The upside of being sick

On Saturday, two days after getting back from our week-long trip to the Bay Area, Steve got sick.

Steve gets sick more than I do, so I’m not usually very sympathetic when it happens. Typically, I roll my eyes and rib him about his inferior immune system. He’ll snuffle and pop DayQuil for a week and it’s all over. But this time, I got it too.

And it was a bad one. Really bad. So on Saturday, Steve went to bed at 7:20 p.m. and my plan was to sleep downstairs, so as not to infect myself. By 9 p.m., I knew it was over. No matter where I slept, I was getting slammed: Body aches, extreme fatigue and a fever. It was grim, but I’ve emerged from the flu foxhole to tell you that being sick has a few plusses. Namely:

  1. You can catch up on your reading.  I haven’t yet delved into Donna Tartt’s latest tome, or my stack of unread New Yorkers. Instead, I spent my bed-ridden hours blowing through easy fiction. Specifically, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mysteries. In the past four days, I’ve read “The Drop,” (meh) “The Closers” (awesome) and now, “Echo Park.” And I could gorge on these cheeseburgers of literature thanks to my Kindle, friend to the bed-ridden shut-in.
  2. You can experiment with drugs.  We’re usually a NyQuil family, but Target had a tantalizing end cap of Kleenex and Mucinex FastMax, so I bought both. The daytime stuff works fine. Maybe a little too well. I had no aches, pains or congestion to speak of, but my brain didn’t function. You probably shouldn’t operate a motor vehicle on Mucinex FastMax. Another tip: Do not drink wine after taking cold medicine, because everything tastes terrible. It’s a waste of perfectly good wine.
  3. You can clear your social calendar. I’m a social person, but when you tell people you’ve got the flu, they steer clear. My entire week is totally free. I can lay around and read crappy bestsellers and eat cough drops and sleep and revel in my own filth.
  4. You can’t exercise. I really like to exercise. It makes me feel good. But I have a long history of doing stupid things like running with strep throat. Here’s the deal: If you’re sick, you shouldn’t exercise. It prolongs the illness in many cases and it depletes what little energy you have. Stay home, keep your filthy germs to yourself, and get better. A couple of days really isn’t going to make any difference. Really.
  5. No one expects anything from you. When you’ve got a cold, people feel bad for you for about 24 hours. After that, you’re expected to medicate and function. Not so with the flu. People die from the flu, dude. I was able to dispense with all sorts of requests with a simple, “I’m sorry, but I have the flu.” It was awesome.

How to survive the holidays, a postmortem

My dad, wielding the champagne bottle, Charlie, my brother's partner, and me, surviving New Year's Eve dinner.
My dad, wielding the champagne bottle, Charlie, my brother’s partner, and me, surviving New Year’s Eve dinner.

It’s January 3, I’m on Day One of my post-holiday austerity plan (no booze, kale for lunch) and trying to remember what happened over the past four weeks. Well, for one thing, I didn’t write a damned thing that I wasn’t paid for. Also, what do we think the shelf life is for a gluten-free chocolate cake that’s been in the ‘fridge since December 24?

Never mind. The purpose of this post is to share with you, after nearly a month off, what I’ve learned about surviving the holidays. Every year I say that I’m going to take it easy, that I’m going to be prepared, that it won’t be stressful. But it always is, goddammit. There’s no way to get through it all without some stress, particularly if you have children or family of any kind, but I’ve got some helpful tips. Which are no good to you this year, but maybe you’ll remember.

  1. Go out, right now, and buy Christmas crap. It’s probably picked over, but here’s what I’m getting for next year: A ton of little gift bags, ribbon, festive tissue paper and a box of generic holiday cards. Put it in a bin, and then put a reminder on your phone for November because if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget. Then, next year …
  2. Buy a bunch of iTunes, Amazon, Starbucks gift cards. Also, little bottles of liquor (those were a hit) and little packages of coffee beans. Then, assemble a bunch of little gift bags with the generic cards, coffee and gift cards for people like your dog-walker or your regular babysitter or the UPS guy or the neighbors. One year, our neighbors all brought us stuff and I had to send Steve to the store to buy 12 bottles of wine and a bunch of gift bags. This year, we were READY. (And only two neighbors brought us stuff. Oh well. It’s the thought that counts.)
  3. Give something to the garbage collectors. We gave ours booze, and the recycling guy was so appreciative that he got out of the truck and wheeled the emptied bin back up the driveway. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  4. Ship gifts directly. If your family, like mine, lives out of state, you have two choices: Pony up for the gift-wrapping at your favorite online store or gift-wrap yourself and ship by Dec. 10. (See No. 5).
  5. Ship by Dec. 10. If you don’t, the little weasel at the post office will try to scare you by telling you that your giant box of gifts won’t make it by Christmas. By Dec. 14, the post office is like Mad Max. You don’t want to be there with your kid. Trust me.
  6. Find a funny picture for your holiday card.  We kept putting off the family-in-front-of-the-fireplace-with-the-timer thing, so two weeks before Christmas, Steve and I just picked a funny/cute picture of our kid and that was the holiday card. I still can’t believe how many compliments we got on that card. Lesson learned: No one cares what you look like, mom and dad. It’s all about the kid. Particularly if he’s adorable, like mine.
  7. Screw your rules about drinking and eating. During the rest of the year, I only drink three times a week. But during December? Please. And don’t be that person at the party who goes on about overeating during the holidays and it’s BAD and food is BAD. You’re a big bummer. Just have the damned Buche de Noel and shut up.
  8. Let your kids watch TV.  Maybe you had an idyllic childhood in Vermont and you spent the holidays sledding and caroling. That’s terrific. I remember spending a lot of time watching “All My Children.” And I lived in Northern California, where it’s always 60 degrees out. Winter break is for allowing your brain to turn into mush. It’s fine. Jeez.
  9. Rent a car. This is hugely controversial with my parents, but we do it anyway whenever we visit. Because even if your parents make their car available to you whenever you want it, you’re still borrowing your parents car. Like you’re 17 years old. You’re already sleeping in your childhood bed with your spouse, so do this thing. Then you can escape.
  10. Even if they make you crazy, try to enjoy your family. I’m saying this now, 24 hours removed from my family visit. But I’m really glad that I have family to visit during the holidays — that my parents’ marriage is intact, that they’re healthy and that my brothers and I like each other. Yes, we all revert to ancient roles and rituals when we’re together and my husband has to retreat to the solitude of his iPad and ESPN,  but it’s good. It really is. (And my mom reads my blog.)

30 days of nice

In mid-October, I decided to do something nice, every day, for 30 days. It wasn’t exact. It wasn’t because of a Facebook initiative or a much-forwarded e-mail. I just made it up.

Why? Paris, I guess. I was so tuned in to everything when I was there: the art, the architecture, the flowers in the gardens, the public spaces, the people. When I got back, that awareness carried over for a little while. The leaves were turning and I was knocked out by the colors. When I went to places I’d been to a million times, I noticed new little details. It was cool, and I wanted to prolong it somehow.

I figured it wasn’t possible to be endlessly charmed by everyday life, but I didn’t want to go right back to zooming through on autopilot, either. So, I came up with 30 days of nice.

I’m a nice person, actually. It may not seem like it, but it’s true, damn it. I have a flinty exterior, but on the inside, I’m mush.

Don’t believe me? Check out my mailbox sometime. It’s stuffed with appeals from Oxfam, Smile Train, Orphan Acres, Humane Society International, Doris Day Animal League, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace. I write a lot of checks, so I’m on a lot of lists. But check-writing is an arms-length niceness. It enables good things to happen, but it’s passive caring.

I like to do more active caring. At one workplace in San Francisco, I organized a Giving Tree at Christmas. I had to whip it together in about a week, and I was blown away by how many of my snotty co-workers contributed. One guy that I thought was a complete assclown offered to drive me 50 miles to the drop-off site when my car battery died. It was a classic Christmas lesson: Maybe you’re the assclown, sister.

After the 2011 tornado in Joplin, I reached out to my friends and my husband’s co-workers and got bags upon bags of food, dog beds and other supplies for the Humane Society there. It cost me $200 to ship it, and the guy at the shipping store actually paid for half. I did a stuffed animal drive a few years ago, and my Honda CR-V was stuffed from floor to ceiling with plush toys. I like facilitating things like that. It gives me a visceral, deep-in-the-gut good feeling that I can’t duplicate any other way.

But my nice things are sporadic. Most of the time, I’m worrying about stupid stuff like my hair length or whether my son has too much homework. I’ll sit down and write a bunch of checks to charitable organizations and feel that good, fuzzy feeling, but then the next day, I’m wrapped up in the mundane crap again.

My 30 days of nice experiment had one rule: Do one nice thing a day. That’s it. The nice thing could be a bigger gesture, like helping an older woman with Parkinson’s write out several Priority Mail slips at the post office. Or, it could be something as simple as letting a harried mom go ahead of me in the checkout line.

Sometimes, I had Bini with me, like the time I bought a Trader Joe’s gift card for a local family and delivered it to a mega church I normally wouldn’t have gone near. Sometimes, the gesture was personal, like when I wrote to a friend to tell her I was thinking of her. My favorite was when I called my dad up, just to talk. The surprise and pleasure in his voice was enough to convince me that small gestures do matter. A lot.

So, did doing something intentionally nice for 30 days change me as a person? Not really. I still zip around, ticking through my endless to-do lists and mentally gnawing on insignificant non-issues. But I do think my experiment helped me calm my chronic busy problem. If you’re looking for opportunities to do nice things, you have to pause. And when you pause, you chill out.

I don’t automatically hit the “close doors” button in the elevator anymore. I say “good morning” to the crossing guards, and make eye contact. When the checkout guy asks me how my day’s going, I also ask about his. Tiny gestures, I know. But they make me feel good. More human, more connected. Nice.

Confessions of a repentant food snob

All of my healthy, healthy food, and some corndogs. I don't actually like corndogs, but I think you get the point. I hope.
All of my healthy, healthy food, and some corndogs. I don’t actually like corndogs, but I think you get the point.

I’ve been abiding by some set of food rules since I was 15 years old. Fat-free, vegetarian, Weight Watchers, Atkins, Cabbage Soup, starvation. Many of the rules were of my own making. All of them were designed to give me “safe” guidelines from “scary” food. It was insane. But it was my life, for a really long time.

Two years ago, I went to see a nutritionist named Erin Dudley, and she saved my life. That’s the topic of another post. Erin taught me how to eat like a normal person again — a normal, healthy person — because I had totally forgotten how. Her rules replaced my other, unhealthy rules — but they were still rules.

Erin stressed to me the importance of eating the highest quality food you could find. Of course, I took it to the extreme. I remember being at Target and looking at a thing of mushrooms. I needed toilet paper, socks, toothpaste, light bulbs and mushrooms, but instead of buying the mushrooms at Target, I put them down, paid for my other stuff, and drove to Whole Foods. To buy organic mushrooms.

It was at this point that I became a food snob. I subscribed to a community-supported agriculture program and toughed it out through the fall and winter, when all you get is root vegetables and pears. If a recipe called for a tomato in February, I just didn’t make the recipe.

I also liked to evangelize my “new way” to anyone who would listen — and to people who really couldn’t have cared less. I lectured my mother about the importance of eating local. I sneered at her Foster Farms chicken. I remember having impassioned conversations with my mom friends about only buying organic, BPA-free canned foods. Also, about how much better a carrot tastes when it’s fresh from the ground. I’d kind of like to go back in time and punch myself.

Five months ago, I switched to a (mostly) grain-free diet. I didn’t do it to lose weight; rather, I hoped eschewing rice and pasta and bread and pizza would help correct some long-term health irritants that I won’t go into.  My doctor suggested outpatient surgery as one route to alleviate my symptoms, but told me that other women had seen great improvement going grain free. I wasn’t thrilled to give up my carbs, but I didn’t want to do surgery, either.

So, I waded into the Paleo morass, with its unique cross section of food rules and food snobbery. This could have been dangerous territory for me: I could have backslid into an eating disorder, or I could have become even more tiresome with my endless food yammering. But somehow, I managed to take what I wanted from the diet and disregard what I didn’t.

Yes, I bowed to the god of coconut oil. I made my own grain-free granola. I made bone broth. I tried, unsuccessfully, to make pizza crust out of cauliflower. I spent a shit-ton of money on food and more time in the kitchen than a celebrity chef.

However, I also ate dairy. I drank wine. I ate deep-dish pizza in Chicago, because DUH. I ate bread in Paris, for the same reason. Actually, I did more than eat bread — I had two pains au chocolat in one day, and felt not the slightest bit guilty.

The rules of the Paleo diet bugged me, but I think the  sanctimony bothered me more. (Probably because I recognized myself in the tedious lectures about legumes.) Well-meaning Paleo people will post recipes on blogs and get taken apart in the comments for their use of almond flour or agave nectar. The universe does not need another online argument about whether or not sweet potatoes are “allowed.” And then, there were the lasagna noodles.

One day, while looking for a use for leftover chicken, I found a recipe on PaleoOMG, for Creamy Rosemary Chicken Lasagna. Yes, lasagna. I have two other people to feed, and though they’ve been good sports about the grain-free thing, sometimes they just want some freakin’ pasta.

Anyway, I was going to use the $6 gluten-free noodles they sell at Whole Foods, but just for fun, I clicked on the link for lasagna noodles in the recipe. They cost $55. That’s not a typo. To be fair, it’s $55 for four packages, but that works out to over $13 per package. For noodles. Over 47 million Americans are on food stamps, but I guess it’s OK if poor people eat cheap food, isn’t it?

There are people, and a good friend of mine is among them, who have genuine food allergies. She cannot eat dairy or gluten or fibrous vegetables or garlic because if she does, her body will revolt. People like my friend need food rules. I get it.

But other people are just bored, I guess. They need a hobby, something other than making Paleo mayonnaise. They need food rules to feel safe, like I did. They need food rules to feel superior.

I chose to go mostly grain free as an experiment, and it was an experiment that worked — in more ways than one. My aforementioned long-term health irritants are much improved, so I avoided surgery. For now, anyway. And also, I proved to myself that I could restrict what I ate without getting all crazy and extreme. I’m restricting because it makes me feel better. But if I want a damned cupcake, I’m going to have one.

The Christmas of the leather jacket

I coveted the leather jacket Molly Ringwald wore in "The Breakfast Club." (Getty image)
I coveted the leather jacket Molly Ringwald wore in “The Breakfast Club.” (Getty image)

Last week, my mom asked me for Christmas lists — for me, for Steve and for Bini. Shortly, I will put out the same call, to my brothers, my parents, my in-laws. I know, it sucks all the spontaneity and “it’s the thought that counts”-ness out of the holiday. I understand. But we’ve been Christmas List People since 1985, since the Christmas of the leather jacket. Let me explain.

I was 15 in 1985 — a sophomore. That’s a touchy age for most teenage girls, and I was no exception. My friends were the end-all, my parents were idiots and the social pressure to look a certain way was intense. My mom had given up buying clothes for me without my input — I’d invariably roll my eyes and say: “I’m not wearing that.” I’m sure I was a delight, and I know karma is coming for me.

Anyway, “The Breakfast Club” was the movie of 1985, and every teenager could see themselves in one of the characters. I didn’t really identify with Molly Ringwald’s popular-girl character, Claire, but I loved her clothes. In particular, her leather jacket. It was brown and oversized, and she wore it with such insouciance. This was before the internet, of course, so I scoured all of the teen rags of the day, trying to find out where it was from. I didn’t find the exact jacket, but I found one similar, at Wilson’s, the Pantheon of mall leather-goods shops. I begged my mom for the jacket, and she said, “Maybe for Christmas.”

Christmas arrived and in the morning, I tore down the stairs like a kid. I saw, next to the Christmas tree, an opaque, hanging bag that said “Wilson’s.” I was so excited … until I opened it. It was not at all like the jacket I’d asked for. It looked like something an old person, like a 30-year-old, would wear. I was crushed. I have a terrible poker face.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I might have sulked around so much that my dad, who had chosen the jacket, sent me outside so he didn’t have to see my cheerless mug. (It was California. I was fine.) I could hear my mom arguing with him softly, saying things like, “Honey, stuff like this matters a lot to a teenage girl. I told you which jacket she wanted.” My dad was having none of it. He’d grown up in a very poor family, and as far as he was concerned, I was a spoiled, ungrateful brat. He would take the jacket back — and I would not get a replacement.

It’s true, I was a spoiled, ungrateful brat and it’s also true that I did not get a replacement jacket. But the next Christmas, my mother laid down the law: From here on out, we were doing Christmas lists, and if you went off list, it was at your own risk. We fell in line, and have done Christmas lists ever since.

Now that I have a child, I do see how wish lists, and their specificity, erode the true spirit of Christmas. I want my son to understand that Christmas, regardless of how you’re fixed church-wise, is a magical time of year, when families and friends gather together, and when people are a little kinder to each other. I adore Christmas and am prone to playing “O Holy Night” over and over, crying at the “fall on your knees” part, every every time.

These days, my Christmas list is pretty anemic anyway. This year, I want body lotion, a necklace and a book of photographs about materialism, oddly enough.  My family cannot operate without a list anymore, and I don’t want to stress anyone out by leaving them without a playbook. Also, if I’m honest, I don’t want a bunch of crap that I’ll end up returning.

I know we’re not the only Christmas-list family out there. Do you use Christmas lists? Or do you wing it?