IT’S MY BIRTHDAY.  DON’T TOUCH ME         

Celebrating Life During a Worldwide Quarantine

I have always been notorious for being difficult on my birthday.    I love attention, but I hate attention that is mandated.  On your birthday, people feel like they have to be nice.  There is nothing you’ve done to achieve it except being born.  Other Aries understand this.   If you have not earned people’s praise, it is not to be trusted.

Usually on my birthday I duck office cupcake parties like they are the plague (sorry for the untimely simile), and I am nasty and hostile to people who try to do nice things for me.  Then at the end of the day, I am hurt nobody did much for my birthday.    I’m pretty sure this personality quirk broke up my first relationship.   And now I notice my husband Saul gets visibly anxious around mid-March.   I don’t think it’s the only Ides he is bewaring of.

But how the hell does one prepare for this year?

When this quarantine began, there was a spirit of adventure among everyone.

Zoom meetings?     Yea!  

 I’m going to wear sweats and gain weight eating whatever I want!!   Wee!

But as this goes on for the foreseeable future, a new feeling seems to be creeping in..at least for me.  And I think that feeling is grief.

It’s not just for the loss of actual lives.  There is that.  But it’s also the loss of everyday habits and routines and, most of all, the loss of contact with people.

That has a big revelation for someone who is an introvert at heart.

I miss things like my daily coffee break —no matter what—with my dear friend and coworker Sara.  It’s the one moment in our often-hectic workday that we guard with our lives.  We walk a block to get coffee or tea and check in on each other.  When we began this ritual ten years ago, we often worried about whether we’d ever stop dating the wrong guys and getting our hopes dashed.  Now we are both married to good guys, and Sara has two wonderful kids.

And I miss my friends Jose and Will and our frequent forays to Broadway. Everyone has that thing they spend more money on that they should– sports events or shoes or tigers—our thing is Broadway shows.   I have also lured Saul into this thespian cult.   It took him awhile to drink the Bernadette-Peters-flavored Kool-Aid, but he finally (though still reluctantly) sips it.   I even miss our drives into NYC to see a play with Saul grouchily predicting that it is going to be awful and boring.  He does this before every single play even though he is wrong at least 8 times of 10. (Saul will dispute this but it’s my birthday, so you have to take my side).

I miss weekend gatherings with friends’ even though I always got terrible social anxiety before each and every one.

I DON’T miss riding a crowded bus to work.  Check back with me on that one in a few months.

Like many people, I’m no stranger to birthday grief.    I remember the sharp pain of my first birthday after I lost my big sister.    I still can’t believe I’ve now experienced more years of life than she did.  And there were so many others where I beat myself up because I still was single or hadn’t written that book or had no money or was floundering in my career.    Birthdays felt like a report card on my life instead of a celebration of life itself.

On top of all that, I was superstitious.  I had read Shirley McLane meditated on the exact hour of her birth each year and set her intentions for the 365 days ahead.   One time she envisioned winning an Academy Award and she did!    Since reading that, I’ve doggedly got up for the exact hour of my birth (6:20 AM) and meditated and set intentions for my coming year.   When I moved to LA I got up and drove an hour and a half to the ocean making sure to be sitting on the beach at that exact magic 6:20 AM hour.  I set some awesome intentions that year.   I was going to make Shirley look like an underachiever!  Then I realized that since I was born in Ohio and I was sitting on a west coast beach with a three-hour time change, I actually should have been there at 3:20 AM.  I had missed the magic hour completely and the sand in my underwear was all for naught.

This year I’m back in the right time zone but somehow missed my appointed intention-setting time again.  I basically had one thing to do today—get up at 6:15—but somehow set my phone alarm wrong.

So even though I probably missed my chance, I will tell you what my intention was for the year.

ENJOY HUMAN CONTACT— even though it is messy and irritating and unpredictable and anxiety-inducing.

Enjoy the run-ins and the scuffles and the people sitting too close and doing all the wrong things.

Enjoy the hand-holding and the hugs and the bemused smiles as people look in my eyes, and the small kindnesses and the holding of doors and the picking up of something I dropped.

Enjoy the idle gossip and the  laughing together at the absurdity of it all.

Enjoy people taking bites of my food and chewing too loudly too close to me and people interrupting me when I’m trying to write (like my husband just did a few minutes ago).

Enjoy it all.

Okay…I got carried away.

NO ONE  has to enjoy people chewing too loudly.   We are not animals.  We must still maintain a civilized society.

But other than that, this is my birthday wish.   Even if I will still have to take breaks from socializing every once in a while to recharge, and even though I am pretty sure I will still get that familiar  anxiety once I’m out and about in the world again, I want fully to enjoy as much as I possibly can the sights and sounds and smells and tastes of sharing this planet  with other glorious human beings

ABOUT THE AUTOR:   Keith Hoffman was going to win the Pulitzer Prize this year, but he overslept this morning.

 

 

 

 

 

Start A Writers Group Without Leaving Your Front Door

Virtual meetings are for more than working from home

One of the very best things I did to finally finish my book was start my own writing group but it happened pretty much by accident.

Enforced inspiration

Five years ago my company held a creative offsite. For those who have never worked in the corporate world, offsites are these odd things where you are forced to travel outside your office and comfort zone with your coworkers and prompted to do unnatural things in the name of team building and innovative thinking. You have to solve a puzzle with Janice from Accounting and Greg from Research Analytics (people from Research Analytics are always annoyingly good at solving puzzles) or write three ideas to move your brand forward using your left hand and an orange crayon. I loathe creative offsites. It feels like enforced creativity. I dislike them as much as work Happy Hours which feel like enforced fun. I guess like many writers, I am a loner at heart.

We ended this particular offsite by sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor taking turns announcing one way we could “improve creativity in the workplace”. Ugh.

Yelling “pass” didn’t seem like an option. I had to come up with something. I had been wanting to join a writers’ group to force myself to finish my book for some time and had been looking for just the right teacher who would guide me to that perfect best-seller. I was pretty sure there was no such person at my workplace, but when my turn came that was the idea that popped out of my mouth.

“We could order a pizza and meet in the 8th Floor conference room once a month at 6:00 pm and read out loud the pieces we’ve written. I mean…that is…if anyone is interested.” I said this as if I had been thinking about this idea for more than five minutes.

The response from the group was huge. Sign me up! That would be great! Please start one! I assumed the big reaction was the result of me mentioning pizza, and was pretty sure it would be forgotten the minute the offsite was over and we returned to our normal work lives.

A budding Proust snacking on a madeleine in the next cubicle?

But the interest wouldn’t go away. I was reminded weekly by at least one person that they couldn’t wait for me to start that writing group. Finally, after some nudging from my boss: “Those kinds of innovative actions are looked at favorably during promotion time, I sent out a mass work email, found a place that delivered pizza and moved the lava lamp from my desk to the 8th floor conference room one Wednesday evening after work. The first meeting was huge. Who knew there were so many secret writers in my office? We had to rush through each person to get everyone home before midnight. But soon the novelty wore off and the group was whittled down to six dedicated writers. They worked in every department — from people in creative fields to those who were executive assistants — but each person who ended up staying was a talented writer with a unique voice.

Since the group met after work, we felt safe reading personal things, and I reminded everyone that what was read and said in the group stayed in the group. Over time, we shared our stories and our lives and got to know each other far more deeply than we had working side by side all those years. One production manager who lost her husband to alcoholism wrote a piece on addiction that was more powerful and insightful than anything I’ve read before or since. The shy tape librarian who had initially been reticent to join us started a book that eventually got published. It’s called Don’t Get Too Excited because that was what she would say to us every session before reluctantly reading one of her brilliant stories. Eventually our work group staged a public reading at our boss’ apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan twice a year that became a popular and anticipated event.

Light a fire

Our group lasted almost five years until corporate restructuring laid off many of the members. By that time, I had learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to start the perfect group. I started a new one with my neighbors in the small town of New Hope, PA. We meet in the back room of Farley’s, the local bookstore, (which they let us have for free) and it is still going strong today. We’ve also had a public reading of our work and asked people to buy a book from Farley’s as the price of admission. I am constantly reminded that these groups are an age-old tradition that started with telling stories around the fire. The more you tell your stories, the better you get at it. And all I had to do was create a safe space for those two hours we met.

Your computer can be for more than writing

But there are several reasons people can’t come together to meet as a group. There may not be an affordable distraction-free space. Coffee shops can be loud and unpredictable. Or someone may have a physical disability that makes mobility challenging. Maybe you don’t know any writers in your town or live in a remote area or just can’t be away from home for long. Perhaps you are looking for a group of very specific writers — mystery or romance novelist or cookbook creators— and there aren’t enough of you in close proximity. Or maybe you already have a wonderful group of writing friends, but they live in other parts of the world.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be part of a once-in-a-lifetime workshop with memoirist Mary Karr in Greece. A bunch of us who attended would meet between Mary’s sessions forming an impromptu session where we read our own work to each other. After we returned home from that workshop, we tried to keep up the strong connection we had formed. We made audio files of our work and emailed them to each other. Everyone tried to listen to the files and reply with their thoughts, but something got lost in the distance and mechanics of it all. I discovered if I didn’t schedule time to listen each week, I just never got to it. Life had a way of interfering.

But in the last couple of years, technology has been able to bring humans closer. More people work from home because and Zoom or Skype into meetings. Why can’t we do the same with writing groups?

The rules don’t change: Bring work to the group no more than a certain length (I learned from a mentor that 7 pages is optimal), keep comments constructive, and make a commitment to show up. Instead of printing out copies, you can email your work beforehand. As far as I can tell, the benefits are still the same. There is something about reading your work out loud that is informative and illuminating. And there is nothing that gets one motivated like having a deadline

If you have wanted to be part of a writer’s group, now is a great time to start.  Email five to seven writers you’d like to work with, and set up a time where you meet for a couple hours each week or every two weeks once a month and download Zoom on your computer (this is the most challenging part for people like me—but I swear if I can do it, you can do it too).

Put on sweats, order pizza, pour some seltzer or a little wine since you don’t have to drive anywhere and…viola!  Of course, you still have to write something between group meetings.  That part technology hasn’t figured out yet.

Who is on your fantasy writing team?   Today is as good as any to send out a first email asking someone if they might be interested.  Don’t make the mistake I did and wait for a creative offsite to force you to take that first step.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:   Keith Hoffman is currently using his innovative thinking skills  to figure out how to conduct all of his human exchanges through zoom.  

DO’S AND DON’TS OF STAYING SANE WHEN THE WORLD’S GONE CRAZY

It’s Day 4 since a National Emergency was declared and I’m already going nuts.  I would clearly not do well in prison or  a hostage situation.

In just one week’s time, all of our worlds have gone topsy-turvy. And like everyone else, I’m trying to navigate an abnormal normal

It all happened so fast. A few weeks ago, I was so naive that I thought coronavirus was two words. I went to large gatherings, flew on planes, incessantly touched my face and washed my hands a mere fifteen seconds. When someone next to me on the bus sneezed, I simply glared at them instead of reporting them to the CDC. Sure, the media talked about it a lot, but I was used to those fake predictions that never materialized: Killer storms…Mexican caravans storming our borders…a women president. I thought we would eventually add Coronavirus to that list.

But before I knew it, flights were cancelled, conferences shut down and I was ordered to work from home. And I am overwhelmed thinking about the people who are losing their jobs, and their income and their businesses. Everything feels frightening and sad. The territory is new. It’s like we’re Googling our brains for a similar event in our lifetime and coming up with nothing.

So how do we all get through this? Well, I’m as much of an expert as the rest of you which means I’m not one at all, but I’ve to come up with a few DO and DON’TS that will hopefully help.

DON’TS

DON’T post on social media that you are in a crowded bar or restaurant with quotes like “No Corona for me but how about a margarita??” (Yes, I actually saw this.) I know in your probably drunken head you think you are sounding fearless but you actually sound kind of idiotic and possibly alcoholic. Be a good member of the community and keep your distance from the rest of us.

DON’T use the hashtags #BoomerDoomer or “BoomerRemover when talking about the virus. It’s just tacky and you may feel a tiny bit guilty if your grandparent or parent dies. Look, I’m not quite a Boomer (I say this trying not to sound defensive—BUT CHECK THE DATES ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE AGAINST THE DATES OF THE BOOMER GENERATION IN WIKIPEDIA), but I did spend the 80’s marching in the streets and attending protests while the government ignored AIDS and my friends died. A lot of those who died were Boomers. So, let’s give the still-living Boomers a break. They’ve already had their plague. And here is another tip I learned from Anne Lamott: Flirt with Old People. Try it. It’s actually quite fun. Everyone feels good after a little harmless flirting. #HeeeeyBoomer

DON’T say to your spouse, significant other, child or roommate “Oh my God. I can’t do this. I can’t spend another minute cooped up with you. I feel like I’m being strangled. I’m suffocating.” Especially when its only the first day of ‘social isolation’. Statements like that are best left written in a journal or communicated to a therapist via skype. On the other hand, I have found Saul gets equally upset when I excitedly say things like “Wow, all this time at home really gives us a chance to talk a lot about our feelings!” That makes him cringe and nervously touch his face with his hands. And one last relationship tip: Before blurting out “During this pandemic, let’s agree on no more sex outside of the marriage,” you might want to double-check that ‘sex outside of the marriage’ was actually allowed before the pandemic. Things could get awkward.

DON’T touch other people’s faces unless you are Helen Keller.

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DO’S

DO order take out–or if that makes you nervous–buy gift certificates from your local favorite restaurants or business. I get it. I am also nervous about eating outside my home. But then I think of Janice and Mae, the waiters at Ota-Ya, the Japanese restaurant down the block who know my husband and I so well. They always greet us with, “Hi Saul. Hi Keith. The usual?” And just a few buildings from them, we’ve excitedly watched Meta Café, the small neighborhood breakfast and lunch place, grow and become successful. We often bring the owner and her staff some of Saul’s baked goods as a snack. Those people are the heart of our community and I want to support them even if it means pushing past my urge to hoard money in case everything goes bust.

DO donate to the arts. If tickets are cancelled and you can afford it,  think about donating the money instead of asking for a refund. I remind myself of all the joy theatre brought into my life. For me it’s theatre. Think about what has brought joy into your life and how you can support it even a little during these weird times.

DO spend more time giving your pets extra love. This is the time to cash in on all those hours they hung out by themselves waiting for you to come home. Saul is doing his part.

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DO read a non-virtual book. Maybe you have an old favorite sitting on your bookshelf that you read years ago and loved. You don’t have to lug it anywhere so you can take the time to read something with real pages made out of paper. Currently I’m re-reading Bleak House, Lauren Bacall’s memoir, a book about Broadway and Andy Warhol’s diary. If you drew a map of my brain and what usually goes on in it, I suspect it would look pretty much like those books.

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DO try to find humor in all this. It’s tricky. Especially on Social Media. A few months ago, I posted a picture of a mom peering into her kitchen oven holding her innocent-looking boy saying, “Your sister didn’t pick up her toys and now look at her.” I found it hilarious as did many of my friends, but one person accused me of mocking Jews in the Holocaust. That was the last thing on my mind, and I was offended he would think that, but when I tried to explain… “See, it’s funny because the mom is so calm as she shows her son his little sister burning…” well, it was a losing argument. I’ve always enjoyed dark humor. Three days after my sister died, my brother and I had to go around and run errands for our mom and discovered we couldn’t get through a simple encounter such as getting an extra house key made without one of us blurting out that our sister had just died. We would get back in our car and burst out laughing over our lack of impulse control. It is still makes me laugh to think about it, but others may not quite understand. So with humor on social media, I try my best to go by the rule of not mocking anyone but myself…and maybe a fictional little girl who didn’t pick up her toys.

DO Facetime. Seeing someone’s face makes a lot of difference. But please wear pants. You would be amazed how easily you forgot you are in your underwear. One slip of the phone angle….

DO keep to a routine. I’ve been setting my alarm, getting up early, showering and dressing It keeps me feeling more grounded and helps me to remember to put on those pesky pants.

DO be safe! And be kind when you can. And send me some of your idea for staying sane.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is NOT a boomer. But he does enjoy if you flirt  with or without your pants on.

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Why I’m Giving Up Posting About Politics For Lent

When I was a little boy I loved Lent.   I loved getting that cross smudged on my forehead by the priest on Ash Wednesday.  It made me feel special and a little superior to all the others with spotless foreheads.  I wasn’t exactly prejudice against those “others”, but the fact that the nuns divided the world into Catholics and non-Catholics might have sent a subtle message that our religion was the winning team.

So, I loved the ashes, and I loved the blessed, dried-up frond I put under my mattress on Palm Sunday, and I loved how you had to be quiet from noon to 3PM on Good Friday during the hours Jesus hung on the cross and how it always seemed to rain that day, and I loved how on the third day after Jesus died for our sins the Easter Bunny left everyone baskets full of treats.

But most of all I loved giving up things for Lent.  It made me feel noble.  Usually I gave up candy or lying.  Once I gave up Orange-flavored Tang.  Each year felt like a contest.   Could I hold out for 40 days and win a trip to heaven?

Those things don’t have  as much meaning as they used to when I was a little boy, but I still like to give up things for old time’s sake.  If nothing else, I find it a great way to break bad habits.    But now, I try to give up something a little more sophisticated than candy.   To be honest, I almost did give up sugar this year, but my husband Saul is going through an obsession with baking and I’m too codependent to not eat what he makes.  I do sometimes worry about my health, but if I die from diabetes, I figure I will be a little like those people who jump in front of bullets or trains for their spouses.    Eating my husband’s tarts is like taking a bullet only much more pleasant.

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Saul suggested I give up Candy Crush which he finds me obsessively playing at all hours of the day and night.  I love Candy Crush.  It does something to my brain that relieves anxiety.    But I’m not ready to give that up just yet.  I know Jesus made a lot of sacrifices for mankind, but I think if he had an iPhone all those days he was stuck in the desert with Satan, he would have played a LOT Candy Crush to relieve his anxiety.

Still, I am giving up something almost equally as hard.   I’m giving up responding to political posts or making political posts on social media.

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It’s a been almost a week since I wrote the above section.

Since then I have failed MISERABLY at my Lenten promise.    There will be no all-expense paid trip to heaven for me now.

I was doing fine until Super Tuesday.  And to my credit, I still have not posted anything on my own Facebook wall, but I could not seem to stop myself from reacting to what I thought were asinine comments from other’s online. And I did it again and again and again.

First let me explain why I was trying to give it up in the first place.

I’m pretty sure we all thought the internet would unify the world.  Once we were all able to post our views, we would finally be able to walk in each other’s virtual moccasins and come to a unified understanding of life and humanity.

And we all know that’s not what happened.   People quickly found that when you are not face-to-face in the same room with someone, you can be vicious and call each other names and dig your feet firmly into your own point of view.    I noticed this during the last Presidential election when my own sister-in-law who had always been like a big sister  called me a libtard on my Facebook wall.

But it got even worse during this current election section but from people who were supposedly in my own political party.   After I said another person’s candidate was not my first choice but I would vote for them if they were the candidate in the general election, I was called a racist (even though their candidate was white), a hater of poor people, someone who doesn’t care about the sick and suffering, and a neoliberal.  I don’t know what that last label quite means, but I discerned from the context of the insult that it is a very, very bad thing to be. Now to be totally honest, one of those things is true.  Sick people do get on my nerves.  Just ask my husband Saul. When he says he feels under the weather, my response is usually something like “Ugh.  I hate weak people.”   I’m working on pretending to act more compassionate, but am pretty sure I would be a really terrible nurse.  And you will all be as glad as I am that I have to avoid other people during this current pandemic.

When I started this grand political experiment, I did pretty well for the first couple of days.   It was like giving up any addiction.   I would get a strong urge to post, but if I took a couple of breaths I noticed it would pass.   I discovered it really wasn’t necessary to write every single political thought that popped into my head.   I realized that typing my latest take on a subject on my phone and pressing send, didn’t actually make me a real expert.

I also realized I was getting little adrenaline shots every time I responded to a post I disagreed with. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but it sure was distracting from the things in my non-virtual life that I didn’t want to deal with.

As I successfully stayed on the sidelines during the first weeks and watched people angrily debate, it confirmed what I suspected all along.  No one’s mind is changed when they are being attacked because no one wants to feel like they are losing. Imagine if Amazon sent you angry emails that you were stupid and clueless and an idiot for not wanting to buy its products.  Or instead of seductively beckoning you from the street corner, prostitutes screamed at you and called you a neoliberal loser if you didn’t chose them for a good time.   That last example may be a little outdated, but my point is tearing down the person you want to think the way you do doesn’t seem to work very often.

So why did I fall off the wagon so spectacularly?

The slide started slowly. At first I would ask Saul to post things for me.   “I’ll gladly eat your entire Swiss Jelly Roll if you’ll repost this scathing political cartoon on your wall.”

But finally, the posts that made go trigger-happy were the ones where they threatened to vote for Trump just to teach America a lesson (I noticed these people were always young white guys who would be the last to suffer under four more years of Trump) or the ones that claimed they didn’t vote because “voting needs to be made easier”.  That last one really got to me.   Should our elections be reduced to putting the candidates’ pictures online to see who gets the most likes?   If we have time to binge-watch entire seasons of shows, we can make the effort to vote. (Although I am all for making Election Day a national holiday.)

But wait, am I breaking my vow by even posting this?

Look, I understand that anger often brings change.  And I know that words can often inspire deeply.  That’s why I write.  But I wish we could go back to being a little more thoughtful and civil.   It took 17 whole days for Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence and I imagine he put a ton of reflection into his words.  It’s hard to write rash things when your pen is made of a feather and you have to constantly dip it into an inkwell.

I’m not giving up.   I still hope that my experiment (yes, I’m back on the Lent Wagon) will eventually teach me the importance of pausing before I react and hit that send button.      And by the time the Easter Bunny arrives,  I hope I will be using social media for more productive things like pictures of my cats and dog and husband sleeping.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is a neo-libtard who lives in Lambertville, NJ.  He is happily married when his husband doesn’t have a cold.

Looking Ahead to the New Year

Whenever it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post,  I start to think the whole world is mad at me for making them wait so long for my funnily-wise musings on life.  I understand this sounds a bit self-centered, but it’s coming from someone who as a child believed for many years the entire rest of the population was secretly listening to my thoughts.  I  had no problem with it.    I thought my thoughts were fascinating.  Why wouldn’t everyone be secretly listening?  I’m not convinced you all still aren’t.

It’s  not that I haven’t been writing.   I recently took a class on how to get published online in newspapers and magazines—things like op eds and Modern Love pieces.  I’m not sure yet if I’m the op-ed type, but there are perks to this type of writing.   It can take agents up to a year to reject your book, but I’ve recently discovered editors can reject op-ed submissions in a matter of hours.  It’s quite admirable in a deeply hurtful way.

 If you asked me if it’s harder to write a book or to get a book published, I’d have to answer the latter.   It really is that old adage that you have to get hundreds of rejections until you finally (and hopefully) get a yes. I’ve heard it all in these last months.  One agent  told me “No one reads memoirs anymore,” as if I should be ashamed I didn’t make my family saga into a spy thriller.  I’ve also been looked down upon over the fact that I’m trying to publish a book even though I have the audacity to not be  Stephen King, or a celebrity like Fran Drescher or an influencer on Instagram.

But I  keep sending out  pitches to agents and editors asking them to  read my book “Dear Ms. Fitzgibbons.  My third cousin has a friend who once knew you  in fifth grade at Our Lady of Unending Sorrow  and recommended I contact you.   I love the many books you have  published on animal husbandry and think you are the perfect fit for my book which has animals and husbands in it. 

And sometimes I go to writing workshops and conferences and pitch my book in person. A few months ago, I was able to get five minute with a publisher at a conference.

I paced nervously before my allotted time slot.   “Do I have time to run to the bathroom?” I asked her handler,   “Yes, but make it quick” he barked.   I raced down the hall and charged into the restroom. In  my haste, I must not have untucked my shirt completely and proceeded to unwittingly pee all over the front of my pants.   (one of my shirt tails got in the way and I didn’t realize…well, it’s embarrassing to write about but it’s nothing to actually living through  the event in real time.)    I desperately tried to rub my crotch dry but little kids who were taking a  tap dancing class in the same building kept wandering into the bathroom and I feared I would get arrested for lewd behavior. Time was of the essence so I rushed down the hall to my meeting and walked in clutching my notebook in front of my lap hoping to cleverly conceal my wet spot which, by the way, was quite large. I got to my seat and pitched my book to the publisher even though I was terribly rattled.  I hoped I could zip through the meeting but she  kept asking me details about my book and I was so thrown off my game  I had trouble answering the most basic things….like how many brothers and sisters I have.  That is actually a complicated answer which you will understand one day when my book is published.  Anyway, the whole thing was a disaster.

I called my husband,  Saul the minute I got out since I knew he was waiting for the report of my meeting. When I told him I had peed all over myself. he was understandably dismayed. But the crazy thing is that next day I found out the publisher had requested my manuscript.  Not only that, mine was the only manuscript she requested after hearing several pitches that day.   Perhaps she felt bad for a man obviously made incontinent by childhood trauma?  As I said,  these things take a while…so I haven’t heard back from her since I sent it.

Sometimes,  I have to wonder…What if my book never does get published?   What if this memoir  I started at the turn of this century doesn’t realize the dream I have kept close to my heart and nurtured all those mornings I got up so early before work and wrote in the dark of several apartments and houses on two coasts?     Animals have been  born and died while I wrote this book.  Two family members have  also died (making them much easier to write honestly about).      But who am I if my dream doesn’t get realized?

We all want to think our lives are a big deal.  We want to think they are meaningful.   But what if they are ordinary and unexceptional?  Do they still matter?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Saul and I were in a cabin in the Catskills and drove ten miles over a hill to visit some friends.  The bottom of the hill was fine but at the top the roads were snowy and icy.  Before we knew it, we are on a perilously steep incline with a sharp curve on the bottom and one at the top and  steep drop offs on both sides.  The car stopped going forward as it wasn’t able to get traction on the black ice.   When I put my foot on the brake, we started sliding backward.   Cars came around the sharp curve above us and fishtailed precariously close to our vulnerable Mini Cooper.  We had no cell phone service to call for help.  It felt like a scene from a movie where an attractive couple is trapped in their car  and then a clown pulls up and offers to help them before stabbing  them in their eyes and pushing  them off a cliff.

What were we going to do?

Saul finally decided he could slowly back down the hill using the emergency brake.  We had no other choice.    I stood outside guiding him and trying to stay upright on the slanted ice as he slowly lurched an inch at a time while  out-of-control cars careened past him.  I directed him towards the side of the road where  there was  clump of trees that might stop his fall before he tumbled to his fiery, snowy death.  It was the worst feeling of helplessness, but my hero husband did it.   Once the car got turned in the right direction, we  headed down the hill fishtailing twice but somehow making it safely to the bottom.

What if we had died and then next day one of those agents who have my book emailed to say they wanted to represent me?    Would my life have more meaning then?  And what would I care?  I would be dead.  Would Van Gogh have been less miserable if he knew he’d be famous posthumously?

I’m not saying I’m Van Gogh (although we do share the same birthday and have the same coloring).   But it brings up the question: Was his life more important because his art was eventually appreciated by the masses?  And what did that matter to him?

I guess I don’t know the answer to any of these questions but here are a few things I’ve recently learned.

  • Watch The Great British Baking Show.   Saul and I became obsessed with this show over the holidays.  I know nothing about cooking but watching this good-natured competition series of lovable eccentric British amateur chefs has taught me that even if your soufflé collapses never throw it in the trash!   You still may get points for taste.
  • There is always a way over the hill. Or a way around it.   Even if you have to go backwards for a little while,  you still gotta try.   Maybe you’ll topple over the ravine  and die but you will have done a little flying in the meantime.
  • Make sure your shirt is always untucked when you pee, but even if you forget, show up anyway.
  • Be kind.Give others the recognition you crave.  Thank people for their talent whatever it might be.   Recognize good service.   Give your animals high praise. And thank your loved ones for helping you survive another day.

P.S. I got an email a few weeks ago.  It was a rejection of a 9,000-word essay I submitted to The  Lascaux Review.   But it wasn’t just a standard rejection.  It said that even though I didn’t win, my piece had made it all the way to  the third round with only  5% of all the essays submitted.    I was grateful l they took the time to inform me.  it was just the right amount of recognition I needed to persevere in the new  year.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Keith Hoffman is a writer who recently discovered he likes British tarts.

How I Learned to Be My Husband’s Second Banana in Canada

My husband Saul and I went to Canada a few weekends ago. Saul had his artwork featured in a gallery in Picton, Ontario.

When I go to these types of events, I am the spouse. I am the Melania to Saul’s…no wait that is a terrible analogy.  I’m the Bill to his Hill..no that’s not good either. To put in bluntly, I am not the star.

One of the consequences of the whole “gay married” thing and the “Women’s Lib” stuff is that roles used to be a lot more clear:  the man was the star and the woman was the woman behind the man.   But now roles are muddled.

Oh wait…I’ve got it. I was the James Brolin to Saul’s Barbara Streisand.  (Coincidentally, I asked Saul this weekend if he ever imagines Barbra and James having sex, but the question only seemed to upset him.  Am I the only one who thinks about these things?)

I usually wander around at these art openings and look at the art or stealthily play Candy Crush in the corner periodically joining Saul as he chats with people to make sure he is doing okay.  I’d like to think of myself as arm candy except at my age the work it would take to be arm candy sounds exhausting.

I enjoy these nights.. People are certainly nice to me but I’m not as interesting to them as my husband whose art is on display. I get to be a little invisible and I’m okay with that

I’m terrible at small talk. I know the tip people usually give going into parties is that you should ask people about themselves.   I have no problem doing that, but I absolutely hate when people ask me about myself.    What’s the point?  Do you really care unless you are wanting to be my friend?   And who needs new friends after forty?

Plus, I hate explaining what I do to someone I will never see again.   It feels like such a waste of time.

Here is how it usually goes:

PERSON:  What do you do?

ME: I work for Animal Planet

PERSON: Oh, I love that show!

ME: It’s not a show actually.  It’s a cable network.

PERSON:  Oh, right.  My aunt has Animal Planet.  She leaves it on for her blind Dachshund when she goes to dialysis.

ME: (sounding a bit too hostile) “Yes, that’s why I labor over the minute details of every episode I produce.  To keep your aunt’s blind Dachshund from feeling lonely.”

PERSON: (beginning to feel uncomfortable) Well, anyway…I love animals.

ME: (not meaning it) Thanks.

Sometimes Saul will try to helpfully interject by telling people I produced the series Finding Bigfoot.  This can go in two directions.    Either people openly scoff at the series (a lesbian couple actually called it tripe while sitting across from me eating a frittata at a bed and breakfast), or people get really, really excited and tell me about their own bigfoot sightings.

Either way it is awkward.

Or sometimes I let my guard down and tell people I’m writing a book and it goes like this:

 

PERSON:  Oh!  what kind of book?

ME:  A memoir

PERSON:  What’s it about? 

ME:  It’s about me.  That’s the definition of memoir.

PERSON:  I read people don’t read memoirs anymore.

ME: (sounding a bit too hostile) Then I guess I wasted the last eighteen years of my life.

PERSON: (beginning to feel uncomfortable) Well, it sounds great.

ME: (not meaning it) Thanks.

I don’t mean to be rude, but if I say something like my book is about my kooky family full of outrageous secrets, it sounds like something anyone could write about.   If I say, It’s really good…and funny…I just sound defensive.

My point is that I don’t enjoy being asked about myself.

I worry I might come off as hostile in these situations because that is how I am actually feeling inside.  But at a recent 4-day team-building leadership workshop at work (yes, it is as horrific as it sounds), we had to approach three other people at the end of the workshop and thank them for something specific.  I was mortified.  I wanted to knock people over and bolt for the exit.  I hate forced encounters.  Before I could make my way out, several people came up to me and thanked me for my “warmth, openness and kindness”.

Fools.

I know some people suffer from having a Resting Bitch Face.  I am starting to think I have a Resting Kind Face.

I am totally misunderstood.

These art nights aren’t an everyday occurrence, and Saul is just a big of a supporter of my book as I am of his art.   I just cut 125 pages out of my memoir in the last few months (see my blog post PEARLS: When to Push and When to Protect Your Art about my book being “too many words”), and Saul actually let me read my entire book out loud to him…TWICE.  Forget Greta Thunberg…Saul deserves the Nobel Prize for being married to me.

I know he will accompany me to book signings one day when my book is published and he will play the part of the supportive spouse.

The truth is we are both pretty good at stepping back to let the other person shine.  I mean we aren’t perfect.  I might have threatened to leap out of our car in the hotel parking lot in Canada right before the art opening, but I attribute that to my extreme pre-party anxiety.

Overall, we like to see each other succeed.   We were around a lot of worldly European couples on this trip.   And being European, I suspect some assumed that Saul and I would be up for a ménage a trois or whatever you call it with four people…a ménage a quadruped?  I mean they didn’t come out and say it, but those guys from Europe can make offering a French Fry sound seductive.    At first I was shocked by the idea, but I’m pretty sure if someone would have offered to do a show in Europe with Saul if he would jump into bed with them I would have pushed him into it faster than Mama Rose made her daughter Louise strip.   And I would have joined if it helped and there was no small talk involved.

Sometimes Saul is Mary and I am Rhoda.  And sometimes I am Liza and Saul is Lorna.  Sometimes one of us is Beyoncé and the other is one of the other two Destiny’s Child group members

As long as we remember that letting the other shine doesn’t diminish our own light and I’m allowed to occasionally sneak in the corner and play Candy Crush, I’m pretty hopeful we can keep this good thing going.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is writing a memoir about his kooky family full of outrageous secrets.    It’s really good…and funny.

Oh, and to better understand him ….

7 things that extroverted introverts like myself wish you understood

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7 things that extroverted introverts like myself wish you understood

THE THIRSTY UNICORN (or How to Stay Married on the Drought Days)

Hark!   I am back!

I’m really not sure when and why the word HARK fell out of favor.  I think the angels were on to something.   Who wouldn’t love to walk into a room or party or office meeting and announce, “Hark! I have arrived!”

Anyway…Hark The Ravenlunatic is back from summer hiatus!

My husband Saul and I almost bought a house this summer.   We already own a house 72 miles outside of New York City (where I still work) and live right in the middle of the quaint little town full of antique shops.   It’s almost like living in Brooklyn except instead of renting a bottom floor of a brownstone for thousands and thousands of dollars, we actually own all three floors.

This is a first house that either of us have owned.   I honestly never saw myself buying a house.  It felt way too grown up, but a year and a half ago we did it.

Then this summer a friend we walk our dog, Alfie, with told us about a little house on the hill over our town.   On a lark, Saul and I went to see it.   It’s nestled high on a hill with a view of the Delaware River that you can see from the wraparound deck.  It has wood-burning stoves to heat the house and windows everywhere and it sits on an acre of land.   It was perfect.   When Saul and I pulled up in our car I expected a pet unicorn to run out to greet us by eagerly licking our faces

I didn’t know until that very moment that this house was everything we ever wanted.

Well, let me back up.  It was everything I ever wanted.  Saul wasn’t so sure.

Saul liked the house but wasn’t as enamored with it as I was. Saul is often more wary than me when it comes to things.   He sees all the things that could go wrong and I see all the things that are right.   I think he’s too negative and he thinks I’m to naive.  Neither of us like being thought of as either of those things.

I often feel my job is to convince Saul to do things.   Here’s an example:

Early in our relationship we were invited by our friend to a Bette Midler concert.  It was in Madison Square Garden in New York City and getting through security in the crowded venue was a nightmare.  Saul was dreading the evening the entire time we were making our torturous way to our seats, but once Bette started telling jokes and belting songs Saul enjoyed it maybe more than anyone else in the entire venue.  I mean when Saul loves something he LOVES it (ask our cats).   Afterwards, as we walked out he looked at me and said.  “That was better than I thought.”

Saul often utters those words.   I have suggested they should be on his tombstone.

HERE LIES SAUL LYONS

1970-2070

It Was Better Than He Thought

Saul agrees that I push him out of his comfort zone and he usually is happy that I did although he will point out the Fleetwood Mac concert I pushed him to go to when our seat mates were so drunk and high they ruined Landslide by singing louder than Stevie Nicks and then fell on top of Saul while trying to twirl like her.

So, I pushed for the house. I just knew Saul would love living on the hill with the river and the view and the acre of land and the unicorn.

We made an offer and we got it!

The next day I drove to work thinking I was the luckiest guy in the world.

Then Saul called to say he got a call from the “well man.”

That is as ominous as it sounds… A call from the Well Man.

 

It’s like a warning in a horror movie.

Where were your children when the Well Man came calling?

And the news was as ominous as it sounded.

The property has a well–something that I never even knew existed outside of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  And the Well Man knew about the well at the perfect house and he warned us it wasn’t so perfect.   Basically, the water in this well would trickle out on good days which meant days it had just rained.

It was like an ex-boyfriend of your fiancé showing up at the bridal shower saying, “Good luck with that guy” and then throwing their head back and laughing bitterly.

It seemed clear to Saul we had to pull out.

But I was not ready to give up.

I explained to Saul that we didn’t need that much water. That we could drink soda and wash each other’s hair in the river and collect melted snow in a barrel for bathing.

This started the most difficult two weeks of our marriage.    We could not even broach the subject without arguing.

Saul looks at things logically:  If we bought this house, all the potential issues we would have to deal with just to get running water would  make our bank account as empty as our well.

I approach things intuitively:  When we buy this house, we are stepping into another life that will make us happier and we will figure out how to deal with the issues.

My friend Sara and I another epitaph for our tombstones.  THEY BELIEVED IT WOULD WORK OUT IN THE END

Who is right?    And how do you argue for a feeling you have?

We kept trying to find a common ground and kept arguing.

Finally, I realized no possible solution to the well problem was going to make Saul think this house was a good idea.   I had to let go of the fantasy of moving to this house on the hill.   (Oh, have I mentioned I hate letting go of anything.   I’ve always thought the phrase Let Go and Let God was just a nasty threat.)

Neither of us will know what that house would have brought us.  It could have been miserable or it could have been joyful.  Or most likely we would have moved and gotten used to being in a new house and life would have continued being life—sometimes miserable and sometimes joyful.

Everyone knows marriage isn’t always easy.    There is always that part of the wedding where the officiant or minister says, “marriage isn’t easy” and the all the old married couples nod their head emphatically.

But yes, in my experience, marriage is constantly about trying to beat your opponent at the game before they humiliate you by beating you.  (Or as some call it, compromise.)  My friend Amy told me she has no interest being in a relationship and having to compromise the life she wants to live,  and, believe me,  I get it.

But the moment that made it easier to give up the dream of the house was the moment I realized it would make Saul feel relieved and it would make him feel safe.   Saul loves where we live right now.  He loves our home and truly with all his heart thinks both of us will be happier staying here for at least a while longer.    I thought the new house would make us both happier and he thinks staying where we are will make us both happier.   In the end, we were looking out for the other person and not just ourselves.

I just heard on CBS This Morning that happiness doesn’t come from outside things but from being able to cope with disappointment.  I would add that happiness also comes from thinking of other’s happiness.   We can do that with our friends, relatives, neighbors, pets, and strangers, but marriage gives you a lot of opportunity to exercise that muscle.

Come to think of it, maybe this  could be the epithet on both of our tombstones.

HARK!  IN THIS LIFETIME THEY LOVED AND WERE LOVED WELL

That’s a much more useful well

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman is a writer in a small river town.  He has all the water he could ever dream of.

Artist’s Rendering of Dream Home

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