing and staying the same and of quickly transforming newcomers into New Yorkers. Being a New Yorker, I too have found myself subtly changing as my neighborhood has but also staying pretty much the same.

When my husband and I first moved in together, back in 2002, we lived in one of Brooklyn’s in between neighborhoods near the corner of Myrtle and Bedford Avenues. It was at the intersection of the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg and Clinton-Hill where “Oy!” flipped to “Yo!” within the space of a block and which real estate agents claimed was either South Williamsburg or North Clinton-Hill, whichever they felt would close the deal. The building was a former factory newly converted into lofts and was populated, primarily, by very, very, very loud college students. When we realized we were too old to tolerate the parties next door that lasted well into the night, the all-day rock band practices and the occasional pop-up dancehall club across the street, we decided to move. It was the tail-end of 2003 and Park Slope seemed perfect. It was filled with grown-ups and families of varying hues and gender combinations, mom-and-pop businesses of all sorts and sprinkled with greasy, MSG laden Chinese take-out restaurants, dingy laundromats and bodegas blaring merengue, all topped off by beautiful Prospect Park. Former Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz would tell anyone that would listen that the rest of the world was green with envy over Prospect Park and I would have to agree. Shout out to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, well done!

We immediately felt at home in Park Slope. At the time, I didn’t realize these sprinklings that I cherished, not because I frequented these places but because they were, in my mind, integral parts of any New York City neighborhood, were actually the vestiges of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Even when a real estate agent drove us down 5th Avenue, assuring us that it, meaning 5th Avenue, wasn’t as nice as 7th but was getting better, what she meant by the “getting better” didn’t really register in my brain. All I could see was a beautiful blending of all the things I loved about New York City and didn’t hear the meaning behind her words—that many of those things would soon disappear.

Of course, all neighborhoods change over time and perhaps these changes happen more frequently and with greater speed in New York City and it has certainly happened to Park Slope. The real estate prices for buyers and renters alike never seem to plateau. Park Slope was one of the first places in the country to recover after the housing crisis of 2008, boosted in part, by the building of the Barclay Center and the draw of a great public school. A number of the diverse mom-and-pop businesses up and down the Avenues have shuttered and been replaced with nail salons. There are, at this very moment, at least twenty nail salons between Flatbush Avenue, to the north, and Prospect Avenue, to the south. (Click here to read up on the plight of nail salon workers. It ain’t pretty.) Walking down 5th Avenue on a late night, you might be greeted by the tinkling of beer mugs, shot glasses and moderately loud music but there will be no merengue and no questionable General Tso’s chicken to go along with it.

For the most part, I thought I had come to terms with how my Park Slope had changed. I still loved it and we had a Whole Foods now and isn’t that what all gentrifying neighborhoods really want? *le sigh* (Because ennui is best expressed en français.) But the thing is, some recent experiences have left me feeling like it’s not home anymore.

Here are a couple of examples:
Both of my kids are in school now and they are usually one of only a handful of children of color in their classes and usually only one of two children of African descent. To my pre-parent self, Park Slope was going to be the place where my children would get to go to school with lots of kids from all kinds of backgrounds and have their lives enriched by the experience but I fear that is not happening. As a result, I have had to join a school committee. A school committee. Me, on a committee, in an elementary school, not just helping out in the classroom or going on field trips but on a committee. People! Have I mentioned that I don’t like people in general and including children?! Do you see what gentrification is doing to me?! It’s forcing me engage with the people!

The other day (some time in late May or early June), I sat sipping my tea (Earl Grey, of course) with my husband (he was on a green tea kick) on one of our morning dates post school drop-off, amid my fellow regulars at a local cafe. Across the table from us, two white women (not regulars as far as I knew) were chatting. From snatches of their conversation that wafted over my way, it sounded like they too were parents at our school. So, I’m sipping my tea, scrolling through Facebook on my phone and talking to my husband about the nonsense to be found there before I decide to put my phone down because there is just too much crazy and stupid in the world. I sip. I ponder. I sip and gaze out the window. I breathe. It’s a lovely moment, a mini-haven (see Earl Grey—Black) in my lovely Park Slope. And then, one of the women across from me leans toward the other, covers her mouth and whispers something. I don’t pay any mind except her friend can’t understand what she is saying so the other woman has to speak up a little drawing my attention. I hear in pieces, “You know that mom”, “African-American”, “I couldn’t believe”. The other woman says in a normal voice and matter-of-factly, “Well, that was just inappropriate.” The whisperer says, “Have to watch what I say. Be mindful of my surroundings.” Her friend nervously glanced my way and I made sure to make eye contact to convey, “Yes, I can hear your friend and yes, I can also hear your silence in the face of your ignorant (at best) and or racist friend,” because, up to this point I haven’t given a damn. The lady apparently had an experience with another parent that wasn’t great. It happens. The thing that got me was that she felt like she had to be careful about what she said about this other parent because the other parent was black and she was saying whatever it was near me and thought I would think she was racist because of whatever she was saying. Huh?! I would only think that if she were attributing the black parent’s behavior to the fact that she is black which clearly she was because her friend looked like a swallow just flew up her butt and the whisperer looked in every which direction but mine which was directly across from her. I almost couldn’t finish my damn tea. I say almost because I’ll be damned if some squat, little, closet racist (because you know she would swear up and down the East River that she is not a racist and how dare I hurt her delicate feelings by even insinuating such a thing) is going to ruin my tea time in my mini-haven! The nerve of crazy to come up in MY Park Slope hang out, during MY tea time…. I was so pissed off I had to go home and call my sister at her job.

Park Slope has changed, for the better and for the worse, and it has forced me to change as well; to more fully and actively claim it as my own. To join the school committee and after years of resistance, even join the Park Slope Food Co-op. Yup, even more people time. We took the kids on the Staten Island Ferry one weekend to take in the view of our fair city from the harbor and when I looked back at Brooklyn, I could barely recognize the skyline. Borough landmark, Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower at 1 Hanson Place, with it’s glowing red clock-hands and once the tallest building in Brooklyn (1929-2009), was dwarfed by high rises and cranes building even more high rises. My heart sank a little. Up until then, I had held tightly to the idea that the physical and demographic changes would eventually slow down and at its heart Brooklyn would always be the Brooklyn I wanted it to be but that simply isn’t true and it never was.

Don’t Slap Your In-Laws, Text A Friend

NOTE: This does not apply exclusively to in-laws, in-laws just sounds catchier in a headline than plain old family or houseguests. Also, this is not about anyone in particular and is more about how I manage my personal flaws than anything else.

I am an overly sensitive, moody, introvert and if you’ve read Earl Grey—Black, you know that my home is my haven, my sanctuary. Although I love my family and friends, I have to mentally prepare for their visits days before they arrive because if I don’t, having these kind, loving people over for an extended period of time will feel more like an invasion than an opportunity to spend quality time together. This may have a lot to do with the fact that we live in an apartment, not a house and don’t have the luxury some homeowners do of a guest suite that includes a bedroom, bathroom and sometimes even a kitchenette. Instead, what we have is a spare room/library/playroom and an air mattress. As much as I may prepare myself mentally for visits, I can still find it emotionally draining and stressful, especially towards the end of a visit and that is usually when I make the most of text venting.

Don’t slap your in-law, text a friend or text venting, is my version of not sweating the small stuff when we have houseguests. I love my people, even if they squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle and have left the bathroom not swaddled in the towel I so carefully laid out for them but in my bath towel. While in my head, I scream, in reality, I take a deep breath. I try to remember that I’m only in the throws of anxiety and these are not infractions worthy of a slap across the face or throat chop.

I want my guests to feel welcomed and at home in our home so when they leave the bathroom floor wet, fail to wash their dishes thoroughly or throw away items that can clearly be recycled, I dry the floor, I re-wash the dishes and I pull that plastic take-out container out of the garbage and do it with a smile dammit! And when my guests, precious little lambs of Jesus that they are, are out exploring the City or deep into another thrilling episode of Matlock, I text a friend or two, documenting every single infraction. Why? Because I am judgmental by nature and when I’m put under the stress of having houseguests, I am even more so; text-venting helps.
I try not to vent to my husband. He’s right there in the trenches with me and there is no need for me to add to the already very complex dynamic of friendship and extended familial relations with gripes about who didn’t put the top back onto the milk immediately after using it and just left it open while they ate their cereal allowing God knows what to fall into the carton. Wait, I was trying to make another point…. Oh yes, so, unless there is a real issue, we give each other knowing nods and grimaces and keep it moving until the visit is done.

The perfect ventee is an impartial listener who gives not one whit about the situation or the people involved. I pick a close, non-judgmental friend, let them know I will be text venting my petty frustrations and when the time comes I let it out. Seeing it all spelled out in a little dialogue text bubble confirms that I am indeed being petty and nit picking but the thing is, if I’m going to smile and nod and be the best host I can be, I need to let it out, regardless of how small I’m being in the moment. It’s either that or losing my shit in the middle of a five-hour shopping excursion to the Ladies’ Mile, and no one wants that.

In text-venting I can get over my petty self more quickly and may not even press send or if I’m really feeling some kind of way about a situation, I get the immediate gratification of an “Are you serious?!” reply from my friend to which I can respond, guilt-free and smugly, “Right?! I’m not crazy! Who does that?!”, and then get back to some serious quality time uninterrupted by the sound of my teeth grinding together. I’m much more pleasant to be around when I text-vent, and for the days that they stay with us, our houseguests are hopefully happy too.