Pinched Pennies

It seems I rarely got what I wanted growing up. I loved things, especially beautiful things. There was no shopping mall in my hometown but I pored hungrily over Sears and other catalogs when they came in the mail, browsing the housewares and dresses and other sections. We lived about a half-mile from a K-Mart, where we often shopped for household necessities. I would inevitably end up in the jewelry or kids’ clothing or stationery section, finding an item or two I just had to have. The answer was almost always no. No, you don’t need that pendant or those jeans or the pen set.

My parents grew up poor. It’s still obvious with my mother. She spends copious amounts of time and energy ensuring that every little scrap is eaten or saved, and arranging and rearranging dishes during the meal so they sit in front of the person who likes them best. She meticulously stores remnants in just-the-right-size Tupperware. She would never dump leftover food directly into the garbage the way Americans do, unless it’s gone bad – and she is hyper vigilant to make sure it’s eaten before that happens.

The thing is, both of my parents worked. They were federal government employees who made their way up the GS scale. We were comfortably middle-class and had one of the nicest houses of all of my friends. But my mother never shed that mindset of scarcity. Waste not, want not. Save for a rainy day. A penny saved is a penny earned. Those were the values she lived by.

She was apoplectic when I went into nearly six-figure debt to go to law school. “That’s like having a mortgage! At your age? Oh god,” she said. I’d internalized a lot of her frugal ways, but oddly the school debt didn’t bother me. It felt like Monopoly money – not real. I even took out a supplemental loan toward the end of my first year to go to Jamaica on spring break with friends. I was counting on getting a job earning $80,000 a year when I graduated – the going rate then for a first-year associate in a law firm. One of the reasons I went to law school in the first place was to earn a lot of money, buy myself whatever I wanted, whenever, and bypass all the scrimping and saving I’d witnessed my mother doing.

As a young associate, my money was entirely mine to do with as I pleased. I paid off my loans in record time and indulged my whims. Shopping with my fellow lawyers was a favorite pastime. The Ann Taylor one block away benefitted richly from our many lunch hours spent indulging in shopping therapy when things got too stressful at work. If I wanted an expensive handbag or new suit, I would simply bring my lunch to work for several weeks instead of eating out – such “barter”, while not a complete offset, cushioned the blow to my bank account, taking the bite from my purchase, I thought. I was heady with my own power: I was the sole arbiter of what I bought and when and what sacrifice to make for such purchase.

Things got complicated when I married. My husband, a fellow lawyer, grew up in a lower-income household. Like me, he wanted to be free of financial constraints, wanted there to be plenty of excess. That was a core value we shared. I soon discovered, however, that we didn’t value the same things when it came to the purchases themselves. He thought nothing of buying a latte from Starbucks every morning. I drank the free coffee at my firm, which was Starbucks brand, albeit brewed in-house. His firm had free coffee, too. I couldn’t understand why someone would go out and buy coffee when they could get it for free.

I said to him one day, “You know, you should stop buying Starbucks every morning. That habit of yours is costing us $4 a day, over $1300 a year.”

He looked at me coldly. “You know what? I like lattes. I make a lot of money and I’ll buy a Starbucks every morning if I want. And, by the way, the amount I spend at Starbucks in a year doesn’t even come close to how much you spend on ONE purse. And no, I will not bring my lunch. I’ve had enough homemade lunches to last myself a lifetime.”

I quieted down about the Starbucks but found there were many other things that bothered me about his spending. I wanted a good value or deal on most things, except for things that were worth splurging on – special things, like concert tickets, travel or a cool shirt. He valued daily treats and convenience above all else. That meant the Starbucks latte, or going to the corner store to buy a small jug of Tide for an exorbitant price instead of waiting till the weekend to make a Target or Costco run. When it came to services, however, he was driven by loyalty, going out of his way to go to the same hairdresser year after year (at a walk-in salon) or using the same dry cleaning guy long after we’d moved from that neighborhood, even though his prices were higher than Zips.

We were and are the only couple I know of, to this day, who fought over who got to pay the bills once we merged our finances. He said, “I have a system.” Me: “Yeah, well I have a system, too. Why is your system better than mine?” His system drove me insane. He paid everything by handwritten check rather than setting up auto-pay or auto-deduct. According to him, doing so prevented errors that might otherwise go undetected.

My splurges come from the heart. I don’t feel the need to negotiate prices on a house or a car purchase because I want them so badly. During our house search, just after we married, we found a house I had to have. So much so that I wanted to increase our offer, not once, but several times, in a bidding war. My husband shook his head. “It isn’t worth that.” He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t understand you. You nickel-and-dime on the smallest things, try and make me bring my lunch, cut coupons – but won’t negotiate on big ticket items where a lot more money is at stake.” He continued, “You’re the worst kind of house buyer. They can smell how much you want it.”

What he said was so true.

I eventually gave in and “let” him pay the bills. He continues to rebuff my periodic offers to switch – “you’ve done it for several years, now let me do it for a while” – and I don’t insist. Because truthfully, by not having to be mired down in the details I’ve become blissfully removed from the nitty-gritty of our finances and had the luxury to indulge my dreamer mentality. For example, as the family vacation planner, I will ask, where do we want to go and what experiences do we want to have? At the same time, my priorities have changed. I’ve become a non-shopper, other than groceries and household necessities. The stuff isn’t as important to me any more.

Over the years, we have come to a détente on our philosophical differences about money. A lot of the arguments were theoretical because we generally have had the money to do what he wants and what I want, with a few compromises here and there.   Every now and then we flare up again, but not for long. The answer: make enough money and don’t go into debt. That we agree on.

But I still do keep an internal tally of food going to waste. That I will never shed, like my mother. Last night while we were out at dinner he said, “I need to stop by the store to get some limes.” He wanted to make his favorite summer drink, dark and stormies, when we got home. I said, “I have some limes in the fridge.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “Those mummified things? No thanks!” We burst into laughter.

Red, White or Blue?

It was Tuesday afternoon and it was my turn to drive the soccer carpool. Just before we left the house, my daughter Lila asked me, “Are the results posted?” Results. I’d forgotten. They said they would post the results of her soccer club tryouts Tuesday night at 8:00pm. Even though it was only 5:30, I went to my laptop and quickly clicked on the club website. The results had indeed been posted. I scanned the list for her year, 2006, and then for her tryout number, #16. It was there. For the third year in a row, Lila had made the blue team. The blue team is the highest level for each age group in her club, followed by red, then white.

I find the dynamics of youth soccer somewhat baffling and fraught with parental anxiety. We wait with bated breath for the posting of results, amidst rumors that so-and-so is trying out for this other club or that club, then endure an additional waiting period to see who, after results are posted, will actually accept her spot on the team roster.   “Club shopping” happens every year and for any of a number of reasons – parents (typically those who themselves played the sport) are unhappy with the coach or coaching, often thinking their daughter’s potential is not being adequately mined; or the player herself wanting more play time than she got the previous season; or families wanting a club with a greater cachet. In the DC/Maryland/Virginia area there are many good clubs, several with a reputation for developing kids who are able to play college ball. So club shopping and hopping happens, even at the elementary school level, even though few parents realistically think their child has a shot at becoming a pro. They do it because, well, you just never know. This is the land of overachievers, after all.

It mimics to some degree what happens in professional sports, players being shopped and traded from this team to that team – except there, money, BIG money,, is involved. Here there is no money involved, just people’s (often fragile) egos.

I didn’t play sports growing up. It’s actually been a blessing, in the sense of not knowing the game inside out, not really knowing whether the coaching is good or bad, and not having expectations of my daughter. Sure, I can tell who I think are the better players – the ones who have more contact with the ball per game or the ones who happen to be in the right place most of the time. But overall, I’m just happy my daughter made the team and seems to love the game.

This year her coach pushed them to do more. In addition to the three mandatory practices a week, she repeatedly asked them all to participate in a supplemental, non-league program called ODP, Olympic Development Program, with which she was affiliated. To entice them, she periodically sent little notes, “A lot of the pros, like Carly Lloyd, came from ODP” and “the training you get with ODP is like no other.” It meant a fourth day of practice for the girls, plus the Saturday recreational soccer game and standard club soccer game on Sunday.

Altogether, that would be a total of six days of soccer a week. For a 10-year-old. That seemed crazy. I asked my daughter and to my relief she said she didn’t want to do ODP. Come spring, though, when the opportunity arose again to sign up, she changed her mind. The girls from her team participating in ODP in the fall had not only gotten to see each other an extra day each week, they’d traveled together to play in an ODP tournament in late winter. In short, they got to socialize more. At this age, the social aspect is a big part of the draw for the girls. When my daughter said she wanted to join for the spring, I reluctantly acquiesced. But not without angst. Six days of soccer a week offended my values of balance and not putting all of your eggs in one basket. Not to mention the timing: Friday nights in Pentagon City, from 8:15-9:45pm. So much for Friday night dinners with family and friends.

By week three my fears came to pass. I saw Lila’s enthusiasm flagging, “Do I have to go to soccer today?” To which I replied, “Yes, you do. You made a commitment.”

I’m left wondering why we feel the need to foster competition in our kids at such a young age. Particularly in one sport or activity. Six days of any one thing doesn’t leave time for much else by way of extracurricular activities, never mind homework and play. Moreover, in my humble opinion, all comers at the elementary school level should be welcome to a sport; no one should be cut or left out. What kind of message does it send to a child when she is cut from a team at age 10? That she doesn’t have the aptitude or talent for the sport? That she should give up? Or that she should wait a year and try again?

Such “judgments” are at best premature, and at worst, just plain wrong. Many of the great athletes got their starts in their respective sports much later than age 10. When I was growing up, kids were just starting to learn some sports in their early teens.

And…if only kids would wait a year and try again. In this day and age, few if any do that. There is the pride and embarrassment factor of not making the team. But more to the point, there is a sense, however misguided, that failing to make the team (or the team you want) is tantamount to missing the boat altogether – if you’re not on it, maybe you should hitch your hopes to the dance or lacrosse or swim boat instead.

At tryouts this year, I secretly fantasized that my daughter would not make the blue team again but would instead get moved down to the red team. Not only would it relieve the pressure of being on “top,” I thought, it would give her psychic space to embrace other activities. Next year the middle school will offer a plethora of other options – volleyball, archery, dance, multimedia arts, and even crew in eighth grade.   This is the time to experiment, to try new things. I want my kids to try it all, not be dominated by just one activity, no matter how good they are at it.

I know the other parents on the team, probably my husband included, would likely be horrified if they knew my thinking. Who wishes their child doesn’t make the best team? But youth soccer feels to me like a beast, a machine far more powerful than I. It calls the shots – whether and when we have dinner together as a family, take weekend trips, or go to church; whether Lila engages in other activities, can have sleepovers (the club has a no sleepover rule the night before a game!) or can make her piano recitals. I guess I’m hoping that the machine will spit her out early enough that she can still feast – richly – from the smorgasboard of life.

A Matter of Faith

I’m on Day 2 of my first detox cleanse ever. I wanted to see what the hype was all about and to see how my body will feel – after 10 days of no alcohol, no sugar, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten and no animal protein.

I must say, I love the food. The facilitator gave us a recipe book full of the most delicious vegan recipes. The food reminds me of high-end spa cuisine, salads with lots of seeds, nuts, and avocado, and breakfast porridges with dried coconut, the ubiquitous chia and hemp seeds, and fresh fruit. Green smoothies. Lots of turmeric, ginger and cinnamon.

After my usual interval training class at the gym on Monday morning, I was lightheaded and shaky and kept seeing floaters. I went home and made the Brain Booster Smoothie – walnuts, avocado, banana, blueberries and vanilla protein powder. I was still hungry afterward and ate a bowl of carrot-ginger soup. Today, the lack of coffee is causing me to drag. It’s been decades, literally, since I skipped coffee for days in a row. Thankfully, I have no headaches from withdrawal. But I feel like a faded dim version of my usual self. I didn’t realize I was so reliant on caffeine. I typically only have one cup of coffee a day. I love the aroma of coffee almost more than the taste.

Evenings are my big problem. I love to snack at night, especially on sweets. After the kids are in bed I scout the pantry and fridge for cookies, pie, cake, pastries. Ice cream is a less favored choice but it will do in a bind. Last night I looked longingly at the maple leaf sandwich cookies I’d bought earlier yesterday for my daughter’s lunches and thought briefly about ditching the detox. But I kept thinking about what Linda said, that the detox is like a computer reboot, necessary to clear out the hard drive – in this case, our liver and kidneys. I looked at the testimonials on her website about how great the participants felt at the end of the 10 days – “so much energy,” “no sugar cravings,” “better sleep.”

So I’m sticking to the detox as a matter of faith, hoping that I, too, will be one of the ones who benefits from this squeaky clean diet. I’ve already decided, post-detox I will continue to make these recipes, with a bit of meat here and there, and allow myself the moderate amounts of coffee and alcohol I usually consume. While I don’t really see myself giving up added sugar, the whole experience is a good segue to getting the family to eating healthier meals. Last night they were all clamoring for some of the cauliflower dahl I made. I shared, but gave myself a full plate first.

4/27/17. It’s Day 4 of the detox. Thank god. It turns out my smugness at evading the seemingly standard caffeine withdrawal headache was premature, as I was gradually beset by a combination headache-earache (left ear only) yesterday. The aches were slight but persisted throughout the day. Today they are gone and I feel good, strong and less foggy. I even played an hour of tennis this morning without seeing stars or getting lightheaded. This food is amazing, did I mention that? I guess they have to make it tasty or people won’t convert, or will only do so short-term. Like my friend Kristin, who said she had done one of these once and will never touch tofu again. Such a shame to be soured on a food because it was foisted on you in unappetizing ways.

I gave my friend Elizabeth a sample of my carrot-ginger soup because she said it sounded tasty. I also gave her, unsolicited, a small container of my green goddess smoothie. She made a face and wrinkled her nose when I brought it over to her. “Ummm, no thanks…what’s in it?” I told her it was kale, ginger root, pineapple, an apple, lemon, and parsley. “Try it! It’s good for you and packed full of vitamins,” I insisted. She dubiously took it from me. It’s been several hours and I’ve received no text with rave reviews. Either she hated it all or forgot about the containers and left them in her car.

Still craving cookies a bit. Maybe it’s time to make the Brain Boost Smoothie or banana cookies.

5/5/17. The last official day of detox, Day 10, was Wednesday. Today is Friday. So for many of my fellow detoxers who intend to continue on, today is Day 12. But for me, it is just plain “post-detox.”

A lot has happened between Day 4, when I last wrote, and now. The factual stats are:

  • my weight either stayed the same or increased a bit;
  • I did feel steady energy throughout the day, no peaks and valleys;
  • I learned I don’t need caffeine! Exhilarating to kick a 25-year-old habit;
  • I very much missed my carbs, cheese and sugar, although my cravings decreased slightly over the 10-day period.

I cheated a bit on Day 6 while cleaning up after my son’s birthday party. As I dumped the plates into the garbage I came across a plate with a half-eaten piece of cheese pizza that I KNEW was his. I had the briefest thought that I should toss it, even as I reflexively sank my teeth into it, savoring the taste of the cheese. I thought it would be just one bite – but no, I ate the whole remnant.

However, in a departure from my past “all or nothing” approach to anything requiring discipline, I got back on the wagon on Day 7 and ate healthfully until Day 9, when a good friend from out of town came to visit. A devout foodie who used to live here, she wanted to sample the latest and greatest in DC’s culinary scene. I took her to Chaia DC, a most delicious vegetarian taco place in Georgetown where we ordered the mushroom and asparagus tacos and I had a carrot orange ginger juice. When the first gulp of juice went down my throat I tasted the long-missing sugar and got an immediate buzz. Either they added sugar, or were using the same type of nectar-sweet navel oranges Whole Foods has stocked recently – hopefully the latter!

After Chaia, we went to 14th Street, where I had the most delectable scoop of Marionberry ice cream. That evening I had a 50th birthday party to attend. We went to a French restaurant. I chose the best I could, a seafood dish that I’m sure was bathed in butter. But I skipped wine and just a bite of the fruit tart they brought the birthday girl.

So Day 9 was a bit of a downer, but I resumed the diet on Day 10 and since then have continued to try to make healthy choices.

In sum: did I find the answers to what I sought in undertaking this cleanse? Generally, yes. I see that I have perhaps not more energy, but steadier energy – and that is a good thing. No spikes and dips because the cycle of caffeine and sugar has been halted. I’d love to continue with no caffeine and sugar, except for special occasions. I have not had coffee again, but have drunk decaf twice – and am not sure I need even that. I am making more mindful choices, reaching for the peanut butter or walnuts instead of cookies or chips, and not serving as the human garbage can for my kids’ leftovers. I’ve dedicated part of my Sundays to cooking batches of vegan-healthy food for the week – breakfast porridges, smoothies, lentils, hummus – so that it is close at hand and convenient to pack. I’m sharing the main course entrees with my family and adding a bit of lean meat only. I don’t know that I will entirely give up cheese, bread, and sweets – mainly because I don’t want to. They’ve been such a staple of my diet for so long. =) I will probably drink moderately, as I always have – perhaps a smidge less. (Even thinking I’ll cut back for Elizabeth’s upcoming 50th birthday party and alternate seltzer with wine for the night!)

 

But these are positive developments. Every little bit helps. I like food too much to cut out all that is fun and yummy – like the apricot fruit tart from Paul’s Bakery, a good cup of La Colombe, the blood-orange doughnut from Bread Furst, or the occasional scoop of honey lavender ice cream. As my friend Emily said, “perfection is the enemy of ‘good enough.’”

Farewell to Rosieda

I first saw her in the writing class. She was seated at the table, head turned toward the door, those inquisitive dark eyes that miss nothing peeking out from beneath her scarf. She had beautiful flawless skin and a lyrical lilting voice. With such a voice I imagined her to be a good singer.

Over the next few years I would discover how that uplifting voice belied a steely resolve and strength. She brought me into her Muslim, female, South African world. I learned about South Africa and the apartheid struggle from someone who actually lived through it. I learned the significance of her hair and her scarves and how people treated her because of her headscarf.  I learned about her view of America, through the microcosm of Starbucks – her lens highlighting things I have known but not focused on – the multitude of choices at every turn that we take for granted, our penchant for always wanting more, our difficulty saying “no” to our kids. The individual versus the collectivist society. She never ceased to surprise me. In our last year together I learned that she had been the head of the Institute for Gender Equality in South Africa and that her husband paid her the salary she would have made there, with an annual cost of living adjustment, to leave her job and accompany him to America.

She was the best laugher. Her eyes would crinkle at the corners and her shoulders would heave up and down as she laughed her infectious deep belly laugh. How we laughed together over the years – about “George,” a.k.a., Jaws, and the watermelon; her struggles with her weight and objectification of her own body; her goal to be a psychologist only to find out that she was becoming a physical therapist.

She had a knack for wrapping with humor difficult issues of politics, race, religion, and aspects of the human struggle, delivered always by that lyrical lilting voice that imbued light into even the darkest of issues.

When we write, we turn our insides out. But she is someone who also brought the outside in, time and again extending invitations to us Americans to learn about her female self, her Muslim self, her South African world – through her writings, the embassy, and cultural events.

Inside out, outside in. That was Rosieda. Lively, deep, intelligent, warm, funny, perceptive. A big presence who left a gaping hole in our Six Dollar Therapy Group when she returned to South Africa.

California Dreaming

The open floor plan seemed like such a great idea.

When my husband and I shopped for our first (and only) house, we bickered over which style suited us. He’s Southern and a traditionalist.  I’m a California girl who loves wide open spaces.  We viewed virtually every house type – brick Colonials, row houses, federal style homes, Tudors, Dutch colonials, bungalows, and modern homes.  He liked the brick Colonials best.  I loved the bungalows, with all bedrooms upstairs and a large open floor plan on the ground floor, often featuring a cascading flow from the kitchen to the living room to the dining room.  A virtual blending together, with no real distinction between the rooms.  We ultimately compromised:  we bought a center-hall brick Colonial, with the promise that one day (the arguments over when “one day” would come is a story for another day) we would knock down walls to give me the open floor plan I just had to have.

After 6 years in our house, we undertook a major renovation, moving out for 10 months altogether from start to finish with our toddlers ages 4 and 2. We knocked down a number of load-bearing walls and transformed the interior of our traditional brick Colonial into a modern one, where the family room and living room both flowed into an open kitchen, which was anchored by a large wedge-shaped island that could seat 8, even 9 people.  Walls of tall windows surrounded our new family room that looked out into our tree-laden backyard.

It seemed like a dream come true.

I had visions of home life clustered around that kitchen island.  Our architect Jeff had come up with the wedge design after I asked him to make seating at the island anything but linear.  We had to be able to make full eye contact.  Commune.  Socialize.  Eat and talk.  I pictured myself cooking while my babies toddled around the family room. My girlfriends and I would drink wine at the island into the late hours of the night.  We would host dinner parties where it would serve as the kids’ table, or as the buffet for adults-only parties.  As the kids got older it would be a place for them to do their homework as I prepared dinner.  For holidays calling for rolled cookies – Halloween, Christmas, Easter, any occasion, really – we would gather at the island with our dough and icing to roll and cut and frost the cookies.  Or lay out the pies we had baked.  Regarding parties, no more missing out on good conversations and juicy tidbits while I slaved away over the stove, in a galley kitchen, away from our guests. No, with this layout I’d be front and center.

And, yes, all of those things have come to pass, at our multitasking, multifunctional island.

But.  After 8 years of living my dream-come-true, I’m ready to concede the drawbacks.  They are few but big.

One, the clutter that accumulates on the island (in nanoseconds, seemingly) is an abomination to the senses.  Backpacks, stacks of books and papers, music books from drum and piano lessons, lunchboxes, water bottles.  Bouncy balls, pens, dead batteries (whose death isn’t apparent until you try to use them) and gimmicky useless rubber items from birthday party goody bags.  My own pile of books and magazines and unopened mail.  Food, half-eaten.  Even worse if the sink is full of dirty dishes, which can be seen from the front entryway.  There is no simple shutting of a door or drawer on that mess.

For several years, I patrolled the island rigidly:  “Whoever this belongs to, come get it in the next 30 minutes or it’s going into the trash.”  I got tired, though, of being the one and only Island Patrol in the household, a thankless task that not only drained my time but also made people unhappy.

I have had to face a hard truth about my beloved open floor plan concept:  while it looks stunning in the pages of Architectural Digest or House Beautiful, in real life (in my life, anyway) it often looks like someone lobbed a hand grenade into the space.  Even if the kitchen island were clean, say, the wall-less layout permits unfettered views into the dining, family and living rooms – and any clutter therein. It feels like there is no escape.

Two, a multipurpose space begets multitasking individuals.  While it seemed so clever to have a space function as both a homework station and a casual dining area, turns out it is often impractical for the kids to clear away their books and papers to make room for eating, especially for lengthy or complicated projects.  And, eating dinner at the island (an everyday occurrence) seems to encourage bad table manners. Perhaps due to the informal setting? I catch people eating while simultaneously trying to watch TV (in the reflection of the large family room windows), use devices under the counter, or play with objects found on said island. Eating to me is a sacred activity.  Mealtimes are supposed to be times of regrouping and connection, with conversation, however deep or trivial – about the day’s happenings, gossip, gripes (if offered constructively), suggestions, plans, questions to ponder, perhaps even some appreciation for the chef.  They are not – repeat not – a time to conduct other business.

But I guess I set myself up – and them – for failure. Transitions have always been tricky for kids, that’s nothing new.  Shifting modes in the past was traditionally done by changing rooms – hence why the family room was separate from the dining room which was separate from the kitchen (I get it now!).  Creating a flex space in the first place is a form of entrapment, setting them up to succumb to nearby temptations.  In a multipurpose setting, it falls entirely to me, rather than the room, to become the enforcer of norms and expectations. And I no more want to be Enforcer of Norms than I want to be Island Patrol.

Three, there’s the psychic clutter, which is almost as burdensome as physical clutter. Psychic clutter is noise pollution from the TV in the family room that drowns out my new age piano music I play to calm my mind. It is kids bobbing in and out of your peripheral vision, try as I might not to see them, as they scream, shout, do cartwheels and kick soccer balls in the house – and chase each other around the island as if on a racetrack. It is never knowing when a gang of dirty boys will traipse through, fresh from a bike ride, and turn your kitchen upside down trying to find the right drinks and snacks.

I know these are all normal scenes and shenanigans associated with child-rearing. What I grossly underestimated was the downsides of seeing – with a front-seat view through my very open floor plan – every moment of my family growing up. The messes they made as toddlers were contained.  Heck, they couldn’t even reach the counter to put their stuff on it. Now, they’re near grown, with mouths that argue, electronic devices that never quit, friends who call or visit, and favorite television shows to watch. And I’ve grown. Who knew, for instance, that I would come to try my hand at writing? And writing, I have found, is absolutely impossible with this dream-come-true layout, unless the house is empty. The rich thoughts swirling around in my mind jonesing to be reduced to the page simply can’t compete with the canned laughter from the television, banging on the piano, and my anxiety when someone has left their boiling water for mac-and-cheese unattended for “just a second.”

Maybe boundaries really do serve a useful purpose.  I’m definitely rethinking mine.   I spent some time this summer sprucing up the basement so that it’s an appealing space – not just for ‘tweens and teens but also for grown men who love to watch sports. It’s my effort to reduce the clutter in my dream space. Next project: creating a room of my own in the attic.

Sounds of Silence

The couple in the waiting room was making me laugh. You could tell they’d been married a long time. Youthful grandparents. He dominated the conversation, holding court and entertaining the rest of us as we waited to be called by the doctor. He was dark-skinned and swarthy, with a gold chain and copper-colored hair. His deep baritone voice told joke after joke, with a hint of a Brooklyn accent. His wife was plump and pretty, with reddish hair. She chimed in here and there, mostly to mock him. At one point, she said, “Drink your coffee! And give me my glasses, you’re making me crazy.” He leaned forward, picked up his disposable cup of coffee and held it out to her. “You want coffee?” “No! I said drink your coffee!” She looked at me over her shoulder and rolled her eyes.

We were at the House Ear Clinic in Orange County, my mother, father and I. I couldn’t believe we were actually there. Our family had tried for years to convince my father to get hearing aids, each of us taking turns broaching what was apparently a delicate issue – my sister, brother-in-law (a doctor), my mother, me, even my 11-year-old son. My father would brush us off each time, and often ignored altogether any email communications on the topic. His hearing was “fine.”

He is a man who has always loved his independence. Retired from the Department of Defense for seven years, he is busy, getting up daily at 4:30am to hike in the canyon behind his and my mother’s house for two hours before breakfast. He belongs to two choirs and is an avid Scottish dancer, with a kilt and all.   He logs hundreds of miles per years in his black Jeep Cherokee driving to and from choir and dance rehearsals, performances, and festivals. Between that and travel with my mother, he isn’t home much.

I marveled that, with all of that activity, someone – a colleague or friend – hadn’t commented to him on his lack of hearing. Or maybe they had and he just couldn’t hear them. We, at least I, was on some level resigned that he would never get hearing aids. But I kept raising it when I could, with as much tact as I could muster. We all did. Last Christmas, he said, “I just can’t distinguish certain consonant sounds. That’s the problem.” I said, “If you can’t distinguish certain consonant sounds, that means you’re hearing impaired.” He grinned and said, “Okay, I guess so. But I can hear most things.” I could tell he didn’t think it was a big issue. Later, that same trip, my son Leith said to him when the family was gathered at a dinner, “Agong (Taiwanese word for grandpa), you need hearing aids.” My father leaned forward, cupped his ear and said, “What did you say?” Leith and the rest of us erupted into laughter.

As then, he will occasionally ask for clarification – “What? I didn’t quite get that” – but I can tell from the blank look on his face that he can’t hear the clarification. More often than not, instead of requesting a repeat, he answers what he thinks he hears. Like on my daughter Lila’s fifth birthday. He called to wish her a happy birthday and asked jovially, “How was your birthday?” She replied, “I broke my arm today.” “Great, that’s great!” he replied. Lila looked at me, eyebrows raised quizzically. It certainly wasn’t a reply she expected. He can’t hear you, I mouthed, pointing to my ear and stifling my giggles.

That was four and a half years ago. We have an arsenal of hundreds of similar exchanges since then. This winter, when I knew I would see my parents during my kids’ spring break, I sent my father an email: “Hey, Pops, remember my former law partner Brian from Irvine? He went to the House Clinic to get his hearing aids and highly recommended them. How about I go with you for a consultation the week I’m out there?” I truly expected no reply, as had been the case many times before. So I felt like I’d hit the jackpot when he wrote back the next day, “I have choir practice in the evenings that week but am pretty open during the days. Monday or Wednesday should work.” I immediately thought, something has changed. Why now? Maybe the choir director berated him for not being in tune with the others. Or maybe he realized people were increasingly annoyed by his responses (that likely didn’t match what they said.) Or maybe he just got tired of asking people to repeat themselves. Whatever the reason, I didn’t ask, so thrilled I was that he had finally agreed to an evaluation.

So, there we were, the day before his 78th birthday. The audiologist, Cheryl, called my mother and me from the waiting room to join her and my father in her office after about 30 minutes of testing. “Mr. Wu, you have severe hearing loss in both ears.” She leaned forward in her chair, facing him squarely and speaking slowly with exaggerated enunciation. I thought my father’s face registered fleeting surprise, as though he had expected to hear something else – then his shoulders slumped a bit and his chin dipped down. She had on her lap a clipboard with a sheet showing two curves with similar trajectories, one depicting loss in the right ear, the other the left. According to Cheryl, the curves showed at what volumes my father was able to hear which frequencies. When the volumes were adjusted so that he could hear “normally,” he still only got 40% of the words correct in his left ear, 72% on the right.

He tried his “distinguishing consonants” defense. “I mostly just have trouble with resolution,” he said. She nodded. “Okay, if you want to call it that, resolution, clarity… it’s a similar thing. But the problem is that the auditory nerve loses function if it’s not stimulated over time. That is the nerve that converts sound into meaning in the brain. So yours hasn’t been stimulated in a long time. I’m guessing you needed hearing aids at least 10 years ago.”

Words that validated what we – his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, grandkids – had all been saying for so long. But I wasn’t triumphant. I felt sad for him. I noticed how kind and patient Cheryl was. She exuded an inviting and empathetic air, speaking slowly and gently but loudly enough for him to hear, maintaining solid eye contact, nodding frequently, and asking if he had questions. Granted, she was an audiologist and this was her business. Nonetheless, I felt ashamed about all the times I’d been impatient or irritated with him for our failure to connect. I always knew rationally that growing old was hard, but right then I felt what I imagined he felt … resigned to the inevitable and a bit dejected at losing a tiny bit more of one’s independence.

I asked her, “Why is there so much resistance to getting hearing aids? It’s a sensory function, like vision. We get glasses when we need them. Why not hearing aids?”

She shook her head and said, “It’s the biggest question. I have no idea why sight and sound are treated so differently. Other than, hearing loss is associated with aging.” She shrugged and threw her hands up.

I glanced at my father. He looked like he was trying to process all of the information. His head was cocked to the side the way it often is when he is thinking. He tried again. “What percentage of the tested frequencies falls within normal speech?” “Almost all of them,” she replied, circling the entire curve on the chart.

At that point, he leaned back in his chair and gave a little nod. He had given up the fight.

Cheryl mentioned that some folks with hearing loss as severe as my father’s left ear – a 60% loss – wouldn’t bother getting a hearing aid for that ear. I quickly interjected, “Let’s do both ears. He sings in a choir, it’s important for him to have ‘surround sound,’ however little it is.” She nodded in agreement, “That would be my recommendation, two hearing aids.”

She walked us through the different models of hearing aids and together we all selected one. “When can you come back for the fitting? They normally take two weeks to come in,” Cheryl said.

My father said, “I’m going to Taiwan on the 13th of April.”

She conferred with her assistant and said brightly, “We’ll put a rush on them and have them here next week. You’ll wear them for a week, and I’ll see you again on the 12th. Just in time for your trip to Taiwan.”

We thanked her and left the office. The three of us walked out to the car in silence.

 

Gettin’ My Scrooge On

I can feel my inner Scrooge bubbling up as Christmas approaches. He threatens to emerge periodically throughout the year, but never so forcefully as during the holidays when surrounded by the ubiquitous pressure to buy.

Christmas has become a season of acquisition – of gifts and goods, to excess, in my humble opinion. My eighth grade algebra teacher’s old saying, “my presence is your present” doesn’t cut it any more. I look around the stores, all proclaiming deep discounts on the range of goods they have stocked for harried buyers – gadgets, gizmos, cheap things made in China to fill stockings, and large electronics that will quickly be superseded by the next generation. Just stuff. And more stuff.

And funny how the things your people really want – e.g., Under Armour for my son – never seem to fall within the scope of the sale. My husband wants a new winter jacket. Luckily, he doesn’t care what brand. I was reeled to an online site that was advertising 20% off winter jackets – but turns out the discount applied to only one brand. I ended up paying full-price because the sale brand was sold out of his size.

OK, so I make some meaningful purchases during the season. But I don’t like to buy under pressure. And yet I do – succumbing to the expectations of gifts and gift-giving at this time of year. I want to select gifts that are meaningful, useful, beautiful, and well-made (which usually means not made in China, handcrafted or artisanal is a plus). It’s virtually impossible to meet these standards when playing Santa to one’s entire family, immediate and extended, and family friends galore, unless you shop year-round, which I lack the discipline to do.

Year after year, I entertain a fantasy of saying to my family, “How about we forgo all presents this year in lieu of one big present that the whole family can enjoy? Like a pool table? Or a major donation to a charity we all agree upon?”

If only. I don’t do it because I can only imagine the uproar. My husband will say, “That’s no fun. Stop being like your mother.” And the kids want what they want. I tried years ago to get a fake tree, one that we take down from the attic and is ready to go – no shedding pine needles or sap or dirt in the house. Nixed by the family. Same thing with the live trees I saw at Home Depot. They’re way cheaper than the Christmas tree lots. “Home Depot has trees for $19.99,” I volunteered one year. My husband looked at me disdainfully. “You don’t get a Christmas tree at Home Depot!” “People obviously do,” I countered. “I saw a whole lot full of them.” As I’m never the one to actually go get the tree, I lost that one, too.

My nine-year-old daughter’s list to Santa had only four things this year. I considered it a positive development that she could only think of four things to ask for. Until I saw the list: an iPad mini, a cover for the iPad mini, a live chinchilla, and puzzles. Puzzles – but of course! But the rest? Hmmmm. I feel trapped. I don’t want a live chinchilla in the house, with all of the requisite accoutrements, including a tall steel tower-cage because they like to climb. Nor do I want her to have her own handheld device because, despite being addicted to mine, I want to stave that off for my kids as long as possible, to foster quality family time, so they don’t burrow away in their holes, like the rodents and other pets they so desire.

So I’m left with my jumble of philosophical BS to contend with. Unlike Halloween or Thanksgiving, Christmas forces me to confront my lofty standards and philosophies, most of them idealized in some corner of my head but rarely adhered to, or at least, with any kind of consistency – if you judge by the array of things I buy throughout the year.

And, Christmas defeats my goal to declutter. Throughout the year, I sort through piles and clumps of stuff that accumulate in nanoseconds in our house – on the wedge-shaped table in our front foyer, on the corner of the kitchen island next to the stainless steel pillar, on the family room coffee table, on the formal dining table.

I sort with some measure of resignation mixed with annoyance (didn’t I just clear out this pile yesterday??) and at times outright anger (kids nowadays have too much stuff!). I have occasionally wondered what would happen if I swept all of the piles into the trash without sorting them first. Part of me feels that nothing would happen – there might be a few “where is my this” and “where is my that” – but so what? The piles regenerate so quickly I can’t imagine any drastic consequence would ensue.

It’s really not all their fault. It is my stuff, too. And my husband’s. The stuff jangles my nerves – no one else’s, apparently – and it is for this reason that I am the Chief Sorter and Declutterer. Over the years, the stuff has morphed in nature, from little animal erasers, glitter glue, glow sticks and bouncy balls to pens, earphones, Swiss Army knives, speakers. The stuff tells its own story, of kids who are growing up quickly. Too quickly.

I decided that Santa should bring Lila a Kindle. Not a Kindle Fire, which has all the capabilities of the iPad, but a plain old Kindle, which is just for reading books. It was the best compromise I could come up with without feeling like I’d totally sold out – she gets her own personal handheld electronic device, albeit for reading books only. I anticipate some disappointment on her part, but I rationalized that 1) she’ll get over it, and 2) she will read more, hopefully, and 3) I can live with my choice.

So I continue to muddle through, declutter, and try to keep my inner Scrooge in check. One highlight of the Kindle? Fewer books lying around.

Waking Up

In our household there are two morning people and two non-morning people.  The great irony is that the two morning people go off together each morning…leaving the two non-morning peeps to wrangle their way out of the house.  Together.  Ugh.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a morning person, someone who springs out of bed, whistles in the shower, and appears refreshed and bright-eyed and cheerful before leaving the house.  Like my husband.  He sits up immediately when his alarm goes off.  No rolling over or lollygagging in bed for just five more minutes.  After showering and shaving, he heads downstairs for cereal.  I hear the front door open as he goes outside to fetch the paper.

My son is an even earlier riser, bounding into our room at 6am to jump into our shower before his father can get to it.  I hear the two of them chatting animatedly downstairs – chipper voices, packed, with energy, ready to attack the day.

I usually stay in bed waiting for the silence that falls after they leave at 7am.  Their voices become muffled once they go outside, and I hear a faint boom, boom, boom as they bound down the wooden side stairs to our house.  Then nothing, just the sound of cars racing by on Reno Road.  I might allow myself the luxury of checking a few e-mails before I engage in the dreaded task of rousing my 9-year-old daughter.  715am, 720.  Ok, time to get her.

I go into her room.  “Good morning, angel,” I say brightly.  I perch on her bed and kiss her all over, her soft hair and both cheeks.  She is lovable and angelic in her sleeping state.  I roll her body to and fro gently to jar her awake.  I usually am able to rouse her enough that she climbs onto my back for a piggyback ride downstairs.  I deposit her on the family room couch where she pulls her favorite throw around her.

“What would you like for breakfast?” I continue with forced cheeriness.

“A waffle,” she grunts.

I make her waffle and place it on the coffee table in front of her.  She continues to sleep, head thrown back on the couch.  I indulge in the silence by looking at the morning headlines, putting off just a few more minutes my second least favorite task:  making her lunch.

I glance at the clock:  745am.  “Lila,” I say with a warning tone in my voice. “Wake up and eat.”  She stirs.

I check Facebook and Twitter.  753am.  “Lila!”  This time my tone is sharp.  I mean business.  “It’s time to get going!”

“I’m up!  Stop yelling at me!”

“Well, you’re going to be late.”

“You’re so grumpy in the morning!”

I’m grumpy?  You’re grumpy!”

“Yeah, well you made me grumpy.”

She was late to school for the second time this week.  I go home for a much needed cup of coffee.

Holding Back

I’m in a holding pattern. A “holding back” pattern, that is. Take my appearance for example. Thoughts of how I can be sexy and chic lately have overridden thoughts about the kids’ needs. Sexy and chic requires effort at this age, unfortunately. I have had the same hairstyle, with slight variations – medium length, with bangs and layers of varying lengths – for the last 10 years, at least. I’ve gone to expensive hairstylists, inexpensive ones, and ones in-between. It doesn’t really make a difference, though – as my last guy so very honestly pointed out, “You might as well go to Supercuts if you’re always going to wear it like that.” I got his point. That means pulled back in a ponytail, where no one can see the handiwork of a skilled stylist. I always tell them, “I need a wash-and-wear cut. I don’t blow dry my hair.” Wash-and-wear applies to my style in general, in fact. Clothes – casual, with only a very occasional need for the iron or drycleaning. Makeup – minimal, fresh, natural.

Now, I look in the mirror and see that my “fresh” and “natural” face needs a boost. More makeup – or something. I went to the dermatologist for the first time ever this summer, ostensibly for a long overdue baseline evaluation of my moles, but it was probably also a subliminal reconnaissance mission for cosmetic options. As the dermatologist’s eyes raked over me, I took in her creamy white skin. I guessed she was in her 50s but she easily looked younger because of her great, flawless skin. I tensed, bracing for her critique. I’ve never been one to have remarkable skin, with that dewy smooth quality that draws compliments from strangers. To boot, I have always felt self-conscious about my zillions of freckles, partly from growing up in the sun-ravaged Mojave Desert, partly hereditary – exacerbated by lifelong feedback from my Asian relatives, who gasp in dismay that my skin is not pristine and lilywhite and freckle-free. The dermatologist mapped my moles and even said, “You look great.” I was so relieved, I popped up and left, but kicked myself afterward for not asking her during my $500-per-quarter-hour visit what the options are for lightening my sunspots and freckles.

And my hair? I made an appointment at a chi-chi salon on Capitol Hill this week. Judging by their website photos, the stylists are funky, modern and edgy. Part of me wishes I would have the guts when I go in to say, “Do whatever you think suits me. Anything you want.” One of the best cuts of my life was at Bumble & Bumble in New York City, in my 20s, the only time I’ve had short hair. It was beautiful and chic at first – but high maintenance. Short hair requires frequent cuts, I found out, else you risk looking mangy.

And therein lies the problem. I want to be sexy and chic, but put in little or no effort. It doesn’t work that way in middle age, does it?

My appearance isn’t the only thing I’m holding back on. My writing, too. I’ve always been known for my self-discipline. Why am I not applying it to my writing? What am I afraid of? I let any hurdle get between me and my writing – no time, a bad prompt, my own critical voice, critiques by others, any perceived lack of interest of my writing group members in my piece – anything. My piece is not short enough, long enough, funny enough, I tell myself. Or, true writers are all about revision. I have revised … some. But I could have revised everything I’ve written in the last four years twice over in the amount of time I’ve spent surfing the internet. A friend who knows WordPress offered recently to set me up with a blog to self-publish my pieces. I had complained to her about all of the writings just sitting on my hard drive, going nowhere. “I can turn the blog on in a day,” she said. “What’s the title? Come up with a name.” A thrill went through me at the thought of people – random, anonymous people – actually reading my work! But I hesitated. “That seems so…public,” I said. She said, “Only if you make it public. No one knows to look for it. Even if you do publicize it, through Facebook or whatever,” she continued, “worst case, no one will read your blog. But that’s status quo – no one’s reading your stuff now.” How true. “But,” I persisted, “then I have to deal with feedback on my pieces.” She countered, “I can turn the comments off on the blog.” Her big eyes stared me down, silently calling my bluff.

It doesn’t end there. There’s my exercise regime, which has dwindled to near non-existence since August. I took our summer vacation as an excuse to do nothing, other than whatever the excursion of the day was. “I can’t believe people would jog here,” I said to my husband. “It seems so boring and everyday.” We were on the island of Kauai, then later on the big island. Joggers abounded on the shoulder of what was often the only road for miles – alongside eighteen-wheelers, tourists in their rental cars (and we all know how safe they are!), and bicyclists – diligently trying to work off their mai-tais and what remained of the previous night’s luau feast. Jogging might have been “boringly everyday,” but at least they were burning more calories than I was lounging by the hotel pool.

I assumed that I would just resume my regular exercise regime when we returned to DC. It’s now midway into September, and I have taken up tennis again two days a week – and that’s it. I toyed with the idea of going back to the yoga studio where I started last spring, but told myself it was really too crowded. I also contemplated joining the mom friends at my daughter’s school who are all training for a November half marathon. But I have apparently decided not to do anything proactive, like going on training runs, that would at least give me the option to compete should I decide last minute. I find myself trawling websites of the latest and greatest specialty gyms – Corepower Yoga, Solidcore, Soulcycle (anything with “core” in its name appeals to me) – to read about their respective workouts, with the thought that I will give them all a try and make a decision about my new normal. Soon.

I know what I need to do. Quit holding back. Just take the leap. Carpe diem. All the things my mom used to tell me. “What are you waiting for?” she would say impatiently, in her accented English. “Go for it, Tiger!” I will, I will. I just have a long windup.

The Other Side of DC

When I left the practice of law five years ago, I never imagined I’d be a flea market vendor. But there I was one Sunday last June, on my way to work my first market. I arose at dawn, aiming to get there before 6 o’clock in order to get a spot. As I made my way down Reno Road, I breathed in deeply, enjoying the solitude and softly lit sky – the periwinkle blue of dawn tinted with a hint of rose. I said a silent prayer of gratitude that there was no one else on the road, as my pickup truck was packed high with furniture, including an art deco style armoire that completely blocked my rear view.

Moments after I arrived at the Georgetown Flea Market, my partner Sharon pulled up behind me in her minivan. The parking lot was still half empty, with a few vendors busy unloading trucks and vans and setting up furniture, tables, china, candlesticks, matchbooks, posters and other treasures. The market manager, Butch, a gruff older gentleman wearing a cowboy hat and ostrich skin boots, directed me to pull into a parking spot, “You can park here to unload, but you need to hurry. The person who has this spot will be here soon.”

The vendor community brims with an ease and informality reminiscent of the feel of a developing country – or perhaps of a rural society. Personal boundaries are down, tools and advice are shared freely, interactions are conducted with an “all for one, one for all” mentality. One vendor swept the sidewalk in front of her tent with a broom made of straw, including the binding, brush and handle, possibly from her native country. When she finished the vendor across from her asked to use it, and she handed it over without a word.

A friendly woman with a brown curly ponytail who was already set up next to our truck grabbed some of our pieces and helped us carry them across the parking lot to the sidewalk. “Hurry up, ladies, Pam’s going to get here soon and I don’t want her to yell at you for being in her spot. She’s kind of tough.” She walked slightly ahead of us, hauling one of our chairs, and called over her shoulder, “I like what you’ve done to this chair. You’ve got some really nice stuff.”

The young man with the stall across from us who was selling his own curated collection of odds and ends said, “Dang, what’re you doing here? You guys should be on HGTV.” “I love hearing that,” I told him, “that’s so nice of you to say.”

But I felt a twinge of doubt…were we in the wrong place? Sharon and I started RaReR a year and a half ago, a business where we salvage and upcycle old furniture in an artsy way. Using old furnishings as our “canvases,” we transform the furniture, trying to give it an unexpected “pop,” through the use of bright colors and repurposed materials, such as our signature belt chairs. We decided to try a market not only to sell some pieces, but to get feedback on our designs and prices from the outside world. So far our customers had been largely our friends.

Already one thing was clear: Market work was hard physical labor. A far cry from my cushy, air-conditioned offices of the past, where the heaviest load I ever lifted was a box of documents. Separate and apart from the ungodly start hour, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how taxing it would be on the joints, limbs, and back. Our husbands had helped with a lot of the heavy lifting the night before when we loaded up our vehicles, but that morning we were on our own. The first hour at the market was a marathon of lifting, hauling, arranging and rearranging our furniture, the tent, our dollies.

From the get-go, we were curiosities, we newbies with our homemade dollies, consisting of big sheets of plywood nailed to short rectangular platforms with small wheels on the bottom that didn’t always pivot a full 360 degrees. The stalls at this market are arranged loosely in an “L” shape. Those lucky enough to be situated on the leg that abuts Wisconsin Avenue are able to drive into the parking lot and leave their cars there all day, next to their stall. Temporary vendors typically get stuck on the other leg of the “L” – on the sidewalk that runs roughly perpendicular to Wisconsin, toward the back of the market. As we schlepped our stuff through the parking lot and down the sidewalk to our assigned space, our dollies rattled over the asphalt, creating a deafening racket, and on our countless trips back and forth everyone looked up to see who the new kids were.

By 7 we were set up, tent and all – and winded. Nine o’clock felt like noon and noon felt like 5. My lower back throbbed from when I tweaked it jumping down from the truck with our Shades of Grey dresser early that morning. As the day wore on the pain forced me to stand up and sit down oh-so-gingerly. And yet, the buzz and energy of the market captivated me. We took turns manning our stall while the other browsed. Many of the vendors looked like they had lived hard lives, judging by their slumped or crooked postures, wrinkles and sunspots. Some were doing it as a side job, like the young woman across from us who was a schoolteacher by trade. She was selling the remaining inventory from her mother’s furnishings store in New Hampshire since her mother retired, then planned to travel for the rest of the summer. The couple in the back alley, like us, offered furniture they had redone themselves. The wife started the business as a hobby, and the husband joined her when he retired. He came by our tent and admired the design of our dresser, which we had painted in different shades of grey, and our kitchen table that had yellow and green legs distressed with an ikat pattern. He asked, “What do you use as a finish? I use polycryolite because the polyurethane yellows over time.” I gulped, “Uh, we use polyurethane.” He nodded. After he left, I jotted down “polycryolite” in my notebook.

The variety of wares offered in the market represented a mixture of color and texture that could tantalize even the most reluctant buyer: vintage purple goblets, rows of old typewriters, artwork, both original and reproduced, fringed lamps, and a pair of vinyl orange sofas reminiscent of the Mad Men set. Although the market didn’t officially open until 8 o’clock, by 7 the seasoned regulars, many of them dealers, were already circulating through the tents with practiced ease and quick eyes. “How much is that lamp?” one guy asked, pointing, even as he continued looking elsewhere and walked on. The vendor next to us, a young Asian-American man whose wife had just had their first baby, sold Hawaiian shirts of all sizes. I wondered who was buying Hawaiian shirts these days. A lot of people, apparently – his stall had a steady stream of customers throughout the day. I wondered how the market’s other furniture vendors, including Butch, were faring as the day went on. I could tell our prices were viewed as high from the way some people who entered our tent, obviously interested in a piece, fingered the tag, then casually backed out. I’d done that a million times myself when I shopped.

Around 3 o’clock, a couple of nearby vendors began packing up. We lagged, trying to delay the inevitable loading up of everything that did not sell, which was most of our stuff. Before coming to the market, Sharon and I talked about our “rock bottom” prices – but at the late hour, we renewed the discussion – would we take $25, $50, even $75 less for the dresser? Discouraged and tired, we began wheeling things back to our vehicles. The Hawaiian shirt guy said, ““I used to sell at Eastern Market. Your stuff would do well there. You would’ve sold almost everything.” Back and forth we trudged through the parking lot accompanied by the loud clattering of our dollies, until the last items were packed and tied.

Butch came by and said, “It was a crappy market day all around. I sold one thing.” We had planned to come back the next Sunday, for which Butch had promised us one of the three rotating permanent spots along Wisconsin Avenue – but I wasn’t at all eager to repeat the experience.

We didn’t go back the following Sunday. But weeks later, I’m ready for another try. I think back to five years ago, almost to the day, when my regular place of work was a clean, sanitized office, where I often shut my door to get work done and sat in front of a computer 90% of the time. In a letter I wrote to friends about why I was leaving the law, I talked about a piece of my soul dying in that sterile environment where one’s left brain dominated over the right and time was my most precious commodity, measured and billed in quarter hour increments. I wanted to be out and about in the world, free of such constraints, gabbing and laughing and eating without an eye on the clock, in spaces exposing the messier sides of human nature, where the unexpected was the norm.

And now I am. In a place where tents replace cubicles, tank tops and flip-flops prevail over suits and high heels, and workouts are done in the work place rather than in a gym after work. Old-school friendliness and kindness flow freely between our wall-less “workspaces.” We’ve witnessed it not just at the market, but in the wider community of artists and small businesses we’ve gotten to know. It’s a small slice of DC that few get to experience.

This was our first market. Given what we do, I know other markets are in our future – perhaps Eastern Market and Crafty Bastards, if we are so lucky. I better get to work strengthening my core.